This week we have been told of the discovery of one of the best preserved Viking settlements in Europe near the fishing village of Annagassan in Co. Louth, which was in ancient Ulster. It dates from AD 841, the same year Dublin was founded. This may be the previously unidentified fortress of Linnduchaill, one of two chosen by the Vikings when they decided to over-winter in Ireland for the first time, the other site being, of course, Dublin itself.
One thinks of the mythology of the Viking people who settled there. Such a mythology is not a collection of stories to be told to children but their comment on mysteries of human existence and the human mind, emphasising their own model for social behaviour. As children we have been taught about the mythology of Greece and Rome and that of our own forbears the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings has been largely ignored.
By the time those great countries had emerged which were thought of as Anglo-Saxon England or Merovingian France, most of the Germanic peoples had given up previously held beliefs in their gods and adopted Christianity. We must therefore turn for information on these beliefs to Scandinavia where a vigorous pre-Christian population flourished for centuries after Augustine sailed for Kent, or to those places in the north-west, including Ireland, where the seeress wife of a Viking Chief issued prophecies from the holy altar of Clonmacnoise.
Viking adventurers were indomitable. They reached the Eastern coast of America, pushed down the Volga to Byzantium, where the Christian Emperor valued their physical prowess so much that he enrolled them in his special Varangian Guard. By 870 they were masters of northern and eastern England and only the resolution of a young prince, of indifferent health and without any great allies, kept them from engulfing southern England and destroying what three centuries of Christian culture had established. No wonder then that alone among English rulers, that prince, Alfred, was given the title the Great.
By the twelfth century Christianity was firmly established in north western Europe, but there was still interest in the old legends of the Gods. It occurred to the gifted Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson it would be worth while writing a book about these matters before they were utterly lost. This extraordinary man planned his work as a handbook for poets and intellectuals and as a guide to poetic imagery.
Writing in his native Icelandic, he retold the tales of the Gods with wit and irony and took special delight in their imaginative beauty. He called his book the Edda, and it is known today as the Prose Edda to distinguish it from the collection of poems with the same name. It is from this book of Snorri’s, written about 1220, that our main impression of Northern mythology has been derived. Snorri began his work from a Christian standpoint, yet one which was both wise and tolerant. He explained that when men broke away from God, they developed their own ideas of creation; great heroes became gods and goddesses.
It was suggested that they first came from Troy, and Thor was perhaps a grandson of King Priam, thus linking the North to the ancient Mediterranean world. Thor’s sons included Odin the Wise, and he and his wife Frigg possessed great powers of magic They moved northwards to Germany and then to Denmark, Sweden and Norway, leaving one of their sons to rule each Kingdom In particular, Odin set up in Sweden chieftains and a code of laws “after the pattern of Troy” and here his rule was centred. His descendants became known as the Aesir.
After this introduction Snorri described the gods and goddesses and their world in an account called Gylfaginning, “the deluding of Gylfi” Gylfi was a Swedish King, who welcomed Odin on his arrival from Troy. He later journeyed to the Hall of the Aesir disguised as an old wayfaring man, Gangleri, to test for himself their wisdom and power. His questions were answered by three Great Beings, introduced to him as the High One, Just-as-High, and the Third, modelled perhaps on the Christian Trinity.
The Great Three were able to describe the characteristics of the gods and goddesses, the realms making up heaven and the underworld, the creation of the world, the doings of the gods and their ultimate destruction at Ragnarok (Ragnarøkr). But this was not yet the end; the earth would rise again and there was a promise of a new world of gods and men. Although they could be brutal enough, the monks of Iona, Bangor, Lindesfarne, Paris, Hamburg, Cadiz and Seville knew all about that, the Viking leaders were in many ways men of culture and discrimination, with the love of such a good story well told. They were appreciative of fine arts and craftsmanship, and treasured their good ships and beautiful swords for their appearance as well as their utility in war.
We know that because of the wonderful sword of Magnus Barelegs which was brought back home to Norway. We also know that quick witted poets could win their way in the Viking world as easily as brilliant swordsmen, like Egill Skallagrimsson the Icelander, or Earl Ragnald of Orkney. The Vikings were shrewd traders as well, and became wise rulers, whose lively and alert minds were served by a mythology of great richness, vigour and power, and by sagas unequalled in the history of humankind.
Ed: C.S. Lewis loved the classical mythology of Greece and Rome, as well as Celtic mythology; but most of all he loved Norse mythology – which is naturally very much the same as that of their Germanic cousins, the Saxons.
Annagassan, too, played a role in C.S. Lewis's life. It was here that he and his brother liked visiting on holiday their maid at LITTLE LEA, an Irish girl called Vera Henry. The Henry family had convered a railway carriage to serve as their “holiday cottage” by Annagassan strand. There's a fine photograph in existence of the two brothers, C.S. and Warnie Lewis, taken at Annagassan.
To be continued