Friday, August 17, 2007

Viking Descendants Say 'Sorry'

Danish Minister of Culture Brian Mikkelsen, on an official visit to Ireland, apologized last Wednesday for the behavior of the Vikings who raped, pillaged, and looted the British Isles from the 8th to the 11th centuries. His visit to Dublin came on the occasion of the arrival of the replica Viking longship Havhingsten fra Glendalough (Sea Stallion of Glendalough), which sailed from Roskilde in Denmark on 2 July. The 30-meter ship can carry a crew of 60 to 70 Norse pirates and is a faithful copy of the Skuldelev 2, built in 1042 AD from oak beams felled in Wicklow County, Ireland, and now to be seen in the Viking museum of Roskilde.

"In Denmark, we are certainly proud of the ship, but we are not proud of the damage done to the people of Ireland after the Viking invasion. However, the warmth you have shown us today shows us that all has been forgiven," Mikkelsen added.
His apologies may have been prompted by the desire to patch up an emerging disagreement between Denmark and Ireland over the return of historic artifacts under new EU regulations that took effect on 1 April this year. Essentially, the terms of the deal now reached stipulate that Denmark will loan the replica to the Irish National Museum for a year in order to avoid having to return the remains of the original Skuldelev ship (more info on the Havhingsten project website).

Like their warlike forebears, the crew of the Havhingsten sailed to Ireland by circumnavigating the northernmost tip of Denmark, passing by southern Sweden, and crossing the North Sea. From the Orkney Islands (which were under Scandinavian administration for 600 years, beginning in 875 AD) they sailed down the Scottish west coast and across the Irish Sea. This is more or less the same 1.700-km route that in 795 brought the first Viking raiders to Ireland, at the time a European center of early medieval Christian scholarship. The wealthy, but largely undefended monasteries were easy prey for the Norse looters.

In the first few decades, the Vikings only came to Ireland during the summer months, returning to Scandinavia when the raiding season was over in autumn. But from the mid-9th century onwards, they began to build fortified settlements in order to be able to remain in Ireland during the winter months. In addition to significant settlements at Cork, Limerick, Waterford, and Wexford, they founded the current capital of Ireland, Dublin. At the end of the 9th century, the Vikings shifted their focus to England and the European continent, but at the beginning of the 10th century they returned to Ireland with a vengeance (the surprisingly effective resistance of the Anglo-Saxons under King Alfred the Great may have contributed to this renewed shift towards the West). The Scandinavians are supposed to have been decisively beaten by Irish High King Brian Bóruma at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 AD.

My professor of Old English, Stephen Tranter, liked to point out the differing viewpoints in the respective Norse and Old English records of those heady times. While the Anglo-Saxon chronicles would state something to the effect that "The evil heathen Norsemen came to Wessex this year, plundering the monasteries, raping our daughters, and exhibiting generally loutish behavior", the corresponding Scandinavian saga would record something like "Snorri and Haakon travelled to England with 12 ships and engaged in profitable trade with the Englishmen all summer long"; i.e., what the Anglo-Saxons perceived as plunder was viewed by the Vikings as simple mercantile activity, though admittedly they got the better deals.

Brian Mikkelsen's apology coincided more or less with the withdrawal of the last Danish troops from southern Iraq. Had the Vikings been able to witness his shameful display of remorse on their behalf - 1200 years after the fact, no less! - I wonder how they might have reacted to this milquetoast character.

Quite possibly, they would have considered him a candidate for what was known as a "Blood Eagle":

The Blood Eagle was reportedly a method of torture and execution that is sometimes mentioned in Norse saga literature. It was performed by cutting the ribs of the victim by the spine, breaking the ribs so they resembled blood-stained wings, and pulling the lungs out. Salt was sprinkled in the wounds.
Yes, I believe that is what they might well have done.

This strange story had me imagining a distant descendant of George Bush visiting Iraq in the year 3203 to apologize for the shameful invasion, rape, and plunder of the country by the US many generations ago - possibly on the occasion of a replica M1A1 Abrams medium battle tank being donated to the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, which by that time will hopefully have been restored to something resembling its former glory, though certainly minus many of its national treasures which are, at the time of this writing, being flogged off by unscrupulous antique dealers in Europe and the US.

The legacy of the Viking settlement in the British Isles is felt even today - the Scandinavian influence can be traced in the English language; in place-names all across England, Scotland, and Ireland; and even in the English legal system, especially in those parts of England that were under permanent Scandinavian control, known as the "Danelaw". I wonder whether the US influence in Iraq will be similarly long-lasting and deep-rooted, but I doubt it; although there are significant efforts underway to build permanent settlements (read: "army bases"), to rob the country of its national treasures (from Babylonian sculpture to crude oil), and to shape the country's legal system according to the requirements of US "mercantile activities" (in the Viking sense...).

One thing the US can learn from the not-so-warlike Danes of today is this: It's never too late to say 'I'm sorry'.

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