As the Vikings pushed out into the world from Scotland to Constantinople, the stories of their exploits were told mostly by their victims and enemies. Those depictions aren’t necessarily wrong, just incomplete. Price writes that Vikings were “warlike people in conflicted times, and their ideologies were also to a marked degree underpinned by the supernatural empowerment of violence. This could take extreme forms, as manifested in such horrors as ritual rape, wholesale slaughter and enslavement, and human sacrifice.” But what’s missing from the accounts of Irish monks and Arabian ambassadors are explanations for the beliefs that animated the Viking’s experience and gave his violent acts coherence and shape in his mind.
Luckily for the reader of Children of Ash and Elm, Price happens to specialize in Viking religion and polar shamanism, and the book begins with a deep dive into Viking mythology and cosmological belief. We might remember bits and pieces from school, such as Ragnarok, the Viking apocalypse story, but Price gives us a concise account of the Vikings’ invisible world, which is stranger and more complex than you might remember. Take the composition of a human, which, according to Viking beliefs, was an amalgamation of forces and entities. You had a “hamr,” or a shape or a body, though some people could shape-shift into various animals. You had a “huge,” or a mind. But people also had something known as “hamingia,” which was sort of like a personal luck energy that could occasionally abandon you. And finally, everyone had a “fylgja,” a female “fetch” or “follower” inherited from ancestors. The exact function of the fylgja is unclear, but belief in it continues among modern Icelanders. If you ask them about the “hidden people” or the huldufolk, Price writes, they’ll “roll their eyes,” but ask them about their fylgjur, and you might get “a level stare and perhaps a change of subject.”
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