The Viking Age is a popular setting and source of inspiration for works of fiction. Spanning various genres and media, elements of Norse saga and myth are engaged at different levels and in various modes. At the one end of the spectrum stand purely entertainment productions like the comic book and film series The Avengers, where the Norse mythology is given a light and highly superficial treatment. At the other end, there are, to name just a couple, the book Eaters of the Dead (1976) by Michael Crichton or the manga Vinland Saga (2005-) by Makoto Yukimura, which draw on historical sources to give them a fictional interpretation.
Children’s films like Buck and Lee’s Frozen (2013) feature Nordicized motifs in a family-friendly way, while video games like Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (2020) focus on graphic, if not grotesque, violence in a reimagined Norse setting. Michael Hirst’s 2013-2020 television series Vikings offers a loose adaptation of historical themes, expressly putting artistic effect above factual accuracy. The fantasy novels The Lord of the Rings (1955) and The Silmarillion (1977) by J.R.R. Tolkien, in contrast, make no reference to the actual history or culture yet are informed by in-depth academic research of them.
Still, despite this wide variety, representations of the Old Scandinavia tend to focus on its warrior culture, with its emphasis on personal courage and initiative as opposed to uniformity and subordination. By and large, the berserker, the shield-maiden, and the warrior king are the character types most readily expected in a Norse setting. Robert Eggers’ film Northman, to be released this April, seems to be no exception. We may find a different trend with music projects like Wardruna, Burzum, or Heilung, which seek to explore the mystical underpinnings of the Norse religion. However, given the scarcity and ambiguity of our primary sources on this subject, it is a slippery ground.
And yet an important part of the Norse society and its culture remains largely overlooked. As crucial as the Viking raids were to the European history at large and the imagination of storytellers at home, the Norse did not thrive on fighter spirit or combat prowess alone. Their merchant ships reached still further than military expeditions, bringing back home Middle-Eastern coins and Buddhist imagery [Historiska Museet], while Norse trade colonies on the Volga river were known to Arab writers.
Still, both the war and the trade effort were made possible and sustained by advanced, for the age, technology. The Norse excelled in metalwork, and their shipwright and navigation skills were unparalleled at the time. [Crawford and Short] Forced to manage a permanent scarcity of resources, they actively engaged in recycling too. [Wärmländer, Zori, Byock, Scott] J.R.R. Tolkien, in his portrayal of the fictitious Numenoreans as a sea-faring and technologically innovative nation, was most likely conscious of and inspired by this aspect of the actual Norse society. [Fimi]
It is hardly surprising that technology, and its underlying concern with solutions that never fail, made its way into Scandinavian myths and sagas as well. Here we find Gungnir, the spear which belongs to the god Odin and never misses the target when hurled at someone, and the sword Tyrfing that automatically kills a person each time it is drawn. The god Freyr possesses the collapsible ship Skithblathnir, which can be folded to fit in a pocket. Mjölnir, the famous hammer of the god Thor and one of the most easily recognizable Norse symbols, is both a supreme weapon and a supreme tool – although its fabulous qualities were somewhat compromised by a manufacturing defect. Even whole classes of supernatural beings, like dwarves, are associated with craft and technology beyond human skill.
Of course, the poets and the storytellers of the Viking Age could only envision items like that but did not know how to actually engineer them. So imagination has to fill this gap, assuming the effectiveness of unfailing arms and vehicles, and eschewing the need to explain it. At the core of this imagination lies the idea of purpose: a perfect item, be it a weapon of war or a craftsman’s tool, is that which never falls short of fulfilling its function.
This purpose, in Norse legend, is set by the supernatural creators of a perfect item and quite often ends up in conflict with the intents of the human hero who comes to wield it. The sword Tyrfing provides by far the clearest example. It kills many a foe of its owner when drawn in battle, but its purpose is precisely to cut down anyone within its range, no matter whom. So, when the owner’s brother asks for a look at it and he unsuspectingly unsheathes the sword, Tyrfing goes on with doing its job just as unfailingly as always.
In our own age, when safeguarding against possible misuse and unintended adverse effects of high technologies at no cost to their functionality is a major concern, these millennium-old themes are astonishingly relevant. A smartphone can end up spying on its owner, a new weapon commissioned by a government can come into the hands of its enemies, fintech is as useful to legitimate clients as it is to illicit operations. The greater the utility of a technology, the better it serves its fixed purpose, the greater is potential damage should this purpose collide with the shifting goals and varying circumstances of a human user.
Compared to modern technologies, the proto-Javelins and automatized swords of the legend may seem simplistic. Yet right next to them, in Norse myth, we may recognize more complex and subtler facilities that resemble what blockchain advocates imply in the notion of “smart contract”. Blockchain is a technological method of keeping records, financial first and foremost, that makes it next to impossible for anyone to retroactively alter them. In other words, if someone’s right, say, to property was recorded in blockchain, the record is set in (digital) stone and resists any attempt to tamper with it. As to smart contract, it was defined (eleven years prior to the invention of blockchain) by the lawyer, computer scientist, and cryptographist Nicholas Szabo.
“The basic idea behind smart contracts is that many kinds of contractual clauses … can be imbedded in the hardware and software we deal with, in such a way as to make breach of contract expensive … for the breacher … Smart contracts … embed contracts in all sorts of property that is valuable and controlled by digital means.” [Szabo] In other words, smart contract is a technological means to make sure one cannot be robbed or cheated of a possession. You simply cannot take that property away from someone unless you first meet the terms on which the owner would wish to part with it, as far as this property is digital (like a right recorded in blockchain or a sum of money on a cryptocurrency account).
The Norse, naturally, did not have the notions of hardware and software, let alone digital property. But we may find a story of a physical treasure that resists appropriation in a no less sophisticated way in a poem called ‘Völundarkvitha’ (‘The Lay of Völund’). It comes from the Poetic Edda, the most famous collection of Old Norse verse. ‘The Lay of Völund’ is a relatively short poem, but it is written in a characteristically ambiguous language and contains a number of hapax legomena – words that do not appear elsewhere in the Old Norse corpus. In this essay, I refer to its translation into modern English by Dr. Jackson Crawford, who also hosts a YouTube channel focused on the Old Norse language and literature. Where necessary, I have recourse to the original Old Norse text of the poem as edited by Dr. Guðni Jónsson.
The only original manuscript of ‘The Lay of Völund’ was produced in the 13th century in Iceland, but the work itself is believed to be much older. [Jakobsson, 2006] Its main character, the elven smith Völundr, most probably comes from a layer of Germanic mythology pre-dating the Viking Age and is widely attested outside Scandinavia. He is mentioned in the Old English poems Beowulf and The Lament of Deor, in the early German legends about the hero Dietrich von Bern, and is putatively portrayed on the 8th century Franks Casket and an early 7th-century golden coin from East Frisia.
In the later English tradition, he is known as Wayland the Smith, and is alluded to as such in Sir Walter Scott’s 1821 novel Kenilworth. The German poet, statesman, and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe used a variant of Völundr’s name in the Walpurgis’ Night scene of his tragedy Faust, where the devil welcomes a newly-arrived “Junker Voland”. The Russian author and physician Mikhail Bulgakov, apparently borrowing from Goethe, used the name “Woland” for the Satan figure in his 1937 novel The Master and Margarita. The German composer and theater director Richard Wagner drafted the libretto for an opera to be called Wieland der Schmiedt around early 1850, but never completed it. Teenage Adolf Hitler, who in his Vienna days would rather skip a few meals than a performance of a Wagner opera, was so excited about this unfinished work that he tried to compose his own version of it. [Kubizek]
As portrayed in ‘The Lay’, Völundr is an elf who lives away from human habitation with his two brothers. The exact nature of elves is subject to debate and conjecture, and it does not help that Völundr is the only one of his kind featured as a major character in the whole Old Norse corpus. But at least we can safely say that an elf is a being of human-like appearance yet superhuman nature. [Jakobsson, 2015] One day, Völundr and his brothers meet three Valkyries (literally “choosers of the slain”), representatives of another vaguely-defined supernatural class: female figures who take fallen warriors to the afterlife. [Ellis] Each brother marries one of the women, and they live together as an extended family for seven years. But it seems like the function of a Valkyrie is hardly compatible with the lifestyle of a housewife. By the eighth year the women “yearn for Mirkwood … eager to judge wars”, [Crawford] and in the ninth leave their husbands ex parte.
While the two other brothers set out each in search of his lost wife, Völundr stays behind and waits for his wife to come back on her own. All the while, he is making rings from the gold he possesses, apparently for their aesthetic value solely. But Völundr’s wealth and his skill (“the most capable with his hands of all the people in the old sagas”), [Crawford] combined with his being left alone, draws the attention of a very negative sort from a human king called Nithuth.
The king captures Völundr and, following the advice of his queen, has his hamstrings cut to prevent escape and imprisons Völundr alone on a small island, where the elf is to make jewelry for him. However, taking advantage of their inexperience, Völundr kills the king’s two (apparently adolescent) sons, crafts precious items from their body parts, and sends these to their parents and sister, Bothvild. Then, again in abuse of trust, he gets Bothvild drunk unconscious, rapes and impregnates her. After that, Völundr flies to the king’s hall to taunt him and, laughing out loud, soars up in the sky beyond human reach.
What strikes a modern reader the most in this poem, at first glance, is its offensive cruelty and apparent irrationality. Nithuth’s crime of greed against Völundr is detestable, but Völundr’s revenge is yet more outrageous than the offence itself. Instead of going for the king or at least the queen who incited the worst part of his travail, Völundr deliberately targets their children who never did any harm to him. His casting the boys’ skulls in silver and making a necklace of their extracted teeth, too, is reminiscent of a serial killer. And when Völundr, in his last conversation with Nithuth, demands that the king “will not harm [his] lover”, [Crawford] we may infer that otherwise Bothvild herself would be victim-blamed and probably honor-killed by her own father. Yet we can hardly feel for Bothvild or her brothers either, who are presented as superficial and excessively concerned with Volundr’s gold. Now what kind of story is that, and why should we care about its characters at all?
Moreover, some of Völundr’s behaviors seem strange and difficult to reasonably explain. He seems to ignore obvious signs of danger, indulge in wishful thinking, and speak in a weird way. The poem says nothing at all to account for Völundr’s ability to fly, either. In Thithreks saga af Bern, an Old Norse adaptation of several German legends, he makes a winged device not dissimilar to the one designed by Daedalus in a Greek myth. However, the story told in Thithreks saga has so many significant discrepancies with ‘The Lay of Völundr’ that we should view it rather as an alternate version than simply a different edition of the narrative.