From the moment we hit the shore we were driving through emerald-green pine trees intermingled with alluring glimpses of glass-topped lakes. It was love at first sight.
Our travels had brought us to Norway. More specifically, to the western coast, the Island of Karmøy, ‘Homeland of the Viking Kings’. Having been infected with enthusiasm for Viking history, this was the ideal place to be.
You cannot have missed the saturation of all things ‘Viking’ into pop culture in the last few years. Not least, the frenzy surrounding the epic historical saga, Vikings. This History Channel show has been incredibly popular with audiences around the world. In fact, it has played a good part in igniting an interest in the ‘Viking Age’. Moreover, it has many of us eager to learn more about these beguiling characters and their intriguing lifestyle. In an interview with Vikings creator, Michael Hirst, the BBC History Magazine reported that when he had visited the Oslo Viking Ship Museum, the curator had informed him that admissions had doubled since the show had begun.
Homeland of the Viking Kings? Are we talking about Ragnor Lothbrok here?
The Homeland of the Viking Kings
Now, standing on the real ‘Homeland of the Viking Kings’, my curiosity is peaked. My intrinsic desire to delve deeper surges through me – in true Viking style, so to speak.
As I, along with millions of other Vikings fans, excitedly await the much-anticipated release of the second part of Season Five, let us walk instead, in the footsteps of the Viking Kings themselves. Let’s immerse ourselves in the real history, culture and lifestyles of the Vikings, whilst we wait for our fictional heroes to return to our screens.
What better place to do this than here, ‘Homeland of the Viking Kings’ on the Island of Karmøy. To the North of the island lies the town of Avaldsnes. This town held the seat of power, not only for the Norwegian Vikings in the Viking Age but for chieftains and kings for over 3000 years.
There is something quite visceral standing where history before you has been so powerful. Here in Avaldsnes, overlooking the Karmsund Strait, in Western Norway, you immediately get the sense of the commanding and important forces that were once at play.
The Karmsund Strait was the main shipping channel, known as the ‘Nordvegen’ or ‘North Way’, eventuating in the name ‘Norway’. It was the only safe passage for ships along the Norwegian Coast. Avaldsnes lies on the narrowest point; ships had to wait there for the right currents and winds. As such, it was the perfect place to strategically control the shipping traffic, impose trading taxes and build a powerful base.
Nordvegen History Centre
The best place for us to start our journey back in time is at the Avaldsnes History Centre. As you walk towards the Centre, the ancient landscape begins to seep into your soul. The Centre itself is built underground so as not to compromise the surrounding historical buildings and landscape. Its circular shape represents Mimir’s ‘Well of Wisdom’ – Norse legend tells us that Odin sacrificed one of his eyes to drink from the well and gain its wisdom.
Thousands of visitors come here each year to learn more about the infamous Vikings and the history of the area. Our guide, Mette Brinchmann, tells us that since the growth in popularity of Vikings, visitor numbers have increased here too.
An introductory film weaves the stories of the gods, Vikings and Norse legends together narrated by the main Viking King himself, Harald Fairhair.
There is an ambience of magic and mystery as you wander through the artefacts and displays at the History Centre, learning more about Norse mythology, the ancient language of runes and the traditions and culture of days gone by.
One of the most renowned of the Viking Kings, King Harald Fairhair, united Norway into one kingdom. Legend tells us that he did so to gain the hand in marriage of Gyda, who would only marry a worthy king of all Norway. He swore not to cut his hair until he had control of all the smaller counties. That doesn’t sound too onerous for a Viking to me but maybe there is more to the saga!
It is believed that Harald Fairhair is buried in a huge burial mound in Haugesund, just North of Avaldsnes. A National monument, erected on that spot in 1872, overlooks the sea and commemorates the unity of Norway by Fairhair, around one thousand years before. The central granite obelisk represents a unified Norway and the 27 stones surrounding it, the old Norwegian counties.
Did you know there was an actual ‘Viking Age’? It was a limited era just like the Stone Age, Middle Ages and so forth. The Viking Age lasted for about 300 years; beginning from the first recorded Viking attack of the Lindisfarne Monastery, Northern England in 793AD, to their terrible defeat in the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. Naively, I had assumed that most of Norway’s ancient history had involved Vikings!
St. Olav’s Church
Just beside the History Centre, on the hill overlooking Karmsund Strait, sits St. Olav’s Church. The stone church we see today was built in 1250, but it is believed that it replaced a wooden church built by King Olav Tryggason in around 1000AD.
It was at that time that the Viking kings started to favour Christianity. It is likely that the wooden church was built on an old pagan temple site. In fact, one of the original temple stones is still present to this day.
Emerging from the ground is a seven-metre high stone monument, now called the Virgin Mary’s Needle. This ancient stone dates from around 200AD. The story passed down through the ages is that if the stone touches the church then Doomsday will descend upon us. Legend suggests that priests would climb up the pillar at night and chip away pieces to make sure it did not touch the church. Hence, we are apparently now 9.2 centimetres away from the end of the world!
Just a 10-minute walk from the History Centre is the small Island of Bukkøy, which houses an authentic reconstruction of a Viking Farm. In the Summer, it’s open to tourists and you can learn about the daily life of a Viking. Also used as a historical school camp, eager students come here to experience life as a Viking; making cream, butter, bread and porridge. They catch fish for their dinner and after an exhausting day, without all the home comforts, they go to sleep laying on reindeer fur.
We were lucky enough to visit the farm during the annual Viking Festival, so it was alive with festivities, tradition and Viking culture.
The Viking Festival
The largest annual Viking Festival in Western Norway is held on Bukkøy Island. Around two hundred ‘Vikings’, come together from Europe and the Baltic States. The island is filled with, among other things, traditional music, Viking battles, jesters and sword fighting demonstrations. Vikings display their crafts and sell their wares in the Viking Markets. Many are members of Viking groups who meet to share stories, skills and a common love of the ancient traditions.
The festival organiser, Monica Dimitrova, told us that over the four days, the festival attracts some 15,000-18,000 people. She said the most popular events were the musicians, sword fighting, re-enacted battles, and the jesters.
A member of the local Viking club, Jan, was displaying his hand-carved wooden bows. I asked what it was that attracted him to his craft. He had a quiet, calm way about him as he explained that his main trade was carpentry. Although he uses modern tools for his day-to-day work, he enjoys the special connection with the wood when working by hand. “You feel closer to the material,” he said. “You can even hear how sharp the blade is; it’s relaxing.”
Further along a row of tents, I came across a striking woman with long, white hair. She sat, intensely spinning wool into yarn by hand. When she spoke, her zeal and passion for her craft were palpable. This captivating woman, named Henny, explained that she was using a ‘drop spindle’ to spin the wool. The wool is collected from wild sheep as they don’t smell, unlike domestic sheep apparently. Once spun into yarn, she makes hats and mittens using the traditional Viking art of needle binding. Enthusiastically she reaches for one of her handmade hats and explains that the more you wear it, the warmer it gets due to the binding getting tighter over time.
There were plenty of traditional wares and craft demonstrations enabling visitors to capture a glimpse of Viking Life. From animal skin drums painted with pigmented tar to chicken leg necklaces, there were interesting wares on display for every taste – as long as those tastes appreciate old-world traditions.
Soulful or Savage Vikings?
Learning more about the way of life of the Vikings, you cannot fail to recognise that perhaps they have got a bad rap in terms of their historical reputation of barbaric, axe-wielding murderers. It is clear that they were actually incredibly talented; excellent seafarers, skilled craftsmen, avid storytellers and fierce, relentless warriors. The Vikings have left lasting imprints through their trade (furs, iron, amber and timber), and establishment and colonisation of old and new territories. Yes, they were a force to be reckoned with in battle; their belief in Valhalla (a great place in the afterlife reserved for warriors and heroes), resulted in a strong psychological advantage in battle. That said, they were many things other than warriors.
Viking Society viewed women as valuable members of society. They had much more power than their equivalent European counterparts of the time. Viking women could divorce their husbands, own property and sell their handiwork. Viking culture taught that it was shameful for a man to harm a woman. Parts of their culture were, therefore, more in line with our values of today, than compared to the Christian way of life at that time.
The filming of Vikings mainly takes place in Ireland. Some visuals were originally shot in Norway, but the competitive tax incentives offered in Ireland made it the country of choice to film the show.
However, the majority of the new hit Netflix show, Norsemen, a kind of Monty Python meets Vikings, is filmed on site at the Viking Farm. Watching that series, you can get an idea of the real landscape our Norwegian Viking Kings were treading.
Visiting Avaldsnes, you can go one better and walk in the mighty Vikings footsteps yourself.
The Vikings series may not be an authentic, factual based dramatisation. However, even being loosely based on the facts it gives us a taste of the history. Enough of a taste to clearly play a role in awakening our curiosities. Moreover, it has showcased another side of the Vikings that has perhaps been lost in translation. Ragnor Lothbrok is our ninth century pop culture hero who has opened the doors to give us a yearning for more and a glimpse into the craftsmanship and spiritual side of the Vikings which is so clear in the historical facts.
We would love to hear about any of your Viking experiences and also if you enjoyed this article please leave a comment below.
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We would like to give a special thank you to Mette Brinchmann, at the Nordvegen History Centre, who spent a lot of her valuable time explaining the history of the area and showing us around.
After finishing my Law Degree I decided to become a teacher. I am passionate about teaching, learning and most of all, about inspiring others. Now, as a writer and blogger, I love sharing our travels and our musings on life’s journey. I hope, through these, we can play a part in inspiring you to do whatever ‘satisfies your soul’.