Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Ingvar Stones

One of my favorite things that I have learned about teaching Celts to Vikings this year is the Ingvar Stones.

In 1036, a Swedish Viking named Ingvar the Far-Traveled raised a large mercenary force, several hundred strong at least, and took them to the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. There they took part in a civil war raging in the kingdom of Georgia. Most, it seems, died of disease -- including Ingvar -- others in battle. Only one ship out of 26 returned to Sweden.

Ingvar's expedition was remembered in songs and eventually written into a saga. His men were memorialized by their families with rune stones set up all over Sweden, 26 of which survive. The one above is typical; the inscription reads:
Andvéttr and Kárr and Kiti and Blesi and Djarfr raised this stone in memory of Gunnleifr, their father, who was killed in the east with Ingvarr. May God help their spirits. Alríkr(?), I carved the runes. He could steer a cargo-ship well.

This one says:
Þjalfi and Holmlaug had all of these stones raised in memory of Baggi, their son, who alone owned a ship and steered to the east in Ingvarr's retinue. May God help Baggi's spirit. Áskell carved.
These stones sum up the spirit of the Viking age for me. Ingvar's expedition was a mad adventure with a high risk of death for everyone involved, even had they been successful. Yet he had no trouble recruiting 26 shiploads of men to sail a thousand miles down treacherous rivers, much of the way through hostile territory, to take part in a war in which none of them had any personal stake. Whatever else they Vikings were -- killers, pirates, slavers -- they were certainly brave. They were brave when they had to be, but more notably they were brave for no very good reason. The Icelanders recorded that their ancestors crossed the Atlantic to an unknown island because they wanted to be more free. Ingvar's men went because going seemed better than staying home. The men who settled Greenland, or fought for the emperor in Constantinople, or sailed their longships into the Mediterranean to raid Spain and Italy, also had no pressing reason to go. They just did.

The Ingvar Stones give a clue as to why the Vikings were like that. The people who stayed home in Sweden must have followed Ingvar's adventure as best they could, and they made the news they heard into songs. Their relatives who went seemed heroic to them, and when they did not come home they set up stones to honor their memory. (Not many runestones were set up for ordinary Swedish farmers.) Viking boys grew up hearing such stories, seeing that the people who were talked about and admired were the ones who crossed the sea in search of adventure and gold. The ones who came home with chests full of English or Saracen silver became chieftains, lording it over their more timid neighbors. The biggest hazard faced by Scandinavian kings was that some exiled relation would come home with a ship full of money and an outsized reputation and toss them off their thrones. In this world, adventure was a way of life, the more dangerous the better.

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