Bringing history alive
through the Vikings' own stories


Cover image: 

Viking Age rune-stone repainted in its original colours. 
Historiska museet, Stockholm 




UK print edition published by Talking Stone 2015
US / Canadian edition published by Chartwell (Quarto Books) forthcoming late 2017
eBook edition published worldwide by Talking Stone


BUY THE BOOK AT WATERSTONES



‘I met a wild woman walking down the road.  
Her grey hair was grimy and unkempt, 
coiling round her shoulders like winter snakes, 
her eyes unnaturally bright.  
She hailed me and began to speak 
in a clear, compelling voice.  
This is what she told me…’

An accessible, meticulously researched introduction to Viking Age oral literature, based on the oldest texts, authentically interpreted and retold by a highly acclaimed storyteller.

  • The ONLY book to feature little known Viking Age sagas and heroic legends alongside the Norse myths – and the FIRST major new retellings of the myths for 35 years.
  • Brings alive the most significant Viking Age stories, painting vivid portraits of Viking people, culture and beliefs.
  • Introduces many iconic Viking women.  
  • Presents the true story of the Vikings’ discovery of North America 500 years before Columbus; legends of the cursed ring that inspired Tolkien, and the Viking story behind Hamlet.
  • Written in consultation with leading UK and Icelandic academics, with detailed Notes, a comprehensive Glossary, authentic proverbs, poems, riddles and spells.

"Myths and legends expert with a collection of 34 of the most important Viking myths, heroic legends and historical sagas...bring Viking people, culture and beliefs vividly to life... along with the odd dragon, ghost and valkyrie." - The Bookseller


"In presenting her versions of stories from Scandinavian myth and legend, as well as extracts from Icelandic sagas, Rosalind Kerven...writes in a distinguished tradition. While many modern retellings of these stories are sanitized versions for children, Kerven’s are aimed at adults and are better described as 'reimaginings', with copious endnotes explaining how her versions differ from their sources. The stories are short and lively, a few even successfully presented in verse. There is a strong focus on character and dialogue... Those who already know Kerven’s sources will enjoy spotting her many re-interpretations. Other readers should first enjoy these stories and then seek out the originals, precisely for their differences of tone and emphasis"  – Times Literary Supplement


"Weaves together different versions of Norse sagas into highly readable and tellable renderings, that have also been carefully researched as the unobtrusive but informative notes show." - Gramarye, The Journal of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy at Chichester University 


"Rosalind Kerven reveals how the Vikings’ favourite tales included myths, heroic legends, folk tales, and family and local histories.  She explores how, because most people were illiterate, these stories circulated orally, sometimes in the form of complex narrative poems. Passed on through successive generations, many were written down in the 13th century, mainly by scholars in Iceland. Their books included the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda – which today form the basis of much of what we know about ancient Norse myths and legends – and numerous Sagas, which are supposedly based on true stories of real Viking Age people." – www.historyextra.com, the official website of BBC History Magazine


"A lively and accessible retelling which succeeds as an evocation of the Viking Age.  Rosalind Kerven balances her respect for the ancient source material with the instincts and skills of a modern-day storyteller." - Dr. Chris Tuckley, Head of Interpretation, York Archaeological Trust / Jorvik Viking Centre.


"An excellent and informative book surrounding all the Viking myths and legends. The author's writing style is so excellent and at a perfect pace so that it truly feels like you are sitting round a fire at camp being told a story... The range covered in this book is also exceptional, from all the places the Vikings travelled to, to the number of mythical creatures; gods, dragons, trees, trolls, all sorts.  All in all, an excellent, insightful and informative book that I am very pleased to have discovered." – 5-star reader review on both www.goodreads.com and amazon.


"Very witty and refreshing interpretation of classic Norse myths and sagas.  Also wonderfully laid out in clear categories with very interesting yet simple notes to accompany each story." 

"Such a well written book. The editor did a great job showing a glimpse of Norse mythology and history from pieces from sagas and old texts. It's a great way to understand and have a first good idea about these stories without having to dig in deep into history books yourself in order to understand whats going on. Plus the book provides sources and references to let you into more details. The story telling skills of Rosalind Kerven are great and she shows a great deal of hard work done to bring us a nice compelling point of view that almost makes you travel back in time and sit in a viking house and hear stories being told around the fire place. Totally recommended. 
– 5-star reader reviews on www.goodreads.com

Reconstructed Viking Age farmhouse, 
Eiriksstadir, Iceland

  


THE EXTRAORDINARY MYTHS OF VIKING PAGAN RELIGION
Read the most important myths of the mighty gods who dominated Viking pagan worship: Thor the giant slayer and mysterious Odin.  Be shocked by the earth shaking treachery of the trickster Loki.  Discover the secret of eternal youth; wonder at the wisdom of giants; learn how the world was created and how it is predicted to end.


Viking woman dyeing wool
Lofotr Vikingmuseum, Norway


ICONIC VIKING WOMEN
Meet Aud the Deep Minded, the one-time queen who set up a utopian community; Melkorka, the abducted princess who brought dignity to slavery; and fearless pioneers Gudrid and Freydis. Admire legendary female role models such as goddess Frigg, who persuaded the whole of creation to weep with her; and Gudrun, who single-handedly destroyed the mightiest king in Europe.



Wool coloured with Viking dyes,
Ribe Viking Centre, Denmark


THE STORIES BEHIND VIKING AGE CARVINGS
Thor fishing up the World Serpent, Sigurd slaying a dragon, Odin riding an 8-legged horse, Gunnar condemned to death in a snake-pit – all are portrayed in surviving Viking Age carvings. Discover their extraordinary stories.


Viking Age carving of Odin's 8-legged horse, Sleipnir
Historiska museet, Stockholm

VIKING VOYAGES BEYOND THE EDGES OF THE KNOWN WORLD
A thousand years ago, Viking people made astonishing journeys – westward to become the first settlers in North America, and eastwards into deepest Russia – proven by archaeological remains.  Find out what happened on these expeditions, based on the explorers’ own oral accounts.

Reconstructed Viking ship
Lofotr Vikingmuseum, Norway

THE VIKING STORIES THAT INSPIRED SHAKESPEARE AND TOLKIEN
Read the Vikings’ own story of the ancient Danish prince Amleth, immortalised in one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays; and the ancient myths and legends about magic rings which inspired Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.


Viking runes, 
Maeshowe, Orkney

A LITTLE KNOWN ASPECT OF THE VIKINGS – THEIR RESPECT FOR THE LAW

Meet Njal, the brilliant lawyer who saved countless families from violent feuding – only to be burned alive in his own home.  Discover the harsh consequences of Viking Age penalties through the colourful exploits of two notorious outlaws.


Viking Age rune-stone
Sigtuna, Sweden

VIKING GHOST STORIES
Shiver at uncanny deaths, hauntings, spells and predictions, including the horrific spectres that appeared as Vikings succumbed to plague; and the chieftain haunted by his own supernatural double.  
Reconstructed Viking house, 
Ribe Viking Centre, Denmark



EXTRACTS FROM THE STORIES



Replica statue of a god,
Lofotr Vikingmuseum, Norway
Symbols he yearned for,
speech carved in silence

thoughts drawn in lines, secrets and spells.
He hanged himself, dangling,
speared himself, starved himself,

cast his own sacrifice, swung from the tree. 
– HOW ODIN WON THE RUNES
Actor in Viking dress, 
Ribe Viking Centre, Denmark

As Hermod dismounted, the door swung open to reveal a hideous woman. One side of her body was naked flesh; whilst the other was a cavernous, stinking hollow.
   ‘Are you Hel?’ Hermod asked her.
   ‘I am indeed,’ said she. ‘What brings a living god into my realm of death?’   
                  
 
– THE DEATH OF BALDR


Viking Age carving,
Historiska museet, Stockholm, Sweden
Dark and austere is the realm of dwarfs, damp and airless. Its tunnels stretch far under the ground, deep into the mountains, an endless, murky labyrinth. Caverns open out from them here and there, echoing with the clangour of hammers, stinking of soot and scorched metal. Night and day are meaningless in this place, for the dwarfs take no rest from their work at the forges, their gnarled faces thickly crusted with endless years of smoke. The gloom is overwhelming, broken only by smithy fires and sparse flickers of gold.                             – THE DWARFS’ TREASURES


Viking Age silver treasure hoard,
Historiska museet, Stockholm, Sweden


Fafnir walked briskly along the road, then turned up onto the lonely, wind-swept slopes of a heath. He trudged on, dark against the pale dawn sky, bent under his precious load. He headed for a rocky hillside, dotted with fissures and caves. Here he stopped and tipped the gold into a hollow. Then he turned his attention to the Ring, making sure it was still wedged firmly on his finger.
   Finally, muttering an eerie spell, he lay down on top of the gold – and transformed himself into a dragon.
          
 
– SIGURD THE DRAGON SLAYER 


Reconstructed prow of Viking Age ship,
Lofotr Vikingmuseum, Norway
 
   ‘Don't be ridiculous,’ he said. ‘I can't have a woman tagging along!’    
   ‘Why ever not? Lots of women go on voyages.’    
   ‘The time will soon pass,’ said Kjartan quickly.    
   ‘I'm sure it will for you,’ said Gudrun. ‘But for me it will seem like for ever.’    
   ‘I'll soon be back,’ he said. ‘I swear I'll be true to you.’ 
   ‘What, with all those exotic ladies in the King's court?’ she said. ‘I don't believe you.’        
– THE LOVE TRIANGLE 


Viking Age sword.   Historiska museet, Stockholm, Sweden
   Inside he saw a bed; and on it lay Fengi, flushed with wine, his sword slung on a hook beside him. Silently, Amleth crept in, removed the sword, then drew his own. He stood facing his uncle, brandishing a blade in either hand.
   ‘Awake, Fengi!’ he roared.
   Fengi stirred, belched, opened his eyes – and saw Amleth. He threw off his torpor, leaped to his feet and reached for his weapon – only to find his hand grappling with empty air.   
 
 – AMLETH


Replica of Viking Age gaming board,
Lofotr Vikingmuseum, Norway


   ‘That’s not what I meant!’ cried Eyjolf. ‘You can’t do that, you can’t have the silver for nothing…’    
   ‘Can’t I?’ said Aud. ‘All right, then in exchange I'll give you this…'    
   She clenched her fist and slammed it hard against his nose. Blood ran.    
   ‘…the unforgettable memory of being struck by a woman. Weak? Terrified of violence, eh? You've chosen the wrong quarry today, you base and loathsome scoundrel. Shame on you for thinking I'd betray the man I love. Our deal’s done, so go. You know now that I mean what I say: if you don't leave at once, I'll physically boot you out.’ 
– GISLI THE OUTLAW’S LAST STAND 


Viking weaving loom,
Eiriksstadir reconstructed farmhouse, Iceland



   ‘One morning we went down to the lake together to fetch water, and were astonished to find that some strangers had also found this lonely place. They were three women, sitting on the shore, spinning flax. On the ground beside them, tossed carelessly to one side, were their cloaks, made of pure white swans’ feathers.  
    ‘They told us they were valkyries, and also kings’ daughters. Their names were Swan-White, Ale-Rune and Strange-Creature, and they had come into this realm by flying over the vast shadows of Mirkwood. They assessed us carefully, then each chose one to be her husband.’                            
– VOLUND THE SMITH 


Reconstructed Viking Age turf farm at Stong,
Thjorsardalur, Iceland
Eight 11th Century houses were unearthed there, alongside a forge and four workshops, all built in the Viking style with turf walls, pointed roofs and earthen floors; plus a stone oil lamp, a set of scales and evidence of iron working. This offers conclusive proof that Viking Age travellers really did reach North America.   
 – Notes to WINELAND 


Viking breed horses, 
on site of the Norse 'Eastern Settlement', Greenland


All photos taken during the author's extensive travels through the old Viking lands 
         
CONTENTS 



Viking People and their Stories



GODS, GODDESSES, GIANTESSES, GIANTS 
& DWARFS

The Origin of the Stories: Magic Mead   
from The Prose Edda


In the Beginning 
from The Prose Edda 
    + The Poetic Edda (Voluspa, Vafthrudnismal)

The Dwarfs’ Treasures   
from The Prose Edda

The Theft of Thor’s Hammer   
  from The Poetic Edda (Thrymskvida)

How Odin won the Runes  
from The Poetic Edda (Havamal)

Fishing up the World Serpent   
from The Prose Edda + The Poetic Edda (Hymiskvida)

The Eight-Legged Horse   
from The Prose Edda

The Mighty Wolf   
  from The Prose Edda

The Apples of Youth  
from The Prose Edda

A Journey Through Giantland  
from The Prose Edda

The Death of Baldr   
from The Prose Edda
Ragnarok
from The Prose Edda 
     + The Poetic Edda (Voluspa, Vafthrudnismal)



Kennings: the Poets’ Images
from The Prose Edda



THE CURSE OF ANDVARI’S RING

Sigurd the Dragon Slayer
from The Poetic Edda (various poems),
    Prose Edda + Volsunga Saga

Cruel and Sweet is a Woman’s Revenge
from The Poetic Edda (various poems), 
    Prose Edda + Volsunga Saga



Riddles 
from The Saga of Hervar and Heidrik



NOBLES, FARMERS, SLAVES & VILLAINS

In Praise of Slaves, Peasants and Nobles
from The Poetic Edda (Rigsthula)

King Geirrod the Magnificent 
from The Poetic Edda (Grimnismal)

Amleth
from Gesta Danorum

A Slave Woman’s Story 
from Laxdaela Saga

Aud the Deep Minded 
from Landnamabok, Laxdaela Saga + Eirik’s Saga

Njal the Peacemaker and his Angry Sons
from Njal’s Saga

A Tale of Grettir the Strong 
from Grettir’s Saga

Gisli the Outlaw’s Last Stand 
from Gisli Sursson’s Saga


Words of Wisdom 
from The Poetic Edda (Havamal), Grettir’s Saga, 
Laxdaela Saga, Volsunga Saga + Njal’s Saga



TALES OF LOVE AND HATE

Of Love and Goddesses
from The Prose Edda

The Love Triangle 
from Laxdaela Saga  

Volund the Smith
from The Poetic Edda (Volundarkvida) 

Helgi & Sigrun
from The Poetic Edda (Helgavida Hundingsbana in
    Fyrri, Helgavida Hjorvardssonar,  Helgavida  
    Hundingsbana Onnur) + Volsunga Saga


Verses from the Court Poets
from Heimskringla


TALES OF EXPLORATION

Wineland 
from Graenlendinga Saga + Eirik’s Saga 
A Journey to the East
    from Yngvar’s Saga

Pagan prayers and spells
From the Poetic Edda (Lokasenna, Oddrunargratr, 
      Hyndluljod, Sigridrifumal, Havamal), Heimskringla + 
      Egils Saga


GHOSTS AND SORCERY

The King’s Amulet 
from Vatnsdaela Saga

Ghosts in Greenland
from Graenlendinga Saga + Eirik’s Saga 

The Big Woman from the Hebrides
from Eyrbygga Saga


The Witch Queen’s Curse
from Njal’s Saga

The Haunted Farm
from Laxdaela Saga


Dreaming of Sorcery
from Vatnsdaela Saga


NOTES


Glossary