Wanderlust: Viking Raiders, Traders, Neighbors


February 24-25, 2017

Marines’ Memorial Theatre, San Francisco

Listen to audio from this program

From the sacking of Lindisfarne Abbey in 793 until the end of the 11th century, voyaging Scandinavian traders and warriors played a decisive role in the formation of European culture. Not merely fearsome sackers of coastal farming communities, these fearless travelers spread their cultural influence (and genes) from Newfoundland to Russia and from Portugal to Byzantium, Baghdad and Sicily. The Vikings excelled in the commerce of gold, silver and slaves. They advanced nautical knowledge and crafted elaborate decorative arts. Their legendary exploits are vividly reimagined in the remarkable Old Norse sagas.

They journeyed boldly; / Went far for gold, / Fed the eagle /Out in the east, /And died in the south / In Saracenland //

–Gripshold Rune-Stone (c. 1050) reprinted in Smithsonian.com March 2014 p 46.\

Friday, February 24, 2017, 7:30 to 9:35 pm

On seeing the Vikings through the lens of Mediterranean Studies / Moderator, Fred Astren (SFSU)

Viking Legacies / Patrick Hunt (CMEMS Associate, Stanford). Biased chronicles depicting the shock and awe of Vikings raids have long held sway in public opinion. Yet archeologist Christian Jürgensen Thomsen’s seminal mid-19th century work in Copenhagen not only pioneered more precise artifact studies of Scandinavian antiquities and Viking ethnography in particular but also highlighted the differences in distinct human material phases. The discovery and conservation of the buried well-built lapstrake Viking longships at Oseberg and Gokstad underscored the viability of long distance seafaring coupled with navigational skills and other finds that were obscure until recently. However maligned the “Norsemen” might have been in hyperbolic clerical accounts of “raiders” (or traders), the rich Viking contributions to European cultural life and language from runestones to Danelaw are only now becoming better understood.

Performance: Norse Myth, Poetry, Music / Tim Rayborn delves into the ancient spiritual and cultural traditions of Northern Europe to present both reconstructed works and surviving musical fragments from the Viking Age. The Vikings were far more than barbarians and marauders. They were traders, explorers, poets, and masters of sailing. Their literature is remarkable; the Icelandic Sagas are prototypes of the European novel, and the Poetic Edda contains masterpieces of alliterative poetry. Their cosmology was as rich as those of the Greeks or Egyptians, and as explorers they were unmatched, traveling from Scandinavia to as far as North America and Baghdad. This program includes excerpts from the Edda and the Sagas, among other works, and offers both early medieval and traditional melodies from areas as diverse as Iceland, Norway, Shetland, and more. Tim brings to life this heroic era in a stunning one-man performance. Featuring voice, Saami drum, deerskin rattle, Baltic overtone flute, Nordic lyre, and bone flute.

Saturday, February 25, 2017, 10:00 am – noon and 1:30-4:00 pm:

Viking Language and Archaeology in Iceland: The Mosfell Archaeological Project / Jesse Byock (Old Norse and Medieval Scandinavian Studies, UCLA). Archeologist Jesse Byock considers two issues: Old Norse language and identity, and recent findings of the Mosfell Archaeological Project (MAP) in Iceland. He focuses on excavations at Hrísbrú, the farm of the Mosfell Chieftains, in Iceland’s Mosfell Valley. An interdisciplinary research project employing the tools of archaeology, history, anthropology, forensics, environmental sciences, saga studies, and landscape analysis, MAP is researching the many Viking-age remains in and around the Mosfell, treating this large area as a “Valley System.” MAP’s research at Hrísbrú has led to the discovery of a Viking chieftain’s farmstead with many core features of Viking-age life. The finds include a large longhouse from Iceland’s early settlement period, a pagan cremation grave, a conversion-era stave church, and an early Christian graveyard with pagan features. The finds provide a wealth of new evidence about life in Viking Age Iceland, and tell us a good deal about the Icelandic sagas.

From Frankish Altars to Scottish Fields: Trading, Raiding, and Gift-Giving in the Viking Age / Daniel Melleno (Classics, UC Berkeley). In September of 2014 an amateur treasure hunter in Scotland uncovered an astonishing trove. The Dumfriesshire Hoard contained more than 100 items, including jewelry and coins held in a silver gilded vessel originally used as a communion cup. While the hoard itself dates from the 10th century, the cup is of late 8th or early 9th century origin. How did an 8th century French cup end up filled with silver and buried in a Scottish field? The answer is simple: Vikings. We’re all familiar with the popular image of the Vikings, raiders arriving without warning in their longboats to burn, kill, steal. But the origins of our treasure hoard may not be so simple after all. Daniel Melleno will highlight the variety of ways in which treasures great and small changed hands and what this tells us about peace and war in the Viking Age.

Serpents and Dragons: Motifs and Meanings in Norwegian Designs / Deborah Loft (Art History, College of Marin)The visual creations of the Viking era fused beauty with function; decoration with symbolism. The skills which made the ships and their carvings were also realized in the impressive stave churches, with their exuberant interlace ornament. The motifs of interlaced serpents, dragons, and vines will be traced to their ancient origins, which shed light on their possible meanings. These productions offer an opportunity to consider the interactions of the Vikings with other cultures.  While full of meaning for the people who used them, the surviving examples rarely focused on human narrative.  This is one likely explanation for their obscure status in the art historical “canon”. It is time to reconsider their place in the history of art and culture.

The Lives and Deaths of the Norse Gods / Jonas Wellendorf (Old Norse Studies, UC Berkeley). The mythology of the North contains some bright and happy moments, but in comparison with its Classical counterparts, Scandinavian mythology is distinctively dark and gloomy. The Norse gods and their creation, our world, are bound to perish in the great battle at the end of times (Ragnarök). There is a promise of rebirth after the destruction, but the new world will have no room for the likes of Odin and Thor. Who were the Scandinavian gods, how do we know them? Why did such a terrible end await them? And which gods would survive Ragnarök? This talk will consider the emergence of the grand story of the lives and deaths of the Norse gods and seek to provide answers to these questions.

Panel Discussion with the presenters, moderated by Fred Astren

Download this program’s postcard: Vikings Postcard

Related Events

Presenters & Resources


astrenFred Astren (PhD, Near Eastern Studies, UC Berkeley) is Professor and Chair of the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University. He holds a B.E.S. degree from the University of Minnesota with specialization in medieval history and an MA in Arabic from UC Berkeley. Areas of research include medieval minority/sectarian history, with special focus on Jewish history in the Mediterranean and in the orbit of early Islam, and the Karaite Jewish sect. His current book project is entitled Before the Geniza, on Jews and the Mediterranean in the early Middle Ages. In print recently or forthcoming are articles on the Mediterranean in medieval Jewish history, the introduction of paper and medieval Jewish history, Jews and the medieval Muslim conquests, and the representation of minority religion in the medieval Islamic world. Books include: Karaite Judaism and Historical Understanding (2004), and Judaism and Islam: Boundaries, Interaction, and Communication (with co-editors, Benjamin Hary and John L. Hayes) (2000. 

Jesse ByockJesse L. Byock (PhD Harvard, Medieval Scandinavia and Old Norse) is Distinguished Professor of Old Norse and Medieval Scandinavian Studies and Professor, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA. He directs the Mosfell Archaeological Project (MAP) in Iceland. He teaches Old Norse – Icelandic, Viking history and archaeology, early Icelandic society, medieval feuds, and Old Norse saga literature– a key source of social-historical and legal information about northern European medieval culture and the major source of mythical and heroic lore. Publications include Viking Language I (Old Norse, Runes, and Icelandic Sagas) and Viking Language II (Old Norse Reader) (2012, 2015); Viking Age Iceland (2001), Medieval Iceland (1988), and Feud in the Icelandic Saga (1982). His translations from Old Norse include The Prose Edda (2005), The Saga of the Volsungs (1990), The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki (1998), Sagas and Myths of the Northmen (2006), and Grettir’s Saga (2009).

Patrick HuntPatrick Hunt (PhD, Archaeology, University College London, University of London) has taught Humanities at Stanford University for more than two decades, including The Vikings in 2015. He directed Stanford’s Alpine Archaeology Project (1994-2012) and continues alpine fieldwork, especially on Otzi the Iceman, about whom he has written widely, including Alpine Archaeology (2007). Among peer-reviewed articles and 17 other books is his best-seller Ten Discoveries That Rewrote History (2007). National Geographic Expeditions Council has sponsored his research; he is a Research Associate in Archeoethnobotany for the Institute of EthnoMedicine, an elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and President of the Stanford Society of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA). His awards include the Persian Golden Lioness medal from World Academy of Art, Literature and Media and archaeological commendations from the Ministry of Culture in Turkey, University of Tehran in Iran, and US Congress. Hunt appears regularly on National Geographic, PBS, NOVA and other documentaries.

Loft, DDeborah Loft (BA, Art History, Oberlin College; MA, Art History, University of Pennsylvania) is Art History Professor Emeritus at College of Marin, where she has received the Distinguished Teaching Award. In addition, she has worked on the curatorial staff of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and lectured at a variety of Bay Area museums and institutions. Her long-standing interest in artistic interactions among cultures has led her to do research in Scandinavia and the European mainland, with a special focus on interlace designs. Her wide-ranging interests include the theater, where she has worked as a costume designer. She has lectured for Humanities West on medieval Toledo, Bernini’s Rome, and American expatriate artists in Paris.

MellenoDaniel F. Melleno (Lecturer in Classics, UC Berkeley) earned his PhD in Medieval History at UC Berkeley for his dissertation entitled Before They Were Vikings: Scandinavia and the Franks up to the Death of Louis the Pious, which he is currently revising for publication. His research focuses on the many ways that the Vikings and their neighbors built relationships and influenced each other via trade, diplomacy, and violence throughout the early medieval period.

RaybornTim Rayborn, an acclaimed multi-instrumentalist, plays dozens of musical instruments from medieval Europe, the Middle East, and the Balkans. He has recorded on more than 40 CDs for labels including Gaudeamus, Wild Boar, EMP, Magnatune, and Harmonia Mundi. Tim earned his PhD in medieval studies at the University of Leeds, while working as a musician. He has toured the US, Canada, Australia, and Europe from Ireland to Turkey, appearing at the York and Beverley Early Music Festivals, Alden Biesen Castle in Belgium, Bunyola in Majorca, and Spitalfields Festival in London, among others. He has performed for BBC and worked with folk musicians in Marrakech and Istanbul. He has taught at music workshops in the US and England and has appeared with many noted early music performers. His music has been heard on BBC, NPR, and radio stations around the world. He is the author of several books, with topics including the crusades, the medieval friars, and early 20th-century English music. 

WellendorfJonas Wellendorf (PhD, University of Bergen, Norway) is Assistant Professor of Old Norse studies at the Department of Scandinavian, UC Berkeley. He has published widely on many aspects of Old Norse-Icelandic textual culture (ranging from oral tradition via runes and myth to medieval grammatical treatises) and takes particular interest in medieval approaches to pagan myth. His current book project is entitled ‘Retying the Bonds: Gods and Mortals in Medieval Scandinavia’ (working title).

Resource Materials

Some Resources for The Vikings February 2017

Sagas: Translations from Old Norse:

Byock, Jesse, Tr. The Prose Edda (2005), The Saga of the Volsungs (1990), The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki (1998), Sagas and Myths of the Northmen (2006), and Grettir’s Saga (2009). Excerpts available at The Viking Site, www.viking.ucla.edu

Bergtsson, Frans. The Long Ships (1955, reissued 2010). E-book available.

Byock, Jesse. Viking Language I (Old Norse, Runes, and Icelandic Sagas) and Viking Language II (Old Norse Reader) (2012, 2015).

—. Viking Age Iceland (2001).

—. Medieval Iceland (1988).

—. Feud in the Icelandic Saga (1982).

Harl, Kenneth. The Great Courses: Raiders or Traders: Discover the Fearless Ambitions of the Norsemen [790-1066].

Lidz, Franz. “Revenge of the Vikings.” Smithsonian Magazine (March 2014): 44-48. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/The-Vikings-Bad-Boy-Reputation-Is-Back-With-a-Vengeance-180949814/?no-ist

Parker, Philip. The Northmen’s Fury: a History of the Viking World. London: Jonathan Cape, 2014.

Pyle, Michael. The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe. (2015). Available in Kindle Edition.

Tonkin, Boyd. The Vikings: Why do the seafaring warriors still intrigue us? The Independent (May 14 2014).

Winroth, Anders. Age of the Vikings (2014). Available in Kindle Editioin.


History Channel Series on The Vikings