by Thinus Ferreira
Take a guess why it's called Normandy in France and Norway? And guess where words like egg, anger, knife, elves and trolls, and even the days of the week like Thursday ("Thor's day) come from? And you don't want to know - but you secretly will want to know, about the "blood eagle" torture method of the gggghaaaaarrr ... Vikings!
The Vikings invaded the world in 1000 AD and a brand-new 6-episode, historical documentary series, Vikings: The Rise & Fall, produced by Dash Pictures and Night Train Media is filled with fascinating Viking lore you never knew you wanted to know.
Prof. Stefan Brink, a professor of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Cambridge - and no, he's definitely not Afrikaans or from South Africa - is an expert in Vikings and Old Norse culture at the University of Cambridge and is one of the people who appears in the new documentary series on National Geographic on Wednesday nights.
After previewing all 6 episodes of the new series, I sat down with him to ask him about the frightening and fascinating Viking culture you definitely want to know about.
What is the biggest legacy of the Vikings?
Prof. Stefan Brink: There are a lot of legacies - a language legacy for instance, which you especially find in the English language.
There's also the legacy of expanding the world, when the Norsemen in 1000 AD explored and travelled the West and East. And Vikings were notorious during this period.
The Vikings were peaceful traders but also awful raiders.
In episode 2 or 3 you explain about the legend of the "blood eagle" - a horrific torture method of the Vikings which I didn't know about and which viewers will have to watch for themselves what it actually was. Was that a legend the Vikings invented to scare people or is it fact?
Prof. Stefan Brink: Well, (he laughs), it's really complicated!
It is something that students I've had in the United Kingdom picked up on and then want to write an essay about. I started to look around about what we actually know about this, and it's inconclusive. Up to today we don't know, but it's absolutely awful to just think about it! So I hope it's not true.
But fascinating though!
Prof. Stefan Brink: Is that the right word? Ha, ha.
What story or anecdote about the Vikings fascinates you most? I had no idea and you discover it in the series that from Vikings is where Russia's name comes from, that they would sing rhymes to navigate by the stars.
Prof. Stefan Brink: There are incredible things from this period from the Vikings.
You mention the name "Rus". In the West they colonised the North Atlantic, and their brutal legacy is, of course, something picked up on the internet and Hollywood has made so many series and movies about the Vikings.
Also, there were the trading Vikings, and the main thing they traded was ... human beings. Slaves. Again, not particularly nice.
It's in the Anglo-Saxon world that Vikings became a hot thing, a buzzword.
What's interesting for me personally is what happened in Scandinavia during this period, which was an extremely dynamic period - probably the most dynamic period in Scandinavia during these 200 years. That is for me the most fascinating thing.
Thursday we get from Thor and we get so many other English words from the Vikings and we don't even know it from sister to bread and so many more. In terms of the cultural assimilation process, the Vikings accepted Christianity, but the world took a lot from Viking culture that has lasted and been ingrained into our global culture for millennia. Why were the Vikings so dominant?
Prof. Stefan Brink: It was a mutual exchange, of course.
We have a lot of Scandinavian words which came into the English language - law, window. But we also had an impact coming from abroad on the Vikings and into Scandinavia.
A good example would be: How would a posh, male Viking look like in a Viking town in Sweden? Well, probably something like Johnny Depp as a pirate, something like that - totally eclectic with a Rusian hat and trousers from a Muslim area in the Middle East, and fancy stuff from Ireland.
These people we call the Vikings, they lived in the periphery of the known world in Europe. So Scandinavia was the last to be dominated by the Christian church - it's only from around the year 1000 AD that Christiandom has an impact on Scandinavia. It was not until 1100 AD that we have a more stable church and a stable Christianity by 1103 AD.
In the 12th century the church we really see the church establishing itself and then with the church that is really if you like, the end of the Viking Period because they are the guarantor for a new kind of society which during the Middle Ages become the dominant power in Scandinavia.
In one of the episodes, in terms of fire, the series explains that the Vikings would torch everything after a raid because they believed fire and burning would make it harder for the ghosts of the dead to return and haunt them.
But then in one of the episodes about the Viking boats - they burnt them as well, cast adrift in their boat when a Viking died. Is the reason for fire and burning their own, for the same reason and not wanting their own people to return either?
Prof. Stefan Brink: It's two different reasons.
When Vikings raided a monastery, you lit the monastery on fire because you are a nasty guy. But if you bury a Viking king or a chieftain in his boat - for instance with his horses and his weaponry and food and other precious belongings - then you lit the boat on fire as a ritual.
You can see the smoke going up from the dead, up towards the heavens. We interpret it as a ritual where this deceased goes into the afterlife - Valhalla. So it's two different things.
Vikings: The Rise & Fall is on National Geographic (DStv 181 / StarSat 220) on Wednesdays at 21:00, from 29 June 2022.