Viking Saga Panels: a Matter of Life and Death
The narrative art of the Norse prefigured Art Nouveau and comic-books…
Viking art influenced and was, in turn, influenced by Celtic and early Christian art. The Vikings were expert carvers of wood and stone as well as highly skilled in metal crafts. Wood was the most widespread medium for their narrative arts, but only rare examples survived the ravages of time, wood boring beetles, fire and rot.
Wooden panels found in the Twelfth Century Hylestad Stave Church, of Setesdal in Norway, show events from the Saga of Sigurd, later to be reinterpreted as Siegfried in Richard Wagner’s operatic epic The Ring (1857), and of course a major influence on J R R Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings (1854–55). These narrative panels were probably modelled after older versions used to adorn pre-Christian feasting halls since the Seventh Century.
There are many variations of Sigurd’s saga. In in some versions, he sets out on a quest to find a legendary treasure so he can fund an army to help a deposed chieftain reclaim his lands from an evil interloper. With the help of his two accomplices, Sigurd intends to take the hoard from a mighty dragon. He fights and slays the dragon and to inherit its strength and magic, intends to eat its heart. Whilst roasting it over a fire, he instinctively sucks a spatter of raw dragon blood from his thumb and is suddenly gifted with telepathy.
Immediately, he realises that one of his men is not loyal and has betrayed him to the interloper. Without further ado, he runs him through. But too late, they are pursued by the enemy and his other loyal companion lags behind to fight, allowing Sigurd to get the funds to their ‘good’ chieftain.
The loyal friend is captured, bound and thrown into a pit of vipers to make him tell the whereabouts of his master. He asks that his harp be thrown into the pit with him so he may tell them through the medium of song. Then he proceeds to play the instrument with his toes and compose a rousing ballad about the heroism of Sigurd, singing right up to his last breath and dying before getting to the part about where he might have gone...
The wooden panels that would’ve illustrated this tale are carved in deep relief and read as a series — a sort of early graphic novel. Imagine seeing similar carved pictures in torchlight as the skáld (a Norse bard) recites the heroic sagas, the flickering shadows giving life and movement to the images as they are sequentially revealed. It’s almost an early form of cinema!
Left and Right Portal Panels from the Hylestad Stave Church
The fine examples from the Setesdal church are typical biomorphic designs where vines intertwine with the branches of the Yggdrasil, or ‘World Tree’ and coils of the dragon. This was known as the Urnes style and later contributed to the development of the Art Nouveau aesthetic in the nineteenth century.
The intricate, intertwining patterns seen in Celtic and Viking art were symbolic of the complex web of destiny and the co-dependency of the realm of the living and the realms of the ancestors and spirits. As part of the funerary rites in some Celtic tribes, the bones of the ear were removed and placed into an urn kept in the home of the deceased’s family, presumably so the living could still talk to the departed and that those who passed on could eavesdrop on their descendants and keep up with their progress.
The Triskelion, ancient symbol and key motif in Celtic knot-work [illustration by the author]
With most ancestor cults, it is believed that the dead can exert an influence upon events and circumstances that affect the living. This idea dates back, at least, as far as the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt and continues with the concept of reliquary shrines to saints installed in cathedrals the world over. The typical entwined spiral motif of Celtic knot-work represents how the ancestors exist in a close-by, parallel realm. Perhaps they walk alongside us, sharing and gently influencing our path through life.
During the Dark Ages, between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginnings of the Renaissance, the Vikings were the only people across the European continent creating art that was not preoccupied with Catholicism and aristocracy. Everywhere else, artists were patronised by the Church, or by the nobility, so all that was generally produced was either Biblically themed or was portraiture of lords and ladies, kings and generals, popes and cardinals…
The Vikings were lights in the darkness, not the barbarian rapists and pillagers often portrayed in historical accounts, written by their enemies. The Vikings were ruled by a parliament, known as an AllThing and introduced the concept of trial by a jury of peers as well as the first ‘bill of rights’.
They remained heathen until the close of the tenth century, living alongside Christians in their own lands and abroad, trading goods across Europe as far as Byzantium to the East. The widespread distribution of Viking arts and culture left a lasting influence on nearly every other culture they interacted with.
Their influence can still be seen, or more often heard, in everyday English: The names for the days of the week are all of Viking origin, as are the words, ‘sun’, ‘moon’, ‘heaven’, ‘hell’, ‘law’ and ‘god’.
The term ‘viking’ was not what the ‘North Men’ (Norse) called themselves. It was a verb they used to describe the practice of voyaging to foreign lands and bringing back wealth in the form of trade goods or booty from raids. Any verb ending with “-ing” shows Viking influence and they may also take credit for the best expletives, such as the “f” word which some etymologists have traced back to the Scandinavian word, focka, originally meaning “to push” or “to stab,” with “the short sword,” which may have been a euphemism for… something else!