“We Come From the Land of the Ice and Snow”: A Review of “Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings” by Neil Price

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With the primal opening track to their third self-titled album, Led Zeppelin injected the long-dead ancient Vikings into the thematic bloodstream of the nascent heavy metal genre. Inspired by the band’s June 1970 trip to and concert in Iceland, the relentless and menacing “Immigrant Song” laid the template for countless heavy metal odes to the Vikings over the years and decades to come. None would surpass Zeppelin’s thundering tale of a Viking raiding party intent on crossing the seas for battle and plunder, but the metal infatuation with the Vikings and Norse mythology continues today with songs like the Sword’s “Freya.”

But if we have a distorted picture of the Vikings today, it’s probably not thanks to Zeppelin and its metal imitators. If we go by the historian Neil Price’s accessible new chronicle of the Vikings and their age, Children of Ash and Elm, the historical Vikings were in fact pretty metal. When Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant ominously intoned about driving ships to new land and whispering tales of gore, he wasn’t actually that far from the historical reality.

That’s ironic, since Price lays his cards directly on the table from the very start: he aims to demystify the Vikings and allow us to see them as real flesh-and-blood people rather than the caricatures that have accumulated over the centuries. These distortions start from the beginning, with Price observing that much of what we know of the Vikings comes largely from the first impressions of their victims and proceeds from there. As much as he laments the modern popular image of the Vikings as “a stereotype of maritime aggression,” Price’s own narrative largely corroborates it – and makes a strong case that it’s even bloodier and far more brutal than we imagine.

But the real value of Children of Ash and Elm lies in its ability to go beyond the popular stereotype and paint a vivid picture of the Vikings, their societies, and worldview that drove them. Despite a great deal of success in achieving his stated goals and his admirable cautions against projecting modern ideologies onto an ancient people who would find them baffling, he undermines these otherwise laudable warnings when he foists the fashionable academic gender ideology of the present on the Vikings of ages past. In the main, though, Price provides an accessible guide to the Vikings that employs the latest archaeological evidence and scientific research to illuminate the worlds they shaped and that shaped them – and in the process gives us some food for thought about our own time.

Take the role of climactic and environmental change in forging what would become the Viking age, for instance. In the middle of the sixth century, two massive volcanic eruptions “of unprecedented magnitude” – one at an unknown location in the year 536, the other at Lake Ilopengo in El Salvador in 539/540 – devastated a Scandinavia already reeling from the collapse of the Roman Empire and its trade networks. An impenetrable “dust veil” blocked out sunlight during the day, while auroras filled the night sky for months on end. Trees and other plant life died off, “quite literally taking out the food supply.” Archaeological and scientific estimates for the death toll in Scandinavia go as high as half of the total population, a rate comparable to the Black Death and the Thirty Years’ War in Europe. 

Price compellingly argues that the fallout from these twin volcanic catastrophes – and possible a third eruption in 547 – left a deep mark on what would become Norse culture. Drawing on surviving Old Norse epic poetry, he notes that the three-year Fimbulwinter (“Mighty Winter”)  which precedes the much more famous apocalypse of Ragnarök bears an uncanny resemblance to global climate cataclysms of the sixth century. These myths reflect, Price contends, the unraveling of Scandinavian social life that occurred as a consequence of this years- and possibly decades-long “volcanic winter.” As he puts it, “It is not hard to imagine how the Scandinavians of the sixth century felt that their whole world was falling into ruin, slipping back into the primal emptiness from which it came.”

It’s this upheaval, Price tell us, that set the stage for the eruption of the Viking phenomenon on an unsuspecting world some two centuries later. There’s more than a passing resemblance here to The Fate of Rome, the historian Kyle Harper’s account of how a changing climate and waves of pandemic disease precipitated the decline and fall of the Roman Empire over the course of several centuries. Price offers up just a chapter’s worth of material based on up-to-date research, but it’s a tantalizing snapshot of the ways in which climate change shaped Viking culture and, as a result, world history.

Viking power rested on the ability to mobilize and organize the resources needed to build, crew, and maintain large, oceangoing naval fleets. As important as these fleets were in military terms – indeed, the Vikings could not have mounted their far-ranging military expeditions without them – they also served as impressive symbols of power in the new Viking age. Sail-powered ships, Price argues, “required special technologies that were highly visible in both their application and the resources needed to create them.” In other words, these ships allowed rising Viking potentates to not only demonstrate their mastery of a vital new technology but also their ability to pull together the skills and materials needed to make it a reality. As Price remarks, “Making a ship and everything it needed was a very serious and expensive undertaking indeed.”

But more than anything else, Price reminds us of the Vikings’ remarkable propensity toward violence and brutality. While he largely succeeds in his effort to expand our understanding of the Vikings beyond the cliche of the merciless seaborne raider, Price does acknowledge that these stereotypes arise from a grim reality. It’s nonetheless a service to strip away centuries of myth and romanticism and present the Vikings as they really were – or at least as close to that as our current knowledge allows.

Like virtually every other society in human history, the Vikings practiced slavery. Though the institution existed in Scandinavia millennia prior to the Vikings, they made it a “central pillar” of their society and economy – so much so that “the active acquisition of human chattel” often constituted as the primary motivation for Viking raids and military expeditions. Enslaved women frequently found themselves subject to sexual abuse and rape, up to and including gang rapes and sex trafficking. Slaves could be murdered as human sacrifices, particularly in certain Viking funeral rituals.

Indeed, Viking human and animal sacrifices were by all accounts and evidence uncommonly gruesome – even by the already macabre standards of the practice. Price notes that it’s “relatively common” for archaeologists to find human remains together with those of “animals that had been given to the gods or other supernatural forces.” In his contemporary chronicle of Viking-era Scandinavia, for instance, the eleventh-century Christian cleric Adam of Bremen tells his readers of sixty-three male animal and nine human corpses strung up and left to rot in the trees of a Norse sacred grove near modern Uppsala in Sweden. For their part, archaeologists have unearthed the bones of likely human and animal sacrifices beneath the altar of a medieval Swedish church built over the stump of a sacred birch tree dedicated to the Norse god Freyr. 

However, perhaps the most grisly examples of Viking brutality come from ritual funerals for high-status elites. Today, a Viking funeral conjures up images of a spectacular and fiery send-off for the deceased on a blazing ship. But the first-hand account of just such a cremation ceremony by the tenth-century Arab traveler Ahmad ibn Fadlan disabuses us of any romantic notions we might have of this ghastly custom.

For ten days, ibn Fadlan observed a disturbing orgy of drinking, sex, and death that preceded the lighting of the chieftain’s funeral pyre at a Viking settlement on the Volga River. One enslaved girl, likely in her mid-teens, was compelled to volunteer as a human sacrifice. On the day of the funeral, she is escorted to the ship, drugged, gang-raped by six of the deceased’s relatives as she lies next to his corpse, and then stabbed to death before the ship goes up in flames. Price describes the appalling sights, sounds, and smells that greeted ibn Fadlan: “the screaming of the animals, their entrails fouling the ship’s timbers; the expensive textiles covered in gore; the panic of the girl; the flies in the sticky pools of blood; the mingled scents of recent sex, old death, and violent killing.” It’s enough to make even gory modern depictions of the Viking age like the recent video game Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla appear almost comically cuddly by comparison. 

Still, Price manages to balance out an unflinching portrayal of such horrors with his determination to provide a full account of Viking life and culture. His choice to open his narrative with an account of the Norse creation myth and close it with Ragnarök is inspired, and he’s clearly enamored with the Old Norse epic poetry that survived the centuries. Similarly, he relates an Icelandic scholar’s elegant suggestion that the Vikings based the mythical world-connecting ash tree Yggdrasill on their night-time observations of the Milky Way, “with its cloudy arms spanning the sky like branches.” What’s more, Price debunks a number of more prosaic misconceptions about Norse mythology: Valhalla, for instance, was just one of many halls available to the worthy dead in the Norse afterlife – not their only destination.

But if there’s one thing readers will take away from Children of Ash and Elm, it’s that the geographic extent of Viking influence was much wider than we generally understand today. In our collective imaginations, the Vikings remain firmly tethered to Scandinavia, the British Isles, and Normandy – and perhaps Greenland and North America, too. But the Vikings traveled much more widely, making their way down the river systems of what is modern Russia, mounting raiding expeditions around the Iberian Peninsula and into the Mediterranean, and trading with Arab merchants in the Abbasid capital of Baghdad.

It’s an expansive scope that truly comes into focus as the book draws to a close – one that establishes Children of Ash and Elm as a readable portal to the vast, brutal, and fascinating world of the Vikings.