Music and Poetry
Ancient Vikings took feasts and celebrations as an opportunity to enjoy poems and music from professional skalds. Skalds were members of a group of Viking poets who would entertain the Vikings and their leaders at the courts. There is no substantial evidence that the Vikings actually sang, so most historians have settled on the hypothesis that Skaldic poetry was spoken and not sung. What is undisputable, however, is that Viking music and poetry was accompanied by simple musical instruments that have been found in various excavation sites all across Northern Europe. However, these musical instruments are rare because they were typically made of perishable materials such as wood and horn.
While we are on the topic of Viking music and poetry, we find it prudent to mention that the Vikings had a god of music known as Bragi. According to Norse mythology, Bragi was son to Odin and the giantess Gunnlod; he was believed to be exceptionally wise, eloquent, and also had a monopoly of knowledge over all matters music and poetry. In fact, the name ‘Bragi’ translates to ‘Poet’ and has been drawn from the word ‘Bragr’, meaning ‘Poetry’. Bragi is always depicted as a man with a long beard and it was believed that he had runes engraved on his tongue.
There have been over 300 recorded skalds who lived between 800 and 1100AD most of whom used the name Bragi. However, the most prominent of these was Bragi Boddason who served under several Viking kings, including the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok.
Viking Musical Instruments
Researchers and historians have discovered that Vikings had a variety of musical instruments and, as we have mentioned above, most of these instruments were made of wood and bone; biodegradable materials, which explains why excavators have found just a few well-preserved instruments. Most instruments were meticulously carved from the leg bones of deer, cows, big birds etc., and from modern-day recreations of similar objects, these instruments produced exceptionally plangent sounds. Now, without further ado, let us take a look at some of the most prominent Viking instruments.
The very first Lur discovered in modern times is believed to have been unearthed from the richly equipped burial ground of a Norwegian princess who lived around 800AD. The long, cone-shaped instrument was in pristine condition because it was perfectly preserved in an oak wood box. The Lur was decorated with a variety of ornaments reinforced with willow. The image above is a modern-day recreation of the instrument.
The Recorder was typically carved from animal bone. The first recorder discovered in modern times was recovered from an excavation site in Arhus, Denmark and is believed to have been created in the 13th Century. Similar instruments were later discovered in various excavation sites across Europe and some of them are believed to be even older than the Arhus Recorder. The above image is a modern-day recreation of the recorder.
The Falster-Pibe is a musical instrument that was first discovered during excavations in an ancient shipyard in Falster Island, Denmark. The instrument was believed to have been from the late 11th Century. Some historians argue that the instrument was simply part of a bag pipe and not a bonafide instrument on its own, but there is no concrete evidence to support this theory. Upon replication, a wooden mouth piece was attached, which made the instrument a hornpipe that is very similar to an oboe. The above image is a recreation of the instrument.
Cow’s horn/Goat’s horn
The Cow/Goat Horn is one of the youngest Viking instruments, having been used in Scandinavia until recently. The first horn ever discovered in safely locked away in Falun, Sweden, in the Dalarnas Museum and is made of Cow Horn with four finger holes. The horn is believed to have been made at around 1000 AD, shortly after William of Normandy conquered England.
The above image is a modern-day recreation of the Pan Flute. The oldest flute ever discovered is believed to have been made in the 10th century and was recovered from an excavation site in Coppergate, York, UK, during the Jorvik excavations. The Pan Flute has a series of holes carved into wood and each hole was designed to give a distinct pitch from the next and musicians were meant to master the sound produced by each hole and play them in such sequence as to produce a melodic harmonious tune. The original Pan Flute was made out of boxwood, which is quite durable.
Recreating Viking Music and Viking Musical Fusion
Viking Music and Poetry was inherently dark and typically marred by dark, twisted themes as well as tales of guts and glory. Today, artists from Nordic countries like Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, as well as artists from different countries who identify with the ancient Norsemen are attempting to assimilate ancient Norse music and give it a modern twist. Ancient Nordic ballads are being brought to life again and in this next section we would like to discuss a few of the most authentic modern-day Viking-style musicians and artists out there.
Torgeir Vassvik and Hallgrim Hansegard
Sami Joik is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating types of Nordic Music. Sami Joik is essentially a style of singing that incorporates throat-singing and its origins have been attributed to the Sami people, an indigenous, Nomadic group of Vikings that lived in Northern Europe. Torgeir Vassvik is one of the world’s most outstanding Sami Jolk singers but he is also famous for being an innovative collaborator. His most notable collaboration has been with Norwegian dancer and choreographer, Hallgrim Hansegard from the Frikar dance company. Vassvik’s innovative singing mixes perfectly with Hallgrim Hansegard’s athletic dance interpretations, which are primarily based on Norwegian Hallingdans dance traditions that feature spins, twirls, and insane launches. The raw electricity that both artists bring to the modern-day Viking artist scene, especially when they are performing together, is what makes them a must-mention on this list.
Steindor Andersen and Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson
Steindor Andersen and Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson are modern-day Viking musicians who incorporate Rimur, a style of rhythmic ballads that goes back over a millennium in Iceland. The style taps deep into the Norse roots of the country and even when Christianity swept over Europe, taking with it all elements of pagan culture, the Icelandic people held their ground and preserved the Rimur style, a style of music that was meant to pass on stories of Norse heroes and gods to subsequent generations. Steindor Andersen is one of the most notable modern-day Rimur singers and his most prominent works have been in collaboration with composer, Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, who also happens to be a high priest of the Asatru fellowship.
Eivor Palsdottir hails from the Faroe Islands, a self-governing territory that is part of the Kingdom of Denmark. The Faroe Islands are located between Norway and Iceland and have profoundly retained their Nordic roots. Eivor Palsdottir is a singer and songwriter who has become a phenomenon across Europe due to her melancholic voice and her style of singing influenced by Faroe Island traditions, which she has maintained since her breakthrough, enabling her to amass a loyal cult-like fanbase. Faroe island traditions generally revolve around songs, ballads, and dance. She mostly writes in English and Danish to reach a wider audience but her 2015 album, Slor, was primarily composed in the Faroese dialect.
Groupa is a Swedish band made up of three members and according to the most fans of Nordic-inspired music, their style of music is the perfect embodiment of Viking noir, and we have to agree. The band uses original Viking instruments and incorporates blunt minimalism into their lyrics and sounds, giving their music a folk-like feel that sounds as cold and windswept as the Nordic world that first inspired it. Groupa has been active for over 20 years and they have given us no sign that they are about to slow down any time soon.
Tyr is yet another group of artists from the Faroe Islands. The band was formed way back in 1998, which gives them 20 years under their belt, which is quite impressive. Their music has been heavily influenced by the stories of Norse gods, tales of glory, law, and justice, which is a welcome break from the dark pictures painted by most modern-day Viking-style musicians and this really distinguishes Tyr from the crowd. They are like a breath of fresh air in an industry saturated by artists who portray similar traits. They have achieved success all across Europe with their largest fan base being in their native Faroe Islands.
Although very little can be said with certainty about Viking Music and Poetry, it’s not hard to see why Norse Mythology and Nordic Themes draw in such a huge fan base. There is something truly alluring about the mysticism, spirituality, culture, and raw power of the Viking way of life that resonates with the warriors’ heart in each one of us.