The Norse society valued art and craftsmanship, and left behind some exquisite work, much of which can still be seen today. From the ship burial of Sutton Hoo to the Harrowgate hoard, Viking artwork depicts men, animals, gods, and pieces of the natural world tied together with interlacing knots and spirals. This stylized blend of elements has made Viking artwork instantly recognizable the world over.
For some three hundred years, beginning in the late eighth century, the Scandinavian explorers known as the Vikings wreaked havoc upon much of Western Europe. Starting with the sack of the monastery of Lindisfarne in 793, the Vikings invaded, plundered and destroyed villages and harbors around the British Isles, Ireland, France and even as far east as parts of Russia. They were well known for their fierce bravery in battle, their tactical skills, and their unflagging devotion to the warrior gods that called each man towards Valhalla, the hall of Odin the All-Father.
A man who died with honor on the battlefield was given the privilege of spending eternity with Odin in Valhalla, a realm where the dead engage in combat with one another, in preparation for Ragnarok, the great battle the signifies the end of the world. Worthy warriors were selected for and escorted to Valhalla by the Valkyries, Odin’s shieldmaidens, and welcomed to the hall with feasting and song. Battles took place all day, eating and drinking went on all night, and each evening, every warrior’s wounds were healed so they could fight anew the next morning. Depictions of Valhalla, the gods, and the coming of Ragnarok are popular themes in the artwork and mythology of the Vikings.
The most commonly seen Viking artwork still in existence is work carved in wood and stone, or etched in metal, particularly in silver or bronze. These stylized designs also appeared on textiles, although there are few well-preserved examples left. Perhaps the best-known textile containing Viking art is the Överhogdal wall hanging discovered in Sweden. Dating to around the tenth century, this tapestry depicts both pre-Christian imagery of the entire battle of Ragnarok, along with images of the incoming Christian religion and its churches (Brink et al, 2008).
Vikings even celebrated their artwork on human skin in the form of tattoos, although it is unknown just how widespread the practice was. We can make certain assumptions about Viking body art from writings of the time period by reliable observers. Ahmad ibn Fadlan was an Arab diplomat who was sent by the Caliph of Baghdad as an emissary to the Bulgars. Somehow, on his way to the lands of the Bulgars, ibn Fadlan fell in with a band of Norsemen in the tenth century as they explored what is now Russia.
He wrote, “Each man, from the tip of his toes to his neck, is covered in dark-green lines, pictures, and such like (Montgomery 2000).” At present, however, no tattooed skin has been found on bodies in Viking burial sites, but we know that ibn Fadlan’s reports are reasonably accurate, because he takes great pains to differentiate between things he sees, and things he is told. He deliberately uses phrasing like, “And this I saw with my own eyes,” versus, “This is what I was told by the men.” In addition, ibn Fadlan makes it clear that his writing is not meant to glorify or praise the Vikings he is traveling with; he finds them somewhat repulsive, particularly when it comes to matters of personal hygiene. As an outsider, he gives us an honest and almost clinical interpretation of what he sees and hears.
Scholars have also been able to determine through written words the details of some lost works of art. The Norse prose and poetic eddas and sagas contain passages describing the paintings on walls and shields that have since been lost to time.
In the remaining fragments of the Skaldic poem Ragnarsdrapa, 9th century Skald Bragi Boddason, alternately referred to as Bragi inn Gamli, describes in several stanzas the type of artwork contained on shields, which illustrated great battles, heroes, and journeys:
On the fair shield of Svolnir
One may perceive the onslaught;
Ragnar gave me the Ship-Moon [the Ship-Moon refers to a shield]
With many tales marked upon it (Pulsiano et al, 1993).
The Skaldic tales, or shield-poems, were typically performed live at a large gathering, and were generally used to extol the virtues a chieftain or ruler, celebrate his victories in battle, and pay homage to the strength and power of his ancestral line. However, they also reveal details of a variety of ornamentation, describing everything from the previously mentioned shield decorations to pictures of wall hangings in a great hall (Heslop).
Today, a thousand years after the last Viking ship set sail, we still see new interpretations of Viking artwork themes recreated in films, particularly of the fantasy and historical genres. Viking imagery appears in doorways and portals, ship design, and jewelry in a number of movies and television shows, and it is perhaps nowhere more visible than in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy of films, based on the books by the same name by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien himself was a highly-regarded scholar of Norse mythology, and well versed indeed in the eddas and sagas of the Vikings by the time he wrote his classic Lord of the Rings between 1937 and 1949. The tale itself is deeply rooted in Norse legend, particularly in the Saga of the Volsungs, which tells of the adventures of Sigurd the dragon-slayer, an exiled king on a quest to find a magical ring that will unite the tribes of his land. When Jackson made Lord of the Rings into not just one but three films, the Norse influences of the books carried over heavily into the story’s appearance on screen.
On the side of a fjord in Urnes, Norway, there is a small church. Built around the middle of the 12th century, not much is left of the original building, constructed of wooden staves. It’s a remarkable combination of traditional Viking artwork meeting up with the new Christian architecture of the time, and the Urnes church is one of only a few such structures left in the world. Its very name, stavkyrkje, means “church of staves.”
The church’s placement and location is significant. It is placed on the east side of the fjord, and is three miles from the closest village, Hafslo. The Urnes church sits on a promontory overlooking the Sognefjord, and can be approached by a simple footpath. For someone walking along through the green fields of Norway, en route from the village of Hafslo, there would have been ample time to ponder thoughts of a spiritual nature, with the church on its hill sitting in the distance, ultimately becoming a goal to reach at the conclusion of the climb up the promontory, an end to the spiritual journey.
The church, in its present form, dates from the mid-1100s, when a chieftain owned a farm in Urnes and its surrounding area. The exterior of the building is modest, and is reminiscent of the simply wooden style of a longhouse. However, as one arrives in front of the building, the imagery and artwork of the doorways and portals become apparent. The portals themselves, and the interior, are heavily decorated in the Viking style. The main portal, an early piece of architecture that was incorporated into later reconstruction, is decorated with elaborate intertwining animals, plants, leaves, and stalks, all surrounding an equally elaborate keyhole-shaped centerpiece.
Today, the interior of the Urnes church contains artwork from the 17th century, which was created as part of a renovation project. However, it still includes early pieces that were restored from the early medieval period, reflecting the blend of pagan Viking imagery with Christian icons and themes.
Jackson utilizes the image of doorways regularly in the three films. From the early sequences of the first movie, when young hobbit Frodo Baggins opens the round door of his home to permit the wizard Gandalf entry, to the scene in which doors are breached by Orcs and Uruk-Hai at the great battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, doors are significant. In Norse mythology, doorways are very important too – there are five hundred and forty of them leading into the Hall of Valhalla, where warriors hope to find themselves after falling in battle. The doors to Valhalla show the power and scope of Odin’s rule; each is wide enough that eight hundred warriors can walk through them, fully armed, side by side.
Much like the Urnes portal, the doorway to the Mines of Moria sits in a far-away place… on a mountainside in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. As portrayed by Jackson in Fellowship of the Ring, the first film in the trilogy, the entrance way to the abandoned mines – known as the Door of Durin – is sealed with a series of magical runes. It too is decorated with scroll work, although not nearly as elaborate as that of the Urnes stavkyrkje. Jackson’s door is less complex, but still carries over the themes of spiraling branches, trees, and leaves on both the right and left side. The top arch, rather than echoing the natural elements found on the vertical aspects, instead is inscribed with Elvish runes. The runework is part of Tolkien’s original manuscript, in the Elvish language he created, and based upon early Scandinavian runic alphabets such as the Elder Futhark, said to be a gift from Odin himself.
In The Two Towers, the second film of the trilogy, Viking-inspired artwork can be seen much more clearly in the decorations of the Golden Hall, the stronghold of Theoden, king of Rohan. Complex scrollwork details the walls and pillars throughout the Hall, which is structured exactly the way a Viking longhouse would have been a thousand years ago. Behind Theoden’s throne, intricate knotwork and spirals adorn the wall.
Most significantly, the massive set of double doors that welcome guests to the Golden Hall calls the artwork of Urnes to mind. Giant pillars on the Hall’s threshold are covered with interlacing branches, leaves, plant elements and even animals that are reminiscent of the artwork on the stavkyrkje’s portal. The doors themselves include sophisticated curves and spirals, painted boldly in gold upon black, carrying the centuries-old artwork of Viking craftsmen into the fantasy world of Middle Earth.
Later in the series, we see yet another prominently displayed and significant set of doors. Near the end of Return of the King, the last film in the series, Aragorn, the exiled son of the House of Gondor, is crowned as king before the giant doors of the city of Minas Tirith. Like the Golden Hall of Rohan, the doors of Minas Tirith are covered in elaborate carved spirals and knotwork, but they reflect to us that Gondor is a more modern kingdom than the lands of Rohan. While Rohan’s capital is a simple village, a giant hall built of wooden beams surrounded by peasant huts, Minas Tirith is full of massive stone buildings, twisting stairways, and complex masonry, towering high above the fields of Pelennor as a tribute to the power of the realm’s ruling kings. The technology of Minas Tirith is far more advanced than that of Rohan; the city has a warning beacon system, sophisticated weaponry and even aqueducts. The city is the hub of all trade and commerce for the entire kingdom of Gondor.
Like the church at Urnes, the doors of Minas Tirith, a city some three thousand years old, see their ancient artwork combined with the symmetric and geometrically aligned arches that blended with and then eventually replaced the art of the pre-Christian era.
Although Tolkien denied repeatedly during his lifetime that Lord of the Rings was an allegory for the technology of battle developed between the two world wars, the evolution of the realms of Middle Earth can often be paralleled with the developing societies of Europe. Interestingly, there can be comparisons drawn to the wars that brought about the destruction of Middle Earth in Tolkien’s books, and the saga of Ragnarok, the end of the world, in the poetic eddas left to us by the Vikings.
Other elements of Viking artwork are prominent throughout Lord of the Rings, and it is prominently displayed in the Elvish kingdom of Rivendell. In the final scene of Return of the King, Frodo Baggins, mortally wounded in the first film by the blade of a Ringwraith, joins his elderly uncle Bilbo on “the last ship leaving Middle Earth,” which will take them on to Valinor, the Blessed Realm. The Elvish vessel is styled much like a Viking longship, complete with runework and scrolls on the stern, and an animal-head post at the bow.
We can compare the artwork on the Elvish ship at Rivendell harbor to the remains of Viking boats that have been unearthed at places like Oseberg and Oslo. A typical Viking ship, used for exploration, would have been anywhere from fifty to ninety feet long, with a large, square sail and a carved wooden totemic animal at the front. These zoomorphic carvings represented family and kinship ties to the Vikings, and were often intertwined with typical Scandinavian stylized motifs, such as scrollwork and knots. When placed on a ship, they would have been not only a representation of kinship, but also a fear tactic – imagine being the enemy who suddenly saw the snarling face of a wolf appearing on the prow of a massive ship on a misty morning. For Tolkien’s Elves, and subsequently Jackson’s, however, a ship’s prow is a thing of grace and beauty, rather than of terror, with an elegant swan’s head taking the place of more frightening figures.
In addition to decorating their buildings and ships with artwork, the Vikings also wore intricate and beautiful jewelry. Burial hoards have been found in Denmark, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Germany containing exquisitely detailed brooches, necklaces, armbands and other adornments. In 2007, a farmstead on the Danish island of Zealand revealed the remnants of a Viking settlement, which included numerous pieces of metal jewelry. Most notable was a copper pendant with human-animal heads depicted upon it. According to archaeologists, one of the figures features a “drooping moustache, but above its eyebrows two ears or horns emerge, giving the humanlike mask an animal character (Davis, 2013).”
A metal detecting enthusiast discovered an equally impressive hoard in North Lancashire, England, in 2011. The collection, now in the custody of the British Museum, contained nearly two hundred coins, brooches and bracelets, engraved with serpents, dogs, birds and plants (Daily Mail, 2011).
In Jackson’s films, the characters’ jewelry and body adornment is subtle rather than ostentatious. Each of the nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring wears a simple brooch, a green leaf with a spiraling silver stem. In appearance, it’s not terribly fancy, but the sweeping curve of the lines is clearly influenced by Viking elements. While the hobbits of the Shire are plain folk, with little to no ornamentation on their garments or person, the Elves of Rivendell and the citizens of Rohan seem to enjoy the elegance of simple curved lines of design with a Norse flair. The citizens of Minas Tirith wear armor and headwear decorated with curves, spirals, and tree motifs.
Lady Arwen, the last daughter of the Elven lord Elrond, wears a pendant known as the Evenstar. Made of the brightest silver, it features a floral motif, accentuated by knotwork and curves. Interestingly, the Evenstar is not part of Tolkien’s original source material. However, a pendant much like it appears in a short story by Marion Zimmer Bradley, called The Jewel of Arwen, which takes place in the lands of Middle Earth and describes a white jewel, one of the Seven Stars that shine over the lands of men and Elves, on a floral background (Bradley, 1961).
One prominent design seen in Viking artwork is that of the tree – the roots, the leaves, all of the branches. Because the story of Yggdrasil, the World Tree at the center of Asgard, features so prominently in Norse cosmology, representations of the great ash often appear in Viking art. The poetic edda Havamal describes it as the tree from which Odin hung for nine days, as a sacrifice to himself, before being granted the wisdom that would allow him to rule over all nine of the realms represented by the World Tree.
A key theme in portrayals of Yggdrasil is that it is represented not only by what is above the ground, but by what is below. Three great roots hold the tree up, each symbolizing a different realm. The first represents Asgard, the land of the gods themselves. The second is associated with Jötunheimr, the land of the giants, and the third is Niflheimr, the ice-covered domain of the goddess Hel.
Near the end of Return of the King, as Aragorn is finally crowned King of Gondor on the steps of Minas Tirith, his loyal army is shown bearing shields which display a tree, roots and all. This is a symbol of the legendary White Tree of Gondor, which also appears on Aragorn’s crown and armor. The White Tree features prominently in Middle Earth history, although this is not portrayed in the films. With Aragorn’s return, the once dead tree begins to flower again.
According to Tolkien’s original works, the White Tree is not just a symbol of a family, or even of a kingdom. In the text of The Return of the King, he describes the lineage of the tree as part of a speech by the Elven leader Elrond, detailing the tree’s association with the kings of Gondor; as the tree slowly dies off, so does the line of the royal family.
Later in the book, although not depicted in the film, when King Aragorn finds a lone sapling that is a descendent of the first Tree of Gondor. The wizard Gandalf points out to him that the once-withered tree is now in bloom again, a symbol of the light of the stars and the moon, and of the triumph of good over evil in the land of Men. He tells Aragorn, “[T]his is an ancient hallow, and ere the kings failed or the Tree withered in the court, a fruit must have been set here. For it is said that, though the fruit of the Tree comes seldom to ripeness, yet the life within may then lie sleeping through many long years, and none can foretell the time in which it will awake (Tolkien, ROTK, 1954).”
Tolkien’s original vision was a retelling of several Norse myths blended into a magical world of Orcs, Hobbits, Elves and Dwarves, and strongly colored by his knowledge of early Scandinavian culture. He managed to incorporate heavy symbolism found within Norse artwork and literature into the tales, from magical doors and graceful ships to elegant jewelry and the spiritual iconography of the World Tree. While the three films that comprise The Lord of the Rings, and their original source material, are certainly fantasy, it’s clear that many aspects of the films’ appearance draw significant influence from what we know today of the artwork left for us by early Viking craftsmen.
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