Music of the Vikings

Marina McLerran

Editor, McLerran Journal

Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX

 

I recently traveled to Ireland with my husband for St. Patrick’s Day and was delighted to learn that Dublin was at one point settled by Vikings! I was then struck with the realization that I had literally zero knowledge of Viking music and instruments.

 

According to the exhibit at Dublina, a museum in Dublin, the word “viking” originally referred to people from the Vik, a large bay located in between Norway and Sweden. The Vikings were a nomadic people best remembered for their advanced sailing abilities and savage attacks on other civilizations. Most prominent in Europe from the 9-11th centuries, Viking communities mostly consisted of farmer-sailors with superior military training. Over the course of each calendar year, a Viking tribe would have likely spent the planting and harvesting months on land, tending to their crops, and the spring and winter months at sea, raiding other settlements for food, riches, and slaves. Because of their advanced engineering abilities, Vikings were able to develop longships, or “dragon ships," that were significantly faster and sturdier than any vessels owned by the settlements they pillaged. Researchers agree that the most likely reason for these Viking raids were overpopulation, superior military capabilities, and the belief that the only path to Heaven (Valhalla) was by a glorious death in battle (Britannica).

FUN FACT: Leif Eriksson, one of the most famous Viking leaders in history, is remembered for “discovering” North America by mistake in the 11th century and for bringing Christianity to his people (Britannica).

Viking Music

Because of the absence of cheap writing materials and their nomadic nature, there are very few records of early Viking music. According to William Short of Hurstwic, it was not until the Vikings began converting to Christianity that record-keeping and musical ceremonies became a priority. Short does mention, however, the existence of a 10th century bone flute (housed at the Swedish History Museum) and several references to harps in Norse literature (for example, the stories of Gunnar) which allude to the existence of musical traditions before the year 1000. According to Mogens Friss of the Viking Network, archeologists have found “quite a variety of instruments dating back to Viking times” across the Scandinavian Peninsula. The artifacts include pan flutes made from animal horns and bones, wooden lyres and harps, and long cylindrical wind instruments referred to as lurs.

Although there is a significant amount of mystery surrounding the musical history of the Vikings, one thing we can be certain of is that they were influenced by several other cultures as a result of their extensive traveling (Friss). Historic evidence suggests that Viking settlements spanned west from Europe to North America and south from modern-day Russia all the way to the Mediterranean Sea (Britannica). This means that Viking tonality and instruments would have likely been influenced by medieval English, Russian, Spanish, and Arabic traditions (Friss).

Friss assures us that music was a regular enough part of daily life that two separate classes of musician developed; the jester and the skald (storyteller). Jesters were similar to modern street musicians who played for change and received very little respect or protection (Friss). This tradition likely stemmed from the ancient Egyptian tendency to purchase exceptionally entertaining slaves, or “fools,” for royal amusement; this practice was observed by leaders in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe until the 18th century (Britannica). Skalds, on the other hand, were part of a Viking Chief’s court and traveled the world with the tribe’s leaders to perform music for ceremonies and entertainment (Friss). Because of the absence of a written history, it was the role of a skald to memorize the tribe’s history and educate the community on religious rites, social standards, and more through music or poetry. Skalds were revered for their knowledge and also for their ability to entertain, especially in the miserable winter months.

 

Historically Accurate Recreations of Traditional Viking Music:

 SKALK. (1998). Viking Tones: I Dreamed Me a Dream.

Ensemble Mare Balticum. (2016). Ice and Longboat. 

 

 

Sources

Dublina museum. Visited March 17, 2018.  

 

Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2018). Viking. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Web. 23 March,  

          2018. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Viking-people>

 

Joys, Charles. (2018). Norway. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Web. 23 March, 2018.

          <https://www.britannica.com/place/Norway/Earliest-peoples#ref188682>

 

Wallace, Birgitta. (2018). Leif Eriksson the Lucky. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Web. 23 March, 2018.

          <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leif-Eriksson-the-Lucky>

 

Short, William. (2001). Music of the Viking Age. Hurstwic. Web. 23 March, 2018.

          <http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/literature/text/music.htm>

 

Friis, Mogens. (2004). Vikings and Their Music. The Viking Network. Web. 25 March, 2018.

          <http://www.viking.no/e/life/music/e-musikk-mogens.html>

 

Editors. (2000). Viking Skalds and Storytellers. History on the Net. Web. 15 April, 2018.

          <https://www.historyonthenet.com/viking-skalds-and-storytellers/>

 

Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2013). Fool. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. Web. 15 April,  

          2018. <https://www.britannica.com/art/fool-comic-entertainer