The Way of the Warrior – The Vikings

Weren’t they just mindless killers?

Most people probably feel like the vikings don’t belong to this series. Departing from the Bhagavad Gita, a text about the internal battles we go through in a quest for self-mastery, passing through the samurais and their discipline and philosophy, reading time and time again in each of the articles that killing and fighting is discouraged and should only be the very last option, it’s strange that we would end up on people known for nothing but killing, pillaging and raping.

The truth is that despite their fame, there’s a lot we can all learn from the vikings, especially when it comes to behavior and how to treat our friends and families. Their moral code is contained within a text called “Havamal,” but their entire mythology is incredibly rich and I would recommend everyone to pick up the poetic Eddas for a more thorough picture. And no, the Marvel movies aren’t a fair depiction.

We started off with a philosophical text as an introduction to our internal battles and the life of a warrior, explored how the samurais approached this philosophy with their own spin. Now it’s time to see another side of that same philosophy in a society that was equally as strict as the samurais. But before we do that, let’s travel back a few hundred years in time and see how such a society came to fruition.

Life in the north

eb33b1072bf51c3e81584d04ee44408be273e7dd1eb2144496f0_1280_snow-1The year is (circa) 790, most of we take for granted today doesn’t exist. Weapons are made of steel and food is hard to come by.

The world as we know it is completely dark for entire months each year and completely bright for several of the others. During the dark months, there is little to do with so much snow laying on the ground; little but pray and hope we have enough food and firewood to keep us going. During the bright months, we have to stock up on everything we can as we brace ourselves for another winter. We have to delegate tasks among the tribe and make sure everyone delivers what they’re supposed to within the time frame we expect. Time spent decorating weapons is time not spent using them. It’s time not spent getting meat to eat. Soon the winter will come again and stop all life for another three months.

How do we thrive?

By sticking together.

I counsel thee, Stray-Singer, accept my counsels,
they will be thy boon if thou obey’st them,
they will work thy weal if thou win’st them:
be never the first with friend of thine
to break the bond of fellowship;
care shall gnaw thy heart if thou canst not tell
all thy mind to another.
— Hávamál, verse 120

A single person had little chance to survive, let alone thrive in such a situation. Someone who gets lost from a group—or worse, expelled from a clan—is destined to die within a few seasons if even that. No matter how skilled a warrior he is, no matter how good at hunting and storing food he is, life in the north is not made for lone wanderers.

Life in the north is made for clans, for tribes and for close bounds. It’s made for people who can trust and be trusted by others. It’s made for those who can keep promises and be faithful to their brothers and sisters.

Life in the north isn’t made to take unnecessary risks. It’s made to value what little things we can come by and to slowly try and accumulate more, to gain more ground. It’s not made for idleness, it’s made for movement even when the Earth is still and the wild animals hibernate. Human beings don’t have the luxury of being able to sleep for several months, to stuff ourselves before the winter months and know that we’ll wake up just fine.

But those same human beings who don’t have the luxury of hibernating have another strength: the strength to form true bonds despite not being related by blood. They have the strength to create weapons. They have the ability to use fire and to make clothing out of those same animals that are asleep while they’re moving. They have the brains to know that if sticking together is the only way they can thrive, they will damn well be sticking together and nobody will break those bonds.

And thus, the viking tribes were formed. Out of necessity grew camaraderie, out of camaraderie grew friendship, out of friendship grew brotherhoods: families bound not by blood, but by the will to survive and thrive. And together, they could find beauty and be thankful for their lives despite the bleak, grim conditions. They made art, they sang, and they wrote poems.

But art wasn’t enough. Singing wasn’t enough. Writing poems wasn’t enough. In such unyielding conditions, those groups, those brotherhoods, needed a rigorous code of conduct. They needed to know they could count on and trust their brothers and sisters in arms and that nobody would leave anyone hanging. They needed a common culture that would keep them together in the direst of circumstances. They needed a goal to strive toward as a group.

The Hávamál

Photo by Swedish National Heritage Board

Pronounced in modern Icelandic as “hau-vah-maul,” this text is the definitive “guide” for living an honorable life in a viking clan. It’s roughly translated to “the sayings of the high one” and it’s believed that the words came from Odin himself.

Unsurprisingly given the situation they were living in, a big part of the Hávamál is about how one should behave as a guest, focusing on manners, reciprocity, and hospitality. Most of the manners deemed good in the Hávamál are things that even today we consider desirable characteristics. Take a look for example at verses 26 and 55, respectively:

The unwise man thinks all to know,
while he sits in a sheltered nook;
but he knows not one thing, what he shall answer,
if men shall put him to proof.

Wise in measure should each man be;
but let him not wax too wise;
seldom a heart will sing with joy
if the owner be all too wise.

Humility is important today and it’s not hard to imagine that it was even more back in the day. Thinking we’re the only ones who hold the truth is a path deemed to failure. By sitting in a “sheltered nook,” “thinking all to know,” we deprive ourselves of learning more, of meeting others with different opinions and world views. Of seeing that our version of truth isn’t as “true” as we thought after all. Finally, we should be ready to be put to test and “answer if men shall put [us] to proof.” We shouldn’t claim we know something unless we can explain it properly. We only know what we can be tested on.

But not only knowledge was desired; gratitude also played a big role in their society. Verse 71 tells us that even though life in the north may be bad and we may be in a bad situation, we wouldn’t be better off dead:

The lame can ride horse, the handless drive cattle,
the deaf one can fight and prevail,
’tis happier for the blind than for him on the bale-fire,
but no man hath care for a corpse.

Despite not being afraid of death (indeed they believed that dying in battle was the way to reach the paradise, or Valhalla), the vikings knew that they had been put here on this Earth with a purpose and they were determined to live it as fully as they could, even when maimed and in pain. In stark contrast to the Japanese “sepukku,” it’s hard to imagine a viking taking his own life.

Another association to be made with this verse is that we can (and should) play to our strengths. It would be difficult for a handless to “fight and prevail,” so he can “drive cattle” instead. By seeking things we can do despite our limitations instead of sitting and wishing we could be different, we do ourselves and the world a big service. Just imagine all that we would not know nowadays if Stephen Hawking were too busy complaining he can’t play basketball. The music we would have missed if Ray Charles had tried to paint.

Finally, as important as it is to behave well as a guest, it is perhaps even more important to be open and welcoming, as said in verse 134:

I counsel thee, Stray-Singer, accept my counsels,
they will be thy boon if thou obey’st them,
they will work thy weal if thou win’st them:
growl not at guests, nor drive them from the gate
but show thyself gentle to the poor.

Final Words

No doubt a lot can be said, both good and bad about the viking ways. As is the case with everything I come across, however, I try to extract the best from it and disregard the rest. As much as I condone pillaging, raping and mindlessly killing, I also respect the love they had for each other, the way they treated their brothers and sisters in arms and the history, legacy and mythology they left.

We could have gone into their belief system, their myths and how they influenced even Christianity and modern European culture. No doubt there’s a lot to be learned from that about how they led their lives; but for a start in their culture for someone who knows little to nothing, there’s no better place than the Hávamál to see what their ideal was.

Just the fact that they managed to create unity and camaraderie in such a hostile place, that those bonds were valued and made them even be feared in southern lands shows the might of the people, added to that the fact that such a fierce culture held such high standards for morality and doing what is right and suddenly the vikings are not as one dimensional as one might think when first seeing how they’re depicted in the media.

And being that the north was such a hostile place, only a madman would go out looking for adventures instead of just being thankful he’s alive, right? Well…

A coward believes he will ever live
if he keep him safe from strife:
but old age leaves him not long in peace
though spears may spare his life.

Other posts in this series:

The Way of the Warrior – Bhagavad Gita

The Way of the Warrior – The Samurai

The Way of the Warrior – The Vikings

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