Thursday, May 28, 2009

There are Jomsvikings yet living

Here is a woodcut illustration of the execution of the Jomsvikings captured in the Battle of Horundarfjord (Hjorunga Bay) in A.D. 986. Fram the First is on a sentimental journey, dreaming and drifting, recalling the old days, and suggested we do a post about this event as a reminder.

The Old Norse had their own brand of humor

Warfare has come and gone since before history was recorded, and to study those times reveals much about the nature of the societies which conducted it. Today, students, we will briefly examine one bloody encounter that took place slightly more than a thousand years ago: The Battle of Horundarfjord, in A.D. 986.

The Old Scandinavians often fought each other when there was profit to be made. In this instance, Earl Hakon, the ruler of most of Norway, crushed an invading fleet of Danes. No fewer than five Icelandic "skalds" (storytellers/poets) took part in the clash, so the battle was well "reported" in the news of the day.

This was a major battle that was fought aboard ships in a fjord. To add to the mystique of this engagement, a storm broke out in the midst of it, and the combatants were pelted with large hailstones. The Norwegian force numbered 150 ships, while the invading Danes had 60. Some among the invaders were "Jomsvikings," members of a warrior community who lived a Spartan-style life in a fortress named Jomsborg. Women and children were not permitted in Jomsborg, and life centered round daily preparation for combat. They were, in reality, 10th Century mercenaries.

The heavily outnumbered invaders lost the fray. This is a portion of one story of the aftermath of the battle when 30 Jomsvikings (the number varies by the source) who had been taken alive were brought up for summary execution. As one author put it, ".... this story gives us men who know how to die. They look death unflinchingly in the eye and with a jest on their lips. They love life, but would not be able to survive the taunt of having begged for it .... It would be difficult to cite in world literature a parallel to that unforgettable scene:"

Eighteen (again, the number varies by storyteller) already had been executed by a Norwegian lord named Thorkel Leira, through decapitation with his sword (or axe, depending on the version read), when this event took place:

Then there was brought up a young man whose hair was long and golden yellow like silk. Thorkel asked the same question (he had of the men he already had slain), "What do you think about dying?"

The young man said: "I have lived the best part of my life. I do not care to live after those who have died here. But I want to be led to the slaughter not by a slave but rather by a man not lower than you; nor will such a one be hard to find -- and let him hold my hair away from head so that my hair will not become bloodstained."

A man from Earl Hakon's bodyguard stepped forward and wound the long hair around his hands. Thorkel slammed down with his sword, and at that moment the young man jerked away his head, and the blow fell on the arms of the one holding his hair and cut them off at the elbow.

The young man leapt up and said: "Whose hands are in my hair?"

Earl Hakon said: "A great mischief has been done. Kill that man at once, and also all the others who are left, because these men are too unmanageable to guard against.”

Earl Eirik (Hakon's son) interrupted and said: "Let us first find out who they are. What is your name, young man?"

To which, the young man replied: "They call me Sigurth. Not yet are all Jomsvikings dead."

Earl Eirik asked: "Whose son are you?"

The young man answered: "I am said to be the son of Bui."

(Bui was one of three chieftains who led the Jomsvikings. When both his hands were severed by a sword stroke during the battle, he took a chest of his personal treasures in his arms and jumped into the sea.)

Earl Eirik said: "You are truly likely to be the son of Bui. How old a man are you?"

The young man replied: "If I live through this one, I shall be eighteen years."

Earl Eirik then said: "You shall. Would you have quarter?"

The young man replied: "That depends on who offers it."

Earl Eirik answered: "He offers, who has the authority to do so -- Earl Eirik."

The young man said: "I would, if you give it to all of us who yet live."

Earl Eirik said: "Release them all from the rope," and accepted them into his personal bodyguards.

Eighteen of the captured had been killed and twelve received quarter. To which, the young man, Sigurth, said to be the son of Bui, noted: "There are Jomsvikings yet living."

This tale, I think, opens a doorway to any number of fascinating questions regarding sociological attributes (or detriments), and about life and death, now and then, particularly from a male viewpoint. Those executed before the young man also posed philosophical or practical thoughts before they were killed. The young man was the eleventh in the line. I like the number, and this more-or-less is the end of the event. The slain Jomsvikings had equally interesting words to say, but the length of the entire piece prohibits running it.

The final thought: No matter who you are or where you are, Fram the First advises to study your origins, and to learn from them.


A Cuban In London said...

'The Old Scandinavians often fought each other when there was profit to be made.'

Oor when they were bored.

Joking aside, this was a fantastic post. As a person interested in history, I love Old Fram's post about his origins. Well-illusttrated and professionally narrrated. Many thanks. Oh, by the way, I bet the hailstorm was caused by Thor after the Danes and Norse disrupted his siesta. What do you think?

Greetings from London.

Fram said...

Boredom sometimes requires extreme remedy, CiL, especially after a long, northern winter.

The tides of history are fascinating, it seems to me, especially when there exists ancestral linkage. Only a pittance of people realize Scandinavian dominance as a "world power" for a few centuries, and how many customs, habits, place names and beliefs stem from the Old Norse.

The thunder of Thor's hammer was heard many times that day in Horundarfjord, I am certain, just as it was at the Battle of Maldon, in Essex, five years later, and at a thousand other fjords and fields. Who needs to turn to fantasy when there is actual history such as this?

Katy said...

Wonderful post Fram, extremely interesting and a great story. Thank you.

Yes, I do think that men have a very different view about life and death. I'm struggling for the words here... something close to having a much more matter-of-fact relationship with it - not one based as much on fear as an indelible feeling of death always being one possible outcome of any event. 'I win or you win, as long as it's a fair contest, I'll accept the outcome' type of feeling.

It's actually only been in fairly recent years that I realised quite how many differences there were between the genders and just how marked those differences are. I'm not implying better / worse here, just plain straightforward differences. This, I think, is one of them.

TheChicGeek said...

Hi Fram :) This is a wonderful story and I like the woodcut illustration that goes along with it. The gentleman with the long blonde hair looks very similiar to Fram the First as a young man. I think, perhaps, he has a similar attitude.
I can see one best not mess with a Jomsviking and his golden hair! Blondes are very tricky and it appears they do have more fun :D

Fram said...

At least a decade prior to publication of the book, "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus," I was preaching this concept and being called everything from idiot to chauvinist for professing it. Then, some guy puts the notion into print and a few light bulbs grow bright.

I said those words to a friend not long ago, and her response was to the effect that I should have written a book about it instead of talking about it, and then I would be a millionaire today. Ah, well, such is life, right, Katy?

It also seems to me that the "more civilized" we humans become, the greater distance we try to put between ourselves and death. I wonder how much of that stems from lack of faith rather than lack of courage.

Fram said...

Have you been peeking, Kelly? Has Fram the First been showing you his family photograph albums? Has he been telling you stories about his days as a youthful Jomsviking, sailing here and there, searching for gold and jewels to cache in Greece?

Unlike me, the First has not an ounce of modesty or humility, and he thinks himself to be the No. 1 Jomsviking of then and now, and all times between. He also will talk about himself incessantly, for hours, when in the company of a lovely young lady.

The story is fascinating, I think, and reveals openness and honesty which often are absent these days.

As for blondes being tricky and having more fun, I believe that is a rhetorical question.

Oh, yes, thank you, for the interpretation of my dream about canoeing in a thunderstorm.

Fram said...

Good grief, to quote the prophet, you are right, Kelly.

I just "popped" the woodcut up to full size. It is the same hair, the same moustache, the same beard, the same glare from the eyes, the same arrogantly folded arms. It is no doubt Fram the First, using the name Sigurth for whatever reason. I shall interrogate him about this.

Good eyes, Surfer Girl ....

TheChicGeek said...

LOL, Fram :D....See, blondes are very perceptive and tricky :D

I'm glad you enjoyed your dream interpretation. It was fun researching you must make your dreams come true :D
Have a Happy Day, Fram!

Fram said...

Ah, yes, and perception might be a third eye ....

Something special ....