Winds of the North Preview 5: History and Folklore

Saint Olav at the Battle of Stiklestad by Peter Nicolai Arbo

Winds of the North is an upcoming solo Viking gamebook. It features sandbox gameplay with a mix of adventure and farm management. Each week, until open playtesting begins, I’ll be sharing a preview of the mechanics and features.

Catch up on past articles:
Announcement
Preview 1: Core Mechanism
Preview 2: Time and Seasons
Preview 3: Life on the Farm
Preview 4: Exploring the North

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There are several problems when trying to research the Vikings and medieval Scandinavia. For one, many of our sources are literary in nature rather than historical. The Icelandic Sagas provide a great deal of information, but much of it is invented for the narrative or is contemporary information that reflects their Christian authors. Other sources are heavily biased because they come from the people the Vikings ravaged. And some information is of modern invention that is either based on poor information or was never intended to be historical.

Misconceptions

One of the first things to do when researching is to double-check what you know and shed your own misconceptions. Most people these days know that the Vikings did not wear horned helmets. But another old misconception is the blood-eagle; a form of execution where the ribs are torn open. It, too, isn’t real and, like the horns, comes from a poor translation. In the case of the blood-eagle, it comes from a poem describing eagles clawing at the backs of dead men.

The berserker is also about as real. Half naked warriors did not charge into battle frothing at the mouth; in fact, the favored battlefield tactic of the Vikings, the shield-wall, is the complete opposite of that. The people the Vikings attacked kept very good notes on those annoying Norsemen, and none record anything resembling the classic berserker. Rather, the berserker is a legend of the Sagas, nothing more than a literary character. But wolf and bear cloaks may have been used to denote rank. Close enough, right?

Another major misconception is how prevalent Viking raids were. In modern times, we often use “Vikings” as shorthand for Viking Age Scandinavians, but in reality, most Scandinavians weren’t Vikings. A Viking is specifically one who goes on raids. Even a Scandinavian warrior isn’t necessarily a Viking. Medieval Scandinavia was full of farmers and craftsmen, some of whom become merchants as market towns sprouted up. Many were also accomplished fishermen and hunters. Few were actually Vikings.

Digging for Nuggets

While finding information on the broader history of Viking Age Scandinavia is pretty easy, finding exact details is much more difficult. Many books cover the Viking raids and tell us about their warriors and exploits, but not many books really cover the daily life of farmers, and often they are vague and generalized. When making an in-depth simulation of medieval Scandinavia, I need more than vague details. Two books that helped greatly to provide exact details were Viking Age: Everyday Life in the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen (a bloated title) and Medieval Scandinavia. The latter covers a wider time period, but it’s still immeasurably helpful.

Sometimes, you also stumble on details you weren’t even looking for. For example, much of their iron came from marshes and lake beds in Norway and Sweden. And contrary to what you’d expect, winter actually improved travel overland as marshes froze over and snows allowed for easy skiing over otherwise rough terrain. And at first, I had removed the ability to fish during winter (water freezes, right?), but in Norway, the lengthy western coast never actually freezes due to the warm waters of the Atlantic, and Norway’s biggest export at the time was fish. This is why you should do as much research as possible, you may learn answers to questions you hadn’t even thought to ask.

Dealing With Holes

Researching Viking Age Scandinavia has one major problem. There are many holes. Even if you give a lot of the legends the benefit of the doubt, there are still gaps. And several elements of the Sagas we know were Christian additions. One roadblock I’ve come across has to do with festivals. We have very few sources on this, and one of the better ones only says:

“There should be a sacrifice at the beginning of winter for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop, the third in summer day, that was the sacrifice for victory.”

Ynglinga Saga by Snorri Sturluson

The sacrifices mentioned are blood sacrifices of animals, called blóts, and they coincided with festivals and ceremonies. Some sources suggest there were four main festivals. One thing that makes it a bit more confusing is that the Scandinavians only had two seasons at the time, summer and winter. So early winter is actually our fall.

But the biggest problem researching these festivals is that modern pagans have repurposed medieval Scandinavian culture and invented their own calendar of festivals. This includes attributing festivals to the Vikings that there is no evidence of them celebrating. So, to find valuable information, I had to untangle modern paganism and remove what they added. The result, however, is that there are still holes remaining. It’s very likely that Midsummer was celebrated during the Viking Age, but what we know of it doesn’t quite fit the description above.

A prime example of how large the holes can be in our knowledge of Viking Age Scandinavia is the god Ullr. He is the god of skiing and archery. That’s about all we know. However, based on the names of people and places and the few references to him that exist, historians believe he may have been a very prominent and popular god. Yet not a single one of his myths have survived. Imagine Thor, the most popular and famous of Norse gods, being nothing but a name and concept. No myths. There are also many unnamed chieftains and self-proclaimed kings who were conquered and wiped from history during the early Viking Age when the kingdoms of Denmark and Norway formed (Sweden unified later).

Folklore

While much of researching Viking Age Scandinavia is untangling misconceptions and finding holes, Scandinavian folklore is rich, and it evolved throughout the medieval period. There are all sorts of interesting creatures and new things to learn about popular creatures like trolls and elves. But, like many things about the Viking Age, we don’t really know a lot about the folklore of the time and all of the stories that were told around the campfire. Most of our knowledge of their folklore comes from the later medieval period when Christianity greatly increased literacy and introduced historical records to Scandinavia. There is surely some cross-contamination from Christian beliefs, but it’s difficult to remove when we have only a narrow view of what Scandinavian mythology and folklore were like before Christianity.

Next Preview Playtesting Begins!

No preview next week. Instead, playtesting will begin! Everyone in the mailing list will receive a link to download the playtest material. It likely won’t be 100% done, but it should have everything for your first couple of in-game years. See you then!

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