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Viking Poetry of Love and War

On this day in 1012, the Vikings brutally murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury, Ælfheah, at Greenwich. The Vikings are popularly known as marauders, seafarers and adventurers, but did you know that they were also highly regarded as poets?

Viking culture valued poetry highly and rewarded poets handsomely. The language of Viking poetry is colourful, intricate and is often light-hearted, even in the face of death and tragedy. Their themes are mythological, military and memorial with some distinctive love poetry that encompassed both native traditions and literary influences from further south.

Viking Poetry of Love and War, edited by Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham, Judith Jesch, and published this Spring by the British Museum Press, features a collection of short poems and poetry extracts from the core period of the Viking Age and its aftermath, c. 900 – 1300. The selection draws on the main themes of love and war and gives a sense of the range of poetic modes and genres that were popular during this age, offering a fascinating glimpse into the ideology of the time.

Below is an exclusive selection of extracted poems from Viking Poetry of Love and War. Enjoy!

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Beserkers (Norse warriors) from the Lewis Chessmen. Walrus ivory chess pieces, probably made in Norway, c. 1150 – 1175; found on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland. Heights (from left) 8.5 cm, 9.2 cm and 8.2 cm. British Museum.

Anonymous, from the Poetic Edda

“… you need a ship for gliding,

a shield for protection,

a sword for striking,

a maiden for kissing”.

Anonymous, 11th century

A Viking tells a woman of the capture of London

Every day of Hogni’s door

became quite bloody, goddess,

when we fought in the fray,

early, with our leader.

Since hard-fought fight is now

finished, we can sit in fair London, o land

of the sun of the sea.

Hogni’s door = shield; sun of the sea = gold, its land = woman

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Silver bossed penannular brooch in the Irish tradition, with animal heads detail. 9th – 10th century, found at Goldsborough, North Yorkshire, England. Diameter 8.5 cm. British Museum.

Magnus ‘Barelegs’ Olafsson, king of Norway (11th century)

Magnus falls in love in Dublin

What’s this talk of going home?

My heart is in Dublin,

and the women of Trondheim won’t see me this autumn.

The girl has not denied me

pleasure-visits, I’m glad;

I love the Irish lady

as well as my young self.

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Images ©Trustees of the British Museum

Poems and images extracted from Viking Poetry of Love and War, by Judith Jesch, available for £9.99 from the British Museum online shop. British Museum Press 2013.

Category: History

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