Hi Josh! It’s great to have you on the blog to talk all things Norse/Viking! Is there a difference between a Norseman and a Viking?
Hello Alex! So good to be here. Well, we are really diving into the deep end with this first one. The word ‘Viking’ in Old Norse is associated with a verb which basically means to go raiding. For example, there are memorial runestones that say things to the effect of ‘Bjorn went a-viking like a true warrior and died in search of treasure’; in that sense, anyone who goes raiding can be considered a ‘Viking’. Those who stayed on the farm back in Norway or Sweden would not be Vikings by this definition.
Vikings did not refer to themselves as Vikings but most likely identified with their place of origin. Iceland was a particularly unique location and Icelanders were often held in high regard for their poetic abilities (at least according to the semi-mythic historical accounts known collectively as the Icelandic Sagas). Norseman or Northman was probably a term used most often by the Christian monks who were trying to figure out why the hell these devils from the North were descending upon them with such ferocity.
So, in short, yes! There certainly is a difference.
I’ve seen twitter acquaintances call you a Norse expert. How far would you agree with that statement?
Well, that is high praise indeed! While I am flattered, I cannot claim to be an expert. I am an amatuer Viking history and Norse myth enthusiast with a strong leaning towards the myths. I’ve had the pleasure of befriending and conversing with many whom I would call experts (most of whom laboured for years to acquire a Masters or even a PhD in the subject) and I continue to learn more from them every day.
What started off your love of Norse culture and what specifically appeals to you in comparison to other eras of history?
It all began with a dive into my own family history which came as the result of a sudden obsession with it in my early twenties. I suppose I was trying to answer the whole, “Who am I?” question. I was wandering through a very dusty corner of the University of Alberta Library (Rutherford Library, to be exact) when I discovered a section on translated Icelandic Sagas and Norse Myths. It is fair to say that I cleared the dust from those shelves quite thoroughly and that by some miracle I still passed my courses that year which had nothing to do with the subject of Vikings.
The deeper I dove into the myths and sagas, the more I became fascinated with the characters. Anyone who has read them feels a weight, like I imagine a heavy coat of chainmail might feel, at the doom that hangs over them because of the seeress’ prophecy about Ragnarok in the epic poem Völuspá; I think it’s this strange sort of morbid element in these stories that endears me to them. Further, while Norse sagas and myths describe beautiful and breath-taking scenes, they are rather sparse and spurn flowery language. J.R.R. Tolkien, in speaking of the Norse myths, said that the ancient authors meant for the words to ‘hit the reader in the eye’ and capture the imagination almost by sheer force of word. I’d like to think this because these were originally oral narratives which would have been recited and performed for kinsman in front of a crackling fire within a cozy hall during the harsh, Scandinavian winter.
Can you tell us about an interesting Norseman/woman we should learn more about?
Certainly! Hervor was a warrior woman most famously recounted in the Norse saga known as ‘The Saga of Heidrek the Wise’; I actually find Heidrik rather dry (besides a short section of riddling with Odin), but Hervor is absolutely smashing. As a tantalizing tidbit I will share that she is the descendant of the famous berserker Anganytr; she acquires a cursed sword from him when she breaks into his barrow mound demanding it from his ghost. If you’re looking for a decent translation, I suggest the one by Christopher Tolkien (yes, that is J.R.R.’s son and literary heir).
You’ve written your own Norse fiction, The Gatewatch. I really enjoyed it – a great blend of mythology, adventure, humour and action. How much extra research did you have to do on top of what you already knew?
To be honest, not a lot. That is only because I had spent the previous four years sunk so deep into the literature that it was practically oozing out my ears. I think that The Gatewatch was actually a way for me to process all the new knowledge I had acquired and wrestle with the fascinating cast of characters I had come to love so dearly. Of course, I did need to research specific things for story elements, but for the most part I was drawing inspiration from things I had obsessively read in years prior.
You’ve got a Viking themed board game out; awesome! Please tell us more about it!
Yes! Althingi, set in Viking Age Iceland, is a card game of strength and influence for up to four players. Centered around the actual historical gathering known as the Althingi, players take on the role of powerful Iceladnic chieftains and strive to gain the greatest influence through bribery, intimidation, and good old-fashioned violence. Althingi will be up on Kickstarter during Norsevember 2020 and will be followed by an anthology of short fiction inspired by the characters in the game in 2021. To find out more, check out the press release from Outland Entertainment!
We know Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets. Are there any other misconceptions you want to address?
Are there any other misconceptions? Are you offering me a three volume publishing deal? Where to begin…
Ok, here are a few highlights. Correct – Vikings did not wear horns and this was likely a visual device used by Christian historians to demonize the raiders from the North. Vikings were certainly formidable warriors but were not blood-thirsty maniacs; most were motivated by economic and agricultural scarcity in Scandinavia that was severely compounded by an inheritance system which favoured the eldest male heir. Vikings had no written language (they had runic script for runestones/road signs but this was not for writing books, histories, etc) but were obsessed with poetry; Viking skalds (poets) were highly respected and kept close by successful Viking kings. Vikings used axes more than swords because iron was scarce; however, these were not the Conan the Barbarian style axes often portrayed in movies because thinner axe-heads are better at splitting skulls. One last fun-fact: Vikings are often portrayed as ‘dirty barbarians’ but were obsessed with hygiene, so much so that they often dyed their hair with lye both for looks and to kill lice. In fact, they were so hygienic that a Christian bishop in England once wrote a complaint to the archbishop that a group of Vikings nearby spent so much time on personal hygiene that he worried they would capture the hearts of the upstanding Christian women in the next town, which would have been a travesty. (In his eyes, at least…)
Can you recommend us a good Norse read or two?
Certainly! For history I suggest From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths by Dr. Heather O’Donoghue. For historical fiction I recommend Linnea Hartsuyker’s The Half Drowned King. And for full-on fantasy (warning: shameless self plug) I recommend my troll-hunting Norse adventure series starting with The Gatewatch.
A little more light hearted questions:
Who would win in a fight, the Norse Gods, the Roman Gods or the Greek Gods?
Ok. So first off, the Roman gods would be drunk on wine. So would the Greek gods. Actually, so would the Norse gods (on mead) but the Norse gods can drink and fight so they’re already up one. Thor would outmuscle Zeus and Loki would trick Hermes if only because Loki always fights dirty. I think Athena and Freya would have a pretty good go of it, but Freya would come out on top because her two cats would join the fray and tip the scales. Neptune might have a leg up on Njord but Heimdall would definitely smash Saturn. Finally, Jupiter is pretty scary but I don’t think he’s any match for the one-eyed All-Father, Odin. My money is on the Norse Gods for sure.
What’s your favourite Old Norse word?
I am going to give a shout out to Orð of the Day (Twitter: @OldNorseWords) for this one; there are so many great words and phrases to choose from, but one I saw recently from them was ‘ímigustr’ which means ‘disgust’, but literally translate to ‘giant’s breath’. If you are interested in learning more Old Norse words please check out Old Norse for Modern Times, an Old Norse phrasebook that I compiled along with fellow author Ian Stuart Sharpe and Dr. Arngrimur Vidalin from the University of Iceland. You can find the book on the Outland Entertainment website!
If a stranger were to explore your house, would there be any giveaways about your passion for all things Norse?
Indeed there would be! I have a full shelf dedicated to Norse myths and Viking history which is proudly displayed in my living room. I don’t have a shield or a sword but I think I may spring for one if my series becomes a best seller.
Thank you very much for taking part in the interview, Josh. Finally, are you working on anything else at the minute?
Yes! Book 2: The Everspring is complete and set to go to print in early 2021. (By the way, there will be a cover reveal of the hand-painted art on FanFi Addict during Norsevember!) Now I am well into writing Book 3: The Elder Trees and hope to complete the trilogy by next fall. Keep an eye out for release dates on Twitter (@JoshMGillingham) or on the Crowsnest Books website (Crowsnestbooks.com)!
Check out my review of The Gatewatch HERE!
Joshua Gillingham is a Canadian author from the scenic city of Nanaimo, BC. There he enjoys life with his adventurous spouse and their two very unadventurous cats. The Gatewatch, his debut novel, was born of his unremitted fascination with Norse Myths and Icelandic Sagas. Joshua’s lyrical maritime ballad The Queen of the Rose Marie was selected for the Short Story Dispenser Project and his award-winning essay Becoming a Resilient Writer has been featured on several sites for aspiring writers. When he is not hunched over his laptop sipping coffee and tapping frantically at the keyboard, Joshua performs Irish and Maritime music with The Ugly Mugs and designs viking-themed board games for Little Hammer Games.
For readers from North America and the UK, Josh has kindly donated a paperback copy of The Gatewatch to win!
Simply fill out the quick form below with your name and a couple of questions about the interview!