Music in the Viking Age - Full Story

Music in the Viking Age

The written sources and archaeological material supporting the existence, nature and function of music in the Viking Age are tenuous.

After conversion to Christianity, the traces and evidence left are clearer, and it is likely that music was as much a part of Christian life in the Nordic countries as anywhere else in Europe.

But even the small number of accounts from various observers of the time, the musical survivals in remote or isolated areas, and the discoveries of archaeologists provide valuable insights into what music might have been like in the Viking Age.

"Music was not the most important art form in northern culture - this throne was reserved for poetry.

Poetry was the artistic medium of choice for the northern people, often recited aloud in front of an audience, and thus was a performing art.

Oral poetry has a cadence and rhythm of its own that is reminiscent of music, and the incorporation of music into another art form may have relegated it to the sidelines.

This secondary status of music in Scandinavian culture during the Viking Age is reflected in the fact that, unlike many societies, the Scandinavians did not have a designated deity for music.

There is no equivalent to Apollo's ases or vanes; instead, the main deity, Odin, presided over poetry," writes Chihiro Tsukamoto in the introduction to her thesis in Medieval Icelandic Studies at the University of Iceland, in which she attempts to reconstruct Viking Age music from sources in Old Norse, Greek, Latin, Arabic and archaeological material.

Songs in the Viking Age

According to the theory of "musilanguage" formulated by the musicologist Steven Brown, singing in human history developed early on as a mode of musical expression through its ability to emit linguistic units.

In view of the oral tradition and a pronounced taste for poetry, not devoid of an intrinsic musicality, it is reasonable to think that singing had at least a functional and pragmatic dimension in various activities during the Viking Age, such as memorizing, coordinating, encouraging, calling, celebrating, honoring, enlivening, or even rocking.

Viking Songs of sailors

Vikings are sailors who sailed on sailing ships. However, whether crossing an ocean, sailing up a river or pulling their ship on land, it was necessary to synchronize and rhythm teamwork.

Associated with the long tradition of sailing, this is the primary function of the sailors' songs, which are declined in songs to hoist the sails, songs to turn, songs to pump to evacuate sea water, songs to swim (i.e. to coordinate the movement of the oars), songs to shift (i.e. to move the ship by means of its moorings).

It is likely that there were also songs to relax, soothe and weld the crew during periods of inactivity. In addition, it could have been a means of identity recognition within a fleet or a way of memorizing landmarks or dangers on a route.

Viking War songs

Vikings are also warriors, and long before them, their Germanic ancestors were already known to sing songs about their gods and heroes. The oldest source on this subject can be found in the work "Germania" by the Roman historian Tacitus: "They have another song, called 'bardit', by which they excite their courage, and from which they foretell how successful the battle will be; for they tremble or make tremble, depending on how the army has sung the bardit. And this song seems less a sequence of words than the noisy concert of warlike enthusiasm. It is formed in the harshest of accents, of hoarse and broken sounds, by pressing the shield against the mouth, so that the echoing voice escapes louder and more resounding." (Volume VI, p.9, Complete Works of Tacitus, translated by J.L. Burnouf, Hachette).

Paying homage to those who gave their lives, preserving and passing on the memory of heroic deeds, urging men to overcome the fear of injury and death, strengthening group cohesion and identity, parading to impress and provoke the opposing camp, or calling for victory, this tradition continues to this day in the armed forces of many countries.

Viking Work songs

The songs may have brightened up the monotony of agricultural work such as ploughing and threshing, or domestic chores such as milling and weaving. Like what can still be observed in other cultures today, work songs also energize and coordinate activity while strengthening the cohesion of those at work. Usually, the one with the loudest voice sings a stanza which is then repeated by the whole group. The lyrics are rarely fixed and leave room for improvisation.

Historians and composers such as Hjálmar Ragnarsson, think that the poetry in Old Norse, which reached us through the Icelandic sagas, could conceal working songs, such as the "Grótti song" (Grottasöngr) where two young slave girls, Fenja and Menja, descendants of the giants of the mountains, are bought in Sweden by the Danish king Fródi who condemns them to grind without interruption, while they sing their story, their tiredness and at the end, the prophecy of their revenge. The Grottasöngr could illustrate the type of song to be sung while grinding grain or doing other tedious and repetitive work.

In the more specific context of animal husbandry, singing with a high-pitched voice (cf. lokk) and the imitation of the animals' cry probably preceded the use of a wind instrument (flute, lur, horn). This made it possible to be heard over long distances in order to gather herds in the pastures.

Ceremonial Viking songs

Songs and music may have taken on a sacred character and played an important role in worship events in which offerings and sacrifices were offered to the gods - as was the case after conversion to Christianity and in Christian liturgy.

They probably also accompanied the rites of "passage" marking the change in an individual's social or sexual status, the birth of a child, the passage to adulthood, marriage, etc... Ibn Fadlan, a 10th century scholar of Arab origin and secretary to the ambassador of the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad, testifies in his travel account (Risāla) to the king of the Bulgarians of the Volga, about the funeral of a Viking chieftain, during which an intoxicated slave sang before being sacrificed to accompany her deceased master in the afterlife.

On festive occasions, at gatherings such as the Thing (the political and judicial institution of the Viking Age), or at the court of kings, music and song were to be part of the festivities in the same way as poetry, in which it was able to mingle. Again, there is little evidence of how ordinary people feasted, but all Scandinavians worshipped the poetry they attributed to the father of the gods, Odin. Men and women, from the most modest to the kings, everyone tried their hand at poetry; but the most erudite, masters of the art and depositaries of mythological and heroic traditions were the "scalds".

Scaldic songs

The Skaldatal of the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturlurson (1178-1241) draws up a chronological catalog of more than 200 poets, the most famous of whom were of Icelandic origin. These itinerant poets declaimed their stanzas at the court of kings and jarls throughout the Nordic world, attended feasts and accompanied their patrons on their war expeditions, both witnesses and actors of the facts they were called upon to tell and sing in their verses.

The praise accompanying their testimony had to be as accurate as possible, even if it meant learning about events in which they had not taken part, which made them scholars. This was the sine qua non of their success. Between poetry and song, the declamation was declined in different registers:

  • The skjaldardrápa (skjaldardrápur in plural) is the song of the shields, one of the oldest forms.
  • The drápa (drápur in plural) is a panegyric, song or poem of praise and represents the majority of the great compositions. Composed of several stanzas where images abound, it follows strict metric rules with a more or less solemn tone. Some 'drápur' have a kind of refrain (stef) of two or four verses that organizes the poem in several more or less regular parts. It is found in several songs of the Edda.
  • The flokkr or draeplingr ('little drápa') is a shorter, simpler drápa without a refrain.
  • The lausa vísur are free stanzas, improvised according to the circumstances and expressing the impression or emotion of the moment, in response to an invective.
  • The mangsöngr (mangsöngvar in plural) is a love song. Contrary to social conventions in Iceland, it exposed its author to banishment.
  • The nídvísa (nídvísur in plural) is a satyr or defamatory poem, against which there was a severe legal device also punishing its author with exile.
  • The galdr is a magic song.
  • The grátr is a lament.

Songs from childhood

A very old form of song is the lullaby. Although it is impossible to know what a lullaby looked like in the Viking Age, it probably wasn't very different from those we know through folk music today.

This kind of singing is meant to calm and soothe the baby to help him or her fall asleep. Also, the lullaby is often monotonous, sung in a low voice, and the melody often varies only 2-3 notes from high to low. The lyrics should already evoke the family, pets and other familiar subjects that are reassuring to a baby, as is the case in today's popular lullabies.

Other forms of music traditionally associated with a child's world also include nursery rhymes and songs that accompany games.

Songs that have stood the test of time

Scandinavian Lokk

The lokk ("the call"), is called "kulning" in Sweden, "laling, lalning" or "lålning" in Norway and some border regions in Sweden, "kauking, kaukning" in parts of Norway, in the provinces of Dalarna and Hälsingland in Sweden and "kulokk, kulokker, kyrlokker" or "lokkrop" in the former Norwegian provinces in Sweden, Jämtland and Härjedalen.

This Scandinavian song was used as a means of communication over long distances between shepherds and their herds (cows, goats...) or other breeders during the summer season. Due to the lack of grazing areas near the farms, the farmers moved with the animals far away in the forests and mountain pastures. Women and children were largely responsible for watching over the herds and therefore practiced this vocal technique.

The lokk begins with a long high note in the lead voice which then descends from a quarter or half tone to a lower note, the blue note which gives the blues its musical color. This song is followed by a few shouts, which may, in turn, be followed by the names of the animals, as herds are generally small. The "lokk" is performed with a high-pitched voice, as it is best performed over long distances.

Between tradition and improvisation, the call varies from person to person and from place to place. The shepherds had to know common signals to communicate with other herders, but they had their own melodies to be recognized and identified by their herd.

This form of singing is found throughout the world and is considered one of the earliest forms of music, according to Kurt Sachs in his book "The Wellsprings of Music". Researchers have also hypothesized that this singing technique was one of the first ways of taming animals for breeding in Scandinavia and the Urals, as early as prehistoric times.

The Joik same

The joik (or yoik), also called according to the regions "luohti", "vuolle", "vuelie" or "juoiggus" in the Sami languages, is the traditional song of the Sami, an indigenous people of Lapland with whom the Vikings have had proven contact as evidenced by various archaeological discoveries [cf. Norway - The tomb-ship of a wealthy Viking Age merchant discovered in Tromsø, Iceland - The art of the Sami as a precursor to Viking colonization].

A joik interpreter is called a joiker (in Norwegian) or jojkare (in Swedish). This type of song can be of a deeply personal or spiritual nature, sometimes sung during shamanic rites. It is a key element of the traditional Sámi religion, whether it is practiced by an "amateur" at home or by a noaidi, the resident shaman of the siida. However, the role of the yoik in shamanism will prove to be the basis for a systematic suppression of this cultural expression by Christian missionaries and the governments of Scandinavia (in the form of assimilation programs and boarding schools).

The joik is a kind of emotionally expressive and spontaneous portrait directly related to situations such as a birth, a human being, an animal or a landscape. There are not necessarily words or short words. Ursula Länsman of the Sami Angelit Group defines joik as follows: "A yoik is not simply a description; it attempts to capture its subject in its entirety: it is like a holographic and multidimensional living image, a replica, not just a flat photograph or a simple visual memory. It is not about something, it is only something. It doesn't start and it doesn't end. A yoik does not need words - his narrative is in his power, he can tell an experience in song. The singer can tell the story through words, melody, rhythm, expressions or gestures."

It is traditionally performed a capella. It is only in its more modern version that the joiker is accompanied by musical instruments. The tone of the joik is mainly pentatonic. It has neither beginning nor end and consists of glissando notes. Its rhythmic structure is so different from that valued in western music that it may be inaudible to the ear of the uninitiated.

The joik has many social functions: it can be used to share memories, to unite the community (both family and society as a whole), to express an emotion, a personal feeling, to calm reindeer or scare wolves, or even to travel between worlds.

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