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Musical Instruments in the Viking Age

Musical Instruments in the Viking Age


The Vikings had a wide variety of instruments at their disposal as evidenced by archaeological finds, mostly bone or wooden wind instruments. However, perhaps the oldest and most universal of these is the drum.

1. Wind instruments

The flute

Wooden or bone flutes are quite common on Viking Age sites.

Elderberry branches, easy to dig, or willow branches were used to make simple whistles for children and flutes for musicians.

Whistles and bone flutes that have been unearthed are most often made from the shins of cows, deer, or even large birds. Note that the Latin term for a flute is tibia.

Some have no holes, or just one or two. According to the Swedish musicologist Cajsa Lund, these may be instruments used by hunters to imitate the calls of birds or animals, not musical instruments per se.

Two-hole bone flutes dating from the 9th and 10th centuries were found in the Swedish commercial area of Birka.

Others with a recorder and usually with 3 holes were probably used to play musical tunes. Archaeologists have unearthed flutes from the Viking Age with up to 7 holes.

A bone recorder from the early 13th century made from a sheep's shin was found in Aarhus, Denmark.

It measures 11.9cm, has 3 holes on top and one at the back, a beveled opening, but its beak is missing.

The pan flute

A wooden pan flute was discovered during the Coppergate excavations in York, England. It measures 9.5 x 5.5 x 1.2 cm and dates from the 10th century.

This Anglo-Scandinavian instrument was created by digging 5 holes of different depths in a block of boxwood.

As the pan flute is not intact, it is very likely that it originally had up to 7 or 8 holes in total.

The edge of each hole is slightly bevelled to better fit the shape of the player's lips.

A hole in the lower left corner was probably used to hang the instrument with a string, perhaps around the musician's neck.

The Oboe

A fragment of a wind instrument was discovered in 1985 during excavations at a shipyard on the river Fribrødre on the island of Falster, Denmark.

It was dated between the last half of the 11th century and the 12th century. The wooden pipe that formed the body of the instrument is 18 cm long and has 5 holes.

It is difficult to say what the instrument was originally. Some people think that it could be the chanter of a bagpipe whose other elements (pocket, drone(s) and blowpipe) would not have been preserved.

Although the bagpipe appears among the Germanic musical instruments known since the IXth century, there were not yet other discoveries of the Viking Age in Scandinavia to support this hypothesis.

Also, most researchers believe that it is rather an instrument with a double reed, although the latter has not been found.

It would be a kind of oboe, an instrument known since antiquity, similar to the Welsh pibgorn or the Slavic zhaleika, which must have had a mouthpiece and bell made of cow horn.

Other discoveries confirm this theory, in Lund in Sweden with a 4-hole pipe dated from the mid-11th century and in the Netherlands, with a horn pipe discovered in the village of Britsum, decorated with X-shaped motifs and dated between the 9th and 11th centuries.

The olifant and the playing horn

The olifant allows to obtain only one note, contrary to the playing horn which has a variable number of holes according to its dimension in order to be able to produce several notes.

A playing horn made of cow horn was discovered in 1936 in Västerby, Dalarna County, Sweden and is kept in the County Museum in Falun. It has been dated to the 9th century and scientific analysis has shown that the horn came from a 3 year old heifer. It has a mouthpiece added at its narrowest end and 4 holes.

Another one dating from the Iron Age, between 500 and 400 BC, was found in Konsterud, in the county of Värmland, Sweden. Exhibited in the County Museum, it has 5 holes and is about 27 cm long.

This type of instrument was used until very recently in Scandinavia but very few of them with holes have been the subject of archaeological discoveries in Denmark.

On the Bayeux Tapestry, made after the battle of Hastings between 1066 and 1082, two horn blowers are represented. One is at table and the other at the stern of a ship. This is a representation of olifants because the protagonists hold the horn with only one hand, indicating that the instrument did not allow notes to be played.

The lur

The Viking Age and then the High Middle Ages were straight shaped and mostly made of wood, mostly birch wood.

Researchers do not know if the burl was considered a musical instrument in the Viking Age, because its main function - still today - is to allow shepherds to call back their flock.

However, there is no doubt that the lur had a warrior function. In Icelandic sagas, such as the saga of Olaf Tryggvason, its use in battles to gather troops or intimidate opponents is mentioned.

The monk Abbon de Saint-Germain-des-Prés, in his poem Histoire du siège de Paris par les Normands (History of the Siege of Paris by the Normans), mentions twice the terrible sound of the Viking trumpets during the attacks on Paris in 886 and 887.

Ibrahim ibn Ya'qub, a Spanish trader and traveler, who visited the great trading city of Hedeby (or Haithabu, on the border between Denmark and Germany) in 950, reports in his account (of which only excerpts remain in the Book of Roads and Kingdoms of Abu Abdullah al-Bakri) that a horn 2 cubits long (120 cm), was used by the Scandinavians.

The first straight wooden lur, measuring 106.5 centimeters (106.5 centimeters) long, was found in the Oseberg tomb-ship.

Dating from 834 to 850 A.D., it is made of stained wood whose original species remains undetermined.

To make it, the wood was split longitudinally into two parts, each of which was hollowed out, before being gathered and held together in several places by one-centimeter-wide strips of willow bark 5 to 6 centimeters wide.

This lur has great similarities with the wooden trumpet still played by shepherds in Scandinavia today, although on their instruments the support is provided by strips of birch bark instead of willow.

The jaw harp

The jaw harp has been known in most European and Asian countries for 3000 years. Those discovered in Scandinavia date for the most part from the 13th century.

The oldest jew's-harp was found in the floor of one of the nine pit houses dating from the Viking Age in Gammeltoft, at the foot of the Ellemandsbjerget, the highest point of the Helgenæs peninsula in Denmark.


2. Stringed instruments

There are several representations of various stringed instruments, particularly the harp and the lyre, on manuscripts and other media. One of the earliest appears in the illuminated manuscript called the "Vespasian Psalter", made between 725 and 750, where an illumination shows David composing psalms on a lyre, surrounded by musicians and scribes.

Another manuscript preserved in Durham Cathedral, written around 750, contains Cassiodorus' Expositio psalmorum. It is a very detailed commentary on the psalms with, on fol. 81v, King David playing the lyre represented in the island style of the famous Lindisfarne Gospel with its characteristic interlacing.

Despite this, few of these instruments have successfully stood the test of time and archaeological finds remain rare.

The Lyre

The famous Sutton Hoo lyre, whose maple remains are kept in the British Museum, dates from the beginning of the 7th century (see photo on the left).

Although the instrument is Anglo-Saxon, its shape corresponds to that of other lyre throughout Europe and many replicas have been made.

The Trossingen lyre, discovered in 2020 in the state of Baden-Württemberg, dates from the 6th century. Its state of preservation is exceptional.

It is the most complete lyre found to date, with a maple body covered with engravings, a bridge and pegs.

Other lyres found, such as the two Oberflacht lyres found in rich burials in the Oberflacht necropolis, dated from the 6th century, and the Cologne lyre dated from the 7th century, were destroyed during the Second World War.

In Scandinavia and in the colonies of the Viking Age, pieces of 18 lyre were found.

The oldest of them come from Sweden, among them an amber lyre bridge discovered at Halla Broa on the island of Gotland, dated from the end of the 8th century, and another one made of Birka horn, dated from the 9th century. These lyres must have looked a lot like the one in Sutton Hoo.

The Kravik lyre, discovered in a barn in the county of Buskerud, northwest of Oslo, and supposed to date from the end of the 13th or the beginning of the 14th century, turned out after carbon-14 dating to be from the 16th century. Made of pine, it is incomplete and differs somewhat in shape from the other models.

The famous scene from the saga Vǫlsunga where Gunnar, thrown into a snake pit, plays the harp with his toes to put the reptiles to sleep, is the subject of many sculptures.

Despite the fact that the instrument is referred to in the story as a harp, many of these representations are actually more like a lyre (the strings are plucked, not rubbed with a bow), such as Gunnar's carvings on the standing wooden churches of Uvdal built around 1168 and Hyllestad built in 1200, in Norway.

The talharpa (or tagelharpa)

The (or) talharpa is a Scandinavian rubbed-stringed instrument of the lyric family, which is therefore played with a bow.

It takes its name from the horsehair ("tagel", in old Norse) used to make the strings, usually three, and sometimes two or four.

The table is flat. It is the ancestor of the moraharpa, of which a copy dated 1526 was discovered in Mora, Sweden, and later still of the nikelharpa closer to the hurdy-gurdy or hurdy-gurdy.

No 3-stringed lyre from the Viking period has been discovered to date, but this type of instrument was used in Norway from at least the late Middle Ages to the 19th century. The oldest one that has been found dates from the 17th century.

The counterpart of the talharpa in Finland is called a "jouhikko". The instrument is said to date back to the 14th century and has never ceased to be played.

The crwth or crouth, also called the rote, is another cousin of Welsh or Irish origin, of the talharpa. This instrument is reputed to date back to the 10th or 11th century and was one of the last instruments played by the historical bards of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.

The rebec

The rebec, a cousin of the oriental rebab, is a monoxyl instrument with two or three strings.

It does not originate from Northern Europe, but is present in the West throughout the Middle Ages.

A part of the body of this instrument was discovered on the site of the merchant city of Hedeby.

Two richly decorated pegs of a stringed instrument were also discovered during the excavation of a longhouse in Tissø, Denmark.

One represents a head with a braided beard and the other a head with a beak.

They were used to manually tune the instrument and may have belonged to a rebec such as the one reconstructed here by Bo Swahn.

The fiddle, the "gigje" and the moraharpa

The fiddle and the gigje are two rubbed string instruments often mentioned together in Old Norse sources, but they were most certainly imported from abroad. No one knows what these instruments looked like in the Viking Age, as there have never been any archaeological discoveries to this day.

Very popular throughout continental Europe during the Viking Age, there are different types of fiddles, more or less rustic. Researchers think, without being able to be certain, that the fiddle in the Nordic countries must have had a straight back, like the violin today. The Norwegian variant of the violin, called the Hardanger violin, which is characterized by the addition of sympathetic strings, may be a distant cousin, but the oldest known dates back to 1651.

The gigje, on the other hand, would have had a rounded back like the Neapolitan mandolin, but this remains pure speculation.

From the same family as the hurdy-gurdy, the moraharpa is the predecessor of the keyboard violin called nyckelharpa, but the oldest example of this instrument, discovered in Mora in Sweden, dates from 1526.

The zither?

There is a sculpture on Nidaros Cathedral, built between 1070 and 1300 in Trondheim, the former capital of Norway, showing a musician playing a stringed instrument that looks like a wooden plank with three strings.

While some researchers have hypothesized that it might be a jouhikko, the position of the musician suggests that it might be more of a zither type. However, nothing in the written sources or archaeological discoveries corroborates this track.

The closest instrument would be the langeleik, a typically Norwegian drone zither, a cousin of the Vosges spruce, but here again, the oldest known dates from 1524.

3. Percussions or rhythmic instruments

The drum

Few instruments are as universal as the drum. The oldest Scandinavian discovery dates back to about 3000 years BC. It is a clay drum found in Västra Hoby, in the county of Skåne in Sweden.

Excavations have not yet unearthed drums dating back to the Viking Age because the organic materials of which it is made are difficult to preserve. This does not mean, however, that the Vikings did not have any at their disposal. Their drums may have been similar to the Gaelic bodhrán, which has the particularity of being played with a stick, the goavddis of the Northern Sami or the gievrie of the Southern Sami, magical drums used by shamans, generally made of a wooden hoop of slightly oval shape on which was stretched a reindeer skin painted with symbols.

Literary references to the drums are numerous and there is evidence to suggest that the Vikings may have used their shields as drum substitutes. This is suggested by Ibn Fadlan's Risala account of a burial ritual in which a slave is burned alive with her dead master; the men beat their shields to cover the sound of her screams. Although not strictly speaking music, it is not impossible that the shields were struck like drums in various rituals, as if to exalt the men before an assault. This usage, if true, could also be used to explain why drums are the great absentees of archaeological discoveries.

The rattle

The rattle is attested to the Viking Age, whether it was used as a "bell" on sleighs, a cult object or a simple musical instrument.

Several rattles have been discovered in Norway. The one from Stövernhaugen, Norway, dated between 800 and 1050, consists of three iron rings threaded on an oval ring, attached to the top of a 170 cm long pole. It must have been necessary to strike it on the ground to make the iron rings rattle and jangle.

Others were also attached to horse or sleigh harnesses, such as the one found in Akershus County, Norway, which dates to between 800 and 900 CE.

Opposite, one of the five rattles discovered in the Oseberg tomb ship, which dates from the early 9th century.


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