Viking appreciation of harmony and balance found in the natural world. Where else could we find such a potent and protective symbol than in the rich tapestry of the Norse sagas

Myths and legends to explain the natural world 

One only has to switch on the television (if people even do that anymore), jump online, or scroll down a news feed to see the ominous presence of climate change on a daily basis. 

Since the Industrial Revolution, particularly in the last century, humanity's activities have caused climate change, whether we like it or not. 

The earth's temperature is warming, and this is having dramatic and costly impacts on the world's environment and economy. 

Wind back the clock a millennium to the early medieval period, and humanity had a very limited impact on the natural world. 

Though people from Viking societies achieved great feats – they managed to sail across the Atlantic Ocean half a millennium before Columbus, created intricate and sophisticated works of art, and conquered, traded with, and raided vast swathes of Europe.

All of this was done with the barest of scientific and technological expertise and knowledge.

For people in Viking societies, the natural world was their master; they had little influence on the climate or environment. 

They were often at the mercy of a harsh winter, a failed crop, or a hot summer and could not control or manipulate their surroundings like we can. 

People in Viking societies then turned to mythology to help explain and understand the natural world and their environment. 

Jokes about the Nordic summer (or lack thereof) aside, the sun was an important part of Viking society – as a marker of daily and seasonal time. 

For these people, this giant glowing orb was seen as so potentially destructive and paradoxically life-giving that something had to protect humanity from it. 

For people in Viking societies, whose martial culture permeated life, a shield was, of course, the best form of protection. 

The Norse perceived the natural world as both magnificent and formidable, respecting its power and unpredictability while also recognizing their deep connection to it. Photo: Ivan Kurmyshov / Shutterstock

A cooling, cosmological shield 

Scouring the rich tapestry of the Norse sagas, we can find a reference to a legendary giant shield, Svalinn, which was said to protect the earth – Midgard (the realm where humans resided) - from the harsh rays of the sun. 

Modern linguists and academics believe the name Svalinn originates from the Old Norse word "to cool." And cool it did – protecting the earth from this fiery onslaught, it helped to ensure the survival and flourishing of life on earth. 

Within the cosmology of Norse mythology, the sun holds immense power and significance. 

Its radiance sustains life, yet its unchecked fury can bring about destruction. 

In the Norse mythological imagination, Svalinn was conceived as a necessary intermediary, positioned between the world and the sun's relentless blaze. 

The existence of this giant shield highlights the delicate balance between creation and destruction, a recurring theme in Norse mythological narratives, legends, and sagas. 

It also illuminates how people from Viking societies perceived the natural world, recognizing its intricate harmony and the fine line between life and death. 

The Trundholm sun chariot is a Nordic Bronze Age artifact discovered in Denmark, featuring a bronze statue of a horse and a large bronze disk mounted on a device with spoked wheels. Photo: National Museum of Denmark (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Literary and archeological interpretations 

So, what does this shield look like? As with all things related to the Vikings, we must first open the pages of the sagas. 

Whilst they are worthy additions to the great world canon of literature and contain some historical truths, they should be viewed more as entertainment than strict historical chronicles. 

Within them, we find only a few brief physical descriptions of this cosmic shield. 

The most prominent description arises in one of the poems, Grímnismál, found in the Poetic Edda, believed to have been largely compiled by the 13th-century poet, politician, and man of letters, Snorri Sturluson

The Poetic Edda is one of the two seminal works for any Old Norse aficionado, and Grímnismál illustrates the alliterative brilliance and thrilling mythological narrative of the Norse poets and skalds. 

In this poem, Odin, the All-Father of Norse mythology, describes the Norse cosmic universe and relates how Svalinn was held in front of the Sun – which was being drawn across the sky in a chariot. 

Other poems mention physical descriptions of Svalinn, including runes carved upon it, giving it magical and mystical properties. 

It is described as a sturdy object, "battle-light... double boarded and...everlasting." 

Academics and historians have analyzed archeological finds from the Nordic Bronze Age (c. 2000 BCE - 500 CE) to further understand this mythological creation in Norse mythology. 

This historical period served as the cultural antecedent for Viking societies, and much of their mythological narrative, as well as societal structure, originated here. 

For many Nordic Bronze Age societies, the sun was depicted as a disc, pulled across the heavens in a chariot. 

The most famous archaeological example of this was the Trundholm sun disc - made in c. 1300 BCE and found in a peat bog in Denmark. 

This has been speculated to be the inspiration for the creation of Svalinn, which appeared in the later Viking Age sagas and poems. 

Within Viking culture, shields were more than just protective gear; they stood as symbols of honor and loyalty, deeply embedded with cultural and spiritual significance. Photo: Silar (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Symbolism and the powerlessness of humanity 

The symbolism of Svalinn extends beyond its literary and physical forms, embodying the concepts of protection, resilience, and sacrifice, which were highly valued by people in Viking societies. 

Shields held immense cultural and spiritual significance in these societies, serving as both defensive tools and symbols of honor and loyalty. 

Svalinn, as the quintessential shield, embodies these virtues on a cosmic scale. 

In an age where the effects of climate change are ravaging the earth, even in former Viking homelands in the Nordic region, it would be comforting to have some form of cosmic protection to shield us from the ravages of our natural environment. 

Despite all our scientific knowledge and technological advancements, we, like our ancestors in Viking societies, remain at the mercy of the natural world. 

For more information on how ancient cultures, including people in Viking societies, interpreted natural phenomena, visit Vox here.

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