Before we delve into the importance of oral culture throughout Viking societies in the early medieval period, it is worth noting that these peoples not only wrote but also developed a sophisticated alphabet.
Arising from Germanic societies, the runic alphabet – sometimes broken down into the Younger Futhark and Elder Futhark – was developed by the Norse people throughout the early to later medieval period.
Alongside the introduction of a new religion - Christianity, from the late 7th century onwards, into Scandinavia and what would become the Viking world came a new form of the written word, the Latin alphabet.
These two alphabets co-existed for much of what we call the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100) until, eventually, the Latin alphabet ascended to literary primacy during the 12th century.
Where would we, dear reader, be without the brilliant runic alphabets that are emblazoned on runestones throughout what was once the Viking world?
One of the more interesting aspects, especially to us moderns whose lives are dominated by online news, social media posts, texts, and emails, is that they possessed a rich and sophisticated oral culture.
Runestones, adorned with the runic alphabet and often serving as memorials, provide a tangible link to the Norse's early literacy, bridging their rich oral tradition with the written word. Photo: OneWithNaturePhotos / Shutterstock
The transmission of news, politics, and power
The paramount reason oral culture was so important during the Viking Age was that it facilitated the transmission of knowledge.
Nearly all of the population was illiterate throughout the almost three centuries that Vikings roamed and raided.
There was no widespread schooling, let alone colleges or universities (the oldest university in Scandinavia, Lund, was founded in 1425).
The spoken word was the key way in which the communication of news, laws, and messages was transmitted throughout Viking societies.
Written records were extremely scarce, and the dissemination of information leaned heavily on the spoken word.
In communal gatherings – for example, at the local Thing – important decisions were made, disputes settled, and negotiations finalized, all through verbal declarations and testimonies.
In fact, one of the most important roles in any Viking society was that of the law speaker.
This official, quite literally, had to speak all the law. They had to memorize the numerous rules of society and be able to recite them at a moment's notice every time there was a communal meeting or gathering.
In Viking assemblies, the oral tradition was not just a means of communication but a vital tool for maintaining law and order through verbal testimonies and declarations. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Clinging onto cultural heritage in a dynamic environment
One of the most remarkable features of people from Viking societies was how far they traveled in an era where most people barely left their local village in their lifetime.
From the eastern shores of the Black Sea all the way to the eastern seaboard of what is now Canada and everywhere in between, Viking peoples traveled extensively.
Upon their travels – be they for plunder, trade, or settlement – they encountered diverse cultures, communities, and civilizations.
Whilst Old Norse was a branch of the Germanic language family – making communication with other Germanic societies (think the Anglo-Saxons, Franks, or Saxons) easier – the fact remained that people from Viking societies were often a small cultural minority when outside of their homeland.
Think, for example, of the famous Varangian Guard. From the 10th century, these Viking mercenaries served as the Byzantine Emperor's personal bodyguard in Constantinople.
Now, considering that the Byzantine Court spoke Greek and thought of themselves as the cultural successors of the Roman Empire, how then did the Varangian Guard remain so feared?
They maintained their distinct identity in this dynamic and diverse environment through oral culture. The oral tradition served as the best way to retain and pass down their proud cultural heritage.
Skalds, the famous poets, bards, and storytellers of Viking societies, were instrumental in this process.
Often a mix of historical fact and entertaining fiction, these stories were celebrated and preserved through the skillful art of skaldic poetry.
Seidr was an ancient form of Norse magic, often involving trance and prophecy, practiced primarily by women known as "volvas" in Viking society. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Religious and magical ceremonies
Aside from communication, politics, and entertainment, oral tradition extended to religious and ritual practices.
The Old Norse religion had no codified book or scriptures, with only fragments of their religious beliefs passed down to us through sagas or archaeological records.
Not until Christianity was introduced did people in Viking societies encounter their first religious text – the Bible.
For many historians, it is a source of considerable frustration that we know extraordinarily little about the ceremonial and religious aspects of the Old Norse religion.
We have only archaeological fragments to try and piece together what was a highly sophisticated belief system. Religious ceremonies, as well as rituals, were believed to involve spoken incantations and recitations – what we would call prayers.
The spoken word could also be used for malign purposes due to the widespread belief in magic (seiðr).
A complex set of rituals, spells, and incantations were cast orally due to their highly esoteric and secretive nature.
The oral transmission also ensured the preservation of this magical knowledge and ensured it remained a mysterious and intangible aspect of Viking culture.
These practices reinforced the strong link between oral culture and the deep spirituality inherent within Viking societies.
More than just mere communication
The importance of the oral culture that was inherent in the lives of Viking peoples throughout the early medieval period and beyond cannot be overstated.
In the absence of widespread written language, oral tradition was the vehicle through which communities preserved their history, culture, power, politics, and religious beliefs.
It was a cornerstone of their identity and cultural heritage, as well as being a rich source of entertainment.
The oral culture was more than a means of communication, and its legacy can still be felt today wherever a saga is read or a skaldic poem recited.
For more information on Viking oral culture, visit the Council of Europe website here.
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