However, musical talent is not something typically associated with the scourge of early medieval Europe. Nonetheless, music was an integral part of Viking society, as evidenced by their skill with several musical instruments.
A musical society
Traditionally, there has been little study of the musical aspect of Viking societies. This is understandable, given that Vikings are most famous for their exploits on the battlefield or the high seas.
However, music held a prominent role in Viking society, transcending mere entertainment to encompass various aspects of their culture.
No respectable Viking chieftain or head of a household would allow a feast to take place without some form of music.
This provided a popular form of entertainment, allowed people to get into a festive spirit, and helped to foster a sense of community – vital given the dire conditions of everyday life, from the harsh climate of Scandinavia to a society rife with violence and insecurity.
Music was a vital form of cultural expression, often conveying popular stories and sagas in a powerful oral form. Furthermore, music could be used to communicate elegies or even heroic ballads.
It also held religious and ceremonial significance, as it was used in rituals to honor the pantheons of Norse gods.
Finally, music was also a part of Viking warfare.
Vikings often used some musical instruments, like horns or drums, to convey tactical messages in the heat of battle.
What, then, were some of the most popular musical instruments used in Viking societies?
Drums in Viking cultures were typically simple in design, often crafted as frame or hand drums, serving both utilitarian and cultural roles. Photo: Ratomir Wilkowski / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Drumming up support
Drums were among the most popular musical instruments used by people in Viking societies. These were often easily fashioned, typically as frame or hand drums, and were used for both practical and cultural reasons.
Whilst not the most historically accurate movie, the 1958 action-adventure flick "The Vikings," starring Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas, is nevertheless thoroughly entertaining.
One of the more historically accurate scenes features Kirk Douglas' character being hauled up to row on a Viking longship. Here, a drummer is used to maintaining the rhythm of rowing, much to Kirk Douglas' character's chagrin.
Given the vast distances and climatic conditions that Viking ships covered, the use of a sail was not always possible, meaning that brute power was needed.
A steady rhythm, using drums, was the perfect way for those brawny Vikings not to tire too easily.
When these Norse seafarers reached the shore and engaged in a bit of raiding or fighting, a drum was again employed to convey battle orders, such as advancing on an enemy.
Away from the battlefield, drums were also used in religious ceremonies.
Aspects of the Old Norse religion were influenced, in part, by interactions with the shamanistic and animistic religious practices of the Sami people throughout northern Scandinavia and its surroundings.
This influence was evident in the use of drums for rhythmic beats and patterns during religious ceremonies and worship, especially during blóts.
In the 2022 movie "The Northman," there is a scene showcasing this synthesis of shamanism and Old Norse beliefs where drums feature prominently.
In Viking societies, horns were versatile instruments used for signaling on the battlefield and enhancing religious rituals with their deep tones. Photo: Brambilla Simone / Shutterstock
Not to toot your own horn
Horns were another popular musical instrument in Viking societies.
Aside from their more well-known use as a drinking vessel (surely one of the coolest ways to drink beer... or mead), horns added a distinct auditory dimension to their culture.
The most recognizable musical horn was called a lur, a long and curved instrument usually made of bronze or brass. Like drums, they were used both on the battlefield and in religious ceremonies.
The distinctive sound that lurs produced when blown was used by Vikings as a means of signaling in the heat of war.
Its resonant tone could be heard above the clash of weapons, and sounding it could signal a rush on an enemy line or a call to pull back, reform, or retreat.
When blowing the lur during a religious ceremony, its haunting tones contributed to a mystical and introspective ambiance, aiding worshippers in their quest to achieve a higher state of consciousness and be at one with the Norse gods.
String instruments, like the lyre, were central to Viking culture, often accompanying the recitation of sagas and enhancing the melodies of skaldic poems. Photo: Igor Shoshin / Shutterstock
Strings and stories
Viking societies, along with many other cultures and civilizations rooted in Germanic traditions, held storytelling in high regard. One only has to consider the evolution of epic stories and myths during the early medieval period.
The Germanic peoples of Late Antiquity, the cultural ancestors of Viking societies, had already developed the art of crafting sagas (with the Völsunga Saga as a prime example).
Their Scandinavian descendants further perfected this art throughout the early medieval period.
This central form of entertainment, the narration of stories, sagas, and myths, served as a way to pass the long and frosty winter nights (considering they resided in the far north of Europe where winters seemed endless).
Such tales were often enhanced by the musical harmony of a lyre.
Entertainers adept at presenting these narratives with musical accompaniment were known as skalds. This blend of captivating tales and melodious music played a crucial role in preserving and transmitting Norse mythology and history.
Indeed, the rhythm and cadence of these skaldic poems and stories were believed to have musical qualities.
Skalds were also renowned for crafting and reciting exquisite poems, which were further enriched by the gentle strumming of a lyre.
More than just raiding, trading, and pillaging...
Musical ability and talent might not be the first impression one has of Viking societies.
However, musical instruments served not only as a means of artistic expression and popular entertainment but also had practical applications both on the high seas and on the battlefield.
They enabled Viking communities to express themselves in various social, cultural, and spiritual contexts.
From drums to lyres and horns, music was a fundamental aspect of their culture. One that, while traditionally overlooked by some historians, deserves more academic scrutiny and public interest.
For more information on contemporary music using Viking musical instruments, visit The Guardian here.
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