If you love the epic soundtracks heard on the 'Vikings' TV series, you should definitely check out some of the musical groups (such as Wardruna) listed at the bottom of this article. Enjoy!
Music and Poetry
As anyone acquainted with Viking lore knows, the Norse placed great importance on poetry. Odin risked his life to obtain the Mead of Poetry, and any human that had a talent for verse was thought to be gifted by him. In fact, being a true poet, or skald as the Norse called them, may be enough to land a person into the jarl class – the same social caste as kings and chieftains. Even as the Medieval Church considered music to be semi-divine (or semi-diabolical, as the case may be), Vikings considered poetry to be semi-magical. For example, in Icelandic law, it was illegal to compose love poetry to a woman who was not your wife, because such a thing was thought to be a means of bewitching her. So, we know that the Norse prized poetry very highly, and we know that poetry and music are closely related – both require rhythm, memory, skill in performance, and other coinciding intangible qualities.
But what do we know about Norse music from the Viking era? Unfortunately, the answer is "not very much." Our modern system of musical notation that enables musicians to play a work perfectly even centuries after it was written can be traced back to advances made by an Italian monk late in the Viking Age (1025, to be exact). More primitive systems of notation go back much further. However, the Vikings did not use these systems. We do have a snatch of a song (called "I Dreamed a Dream") written in runes with some musical notation, but it is from a few centuries later.
The Norse had an oral culture and not a written one. Their stories, thoughts, philosophies, faith, and music were passed on from teller to listener, and once the mead hall or fireside went quiet for the night, all that was left was memory. Hundreds of years later, the descendants of Vikings would scramble to set this great culture down in writing before it disappeared entirely, but these sources were imperfect in many cases either because of the passage of time or the shifts in perspective. Therefore, much of what modern people believe about the Vikings is always open for debate, and much of what we would know about them requires reverse-engineering and careful assessment of the archeological record. Luckily, many experts have been working diligently over decades to bring us closer to some of these answers.
Viking Musical Instruments
Given the importance of poetry in the Norse world, it is not a stretch to suppose that music was a means of augmenting or enriching this highly-advanced art form. If this were so, we would expect Viking music to favor the human voice. In other words, Viking music would be singing (or chanting) accompanied by rhythm (perhaps with frame drums or other types of percussion instruments). As drums were made from animal hide and often-slender pieces of wood, few of these would have survived in the archeological record. This would help explain why archeologists have uncovered thousands of Viking artifacts ranging from pins to ships but have found very few musical instruments.
Some notable exceptions include the bone flute found in Birka, Sweden, which is still perfectly playable. A pipe or canter woodwind piece discovered in Falster, Denmark may have been an instrument itself (like the Breton bombarde) of perhaps part of a small bagpipe. A wooden, boxlike instrument that works like a set of Pan pipes was found in Viking York (Jorvik), and a curious instrument bridge (as are used in string instruments, probably a lyre) made of pure amber was discovered in Gotland, Sweden. While people unfamiliar with the lyre tend to think of it as a rudimentary harp, lyre are very versatile instruments that can be plucked, struck, strummed, and bowed, and provide an array of musical possibilities. A number of valve-less trumpets that were invented in Denmark in ancient times and used over the centuries, known as the lur have also been recovered. Some lur are close to six feet long, and curve in various ways to make them more sonorous or more portable. There are also several surviving examples of the bukkehorn or buckhorn, an instrument made from a ram’s horn that has been used in Scandinavia for millennia. In Norse mythology, the god Heimdall is said to have a mighty horn named Gjallarhorn, which was probably a lur though it is often imagined as a bukkehorn.
While Norse sagas are almost as quiet about music as the archeological record is (besides a few allusions to it as a refined and dignified skill), there are some mentions of harps, such as in the sagas of the hero, Gunner. When bound and cast into a snake pit (much as Ragnar Lothbrok had been) Gunner tried to calm the serpents by playing his harp with his toes. Of course, harps were very popular amongst the Irish bards, and the Vikings were very active in Ireland. It may be that these peoples found the Norse and Celtic styles complimented each other, as they had already seen in so many other things. It seems likely that the Vikings – who were keen to adapt and adopt new things once they got used to them – would have adopted this and other instruments they encountered on their voyages. Many of the references to musical instruments in the sagas are in the context of Vikings traveling to exotic lands, and by the time these sagas were written down Scandinavia and Iceland were as invested in the common European musical tradition as anyone.
We also have a few clues about Viking music from the other peoples with whom they came in contact. From Arabic sources we hear that the Vikings liked to sing in a deep sound that seemed to come from their throats. If this is so, it may be that the Vikings had a similar style to the throat singing found in Tibet and parts of Mongolia (among other places). Other sources mention howling and "odious cries," but how much of this was meant as music and how much was meant to intimidate enemies is questionable. Musical historians also interpret various sources to conclude that the Norse sang in polyphonies, harmonizing different lines in different musical intervals.
Recreating Viking Music and Viking Musical Fusion
Today people are finding renewed meaning in Viking culture and heritage. Norse faith, Viking ethos, and history have received a great deal of attention, and now Norse influences on music are becoming increasingly popular. Viking themes and Nordic folk musical elements are the defining features of the sub-genre, Viking Metal, with many bands such as Amon Amarth, Einherjer, Grand Magus, Falconer, and Korpiklaani, proliferating in the 1990's and early-2000's. Now some musicians have taken it quite a few steps further, by producing and performing more authentic re-creations of Viking music. Meanwhile, other musical groups who do not wish to be artistically limited by academic speculation choose to fuse Norse elements into their otherwise modern, original music. The distinction between these movements comes down to the choice of instruments – synthesizers and guitars versus authentic lyre, drums, etc – as well as using lyrics from surviving Norse literature versus adapting Norse themes to original verse.
Norse / Viking style Musicians
The list of singers and musical groups that exist within this spectrum are too numerous to provide here, but below are just a few examples:
Wardruna is a Norwegian group founded around 2009. They are responsible for much of the soundtrack and music heard on the TV series called Vikings. Though some of their members came out of the Black Metal scene of the early 2000s, Wardruna predominantly relies on traditional instruments to achieve their unworldly, haunting sound. Their music draws inspiration from Norse mythology as well as complex thematic constructs (such as basing an entire album around 24 runes). Founding member, Einar Selvik (who also goes by the stage name, Kvitrafn), also performs solo, sometimes singing arrangements of actual Viking poems accompanied only by his lyre. Einar has also appeared on the History Channel's series called Vikings.
Danheim is a Danish ensemble which combines traditional Nordic instruments with elements from electronic and ambient styles. The result is driving, hypnotic, energetic music “composed of the darker side of the Viking era … Nordic mythology, Danish folklore, and a vivid imagination.”
Heilung is an international, experimental music group centered in Denmark. The name means ‘healing’ in German, but most would probably find Heilung’s aggressive throat singing and drumming are more cathartic than soothing. Inspired by Viking faith and shamanism, Heilung attempts to tap into universal tribalism and create "amplified history." Heilung has a dark sound that will immediately be appreciated by fans of Goth, Metal, and Industrial while maintaining a level of folk authenticity that is truly impressive in its commitment.
Forndom describes themselves as not just a band, but an artistic/atmospheric multi-project intended to bring the listener back to a time when humanity lived far closer to their gods and to Nature. Forndom uses traditional instruments like lyre, bowed instruments, and drums, along with choirs to create peaceful, meditative music that evokes longing for the past and hope for the future.
Kati Ran and other female Viking-inspired artists
Currently, there seem to be more male-driven Viking-inspired music groups than female, but the number of women artists is growing. Kati Ran is an artist from the Netherlands who offers a unique and accessible interpretation of Scandinavian folk music with shamanistic influences. In 2016, Kati Ran did a powerful duet with Norwegian folk/New Age artist Helesir, in which they blend not only their angelic voices but also the music of harp and lyre. Pop/jazz artist Eivør Pálsdóttir and New Age/shamanistic artist Anilah have also experimented with the style. Other female-driven groups include Völva Kummi, Valravn, and Voluspa.
The spectrum of Viking-influenced music offers an array of sound diversity, just as we would expect not all music from the Norse world to sound the same. While all these artistic efforts are interpretations and cannot definitively claim to be exactly what the Vikings sang at the oars of their ships or in their mead halls, they offer us a unique way to understand and enjoy Norse culture from a new perspective.
David Gray Rodgers is a career fire officer who holds a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in business administration. He has published several books, including Sons of Vikings (Viking history book) and The Songs of Slaves: A Novel of the Fall of Rome.
Based in Virginia Beach, VA, Sons of Vikings is dedicated to providing articles such as this one on news, history and artifact findings relating to the Viking era. We also offer an online store that features Viking / Nordic / Celtic / Slavic jewelry (including the sun cross pendant similar to the one Einar Selvik from Wardruna is wearing here).
Other Viking jewelry items include Thor's hammer (mjolnirs), earrings, torcs, beard beads and arm rings. We also sell drinking horns, Viking axes, shields, t-shirts and more.
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- Music of the Viking Era, Its Instruments, and How it was Performed (2017). The Dockyards. Retrieved from http://thedockyards.com/music-viking-age/
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- Olsen, M. (2017). About Danheim. Retrieved from http://danheimmusic.com/about
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- About Wardruna. Retrieved from http://www.wardruna.com/about/
- Reed, R. (2018). How Denmark’s Heilung are Creating Amplified History with Human Bones, Throat Singing. Revolver. Retrieved from https://www.revolvermag.com/music/how-denmarks-heilung-are-creating-amplified-history-human-bones-throat-singing
- Retrieved from https://nordvis.com/forndom-a-1