The Viking

Alan Baker, Author John Wiley & Sons $22.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-471-43049-0
Yes, the Vikings were indeed""savage and bloodthirsty conquerors, pillagers and pirates,"" but they also had a""gentler side,"" according to this engaging overview of their history and culture. Historian Baker (The Knight and The Gladiator) draws on archaeological studies, numismatics, Norse sagas and shell-shocked medieval chroniclers to give a balanced assessment of the Vikings. He details their weapons and armor, appreciates their fast, sturdy longboats, salutes their fierce fighting style (as epitomized by the berserkers, Vikings whose""rational minds had been obliterated by an animalistic lust for blood"" induced, perhaps, by alcohol and hallucinogenic mushrooms), and surveys the""relentless rain of terror and death"" they visited on a Europe that dubbed them""the revenge of Satan."" But marauding, he contends, was just a sideline (often commuted to extortion payments) to more constructive pursuits like farming, trading and craftsmanship. The Vikings also had an intriguing culture, most evocatively displayed in a long chapter on their distinctive mythology, full of legends about the brutish Thor, the wily Loki, the unreliable Odin and their rather promiscuous goddess consorts. And Baker recounts the great Viking voyages of exploration and colonization to Iceland, Greenland and North America. Still, to set against the Vikings' mitigating achievements, there was the marauding, not to mention their bizarre funeral customs, which could involve a disturbing fusion of ritual sex and human sacrifice. At the end of Baker's book, as the Vikings settle down and are Christianized, readers may breathe a sigh of relief to see this colorful civilization pass into history.
Reviewed on: 03/01/2004
Release date: 03/01/2004
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