Viking Aesthetics

Viking art is estimated to have started at the end of the 8th century. It was first developed by the Viking tribes of Scandinavia in territories that we now know as Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. Vikings decorated almost everything with elaborate carvings and contrasting super-positioned materials. Currently, Viking art is mostly recognized by runes or carvings from recognizable aspects of their mythology.

Figure 1: Left: The Drävle runestone that depicts the hero Sigurd killing Fafnir the dragon. Right: Ægishjálmur is drawn into the Galdrakver (A Book Of Magic), dating to 1670

Runes are symbols from the runic alphabet or Elder Futhark, used by many Germanic tribes to communicate before the adoption of the Latin alphabet.  Unlike the Latin alphabet, the runic alphabet is believed to carry a corresponding meaning within each of its runes. The meaning of each rune was philosophical and magical, it corresponds to the sound and visual form of the rune’s name, and some were strongly tied to Norse mythology. For example, the Tiwaz rune was associated with the god Tyr, a war god, and upholder of law and justice. Therefore, Vikings would engrave the Tiwaz rune in weapons, believing that the rune would bring them power from the gods to be successful in battles against enemies who wronged them. Rune casting has lingered to the day as part of paganism, witchcraft, and admirers of Viking culture.

Figure 2: The Elder Futhark and Meaning of Each Rune

The Viking aesthetic is not just runes, it is also composed of very intricate motifs representing animals, people, and knots (like those seen in Celtic art). Most of these patterns and figures were engraved or made from wood, organic materials (bones, animal hides, etc.), metals, and rocks. The styles of these patterns also evolved over the years and are now segmented into phases.

The first phase was the Oseberg Style and it is famous for its intertwining zoomorphic patterns of “Gripping Beasts” and “Ribbon-Animals”. This style took place from the year 775 to the year 850.

Figure 3: Various beasts are carved into the Oseberg ship’s stern: a ribbon-animal (in blue, also called a streaming-animal); gripping-beasts rendered with humanoid heads (in red); and more ambiguous forms that echo the bodies of creatures seen at the prow (in green). Oseberg oak longship and detail of prow with ribbon-animal and gripping-beast motifs, 9th century, found in a burial mound near Tønsberg (Viking ship museum, Oslo; photo: Chad K, CC BY 2.0)

The second phase was the Borre style, used in the years 840 to 970. It was popular because it builds upon the Oseberg style but made the creatures in ornaments more prominent. It was characterized as almost circular in style and very compact, swarming the viewer with décor.

Figure 4: Bronze pendant from Hedeby (Haithabu)

The third phase was the Jellinge style, characterized by markedly stylized and band-shaped animals. It features fine lines and dynamic movement in ribbon-like S-shapes. This phase lasted from 900-975.

Figure 5: The Cup of King Grom with Jelling-style engraving, now in the National Museum of Denmark.

The fourth style, Mammen, is hard to differentiate from the Jellinge style. However, it adds tendrils, dots, spirals, and other features that enhance the aesthetic. The style was named after finding a ceremonial axe near the Danish village of Mammen. The innovative style was popularized in the years 960-1025.

Figure 6: The famous Mammen Axe, now at the National Museum of Denmark.

The fifth style, Ringerike, rose in 990-1050 and added plant motifs. This was unusual in the Viking aesthetic, but it took place due to the increased interaction between the Norse and other cultures in the European, African, and Asian continents. The Ringerike style has a more taut and evenly curved scroll than in the one used in Mammen and its tendrils are also far more disciplined. This phase also experienced plenty of metalwork ornamentation, especially with copper. Architecture, weapons, ivory carvings, and runestones became more common.

Figure 7: The runestone Ög 111 with a cross in Ringerike style

In the last phase of the Viking Age during the years 1050-1125, the Urnes style tuned to more elegant and schematic forms. Christianity had become more widely accepted over Scandinavia and with it, the Romanesque aesthetics. However, in the Urnes stage, figure-eight and multi-loop compositions were employed, and animals were extremely stylized.

Figure 8: A silver brooch from Iceland

I feel like even after a thousand years, Viking culture and its aesthetics have remained admirable by many people. This is why I would like to pursue an Upcycling project using the materials and motifs described. My current idea is to make a board game featured in the video game Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. The game is called Orlog. It features two sets of 6 wooden dice with symbols representing two axes (one per side), an arrow, a shield, a Gjermundbu helmet, and a hand. It also requires two sets of 15 pebbles, an ornate wooden bowl, two sets of 24 metal rune tiles, and two sets of 18 metal god figurines representing Thor, Idun, Vidar, Ullr, Heimdall, Baldr, Brunhild, Freyr, Hel, Skadi, Skuld, Frigg, Loki, Freyja, Mimir, Bragi, Odin, Var, and Thrymr. Due to the vast number of pieces, I am thinking about starting simple, getting all the materials to their basic shapes. After that, I will add the decorative elements corresponding to the Viking Aesthetic.

Figure 9: Orlog board game featuring basic components from Geek-News visited at www.games.ch

Image Sources:

https://smarthistory.org/viking-art/ (Featured Image and Figures 4)

https://grimfrost.com/blogs/blog/carving-runes (Figure 1)

https://www.norsetradesman.com/blogs/news/how-to-read-runes (Figure 2)

https://www.historyonthenet.com/viking-art (Figures 4 and 7)

https://sonsofvikings.com/blogs/history/viking-art-styles (Figures 5 and 6)

http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/norse_art.htm (Figure 8)

https://www.games.ch/geek-news/news/assassins-creed-valhalla-jQgd/ (Figure 9)

Sources and Relevant Information:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viking_art

https://sonsofvikings.com/blogs/history/viking-art-styles

https://smarthistory.org/viking-art/

https://www.historyonthenet.com/viking-art

http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/norse_art.htm

https://www.norsetradesman.com/blogs/news/how-to-read-runes

https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/the-aesir-gods-and-goddesses/tyr/

https://grimfrost.com/blogs/blog/carving-runes

 

 

 

 

 

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3 Comments. Leave new

  • Hey Gary,
    I too have played the orlog and although I found it super tough to play and understand it was so cool how the dice and board both showed these unique carvings you described in this post. I am incredibly interested to see how this turns out and I will be following.

    Reply
  • Gary Marshall
    Jillian Weber
    February 7, 2021 7:16 pm

    Hey Gary!
    Incredible job with the blog post, I think you did a super thorough explanation of the evolution of the Viking aesthetic, and it was quite the interesting read! Thanks for going through all the phases, I like how you pointed out details that make each one special. I would love to hear more about the design elements that you plan on integrating into the game! Do you have any phases that you want to emphasize in the pieces? Do you want them all to be uniform mix, or display a range of the design details? Is there one phase that you particularly love over the others? I can’t wait to see the final product!

    Reply
  • Gary Marshall
    Branden Tangney
    February 2, 2021 4:28 pm

    Gary, this is quite the blog post! I caught myself reading through it a couple of times. I really like how you went though the various styles that have evolved over time and gave a brief introduction to each. I learned a lot of unique facts and they tied really well into your idea for this project. I myself happen to love Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and have spent many hours playing the game. Orlog is a unique game that I think will encompass the Viking Aesthetic perfectly. I would even challenge you to try to find a blanket as seen in Figure 9 to really create the full sense of the game. This might be hard but I am very excited to see what you come up with and how this project will turn out!

    Reply

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