Christina here. Next week sees the publication of the second book in my Viking series – The Runes of Destiny. It is the story of Linnea, a twenty-first century woman who ends up travelling back in time to the Viking age. Here’s a short blurb:-
“When helping out at an archaeological dig, Linnea uncovers an exquisite brooch, but blacks out after reading the runic inscription. She wakes up surrounded by men in Viking costume, who seem to take re-enactment very seriously. Lost and confused, she finds herself in the power of Hrafn, a Viking warrior who claims her as his thrall and takes her on a journey across the seas to sell her for profit. Setting sail, she confronts the unthinkable: she has travelled back to the 9th century. Linnea is determined to find a way back to her own time, but there’s a connection forming with Hrafn. Can she resist the call of the runes and accept her destiny lies here …”
This story was inspired by the incredible Viking travels I’d read about. Despite their reputation as ferocious marauders, there was much to admire about the Vikings, and the one thing I am in total awe of is their fearless exploration of the world around them. It didn’t happen overnight, of course, and Scandinavian people had been travelling in all directions for decades (perhaps centuries) before the era we call the Viking age. However, the refinement of their sleek, clinker-built ships allowed them to go further and faster than ever before because of the invention of the keel. It gave the ships a stability they’d lacked and allowed them to take to the high seas. The fact that the vessels were shallow with a fairly flat bottom also made it easy for them to land on any beach and to travel far along most rivers without getting stuck.
It is now well-known that they were the first Europeans to set foot in America – or Vinland (“Wine Land”) as they called it, where they encountered the native population who they called ‘skraelings’. They didn’t stay for long and never, as far as we know, established trading links on that continent, but they settled in Greenland which is quite far enough from their homelands!
To me, however, their main achievement was the travel they did in the other direction – east and south. Trade with the east had probably been going on for centuries, with goods making its way in stages from places like Byzantium and Baghdad. On the island of Helgö, in a Viking age settlement just west of Stockholm, archaeologists have even found a little statue of a Buddha, and also trade goods from many other places.
Then someone, somewhere in Scandinavia (most likely Sweden) must have had the bright idea to try and go straight to the source in order to cut out the middlemen. To do that would be to gain enormous riches, as trade goods was incredibly valuable. Silk, glass, silver, rock crystal and gems like carnelian were some of the items to bring back. The only problem was how to get there. They could have sailed all the way down the European coast along what is now the Netherlands, France, Spain and into and around the Mediterranean, and some of them undoubtedly did. But there was a more direct route through modern day Russia along the rivers, and this is what they attempted.
I say attempted, because it was by no means certain they’d either make it there or back. It wasn’t just an arduous journey, but also very dangerous.
To reach the city of Byzantium (present day Istanbul), which the Vikings called Miklagarðr, in Grikkland (their word for the Byzantine empire), they had to head down one or other of the rivers that lead south from the Baltic coast. The most common route went via the Neva River (where St Petersburg is now situated), just south of Finland, passing briefly through Lake Ladoga and continuing up the Volkhov River. There was a trading settlement here called Aldeigjuborg (now Staraja Ladoga), which was established quite early on, and some people never went any further. The more intrepid travellers, however, continued upstream to Holmgarðr (Novgorod), across Lake Ilmen, and then via various tiny rivers and through enormous forests until they reached the river Dniepr.
I have no idea how they found their way in this wilderness. It is mind-boggling! It involved what is called portage – ie carrying their ships through the forests for quite long stretches. Although carrying isn’t quite the right word – what they would do is put down timber rollers and slide the ship along, bit by bit, until they got to another stretch of water of some kind. All the while, they had to be alert to the dangers around them, mainly the threat of attack from native tribes, who must have known they were vulnerable and carried a valuable cargo.
Once on the Dniepr, it wasn’t quite plain sailing either. This river is over 2,000 kilometers long and there are dangerous rapids and other parts that are tricky to navigate. The Vikings joined it roughly two thirds of the way up, but that was still a long way to go. They would have passed Koenugarðr (what would become the city of Kiev), then continued down towards the Black Sea and across to the Bosphorus, the narrow strait that joins it with the Mediterranean, and their goal – Miklagarðr. The entire journey was some 3,000 kilometers!
It was undoubtedly worth it if you succeeded though. The trade goods the Vikings brought – things like furs, slaves, iron ore, amber, eiderdown and walrus tusks – made them good profits, and the things they took home with them made them even richer. The lure of this wealth must have been irresistible to many, even though they would have known the odds were against them. In Sweden, there are lots of rune stones that commemorate those who travelled to foreign lands, both those who made it and the ones who didn’t. And you can’t but admire their spirit of adventure and fearless optimism.
If you had travelled back in time and were taken on a journey like this, how would you cope? And what would you miss the most from our century? For me, it would be chocolate!
The Runes of Destiny will be released on 10th December – it is available for pre-order here. To celebrate publication I will give away one signed copy of the book together with this little raven keyring (the hero’s name is Hrafn which means raven). Just leave a comment below, no later than midnight on Saturday and I will pick a winner at random.