“In the North of Caithness, Darad came up to a rock, having seen several figures approach and disappear in it. In this rock there was an opening through which he saw wild women weaving and singing as they wove. And the weights of the loom he beheld were human heads – the heads of heroes: of entrails were the warps and woofs: swords were the shuttles: and for a comb they had arrows. Now as they sang their awful song, the words dinned in his ears and became understandable. They sang that they were Valkyrias and that the web they were weaving was the web of Darad. As the song ceased they tore in pieces the work they had done, and departed as they had come, some going North and some going South.”
from Njåls saga.
A tale full of witchcraft and impending doom. An echo from pre-history and a glimpse into the dark depths of the human psyche. Warp, weft and shuttles, all commonplace objects familiar in everyday life, juxtaposed with horrific imaginings, thus creating a disturbing and evocative vision. Surely an indication of art’s power to fuse disparate elements into a vivid whole.
The period between 800 and 1100 A.D is called the Viking Age. An important time in the development of the Scandinavian lands with the establishment of a distinct Nordic culture. A culture to many typified by the image of a tall, blond bearded, helmeted warrior – the Scourge of the North. However this image has proved to be not wholly true. In 1980, the British Museum had assembled an exhibition entitled ”The Viking”, giving a more balanced view of these raping, plundering and marauding savages. Sir David Wilson wrote in the accompanying catalogue:
“In a brutal age, the Vikings were brutal, but their brutality was no worse than that of their compatriots. Wilson continues: The Vikings were good administrators and noted for their achievements in law and culture, the discovery of America, the acceptance of Christianity, the creation of national states, – as well as the government of colonies.”
The Vikings were extraordinary seamen and navigators, explorers and warriors, craftsmen and tradesmen, all in all quite “civilised”.
After so much has been said about Viking men, it is natural to ask “What of the Viking women?” Were there real Viking women and how did they function in a ”super macho” world? The simple answer is that Viking women were responsible for inside the house and the men outside. The women took care of the children, breastfeeding, cooking and in between spinning, dyeing wool, weaving and sewing. As soon as man discovered that fibres could become thread, and thread could be platted or woven into rope for use in hunting, on ships and as protection against the elements in tents, felt and clothing, it is reasonable to suppose that women had the responsibility and creative interest for the making of textiles from the Stone Age onwards.
Homer wrote the following in the Odyssey more than 800 years before the Vikings existed:
“[…] just as much as men are sovereign above all others in sailing a fast ship over the sea […] are women sovereign in weaving, as Athena has, above all else, given them knowledge about beautiful craftsmanship and a noble disposition.”
Going back to the question about who the Viking women were we can refer ourselves the Oseberg Ship. The Oseberg Ship, buried about 840.A.D. and found in 1903 on the west coast of Oslo fjord not far from Tønsberg, is regarded as the greatest archaeological find in Norway from the Viking Age. In the book “Oseberg dronningens grav” 1992, A. R. Christensen, A.S. Ingstad and B. Myhre write in the foreword:
“The Oseberg find is the greatest adventure in Norwegian archaeology. Over a thousand years ago two women were buried in a field at Slagendalen. The objects they were buried with surpassed all other grave discoveries in the Nordic countries […] we must look to the tombs of the Pharaohs of Egypt to find such rich and varied objects.” (my translation)
In this unusually beautiful ship, two women had been buried. One is thought to be the Oseberg queen herself, while the other is her lady-in-waiting. Both women had obviously attained a high status in life as they had in death. The women were laid in their own beds with pillows and eiderdown duvets. Around them were placed fine textiles, chests, boxes and other valuable and useful objects for life after death. Both had been laid to rest in the burial chamber of the ship, a burial chamber so rich that many researchers have asserted that these women had been much more than two rich and powerful ladies.
The Oseberg ship is the first one meets in the Viking Ship Museum at Bygdøy. The beautiful lines, the fine carving and the somewhat flat bottom to the boat stir within us thoughts of the old folk tale about the ship that could sail on land and sea. Different theories maintain that such an extraordinary ship with such rich objects had a special function above and beyond transporting people and cargo about the Oslo fjord. Was it a cult ship, a ceremonial craft used in the transport of priestesses and for the performance of holy rituals? The two women were most probably high priestesses and representatives on earth of Freya, the goddess of fertility, love and beauty. Freya was a Nordic goddess of great influence and power in the context of the mentality of the time, and was an important pre-Christian symbol who might be a model for the Virgin Mary in the Catholic Church.
An unusually rich collection of textiles was found in the Oseberg ship, comprised of tapestry fragments, patterned carpets in wool and linen, some card-weavings and a great number of bits of material from clothes and the ship’s sail. It is interesting to think that it took exactly the same time to weave the sail as it did to build the ship. All the textiles found make up 277 catalogue numbers, where each number can include from 1 to nearly 100 fragments. Some are imported textiles, others made at the Royal Court of Oseberg, a kingdom with enough power and wealth to create refined art of thin and fragile thread. About 30 fragments of all the textiles are tapestry. Technically speaking, these woven fragments are not the same as tapestry today. They are a much more complex form of weaving that obviously builds upon a long handicraft tradition of great knowledge. One hypothesis is that it is a development of card weaving. The weavings are executed using a double binding system, one for the figures and one for the background. However, the figures now lie on bare warp threads as the weaving between them, most probably linen or possibly nettles, being organic materials have disappeared with time. There are about 10 warp threads per centimetre, exceptionally fine weaving. The technique is a kind of double brocading executed with 20 different bindings and many of these give a fine decorative effect. The tapestries are small, almost miniatures, between 16 and 23 centimetres high. Unfortunately it is impossible today to say what the original length was. Each surface is filled to the edges with teeming life, showing a procession with carriages, spears, birds, oversized horses, houses, trees, a ship, and an array of symbols that are now difficult to interpret. The contours around each figure are marked with a different coloured thread than the background and create a marked contrast, the technique being reminiscent of soumak. The colours, which were certainly once bright and strong, now appear as brown and grey tones; yet one colour still stands clearly out, a beautiful carmine red. This colour appears so often that it must be regarded as the main colour, which is interesting as just this colour is attributed to Freya, supporting the notion that all the tapestries contain great mythological value. Everything is presented in what is termed as horror vacui, the fear of empty surfaces that is a composition form often seen in old and “primitive” visual expressions. The tapestries have been made with great patience and knowledge about spinning and dyeing. They couple a great sense for beauty with consummate skill. Their special form is often referred to as the “Oseberg dronnings” style.
It has been suggested that the tapestries have been long pictorial strips that could have hung above guests seated on benches in a smoke filled Viking hall. These strips were akin to long cartoon strips that told of the important events in Viking life. While being easy reading then, today they are foreign, mystical, enticing to the imagination.
For many years the only interesting text one could find about the Oseberg textiles was a small article written by Bjørn Hougen in 1940. He opened the article with the following: “Tapestry and wood carving – in these words lie the starting point for the new perspective the Oseberg find has opened for art history about the Viking Age.” Later, Anne Stine Ingstad wrote in “Oseberg dronnings grav” (1992): “All the textiles found in the ship’s burial chamber are without parallel in Nordic pre-history, and of all the textiles it is without doubt the tapestries that are the most important.” These two quotations that show that tapestry can lift the veil and give us an insight into what people were involved with and what women’s hands could accomplish in pre-Christian times.
Professor Gustafson was the main archaeologist for the excavation of the Oseberg ship. He was aware of the textiles’ immense value and said that they should be examined and taken care of immediately after they were excavated. But, unfortunately, this didn’t happen. Only seven days were allotted to this important work in august 1905. As far as one can ascertain, there was no further work before 1912, when the accomplished draughtswoman Sofie Krafft began to make drawings of the textiles. She wrote herself that she was stopped by Professor Gustafson and told that she should not “steal” time from the more important work on the woodcarvings! Today one sees the treatment of all textiles rather differently than 100 years ago. It is difficult not to think that the woodcarvings, beautiful and important as they are, were made by men (and 1000 years later excavated and lovingly looked after by men), whilst the textiles, made by women, were not looked upon with the same interest by archaeologists and researchers. It is as if the textiles have had a “step father” treatment. This is emphasised now, today, 104 years after the excavation by the fact that only few tapestry fragments, 6 in all, are exhibited in the Viking Museum.
Between 1917 and 1928, 4 great works were published about the Oseberg Ship. A fifth volume should be about the textiles. But, 101 years passed before this book was at last published. No adequate explanation was given as to why it had taken such an incredibly long time. And these were tapestries that many had described as the most important! Where are they and in what condition are they now? Have they a future before the public? Apart from clear and descriptive drawings and watercolours by Sofie Krafft and Mary Storm and some recent photographs, few have seen them. In 1992 Anne Stine Ingstad wrote: “Some of the textiles are in such bad condition and lie in great piles, often in many layers” (my translation). If they are in such bad condition that they perhaps can no longer be saved, one’s thoughts turn involuntarily to other objects, i.e. the Dead Sea Scrolls (150-70 B.C.) and other fibre objects that have been restored with new methods over the last 50 years. Is it due to lack of knowledge, funds or interest that so few have been exhibited?
Why are these tapestries so important? The answer lies in many layers, not only physical, but what they mean for different interest groups. For archaeologists, researchers, art and culture historians etc. all see the weavings through the tinted glasses of their time, sex, opinion and subject. There are no tapestries with figures in Europe from the Early Middle Ages. They are absolutely exceptional, making a bridge between the tapestries of Antiquity and those of the Middle Ages.
There are theories that tapestry stems from the Black Sea, where many of the Nordic gods are reputed to have come from. It might appear that researchers, textile experts and archaeologists are confused and partly uncertain in their interpretation of these tapestries. There are so many holes and unsolved mysteries. What is clear is that from the very first drawing and photograph we gain an insight into a vanished heathen time. The hands that created these tapestries clearly wished to show a refinement that would exceed an earthly order. Many questions remain to be answered about the Oseberg tapestries because they are so unique in European Art. Future artists and researchers have a wealth of knowledge to gain from the Oseberg tapestries.
Krafft,S. (1955) Fra Osebergfunnets tekstiler. Oslo: Dreyers Forlag.
Christensen, A. E., Ingstad, A. S., Myhre, B. (1992) Oseberg dronningens grav. Oslo: Schibsted Forlag.
Hougen,B. (1940) Osebergfunnets billedvev. Viking: tidsskrift for norrøn arkeologi.
Geijer, A. (1972) Ur textilkonstens historia. Sweden: Tiden Førlag.
Jesch, J. (1991) Women in the Viking Age. Woolbridge: The Boydell Press.
Wayland Barber, E. (1994) Women’s Work. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Co.
Christensen, A. E., Nockert, M. (2006) Osebergfunnet bind IV Tekstilene. Universitetet i Oslo: Kulturhistorisk museum.