Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Raw Barley of Research: The Viking Diet

This is the first in a series of three posts about Viking foods, the patterns of Viking food-culture, and the connection between food and spirituality in the Viking diet. This series began as research for my upcoming novel “In the Company of Stones,” an historical fantasy set in 780's Denmark.

No fantasy-land bread-cheese-stew for my characters.  I want to feed them the real thing.

First off, Vikings were not the size of houses, like this guy.

Or like this local Viking. Dude, could ya lose the horned helmet? Puh-leeze?

Vikings this size aren't heroes, they're targets. This pair are the results of the American diet, heavy on High-Fructose Corn Syrup, refined carbs, and fatty meats.

REAL Vikings tended to be a lean, rangy lot. Why?  The Authentic Viking Diet! Contrary to movie images of bloodthirsty Vikings gnawing on the severed limbs of their victims, or Dark Age Vikings munching gravel by the side of the road, real Norse-folk ate a surprisingly varied diet of healthy foods.

What the Norse had in abundance was fish, and lots of it. They ate shellfish, perch, pike, whitefish, common garfish, roach, rudd, bream, shrimp, haddock, flatfish, ling and  mackerel, smelt, eel, salmon, cod and herring. Wild game included deer, elk, bear, boar, squirrel, reindeer and hare; wild birds and their eggs; fish and marine mammals including whales.  The Norse also kept domestic chicken, geese, and ducks for meat and eggs, as well as livestock including cattle, sheep, goats and pigs.

 (Image courtesy of the professional Vikings at

Even though they lacked canning and refrigeration, the Norse had many options for preserving perishable foods. Methods used included drying fish, baking grains into flat-bread and storing the rounds in the rafters; smoking meats and fish and hanging them in the rafters as well; conversion of milk into cheeses, soured butter, and skyr, a yogurt-like soft cheese. (Rumor has it that skyr is available at Whole Foods, although I've yet to find it.) Vikings also pickled boiled meats in crocks of 'spoiled' or soured whey, in which the lactic acid in the whey would prevent further bacterial spoilage.

What would it be like to eat meat pickled in sour whey all winter? How glad would you be for spring to arrive? (I imagine Viking women throwing their husbands out to go hunt fresh game as soon as the snows stopped.)

Although the Norse didn't eat Western Hemisphere foods such as potatoes, corn and tomatoes, their diet was quite complex. Grains were largely barley, rye, and oats, as wheat did not do well in the short northern growing season. For vegetable proteins, they ate beans and peas, hazelnuts and imported walnuts. Pot-herbs included loose-leaf cabbage, endives, docks, cresses, nettles and lambs-quarters; root vegetables including onions, parsnips, turnips and scrawny white carrots; flavoring herbs such as dill, mustard, parsley, thyme and horseradish; wild fruits such as apples, pears, cherries, sloe-berries, cloud-berries, lingonberries, and wild strawberries. The staple drink was ale made with malted barley, sometimes flavored with sweet myrtle. They also drank apple and pear cider, honey-mead, and imported wines.

With far-flung trade routes extending to Byzantium, Vikings imported spices such as cumin, coriander, pepper, saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cloves, grains of paradise, ginger, cardamom, aniseed, and bay leaves.

The Norse husfreyja (housewife) had all the best stone and iron-age tools to cook her family's meals.

 (Repro utensils photo courtesy of
Liquids were poured into a suspended animal-skin sack and then heated by dropping hot stones in with the liquids. Foods were baked by heating small stones in the open cooking fire and then rolling them into stone ovens to heat the interior. The most common method of cooking food was boiling it in iron cauldrons hung over the fire. Iron spits were also used to roast meats, and flat iron pans were used to bake breads in the fire.

Despite the limitations of a cool climate and Iron Age technology, the archaeological evidence shows the Norse consumed enough nutrients to be tall, straight – and one presumes, handsome.

 (Image courtesy of the Saga Exhibit, Pearlan, Reykjavik, Iceland)

Research as led me to conclude the Viking diet was far healthier than our own. Our Norse ancestors ate lean proteins like fish or grass-fed cattle. Their carbs came from whole, unrefined grains. Sugars were unheard of, with the exception of wild raw honey.  Raising or catching your own food also takes a tremendous amount of calories – some estimates of the calories needed for labor at a Viking homestead run up to 10,000 calories a day.  It would have been difficult for a working Viking to 'bulk up.'

So were Vikings giant, muscle-bound men as depicted in fantasy literature? No. Were they lean, mean fighting machines? Mmmm – maybe. Lean and combative? Yes.

Mean? No. But that's a tale for a later post.

For a more exhaustive breakdown of Viking foods by location, see:

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Credits Page

We're often told, as writers, to 'write what you know.'  Write from experience.  For me, that means For me, that means embodied, physical experience – not just academic learning.

I've been fortunate enough to be greatly assisted in my research by the Powderhorn Cultural Wellness Center, in Minneapolis, MN.  PCWC offers culturally centered kinship building, identity development, ancient wisdom, and cultural knowledge/competence classes. This work includes knowing and reclaiming our ancestral identity, values, concepts, principles, stories, myths, and spiritual practices.

For me, that means re-learning the folk-ways of my Norse ancestors.  Engaging in hands-on learning of  pre-Christian, pre-colonization folkways. 

At PCWC, I've learned to sing 'lokkr,' and read the rune-patterns formed by the branches of trees.  I've learned how deeply ancestral patterns inform my sense of time, my physical need to withdraw in the winter. I've learned the difference between cyclical and linear time – how marking the year with agricultural festivals grounds me, centers me, even at a time of profound change.

I've also been studying 'Völva Stav' with Kari Tauring.  Stav-work means stamping on the ground with a staff, and banging on the staff with a 'tein,' (a beater), creating rhythmic accompaniment to songs, chants, galdr, lokkr. Stavving can also be used as a 'sonic driver' for shamanic journey-work.  I've learned that coordinating my body to stamp a staff on the ground while standing upright in a trance is a very strange sensation!

I have also been fortunate enough to participate in the Runehof Asatru community. There, I've attended Blots, learned to card and spin wool, and how to engage in relationship with the Land Wights. I've learned to bake Viking era 'ash-cakes,' as well as making heavy winter socks by nalbinding (1 needle knitting.) I've even learned to leave a cup of coffee and a bit of oatmeal on the altar for my ancestors.

As well, I owe a debt of gratitude to the Society for Creative Anachronism for 20 years of embodied learning. There, I learned that walking through dewy grass makes the hem of your gown miserably cold and clammy against your ankles.  I've learned that complicated line-dances can build to feeling united, like a single being with one soul and multiple feet.  I've also learned that, after combat, men smell really, really bad.

These are the kinds of details that one cannot learn in a library.  Writing the kind of novel that draws a reader in, and transports them to another world requires more of the writer.  It requires embodied knowing.

In this blog, expect philosophical musings, journey-work reports, writing tips, and commentary on the intersection of Nature and Old Norse folk-ways. Much of this blog will be driven by the physical learning driving my novel, In the Company of Stones, an historical fantasy set in 780's Denmark.  Some future commentary may also be driven by ideas I find, trudging to the library, flashdrive in hand.

But much will not.  My keyword is – immanence.

TTFN -Karen-

Monday, April 4, 2011

Pennsic Runestone Project

I came across something touching today: The Pennsic Runestone Project. Members of the Society for Creative Anachronism will be erecting a 9 ton stone in memory of those members who have passed before. A community carving project, members will be able to carve a section of the stone with artwork.

Unlike any other media, stone memorials present a permanent witnesses to lives lived, a thousand years ago. No doubt, a 9 ton stone will present a permanent witness to our lives, a thousand years from now. But what will people make of it?

It's an interesting thought how future archaeologists might interpret a runestone in Butler, Pennsylvania, with carvings in memory of Thorbjorn, or Leif Ivarson. Our digital media won't last that long, neither will newspaper obituaries. Our houses, or skyscrapers won't be around too inform future archaeologists. And our current inhumation techniques don't leave bones and grave goods to examine.

But that SCA runestone will still be standing.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

An Animist's Response to Fukushima

Yesterday, over brunch at the house of an Elder from the Powderhorn Cultural Wellness Center, the discussion turned to what an animist might make of the radioactivity leak at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Animism refers to the belief that non-human entities are spiritual beings, or at least embody some kind of life-principle. There's a spirit for each rock, a house, a spirit for the Mississippi river, and even a spirit of our pancakes. In Shintoist Japan, such 'kami' or spirits are traditionally associated with places, but can also be affiliated with craftsmen's products like swords, or even humanoid robots. (Another story entirely!)

I had to question while nom-ing my pancakes, "Well, what about that Fukushima reactor? Was that 'vengeful kami' at work? How the heck would you pacify the spirit of a nuclear power-plant gone rogue?" The idea conjured images of a radioactive Godzilla stomping whole prefectures flat.

It appears that, yes, indeed, Shintoists might attribute such natural disasters to vengeful kami. Kami are basically benevolent if their places are honored with shrines, festivals and cleansing. Kami are also considered to be the spirits of the unquiet dead, and natural calamities are often considered to be the vengeful spirits of political victims.

Knowing Japan's history of oppression in mainland China in WWII, the idea brings up all sorts of possibilities.

It could be that the Fukushima plant would lie under the auspices of the Kami of Earth, Sarutahiko Ōkami. Archetypally, the 'spirit of earth' really has been offended by lack of proper attention ("ceremony") paid by Japan's nuclear regulatory agencies. Quoting Bloomberg News: “One of the reactors in the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant may have been relying on flawed steel to hold the radiation in its core, according to an engineer who helped build its containment vessel four decades ago. Mitsuhiko Tanaka says he helped conceal a manufacturing defect in the $250 million steel vessel installed at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi No. 4 reactor while working for a unit of Hitachi Ltd. in 1974. " To a kami, this might speak of inattention to "cleansing" and purity.

OK, then. There's a pissed off, radioactive kami running loose in Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures!

"So," I asked, "how does one placate the evil spirit of a power plant?"

Apparently there are placation rituals, developed over a thousand years of earthquakes, tsunami, and natural disaster. Some involve recitation of the Lotus Sutra, dedication of a shrine, or performance art.

The animists at brunch assured me that Shinto priests were, no doubt, already engaged in such placation rituals, not to worry.

Still - it wouldn't hurt to chant the Lotus Sutra, in the direction of the Land of the Rising Sun. myōhō renge kyō