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Five Viking Heroes Worthy of Song

Great Odin's raven! It's Amon Amarth.
Great Odin's raven! It's Amon Amarth.

When the Swedish death-metal horde known as Amon Amarth sails into House of Blues this evening, they'll be bringing the thundering fury of Thor along with them. The band has fully embraced the pre-Christian heritage of their homeland, with lyrics about Viking hordes, frost giants and trickster gods that make you want to grow a beard, throw on a horned helmet and sing along in Valhalla.

It's a pretty sweet gimmick -- after all, who doesn't enjoy the fantasy of sailing across the ocean, working yourself into a berserker rage and cleaving a Saxon or 40 in half with a battle-axe? But despite their fearsome and well-earned reputation as pillaging marauders, Vikings were also farmers, traders, kings and explorers. Their hellish hordes were impossible to stop, sure, but the Vikings did a lot of stuff beyond cutting down entire monasteries worth of monks that's worthy of remembrance.

In fact, screw remembrance. Some of these guys were truly worthy of song. To get into the proper spirit for tonight's metal mania, enjoy the following tales of these five great Viking heroes and start growing your beard out. You're going to need it.

5. Knut the Great It takes a true badass to be an unstoppable Viking warrior. But if you can add "conquering ruler" to your resume, then you just might land that job interview. Knut the Great was a Danish prince who first came to England with his father, Svein Forkbeard, to avenge a massacre of Danes instituted by the Saxon King Aethelred, who was a bit of a Viking-phobe. The pair wound up conquering the whole damn country, and when Svein died, Knut became the first Viking king of all of England.

But Knute didn't stop there. When his brother Harald, the King of Denmark, died, Knute became the Danish ruler, as well. Then he captured Norway, giving it to his son and his mistress to rule. Not long after, Scotland submitted to his rule as well, and even portions of Sweden. Nobody wanted a piece of Knut.

By the late 1020s, Knute liked to boast that he was "king of all England, and of Denmark, of the Norwegians, and part of the Swedes," and nobody could say that he wasn't. As ruler of the greatest Viking empire in history, he was able to put an end to endless raids on Britain and usher in 20 years of peace, making Knut the Great just about the best king any of those countries ever had in about 300 years or so, at least.

Five Viking Heroes Worthy of Song

4. Erik the Red One of the most famous Viking outlaws of all time, Erik the Red was one of the rare few in history who can claim to be the father of an entire country. Erik's own father had moved his family to Iceland after he was banished from Norway for committing manslaughter. With Erik, the apple didn't fall too far from the tree: The Red would grow up to be exiled from his adopted homeland over "some killings" that he performed around the year 982.

With no home to call his own, Erik decided to get some bros together and set out for someplace new. They headed for a mysterious land rumored to lie to the west, and spent his exile exploring a region few Viking had ever seen. When he returned to Iceland, he brought with him stories of an uninhabited Eden that he called "Greenland" to attract settlers who'd pay him to take them there.

Greenland wasn't really any less frozen than Iceland, but Erik was a good enough salesman to establish the first permanent European colony in country, which survived into the 15th Century before being made rather unpleasant by the Little Ice Age.

Erik also had a few children -- one of which who would surpass him as an explorer of uncharted territories.

Leif Ericson discovers America by Christian Krohg, painted in 1893
Leif Ericson discovers America by Christian Krohg, painted in 1893

3. Leif Eriksson Exploration ran in the family of Erik the Red, and nobody traveled further from the known world in his day than Erik's son, Leif Eriksson. By the time he came of age, Leif had already traveled to Norway, converted to Christianity and come across tales of a virgin land that lay even farther to the west of Greenland.

Having seen his father's success as a pitchman for foreign settlement, Leif filled his dragon ship with a crew of about 35 men and set sail, making it all the way to present-day Newfoundland. Nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus, Leif became the first European to establish a settlement in North America, in a place he called Vinland after the grape vines he reportedly found there.

No settlement in Vinland became permanent, whether due to conflict with native people or God knows why. But the continent became an important source of lumber for Greenland for nearly 300 more years. Despite his people's fearsome reputation for violence and pillaging, Leif proved to be a mere shadow of the genocidal megalomaniac that Columbus was, making him a far more worthy European discovered of the New World than his more famous, Johnny-come-lately counterpart.

List continues on the next page.

 

2. Ivar the Boneless If a Viking shipwrecks upon your lands, do yourself a favor and show him a little hospitality. That should have been the all-too-clear moral of the Battle of York, which took place back in the year 867 in modern-day England. About 20 years prior, a Viking chieftain named Ragnar Lodbrok had made a name for himself by raising a fleet of 120 dragon ships and pillaging the holy shit out of the kingdom of Francia, including sacking Paris, before he was bribed with 7,000 pounds of silver to go away.

Ragnar wasn't the type to sit at home for long, and he found himself shipwrecked on shores of Northumbria, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom ruled by a King Ælla, who figured he'd score a few points by putting the notorious Viking raider to death -- by throwing him into a pit of venomous snakes.

Sadly for Ælla, Ragnar left behind three badass sons who didn't take kindly to their pop being dined upon by freaking pit vipers. The trio -- Halfan, Ubbe and the incomparably named Ivar the Boneless -- raised a massive force know as the Great Heathen Army and sailed to Northumbria, where they marched on the capitol, York, and utterly crushed the Anglo-Saxons.

Legend has it that King Ælla met an ugly end at the hands of the vengeful brothers. Condemned to the torture of the blood eagle, Ælla had his ribs broken off at the spine and his lungs yanked out through the wounds like bloody wings by Ivar the motherfucking Boneless. It was a slow death that probably afforded him ample time to horribly regret that whole snake pit idea.

Peter N. Arbo's The Battle of Stamford Bridge, painted in 1870
Peter N. Arbo's The Battle of Stamford Bridge, painted in 1870

1. The Viking at Stamford Bridge The Battle of Stamford Bridge is often thought of as the end of the Viking Age, since the Northmen more or less got their asses handed to them. But the battle did manage to be epic enough to produce one of the all-time great Viking legends. England was in the midst of a succession struggle after the death of King Edward the Confessor in 1066. The King of Norway, Harald Hardrada, so no reason why he shouldn't rule the place, so he sailed 15,000 troops over to York for some good, old-fashioned conquering.

King Harold of England, who was nervously pacing in the South awaiting an invasion from France, was incensed by the Vikings' terror raid and quickly rushed North to confront them. The Vikings were taken completely by surprise at a place called Stamford Bridge, with no armor and their army divided across both sides of the River Derwent.

After routing the Vikings on the west side of the banks, the Anglo-Saxons advanced on the bridge. The folk tales tell us that a single, gigantic berserker blocked their path, cutting down more than 40 Englishmen with his trusty axe as his army rallied behind him. That's right: One Viking with one axe took on an entire army, and for a while there, he was winning. In order to get past him, the English had to send a guy underneath the bridge with a spear to stab the Viking in the dick.

Once the English finally crossed, a massive battle began that killed so many that the field was said to have been still whitened with bleached bones 50 years later. Though the Vikings were defeated, so many Anglo-Saxons leaders died that they were easy pickings three weeks later for the invading Normans, who ushered in a new era in Britain.

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