Now that it is over, a review of the television series Black Sails

Nassau harbor in Black Sails

Since I’m teaching my “Pirates!” course soon, it seemed time to go finish watching the fourth and last season of Black Sails, which only concluded its four year run in 2017. Black Sails pretends to tell the story of the pirates of Nassau in the Bahamas in the Golden Age of piracy, apparently taking place around 1715-20. “Pretends,” sadly, is the operative term, never more so than in the final season. While it has its points, and improves on how pirates have been depicted in movies and on television, it’s best watched as a rousing adventure story. And skip the ending. Please.

The plot of Black Sails revolves around two stories: the British attempt to reimpose their rule in the Bahamas and the pirates’ resistance to that; and the capture of a Spanish treasure galleon and the subsequent fate of the treasure in it. These are both sort of based in history. The British had indeed lost control of the Bahamas during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13), and sent out Woodes Rogers as governor to reassert their control in 1718. And there was a major Spanish treasure loose in the Caribbean, though it was from a treasure fleet wrecked during a storm off the coast of Florida. I’ve already written a bit about this in my post on “Calico” Jack Rackam, one of the pirates of the era.

Long John Silver in the midst of battle

Neither actual bit of history has the melodrama of plots and counterplots so common to soap operas that have made their way into many “historical” television series. So both bits were altered. The pirates organize against the return of British rule and recruit the maroon and slave communities to help them. The treasure takes on the attributes of the Wagnerian Rhine Gold, everyone wanting it, none ever benefiting from it. And a cast of characters is given conflicting motives and a sufficient number of improbable events to allow them to change sides with amazing rapidity.

I do appreciate that the pirates are a dirtier and less respectable group of people than Hollywood used to make them (e.g. 1935’s Captain Blood). And there are some nice moments in the series that reflect a real sense of history, whether it be careening a ship or the ruthless punishment of slaves to quell a revolt. On the other hand, New Providence feels less like the down-at-the-heels frontier community it was circa 1717, and more like a period theme park for middle class tourists, complete with a bordello that would have looked a bit too wealthy even for Charleston in this era.

Flint’s character does dominate the series

Oh, and did I mention that the fictional pirates of Treasure Island are shoehorned into this thing? This is supposed to be the story of Captain Flint and Long John Silver in the years when they sailed together, long before the events in Treasure Island. Easy to forget this, since it doesn’t matter for most of the series.

Over the run of the series, the plot becomes more focused on Captain Flint’s attempt to use the pirates, maroons, and slaves to overthrow colonial rule. The level of violence rises higher and higher. Major characters get killed. The story suggests that greed and the lust for power consume people in a never-ending struggle the violence of which will destroy them all. The viewer comes to expect Götterdämmerung at the end.

The big winner in the series is Max, former prostitute turned successful businesswoman

The viewer will be disappointed, inevitably so. The destruction of all the leading characters would diverge too far from history, and be a real downer for the audience of the series. The developers of the series were not courageous enough to either depart unmistakably from history or teach their audience an unhappy lesson. So we get contrived happy resolutions for all the surviving downtrodden characters we were supposed to sympathize with. At the end, the fictional version of real-life pirate captain Jack Rackam, depicted in the series as a remarkably weak cross between a bad auto salesman and a nervous publicist, waxes philosophical about how real history doesn’t matter, that the stories that get retold become history. Well, at least now we have the series developers’ philosophy.

Should you watch Black Sails? If you’re the type of person for whom movies and television help you visualize and understand a world much different from your own, this isn’t a bad starting place. But do go read a book afterward, preferably some edition of Capt. Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724, 1728), or David Cordingly’s nice introduction to the subject, Under the Black Flag (1996). If you want a rip-roaring adventure filled with violence, betrayals, and occasional sex and nudity, then, yes, this is a series to watch. Just don’t watch the final episode. Imagine a conclusion yourself. You can’t do much worse.

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Sorting through facts and legends of Samuel Bellamy, pirate

In 1984, “Black Sam” Bellamy became New England’s most famous pirate when Barry Clifford discovered the wreck of Bellamy’s ship Whydah off the coast of Cape Cod. Today, one can go to a museum and see some of the material salvaged from the wreck. But who was Bellamy, and what can his story tell us?

Location of the wreck of the Whydah

Location of the wreck of the Whydah

In brief, Samuel Bellamy was born in 1689, tried to salvage treasure from the wrecked Spanish treasure fleet of 1715, and when he had little success at that, turned pirate. In February, 1717, he captured the Whydah, a newly-built slave ship, while sailing in the Caribbean. Subsequently he headed up the coast. Late in the evening of April 26, 1717, the Whydah was caught in a thunderstorm and driven onto the reefs, where the ship broke up, with the loss of all but two hands. Bellamy himself perished, along with 143 crewmen.

As such, it’s not that interesting a story, and it’s not surprising that Capt. Charles Johnson didn’t get to it until the second volume of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates in 1728. And he probably got his information from two newspaper accounts and a sermon printed in 1717.

However, Johnson wasn’t above embellishing the accounts to make a political point or two. Typically, Johnson embellished to establish the criminal nature of the pirates and how their sins contributed to their downfall. That explains his probably fictional account of Avery’s (Every’s) downfall. But sporadically through his work, Johnson had pirates speak out against the established social order and its injustices. He even invented a pirate captain named Misson to show what a utopia based on reason, justice, and mercy might look like.

Johnson wrote his account of Bellamy along the latter lines. Twice he related speeches in which he suggested that states are founded by force of arms and therefore have no more moral authority than any pirate! He had Bellamy declare at one point that “I am a free prince, and I have as much authority to make war on the whole world, as he who has one hundred sail of ships at sea, and an army of 100,000 men in the field . . .” What’s curious is that while Johnson probably made up one of the speeches out of whole cloth, the one I’ve quoted has a factual basis, as it was taken from the account of a ship captain robbed by Bellamy and his crew!

Stories of romances between outlaws and reputable women still pull in readers, as this 2010 book demonstrates.

Bellamy’s and Hallett’s romance still pulls in readers, as this 2010 book demonstrates.

Nor was Johnson the only person to embellish Bellamy’s life. There is a possibility that Bellamy was sailing by Cape Cod in order to rekindle a romance with a young woman, Mary Hallett, who lived on the Cape. According to legend, he had met and romanced Mary on a previous visit, and even promised marriage. Mary succumbed to his charms, he sailed off, and she found herself pregnant. She hid her pregnancy, but was exposed when her dead child was discovered. Depending on which version of the story you hear, either she went mad pining away for her missing love, she became a witch and caused the storm that wrecked him, or he escaped the wreck of the Whydah, and the two ran off to have a happy life together. All of which suggests that a legend has overtaken the facts. There was a young Mary Hallett living in Eastham in that era, but the rest is legend, and she died decades later, unmarried.

Strangely, Johnson had little to say about the wealth Bellamy’s crew discovered when they took the Whydah: “elephants’ teeth, gold dust, and other rich merchandise.” Later historians added “sugar, indigo [used for dying] and Jesuit’s bark [used in the treatment of malaria].” The money on board was reported to run to £20,000, or £30,000, portioned out in 50-pound bags. If true, then the Whydah had 4.5 tons of gold and silver money on board. By some estimates, that would make Bellamy and his crew the richest pirates in history.

Whydah treasure

Whydah treasure

The (Pseudo-)Shakespearean Tragedy of Edward England

It’s hard to have sympathy for pirates. Oh, they’re cool in movies, but they’re really ship-based thieves. And yet, there is one pirate described by Capt. Charles Johnson in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724) who might qualify as a tragic hero of even Shakespearean quality: Captain Edward England. So here read,

The Noble Tragedy of Edward England, Pirate Captain

pirate_englandACT I

We meet our tragic hero living in the pirate haven of New Providence in 1718. Capt. Woodes Rogers is soon to arrive with the King’s Pardon for those pirates who will take it. At a great assembly of pirates, Capt. Benjamin Hornigold speaks in favor of the pardon, while Capt. Charles Vane speaks against it. The pirates cannot agree, and so the meeting breaks up.

Charles Vane

Charles Vane

Vane finds he has lost many men who hope for the pardon, so he goes out recruiting new men for the several ships he commands. In a tavern he finds Edward England. Vane and England are old friends; England served as quartermaster aboard Vane’s ship on its last cruise. Vane offers England the captaincy of one of Vane’s ships.

England had been leaning in favor of the pardon, as he wants peace and happiness now. But the lure of command of his own ship and Vane’s friendly persuasions, together with a bit too much drink, get the better of him. England agrees to Vane’s proposition. They depart from the tavern, arm in arm, but not before England stumbles on the threshold.

ACT II

We see England on the deck, pleased with his new pirate ship. A call from above tells him a sail’s been sighted. Within moments, the pirates catch up to the other ship and force it to surrender.

Captain Skinner, the commander of the other vessel, comes on board, a prisoner lightly guarded. England begins explaining to Skinner that his pirates will seize whatever cargo they like, but if no resistance is offered, no harm will come to him or his crew.

England's flag

England’s flag

However, he is interrupted when a sailor comes up, sees Skinner, and begins cursing him. He says he served under Skinner, and that Skinner is a brute and a cheat. With one mind, England’s crew descends on Skinner, beating him savagely until one pirate pulls out a pistol and shoots Skinner dead. The crew exit the stage, leaving Skinner, dead, on the deck.

England has been standing by all this time, horrified. He kneels down and shakes Skinner’s body in the forlorn hope that Skinner is still alive. England realizes that he runs a ship of cruel men, and that he will survive only so long as he equals them in cruelty. The realization troubles him so much that he goes down to his cabin to get drunk. His second-in-command, John Taylor, watches him go. Taylor wants to be captain, and he now begins to see how he might engineer England’s downfall.

ACT III

England is on deck as before, but the deck is a shambles from a vicious fight with a merchantman, blood everywhere. The crew is drunk and disorderly, having pillaged the merchantman of all its booze. England himself is drunk, disgusted with himself.

Some crew members of the pirate ship bring the captain of the merchantman, Macrae, aboard. The pirates are vexed with Macrae, because he caused many casualties among them before surrendering. They verbally abuse him, and suggest ways he can be tortured. England flinches at the notion. Taylor, his second-in-command, sees his chance, and demands that Macrae be tortured right then and there. England pleads with his crew not to do it, but he can tell he is losing and in danger of being overthrown as captain.

Abruptly, a whiskered pirate, Peg-Leg, comes up on deck. He swears in bloody language that he will see Macrae or else. England feels he can’t oppose Peg-Leg, and Taylor thinks Peg-Leg will strike Macrae, so he doesn’t interfere, either. Macrae thinks he is about to die, and prays under his breath.

Peg-Leg sees Macrae, rushes up to him, throws his arms around him, and says he is damned happy to see him. To the astonishment of everyone, Peg-Leg proceeds to praise Macrae in glowing terms as one of the best captains, and best men, ever to sail the seas. And he finishes by saying that anyone who wants to harm Macrae will have to go through him first.

England is ashamed that it is one of his crew standing up for Macrae. He tosses his bottle over the side of the ship, and swears to himself that he will be captain of this ship and he will save Macrae.

ACT IV

Taylor still wants to use Macrae as a weapon to overthrow England. He talks up all the harm Macrae’s fight caused the pirate crew, plying them with drink, getting them riled up so they’ll take on Peg-Leg, then depose England, then kill Macrae.

Peg-Leg, seeing which way the wind is blowing, goes down to England’s cabin where England and Macrae are having a friendly talk. Peg-Leg wants to arm the three of them and go down fighting.

England tells him, no, that he is the captain, and he will solve this problem himself. He tells Peg-Leg to help Macrae get ready to escape in the ship’s longboat.

Not sure quite what he is going to do, England spies on his crew. He sees them drinking and arguing, and decides to use their weaknesses against them, just as Taylor was hoping to use England’s weakness against him. England joins the crew and encourages them to talk and argue and swear, all the time plying them with drink. Eventually, they all get so drunk they fall asleep.

England returns to the cabin and assists Peg-Leg in helping get Macrae away on the longboat.

When the pirates wake up, Macrae is gone. England lies and blames the crew for losing their fun by getting too drunk. They sullenly go back to work, but resentments linger. Taylor openly tells England that England has betrayed the crew, and that a day of reckoning is coming.

ACT V

Back on the deck again, England is still in command, but barely, a sullen Taylor beside him. They have just taken another prize at sea and the crew brings the captain, John Tawke, on board. Under England’s and Taylor’s questioning, Tawke reveals that Macrae escaped to India, where the British East India Company gave him a ship to hunt the very pirates who had once captured him. There is a general uproar on the ship, Taylor calls for England to be overthrown, and in the tumult gets elected captain. He orders England imprisoned in the brig.

The next day, Taylor has England brought up from the brig. England looks a bit bedraggled. Taylor informs him that they are going to maroon him on the island, along with three crew members loyal to him, one of them Peg-Leg. Upon hearing this, England stands tall, in a loud voice proclaims that he alone bears the responsibility for helping Macrae to escape, that he’d do it again, and that he takes pride in their marooning him.

A beach on Mauritius (Credit: Wikipedia/Romeodesign)

A beach on Mauritius
(Credit: Wikipedia/Romeodesign)

Now on the island, England helps Peg-Leg and the other sailors build a boat to escape. They have few supplies, so England only pretends to eat and returns his food to the common stores.

By the day the boat is ready to launch, England is clearly weak and dying. He orders Peg-Leg and the other sailors to sail without him, saying that he regrets having been a pirate captain and wishes to end his life in peace. Peg-Leg refuses to leave, saying England should not die alone. The last we see are of Peg-Leg holding England as he breathes his last.

Finis

How much of this is true? In outline, all of it. I’ve taken considerable license, dramatically compressing England’s career and fleshing out his character. He was indeed once quartermaster to Vane and rejected the 1718 pardon. Skinner and Macrae are real, as is Peg-Leg, though the latter has no name in Johnson’s book. England did get Taylor drunk to spirit off Macrae. Subsequently, Taylor did overthrow England and maroon him on Mauritius. On the other hand, Macrae wasn’t commissioned to hunt down England, though the pirates were told he was. And England actually did escape with the others to Madagascar, though he died not long after.

England does indeed seem to have been something of a gentleman. I’ll leave you with Capt. Johnson’s description of his character:

England was one of these men, who had a great deal of good nature, and did not want for courage; he was not avaricious, and always averse to the ill usage prisoners received. He would have been contented with moderate plunder, and less mischievous pranks, could his companions have been brought to the same temper, but he was generally overruled, and as he was engaged in that abominable society, he was obliged to be a partner in all their vile actions.

Let’s go live the glamorous life as pirates!

At least one feminist historian argued Black Bart was a woman because of his taste and style

At least one feminist historian argued Black Bart was a woman because of his taste and style

In his A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724), Capt. Charles Johnson, whoever he is, quotes “Black Bart” Roberts as saying that pirates have “Plenty and Satiety, Pleasure and Ease, Liberty and Power . . . ‘a merry life and a short one,’ shall be my motto.” Sounds great! Let’s go a-pirating!

Not so fast. First, you have to get a ship. Now, Henry Every started off with an actual warship, but they aren’t just lying around everywhere. Captain Worley set off from New York harbor in September of 1718 with eight companions in an open boat, carrying “a few Biscuits, and a dry’d Tongue or two, a little Cag of Water, [and] half a dozen old Musquets and Ammunition accordingly.” Hardly a Caribbean cruise ship! Although it’s been done in the same style in the Caribbean: Ned Lowe began with 12 men in a boat, and in 1722 John Evans began with a canoe and “three or four” companions on the coast of Jamaica.

How unfortunate was Major Stede Bonnet? This unfortunate!

How unfortunate was Major Stede Bonnet? This unfortunate!

But just think of the riches you’ll enjoy! Again, Every and his crew came away from seizing the Ganj-i-sawai with enough wealth to retire to Madagascar, the Bahamas, Pennsylvania, or England. Making the big score was the dream, one which the crews of the other ships Every cheated did not get to share in. And neither did most pirate crews. There just weren’t that many poorly defended ships with treasure sailing about. You were more likely to encounter coastal sailing ships carrying provisions, as the unfortunate Major Stede Bonnet did in his cruise off the Virginia coast in July, 1718.

Woe betide the pirate captain who failed to find enough treasure for his crew! At best, they were likely to lose crew members who took one of the prizes and sailed off in the night, as happened to Bonnet, and which happened multiple times to Black Bart. Worse, your crew might depose you or, if they were really unhappy with your performance, kill you. Capt. Thomas Anstis was shot in 1723 by some of his crew members while lying in his hammock, ending his career with his life. In the same year, Captain Lowther saved his crew the trouble: he shot himself after losing his ship while it was being careened.

But think of the plentiful supplies you’ll have, the clothes you’ll wear, the food you’ll eat! Pirates did love looting ships for fancy clothes. That’s because sea water ruined all but the sturdiest of their clothes, so they had to be replaced frequently. And no horror was worse for pirates than to run short of food and water. Why it was even worse than running short of liquor! Yet it happened far too often, for pirate crews were not careful to budget their supplies, always figuring they could steal more from the next ship they seized.

Sometimes there was no next ship when they needed one. This happened at least twice to Black Bart Roberts in 1720, in both cases because his voyage turned out to be much longer than expected. The second occasion was the more dreadful. Roberts had been sailing to Africa, but thanks to poor navigation got caught in trade winds that forced him to turn back to the Caribbean. He had 700 leagues (2400 miles) to sail with only one hogshead (maybe 60 gallons) of water for a crew of 124! As Johnson describes it,

They continued their Course, and came to an Allowance of one single Mouthful of Water for 24 Hours; many of them drank their Urine, or Sea Water, which instead of allaying, gave them an inextinguishable thirst, that killed them: Others pined and wasted a little more Time in Fluxes and Apyrexies, so that  they dropped away daily: Those that sustain’d the Misery best, were such as almost starved themselves, forbearing all Sorts of Food, unless a Mouthful or two of Bread the whole Day, so that those who survived were as weak as possible for Men to be, and alive.

The pirates managed to make the coast of South America, where they obtained water from a river mouth at the coast, and soon seized provisions from a passing ship. But this no doubt explained why some of Roberts’s crew left him in another ship the next time he sailed for Africa!

Captain Maynard hung Blackbeard's head from the bowsprit of his ship

Captain Maynard hung Blackbeard’s head from the bowsprit of his ship

It could be a miserable life, and worse yet, a short one, as Roberts admitted. He did well enough, but didn’t last three years (1719-22) as a pirate. Others had an even briefer run. Blackbeard was a pirate captain for only two years (1717-18). Howel Davis, actually one of the more clever pirates, was a captain but one single year before he was killed in an ambush in 1719. Johnson describes a Captain Worley (mentioned above) whose entire career ran from September, 1718 to February 17, 1719. And no doubt there were many pirates whose careers were even shorter and escaped Capt. Johnson’s attention!

Crime and punishment Viking style

One of the most famous killings in the sagas is the burning of Njal in his home

One of the most famous killings in the sagas is the burning of Njal in his home

So your brother’s been deliberately murdered by one of his neighbors. And you’re both farmers in Viking Age Iceland, around the year 1000. What do you do?

In the United States today, you’d go to the police, lay out your reasons for assuming that the neighbor did the deed, hope the police can find enough evidence to charge the neighbor, have the neighbor tried, and hope there is enough evidence to convict the neighbor. If convicted of murder, the neighbor will spend decades in prison, unless unlucky enough to live in one of the states that still executes murderers. And that’s that.

But, no, you’re in Viking Age Iceland. There are no police. There are no prisons. So what happens instead?

Gudrun greets her husband's slayers with a smile, but she'll get her revenge!

Gudrun greets her husband’s slayers with a smile, but she’ll get her revenge!

Well, first off, believe it or not, your brother’s neighbor publicly proclaimed he was responsible for the killing. Why? Because then it isn’t murder. Instead, it’s manslaughter. What’s the difference under Icelandic law? The killer can pay compensation, in silver or something valued in silver, to settle a blood-debt incurred by manslaughter. That option isn’t officially open to him if he conceals the killing, a dishonorable course. The killer risks being outlawed, not a trivial penalty.

You think about collecting your farm hands and exacting revenge by killing your brother’s killer. It would be fair, it would be just. But then his brother might summon up a band to come kill you!

So you go to your chieftain, your godi, instead. And you tell him what happened and why you think it happened. You’ve got a clear case: the neighbor announced the killing, and there was a well-known property dispute over some woods, a valuable property. Certainly the godi will see the justice in your case, summon up all his thingmen (supporters) and help you kill your brother’s killer.

Not so fast. Your godi has his own issues. Sure, he wants to retain your loyalty. And he’d like a reputation for justice and wisdom. But that’s one of the reasons he doesn’t immediately offer to help you kill the guilty man. He doesn’t want a blood feud on his hands that could escalate and cost a lot of people their lives, including more of his supporters, maybe even him. And there is credit to be gained if he can settle this matter in your favor but without bloodshed.

That’s not his only concern. Just because you have the facts in your favor doesn’t mean he can successfully prosecute the case. Your brother’s killer has the support of several allied godar (plural of “godi”). Your godi has to consider which other godar he can count on for support. He might eventually decide he can’t support you, in which case you’re out of luck, at least for now.

The Law Rock where the Althing met

The Law Rock where the Althing met

But let’s say he supports you. You don’t get a hearing immediately. It has to wait until when the quarter court meets at the Althing, the annual Icelandic assembly, in the summer. (They are called quarter courts because Iceland is divided into four quarters for legal purposes.) In the meantime, your side and his side meet several times. There is tremendous pressure put on both of you to settle, though always to the advantage of your side, of course. Meanwhile, everyone is also taking precautions against the other side making a violent move.

You are burning with vengeance, and consider your brother’s title to the woods unassailable in law, so you are looking for revenge and refuse compensation, no matter how much money the killer and his godi offer. Especially because they refuse to even discuss the woods. But your godi is regretting his role in this affair. He’s going to have to use a lot of influence on your behalf, and he makes it clear that he won’t support you any further without something of value from you. Ultimately, he proposes to fight for your rights, but only if you sign over the woods to him when you win. It sounds like a bum deal, but your godi points out that your brother wasn’t able to maintain his rights to that property, and you, who live even farther away, won’t be able to do so either without help. So you agree with a witnessed handshake.

Luckily for you, the killer’s alliance of godar breaks up over other issues, conflicts among them, and he comes to the Althing with very limited support. The godar name the farmers and other men who will hear the evidence and pass judgment, and with his allies, your godi is able to stack the quarter court’s panel with quite a few people favorable to your cause.

No one wants a fight at the Althing, but sometimes things get out of hand

No one wants a fight at the Althing, but sometimes things get out of hand

The panel at the quarter court hears the evidence presented and witnesses called by both sides, deliberates, and delivers a judgment, both verdict and terms of settlement. It sounds nice and modern. But the panel could be influenced by the political power mustered by the very visible presence of godar and their thingmen supporting each side. No one wants to deliver a verdict that will tear open the Althing with violence.

But you have the best of both worlds: a solid case, and the weight of political influence. The panel decides in your favor. Better yet, the sentence they pronounce on the killer is the maximum that could be inflicted: the greater outlawry. This means that your brother’s killer loses all of his property, and all of his rights. No one can help him, and anyone is free to kill him.

You’re surprised. You figured the best you could hope for was to have him sentenced to the lesser outlawry, which also involves confiscation of his property, but only a three-year exile out of the country instead of forfeiting his life. Your godi notices your surprise, leans over, and whispers in your ear, “The man’s killed before, and while those cases were settled, he’d developed quite the reputation of a trouble-causer. People pretty much agreed that Iceland’s best rid of him for good.”

Grettir survived almost 20 years as an outlaw, but then he was tough enough to put down an Icelandic zombie

Grettir survived almost 20 years as an outlaw, but then he was tough enough to put down an Icelandic zombie

The killer flees the Althing, but is killed by your widowed sister-in-law’s family who track him down in the desolate interior. Your godi assists you in taking possession of your brother’s farm, while he gladly takes the disputed woods as your own. You arrange a good marriage between your brother’s eldest son and the daughter of your godi, and settle them and the rest of your brother’s family on the farm you previously occupied.

Everyone’s happy . . . until the killer’s son, thirsting for revenge, kills you fifteen years later. But that’s another story.

The Norse gods: all too human

Ragnarok: the world is being destroyed by fire (By Emil Doepler (1855-1922), c. 1905)

Ragnarok: the world is being destroyed by fire
(By Emil Doepler (1855-1922), c. 1905)

I grew up with Edith Hamilton’s account in Mythology (1940/42) as my source on the Norse gods and their world. To judge from Hamilton’s account, the mythology portrayed a dreadful world in which the Norse gods struggled to survive, knowing they were doomed at Ragnarök. It seemed to me to be a humorless world developed by grim people.

So when I turned to the Eddas, I was pleasantly surprised to find out just how much humor they contained. The Vikings could laugh at their gods! And in doing so, they could laugh at themselves.

Thor doing what he does best (By Marten Eskil Winge (1825-1896), 1872)

Thor doing what he does best
(By Marten Eskil Winge (1825-1896), 1872)

Take Thor, the best known Norse god, the wielder of the mighty hammer Mjöllnir. Ever hear the expression, “if all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail?” Well, Thor has a hammer, so to him, everything looks like a nail. He instinctively reaches for his hammer to bash in someone’s skull any time he’s faced with a problem. Far from being the long-winded hero of Marvel comics, the mythological Thor is an amusing combination of masculine pride and limited intellect. It shows.

One Viking practice was to engage in flyting: a contest of exchanging insults in ritual fashion. One of the masters of flyting is Loki, the trickster figure of Norse mythology, born of a giant, but blood brother to Odin, chief of the gods. At one memorable feast, Loki takes on most of the Norse gods, insulting their courage, fighting ability, and sexuality. He’s fairly crude, but quite inventive. For example, he accuses Odin of letting the weaker side win in battle so his Valkyries can claim the braver men after they are slain. He accuses Frigg, Odin’s wife, of incestuous relations with Odin’s two brothers. Those are just a few of his accusations.

Thor isn’t present at the beginning, but comes in just about the time Loki brags about seducing the goddess Sif, Thor’s wife! Well, Thor isn’t going to take that lying down, so he calls Loki a homosexual (in terms that were specifically insulting in Viking culture) and threatens to kill him with Mjöllnir. Loki waxes creative, telling one embarrassing story about Thor after another. But all Thor can do is just repeat his initial insult and threat. He sounds like a broken record.

Doesn't Thor look pretty as a bride? (By E. Boyd Smith (1860-1943), 1902)

Doesn’t Thor look pretty as a bride?
(By E. Boyd Smith (1860-1943), 1902)

Oh, those embarrassing stories? For some reason, Loki skips what I think is the funniest one. One day, Thor wakes up to find his hammer gone. (It’s hard to ignore the Freudian implications.) It turns out a giant has stolen and hidden it. The giant won’t give it back unless Freyja, the goddess of love, marries him. So to recover his hammer, Thor has to impersonate Freyja by dressing up as a bride and pretending to marry the giant. As a bride, Thor is not a smashing success. He eats and drinks so much at the wedding feast that Loki has to apologize for him. Thor wears a veil to disguise his looks, but when the giant peeps beneath it, Thor is so enraged that his eyes glare in a distinctly unfeminine way. Thinking quickly, Loki again offers an apologetic explanation, saying “Freyja” hasn’t been able to sleep for eight nights thinking about her future husband.

The story ends as you might expect. Thor gets his hammer back, and proceeds to treat the giants like nails. His would-be husband dies. So do a lot of other giants.

Odin's not going to get his way this time! (By Lorenz Frolich (1820-1908), 1895

Odin’s not going to get his way this time!
(By Lorenz Frolich (1820-1908), 1895)

Odin, as befits the chief god, is usually depicted as wiser. He sacrifices himself on Yggdrasil, the World Tree, to obtain the magical knowledge of runes. He gives an eye to drink from Mimir’s well to acquire wisdom. And he uses lies, trickery, and magic to seduce women all the time. Some wise leader! He brags about it, even. When he and Thor get into a flyting, Thor invariably talks about what he’s done fighting, while Odin prefers to relate his sexual conquests.

Now you might think, “Men!” And you’d be right. Male gods brag about their sex lives, while accusing females of being unfaithful or promiscuous. Just like real men have done.* And that’s the point. The Norse gods were all too human in character. And in laughing at them, the Vikings laughed at themselves. They could even admit, sometimes, that if women were fickle toward men, men were just as fickle and deceitful to women. After making these observations, the speaker in the Hávámál (one of the poems in the Elder Edda) sums it up by saying love makes fools of us all. Even Norse gods.

* No, that’s not an observation on contemporary politics. Leave it alone.

The Last Viking

A glorified portrait of Harald Hardrada (credit: Wikipedia/Colin Smith)

A glorified portrait of Harald Hardrada
(credit: Wikipedia/Colin Smith)

His name was Harald, Harald Sigurdsson if you want to know his father, but he’s gone down in history as Harald Hardrada, “Harold the Hard-Ruler” we would say in English. He was King of Norway for twenty years, from 1046 until 1066, until he died in battle on foreign soil. And he is often considered “the last of the Vikings.” To what does he owe this dubious honor? He spent most of his life in battle, whether as a mercenary captain, a raiding Viking, or a warrior-king.

In the 11th century, the Viking Era was drawing to a close. Long gone were the adventuresome raids of individual chieftains. The enemies of the Vikings had organized into powerful states to oppose them, and the Vikings themselves were gradually consolidating into the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the Icelandic republic. But the bounds of these kingdoms fluctuated, and it was not beyond the power of any one king to dream of conquering another realm. Though their own grasp on power was tenuous, for while it was felt that royal ancestry was necessary to take the throne, it did not follow that male primogeniture (succession by the eldest son) was the rule. Kingship was held by those who could take it and hold it.

Canute was so great that some sycophants thought he could stop the tides!

Canute was so great that some sycophants thought he could stop the tides!

Harald was born around the year 1015. Later accounts would say he was descended from the legendary King Harald Finehair, but his real claim to the throne was through his half-brother, St. Olaf, King of Norway from 1015 to 1028. Olaf had opposed Danish designs to conquer Norway and rule through native earls. Although initially successful, he was driven out of the country by Danish King Canute the Great and killed in 1030. Most of the dynastic claimants to the Norwegian throne took refuge in the court of Yaroslav the Great, the dominant ruler of Russia, and himself of Viking descent. Harald was among them.

He didn’t stay in Russia long. Instead, he went south to the great city of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, still one of the richest and most powerful states in the Mediterranean world. There he became the commander of the Varangian Guard, the Scandinavians who served the Byzantine Emperor as an elite military unit. He became famous for his courage, success in battle, opportunistic dishonesty, and the wealth he accumulated from fighting, much of which probably belonged to the Emperor.

Sometime around the year 1042, he came into conflict with the Byzantine Emperor and court. Maybe, as legend would have it, he fell in love with a Byzantine princess, and the Emperor refused his suit for her hand. Maybe the Emperor found out about how much treasure Harald had amassed for himself. In either case, Harald was imprisoned, escaped, and fled to Russia, where he had thoughtfully sent most of his wealth to Yaroslav for safe-keeping.

Harald's Russian wife. There are varying accounts about whether he left her behind when he went to Norway or became a bigamist once he became king.

Harald’s Russian wife. There are varying accounts about whether he left her behind when he went to Norway or became a bigamist once he became king.

Once he arrived in Russia, Harald found out his uncle Magnus, “the Good,” had returned to Norway and retaken the throne there in 1035. Indeed, Magnus had just managed to make himself King of Denmark in 1042, after the last of Canute’s sons had died. Harald probably kicked himself for not thinking of this first. So he married one of Yaroslav’s daughters  and headed west, to see what he could grab for himself in Scandinavia.

When he arrived, the situation wasn’t looking too good. Magnus controlled both Norway and Denmark, and the only trouble he was getting was from Swein Estridsson, who had once been Magnus’s right-hand man in Denmark but now claimed the throne there for himself. Ever the opportunist, Harald joined forces with Swein and the King of Sweden to try to topple Magnus.

Facing both Swein and Harald, Magnus decided to make peace with Harald, who was his nephew after all. In 1046, Magnus offered to give Harald half of Norway if Harald gave Magnus half the treasure he had accumulated.  Harald agreed. It was a good deal, because Magnus died the next year, making Harald sole King of Norway, and getting back Magnus’s share of the treasure, to boot.

Harald helped convert Norway to a money economy by minting his own coins

Harald helped convert Norway to a money economy by minting his own coins

Harald became a strong king of Norway, which is to say that most people became terrified of him. He lived up to his reputation for savagery and duplicity that he had earned as commander of the Varangian Guard. For example, to make temporary peace with his domestic enemies on one occasion, he pardoned an exiled man . . . and then arranged for the man to get killed in battle against the Danes.

Harald also made incessant warfare on Swein, who had become King of Denmark upon Magnus’s death. Harald felt he was owed all the lands claimed by Magnus, including Denmark. Give Harald credit: he typically won his battles and staged successful raids on Denmark. But for all the trouble he made, Harald couldn’t conquer Denmark. The nobles and the people backed Swein, and Harald’s savagery didn’t persuade them otherwise. So around 1064 or 1065, he made peace with Swein, leaving Swein in possession of Denmark.

That might have been the end of Harald’s fighting career. He was about fifty, and while strong and tall, that was an old age to reach in the 11th century. But fighting had been Harald’s life. He was probably itching for an opportunity.

He got one. Tostig, the deposed Earl of Northumberland in England, came to him with a plan to invade and conquer England. Harald liked the idea. He recalled that Magnus had claimed all of Canute the Great’s realm, and that had included England. Tostig also promised he could get many nobles to rise up against the newly crowned English king, Harold Godwinson (who, incidentally, was Tostig’s brother, but they didn’t get along).

So Harald went to war, and sailed to England. He easily defeated Tostig’s successor and the Earl of Mercia at Fulford on September 20, 1066. York surrendered on September 24. The north of England was his!

And then the next day, to the utter astonishment of Harald and Tostig, King Harold Godwinson appeared with the main English army, long before anyone expected him in the north. Godwinson had marched 200 miles in four days! The Norwegians thought themselves outnumbered, and Tostig urged that they fall back a few miles to rejoin the troops stationed by their ships, but Harald would not retreat, and instead ordered riders to fetch the reinforcements.

Harald (center) charging into battle for the last time

Harald (center) charging into battle for the last time

Battle was joined at Stamford Bridge. The story has it that a single Viking held the bridge and slaughtered forty English soldiers before he was killed, but that was the last good news for the Norwegians. The English charged across the bridge, engaged their enemy, and broke the Norwegians’ shield wall. In a do-or-die effort, Harald, big man that he was, charged into battle himself where the line had been pierced. But it was not enough. He died there.

The Norwegians were defeated. The co-Earls of Orkney gathered up the sad remains of the army the next day and sailed away in peace. Harold Godwinson let them go, provided they agreed never to return. He had other concerns, another invasion to repel, in fact. Although he didn’t know it, he would soon lose his crown, his kingdom, and his life.

Harald Hardrada’s body was buried on the battlefield at Stamford Bridge. The next year, 1067, it was exhumed and moved back to Norway for internment in Trondheim.

Harald was succeeded on the throne by his son Magnus, who died within three years, and his son Olaf. Olaf reigned for about 26 years. They were good years for Norway, peaceful years. For Olaf wasn’t the Viking king his father had been. No, those times were over. The Viking Age was done.