In this year dire portents appeared over Northumbria and sorely frightened the people. They consisted of immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed those signs, and a little after that in the same year, on 8 June, the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter.
The year was 793. The place was Northumbria in the great monastery at Lindisfarne. The attackers were the Vikings.
The writer of the chronicle, probably a Christian monk, must have watched the actions of the assailants that day with a detached sense of reality, suddenly feeling forsaken by his God. Nevertheless, one cannot be too hard on the witness. His peaceful understanding of the world and the sanctity of his religion had just been shattered right in front of him by a foe whose likes had never been seen before.
We’re told by Ken Crossley-Holland, in his book The Norse Myths, that the literal meaning of the word Viking is ‘fighting men’. The word berserk, in fact, was coined by the fighting methods of these warriors. Imagine a horde of men storming over a hill toward your stronghold, perfect in physique, tall, with a reddish hue to their long braided hair, their faces covered in thick beard. They are partially clothed in furs that are draped over one side of their body, leaving one hand free to wield a weapon. Their battle cry is like that of a ferocious animal that sends a shuddering chill up the spines of their enemies. If you are a peasant farmer or a peaceful monk sitting in his cell copying lines of the Bible, a scene like this would be nothing short of horrifying. But then add to that the Viking’s unique mode of transportation.
The Norsemen were superb ship builders. Crossley-Holland reminds us that the ships were “one of the great practical and artistic achievements of pre-Conquest Europe…they were both beautiful in line and very pliable in rough waters.” Again, imagine you are a peasant who has woken early to fish from the nearby river. You walk the short distance from your village and see a large wooden ship skimming smoothly over the shallow water, its overlapping planks sweeping up at either end. It is propelled by oarsmen, perhaps fifteen or sixteen on either side and a square sail. It has an enclosed deck with the warrior’s colored shields hanging in a row over the railings. But the thing that really terrifies you is the elaborately carved prow. A figurehead in the shape of a dragon. It’s no wonder our chronicler warned of “fiery dragons…flying in the air”. No doubt his first impression of this new breed of attacker was that the gates of hell had been unbolted and that the dragons had been released, both to sail through the air and to float on the water.