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Group Brings to Life Vikings’ Ancient Lore

Draugar Vinlands members Joey O’Neil (left) and Dillon Mroz train at a park in Stratham, N.H., on a recent Saturday. Boston Globe Photo by Mark Lorenz
Draugar Vinlands members Joey O’Neil (left) and Dillon Mroz train at a park in Stratham, N.H., on a recent Saturday.

Boston Globe
By Taryn Plumb

There’s Ragnar, exceptionally accurate with a spear.

Rurik is master of the ax, taught among the Danes.

Olaf is a beast with a sword, powerful and unpredictable.

Rauda Bjorn and Tofa are both delicate with handiwork but swift with weaponry.

“Leg-biter” is what they call Aelfi: as the second-in-command, she wrangles the men.

Jarl, the leader, earned the nickname “Schildknacker” (“cracker of shields”) while battling the Saxons.

This band of Viking warriors called the Draugar Vinlands — explorers, duelers, and conquerors — is so meticulously dedicated to accuracy, its members seem like imports from the first millennium (until one sneaks out a smartphone after a bout of fighting, that is).

“I wanted to make sure I filled the ranks with people not only interested in and passionate about the combat, but the history, the culture,” said Marc Svirtunas, 47, of Exeter, N.H., who formed the group last summer, and is the “Schildknacker” Jarl Ingvar.

Now a dedicated core of seven — an eighth, Siggur, was “lost at sea,” the fate of many a Viking — meets on Saturdays in a cordoned-off area of Stratham Hill Park in Stratham, N.H., to drill and spar. Preferring to call themselves “living history combatants” rather than reenactors, they focus on the eighth, ninth, and 10th centuries, when the Vikings were at their peak.

“I’ve always been really interested in history,” said one member, Max Niketic (the ax-throwing Rurik of Burka) of Newburyport, noting the particular appeal of Viking culture, ships, and armor. “It’s all fascinating.”

Using blunted versions of replica weapons, the Draugar Vinlands’ strokes and fighting techniques are based on ancient treatises and texts. They don period-accurate chain mail and helmets, and drink from vessels that resemble auroch (an extinct species of wild cattle) horns.

But unlike the dozens of Viking video games, movies, or the current TV series on the History Channel, this group doesn’t fantasize the ancient culture: The members live it, from researching clothing down to the belts (exact replicas of items dug up at such archeological sites as Birka in Sweden), to reading the sagas and legends, to speaking German (which evolved from the Vikings’ true tongue, Old Norse), to learning the meanings — and ultimately making their own etchings and stitchings on their clothing and leather wear — of runes, the Viking alphabet.

Similarly, their Viking personas have intricate back stories stretching across real Scandinavian sites and landmarks. For example, Svirtunas’ Jarl (a title that denotes “old successful warrior”) took his sword, “Draugr,” from the burial mound of a Saxon king, while Rauda Bjorn (Newburyport resident Dillon Mroz) “comes to us from Trøndelag,” in central Norway, according to the group’s website, which notes that his family’s good fortune went down with his father’s knarr (vessel) “on the shores of the isle of Frøya.”

Draugar Vinlands translates to “Ghosts of Vinland,” borrowing the name that the Vikings gave to a part of North America — perhaps including what is now New England — reached by Norse explorers more than 1,000 years ago.

After discovering Viking lore in high school, “I fell head over heels, immersed myself in it,” said Mroz, 21, standing in the shade at Stratham Hill Park as the group gathered on a recent humid Saturday.

A history major at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Mroz is of Norwegian ancestry, evidenced by his long red hair and his self-described “surprisingly red” beard (thus his nickname Rauda, or “Red’’ ). Like his comrades, he was dressed for the day in traditional warm-weather Viking attire: a light linen kyrtle (tunic) that he stitched himself; drawstring linen trousers with winnegas (legwraps); a hood; leather turn-shoes; and a chain-mail shirt.

“I really like the mythology. It’s very complex,” he said, explaining that Norse gods are not completely immortal and all-knowing, as is the case with most other polytheistic or monotheistic religions.

Fellow warrior Joey O’Neil, 21, of Waltham (also known as Ragnar the spear-thrower), said he’s also fascinated by the mythology — particularly Odin, the major god — and is likewise intrigued by the “thought of going into battle with a bunch of your brothers.”

Just then, the Jarl’s “stallari” (deputy in the field) called for attention.

“Hey, hey, guys, line up!” instructed Aelfi, 25-year-old Abbey Miller of Lexington.

Dressed in a long wool tunic, her brown hair in a simple braid, she led them in a series of warm-up exercises. Then they paired off to sharpen their battle skills. Delicately leaned against a nearby fence were real — and very sharp — spears and swords, alongside numerous helmets and wooden shields, 2½ to 3 feet in diameter and colored with period-correct milk paint.

Their fenced-off drilling grounds have a historical feel: tiered benches on the hillside overlooking the field are slanted and swayed, overgrown with weeds and grass.

Mroz and Niketic squared off, tapping their shields with wooden practice swords when ready. They circled, shields held aloft slightly to one side, then struck: up, down, wheeling, doubling back. As the action moved across the grass, swords clunked shields, made contact with legs, helmeted heads, midsections.

In her role as second-in-command, Miller said, “I try to instill the idea of low blows and creative fighting,” explaining that traditional stories describe leg injuries as a common cause of death.

“Their level of enthusiasm is unmatched,” said Svirtunas, who takes his role as Jarl quite seriously, including providing his warriors with provisions after fighting. “You can’t teach enthusiasm and passion.”

Most of the members met by chance — either at Renaissance fairs, or performances by Viking metal bands, an offshoot of black metal whose themes often focus on the times, legends, and beliefs of the Norse seafarers.

Svirtunas became particularly intrigued after seeing “The 13th Warrior,” a 1999 film starring Antonio Banderas as Ahmad ibn Fadlan, a 10th-century Arab traveler known for his accounts of Vikings.

“I started reading the history and thought, wouldn’t it be nice to really do it right,” Svirtunas recalled, referring not just to combat but to authentic clothing and even mannerisms. “To really get a feel for what it was like to live back then, to fight back then.”

The group stresses that life as a Viking was not the cliche typically played out in most films or television shows, which depict dirty, vulgar, thunderous, horned-helmet-clad savages who wantonly killed and looted.

Vikings were expert fighters, but, as history teaches, the Draugar Vinlands members say, they had a purpose: To gain dominance, land and wealth, or honor. Many invaded England after the fall of the Roman Empire to settle and farm because their own climate in Scandinavia was too harsh.

Niketic, 22, who graduated from Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va., with a degree in history, said the Vikings’ shallow-draft boats, which could sail up rivers or close to shore where other vessels would get stuck, enabled them to invade deeper into a territory.

“No one had ships like the Vikings,” he said.

Mroz pointed out they bathed once a week, making them the “cleanest people of the time” (and a lure for women of other cultures).

Miller said they were also “decent” to their women, who were just as brave as the men, sometimes donning armor and fighting alongside them , while Roman wives of the time were essentially slaves.

“It’s strange to call them barbarians, because they had many things that out-civilized the civilized world,” said Niketic. “They thought the Romans were barbarians.”

Of all the tribes through time, the Vikings are among the most feared, revered, and mysterious.

They raided for food and bounty from the eighth to the 11th centuries. Because their history was mostly oral, what we know of them comes principally from other cultures, whose portrayals weren’t always accurate or flattering.

Here are some essential (and perhaps surprising) details about the people known for their warring ways, ingenuity in shipbuilding, and restless nature, as told by Draugar Vinlands member Dillon Mroz in a presentation he gave in Newbury:
  • Vikings were largely farmers, although their native Scandinavia was harsh and cold, so most harvesting was done on the coast.
  • The first documented raid was in 793 on Lindisfarne, an island off the northeast coast of England.
  • Their travels brought them across Europe, and west to Iceland and Greenland, and perhaps the North American mainland.
  • Crimes among themselves were determined on levels: Murder was involved only if the killer didn’t tell anyone (otherwise it was manslaughter); robbing a person was looked on more harshly than robbing a house.
  • Punishments included running a gantlet (two rows of people pelting the guilty with any number of items, including stones), beheading, and paying compensation.
  • Vikings were polytheistic and believed in a “multiverse.” Their primary god was Odin, while the most popular one was the hammer-wielding Thor, who controlled the elements and protected mankind.
  • Death was observed with funeral pyres, although some respected or wealthy individuals were buried in a longship along with their possessions and slaves.