The Whitehead Girl and the Viking Symbol of Mystery

In spite of what you may have heard from “mainstream academia”, there have been found not one, but TWO Viking rune stones in Alberta. I have it on good authority from world-renowned super sleuths, so you can trust my sources. The first stone was the evil Horkel stone, named after

“a Danish Viking called Horkel, who settled in Greenland with the expedition of Lief the Lucky. […] The stone had been cursed for centuries before by a Saxon priest when one of Horkel’s ancestors stole it from him. Its evil history was so well known that Lief made Horkel and his followers go in a different ship, and even settle farther up the fiord than any of the other families. […] Lief and his men left Greenland, but they didn’t take Horkel’s group along. Nobody every saw that stone again. Until, a few years ago an Indian found a tablet bearing strange characters near the base of Alexandra Falls, on the Hay River, up in the Northwestern Territories. The characters where thought to be runic and they were translated. There’s been a lot of disagreement over whether or not the stone is authentic, but one thing is sure – it has brought terrible misfortune to all people who owned it. […] Like mysterious deaths, and fires, and accidents.”

The second stone was found in 1963 by a French-Canadian tracker called Pierre ‘Caribou’ Caron, who found a stone bearing Viking symbols near the shore of Great Slave Lake. When a representative of the London Museum came to buy it off him, he and Caribou were attacked and the stone stolen.

I was dismayed to find no traces of these important finds while researching the new temporary Viking exhibition at the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM), Alberta, Canada for my upcoming book project. In fact, none of the staff seemed to know about these artefacts at all. You may well ask yourself how such a grand oversight may have occurred. Well, all I can say is that the museum needs to contact the original sleuths right away and ask how they solved the mystery of the Alberta Viking Rune stone. The museum might gain a few new objects for their collection.

Wait. Did I forget to mention that I’m talking about a Hardy Boys book? Well, I am. But what a wonderful coincidence it was that a colleague working at the RAM gave me the book, not having read it, and it turns out it’s actually relevant to Alberta!

Before you ask, the RAM was not actually opened until 1967, which is why the rune-stone was sold to London. That was my first question too.

Seeing as I’m currently at the RAM, I thought it appropriate to delve a little deeper into the Hardy Boys book. Before proceeding, I should warn you, there are plot spoilers ahead. You might want to stop here and come back to this post after reading the book, if you are a hardcore Hardy-boys super-fan, or would simply like to discover the fictional Viking heritage of Alberta on your own.

Vikings exhibition banner.jpg

The first thing I want to mention regarding the Hardy Boys series is the terrible parenting of Mr Hardy. The boys get attacked with a knife and fists, almost killed by a heavy train door, attacked by a grizzly bear and then a wolf, trampled to death by a buffalo stampede, shot at, nearly drowned and blown up by dynamite. Mr. Hardy decided to deal with the situation by manning the radio station while sending the boys back out into the wilderness. After all, he has a ‘bad knee’. I realise the boys are 17 and 18 but I feel this might be a case for child protective services or whoever looks into child labour laws and unethical treatment of young people in the workplace. I don’t want to sound judgmental, but perhaps its time to rethink your parenting methods when your kids run the risk of serious injury and painful death on a daily basis, while doing your dirty work.

It’s hard to know which aspect to focus on in this book. The French-Canadian tracker Caribou who shouts ‘Bon tonnerre’ (which according to rudimentary Google-searching is only used in this manner in this one book) and ‘Sacré Bleu’ in every other sentence. There is the fact that Chet, a fellow child-sleuth, is always referred to as the chubby one and is constantly getting into scrapes because of his weight. The bad guys are usually emaciated (because skinny people are evil?) and all the descriptions of Alberta feel like they are taken word-by-word out of an old tourist booklet for the region.

What really piqued my interest is why they chose to situate the book in Alberta, rather than somewhere coastal, like Manitoba. It is worth noting that Alberta certainly has its share of Nordic culture and heritage, they have a Scandinavian Heritage Society, several museums (Including Stephansson House) and heritage sites. Yet, I can safely say that the likelihood of actual Viking settlements is unlikely to be found here.

The book has an explanation for how the Viking stones ended up in Alberta. “Those old Scandinavian mariners really covered a lot of water in their far-flung travels […], often ranging inland for great distances.” Mr Hardy explains to the stunned boys. Actual Viking archaeological finds have been found in Canada, notably in L’Anse aux Meadows, a Viking settlement and in Baffin Island, although what those finds mean has yet to be determined.

The literary history of the Alberta Vikings is of another nature. The first Viking, Horkel, stole a cursed Viking stone from a Saxon priest. After a brief stop in Greenland with his buddy Lief the Lucky, he ended up in Alexandra Falls (Northwest Territory) where the Horkel stone is later found by locals. This is where things get unclear. Either Horkel himself or a second group of Vikings, having somehow arrived at Great Slave Lake thinking it led to the ocean, build a Viking boat in order to sail home. Alas, realising their mistake, they buried the boat with some treasure and (presumably) strolled home by foot. Or buffalo. There is a lot of buffalo in the area, according to the book.

viking buffalo
Print of a Viking bison, Jared Robinson, for sale at the RAM gift shop and his Etsy page

I briefly looked into who Horkel might be based on. Being a very unlikely Viking name, I went back to the Sagas to investigate. Just call me Gudrun ‘the Hardy’ Whitehead. The best guess I can make would be that this is actually Thorkell (Þorkell). There is no Danish king named Horkel or Þorkell who sailed with Leif (spelling changed as I am no longer referring to the Hardy Boys book) the Lucky, however, he had a son named Thorkell, who succeeded him as the chieftain of Greenland. The other possibility is Thorkell the Tall, though I find that more unlikely. He led a Danish army in Sandwich England (Chet, is that you munching over there?), but there is no record of him joining Leifur the Lucky in Greenland. Either way, the question is, are there previously unknown descendants of the fearless Viking explorers in Alberta? I think a genealogical survey is in order.

In an attempt to unravel the mystery of how a Viking rune stone ends up in such a thoroughly unlikely location, my dedicated assistant and colleague Dr Julia Petrov made a Google map of the relevant locations of the Hardy Boys mystery. Note: The map mixes actual locations of Viking-related archaeology and the Hardy-boys version of events, as all good history should do – it makes for a compelling story.

Click the upper left box-shaped icon for information, carefully curated by Dr Petrov.

So, here it is, our best guess. Horkel, being left by Lief the Lucky in Greenland, sails his boat through the impassable, mostly frozen Northwest passage (presumably having their Viking long boat dragged over the ice by about 4-5 polar bears – the wooden keel would act like an ice skate). They land somewhere near Tuktoyuktuk and travel via longboat up the Mackenzie River (against the stream) all the way to the Great Slave Lake. There, they left the evil runestone at the base of Alexandra Falls and left again. Then, a second group of Vikings come along, presumably on a different route than Horkel, and for unknown reasons, arrive at Great Slave Lake, build a boat and fill it with Viking treasure. Sailing on the lake, they realise it doesn’t lead back to the ocean (missing the fact that it actually drains into the frozen Artic Ocean), buried the ship, carved a runestone for clues and then left. My map-making colleague has an alternate theory: she thinks Horkel left both runestones and the treasure, presumably too traumatised to try sailing back the way he came. Even suffering from some sort of amnesia due to the trauma, forgetting that he could take the same route back home. All I can say is, out of the two of us, I’d trust my theory. I am an expert on fake Viking heritage.

Of course, this unlikely location of Viking travels falls well within established popular culture, demonstrated in this well-known meme, simply titled “fucking Vikings”.

My colleague has made me a very artistic rendition:

The implications being that Viking culture can be found everywhere if we just look hard enough. The Hardy Boys prove this, albeit demonstrating a literary heritage if not an actual (factual) one. I should add that Iceland’s history is classically quite influenced by a literary heritage too, the Sagas. What I am saying here is, that give time the Hardy Boys Viking mythology could rise in importance. We might see it interpreted on panels and in glass cases at the RAM in the future. When that happens, I hope that the experts at the RAM look me up; I have some ideas about how to bring the local legend of the two Albertan Slave Lake stones to life.

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