In Search Of The Gods

Azov is hardly the kind of place where most people would look for adventure. Life is slow in this postcard-pretty Russian town on the delta of the muddy river Don. No one has bothered to tear down the statue of Lenin in the main square. Azov used to be a busy port. But that was before the river's channel shifted, leaving the town in sleepy solitude.

Until Thor Heyerdahl showed up. Half a world and more than half a century away from the route of his famous Kon-Tiki expedition, the Norwegian explorer is pursuing the most wildly ambitious quest of his life. Conquering the Pacific on a balsa raft was kid stuff. This time his goal is nothing less than to find Asgard, the fabled home of the Vikings' gods. Its remains, he believes, are here in Azov, buried eight meters or more underground. Most experts on Norse history stop just short of calling the whole idea insane. But Heyerdahl, 86, is so confident, he has put up $100,000 of his own money in search of Asgard.

His dream began when he was a schoolboy. Like all Norwegian youngsters, Heyerdahl had to read "Heimskringla" ("The Orb of the World"), an epic history of Norway by Snorri Sturluson, a 13th-century Icelandic poet and chieftain. The chronicle opens with a careful description of the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and Russia, a land of giants, dwarfs, "blue men" and "many kinds of stranger creatures." East of the Tanais (an ancient name for the Don), in the lost city of Asgard, lived a great conqueror named Odin. When the Romans invaded his land, he led a band of followers across Russia and Germany to the Baltic Sea, where he finally died, promising his warriors they would someday rejoin him in Asgard. "Then began [or rose anew] the belief in Odin, and the calling upon him," said Sturluson, who traced the lineage of Norway's kings directly from him.

Heyerdahl's critics say the 13th-century text proves nothing. "It's mythology, not confirmed by archeology," scoffs Even Hovdhaugen, a professor at the University of Oslo. His colleague Prof. Gro Steinsland, an expert on early Norse religions, agrees: "[It's] like digging for the Garden of Eden." But Heyerdahl insists the evidence all fits together. The saga's geography is basically solid, he reasoned; why not its genealogy? He made a few calculations. Sturluson is widely accepted as accurate after the year 800 or so, in the days of Hovdaun the Black. From there Heyerdahl counted 33 generations backward to Odin. He did some quick math and found himself in the first century B.C. That's exactly when the Roman generals Lucullus and Pompey conquered the Black Sea region.

Heyerdahl had to check it out. "This is not my theory," he says. "It's Snorri's. I'm just putting it to the test." Early this year he began digging for traces of Odin and his followers in Azov, on the east bank of the Don. Heyerdahl thinks Azov's name might hold an echo of the Norse word for deity: ass, as in Asgard, the garden of the gods. And the deep silt here is loaded with ancient artifacts. This is where Greek colonists built the region's first major city some 2,500 years ago. Heyerdahl says what he's looking for is a "change in the cultural layer" roughly 2,100 years ago--signs of the royal exodus described by Sturluson. Other archeologists say they don't know what Heyerdahl is talking about. Sturluson says "a great many other people went with Odin," but even Heyerdahl thinks most of the kingdom's inhabitants stayed behind.

Still, he figures the exodus must have left a discernible mark on the archeological record. He only has to find it. His researchers have exhumed numerous Roman-era items, including a child's bracelet, several belt buckles, an ancient safety pin and a six-pointed talisman they describe as a zoomorph. By the time they stopped work for the summer in July, at a depth of just over eight meters, they were unearthing bits of distinctive black-lacquer pottery from the first century B.C. It all suggests he's on the right track, Heyerdahl asserts.

Impossible, his critics say: Heyerdahl's quest is based on a whole series of false assumptions. "He just sees what he wants to see, ignoring anything that gets in the way of his theories," says Christian Keller, a professor of archeology at Oslo's Center for Viking and Medieval Studies. The linguistic record, for one thing. The Norse word ass, from a Germanic root probably meaning "wind" or "breath," has no known connection to Azov. According to Anne Stalsberg, an associate professor of archeology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the town's name ("low-lying place") dates back to the 17th century. And experts trace the name of Odin to the Germanic name Wotan, not to the Black Sea.

There's hard evidence, too. Archeologists in Scandinavia have found no trace of a historical Odin. But they have dug up a major flaw in Sturluson's account. "Heimskringla" says one tradition that Odin brought from Asgard was cremation of the dead. That's a detail archeologists can check. "Cremation already was the dominant [funeral] custom in Scandinavia," says Stalsberg. But there was a change around 2,000 years ago, when Odin supposedly arrived: people stopped burning corpses before burial. What's more, Sturluson himself contradicts the Azov-was-Asgard idea. Another of his works, the "Prose Edda," identifies Odin's hometown as Troy. "That is rather far from Azov," says Else Mundal, a professor of Norse philology at the University of Bergen. Keller adds: "I don't think he'll find what he's looking for."

On the contrary, Heyerdahl has already found one thing he was looking for: a roaring good time. You can see it when he visits the dig, striding at a breakneck speed across the rough-cut planks that span the square-walled pits. "It's very, very important to enjoy what you are doing," he says. "I would have been dead long ago if I didn't have the freedom to follow up on my own curiosity." Heyerdahl has always loved a good fight. "There will be a lot of quarrels ahead," he gleefully predicts. "The danger is when everyone agrees." There's scant risk of that while Heyerdahl is on the job.

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