Adapted from Brunner’s new bookFar North – A Cultural History
When Geneva historian Paul Henri Mallet began publishing Old Norse tales in 1655, he probably couldn’t imagine the lingering wave of interest in all things “Nordic” more than 250 years later. Although Old Norse tales feature the kind of wild adventure more often associated with pagans than Christians, they were written in 13th century Christianized Iceland and influenced by that faith. It is unclear what originals were used by a certain Snorri Sturluson, Saxo Grammaticus and others who took part in this effort.
After Mallet History of Denmark had been translated into several languages, European writers immediately took an interest in it. The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder read Mallet’s book with great enthusiasm. For him, the stories created a sense of belonging to an imaginary homeland in the North. He felt he was entering new territory: Old Norse mythology as an alternative to a stale classicism that revered Greco-Roman legends and myths. Many people at the time were fed up with the South. The craze also spread to Victorians who traveled to Norway to discover their roots. Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden were seen as a large cultural unit loosely linked by Viking history. An idea even circulated that Queen Victoria was related to Odin.
It didn’t take long for ancient Nordic designs to make their way into popular culture. Stories about such a crude warrior fired the imagination. Probably inspired by the presumed clothing of the Celts or the Gauls, Richard Wagner’s costume designer Ring of the Nibelungs equipped performers with horned helmets. As we know today, the classic “Viking” bronze horned helmets, found in Denmark, date back to 1000 BCE – roughly two thousand years before the Viking Age. And there is no evidence that the Vikings, those mythical explorers and conquerors, wore them. Most likely, they only had leather or metal caps.
More recently our understanding of this legendary warrior people has become much more nuanced and many myths have been dispelled. Rudolf Simek, professor of ancient German and Norse studies at the University of Bonn, Germany, points out that we have only the thinnest evidence of what Viking-era men and women might have looked like. “There is no indication that they had any tattoos or piercings, except for the horizontally scratched, black-painted teeth, the meaning of which is unclear. As can be seen from pictorial representations and sculptures, Viking men sported all sorts of haircuts, from pot cuts to mid-length wavy hair. “They had goatee goats, mustaches and full beards, but little braids are nowhere to be found! , Viking women’s long hair is probably wishful thinking, but they certainly had long hair – the longer the more noble they were – and Irish ribbon bows that would have needed hair needles or thread ets to stabilize them,” says Simek. “As Danish female researchers point out these days, clothes, at least for the elite, were more colorful than we had previously imagined, with colorful woven ribbons and fur trim.”
Movies about these people tend to portray them as almost superhuman characters. However, in fact, measurements of Viking remains show that men averaged 5ft 7in and women 5ft 2in.
Nor is there any truth to the idea that the pagan Vikings waged a religious war against Christianity, although that may have seemed so to the Christian monks whom they brutally attacked. The Vikings were ‘only’ interested in plunder, while the monks spoke of a war of faith as a means of gaining the support of their co-religionists. In truth, some evidence suggests that the Vikings were fascinated by the figure of Jesus Christ, which they learned from their prisoners and missionaries. They even considered the “white savior” a deity equal in stature to the Norse gods, Thor and Odin.
Similarly, the myth of the Vikings’ invincibility stems less from their real technical military superiority than from their habit of launching surprise raids to get their hands on precious booty. Good timing was key. The Viking ships landed before the targets of the attack had time to sound the alarm, and they disappeared just as quickly.
Recently, Scottish comedian Eleanor Morton asked on Twitter: “When are they going to do a historically accurate Viking drama that’s mostly farming?” The question resonated with many people, most likely because they are beginning to realize that the Vikings must also have had real, “normal” lives, beyond just the progression of a spectacular battle in the other. Indeed, many scholars today believe that while certainly capable of using arms to defend their homes and honor, the majority of people known as “Vikings” lived from farming, fishing and trading and spent their lives where they were born. . In any case, the Viking raiders looked more like the highwaymen of their time, that is, exceptions, rather than typical representatives of the culture from which they came.
Did Viking women fight too? The “Birka Warrior” excavated in Sweden suggests yes. An axe, a sword, two horse corpses and a board game were found in this woman’s grave, and when it was discovered in 1878, excavators assumed the occupant must have been a man. It would take more than a century before Swedish researcher Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson and her team proved otherwise using DNA analysis. The case also showed how many were unable to imagine a world in which men and women would be free from fixed gender roles, and how scientists often misinterpret archaeological evidence. On the other hand, the bones of the female warrior show no signs of sword stabs or other direct combat effects. It is possible that the woman was a battlefield commander. But critics have also speculated that she may have been buried in the wrong grave. Some scholars believe that Viking household chores were divided between the sexes and that there were Viking “housemen”, since large cooking pots and skewers have also been found in men’s graves. While the role of Viking women – including “female spears”, as the Valkyries called themselves – has generated much research interest among modern scholars, whether it remains to be conclusively proven. there was a gender division of labor or whether women and men truly enjoyed equal roles.
In his book Valkyrie: Women of the Viking WorldIcelandic medievalist Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir writes:
We exoticize them, but upon closer examination it appears that we have surprisingly much in common with the Vikings: like them, we also live in a time of changing gender roles, migration, fluctuating economies, new media and technologies, and global flow of goods – a time when the world is changing rapidly and unpredictably.
The limitless brutality of Viking films is a topic in itself, and there are even more questionable phenomena associated with the continued popularity of Old Norse tales and Norse deities. A contemporary Germanic paganism, called Ásatrú, has attracted followers for decades, spawning communities in North America and Europe. His followers revere Odin. The movement heroizes the pre-Christian traditions of northern Europe and preaches the supposed superiority of the white race. Images of Valhalla, the imaginary paradise reserved for Viking warriors, often fuel this ideology, as well as fears that Europe, as a spiritual homeland, is threatened by immigration from Muslim countries and doomed to destruction. Racist, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments are rife among these groups, which have clashed with the law on multiple occasions. Neo-Nazis make pilgrimages to Haithabu (from the Old Norse term Heiðabýr, from heiðr‚ “pagan” and býr‚ “court”), an important archaeological museum near the North German city of Schleswig on the site of a former Viking trading post for herring, grain and cloth. Similarly, the annual Medieval Viking Festival at the site of an ancient Viking settlement in the Polish town of Wolin in the Baltic region attracts right-wing visitors from Germany and Russia who carry shields and wear T-shirts and tattoos emblazoned with swastikas, SS skulls, and the slogan “blood and honor”. Needless to say, none of this matches the historical reality of the Vikings. Finally, the tattoos displayed by the so-called QAnon Shaman when he stormed the US Capitol – the valknut, yggdrasil (world tree) and Thor’s hammer – are influenced by Norse mythology.
What are the reasons for our obsession with the Vikings? Be it north man or Marvel Thor franchise – what needs are served by these tales of a world that no longer exists and perhaps never existed in the form we imagine? Is it cut off in times of anxiety like the one we are currently experiencing? These are questions that deserve to be asked since, as The man from the north shows, our fascination with Norse mythological figures runs deep and isn’t likely to fade anytime soon. •