The popularized image of the Viking is a modern romanticism rather than a historically accurate figure. The Viking as we know him today tells us more about who we are than who the Viking was. (The horned helmet? Created as a prop. Although they did have some seriously cool helmets.) The Viking Age refers to the time when there were Scandinavians taking sea-voyages to other places for raiding, conquest, and trade, which is dated to approximately the late eighth to the early twelfth centuries.
With my World of the Vikings course, we have learned about uses and abuses of the Vikings in popular culture. One of the reasons the Viking is popular is because of the idea he represents—the courageous, adventurous, independent-minded, sea-faring warrior, known for his strength (no need to dwell on cleanliness or manners). We can see why American culture uses the Viking so much—Vikings can be seen as a reflection of an American spirit. But how close can we really get to the Viking Age? We can trace routes of the Vikings from history, and we can read about them from records by non-Scandinavians. From the Icelandic sagas, we can get a look into the oral history, the stories that were worth repeating and preserving for centuries. We can translate and admire rune stones. But perhaps more than anything, our sources build a legend.
When I tell Swedes that one of my courses is on the Viking Age, they generally look a little embarrassed or say that I probably know more than them—there’s not so much pride in that cultural heritage. Perhaps this is because Vikings are for tourists, or maybe because the Viking was used to represent a common Germanic ancestry, a symbol exploited by the Nazis. Nowadays, we see work being done to complicate the image of the Viking through multiculturalism and gender and sexuality studies, and it is amazing, shocking, horrifying, to see how upset people become when a case is made for queer Vikings. People don’t want their Viking heroes to be anything other than heterosexual, broad-shouldered white males wielding axes. In America, how we see Vikings today says a lot more about Americans than it does about Scandinavians from the Viking Age.
What do I romanticize about the Viking Age? Perhaps not how they all used the same water to wash their faces, spitting and blowing their noses before passing it on to the next guy. Nope. I romanticize the great chieftain halls. The power of a chieftain depended on his generosity because he had to earn and keep the loyalty of his followers. Personal ties (who loves networking?) and earning those ties are what counted for leadership.
When kingdoms were formed, kings were criticized for favoring foreigners. Why did the kings prefer immigrants? The local people were too entitled, so they were not as loyal to the king as foreigners were. This made me think of my own sense of entitlement, of an American sense of entitlement for having been born in America—food for my thoughts.
My Vikings course is over now, but a few things I take away from it are the power of generosity, of community, and the need to keep a critical eye on our cultural symbols. The Viking has been taken and twisted and packaged into a commodity to be sold (like my favorite kanelbullar, a.k.a. Swedish cinnamon buns), and it is important to unravel and understand the used and abused history of Viking Age Scandinavians.