I don‘t think I have every blogged about the Vikings. Oddly enough. The reason I am reminded of this is the very recent opening of the new Viking exhibition in the British Museum in London. Although I am not lucky enough to have been to see it, I have seen the catalog and it promises to be very impressive.
But I do not intend to run through the somewhat bloody history of these forefathers of present day Nordic people, including the Icelanders. I am just going to briefly correct some common misconceptions and interesting facts.
Viking did not originally mean what the English term implies today. It was not a nation or band of people but a profession. To go to víking meant to make a journey by sea, for trading with willing or mostly unwilling people (raiding) in far-away places. Someone who joined such an expedition was a Viking or a víkingur.
The Viking heyday was the period between approximately 800 to 1170 AD. Despite this relatively short history, the Vikings had a massive impact on western society.
The Vikings home base was most of Scandinavia, in addition to Iceland and the Faeroe Islands - which are Nordic but not a part of geographical Scandinavia. To begin with these lands were not specific countries and the people had a fluid notion of nationality. As an example it was only in 872 that the various Viking bands or clans in Norway were untied under one king – Haraldur hárfagri – Harald with the beautiful hair. Goldilocks introduced the at-the-time newfangled notion of taxes to the Norwegian Vikings, at which time my forefathers packed up and left. The ones who were willing to pay stayed behind. This is believed to explain why Norwegians, Swedes, Danes and Finns do not mind being taxed up to their chins while the Icelanders and the Faeroese detest it. It is a genetic thing.
As almost everyone knows, the Vikings were considered highly violent and brutal when raiding and pillaging. As an example of this viciousness old historical texts often mention the fact that they did not respect the sanctity of Christian churches. To me this is incredibly childish. Of course they didn’t. They were not Christian.
However, I am sure they were pretty brutal – as were all people raiding and pillaging at the time. Yet, the Icelandic Sagas describe a people that did not consider killing anything pleasurable. A killing had bad consequences. But were occasionally required. Hundreds of years later, when Iceland fell under the Danish crown, public executions required rallying people by authoritative force to watch. No one wanted to see such a waste of life.
The Vikings were neither dirty nor wild looking brutes. They were in fact very vain. They were clean, owned combs and took baths every Saturday – the name Saturday in Icelandic is “laugardagur” meaning bathing day (laug = pool/bath, dagur = day). At the time this was unheard of in Europe. I am also told that they have found traces of eyeliner on some of the Viking leaders unearthed in archeological digs. Ouch. Try not to think of the 80s but more Pirates of the Caribbean. It feels more acceptable.
The Vikings kept slaves which were mainly captured in Ireland, Scotland and the Orkney Islands. A slave is called “þræll” in Icelandic or a thrall in English Vikingese. The term enthralled originates from this old Norse word.
So, I hope this highly unorganized summary of Viking tidbits contained something you did not know. If not here is my last attempt. When I was born the doctor told my mother that I was a Viking as I was a big baby – even for Icelandic standards. I have not been able to verify this until last week when I was attending a crime festival in Oslo (Krim Festivalen). While there I was walking on a cobblestone sidewalk searing high heels and my hands in my pockets to keep them warm. One of my heels got stuck between the stupid stones, causing me to fall flat on my face. At which point in time I broke my nose. But, being a Viking I did not let that ruin anything. I made my appearances and my face did not even hurt that much. So now I think I could have been a raider.
Yrsa - Wednesday