Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Vikings - all sorts of everything

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.
In modern day Iceland if you refer to someone as being a Viking you infer that this person is strong and daring. When the Icelandic investors and bankers began to expand their operations to overseas markets they were lovingly referred to as the Export Vikings (útrásarvíkingar). We had no idea that they were old school in terms of raiding. Now the term Export Viking is considered derogatory. But all is not lost, a Viking is still someone healthy and courageous and one of the most popular Icelandic beers is named Víking.

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.
Being a history skeptic I must additionally mention an ancient reference to a Viking raid in Constantinople that says the invaders chopped their captives up into little pieces and threw them into the sea. Oh really? Why would anyone waste the energy needed for raiding to chop up captives? I would get it if they intended to scare people but that cannot be the reason since they threw the bits from their boats into the sea. The Viking swords were additionally not made for dicing, although able to pierce and easily kill. So chalk such stories down as exaggerations.   

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.   
Finally, after falling I made sure to wear high heels at all times. You see, horse riding lessons of my youth taught me one good thing. If you fall you must get directly back in the saddle.

Yrsa - Wednesday  


  1. My god, Yrsa, you look like you were playing for the Vikings against the Raiders! I'll leave it to you to explain those American football references to our colleagues.

    I was "enthralled" by your post, and learned a lot of interesting usual...but I kept coming back to your selfie. Take care, and remember that your Icelandic ancestors likely preyed on Jimmy Choo's, which means there could be a whole karma revenge thing playing out around your stilettos.

  2. Hi Jeff - karma revenge now that would be something :-)

  3. I think the Viking PR machine has been going well over here for years. We believe they arrived on our shores as a civilising influence! Ready to settle here, with women on board ( as shown by the female DNA in areas of settlement). But your blog has made me wonder, did they actually like it here because they could wear a kilt to match the eyeliner?? :)

  4. For some reason, I'm having this picture in my head of you wearing high heels instead of spurs while riding a horse, falling off, then leading it by the nose as you hobble along with one broken heel.

    It must be something I ate. But the nose knows...

  5. I am sure you look great in heels, but wouldn't running or hiking shoes be more practical and viking-like? Though I have fallen off horses and gotten back on I do try to learn from it. :)

  6. The outflow of violent genes out of Scandinavia during the Viking age might explain why latter-day Scandinavians are so peace-loving an non-violent. If you want to look for violent Viking genes, look outside Scandinavia. Look, perhaps, in Norman-descended British royalty and nobility. Look perhaps in the Danelaw and East Anglia regions of England from whence came the early Puritan settlers of New England.