Were the Vikings woke?
We see Vikings everywhere. On TV, in games and used in all sorts of media and entertainment. We know them for being violent, barbaric and plundering. But it turns out there’s more to these Scandinavian pagans than what meets the popular culture – and turns out there’s more than just one reason to be fascinated by them. In fact, Vikings formed sustainable communities, were culturally advanced for their time – and they appreciated female leadership.
Vikings have taken over popular culture, trending on almost every media platform out there. You have probably come across them in series such as the Irish-Canadian ‘Vikings’ and the British ‘The Last Kingdom’, in movies such as the American ‘Outlander’ or on your console – in games like the Canadian ‘Assassin's Creed Valhalla’. And the craze does not seem to end; in 2022, the American productions ‘Vikings: Valhalla’ and ‘The Northman’ will have their premieres.
But why has Viking culture become so popular?
“It’s easy to see the appeal of the Vikings (…) The parallels with what we look for in our rock stars are just too obvious. The Vikings were uproarious and anti-authoritarian, but with a warrior code that values honor and loyalty”.
“It’s easy to see the appeal of the Vikings (…) The parallels with what we look for in our rock stars are just too obvious. The Vikings were uproarious and anti-authoritarian, but with a warrior code that values honor and loyalty,” explained Dr Simon Trafford, lecturer in medieval history and director of studies at the University of London, to The Guardian once.
This picture of the wild warriors is precisely what we meet in the popular TV series ‘Vikings’ where Vikings are portrayed as violent people who thirst to go on peregrinations, kill or die honorably on the battlefield. For example, in the first season, when the main character Ragnar Lothbrok goes to England with a group of Vikings and slaughters the monks in the first monastery they come across. But does this violent portrayal match reality?
Underneath the amour
Even though Vikings are best known for their brutal jaunts across Western Europe – and as the pagans who were unscrupulous enough to plunder churches and monasteries – the Vikings were, in fact, far from ‘just brutish barbarians in horned helmets’. They were skilled craftsmen with a fascinating culture and societies both socially and culturally advanced for their time. So, where does the one-sided portrayal come from?
One of the significant challenges with Viking studies is that there is a bias in the historical accounts; the early chronicles all came from the church centers or official reports to the kings or regional authorities. Only in the past two decades have archaeological studies begun to provide information that dilates and, in some cases, contradict or replace the historical records.
“These findings are giving us a totally different view of the Vikings. We see them archaeologically not as raiders and pillagers but as entrepreneurs, traders, people opening up new avenues of commerce, bringing new materials into Scandinavia, spreading Scandinavian ideas into Europe,” said William Fitzhugh, curator in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington.
“These findings are giving us a totally different view of the Vikings. We see them archaeologically not as raiders and pillagers but as entrepreneurs, traders, people opening up new avenues of commerce, bringing new materials into Scandinavia, spreading Scandinavian ideas into Europe.”
This contrasts sharply with the early accounts, which were all from Europe and inevitably based on victims' reports – and therefore one-sided.
Birka the Viking warrior queen
An example of archaeological findings opening a more multilateral side of Viking history was the discovery that the famous warrior tomb in the Viking town of Birka in Sweden belonged to a woman – and not, as assumed when the grave was excavated in 1878, an important male warrior.
In many ways, the assumption makes sense – since the grave was found at a time where soldiers and warriors were almost always male. And even today, it is seldom that people think of a woman when hearing the word Viking. Probably because the stereotypical Viking portrayal is hypermasculine, and in the visual expression, he is often portrayed as a heterosexual and stereotypically masculine gendered – muscular, hairy, wild and virile.
But in 2017, a research article reported that a genetic analysis of the body in the Birka grave showed that the individual was female. The researchers pointed out that although genetic tests showed that the tomb contained a woman, nothing else in the grave changed as a result of that finding. Meaning: They believed it is very likely that a high-ranking female warrior was buried there. And if one Viking woman lived as a warrior, more probably did, the researchers meant.
This indicates that the Vikings were ahead of their time in terms of allowing women to join their armies – and besides, written sources actually portray women as independent and possessing rights. Compared to women elsewhere in the same period, Viking women had way more freedom, although there were limits.
Roaming with zero waste
And this is not the only way in which the Vikings might have been ahead of their time. Since the Vikings were expert travelers, they had to live a ‘zero-waste lifestyle’, as we call it today.
“They had to be able to survive off whatever land they found themselves. They made the best of the resources available to them. Skin, meat, bones. They didn’t waste anything – and that is certainly something that we should be embracing in the 21st century.”
“They had to be able to survive off whatever land they found themselves. They made the best of the resources available to them. Skin, meat, bones. They didn’t waste anything – and that is certainly something that we should be embracing in the 21st century,” explained once Gareth Henry, Events Manager at York’s JORVIK Viking Centre.
Of course, violence is a part of the story, but it is also just that – ‘a part’. And although the prevalence of Viking culture today is predominantly found in the appeal of carnage, blood and clashing of helmets, those who come for the gore will hopefully leave with a fascination of a culture that had much more to offer.
A culture that might have cod the first sod for some of the key values that we strive to live by today. Not just in the Nordics – but in many countries around the world.
A little more info:
Why have Vikings taken over pop culture? By The Guardian
The Vikings were more complicated than you might think by The New York Times
Who were the Vikings? By PBS
Researchers reaffirm famed ancient Viking warrior was biologically female by Smithsonian Magazine
Warrior buried in a Swedish Viking grave was actually female by Science Nordic