History as a Mirror
There are mainly two different pictures of the Vikings in the common imagination: one of them as an egalitarian and pacific society, the other one of them as violent warriors, with truculent rites and habits.
None of the two pictures is entirely realistic, neither entirely false.
In the book The History of Finland, the American historian Jason Lavery wrote that, unlike what is commonly believed, History does not have the tendency to repeat itself, however the past is constantly rewritten.
Sometimes, the topics people focus the most on, can tell more about the people themselves, and about the time they are living in, rather than the topic talked about.
The Vikings belong to the past, they have already played their role in the history of the world, and what happened cannot be modified, therefore the changes in the way they are commonly seen are consequences of the discoveries made and points of view born only later.
The warrior buried in the island town of Birka, in Sweden, found back in 1878, always was a woman, but tests were not made to find out about it until 2017. The fact that the individual had been buried with weapons was enough for the archaeologists to assume that the deceased were man, despite the fact that stories of warrior women (such as the human Shield Maidens and the supernatural Valkyries) have survived till us and are still very well known.
Obviously, being buried with weapons is not enough for being a warrior, and weapons might have a merely symbolic meaning, but – interestingly enough –this objection was never heard about this specific burial until the deceased turned out to be a woman.
It becomes fairly obvious, considering events like this, how much the context historians, archeologists and anthropologists were born in can influence the popular conception of History, even just through questions never asked.
Until very recent times, the story has been told almost exclusively by white middle class men; the fact that almost no researchers were female – or part of ethnic minorities – has therefore had a very limiting effect on the approach to the data, influencing the formation of common ideas about the past.
The popular conception of History greatly affects the popular conception of the present; it is in fact no coincidence that the Third Reich invested huge amounts of money in pseudoarcheology, trying desperately to find “proofs” of the existence of the Aryan race and of its supposed superiority.
Between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the line between Anthropology and Archeology was way less clear than it is nowadays. It was very common in the academic world to publish in more than one sector at the time, and it was even more common when it came to searching for the origins of the German people. Anyway it did not take to be against the Nazi regime, to understand how the misuse of research and the tendencious approaches to it were actually hiding the truth, rather than revealing it, standing in the way of proper discoveries.
Already back in 1881 Rudolf Virchow had guided an expedition to the Caucasus, with the aim of finding out about the origins of the Germans, based both on the anthropomorphic and on the archaeological evidence. When he returned from the expedition, he claimed that it was simply impossible to be entirely sure about which tribe could have been the ancestor of the Germans. He also criticized the will of nationalists to make the Germans look as naturally superior, considering this attempt just as illogical as the claim of the Jews, declaring themselves to be the People chosen by God.
The Germans were anyway not alone in building an idealized image of their ancestors, the Vikings: Kyninstad, from Norway, was a great supporter of the “scientific” racism, claiming that the whole southern part of Scandinavia had been the cradle of the German superior race, born to be free, unlike the other inferior races, whose lives were meant for slavery.
Still back in 1994, in Germany, a Neo-Nazi association was banned; its name was Viking Jugend (German for “Viking Youth”).
In this environment the image of Vikings as fighters was obviously emphasized, despite the fact that actually the Vikings were also merchants and did not make their living just out of fighting.
On the other hand, around the sixties – far away from the authoritarian propaganda – the image of the Vikings as an equal society was rather popular, while the archeological evidence tends to describe a very hierarchical social scheme. Nowadays we know that slavery was a reality in the Viking society, even though it might have been not as rigid as it was, for example, in Ancient Rome.
In the Viking era it was apparently quite common for free people to decide to become slaves due to a lack of resources to keep their social status with all the responsibilities it brought.
(To be continued…)