November 28

The Vikings: Who Were They? (2/3)

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…)

November 26

The Vikings: Who Were They? (1/3)

Picture by Joe Mabel


In the human society, the idea of civilization has a lot to do with the

concept of identity.
Who were the Vikings? Why does it still appear to be important to get to know more about them? What are some of the biggest differences between their image in the popular culture and the one suggested by the archaeological evidence?

In this article I do obviously not aim to give an explanation about the Viking identity as a whole, not only but even due to the fact that no group identity and culture is something that can be described in detail in just a few pages. I will rather write about the differences between what we know – or is at least the most logic to suppose – and the image of the Vikings in the common imaginary world, about the reasons why the group of people we nowadays call Vikings still seems to be so crucial regardless how distant in time, and how the reinvention of their culture, along with some prejudices, has stood in the way of understanding the reality, conditioning the interpretation of the data, starting from the very questions asked. I will analyze briefly what we know about them, based on the archaeological evidence found till the present moment, how the Vikings have been portrayed in different moments of History, as a mirror of the society portraying them, how their image has been used by the nazi propaganda – thanks to pseudoscience – in order to promote the idea of a superior race, the stigma this still brings upon the idea of Vikings in the contemporary world, and what is otherwise their role in nowadays popular culture.

To be or not to be… a Viking?

The origin of the word “Viking” is still unclear and therefore discussed.
Some of the possible terms it might derive from, have anyway much to do with  being a foreigner, coming from somewhere else or travelling. Some examples are: víkingr (usually translated from Old Scandinavian as “sea warrior”), víking (“military  expedition”, usually over the sea, in Old Scandinavian) and varjag (which, in the East, was a term to talk about the people coming from Sweden). In Väster-götland (Sweden), an inscription was found; there is written that a man called Toli was killed in the west while in viking (“varþ dauþr a vestrvegum i vikingu”). Another inscription found in Skåne (once again, Sweden) says that several men became famous due to the expeditions they took part to (“Þer drængiar waru w[iþa] [un]esir i wikingu”). 

The etymology of the term, its original meaning, is the topic which still raises more discussions.
One of the hypothesis is that the therm “viking” might come from Viken, the name of a huge bay close to Oslo; in this case “viking” would indicate “those who come from Viken”.
Another possibility is the fact that the word might come from vik (meaning “bay”), therefore portraying the Vikings as the people living around bays.
Another interpretation is that the word “viking” might partly be composed of wic, the Germanisation of vicus (“harbour” or “place of

trade”, in Latin). This interpretation has been largely favored in times when the image of the Vikings as warriors was not so liked or welcome, since it supports the idea of them being pacific merchants, rather than cruel warriors.
One more hypothesis is that “Vikingcould be related to vika (“a distance at sea”), hence a week (a period or section), indicating therefore a distance that one could row in the time between two pauses.
Another possibility is that the word “Viking” could be connected to víkja (to move, to walk or to travel), portraying the Vikings simply as people who have left home and travelled.
At the moment there is still no way to know for sure about the meaning this word originally had, but it seems fairly logic to suppose that a víkingr (“sea warrior”) who was out in víking (“military expedition over the sea”) was probably not just a peaceful merchant, and that the meaning is somehow also connected to being a warrior.

Luckily, there are anyway also things about which more precise information is available.

The vikings came from Scandinavia; the beginning of the Viking era is usually set at the year 793, with the attack at the monastery of Lindisfarne, while the end of it is set at the year 1066, when king Harold defeated king Haraldr Harðráði; it is anyway always good to remember that the division of History in periods and eras is just an academic construction, something created to make it possible to analyze, remember and study deeply different events and phenomena happened along the path of the human race. The Vikings did obviously not know that they were living the Viking era, and they did not think of themselves as Vikings, just as much as the inhabitants of Athens, Sparta and all the other poleis did not think of themselves as Greeks, and could not know that they would have looked so similar and so close from the point of view of people who would have been born only thousands of years later.
According to the same logic, all the people we nowadays identify as Vikings did not suddenly disappear in 1066, since the reality is made rather of shades than of strict schemes and straight lines.

(To be continued…)