December 11

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

Between Fantasy and Reality

Besides the image of the Vikings being used by the Nazis in their propaganda, there are several differences between some of the features commonly believed to belong to the Viking culture and what the concrete archaeological evidence suggests.
There is absolutely no proof, for example, that they had the habit of wearing helmets with horns.

There is little evidence about boats having dragonheads, while there are more findings when it comes to dragonhead dress pins.

Runic incision found in Sweden, picture by Gunnar Creutz.
Source: Wikimedia.

The runes, in the popular culture, are nowadays believed by many to be something of Celtic origins, but the Futhark is actually a product of the Viking culture; the mistake is anyway understandable, due to the consistent interactions between the Vikings and the Celts.

The Viking funerals might turn out to be a very truculent event, something very different from the poetic image of a boat burning while slowly moving towards the horizon.
Looking at the Viking burial sites found till now, one of the evident aspects is the fact that – even though there are common elements – there are not two identical burials. There are differences in the positions of the bodies, in the grave goods and in the animals involved.
Back in 1981, in Denmark, the remains of a man and a woman were found; the body of the woman had been crushed in two points by two big boulders.
The osteological evidence makes it clear that the man died very likely by hanging, while it is not known what was the cause of death for the woman.

The man was found with a knife on his chest; the woman had a knife as well. Pieces of sheep crania were spread in the aria between the two bodies. 

Also, an iron spearhead was found, placed close to the right leg of the woman, pointing towards her feet, which is quite unusual; normally, in the Viking burials where spears are found, they are pointing upwards. This might – or might not – mean that in this case the spear was not seen as a proper weapon, but rather as ritual element. 

In other burials, some parts of the deceased had been substituted by animal parts.
We must anyway not take for granted that these were ways to mock or to “punish” the deceased. Due to a lack of written sources, it is still impossible to know for sure which meanings were attributed to these kind of burials, how these actions were seen by the people who attended the funerals and if – for example – the aim some of these rituals might have been to make sure that the dead could not come back. Applying a contemporary moral code or sense of aesthetics to rituals of another era might be extremely misleading, and lead to very poor interpretations.

The Viking Ship Museum, Oslo.
Picture by Larry Lamsa.
Source: Flickr.

It is possible that some parts of the bodies were covered (or even crushed) due to the belief that some evil spirits might otherwise use the deceased to harm the living. The saga accounts and Ibn Fadlān’s narration about a Rus’ funeral, make clear that the Norse were afraid that different spirits might get into human bodies through the orifices, and especially the respiratory passages. This might explain the reason why

Freyja and the Necklace, by James Doyle Penrose (about 1913).
Source: Wikipedia.

the neck of the man was broken and the chest of the woman was crushed, making sure that nothing could come or go through their lungs.
Rather than a way to humiliate the deceased, these procedures might have been a way to protect both the dead and the living. Even though these descriptions are far away from the romantic image of the boat burning, it might therefore be fair to resist the temptation of seeing in this kind of burials some sort of cruelty,  which might have been far from what the people of that time meant.
There is a lot that cannot be known for sure, since unfortunately some aspects of the funeral and of the burial did not leave archeological evidence behind. For example, it is rare to find Viking burials where the fabrics are still quite intact, while fabrics and clothes might maybe tell more about the deceased than the metal objects found do.
Another thing it is not possible to know about, but might have said a lot, would have been the way the beards and the hair of the deceased were treated.

Conclusion

In this article I wrote shortly about some of the aspects known  about the Viking life and identity. I wrote about the possible origins of their name, along with its possible original meanings, mentioning some incisions found in Sweden that might help understanding these aspects.
I wrote about how – using a pseudoscientific approach – the Nazi propaganda in Germany and Norway tried to re-write the history of the Vikings, especially when it came to their origins, failing to search for the truth, preferring instead desperate attempts to find confirmations of the story the nationalist extremists wanted to tell, starting already in the end of the nineteenth century.
I also pointed at how the portrait of the Vikings has been changing through the time, as a mirror of the society portraying them, talking briefly about the limits imposed to the research by the lack of gender and ethnic plurality among the researchers till recent times.
I shortly debunked some ideas about the Vikings which are still common in the popular culture, but not supported by the archaeological evidence, nor by the few written sources. Doing this, I tried to make clear how both the image of the Vikings as cruel, bloodthirsty warriors and  – on the other hand – the image of them as a utopian, peaceful and egalitarian community, are partial and potentially misleading.

Sources

  • The History of Finland (Jason Lavery, 2006)
  • Viking warrior women? Reassessing Birka chamber grave Bj.581 (Neil Price, Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, Torun Zachrisson, Anna Kjellström, Jan Storå, Maja Krzewińska, Torsten Günther, Verónica Sobrado, Mattias Jakobsson & Anders Götherström, 2019)
  • Buried with Honour and Stoned to Death? The Ambivalence of Viking Age Magic
    in the Light of Archaeology (Leszek Gardeła, 2009)
  • Slavery in the Viking Age (Stefan Brink, 2008)
  • Law and Society, Polities and legal customs in Viking Scandinavia (Stefan Brink, 2008)
  • Who Were the Vikings? (Stefan Brink, 2008)
  • “Arierdämmerung”: race and archaeology in Nazi Germany (Bettina Arnold, 2006)
  • “The gleaming mane of the serpent”: the Birka dragonhead from Black Earth Harbour
    (Sven Kalmring & Lena Holmquist, 2018)
  • What This Awl Means: Towards a Feminist Archaeology (Janet D. Spector, 1993)
  • Of Vikings and Nazis: Norwegian contributions to the rise and the fall of the idea of a Superior Aryan Race (from Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Adam Hochman, 2015)