The Vikings: Who Were They? (1/3)
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 “Viking” could 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…)