Does everybody want to be a Viking? Kirk Douglas did. And Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine.
The image of the marauding, pillaging, enslaving Vikings may be true to some extent, but it’s hard to pin down exactly who the Vikings were. As Julian D. Richards writes in Vikings: A Very Short Introduction: “Viking is a nebulous concept – in different contexts, Vikings have been marauders, merchants, manufacturers, poets, explorers, democrats, statesmen, or warriors. It is also a relatively recent concept – originally used to refer only to pirate activity, it came to be used as an ethnic term to refer to a whole people, and then as a chronological label, giving its name to the Viking Age. With this fluidity, it did not mean the same in 10th-century Scandinavia, 15th-century Iceland, and 19th-century England. In fact, our modern usage of Viking owes more to later reinventions than to any original reality.”
Richards also explains that whoever or whatever the Vikings stood for, a new enthusiasm for the Viking mystique arose in the early 1800s, in the aftermath of humiliating military defeats suffered by Denmark and Sweden. Strong national identity suddenly became critical to these Scandinavian countries’ survival, and their focus was on the strength and power of their Viking heritage. Novelists, historians, poets, and other storytellers got to work – the Vikings were brought back to life as noble, fearless adventurers (if a bit mysoginistic and crude, see film clip above).
Later, the Nazis famously appropriated the Vikings as their own forebears, which they saw as justifying, in part, their conquests through marauding means. It was also for political reasons. Hitler attempted to align his party with the blonde, blue-eyed Scandinavians and did so by claiming common Viking heritage.
Today, Vikings are more popular than ever. Viking festivals and reenactments are a regular part of American and European culture. In York, England, the Jorvik Viking Centre opened in 1984 and attracted over 800,000 visitors in its first year – over 12 million 20 years later. Visitors to this historical and archaeological museum can converse with four Viking ghosts in holographic form – “the silver-tongued leatherworker, Mord, and cheerful housewife, Drifa, bumbling wood turner, Unni, and Grummi, the meanest blacksmith in Jorvik.”
Who were the Vikings? It turns out we’re still learning about their lives and livelihoods. A 2017 study in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology confirmed that the Viking warrior buried in a well-known grave filled with swords, arrowheads, and two sacrificed horses was actually a woman, not a man as long thought.
Care to channel your own Viking? It seems that there’s a Viking for all of us.