Tarnished Viking legacy reappraised
Since WWII Norway has been uneasy with its Viking past, but some are trying to reclaim it
M. Michael Brady
Norwegians have historically been comfortable with their Viking legacy. They long gladly shared that legacy with Germany and took pride in opera composer Richard Wagner’s use of Norse saga themes in Der Ring des Nibelungen and his setting of the story of The Flying Dutchman in a Norwegian west coast fishing village.
But then World War II happened. Norway’s view of its Viking legacy went from longstanding prewar pride to postwar unease. The complete story of the change has many triggers, not least the Nazi fascination with shared Teutonic and Nordic mythologies. Moreover, many Norwegians sided with the occupying Germans not because they were drawn to Nazi ideology, but because they feared the Soviet Union. Some had courageous cause, as they had gone to the aid of friends and relatives and had fought in the Winter War after the Soviet Union invaded Finland in November 1939. An outcome was that Nazi propaganda made use of Viking themes. It had lasting effect, as to this day the Vikings are often nebulously characterized as violent intruders upon European civilization.
That said, in their forays abroad, the Vikings indeed were violent, as were most other societies of their time. The Spanish Moors and the Hungarian Magyars also mounted violent military expeditions. The Crusades, ostensibly noble Christian undertakings launched by Popes in the 11th through the 15th centuries, actually were brutal military campaigns. Nonetheless, the conventional historical description of the Viking Age brackets it with two violent Viking engagements in England. The sacking on June 8, 793, of the abbey on the Lindisfarne, a tidal island off the northeast coast of England, is said to be the start of the Age; the Battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire on September 25, 1066, symbolizes its end.
Though these dates are entrenched in history texts and references, recent archaeological finds indicate that the Viking Age began earlier than previously thought, and historical accounts imply that it lasted longer. There are records of Viking forays in England well into the 12th century. Though disputed, the story of the Kensington Rune Stone suggests that Vikings may have been in North America in the mid 14th century.
Likewise, conventional historical descriptions of the Viking Age usually fail to mention that it was triggered by the practice of Primogeniture in northern European countries as well as some southern ones. As its name implies, Primogeniture is the right, by custom or law, of the first-born legitimate son to inherit his parents’ estate. In families with holdings sufficient to pass on to the next generation, second-born sons seldom could acquire land to farm or money to marry. So second and subsequent-born sons became the Vikings who sailed abroad. If successful, they would return home to farm, as their forefathers had done for generations. But often they remained abroad and integrated into the local populations in lands that the Vikings conquered. The prevalence of English proper names of Nordic origin attests to their presence.
Other Viking contributions to European culture seem also to have escaped the attention of historians. A short list of nine:
• The world’s first Parliament, the Althing of Iceland, followed in that century by the Gulating of Norway.
• A code of law that included specification of a jury upon which the British jury system is based.
• The Icelandic Sagas of the 12th through the 14th centuries, great literature in their time and valuable historical reference now.
• Clinker-built wooden longships, proven by experience since the first known ones built in Nydam, Denmark, in the third century.
• A highly developed artistic culture with exquisite jewelry and carvings in designs still used today.
• The stave church, a medieval improvement on the post church; originally commonplace throughout northern Europe; now most of the surviving stave churches are in Norway.
• The first regularly-sailed trade routes westward across the Atlantic and eastward across the plains of Russia.
• The founding of cities abroad, including Dublin, York, and Kiev, which St. Nestor the Chronicler in the early 12th century wrote played a key role in the ninth century foundation of Russia itself. Indeed, the word Russia comes from “Rus,” the Finnish word for Swedish Vikings.
• The spreading of Christianity in the north with the resultant building of cathedrals.
In short, the history of the Viking Age seems too complex to be left to historians. Political scientists, literary experts, naval architects, building technologists, economic historians, and theologians might be called upon to enrich the aspects mentioned above.
Today in Norway, several incentives aim to set the record of the Vikings straight and overcome the damage to it done during World War II. Perhaps most used in everyday life, in 2014, Norway Post issued a series of three first-class postage stamps featuring Viking themes. The Seljord Folkehøgskule (Seljord Folk High School) at Seljord, a village in Telemark County in southern Norway, offers eight lines of one-year studies, of which one is Viking Life and Handicrafts, described in a New York Times article last September. The Vikings, an Irish-Canadian TV series with meticulously authentic costuming, is now being broadcast by the History Channel.
As English artist, writer, and public lecturer Sam Hall concludes in the third of his popular three illustrated lecture series on the Vikings, we my now be “recognizing finally that these ‘ruthless, barbaric, piratical’ people were also mostly farmers, traders, and artisans. They were the men and women who spread Christianity throughout most of the northern hemisphere…who gave us so much. And who bequeathed to us as much as they ever appropriated from others.”
Further reading and viewing:
• “Norway Again Embraces the Vikings, Minus the Violence” by Andrew Higgins, New York Times, September 17, 2015, link: www.nytimes.com/2015/09/18/world/europe/norway-again-embraces-the-vikings-minus-the-violence.html?_r=1.
• The Vikings Irish-Canadian historical drama TV series broadcast by the History Channel of Toronto, Season 4 scheduled to start February 18, 2016.
• “The Vikings Costume Designer Joan Bergin Dispels Norse Myths” by Elizabeth Snead, Hollywood Reporter, April 26, 2013, link: www.hollywoodreporter.com/fash-track/vikings-costume-designer-joan-bergin-446667.
• The Norwegian American Weekly has published many articles on the Vikings, available online by keying-in “Viking” in the search tool on the right-hand menu on the website homepage.
• The Happy Viking “Edutainment” Blog in English offered by publisher Saga Bok of Stavanger.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 26, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.