The Vikings were not who you thought they were


Photo courtesy of Terje Leiren
Terje Leiren is professor emeritus at the University of Washington where he has taught Scandinavian history, including the history of the Vikings, for over 40 years.

Professor Emeritus of Scandinavian Studies, University of Washington

Writing in Slate magazine in 2016, John T. R. Terry noted that the European Middle Ages have often served as a “convenient dumping ground for modern cultural problems, anxieties, and, more disturbingly, for racist ideologies.” Among the contributors to this dumping ground are those who also contend that Viking Age Scandinavia was a uniformly white, ethnically pure society. This is fundamentally as false as the popular image of the Vikings as unkempt, horn-helmeted warriors of Odin, out to destroy Christian civilization. Archaeological and textual scholarship in recent decades, including DNA analyses, indicate that while Viking warriors were far from benign, they were nevertheless ethnically diverse, culturally tolerant, conscientious of the law, and fastidious about their personal appearance.

A study published in the scientific journal Nature in September 2020 examined 442 human remains from ancient burial sites in Scandinavia. It showed considerable “intermixing of genetic material,” from the south and east, according to Eske Willerslev, lead author and director of the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. According to Martin Sikora, who participated in the study, the Vikings did not only have Scandinavian in their genetic ancestry: “Many Vikings have high levels of non-Scandinavian ancestry, both within and outside Scandinavia, which suggests ongoing gene flow across Europe,” said Sikora.

Such studies give lie to the racist and nationalist sub-cultures that have highjacked Viking symbols for their own nefarious social and political ends. One such individual is the self-professed, shirtless, horned-helmeted “Q Shaman” at the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. He was adorned with tattoos depicting the Yggdrasil tree, Thor’s hammer, and interlocking triangles called the Valknot, a symbol long associated with hate groups. Judith Gabriel Vinje writing in The Norwegian American in November 2017 pointed out that many police departments around the country are “trained to look for runic tattoos as a sign that a perp is a member of a white supremacist gang.” Their use is generally motivated by the false belief in the ethnic purity of a white medieval past and that somehow the Vikings and Norse mythology articulated it. It is more than a simple falsification of history; it is a way to weaponize hatred of the “Other.”

Viking mobility from the North Sea and the Baltic to the Mediterranean, Black, and Caspian seas and across the north Atlantic not only built and expanded their trading contacts, but it also led to a blending of cultural influences and, no doubt, a sharing of DNA. The Norse not only traded extensively with Constantinople, in some instances they joined to defend the Eastern Roman Emperor as the elite Varangian Guard. Harald Hardråde, half-brother of St. Olav and later king in Norway, served for more than a decade.

While the word “Viking” entered the modern English language around 1807, scores of Old Norse words insinuated themselves organically into English, most prominently in the ninth and 10th centuries, words such as window, sister, knife, knot, law, and outlaw. Old English abandoned its grammatically complicated third person plural in favor of the simpler Old Norse “they,” “them,” and “their.” Even the word “Viking” is difficult to find in the medieval sources as the people these raiders encountered called them by other names. They were “Danes,” “Northmen,” “Al Madjus,” “Varangian,” “Heathen,” “Pirates,” and more. The 11th-century cleric-historian Adam of Bremen noted that “these people we call Ascomanni, call themselves Vikings.” Academics still do not agree on the origin of the word Viking, but it is likely of Norse origin. In 1944, Swedish linguist Fritz Askeberg speculated that the word Viking originated as a verb “vikja,” meaning to leave or turn away. “Viking” essentially described an action, an occupation, not an ethnicity.

As a culture, the Vikings/Norse possessed a strong adherence to the law, establishing local and national assemblies at home and abroad. Tynwald on the Isle of Man, Thingvollr in Iceland, and Tingwall in Shetland, mirrored the Gulating back in Norway and the numerous other “ting” sites throughout Scandinavia. The jury system was unknown in English common law until it was introduced into the Danelaw region of northern England by Norse settlers.

The acceptance of Christian missionaries throughout the entire Viking Age, beginning with Ansgar in the early ninth century, shows a remarkable religious toleration. With a belief in numerous pagan gods anyway, adding one more to the panoply could well be seen as beneficial. We are told in the Sagas of a practical Icelander who professed both Thor and Christ.

Practical as the Norse seem to have been, it is also interesting to note that one of the most common items found in a Viking grave is the comb. Combs appear ubiquitous, a necessary addition to a warrior’s wardrobe. In his fascinating study, A Viking Way of Life: Combs and Communities in Early Medieval Britain (2014), Steven Ashby explores the physical and metaphysical roles of combs in Viking culture. They were prized objects for personal grooming, they were favored gifts, and they were valued items of trade.
Valuing their personal appearance, tolerant of other societies and religions, and genetically diverse, the Vikings are not only worthy of study and scholarship, but we do them and ourselves a disservice by denigrating their cultural symbols in the cause of hate and exclusion.

This article originally appeared in the April 9, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Terje Leiren

Dr. Terje Leiren is Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington where he has taught Scandinavian history, including the history of the Vikings, for over 40 years.