Comparison Of The Mythological And Historical Representations Of Vikings
“There is an evident gap between the Vikings of myth and the Vikings of history,” Simon Coupland.
The narratives of conquest and colonialism have heavily dominated historical interpretations of Vikings. The narratives of conquest and colonialism in a Viking context include sources and stories that discuss the events of the Viking’s raids over foreign lands. of These interpretations have focused on the ‘barbaric’ hero’ yet, through archaeological investigation and renewed interest in evidence more recent historical narratives focus on the idea that Vikings were mostly peaceful farmers.
This investigation will focus on how and why narratives of conquest and colonialism have dominated historical interpretations for such a long time and the impact of this on the representation of Vikings. Further, exploring this effect on the key historical issues of Vikings changing historical representation over time as raiders or farmers, their physical appearance and the toxic masculine stereotype that Vikings have been portrayed as. The continued focus of ‘narratives of conquest and colonialism’ has dominated historical interpretations due to the Historians construction of Viking history.
Context / Reality of the Vikings
The majority of Vikings lived lives separated from conflict and farmed similarly to the Anglo-Saxons at the time. The Viking period was between the eighth and the eleventh century (A.D. 800 – 1100), in the area of Scandinavia which is now comprised of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. The narratives of conquest and colonialism contributed to the continuation of a particular historical interpretation of the Vikings being ‘barbarians’.
However, it has been discovered through archaeological evidence that most Vikings were actually peaceable farmers who lived a simple life. The ‘truth’ in history is found through the change in types of evidence from medieval (Witness???) sources to anthropological evidence which heavily contributed to the changing historical interpretation of Norsemen. The Archaeological investigation of Vikings is important as it uncovers unbiased evidence that allows modern historians to look past the exaggerations and distortions of the ‘truth’ and see the primary evidence first hand. This form of evidence allows historians to interpret the evidence without the conquest and colonialism lens that was put onto past evidence but now can look as it unbiasedly.
Archaeological evidence became available for historians to discover and interpret in the 17th century when the first excavations took place. This shows how the construction of history has changed over time as our methods have changed which has had a great impact on the interpretation and representation of the past. Damell and Modin in ‘Another Look at Vikings’ (1979) confirms this, suggesting in their article that “During this period, the majority of the inhabitants of the Nordic regions lived peacefully and quietly in their territories. Only a minority – the Viking raiders and traders – has received the most attention, painting the widely accepted picture of the plundering Vikings,” (pg. 21). This source highlights the truth of Vikings through the archaeological evidence it presents to confirm the theory of most Vikings living passive lives as it states, “excavations have uncovered evidence of a flourishing agricultural community … A.D. 800 – 1100” (pg. 15).
Being another anthropological source, this evidence makes it a very reliable primary source to uncover the real lifestyle of the Vikings. Damell and Modin are archaeologists and their views about the construction of this history is influenced by this historical method of inquiring into the past. These archaeological discoveries can heavily contribute to changing interpretations. Their method of investigation the past gives them an unbiased and revisionist approach that enables them to look past the exaggerations of primary and secondary sources already given to them and objectively make their own conclusions of the truth. Therefore, the revisionist and post-colonialist approach that Historians like Modin and Damell use to critique the past notions of Vikings and find the truth allows for the changing interpretations of the Viking historical representation to come forth. Historical interpretations of Vikings as violent raiders originated in the earliest written representation which date the time Medieval period, these images were recorded in the Norse / family sagas of the 13th century. The purpose of the construction of the history of Vikings was focused on portraying Vikings in a bad or more violent light due to the religious, vindictive or entertainment intention the 13th century historians had.
The earliest constructions of Vikings portrayed them as “barbaric men” (Sigurdson, pg 254). Most of the primary evidence comes from Family-Sagas predominantly 13th century texts set in the Norse world and Iceland in the 10th century. These sagas give the earliest construction of the Viking age as a separate period. Later medieval chronicles and poets portrayed the Vikings as cruel beyond measure. Coupland discusses the The Legend of Hernekin (pg. 189) and how this source describes how the ‘invaders’ (Vikings) would tear babies from their mothers’ arms and after cutting them into pieces they would then roast them over first on spears for the fathers to watch. Coupland showed this primary source as a perfect example for the extreme exaggeration the Anglo-Saxons would go to in order to brandish the Vikings as ‘blood thirsty’. The Anglo-Saxon historians of these sources constructed history with the purpose of generalising Vikings to not only be violent be excessively cruel, this is due to their biased perspective on wanting revenge on the Vikings for having raided their communities.
The Chronicles of Liege (Coupland, pg. 189) is another late medieval source which encompasses the creation of the Viking stereotype. Anslem of Liege was an 11th century Belgium chronicler, who constructed this source with the purpose of demonising Vikings as he was a religious man that believed the Vikings were pagans and thus sent by Satan. The source describes Northmen nailing the heads of Frankish Monks to the walls of their own monastery. Both of these late medieval sources were created by Monks who not only wanted vengeance through the creation of this stereotype but also justification to why their strong country became victims to this ‘horrific’ attack. The historians of the sources in the late medieval period (some year to some year) were Frankish and Anglo-Saxon monks who created this source with extreme bias and corrupted purposes hence why these sources show Vikings to be ‘barbarians’. This stereotype is shown to be untrue through prejudice of the historian.
An Anglo-Saxon perspective was given by a 10th Century monk and writer Aelfric, who mentions “Danish ways, necks balded and eyes blinded” which suggests a religious allusion through the comparison to Satan as “vikings shaved their necks and had heir over their eyes” (p. 23). Aelfric’s religious comparison is due to his monkhood and created this source with the purpose of showing a negative light on the Vikings, creating a ‘monstrous’ stereotype of them. This intention is not surprising, as he is an Anglo-Saxon and monk, who especially held ill-feelings toward the Vikings due to their raids against the Anglo-Saxons (c. 800 AD) which would shape them as the barbarian who are like the devil. The Vikings’ raids during the 9th to 11th Century often pillage monasteries for their loot and kill the monks (Cernuus, 897 AD), hence the purpose of the chronicles was to create a narrative of conquest in order to show a constructed image of Vikings based of the Anglo-Saxon perspective.
Physical Appearance / Romanticised Version
The construction of the Norsemen’s image from 800AD to the 21st century was physically created to be the romanticised version of the male physique, as the historians adapt or exaggerate the sources to be entertaining and appealing. Oren Falk (2016) argues there are two representations that the Norsemen are categorised into either as “hairy, fur-clad, unwashed brutes, or else strappingly handsome, tall, muscular jocks,” (p. 18) More recent representations of Vikings tend to show the men in the attractive masculine form such as in the 1950 film ‘The Vikings’ and the History Channel’s TV show (2013). Primary source evidence suggests that this was in fact how the Vikings looked, as a 10th century writer and Arab Muslim diplomat, Muhammad ibn Fadlan recorded his observation in Ibn Fadlan’s account was quoted in Johannes Brøndsted, The Vikings, tr. Kalle Skov, Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1965, ) after meeting the Norsemen that he had “never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date oland, blond and ruddy” pp. 301-305.
Ibn Fadlan’s record has contributed to the historical interpretation of the physical appearance of the Vikings. His records contributed to a romanticised representation that Vikings were attractive and a ‘superior’ race. This attractive view of the Norsemen is reflected in contemporary fiction and romance novels such as the a romance novel ‘Catch a Mate’ by Gena Showalter (2007) describes the romanticised view in her novel stating “he was gorgeous … blond muscled … almost savage-looking, as if he didn’t belong in this time period but with a band of bloodthirsty Vikings intent on raping and pillaging,” (p. 27). The family-saga’s of the 13th century shows that “saga ideas about male beauty are largely dictated by one’s size, facial features and coloration,” (Falk 2016, p. #). While these sagas did show an emphasis on the strength and size of men which compares to the beauty, archaeological evidence also shows that the Norsemen during this time were also interested in their teeth and some would go through the intense process of gaining of dental tattoo (Durrani, 2013). Simon Coupland shows the misconceptions of Vikings physical appearance as he argues using archaeological evidence that “the invading Northmen were taller that their Frankish counterparts, the difference was not significant … here, then, is anthropological evidence for a medieval myth about the Vikings” (2003, 189).
This contradicts earlier sources that claimed Vikings were taller. These contradictions of evidence demonstrates the lack of full knowledge of the Vikings and how biased sources can easily influence history and what we perceive to be the truth about Vikings today. Modern (1800’s onwards) stereotypes of Norse characteristics are validated by the saga’s construction of the Viking looks as the blond tall and handsome male. “The male body idealised by 13th century saga authors to countless Rassenhygiene posters from 1930s” which has continued to our modern interpretations of ‘Authentic Vikings’ (Falk, 2016, p24). What must be remembered is that any reconstruction that is made in present time is bound to be misconstrued with modern interpretations.
The narratives of conquest and colonialism continued to influence the changing historical interpretation of Vikings as the Nazi ideology interpreted it into their beliefs of the Aryan race. The Aryan race is an example of the construction of Norseman for the Nazi political purpose. As “Anglo-Saxon women found irresistible – and Anglo-Saxon men were eager to imitate – Norsemen’s well-kept style.” (Falk, pg. 22) Evidence of this statement being accurate is shown in the Nazi ideology of the perfect man ‘The Aryan Race’ which can be seen to be a reinterpretation of the Viking style, with blond large men who are strong. This source shows the changing interpretations of Vikings in history as it changed from fear in the medieval period to admiration. The Nazi ideology interpreted the Nordic people to be “the most superior and the most vulnerable of the world’s races” (‘Arierdämmerung’: Race and Archaeology in Nazi Germany – Bettina Arnold, pg. 9). The Nazi regime was led to believe that the Nordic race was ‘superior’ due to the construction of history through the narrative of conquest and colonialism.
The Nazi’s interpreted these narratives of the brutality and cruelty of the Vikings to be of strength which shows the changing interpretations of history through the changing purposes. This is shown in History Todays article which states “The Nazi ideology of Aryan supremacy rested on the premise of the Nordic raze as superior to all others,” (Barraclough, 2019). Barraclough, a medieval history and literature professor validates through this source, that the Nazi regime used the strong and masculine (stereotype) of the Vikings to push their own ideals of superior race, this (stereotype) was formed through the narratives of conquest and colonialism which demonstrated the Viking strength and masculinity amongst other things. Thus, the Nazi ideology of the Aryan race shows the impact of the construction and purpose of history in changing the interpretations of history through the narratives of conquest and colonialism.
Contemporary historians present the Viking history through the purpose of entertainment, hence the focus on the extreme masculinity and fictionalised information that is also used as a historicising tool demonstrating the brutality of the Viking Age. The presentation of history through tv and film had become more prevalent in the 19th to 21st century. This form of presenting history has become more popular in recent decades as the purpose of history has changed from informational, to entertaining. This has played a role in the changing interpretations of history, as its purpose of entertainment had led to the fixation of the masculine and brutal image of the Vikings. This accounts for the concentration on the Vikings as barbarians of conquest and colonialism, to represent this savage nature that is entertaining. For example, the History Channel series Vikings “aim[s] for historical realism through the lavish use of dirt and blood, as well as brutal battle scenes” (Hirst, 2013). This highlights that 19th century film production in the role of constructing Viking history emphasises only the gorish aspects of their culture, elevating the perceived notion that hostility was the sole aspect of these Nordic peoples.
Additionally, scenes of rape are used as a historicising device to also display Viking’s as immoral and inhumane creatures which do not pertain to societal standards. However, Erika Ruth Sigurdson in Violence and Historical Authenticity: Rape (and Pillage) in Popular Viking Fiction (2014) counter-argues this claim, questioning the accuracy of these rape claims made by both historical and non-historical sources. Erika Sigurdson (2014) argues that this savage image of Vikings are due to how “The Viking often represents a very specific form of masculinity, one that encompasses notions of violence, dominance and other aggressive traits” (p. #). Sigurdson (2014) continues to express how as Vikings encompass the extreme form of masculinity, which has led to the misconception of Vikings raping the Anglo-Saxon women? (p. #).
Consequently, historians have used rape as a historicising technique and also used it as evidence of Viking masculinity. This began in the beginning of romanticised Viking sources during the early 19th Century and onward. from the earliest incarnations of romanticised Viking narratives in the early nineteenth century and onward. Modern sources often use rape as a perception of historical accuracy and for ‘shock effect’. For example, modern Filmed sources of Vikings such as The Vikings (1958) Film, Eric the Viking (1989) film, History Channel TV series Vikings (2013), all use rape as a historicising device but also to create the notion of the toxic masculinity that the Vikings represent.
Thus, these sources demonstrate that Historians in modern day are using rape as a false historicising device but also corrupting the historical truth in order to achieve greater entertainment. This extreme masculine perception of the Northmen became intertwined with the romanticising of Vikings (previously discussed) which further advanced the idea of Viking rape but through an entertainment lens. Sigurdson discusses a 1975 shampoo commercial which uses the inference of Viking raping Anglo-Saxon woman and one of them washes her hair in preparation for the Viking to ‘rape’ her (pg. 251). This commercial shows how the modern purposes of entertainment and false notion of Viking’s raping has led to the continued misrepresentation of Vikings. Sigurdson states “Even modern scholarship has considered it possible that rape was simple not a part of Viking invasions” (pg. 253) due to the lack of evidence in the primary and well-known sources as they “say next to nothing on the subject of rape” (pg 253).
In conclusion, historical representations of Vikings to a great extent have been focused on the narratives of conquest and colonialism. This focus is due to the historians’ construction and purpose of the history which has influenced the changing interpretations of history over time. These changing interpretations of history were explored through the historical issues faced of the Vikings lifestyle as either raiders or farmers, their physical appearance, and the masculine image of the Vikings.
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Intro “There is an evident gap between the Vikings of myth and the Vikings of history,” Simon Coupland. The narratives of conquest and colonialism have heavily dominated historical interpretations of […]