Why do we romanticize the vikings?

I love the Old Norse language and Iceland and Norway and Sweden and Orkney. Whenever I get to talking about this invariably the subject of the vikings come up, perhaps followed by some pop culture references to TV shows or movies about vikings. I try to steer away from the subject but if pressed I say I do not like the vikings. I put vikings in the same category with pirates and serial killers. They were murderers and rapists and they should not be glorified. But why do we glorify them?

Part of the reason we love vikings so much has to do with our fascination with violence. A quick look at TV shows available shows a good proportion of them are crime shows. My netflix screen has to be half murder and serial killer movies. I think things that are so far removed from our everyday lives, things that we’d never do but have certainly thought of are thrilling and interesting to us. So then the idea of putting on a metal helmet and getting in a cool boat and going off and murdering and pillaging seems very interesting.

This is not a new phenomena either. The Icelandic sagas, the great literature of the North, is almost exclusively about people murdering other people, and honor and being a great man by being able to split someone in half with an ax. It is simply something in the human psyche that is fascinated by violence.

So is it the violence of murder we love or the catching of murderers we love? Most of the crime shows end with the murderer being caught and the people that catch them are our heroes. Not so with viking and pirate movies. We root for the viking and hope they can go on making their living killing and stealing.

I see glorification of vikings as similar to the glorification of pirates. At Halloween we dress our kids as vikings and pirates. You’ll never see an eight year old in a cute Hitler costume or as an accurate Charles Manson with and adorable swastika on their forehead. True, older kids rebelling may dress as murderers and horror characters, but pirate and viking costumes are standard adorable fare for parents to pick out.

Maybe the costume has a lot to do with it. Just as you can spot a pirate costume easily, and (albeit historically inaccurate) horned helmet signals a viking costume. We love costumes and an impressive threat display. The viking boats did look awesome with their dragon heads. What an awesome and terrifying sight seeing those silently approach your village. You are about to become the “they” in the “and they were easily slaughtered” passage in a saga.

Similarly I think we love nazi uniforms, and with good reason. They are well designed and look very cool. But maybe that is too close historically to be ok to glorify. No one is legitimately afraid of pirate or viking attack, whereas nationalism seems to be a constant looming threat.

Perhaps we glorify pirates and vikings as we see them as the underdog, fighting the system. Pirates attack the brutal establishment naval captain with a crew consisting of outcasts. Vikings lay siege to corrupt Paris with only their strong sword to guide them. But this view is certainly at odds with history. When the viking sacked and murdered defenseless priests at Lindsfarne they were not the underdogs. Vikings enslaved people. I hardly see how sea faring thugs can be viewed as underdogs. Maybe it the adventurous spirit of the vikings. They went off and discovered new lands. In much the same way Columbus has his own day, so we are impressed the vikings came to the new world. The fact that Norse people tried to settle in places like L'Anse aux Meadows is very cool, but would we still say those were vikings? They certainly were related but they were more settlers, maybe we are confusing the two.

So be it our fascination with violence, our love of costumes, our love of the underdog, or our love of adventure and exploration, vikings hold a beloved place in our culture. It is interesting that the Nordic countries that spawned the vikings are now some of the most peaceful and progressive places on the planet. We are somehow able to disconnect our stories from our actions. Is it harmful that we glorify the vikings? I don’t think so. If it wasn’t the vikings it would just be more pirates, or American west outlaws or you name it. That’s how we as a species think.

But is there room for change? I find the whole viking thing unpleasant. I occasionally give up on reading the sagas and on Icelandic in general as I am sick of reading stories glorifying violence and assault. There is more to Iceland and Norway and Sweden than vikings. It’s a chapter I’d like to be downplayed. Icelandic is a beautiful and complex language in its own right. I think Icelandic’s complex inflections attract me for the same reasons math is interesting, for its complex and beautiful patters. I’d like it to break free of its stigma as “the language of the vikings”.

We should recognize vikings for what they were. Sea faring murderers, rapists and thieves. We should celebrate the people who composed the scaldic verse, carved the runes, raised the cairns and settled in harsh environs. Icelandic is a beautiful language in its own right and for me is Iceland’s greatest treasure. I hope when you think of Iceland, language comes to your mind before vikings.

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