“From the fury of the Northmen, deliver us, O Lord” was a prayer uttered frequently and fervently at the close of the first millennium. Small wonder that the ancient Anglo-Saxons–and their cultural descendants in England, the U.S. and Canada–think of these seafaring Scandinavians as little more than violent brutes.
But that view is wildly skewed. The Vikings were indeed raiders, but they were also traders whose economic network stretched from today’s Iraq all the way to the Canadian Arctic. They were democrats who founded the world’s oldest surviving parliament while Britain was still mired in feudalism. They were master metalworkers, fashioning exquisite jewelry from silver, gold and bronze. Above all, they were intrepid explorers whose restless hearts brought them to North America some 500 years before Columbus.
The broad outlines of Viking culture and achievement have been known to experts for decades, but a spate of new scholarship, based largely on archaeological excavations in Europe, Iceland, Greenland and Canada, has begun to fill in the elusive details. And now the rest of us have a chance to share in those discoveries with the opening last week of a wonderfully rich exhibition titled “Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga” at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington.
Timed to commemorate the thousand-year anniversary of Leif Eriksson’s arrival in North America, the show examines the Vikings and their Norse descendants from about A.D. 740 to 1450–focusing especially on their westward expansion and on the persistent mysteries of how extensively the Vikings explored North America and why they abandoned their outpost here.
In doing so, the curators have laid to rest a number of popular misconceptions, including one they perpetuate in the show’s title. The term Viking (possibly from the Old Norse vik, meaning bay) refers properly only to men who went on raids. All Vikings were Norse, but not all Norse were Vikings–and those who were did their viking only part time. Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets (a fiction probably created for 19th century opera). And while rape and pillage were part of the agenda, they were a small part of Norse life.
In fact, this mostly blue-eyed, blond or reddish-haired people who originated in what is now Scandinavia were primarily farmers and herdsmen. They grew grains and vegetables during the short summer but depended mostly on livestock–cattle, goats, sheep and pigs. They weren’t Christian until the late 10th century, yet they were not irreligious. Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, they worshiped a pantheon of deities, three of whom–Odin, Thor and Freya–we recall every week, as Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were named after them. (Other Norse words that endure in modern English: berserk and starboard.)
Nor were the Norse any less sophisticated than other Europeans. Their oral literature–epic poems known as Eddas as well as their sagas–was Homeric in drama and scope. During the evenings and throughout the long, dark winters, the Norse amused themselves with such challenging board games as backgammon and chess (though they didn’t invent them). By day the women cooked, cleaned, sewed and ironed, using whalebone plaques as boards and running a heavy stone or glass smoother over the seams of garments.
The men supplemented their farmwork by smelting iron ore and smithing it into tools and cookware; by shaping soapstone into lamps, bowls and pots; by crafting jewelry; and by carving stone tablets with floral motifs, scenes depicting Norse myths and runic inscriptions (usually to commemorate a notable deed or personage).
Most important, though, they made the finest ships of the age. Thanks to several Viking boats disinterred from burial mounds in Norway, archaeologists know beyond a doubt that the wooden craft were “unbelievable–the best in Europe by far,” according to William Fitzhugh, director of the National Museum’s Arctic Studies Center and the exhibition’s chief curator. Sleek and streamlined, powered by both sails and oars, quick and highly maneuverable, the boats could operate equally well in shallow waterways and on the open seas.
With these magnificent craft, the Norse searched far and wide for goods they couldn’t get at home: silk, glass, sword-quality steel, raw silver and silver coins that they could melt down and rework. In return they offered furs, grindstones, Baltic amber, walrus ivory, walrus hides and iron.
At first, the Norse traded locally around the Baltic Sea. But from there, says Fitzhugh, “their network expanded to Europe and Britain, and then up the Russian rivers. They reached Rome, Baghdad, the Caspian Sea, probably Africa too. Buddhist artifacts from northern India have been found in a Swedish Viking grave, as has a charcoal brazier from the Middle East.” The Hagia Sophia basilica in Istanbul has a Viking inscription in its floor. A Mycenaean lion in Venice is covered with runes of the Norse alphabet.
Sometime in the late 8th century, however, the Vikings realized there was a much easier way to acquire luxury goods. The monasteries they dealt with in Britain, Ireland and mainland Europe were not only extremely wealthy but also situated on isolated coastlines and poorly defended–sitting ducks for men with agile ships. With the raid on England’s Lindisfarne monastery in 793, the reign of Viking terror officially began. Says archaeologist Colleen Batey of the Glasgow Museums: “They had a preference for anything that looked pretty,” such as bejeweled books or gold, silver and other precious metals that could be recrafted into jewelry for wives and sweethearts.