Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Vikings: History, Fantasy, and Reality

Everyone knows about the Vikings. From popular fiction to historical accounts, we've all experienced the drama of heavily armed raiders splashing off their fierce Dragon-ships and raiding, burning, and looting villages up and down the coastlines of England and France. We all know that these vicious men were out to rape as many women as they could, carry off as much treasure as they handle, and were all prepared to die fighting, so that they could go drink and feast in Valhalla. The truth of the matter is, like with so many other things, quite different from this picture.

The idea of the blood-crazed Viking raider, and Valhalla as the prime warrior's paradise, a place for warriors to go if they die fighting, echoes long in the historical memory of the world. While modern Asatru is not limited to the Heathen religious ideas of the Viking era only, it certainly has roots in the rich tapestry of Icelandic Heathen lore, and Iceland was founded by the Vikings.

Many have mistakened Asatru today for a "warrior religion" or a "Viking religion". Many Kindreds and other members of the Asatru faith are working hard to overcome these stereotypes, for many good reasons. At best, the Vikings, brave traders and explorers that they were, only represent a very tiny part of Germanic Heathen history and tradition as a whole. At worst, historical propaganda and falsehoods told about the Vikings lead some immature people to assume that Asatru glorifies violence, rape, murder, or stupidity.

Asatru is far more than some excuse for childish machismo and posturing or "play Viking" nonsense- it is a living faith that keeps ancestral piety close to its heart, praises courage and steadfast behavior, and focuses on the value of human bonds of support and closeness, particularly between kin. The idea that anyone can think of guys running about dressed like fake Vikings and swinging axes and swords as the essence of the Asatru religion is a terrible distortion of the reality, to say the least.

The Viking Age, spanning roughly 790 and 1000 CE, was the last Heathen age of the Germanic peoples. It is closer to us historically than any other pre-Christian age of the Germanic folk, and thus, we happen to know more about it than any other age. Despite the fact that many of the written sources from which Asatru draws its theological basis date from Viking times (but were doubtlessly based on oral tales much older) the Viking Age does not capture the full essence of Germanic Heathenry.

The Vikings deserve a defense for who and what they were. To begin with, the Vikings were not as violent and bloodthirsty as most people think.

They also were not a unified people; the term "Viking" doesn't refer to a people; it refers to something people all over the Scandinavian world did- they "went Viking"- meaning they went sailing, raiding, and trading, during the summer. The word Viking appears on several Runestones found in Scandinavia. In the Sagas, "Viking" refers to an overseas expedition (Old Norse fara í víking "to go on an expedition"), and víkingr, to a seaman or warrior taking part in such an expedition. The crews of Viking ships were packed full of young men, the younger sons of farmers who could not inherit their father's land. The land passed automatically to the oldest son, so the younger sons had to find another way to make a living. Often, they got together with the other unlanded young men from their area and arranged a Viking expedition, to find wealth through trade or exploration.

The reality of raiding is the aspect of the historical Viking tradition that most people associate with the act of "going Viking" as a whole. The reason why is because the first historical mention we have of Vikings is from the pens of Monks, who recorded the sack of Lindisfarne Monastery in 793. Vikings did sack Lindisfarne, and took its very large treasury of gold and silver for themselves. Needless to say, this attack, and several other attacks on monasteries, won the Vikings (who didn't help themselves by being Heathen) a nasty reputation in the eyes of the church. It was the Churchmen who wrote the history, and thus, the idea of Vikings being bloodthirsty Heathen raiders became not only common in written reports of the time, but in the minds of most people today who rely on history as it is written without understanding the deeper reality.

Monasteries were packed full of gold and silver and other riches- the Church wasn't poor, either then or now. While the common people sat sleeping in huts and struggling to make ends meet, Church buildings and Monasteries were filthy rich. They were relatively undefended, and so made tempting targets for Vikings. Sadly, the only people who wrote history back in those days happened to live inside the monasteries. That being said, I have a hard time rousing much sympathy for well fed, over-privileged monks who were rich (paradoxically while taking vows of poverty) while the common people were so poor.

The Vikings didn't set out to fight and murder and rape. They were prepared to fight in their voyages, of course- and they would certainly raid targets of opportunity, but in this respect, they were no more evil than any other group of people in the ancient world. Resource competition was "the name of the game", both then and now for most people. Getting money to eat and live is the bottom line. All the same, fighting is expensive and dangerous- even Vikings preferred to trade and make a fat profit that way. Despite what most people think, villages and towns in Viking times were not just helpless targets- they had armed men defending them and patrolling the coast. The chances that a crew from one longship or even several longships could attack a well-defended town or village and walk away without heavy casualties was not good.

Trading was, therefore, the primary way that the Vikings made their money. There was a trouble in trading with Christians, however. The Heathen Vikings were often subjected to unfair trade practices. It is said by some historians that Christian merchants who declared openly that they would not trade with heathens and infidels (Muslims and the Vikings) would get preferred status for availability and pricing of goods through a Christian network of traders.

It's not a stretch of credulity to think of Christian potentates making laws or rules regarding trade with Heathens and other non-Christians, and declaring either no trade allowed, or raising prices on non-Christians, in some feeble attempt to make conversion seem like a financially sound option. Vikings might have reacted negatively to what they would have perceived as dishonorable dealings, and raid just for good measure. Honestly, I can't blame them; I'd do the same.

The point of these historical facts is to remind people that the fictional "poor, scared villages of meek Christians" that we are led to believe were subjected to heartless and brutal Viking raids is just that- a fiction. It was a fiction created by Christian writers to vilify Heathen men. The historical realities show a more balanced picture.

One of the main activities of the Vikings was exploration- many of these expeditions sought new homelands. It is probable that Scandinavia lacked enough room for burgeoning populations, or that land for farming was all taken up, leading to an exodus-surge of explorers and settlers. The world of the Viking explorer was huge- they not only settled Iceland, but also Greenland and even dropped anchor off the coast of Vinland- North America. They explored the massive lengths of the rivers that cut deep into Russia and Eastern Europe, and served as mercenaries to the Byzantine Emperor. They founded the city of Dublin, ruled most of eastern England, and traded in Iberia, the Middle East, Egypt, and all over the Mediterranean. They even traded in Baghdad. Tribes of Swedes laid the foundations of Russia itself, including Russia's first and longest ruling dynasty.

Considering history, it seems to most reasonable people that the most amazing things the Vikings did were all related to exploration. So it's a little unfair (though given the nature of the Christian propaganda machine, understandable) that the Vikings are mostly remembered for raiding and killing.

Modern day members of the various branches of the Asatru faith are not Vikings. The reason why is simple: they do not live in a culture where financial pressures force them to "go Viking" every summer to trade, raid, or explore. Modern people all over the world probably have Viking blood in them, due to the nature of Viking exploration and expansion, and many members of the Asatru faith may claim literal or spiritual ancestry among the brave Vikings, but they are not themselves Vikings, at least not in the historical sense of the word. There's much to admire about the Vikings, and most good Asatruar always make it a point to show respect or admiration for them.

The most admirable thing about the Vikings is the spirit of adventure they demonstrated. Unafraid of the open ocean, their boats flew into dark, unexplored and dangerous waters that other European ships wouldn't dare- the other European vessels of their time hugged the coasts tightly. When politics became too annoying and untenable at home, the men and women of the Viking age took off- they built ships and sailed off to find a new land where they could live in peace, without interference. That is how Iceland came to be settled. That spirit of independence coupled with a zest for adventure is the main thing about the Vikings and their Age that most of us can truly get behind.


Erik said...

Have you read Andrew Wawn's The Vikings and the Victorians: Inventing the Old North in Nineteenth-Century Britain? Very illuminating...

Wolfhard said...

"(...) and they would certainly raid targets of opportunity (...)"

They certainly did. Numerous times did they sack and plunder Dorestad in the Netherlands. In the attack of 834, there were possibly 7000 Vikings involved. Eventually, Dorestad was utterly destroyed and never rebuilt.

In many ways, the Viking lords were no different from the other Germanic lords, be they heathen or christian, looking for easy profit and lucrative political deals.

Were the Vikings fabled monsters? No. Were they profiteers who used an amount of violence above average to get what they wanted? Probably yes.

I think they were more likely to be large bands of morally loose men than noble folk with a code of honour. Despite their beauty, the Scandinavian sagas are filled with ruthless society and harsh dealings; I'm sure the Vikings reflected this in many ways. Although the christians most definately didn't try to better that image, to say the least.

Now, I might have Viking ancestors of my own - and I am of Northern Dutch heritage - but as they were probably not the best dads in the world, I feel little reason to positively progress beyond a neutral stance towards them.

Digital Dig said...

If anyone takes written history too serious, they make a mistake. Most historians write of war. Big money hires the historians to write biased history. The medial today is owned and controlled by the rich. Take none of it too serious, it is warped. Learn of life then go beyond and history will begin to be seen for what it really is. Most people usually do not fight. If they do they are being manipulated by the rich. Of course the vikings were incredible people with a rich heritage of powerful contribution and deserve to be studied as all ancient cultures for the spiritual powers they yielded. Now I see that beyond written history and will not attempt to prove it.