Visual Art

A-Viking We Will Go

Yaaarr, Vikings! Plunder and pillage! Huge, be-furred raiders in horned helmets! Everyone has their own personal Mjolnir!

If that’s what comes to mind when someone says “Vikings,” you may want to reconsider. The very word viking, as it’s commonly used, is somewhat inaccurate. It derives from Old Norse, and meant a trade ship or a raid. Viking is actually more of a verb; when folks would be out “on a viking” they weren’t, like, riding Thor’s back or anything. A Viking was something you did or had rather than something you were.

“Vikings” didn’t spend all their days plotting the next raid on innocent villages, either. In fact, they were more traders than raiders, and there was a lot more focus on the home and pastoral pursuits than the stereotypical idea of a Viking might lead you to believe.

And they weren’t all running around wearing horned helmets and braids, as awesome as those horns might be. The “Viking” helmet with huge horns on the sides originated in the 19th century, and is most commonly associated with a Wagnerian villain. No Viking helmet with horns has ever been discovered.

There’s even evidence that those out “on a viking” were feared even in their own homelands. A rune stone in Uppland, Sweden tells of a man who defended against the Vikings:

Ginnlög, Holmger’s daughter, sister of Sygröd and Göt, had this bridge made and raised, this stone in memory of Assur, her husband, son of Håkon jarl. He was a defender against the Vikings with Geter (?), may God help his soul.

Rune stones commemorated the dead or marked significant events. Placed where they’d be easily seen, near bridges and paths and buildings, they would have often been brightly painted.

A copy of a stone that still stands in Gripsholm, Mariefred, Södermanland, Sweden. The inscription tells of a disastrous expedition to the Far East.

A copy of a stone that still stands in Gripsholm, Mariefred, Södermanland, Sweden. The inscription tells of a disastrous expedition to the Far East.

 

A plaster copy of a stone from St. Paul's Cathedral in London. The inscription reads, "Ginne layed this stone together with Toke".

A plaster copy of a stone from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The inscription reads, “Ginne layed this stone together with Toke”.

 

Runes weren’t just for big ol’ Viking billboards, either. It looks like they were carved on pretty much anything, and inscriptions date back as far as the 3rd century CE. Jewellery, tools, you name it, if ya like it then ya gotta put a rune on it.

"Think of me, I think of you. Love me, I love you." A copy of a weaving knife found in Lödöse, Sweden.

“Think of me, I think of you. Love me, I love you.”
A copy of a weaving knife found in Lödöse, Sweden.

 

You could even rune yourself at the Field Museum… there was a fun little interactive board where you could spell your name or write messages using tiles marked with runes. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of it, as there were thronging children and other hazards… I admit, I did go very soon after the opening of the exhibit, so there was a LINEUP of people waiting to peer at each item and showcase.

a Scandinavian board game made of wood, a carved grid with wooden spheres as markers and a bone die

You kids these days with your Pad-Eyes and Inter-Nets…

Also tending to draw attention were the interactive parts of the exhibit. There was a huge screen laid horizontally at table-height with a virtual archaeological dig, where you could unearth various parts of a buried ship-grave and put them in their original places. There was a replica of a Viking sword you could pick up to test the weight and balance. (well-secured, of course.) There was a display of an early Scandinavian board game with nearby stations where you and a friend could play it yourself. And there was a whole wall of benches with precisely focused speakers where you could sit and listen to old Norse tales being narrated to you. No headphones required!

There’s so much more cool cultural and historical awesomeness from this exhibition that I could get into here, from mythology to daily life at home, but what I really appreciated was the entire section devoted to ART. And not just in the traditional sense, where you see an exhibit of A Cultural Thing but only useless items are labeled “ART.” This exhibit really highlighted that regular, everyday useful things were made more beautiful by talented craftsmen and artisans. Who made friggin’ ART, goddammit!

Vikings kept it clean! Lots of personal-care artifacts have been found, including combs, ear spoons (which I'd never heard of), tweezers, and so on.

Vikings kept it clean! Lots of personal-care artifacts have been found, including combs, ear spoons (which I’d never heard of), tweezers, and so on.

 

The hilt and pommel of this Swedish sword have inlays of gilded bronze.

The hilt and pommel of this Swedish sword have inlays of gilded bronze.

 

A gilded, bronze button-on-bow brooch, may be interpreted as Freyja's magical brooch 'Bringsamen.' Freyja was a battle goddess and chief of the Valkyries, who welcomed half the warriors who fell in battle to her home of Fólkvangr.

A gilded, bronze button-on-bow brooch, may be interpreted as Freyja’s magical brooch ‘Bringsamen.’ Freyja was a battle goddess and chief of the Valkyries, who welcomed half the warriors who fell in battle to her home of Fólkvangr.

 

There were small displays for weaving, sewing, woodworking, beadmaking, casting, forging, filigree, gilding, embroidery, leatherworking, you name it. Many of these crafts had a ritual element to them, which may explain why iron slag was placed in some graves, why places of worship often had specialized forging, and tools may have had mythological themes adorning them.

This round silver brooch is a hoard find from Näsby, Taxinge, Södermanland, Sweden.

This round silver brooch is a hoard find from Näsby, Taxinge, Södermanland, Sweden.

 

Weaving, in particular, was associated with the mythical Norns who shaped peoples’ lives and destinies. (Some may know them as the three Fates, one who spins the threads of life, one who weaves them, and one who cuts them.)

The Överhogdal Tapestry: Dated to 800-1100, it probably depicts scenes of the mythology surrounding Ragnarök, the end of the world. In the middle is Yggdrasil, the world tree, with the rooster Vidoffner at the top. The wolf Fenrir is at the top left, and below is Odin's 8-legged horse Sleipnir.

The Överhogdal Tapestry:
Dated to 800-1100, it probably depicts scenes of the mythology surrounding Ragnarök, the end of the world. In the middle of the right panel is Yggdrasil, the world tree, with the rooster Vidoffner at the top. The wolf Fenrir is at the top left, and below is Odin’s 8-legged horse Sleipnir.

 

 This piece of embroidery depicts a stag turning its head. A grave find from Björkö, Adelsö, Uppland, Sweden.

This piece of embroidery depicts a stag turning its head. A grave find from Björkö, Adelsö, Uppland, Sweden.

 

Women could inherit property, request a divorce, and reclaim their dowries if their marriages ended. Worn on a chain, the Lady of the House held keys such as these. They were visible symbols of her control over house and home; these were some of the simpler ones I saw and they were HUGE.

Women could inherit property, request a divorce, and reclaim their dowries if their marriages ended. Worn on a chain, the Lady of the House held keys such as these, which were HUGE.

 

This bronze key would hang by the chain from a woman's belt. From Gårdby, Öland, Sweden.

This bronze key would hang by the chain from a woman’s belt. Keys were visible symbols of her control over house and home. This one is from Gårdby, Öland, Sweden.

 

Beads from the grave of a wealthy, possibly aristocratic woman; found in Stora Ire, Hellvi, Gotland, Sweden.

Beads from the grave of a wealthy, possibly aristocratic woman; found in Stora Ire, Hellvi, Gotland, Sweden.

 

Oval, pennanular, and pin brooches from Uppland and Gotland in Sweden.

Oval, pennanular, and pin brooches from Uppland and Gotland in Sweden.

 

The upper pair of scissors was for shearing sheep. The lower pair was for cutting textiles. From Västmanland, Sweden.

The upper pair of scissors was for shearing sheep. The lower pair was for cutting textiles. From Västmanland, Sweden.

 

Stylized animal designs, sometimes with human-like faces, were a common decorative motif.  There were a few distinctive styles even within this type of decoration.

Stylized animal designs, sometimes with human-like faces, were a common decorative motif. There were a few distinctive styles even within this type of decoration.

 

Half of a Viking ship was recreated by simply stringing 1,200 metal rivets to hang in the shape of the original vessel. The wood didn't survive, but each rivet hung so it is angled as it would have been in the wood, conveying the volume of the ship.

Half of a Viking ship was recreated by simply stringing 1,200 metal rivets to hang in the shape of the original vessel. The wood didn’t survive, but each rivet hung so it is angled as it would have been in the wood, conveying the volume of the ship.

The Vikings exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago through October 4. This is the only U.S. stop on its international tour, so come visit!

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Beth Voigt

Beth Voigt

Beth is a graphic designer in Chicago, a superhero in her own mind, and absolutely nothing on TV. She wrangles fonts professionally, pummels code amateurishly, and has been known to shove fire in her face for fun. Fond of volunteering, late-night bursts of productivity, and making snacks, she dislikes grocery shopping and public transit and is still on her first smartphone. Her opinion is that you should try everything twice; if you don't like it, you were probably doing it wrong the first time around.

1 Comment

  1. April 14, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    As a descendant of the Norse God Frey (with a published genealogy to prove it, albeit one refuted by more restrictive genealogists) I have to point out Freya’s necklace is Brisingamen, not Bringsamen.

    Nice post!

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