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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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!