Jeff Berger —
Two popular television series have recently appeared to reignite the public’s interest in the history of the Vikings. One is the History Channel’s Vikings, which just completed its fifth season. The other is The Last Kingdom, with the first season produced by the BBC, the second season co-produced with Netflix, and the third season by Netflix alone. These two shows have several things in common. Both take place during the mid to late 9th century. The Last Kingdom takes place exclusively in the area that is now England, while Vikings focuses on a group from Norway who also travel to England, France, and Iceland.
One of the main characters in both shows is based on the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok. After Ragnar’s death in Vikings, the series continues with the story of four of his sons. These shows are by no means the first dramatizations involving Ragnar. In 1958 Kirk Douglas produced a feature film called The Vikings, with Douglas starring as one of Ragnar’s sons. Ragnar was played by Ernest Borgnine and another son by Tony Curtis. All three men—Douglas, Borgnine, and Curtis—were leading actors of their era.
All of these stories are historical fictions based on ancient texts—some written by Iceland monks in the 13th century and some by ancient Anglo Saxons. Scholarly experts speculate about the accuracy of the texts, but in this article I won’t try to explain what these texts say or how well the dramatizations adhere to them. Rather I will focus on the long history of the way that Europeans and North Americans have remembered and celebrated the Viking past.
Who Were the Vikings?
In many ways, the Vikings represent a civilization or empire that is comparable in size and significance to the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. The Vikings originated in Scandinavia, and their trading networks expanded as far south as the Caspian Sea. They also attacked Constantinople, the capitol of the Byzantine Empire; and ruled over the Slavs from Sweden to the Black Sea, as well as the Franks from Denmark to what we now call Normandy and Brittainy. They settled permanently in Normandy, where they became known as Normans; and they attacked and then settled in land around the British Isles, where from time to time they ruled as kings. In 1066 William the Conqueror led the Normans across the English Channel, won the famous Battle of Hastings, and then became King of England.
The Vikings also sailed around Spain and into the Mediterranean Sea, where they attacked Andalusia and the peninsula of Italy. But perhaps their most impressive achievement was in exploring first in the Faroe Islands, then Iceland and Greenland, and then Canada. This last achievement is the one that some Americans know, but most do not. Certainly Americans of Scandinavian descent are more likely to know this, because it is their cultural heritage. Others might know that Leif Eriksson discovered North America before Christopher Columbus did, but they know little of Eriksson’s story per se.
So, this Viking civilization stretched from the Caspian Sea to Canada. That is quite an achievement considering that, like everybody else in the 11th century, they thought the world was flat and never made any maps.
The Vikings are famous for marauding and pillaging. They are especially known for doing this in France and the British Isles. It turns out that the Scandinavians had been trading with these places for many years. As a result of trading they discovered that Christian monasteries contained considerable wealth, since the Church connived the populace to give them a tenth of all of their money. It was a pretty good deal for the Church and the Vikings wanted a piece of it. So they attacked the monasteries. It should come as no surprise that in the ancient Anglo Saxon texts, the Viking marauders were known as The Great Heathen Army. From the English point of view, it was a battle between Christians and Heathens. That was not the Viking’s view, however. They did not dislike the English because of their religion; they wanted their wealth.
Since the Vikings were mostly coastal inhabitants and the availability of good coastal land was scarce in Scandinavia, many of them sought new lands for settlement. Some of them took land from others. There is a big difference between looting, exploring, and settling, but the Vikings did all of it.
Having come in contact with Christians, many of them converted to Christianity. Those Swedes who came in contact with the Byzantine Empire became Greek Orthodox, which they then imported into present day Ukraine. That Church eventually spawned the Russian Orthodox Church. So the Slavs and the Russians all owe their religion to the Vikings.
In the West the religion was Roman Catholic, so the Normans became Roman Catholic, as did Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland. The year 1000 was a very big year in the Viking world. First the King of Norway declared Christianity to be its official language. Then the Vikings in Iceland followed suit, and then Greenland.
When King Cnut of Denmark became King of England in 1016 (as well as becoming King of Norway and Sweden), his grandfather had already introduced Denmark to Christianity. As time progressed, the Scandinavians were more typically called Norse or Norsemen. The Icelanders were often called Icelanders, but in Greenland, where Inuits eventually came to live, we sometimes need to distinguish between Norse Greenlanders and Inuit Greenlanders. No doubt Leif Eriksson thought of himself as a Norseman, with a Christian mother and a Heathen father. As an aside, Eriksson did not immigrate to Canada; he returned to Greenland where he replaced his father Eric as chieftain.
Where did the Vikings come from originally? Experts aren’t exactly sure, but they are believe to be related to the Germans, who in turn were related to the various Gothic populations. Those were the same Goths who supposedly defeated the Romans. That is another long story, but the point is that Germans and Scandinavians believe they share a common history—they both identify with Gothic culture, and they both believe that Norse mythology is part of their heritage.
The Icelandic Sagas
Early in the 13th century, some Christian monks in Iceland began to record what had been passed down for centuries about Viking lore. These stories became known as the Icelandic Sagas, but there were many. One is the Poetic Edda, a famous story about Norse mythology that came to have an important influence on European culture.
Another is the Vinland Sagas, which comprise two separate works that were written independently: the Greenlanders’ Saga and the Eric the Red’s Saga. They contain accounts of several Viking voyages across the North Atlantic. Leif Eriksson was the first to head for the new lands further west of Greenland, followed by his brothers, Thorvald and Thorstein, and sister, Freydis. There they encountered strange people whom they pejoratively called Skraeling. The first voyage occurred in the year 1000.
These sagas name three regions: Helluland, Markland, and Vinland. In the Norse language Helluland means Land of Flat Stones, Markland means Forest Land, and Vinland means Vine Land. In Vinland they found grapevines and butternuts. The sagas also refer to a camp where they over-wintered called Straumfjord, which they found uninhabited, at the northern tip of an island. From Straumfjord they sailed across a large bay; and on the other side they found vines and butternuts. There also was a camp called Hóp (Tidal Pool) in Vinland itself where they sometimes spent the summer. They were searching for resources that they could bring back to Greenland, but they were always concerned about the threat from the Skraelings, because they were so numerous. Scholars now believe that the initial population of Norse Greenlanders was only 400 to 500 people. About 50 of them camped in Straumfjord. So these were clearly explorers, not settlers.
A Norwegian merchant and explorer named Thorfinn Karlsefni, who was married to Gudrid (Thorstein’s widow), organized and led one of the last major attempts to settle in the new territory. His expedition had the most contact with the native Skraeling population. Karlsfeni created an amicable relationship with the Skraelings, but this ended when the Norse killed some of them. Karlsfeni headed home, but not before Gudrid gave birth to Snorri, the first European ever born in North America.
Within 10 years of Eriksson’s discovery of Vinland, the Norsemen returned to Greenland and never sailed back to Vinland.
For centuries the world thought of the Vikings as nothing more than raiders and pillagers of Europe. That view suddenly changed in 1837 when Carl Christian Rafn published translations of the Icelandic Sagas into English in his Antiquitates Americanae. For the first time Americans began to question whether or not Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover America. Americans wondered whether Vinland was a real place. If so, where was it? What was this “large bay” that the sagas referred to? What about Markland and Helluland? Were the Vineland Sagas as much fantasy as Poetic Edda, a story about mythological Gods and super heroes? That mystery would lead to a long search for evidence of whether or not the Vikings had discovered America. For American Scandinavians it would become a source of pride to claim it as true. For some it would become temptation to commit historical fraud.
Nationalism in Europe
Poetic Edda was not translated from Latin until the 16th century, but it didn’t get translated into French until the 18th century. Also in the 16th century, Johannes Magnus wrote History of All the Gothic and Swedish Kings, which linked the ancestors of the Goths and the Swedes, where he glorified the Swedes and argued that the Goths came from Sweden. He introduced a nationalistic element to Swedish literature. At that time the Swedes were competing with Russia and Poland in Eastern Europe. This was the first century that saw a movement away from a king-focused state and a movement towards establishing a national identity. It was also the birth of Lutheranism in Sweden that broke from the Catholic Church.
The introduction of the printing press in the 17th and 18th centuries spread the knowledge of these old texts, inspiring a new interest in the Nordic Viking past throughout Europe. By the end of the 18th century, knowledge of this Nordic past, both fact and fiction, had become well known throughout Europe.
The French Revolution of the late 18th century shook Europe apart. In the wake of Napoleon Bonaparte’s regime, nationalist movements began to sprout throughout Europe. Norway split from Denmark and joined a union with Sweden, which lasted until 1905, and the Norwegians began to revive their own language as distinct from Danish.
The Germans and Swedes began to examine their medieval past, leading to a more romantic and prideful view of their Nordic past. The literary works inspired them to think about, and perhaps to identify with, heroic gods and heroes. Statues were made to commemorate those gods and heroes in the same way that the Greeks and Romans did.
One of the earliest nationalist organizations in 19th century Sweden called itself the Gothic Society. Its purpose was to encourage a patriotic spirit and advance Nordic archaeological research. Members became active in the arts and sciences. When they got together for patriotic meetings, they sang an anthem, In Ancient Times Goths Drank from Horns, and they drank mead from horns (exactly as is done in the History Channel series). Members were given Viking names and people made lots of speeches. This also was the birth of the Industrial Revolution with large increases in urban populations and the social stresses that it spawned.
Numerous theatrical works commemorating the past came into existence. The most noteworthy of them was an opera by the famous German anti-Semite, Richard Wagner. This beautiful four-part opera (enjoyed by Jews too) called The Ring of the Nibelung runs for 15 hours. The opera was completed in 1874. It is about a powerful magic ring that enables its owner to become master of the world. (This malevolent aspect of a magical ring did not come from the Viking myths.) Its characters include Odin, the king of the Nordic gods, and Odin’s son, Thor, famous for his mythic hammer. The gods live in Valhalla, where heroic human warriors go when they die. In other words, Valhalla is a Nordic heaven.
After the American Civil War ended in 1865, a wave of Scandinavian immigrants moved to the United States, many of them settling in the Midwest, bringing the Scandinavian culture to America. That same decade the first Viking dragon ship was excavated in Norway. In 1893 a replica of a Viking ship was sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and put on display at the Chicago Worlds Fair. Why sail it across the ocean? To show what the Vikings were capable of doing.
American Scandinavians began to find evidence of their ancestors wherever they looked. The made claims that the Vikings had built a tower in Rhode Island, but this tower was later proved to be built by Benedict Arnold in the 17th century. Many other false claims were made that were later disproven by scholarly experts.
The most famous piece of purported evidence is a runestone discovered in 1898 on a farm near Kensington, Minnesota, by a Swedish emigrant named Olof Ohman. The runestone contained an inscription that referred to Vinland. Ohman claimed to have found it while digging out tree stumps on his farm. After some experts who examined the stone concluded that it was of modern origin, Ohman denied having carved it, but he admitted that he knew runic writing and had an interest in history. Indeed, he was from a region in Sweden where knowledge of runic writing was quite common.
Viking Culture in the 20th Century
In 1899 H. S. Chamberlain advanced the idea that the German people belonged to the highly gifted people called Aryans. Chamberlain’s followers began to equate Aryans with Norsemen. Soon the Nationalist Socialist Party was born, idealizing the image of blond, blue-eyed people, with hatred of all other races. After World War I, these notions inspired Adolph Hitler. Then came the Nazis and World War II.
I would be remiss if I did not include J.R.R. Tolkein in this story, because Americans so love his The Hobbit (1936) and Lord of the Ring trilogy (1954-55). Some polls have indicated that Lord of the Ring is considered the best book ever written. Tolkein was born in 1892 of German descent, but he was British and served in the British army in World War I. He was inspired by early Germanic and Old English literature, poetry, and mythology, about which he became an expert. Critics were quick to point out that the Lord of the Ring has a number of similarities to Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung. Tolkein dismissed such comparisons and was deeply offended because he despised the Nazis.
In the wake of World War II, interest in Viking heritage waned everywhere, including Scandinavia. But not its culture. Nor did interest in finding Vinland ever disappear. Remember Olof Ohman’s runestone. This stone ended up on display at the Smithsonian Institute from 1948 to 1953, thanks to the efforts of a Minnesota congressional delegation. The Institute claimed that the stone was authentic. After 1953 the Smithsonian remained ambivalent about its authenticity. According to a neighbor of Ohman’s, Jona P. Gran, the runic inscription was planned long in advance of its finding, and in a tape recording (held by the Minnesota Historical Society), Jonas’s son Walter Gran said that the inscription had been composed and chiseled by Ohman and a Swedish friend of his, who happened to be a Lutheran minister. Both Ohman and Gran enjoyed pranks. Nevertheless, the Kensington Stone continues to be used for commercial purposes.
In 1962 Thor, the Norse god of thunder, was introduced in comic books to American children. Thor possesses the magic hammer that enables him to fly and manipulate weather, among other superhuman qualities.
In 1973 Dik Browne created the comic strip Hagar the Horrible. Hagar wears a horned helmet, but he is a symbol of masculine failure, the antithesis of a Viking hero. The Minnesota Vikings football helmets also have horns. Where did this symbol come from? They were used for costumes in Richard Wagner’s opera, but there is no evidence of horned helmets in Viking literature.
Carin Orrling, who is the source of much of the material in this article, wrote this in the year 2000: “Today the Vikings are probably more popular than ever. Viking festivals and Viking markets are being organized, Viking villages are being built, and Viking boats are being copied as never before. Copies of their weapons and their dress are being sold, people are cooking Viking menus and presenting plays with Viking themes.”
L’Anse aux Meadows
In 1960 a Norwegian writer and explorer named Helge Ingstad and his wife Dr. Anne Stine Ingstad began digging in a place called L’Anse aux Meadows at the northern tip of Newfoundland. The next year Helge announced that he had found the remains of Norse buildings. Few believed him. Everyone thought that Norse ruins were most likely to be found further south in New England. Subsequent excavations of L’Anse aux Meadows continued until 1968. There was no longer a shadow of a doubt about its authenticity; L’Anse aux Meadows was Straumfjord. The precise location of Hóp is somewhat debatable, but expert opinion based on its description in the sagas fit the description of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. Experts do not believe that they reached Maine. However, an authentic old Norse coin was found in Maine, which experts believe was brought there by Indians. The only debate is whether the Indians got it in trade or if they simply found it. Therein lies one of the problems of archaeology. Structures don’t move, but coins do.
The Millennial Viking Exhibit
In 2000 the Natural Museum of National History in Washington D.C. announced the opening of their Viking exhibition program and tour, celebrating the 1000 year anniversary of Leif Eriksson’s discovery of North America. At the announcement press conference First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a speech. Here is the text of the end of her speech:
Our children and grandchildren will only learn about the courage and ingenuity of these explorers who came to our shores one thousand years ago, and touched so many other shores as well, if we are prepared to help them learn. They will discover through these stories, perhaps, something about what happened in faraway places. They will hear about adventures and they will learn about sagas. And perhaps—just perhaps—some young person will have his or her own spirit sparked. Because, after all, what the Vikings really convey to us over all these centuries is the power of the human spirit and the universal urge to find and cross new horizons.
Harvard University Center for Hellenic Studies, n.d. “The Saga Map of Vinland,” https://chs.harvard.edu/
Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien, A Biography (Houghton Mifflin, 1977).
William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward (eds.), Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), especially the article by Carin Orrling, “The Old Norse Drem.”
Marc Morris, The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England (Random House, 2012).
Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (Basic Books, 2015).