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'the epitome of barbarism and heathendom.'
March 24, 2014 10:50 AM   Subscribe

The Vikings invented soap operas and pioneered globalisation - so why do we depict them as brutes?
posted by the man of twists and turns (51 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Lindisfarne. First impressions and all.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 10:56 AM on March 24 [5 favorites]


Obligatory Kate Beaton cartoon link.
posted by Strange Interlude at 11:00 AM on March 24 [4 favorites]


so why do we depict them as brutes?

Because they pioneered globalization?
posted by Thorzdad at 11:03 AM on March 24 [24 favorites]


Because it's easy and we can justify defence spending.

Oops, there I go time slipping again.
posted by arcticseal at 11:04 AM on March 24 [4 favorites]


They also had a world-renowned fashion sense.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:04 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


They used to be brutes but then they learned to live with and cooperate with the dragons thanks to Hiccup and Toothless so now all's well.
posted by kmz at 11:08 AM on March 24 [3 favorites]


Lindisfarne. First impressions and all.

And the impression was made deeper by repeated visits:
... the Vikings were also the people against whom the British nations initially defined themselves.
...
All of historians’ source material for their early impact on Britain was written by the victims, who emphasised the wanton lack of restraint with which the Vikings plundered Christian churches and killed their clergy and the cruelty with which they ravaged settlements and farms. They flouted every rule of conduct that the European Christendom of the time had developed, precariously, to limit human savagery.
They didn't play by what the English thought were "the rules." Barbarians!
posted by filthy light thief at 11:11 AM on March 24 [3 favorites]


Umm. Because they raped and pillaged and enslaved folks?

What did you do with your summer? "I raided Ireland and took a bunch of Irish women as slaves. Now I'm going I spend the winter raping them repeatedly until they learn to behave."

It's not that they didn't have their qualities or that Europe didn't do much the same in its colonial adventures. But, come on! They recorded all these activities themselves in marvelous, interesting and yes horrific Sagas, and they just don't come off very well.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:19 AM on March 24 [7 favorites]


The Vikings invented soap operas and pioneered globalisation - so why do we depict them as brutes?

Because intellectual achievement and brutality are not mutually exclusive.
posted by spaltavian at 11:36 AM on March 24 [3 favorites]


so why do we depict them as brutes?

Because they pioneered globalization?


I think you're underplaying the "they invented soap operas" angle.
posted by yoink at 11:37 AM on March 24 [9 favorites]


But, come on! They recorded all these activities themselves in marvelous, interesting and yes horrific Sagas, and they just don't come off very well.

And what do you have against a little seaborne pillaging and storytelling?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:38 AM on March 24


They carried their coins in their armpits, attached to their armpit hair with wax for safekeeping. That's why. Nobody wants you to pay for your ale with armpit coins, sorry.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:41 AM on March 24 [19 favorites]


A cursory glance at world history reveals that people are capable of making beautiful things while doing horrible things to their fellow humans.

So, basically, they were people?
posted by the_royal_we at 11:45 AM on March 24 [4 favorites]


Because they raped and pillaged and enslaved folks?

If only the Vikings were the only ones to do that, I'd be happy to join in condemning them!
posted by corb at 11:45 AM on March 24 [4 favorites]


I've never understood why there aren't more good modern adaptations of Viking sagas to film or tv - sure, they're 1/3 genealogy, but those genealogies contain people with names like Ivar Horseprick and Eyvind the Plagiarist, and that's awesome. And the other two thirds are battle scenes and legal drama.

Sure, they maybe weren't great people but they'd make great television.
posted by darchildre at 12:00 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


They carried their coins in their armpits, attached to their armpit hair with wax for safekeeping.

They could invent soap operas and pillaging, but couldn't figure out pockets?

Ivar Horseprick

Well, I know what my new username is going to be...
posted by Dip Flash at 12:04 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


Vikings trailer, IMDB
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:05 PM on March 24


um, have you watched Vikings?
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:05 PM on March 24


If you look at what the Teutonic Knights and other crusader forces did to non-Christians in medieval Europe, you see that they were every bit as savage. How many innocents were burned to death by the crusades? By the endless inquisitions? At least the Vikings weren't actually trying to wipe out their enemies. The crusaders on the other hand were proud genocidaires. Who were the real barbarians?
posted by 1adam12 at 12:16 PM on March 24 [3 favorites]


At least the Vikings weren't actually trying to wipe out their enemies.

They probably thought about it more like ants farming aphids or our current debates about overfishing -- you have to leave enough of the monks and villagers alive for next year's raiding, because if you kill them all you can't come back the following summer. There was probably an optimum algorithm for how many to kill and enslave without endangering out-year raiding profits, if only there had been Viking quants to work on it.
posted by Dip Flash at 12:21 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


Who were the real barbarians?

The real barbarians were non-Greeks citizens, who Greek-speakers thought sounded like this: "Bar bar bar bar." It's onomatopoeia for the way foreign languages sounded.

Oh, were you asking us to evaluate your tu quoque rather than answer the question?
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:21 PM on March 24 [5 favorites]


Bar bar barbarbar, bar bar barbar bar barbar. Barbar, barbar bar -- barbarbar, bar barbar bar bar?
posted by Drexen at 12:24 PM on March 24 [7 favorites]


THANKS ØBAMÆ!
posted by blue_beetle at 12:24 PM on March 24 [6 favorites]


Creating simplistic caricatures of whole cultures -- that's where we are Vikings.
posted by Killick at 12:34 PM on March 24 [7 favorites]


Viking Fighting Moves based on the Sagas:
*Thrusting with the horn of the axe: Grænlendinga þáttur, ch. 5

...en Kolbeinn snaraðist við honum og stakk fram öxarhyrnunni og kom í barkann Þórði og hafði hann þegar bana.

Kolbeinn sidestepped Þórður and jabbed the horn of his axe into Þórður's throat and that was his death.

*Hooking a shield with a weapon: Þorskfirðinga saga, ch. 10

Askmaður skopar um hið ytra og vildi krækja af honum skjöldinn.

Askmaður ran around him and wanted to hook his shield off him.

* Tossing away a sword, running under to grapple, and throwing an opponent down: Hávarðar saga Ísfirðings, ch.21

Atli sér að eigi mun svo búið hlýða, kastar síðan sverðinu og hleypur undir Þorgrím og rekur hann niður við völlinn.

Atli saw he was making no progress. He threw away his sword and slipped under Þorgrímur's guard and threw him to the ground.

* Throwing a man down and killing him with a sax (short-sword): Grettis saga, ch. 56 (and many others)

Fann hann eigi fyrr en Grettir tók hann upp yfir höfuð sér og færði niður svo hart að saxið hraut úr hendi honum og fékk Grettir tekið það og hafði ekki orða við hann og hjó þegar höfuð af honum og lauk svo hans ævi.

Grettir lifted him up above his head and threw him down so hard that he lost his grip on the sax. Grettir took the sax and without a word, cut off his head and ended his life.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 12:43 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


If only the Vikings were the only ones to do that, I'd be happy to join in condemning them!

If we follow this logic to its conclusion, then the existence of two raids of rape & pillage by two different groups of people negates our ability to condemn either one of them, which seems ... wrong. Why not condemn both? It's pillage and rape, for Christ's sake.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:44 PM on March 24 [7 favorites]


Can we discuss Vikings here? Because holy God, I love that show, but this second season is going to kill me.

Mostly because my OT3 has all broken up! Nooooo Ragnar! You're supposed to stay with Lagertha and Athelstan and Ragnar is supposed to run those gorgeous blue eyes all over, and Athelstan is supposed to be all shocked and needy at the same time, and Lagertha is supposed to just roll her eyes and go "Oh you boys".

And then you all go out onto your farm and raise baby goats. Because, yes.
posted by Katemonkey at 12:45 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


Mostly because my OT3 has all broken up! Nooooo Ragnar! You're supposed to stay with Lagertha and Athelstan and Ragnar is supposed to run those gorgeous blue eyes all over, and Athelstan is supposed to be all shocked and needy at the same time, and Lagertha is supposed to just roll her eyes and go "Oh you boys".

And then you all go out onto your farm and raise baby goats. Because, yes.


Invented soap operas you said?
posted by Atreides at 12:48 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


They recorded all these activities themselves in marvelous, interesting and yes horrific Sagas, and they just don't come off very well.

For one thing, they were so astoundingly uncivilized that they didn't take heads to play football with them, as a good Irishman would be expected to do.
posted by bonehead at 12:56 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


Lagertha. I would cross an ocean for Lagertha.
posted by Ber at 1:02 PM on March 24


Did you ever read the action reports of Medal Of Honor recipients? About half of them sound like the soldiers basically became berserkers.
posted by thelonius at 1:05 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


As with pretty much everything, I blame Wagner.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:39 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


The comic strip Pearls Before Swine (short animation) has a running gag about Vikings who eschew violence and are in touch with their feminine side.
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:42 PM on March 24


On the other hand, the Vikings were also the people against whom the British nations initially defined themselves.

Ironically, a similar scenario would play out centuries later between Illinois and Indiana.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:42 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


It's probably better to see the Vikings as just one of many waves of migration/raiding from mainland Europe into the British isles. Like the Celts (raiding the Picts) and the Angles and the Saxons (raiding the Celts), the Vikings raided then settled in England and Scotland. They were in turn conquered (as well as the Picts, Celts, and Anglo-Saxons) by the Normans in 1066.
posted by bonehead at 3:15 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


They were in turn conquered (as well as the Picts, Celts, and Anglo-Saxons) by the Normans in 1066.

It's Vikings all the way down.
posted by GalaxieFiveHundred at 3:26 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


The stereotype is that they only raped and pillaged. There's evidence they also settled into new lives in foreign lands, as immigrants first, not invaders. In Ireland and Great Britain, arguably, they were not only invaders, but also assimilated into the culture - just as the Celtic culture assimilated some of their words, habits, etc.

Oh, and as far as stereotypes, let's also remember Genghis Khan's terrible reputation as a tyrant. In recent years, historians have noted that he united warring tribes and ended the slave trade, and also supported freedom of religion, and the pursuit of the arts. Conquered tribes were also treated with a modicum of respect and not necessarily put to the sword. Before his death, he appeared to be moving towards a civil society where all citizens, including women, would have the same rights. (It's been several years since I wrote about the Mongols, but I am under the impression he had great empathy for the suffering of his mother, who was kidnapped from her fiance under force, and forced to marry Genghis' father. His mother became one of his greatest advisors).

What do the Vikings and Genghis Khan have in common, besides a reputation for bloodshed? Their enemies wrote the history books.
posted by mitschlag at 4:12 PM on March 24 [7 favorites]


I'll drop into this thread to also recommend Northlanders, which was doing the Vikings Are Awesome thing before the TV show or Skyrim brought it to TV or video games*. The opening story arc is about a Varangian returned for an inheritance only to find his rights usurped by a greedy relative. It is the returning war veteran trope remixed as Iron Age gangster. Also, the Plague Widow arc is an amazing Dark Ages survival horror story.

though, on the video game tip: I have also been loving The Banner Saga lately though it does feel a bit revisionist with its "hey let's make a fantasy Viking analogue that isn't about raping and pillaging" aesthetic.
posted by bl1nk at 5:13 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


Vikings Visual Recaps
posted by homunculus at 5:52 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


I think the reason Vikings have never interested me - a chap otherwise deeply fond of all manner of historical fun - is that they never really did introspection. If there's an Early Modern Nordic philosopher, I've missed him (or her, but that seems even more unlikely). Tons of slaughter, global commerce, intrigue and chasing after treasure is all so... well, Thatcherite. I know that was pretty much par for the course back then (and hardly out of fashion now), but in most complex, long-lasting, distinct cultures you can usually find someone scratching away at what might be going on behind or beyond the everyday. Lots of myth, gods and storytelling, but never a hint of revelation? And from people who had such a great way with metaphor and linguistic play?

Doesn't float my longship. But if I'm hopelessly ill-informed, I would heartily welcome being put right.
posted by Devonian at 7:48 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


Ah, MeFi, is there no contrarian position you will not take? If this site is still around in 500 years, I look forward to my brain in a jar reading a discussion about how the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima meant that Hitler wasn't really a bad guy, plus the Allied Powers got to write the history books.
posted by Bugbread at 1:08 AM on March 25


Anybody else catch that pre-battle scene where Ragnar's brother and the Swede are casually doing some berserker shrooms before the shield wall?

Totally metal.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 2:48 AM on March 25


I'd also recommend the Vinland Saga manga, which has the longest prologue ever, Thorkell the Tall punching a horse, and ASOIAF-level plotting and character-building.
It's probably better to see the Vikings as just one of many waves of migration/raiding from mainland Europe into the British isles. Like the Celts (raiding the Picts) and the Angles and the Saxons (raiding the Celts), the Vikings raided then settled in England and Scotland. They were in turn conquered (as well as the Picts, Celts, and Anglo-Saxons) by the Normans in 1066.
Bernard Cornwell has two historical sagas: the first one (the "Warlord" series) is a retelling of King Arthur's Celtic warriors fighting the Saxon invaders as seen through the eyes of one of his generals, the second one (the "Saxon" series) is a retelling of King Alfred's Saxon warriors fighting the Danish invaders as seen through the eyes of one of his generals. The irony is astounding.
posted by sukeban at 3:07 AM on March 25 [2 favorites]


Devonian: there's Queen Elizabeth. But she killed Descartes with cold, early mornings.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 4:00 AM on March 25


Devonian: I think the reason Vikings have never interested me - a chap otherwise deeply fond of all manner of historical fun - is that they never really did introspection.

Well, they composed poems by the barrelful and wrote tons and tons of prose literature, much of it concerned with the morality and effects of violence.

I suppose I should get into the nomenclature here. A "viking" refers to raider, like a pirate or a privateer, and these vikings operated from about 800 to about 1050. The civilization is referred to usually as the Norse civilization and exists prior to and after the end of the Viking Age. The Old-Icelandic prose corpus, of which the sagas are one part, were mostly written by educated, Christian chieftains or monks, or scribes in the employ of chieftains or the church. These sagas were written starting in the early decades of the 13th Century, long after the Viking Age ended. However, some of these narratives concern themselves with vikings and are essentially works of introspection, i.e. how can a Christian descendant of a viking think of his ancestor.

The epitome of that strain in Norse medieval writing is Egils Saga. It's about Egill Skallagrímsson, who's a brutal viking and a brilliant poet. The saga probably includes poems composed by Egill which were known to the writer of the saga (most likely the chieftain Snorri Sturluson). It's essentially a story about a very violent man whose saving grace is his poetic gift. The effects of a culture of violence on him, his family and society at large is demonstrated at length, and the inner turmoil of Egill is demonstrated at various points in the poems he composes.

I'd recommend Egils saga to anyone. Njals Saga is another safe bet, if you want to read a saga or two, it's also very much about the effects of violence on a society, though it's also a rollicking good yarn.
posted by Kattullus at 4:35 AM on March 25 [8 favorites]


Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland is one of the few books I can remember staying up until four in the morning reading. William Ian Miller is my favorite Vikinglogist.
posted by bukvich at 5:46 AM on March 25 [1 favorite]


Katullius - I've heard it said that viking is a verb, not a noun, and yes I do conflate Vikingry and the broader Norseness. Us British Romano-Celt-Saxons only really experienced the tourist arm of the whole enterprise, at least until things settled down a bit and we all started swapping islands for princesses.

It certainly feels odd to assign a lack of introspection to anything Nordic, a part of the world where brooding comes more easily to people than to hens, and I'm not sure I've quite mapped out my Viking antipathy. I am more than comfortable among my Swedish (and Finnish, but let's not go there) friends, and my times in Sweden have been among my happiest. The one place on earth I feel most at home is Orkney.

Further, I'm passionate about story and narrative: that's been my life.

So, why can I not wade through the sagas with much pleasure? (I have tried, oh yes.) Perhaps it's a deep discomfort with violence - or at least, places where violence is the primary theme. It's not that I can't see the fascination with what it must be like in a culture that bridges the dark ages and the medieval, and what it is to be its neighbours, but I can't feel it.

Take as a counter-example those vicious Assyrians, who were similarly much taken with smiting and not much given to picking flowers in the spring, tra-la-la. But they also had science and maths and medicine, quite out of keeping with their muscular foreign policy, and they're interwoven with the very rich churning of philosophy and culture of their region. I love that shit.

But when I'm in Maeshowe, contemplating the deep history of the Neolithic and the skein of time humanity has woven over the Northern landscapes, I look at all those runic scribbles and think "bloody vandals...".

What can a chap do, eh?
posted by Devonian at 6:41 AM on March 25 [1 favorite]


professor plum with a rope: "Devonian: there's Queen Elizabeth. But she killed Descartes with cold, early mornings."

(Queen Christina. Who was bad-ass.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:22 AM on March 25 [1 favorite]


Devonian: The one place on earth I feel most at home is Orkney.

Have you read Orkneyinga Saga? It's one of the really early ones (possibly partly written by Snorri Sturluson) and it's considered quite good. If I remember correctly it even has an account of those vandals in Maeshowe and what they were doing there (or it may be in Njáls Saga, I can't remember).

The sagas aren't only concerned with violence, there's love and magic and parenthood and all kinds of things, human and supernatural. The Prose Edda is essentially a record of the old religion and poetic language of the Pre-Christian Norsemen. It's all part of the same prose literature (again, the Prose Edda was even definitely written by Snorri Sturluson). I don't avoid Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf because of what the British were doing at the time and Viking atrocities shouldn't keep you from reading Norse medieval literature. It's the most accessible of the great literature of the High Middle Ages.
posted by Kattullus at 11:45 AM on March 25 [3 favorites]


Amazing Ancient Viking Sun Compass Even Worked After Sunset
posted by homunculus at 1:02 PM on March 28 [2 favorites]


Vikings Visual Recap: Unforgiven
posted by homunculus at 3:35 PM on April 4


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