Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Viking Reminders: They're Everywhere

I’ve learned that Vikings are Scandinavians from Norway, Sweden and Denmark, so, when referring to Vikings during the Viking Age I’ll try to be as specific as I can. Scandinavians explored Europe via their longships through trade and warfare.  Trade:  what they made to sell; they were excellent craftsman.  Warfare:  it was a way of life in all of Europe at that period in time as well as the Viking Age.  For a time, Scandinavians were just better at it and gained a reputation because of it.  No one else had used a fleet boats down inland waterways to plunder before.

My husband and I were recently vacationing in Nelson, British Columbia, Canada on Kootenay Lake(camping and touring the area by car).  Nelson is only one of many charming towns around this beautiful lake.  There was an odd familiarity about the area.  It occurred to me that the landscape of Nelson BC was reminiscent of Norway and the infamous fjords. 

North Kootenay Lake looking north towards "Twin Bays" (on the left) with Mount Willet in background
Printed with permission of Doug Pyper Photographics Kaslo, British Columbia, Canada

Fjord in Geiranger Norway, Author: Hesse1309,Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Boats—it was all about boats.  Viking life revolved around this mode of transportation on their myriad waterways (fjords).  The boats are called longships.  They are long and flat-bottomed; swift and graceful; crews could row or sail them.  Longships could be maneuvered ashore on coastlines, lakes or riverbanks; they were meticulously made by hand with stunning accoutrement; and they traveled easily in high seas, lakes or rivers.  Eventually, they traveled in fleets.  These longships were so important to the Viking culture they became interment vessels; the Sutton Hoo being only one example.
Viking Ship Museum and the Oseberg Ship, Oslo, Norway.
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike
Much to my surprise, while watching a crew race broadcast from the Olympics (this link to a video takes a few seconds to come up), I heard the commentator reference Vikings.  He said: “If you stand here as a spectator, you can kind of imagine what it would have been like standing on the shores watching a Viking invasion.”  He said this at minute 1:29 into the race.  Crew rowing is reminiscent of a longship—just a scaled down version. Oars power skimming the water’s surface . . . squint . . . you’ll see similarities.  The commentator's imagination saw a fleet of Viking longships.

Syracuse University rowing crew about 1910 on Onondaga Lake, Post Card from Onondaga
County Public Library collection, Wikimedia Commons

Where did the Vikings go with all these longships? 

Ø Vikings from Norway raided and/or settled in, among other places, Scotland, England, Ireland, Germany and France (they already lived in Normandy). and some in Muslim Spain. 

Ø SwedishVikings mainly traveled and settled east into Russia and down Volga River to the Black Sea and Constantinople.

Ø DanishVikings moved to the south towards the British Isles and Ireland (and Normandy).

What was happening in the other European countries? The art of the day was Christian art; the Christian religion was becoming the religion of the rulers (states) in power; monasteries were making biblical manuscripts in mass in all but the Scandinavian's native countries. The Vikings may have been conquerors but had not been conquered, per se.  There weren’t navies to reciprocate where they navigated their longships. To me, this seems reminiscent of early Rome's conquests by land. That's partially how the upper echelon in Rome became rich--collecting booty in a lot of cases.

Learning about art history is learning about history simultaneously.

Mary B.

P.S.  The word ‘Viking’ originally meant making an expedition or journey by water.  Subsequently, it evolved. Now, if one asks what the word ‘Viking’ means, the answer may be a raiding Norwegian wearing a horned helmet collecting booty (stolen goods taken by means of a boat). Reminiscently, the word ‘booty’ means a collection of goods taken by force or stolen—loot.  At least it did mean that.  Nowadays, it’s evolving.  If one asks a young person what ‘booty’ is, one may receive a wholllllle different answer.     I’m just saying . . .


  1. Where were you when Art changed?

  2. The "horned helmet" is actually a stereotype perpetuated by Hollywood (and perhaps opera). No Viking helms have been found which have horns. This summer, my husband and I took our son to Sweden and Denmark to visit ancient Viking sites (Birka, Hovgarden, Gamla Uppsala, etc.) and museums with Viking artifacts including the Stockholm National Historical Museum and the Roskilde Viking Ship museum. We were even able to go out on for a sail in a replica Viking longship in Roskilde (we had to row out to where we could set the sails!) We also visited a large "Viking market", which was like going to a Renaissance fair, only with everyone reenacting Viking life. Our son plans to go into anthropology and has focused his study on Viking culture. The intricate design of some of their metalwork was great for design inspiration!