The Vikings were, as everybody knows, deranged rampaging barbarians. They would sweep down on to unsuspecting monasteries, brandishing their battleaxes, to slaughter the monks as if they were chickens and rape peasant housewives in the open air. The few to survive would remember the Vikings as strapping men with fearsome beards and horns encrusted in their helmets. The Vikings were worse than gypsies and nothing was safe when they were around. Morality was a foreign language to these people. A Viking attack would disrupt transport and shut down public services – the Vikings were the pre-medieval equivalent of snow.
If history has traditionally classified the Vikings as outsiders – for representing a sinister Otherness which had overshadowed Europe’s emerging civilisation – the new Vikings! exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland tries to make out that these people were, well, just as bourgeois and suburban as we are. The old cheerful tales about looting-and-raping barbarians are not necessarily deemed to be untrue, but they are nevertheless expunged wholesale from this exhibition. Sacking monasteries was, it transpires, only a small part of an otherwise rich and sophisticated cultural history.
This exhibition insists that the Vikings, like us, lived in a society which was orientated around consumerism. They would import – not pillage – a luxuriant array of goods from Europe and the Orient. Like us, the Vikings were multiculturalists. Yes, you read that correctly – the exhibition literature claims that they “did not share one single culture or religion.” Heavens, like us they were even environmentalists. Following disastrous periods of deforestation, the Vikings apparently “changed to a more sustainable way of life” (thankfully no further details are provided). And like us, the Vikings lived in an age of austerity. The exhibition warns that, “The modern image of “magnificent Vikings” is seldom reflected in the evidence from graves.”
Like us, the Vikings were so liberal that they make you want to vomit. If liberals are by definition puny and unimpressive, this exhibition cuts down the Vikings to a similarly manageable size. One of the first things that we are told about the Vikings is that the average male was only 5 foot 6 inches tall. Analysis of Viking skeletons reveals that anaemia was widespread, and one set of bones even bears the fatal marks of that most pathetic of modern ailments, “repetitive strain injury.” Even the cows and pigs of these feeble, unassuming people were half the size of their modern equivalents. We could have probably gulped down a Viking steak in one go.
And to cap it all, those awesome Viking warriors were actually subordinated to their women. Some Viking ladies were buried with ornamental keys which symbolised their ownership of farms and households. There was a general superstitious dread of women for being the “weavers of men’s fates.” The Valkyries (female demigods) were reported to have built a loom which was strung with warriors’ intestines and weighted with the “heads of the slain.” At this point the exhibition has found the perfect Viking-feminist imagery to eclipse the old tales about berserkers quaffing blood from their enemies’ skulls.
When this exhibition comes to the fact that Viking helmets supposedly never featured horns, the insistence upon all eradication of the phallic is now explicit. The caption “Look – No Horns!” could now conceivably apply to the entire Viking race. These Vikings were so effete and refined that you could have safely invited them to a respectable dinner party. The exhibition claims that when the Vikings sat down to dinner “there was more concern for good table manners than is suggested by modern portrayals of Vikings as wild greedy berserkers eating with their hands.” For shame!
If the Vikings still do not sound boring enough, a display of Viking costumes reveals that they dressed unostentatiously, mostly in beige and subtle browns. These Vikings are even deodorised for our pleasure – we are told that “they took great care of their appearance and personal hygiene.” As evidence of this we are pointed to the ultimate in Viking hygiene: the ear-spoon, which has been since sadly lost in the handbag of history. One might think that a people who had so much wax in their ears that they needed a spoon to remove it must have been ogres, but this exhibition would have us believe that they were just extremely fastidious.
The exhibition is forced to concede that the Vikings had worshipped a lively band of pagan deities, but Odin and his pals were sent packing once Christ was on the scene. From then on, the Vikings became tastefully Christian and their simple, peaceful devotion was encapsulated in beautiful works of art. There may have been a few teething problems – the early church frequently depicted Christ as a deer, probably due to a mistranslation.
So the Vikings were not evil incarnate. They were instead sophisticated cosmopolitan metrosexuals who traded in organic fabrics and were tolerant of all faiths and cultures. Their society was, as the exhibition is barefaced in claiming, a “cultural melting pot” (yes, really!). This is not a history lesson but an exorcism. It is not about the Vikings but about us. At the end of this exhibition, we have been freed from all memory of the Vikings and cleansed of their bloody crimes. We are left only with ourselves:
The stereotypical Viking is a myth with little or no relevance today in Scandinavia where gender equality, multiculturalism and integration are important issues.
The title of this exhibition “Vikings: The Untold Story” is effectively a warning. If the Vikings really were as modest and undramatic as this exhibition claims, history would have never remembered them in the first place.
[This exhibition runs until May 12th. Ed.]