Written by: Rune Hjarnø Rasmussen
Dear Viking aficionados!
I am very sorry to break the news to you, but here it comes. Scandinavians are not Vikings!! I am a Scandinavian. I know of no ancestry of mine that wasn’t Danish. I have lived and worked in both Norway and Sweden, and if there is one thing in the world that I know about us, it is this. We are NOT Vikings. Historically Vikings were a limited segment of the population during a rather short historical period who practiced in a very particular kind of coastal piracy. Even a “pure” (for all I know) Scandinavian like myself probably has more Polish, Roma and Jewish ancestors than I have Viking ancestors. That much is just genetic fact. So, not only are we not Vikings, we also do not descend from Vikings, at least not in any more meaningful sense than we descend from Roma or Jewish people, and we almost certainly descend significantly less from Vikings than we do from slaves, which made up a significantly larger segment of the population during a much longer period in history than the ‘Vikings’. So are modern Scandinavians perhaps Vikings in a more symbolic way?. Well, Scandinavians mostly see themselves as egalitarian and democratic. Historically, Vikings were fiercely feudal and practiced sacred kingship. We see ourselves as humanists. Vikings sacrificed humans, probably mostly slaves who in their iron age caste society were almost considered an inferior species. We see ourselves as feminist. For crying out loud; Vikings attacked England in canoes with axes,– WE ARE NOT VIKINGS! In fact, if there is one single thing in the universe, that we specifically, most certainly, definitely aren’t, it’s freaking Vikings!!!
Ahhh! It felt good to get that off my chest.
We Scandinavians are ironically (and whether we like it or not) rather nationalist. Often in subtle ways that are difficult for us to deal with without ending up in anachronistic racism – the present government of Denmark being case in point here. In this respect, we are even less like Vikings, because historical Vikings had exactly zero of the nationalist nostalgia. They did not have those concepts of belonging to a specific race, culture or state that North Europeans have been inventing for themselves over the last 150 years. So, when you are using us, the Scandinavians to create this international fetishizing of “Nordicness”, this tickles our secret little nationalist ego. Many of us feel flattered, an identity boost about being an object of all this seemingly positive attention. We are used to being rather irrelevant on the international scene. We weren’t the cradle of democracy, enlightenment or the renaissance. We don’t have many great philosophers, artists, generals, or reformers. We did get ourselves just enough into colonialism to have a bit of a legacy that we need to deal with, but we didn’t ‘rule the world’ like the British Empire, so our involvement was generally too insignificant for anyone to bother fighting a war over. Try to name one really vital cultural or technological innovation coming out of Scandinavia. If pressured, I would personally waver between the Moomin and marinated herring. Hah!
Joking aside, I would probably go for the medieval Icelandic literature. And here you will probably be happy and say: “But isn’t that super Viking?” Icelandic medieval literature does have roots back towards the so-called “Viking age”, but how “Viking” is that really? Of course, it must be something about fighting, drinking mead, sporting an oiled up six pack and shaking your cool hair roaring: “”RRRAAGGGNARRRRR!!!” when somebody else roars: “WHO IS YOUR KING?!” Again am sorry, but no! What was the reality of the culture that produced this literature? Well, first it had a passion for literature so unrelenting that it is one of those pyramid-style historical enigmas! How the hell did the small population of a muddy, cold, lava island produce the incredible amount of parchment necessary for them to meet the wild craving of history’s most insatiable bookworms? They created what has been named history’s most structurally complex poetic tradition. I am serious guys. Icelandic medieval poetry is like linguistic experimental jazz. That is the closest you get to something that is both significantly Nordic (and in fact just a little bit Viking), the most literature obsessed fancy poetry in-crowd that the world has ever seen!
So Scandinavia hasn’t exactly been the driving force of the modern world and perhaps that is part of the reason that Scandinavians are a bit inclined to pop on the band wagon of this new Viking coolness fad. But here is the thing. It is complete shyte. Not only is it shyte, but it is that specific kind of shyte that subtly portrays supremacist race nationalism which – in this day and age – is not exactly something need… Honestly, what are “Vikings” really? I’m not talking about the actual social segment of people in late iron age North European society, the ones that actually did engage in a life of piracy. I’m talking about the myth, the icon of the Viking, the idea of the Norse blood, the bearded ax wielding raider, the barbarian who descended on an unsuspecting European, blablablablablbalaaayouknowhowitgoes. You know, the Viking that we see on television, The Heathen Norse! (Though I feel compelled here to mention that anyone who had ever visited a school should know that the Vikings should really be iconic of Christianity, as their most important impact on Scandinavian society was Christianization!). But what is this mythological Viking? Well, he is less an accurate representation of historical Scandinavian pirates and more of a protestant-nationalist figment of the modern imagination. The idea of the Viking was invented as an icon of the nationalist version of the protestant Holy Ghost, the volksgeist (or spirit of the nation) that German romanticists and early Scandinavian nationalists cooked up during the 19th century to legitimize their national states.
That symbolism lived on in popular culture and a huge part of the fascination with the popular TV-series “Vikings” is clearly the way it mythologizes not just ‘Scandinavianness’ but in fact whiteness as such. These imagined iron age pirates have become iconic of not just of Scandinavians, but of white people in general. They are the whitest of whiteness. I’ve been told that the series makes a lot of people feel like there is suddenly something cool about being white, right?
Wrong! ‘White’is still as meaningless a term as ever. By all means, do take pride in your European cultural background that gave the world so many wonderful things. But “white” is something different. It was invented as a means to control working classes by splitting them up into conflicting groups called races, so they wouldn’t band together and set things straight with the economic elite that was exploiting them. A scheme that still seems to be working impeccably, by the way. The invention of ‘White’ as a class of people is also rather recent. Medieval Europeans had no such idea. All through the high middle ages, they worshiped the deity of knighthood in the image of a black man, Saint Mauritius. I’m not kidding you! The courtly knights that mirrored themselves in King Arthur and Sir Lancelot worshiped an African man as the quintessential image of the noble ideals they aspired to. Being white only came along much, much later. At one point, “white” only designated Anglo-Saxon protestants in explicit opposition to the clearly non-white people of Celtic origin, such as the Irish. The idea of white is also characteristically dependent on another idea, “black”. Anybody can see that in literal terms there is no such thing as neither black nor white people so these polarizing concepts were implemented to conceptualize as much opposition as possible between the groups.
But ‘White’ needed icons, and from its 19th-century inception, the “Viking” was chosen as one of the important symbols of the white mans’ innate aggressive superiority. Wagner did it, Hitler did it, and today (though likely not with the same intent) the History Channel is doing it. Making the “Viking” into this fetishized icon of aggressive whiteness while ignoring the actual culture and history behind the facade. The markers of “coolness” that sell us this violent superhuman have just been updated a bit. Instead of 19th-century chubby chain mail chicks with winged helmets and shield bras, we now get 2017 appropriate hipster underwear models, sporting hipster beards, hipster hair, hipster tattoos, hipster – you-name-it. Basically, the myth hasn’t changed from Wagner and until today. It is still that old “blond beast” the mythological Scandinavian, the white of the white, his natural barbarism granting a sort of providential right to kill and exploit, the mythical figure that lends shape to the soul of the colonizer.
Therefore my request to you is to start considering what you are doing with this Viking fetish of yours! Because it does a lot of things, that I am not sure everyone is fully aware of. It overrules actual cultural heritage of these regions by shoving ‘Scandinavianness’ into some kind of little box. A box that happens to be neither kind nor particularly useful for pretty much any purpose relevant to 2017. Think for instance about what your delightful Viking fetish does to the Scandinavianness of my little girl whose mother is a Franco-African woman, and who will grow up in a society where everyone will just have to pause for a moment and convince themselves of her right to Scandinavian identity, because she is not blond like this ridiculous myth of “Vikingness” claims that a Scandinavian is supposed to be.
And if you are a believer in the Nordic gods, then please stop for a moment and consider exactly what it is that you are doing to this religion by associating it so powerfully with this very, very narrow and specific group of people, who in a rather limited historical context, a very, very, very long time ago, were once involved in this very specific kind of marine banditry. Do Christians associate Christianity with being Roman because important Christian sources originate in Roman times? By carrying on the cult of the “Viking”, you are restricting this religion to a fantasy trope! An imagined distant and inaccessible past, which from any meaningful perspective is 100% irrelevant to your contemporary life.
In conclusion – Please consider dropping the Viking fetish! The fact is, we (the Scandinavian peoples) are not Vikings, and unless you’re raiding along the coastline NEITHER ARE YOU! And you know what – that is OK. In fact, it is rather wonderful, and we should all be happier for it. Rejoice and celebrate this lovely contemporary, modern ‘non-vikingness’ that we all share because Vikings are at best deeply, profoundly existentially irrelevant, at worst they are a horrid white supremacist myth from a time in history that I think we can all agree was a travesty, and which everybody is much better off without. If you release the Scandinavian culture from being inside this Viking box, you also free us to perhaps be able to contribute to global culture. Not that we are necessarily better than anyone else, let alone representative of any imagined white super-humanity. But Scandinavian countries do perhaps share a decidedly non-Viking dedication to try to organize in ways that are gentle, kind and humanist liberal. And there are probably ways this is being done that others can find useful.