Sailing past the myths
of the Vikings
New exhibit challenges common perceptions of the Nordic seafarers, taking care to emphasize culture over warfare
Pop culture has been unkind to the Vikings, a medieval race frozen in time and romanticized as noisy, pillaging brutes devoted to blunt-force trauma and dubious headgear choices.
From Capital One commercials to comic strips to Monty Python absurdity to Led Zeppelin heavy-metal novelty music, Vikings are stereotyped as semi-barbaric and stand-ins for old-time incivility. " Ahh-ahh, ah!" Robert Plant halloos at the beginning Zeppelin's Immigrant Song – a crazed recording that even Richard Wagner might think is a "bit much." The track gallops menacingly, with lyrics that are outstandingly over the top:
"We come from the land of the ice and snow / From the midnight sun, where the hot springs flow / The hammer of the gods / We'll drive our ships to new lands / To fight the horde, and sing and cry Valhalla, I am coming!"
(Zeppelin's Immigrant Song is also part of the soundtrack to the just-out Marvel movie Thor: Ragnarok, a celebration of Chris Hemsworth and Norse mythology that is sure to be tasteful and restrained.)
Where pop culture is stubborn, however, history is almost always willing to reconsider. Was Hagar really so horrible? Were Vikings more multidimensional than traditionally believed? What's with the goat horns?
Those are the kind of questions posed by Vikings: The Exhibition, a touring show making its last stop at the Royal Ontario Museum, beginning on Saturday. Earlier this week at a media preview, a group of writers, historians and other interested parties washed down pickled herring with lingonberry juice and walked through the meticulous array of artifacts and interactive displays devoted to a culture that put the scandal in Scandinavia between the eighth and 11th centuries.
The collection, presented by Raymond James Ltd. in partnership with the Swedish History Museum, is housed in the ROM's lower level. The spacious room is uncluttered, lowly lit and bathed in barely there ambient music. Tranquillity is the effect – one might say, civilized. Which is perhaps the point.
Some of the key items under glass are the artifacts attached to the Birka warrior. In the 1880s, excavators uncovered a battle-ready body near the Swedish town of Birka. The skeleton was presumed to belong to a male warrior, but recent DNA testing suggests the elaborate grave of a high-ranking officer was for a shieldmaiden, not a man. But was she a fighter, or were the swords and other things decorative or ceremonial? Historians are skeptics. Archaeologists keep digging. Perceptions are updated and myths are exposed, so as to provide a more rounded view of the world.
A stash of weaponry is at the back of the room. To get to it, one must traverse among some 500 artifacts – 90 per cent of them originals. Warring is underplayed in favour of jewellery, silverware, rune stones, pottery, boats, Christian relics, funeral caskets, coins, musical instruments, skulls, tools, clothing – even thousand-year-old Viking bread. In a diverse collection, it is the only stale thing.
Considerable space is given to the Viking's history in this country. Archeological evidence points to a temporary Norse settlement some 1,000 years ago in L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.
The exhibition's most dazzling piece is a recreation of sorts. A series of nails are suspended by nylon to gracefully form the shape of a burial boat. The wood had long dissolved into the ground, but the nails stayed in place. At the ROM they hang as an elegant mobile – indisputably a piece of art.
One thing: If you're going to the Vikings exhibition for goat-horn helmets, you're in for a letdown. There is a small section devoted to that headwear myth, but for anything more extensive, you'll need to head to the gift shop's child section, which is the place where such clichés belong.
Vikings: The Exhibition runs through April 2 (rom.on.ca).