Icelanders are taught that they are descended from blue-blooded Norse lords who fled from King Harald because they would not abide by his tyranny and crippling tax rates, instead opting to settle Iceland. Celebrating this allegedly noble lineage, we claim to have Viking blood coursing through our veins and use every opportunity to remind the world of this.
We give our companies, drinks, streets and gyms Viking names, and just before the economic crash we attributed our international financial success to the aforementioned Viking heritage. But isn’t this a bit grotesque? Weren’t Vikings infamous for raping and pillaging their way through Europe? Why is their bloody history and heritage constantly celebrated in a secular and peaceful society?
I embark on a voyage to discover more about historical Vikings, who they were, what they did and what Iceland’s fascination with them means. My first port of call is the office of Viðar Pálsson, researcher at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies and lecturer in history, medieval studies and legal history at the University of Iceland.
Viðar is quick to point out that the Old Norse manuscripts we have on Vikings were not written by contemporary authors. The hit and run raids conducted by the Nordic pirates had all but completely gone out of fashion by the end of the 11th century, when Scandinavia fully converted from paganism. Not even the grandchildren of Vikings were alive to tell the Christian scholars Saxo Grammaticus or Snorri Sturluson about the pagan culture they so famously documented in the 13th century.
Overly romanticised ideal
“Seeing the ‘Viking age’ as a particularly heroic age, and promoting certain ideas of it that are not necessarily true, is a later product of the Age of Enlightenment, around 1800,” Viðar says. “The source material is shaped and reshaped to the extent that you can be very sceptical about there being anything ancient about it.” In other words, authors wrote and interpreted Viking culture to suit their own political agenda, and our modern ideas of the noble savage Viking were manufactured many centuries after the last Viking raids occurred.
Asked who the Vikings were, historically speaking, Viðar says they were a group of pirates who used clever tactics to gather treasure, cattle and slaves at a minimal risk. They were good at what they did; they operated an impressive navy, and were often hired as mercenaries by kings and nobility. Those same people would also engage in commerce, make settlements, and live normal medieval lives as farmers. Only a small number of Norse people would go on these raids, and it is very doubtful that many of these pirates came from Iceland.
Nothing is true, everything is permitted
As Viðar animatedly describes the period when Viking raids were common, it becomes apparent that there is reason to not take any of our sources as absolute truths on the subject. Take for example the myth that Icelanders are descended from the noble freedom-loving lords of Norway. “Iceland was settled by many different kinds of people,” Viðar says, “some perhaps chieftains, but most were just normal people.” And the abysmal reputation of Vikings raping and pillaging comes from their contemporary victims demonizing their attackers.
So where does this leave us Icelanders? Is cultural nihilism the only way forward? Not necessarily. Even if we can’t be sure about the authenticity of our stories, or how old they are, they are still ours. The idea of Vikings having been explorers, settlers and mercenaries still holds a certain appeal, and our medieval fares are still very entertaining events, even if we have to accept that a lot of the gaps in sources are filled in with modern ideas.
Modern Iceland has a lot of exciting tourist attractions. There is a rich and diverse musical scene, and a delicate nature filled with unbelievable scenery. Vikings are very appealing, but they are not Iceland’s only attraction. We can call our streets and beverages Viking-themed names, erect statues to celebrate famous Viking adventures, and dress up to put on a show as ‘Vikings.’ But let’s just remember that even if our sources were inspired by reality, they are not to be taken as historical facts.