Published June 22, 2017
“Viking is not an ethnicity; it was a profession!” an Icelandic friend of mine recently lamented on Facebook. “You are no more a Viking than I am a farmer because my great-grandparents farmed!”
This sentiment may come as a surprise to you if you’ve ever visited Iceland. Little bearded dudes with horned helmets comprise something like half the logos in this country, and you can see “Viking” as a prefix for everything, from tours to portraits to soup. Some Icelanders do cash in on Vikingification. But this use of “Viking” to imply some kind of ethnic heritage isn’t just maddening to those with even a cursory grasp of history (fact: most Icelanders are descended from farmers). The modern connotation of “Viking” is rife with problems. It feeds into the worst stereotypes of Icelanders, while simultaneously condescending to them. It’s time to put Vikingification to rest.
To behave like a Viking
I used to work at a restaurant in Hafnarfjörður called Fjörukráin, also known as “the Viking restaurant.” Every single night, I watched as literal busloads of tourists were off-loaded, given paper Viking helmets, sat down in the Viking hall, treated to Viking musicians, fed Viking food, and encouraged to “behave like a Viking.”
After a number of drinks, it really doesn’t matter what medieval scholars might plead about the actual Vikings; how they were skilled navigators and traders who only engaged in pillaging, slavery, kidnapping and rape incidentally. In the minds of these tourists, “behave like a Viking” would mean drinking too much, eschewing all sense of boundaries when it came to the waitresses, and perhaps getting in a fistfight or two.
In the minds of visitors to Iceland, then, “behave like a Viking” means to behave like a boorish, sexist, violent asshole. Simultaneously, they seem to think Icelanders are themselves Vikings. You see the problem here.
Capitalism kills romance
Not that foreigners are entirely to blame here. As mentioned, numerous Icelandic companies have chosen to capitalise on this myth of Icelander As Viking, so visitors could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that Icelanders see themselves this way. But the vicious cycle of the perpetuation of this myth has its social impacts.
I have a couple of friends, Icelandic men, who have grown quite weary of foreigners looking for a “Viking” to date precisely because of the connotations behind being a Viking. Their caution is understandable. These non-Icelanders might simply mean they are looking for some strong bearded warrior type for a boyfriend, but the Icelandic men I know who bristle at “Viking” don’t really see it that way. To them, it’s a fetishizing exotication; an expectation to be a walking stereotype that carries with it the expectation to live up to the worst aspects of male behaviour, here in a country world renowned for its feminist credentials. They don’t want to be seen as Vikings; they want to be seen as modern 21st century men, with all the highlights and downsides that implies.
Vikings and ethnic essentialism
It wasn’t so long ago that former President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson was openly bragging to anyone who would listen that the reason why Icelandic businessmen—at the time called “útrásavíkingar,” or “outvasion Vikings”—were so successful was because of some cultural and even genetic disposition towards being daring adventurers. This idea, apart from being borderline racist, proved to be downright farcical with the financial collapse of 2008. Although perhaps Ólafur was unintentionally prescient: just like the Vikings of old, these capitalists also engaged in nefarious and unethical practices, spreading too far too fast, only to meet an ignoble end and vanish from history.
Which brings us back to the modern day. Iceland is an advanced, developed, 21st century nation, and Icelanders have faced numerous and repeated hardships to get their society to this point. Referring to Icelanders as Vikings is, in light of this, pretty condescending: a kind of pat-on-the-head, “look at these medieval barbarians pretending to be a real country” attitude.
Icelanders can be very self-deprecating. They might joke about being backwards, and they are certainly doing their part to cash in on the modern Viking myth. That doesn’t mean we should be perpetuating it. So if you love Iceland and like Icelanders, do us all a favour: throw away your Viking appellations. Embrace the 21st century. Love Icelanders for who they are; not what they were, or what you want them to be.