The Vikings: Myths and Misconceptions
By Brian McMahon
Viking Myths and Rituals on the Isle of Man, edited by Leszek Gardeła and Carolyne Larrington (University of Nottingham, 2014)
Introduction: Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race… The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.
These words were written in 793AD by the Northumbrian scholar Alcuin of York after an attack by Scandinavian raiders on the monastery at Lindisfarne. They give some sense of the dramatic first impression the Vikings made on the peoples of Europe at the onset of the so-called ‘Viking Age’. Iconic and romanticised depictions of these medieval pirates have been a staple of Western literature, art and cinema ever since, from Wagnerian operas to Hollywood action films. Like Alcuin, later writers have been at pains to emphasise the destructive barbarism of these raiders, but how fair are these depictions? And do they tell the whole story?
In the first place, the word ‘Viking’ as it is now used is something of a misnomer. The term derives from the Old Norse language, and originally referred specifically to those men who adventured overseas to raid and plunder (vik means bay or creek – as in Reykjavik in Iceland, where Scandinavian emigrants first settled around the year 870AD). In the Middle Ages these feared raiders were known as ‘Ashmen’ by the Germans, ‘Norsemen’ by the Gaels and collectively as ‘the Danes’ in Anglo-Saxon England. To ‘go Viking’ was something a man might do in his youth to accrue honour and the spoils of war, but it was rare for any man to take part in foreign raids continuously throughout his life. The career Viking is largely the creation of a later age, and the true history of medieval Scandinavian society, and of the colonies founded in Iceland, Ireland, England, Greenland, the Faeroe Islands and on the Isle of Man, is far more complex than this stereotype suggests. Having passed from literature into legend, the Vikings are now perhaps more often misremembered and misrepresented than members of any other historical culture, and the number of unsubstantiated myths concerning them continues to grow.