It’s the cry that struck fear into our ancestors’ hearts for 300 years… “the Vikings are coming!”. They were huge, bearded barbarians in animal fur tunics and horned helmets who raped and pillaged their way across four continents and “went berserk” on battlefields. Or were they?
That’s certainly the stereotypical image of the Norse warriors handed down through ancient sagas, history books and, more recently, films and TV series.
But it looks like the Vikings had a bit of a bad press – well, three centuries of it – thanks to the understandably-miffed monks whose monasteries they looted.
Now, a stunning new exhibition at the British Museum is redrawing the cartoon caricature of these Scandinavian savages to reveal them in a fascinating new light.
They were a contradictory bunch – shameless raiders yet shrewd traders; pagans yet culture vultures; smelly soap-dodgers who hated messy hair; and testosterone-fuelled warriors who believed girl-power won their battles.
And the look? Well, forget Conan the Barbarian, think Johnny Rotten crossed with Captain Jack Sparrow but with Jay-Z’s jewellery and MC Hammer’s trousers.
DisneyGuy liner: The Vikins probably looked more like Captain Jack Sparrow than their traditional image
We should also banish the idea of bearskins, matted whiskers and shell necklaces. It seems they were more into silk cloaks, groomed beards and bling.
“The traditional image of the Vikings was invented by 19th century Romantics,” explains Gareth Williams, curator of the exhibition, Vikings: life and legend.
“They’ve been portrayed as big, muscular savages with very silly helmets. Well, how else would a Romantic depict a Viking?
“But they were a hugely complex society who picked up cultural influences from all the countries they visited.
“And they were very much into their bling – sheer ostentatious showing-off.”
He adds: “They displayed their wealth and status by wearing ridiculously-impractical clothing, jewellery and weapons, and eating in style. I defy anyone to look at the beautifully crafted artefacts in the exhibition and tell me these were barbarians.
“That reputation comes from the fact they raided monasteries and churches.
“The monks wrote accounts of this and, from their point of view, it was a complete outrage that these pagans attacked religious institutions.
“Yet it was perfectly acceptable for a Christian ruler at the time to kill 7,000 Slavs in a day because they didn’t want to be converted.”
Paul RafterySainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, British Museum Extension, LondonVessel: The Roskilde 6
The Vikings were the original social rebels – the punks or Hells Angels of the years 800-1050. But before anyone goes soft on them, Gareth adds:
“They weren’t fluffy bunnies. They were pirates and raiders, that’s what ‘viking’ means. They were slave traders and brutal warriors.”
They also practised human sacrifice and took hallucinogenic drugs. And they were not averse to bumping off a dead mate’s wife and chucking her in his coffin… after drugging her so they could all have sex with her.
“But,” says Gareth, “they were also peaceful and successful traders who brought ideas on economic systems, religious thought, literacy and art from the countries they reached.”
Thanks to their powerful longships, the Viking stomping ground stretched from Constantinople and Russia in the east, across to Greenland and North America, and covered the British Isles, France, Spain and the Mediterranean.
They traded amber, whale bone, furs, weapons, wine and jewellery. But whether raiding or trading, the Vikings had to look dapper. Gareth says: “They wore big metal bracelets of set weights – decorative and ostentatious but practical because everyone knew their value.
“It was like a wearing a gold Rolex watch with the price tag still attached.”
One exhibit is a huge necklace, 10ins in diameter and weighing 4lbs. It’s made of woven gold strands that could be unwound, hacked off and traded. “Eat your heart out Jay-Z,” jokes Gareth.
“It’s stupidly impractical to wear, but think of the posing value. They also wore massive cloak brooches with foot-long spikes sticking up which could have had someone’s eye out.”
The Trustees of the British MuseumNeck-ring, 10th century. Kalmergrden, Tiss, Zealand, Denmark. GoldBling: A 10th century gold neck band
The Vikings may not have smelled good, a contemporary chronicler called them “the filthiest of God’s creatures, never washing themselves”, but hair was another matter.
“They took their grooming very seriously and combs are one of the commonest grave finds,” Gareth explains.
Their solid-gold toiletry sets included delicate ear spoons for scooping out wax. The men also used a kohl-like eyeliner – “think Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean,” says Gareth.
Viking men were also heavily tattooed but their most striking and fearsome fashion statement was their gnashers.
They would file horizontal lines into the enamel on their front teeth and paint in red resin. Gareth says: “That’s like your punk sticking a safety pin through his nose. It would have been very uncomfortable and it’s quite deliberately saying ‘If I’m prepared to do this to myself, what am I going to do to you?’.”
The Vikings filed decorative grooves into their teeth to scare their enemies
Another myth about Vikings is that of the “berserkir” or berserker warriors, from which we get the expression “going berserk”. Legend has it they went into battle naked and gnawing their shields – as depicted by some of the 12th century Lewis Chessmen pieces at the museum – and believing they had transformed into bears.
They were said to have worked themselves up into a feel-no-pain frenzy with the help of henbane, a hallucinogenic plant.
But while shape-shifting was a Viking belief, Gareth thinks they were just high on adrenaline, carrying bear claw charms and showing bear-like ferocity – rather than actually being bare.
Weapons and armour were huge status symbols. Vikings gave their ornate swords names like Legbiter but when a warrior died in battle his sword was ritually killed too – bent double, and interred with him. Swords have also been found in the graves of women of the Viking era. It led to speculation they were warriors too.
The Vikings believed in Valkyries – terrifying female spirits of war – however, Gareth is not convinced there were female soldiers. He thinks the weapons may have been heirlooms buried with the last in a family line.
But Viking women were quite independent. They could own their own property and controlled the purse-strings in the marital home.
The Trustees of the British MuseumThe Lewis Chessmen, berserkersBite me: The Lewis Chessmen despicted Berserkers
They also had their own bling, including brooches, possibly worn provocatively over their breasts. But their burial goods still suggest a typical domestic life… cooking utensils, and even ironing boards. Not for all women though. Experts have re-examined what were thought to be roasting spits or pokers found in women’s graves.
They’re now thought to be magic wands carried by sorceresses who could use their powers to unleash fearsome spirits to help warriors in battle – and in the bedroom, with spells to boost their potency.
But the Vikings’ real power lay in the longships which enabled them to conquer on such a huge scale.
The centrepiece of the exhibition at the museum in Central London is the amazing Roskilde 6, the largest longship ever found.
At 40 yards long, it was big enough for 40 oarsmen and could carry 100 men.
Experts believe it was built for Danish King Cnut the Great who conquered England in 1016. “Status wise it’s like the Royal Yacht Britannia,” says Gareth.
It was decorated in gold and silver, with gleaming weaponry on show. It was like a gangsta rapper’s yacht. Bling on the Vikings!