Victorians & Vikings
It is undeniable, examining primary sources written by opponents of the Viking raiders, that they were seen as “wolves among sheep” and as a violent, merciless group for many, many generations. Victorian Britain was the unlikely location of the public’s revived interest in all things Norse. The seventeenth century saw the rise of pioneering, scholarly publications detailing the beliefs and societies of the Viking Age, available only to an exclusive readership in Britain. These works shed light on highly positive aspects of Viking history, contradicting the medieval portrayal of them as ‘devils’. Such admirable traits of Viking life were praised as a complex spiritual system (albeit heathen), moral values and highly developed trade routes.
This small and exclusive readership of Viking history was enjoyed in the 18th century also; but it was Victorian Britain that saw its greatest revival, and the newfound fascination of linguists and archaeologists with interpreting runic inscriptions, Old Norse language and extracting ancient jewellery from freshly excavated burial chambers. The period saw all manner of people obtain inspiration from the Viking age in their daily lives; including unusual examples such as an English vicar who spent much time poring over rural songs and examining their origins in the pagan Danelaw, or a wealthy American woman who commissioned stained glass windows in her mansion that depicted the Norse expedition to America.
A Victorian era depiction of a Valkyrie
With the rise of nationalism and “rediscovery of the glorious past”, the Romantic period saw an increasing interest in northern history, namely that of the Anglo-Saxons and Norse peoples. It was only around the dawn of the 19th century that the word “Viking” itself was recorded in dictionaries, in its modern form. It is curious then that within half a century, “Viking” was a term rampant across various forms of media, including poetry, theatre productions, translations and reinvented fables. Such a commonly found term painted an invariable picture of a “Northmen” stereotype that took over the imaginations of history enthusiasts, but this is clearly omissive of vitally important aspects of Norse society. It is hard for the word “Viking” to encompass the multifaceted Norse peoples made up of hardy farmers, prosperous traders, masterful poets and skilled craftspeople, when it has held clear connotations with martial lifestyle and violent conquerors in popular media.
“That Great-Britain belongs to the North only, and that she has been wrong when in any period thinking herself belonging to the South, we can certainly state beyond all doubt!” (Munch 1845) This perfectly illustrates the growing interest that British Victorians were showing in Norse mythology and history, and therefore the rejection of traditionally “classic” legends from Roman and Greek sources.
When it came to Victorian archaeologists, creative guesswork often compensated for solid evidence. Eager Victorian eyes enthused by wild imaginings of the Old North searched for the outlines of Thor’s hammer, Odin’s spears and runic shapes in unlikely locations.
A stylized depiction of Odin and his spear Gungnir
Whilst in the 21st century we often enjoy an overlap between the worlds of artistic interpretation, imaginative reinventions of the old ways and scholarly academia, friction between these fields can emerge when we consider the differences in their goals. The “reinvigoration” of the past in media often comes with significant creative license. Liberties are taken when it comes down to presenting the truth of history, since things are often made more appealing to new generations by sprucing up certain aspects of the past and exaggeration. The tension between popular interest and academia was no different in the Victorian revival of interest in the Norse past. The inclusion of the word “Viking” in the title of a Victorian essay or novel was just as likely to be an instance of appealing Norse aesthetic to catch the eye as it was a genuine reflection of well-researched scholarship.
Thor depicted in Victorian style
Grammar books on Old Norse (or Old Icelandic and various other terms for the language) began to emerge in the 19th century, so that true fans of the subject could enjoy exclusive access to newly published editions of sagas and Edda’s that were being churned out, a pound a penny.
Queen Victoria herself was rumoured to be descended from Óõinn and Ragnar Lodbrok. In her court, she received an Icelandic scholar who recited a skaldic poem inspired by the edda’s, which was praised as the first performance by a skald in English court since one visited the Anglo-Saxon King Æthelred in the 11th century.
The performances of Der Ring des Nibelungen was an event that had an unprecedented impact on the way in which Norse mythology and clothing was perceived. The cycle of four epic operas by Richard Wagner, (the Ring of the Nibelung), were written in German and loosely focused on characters and plots from the Norse myths. Certain figures were fused into one, the chronology was rearranged and events simplified, but his source of inspiration was abundantly clear. The first performance was in 1876. Whilst the cycle’s events take place in Germany (with German name variants, such as Wotan depicting Odin) and its structure is modelled off those of Ancient Greek dramas, it was the representation of the Vikings and their gods through costume that held the most impact on the period’s perception. Carl Emil Doepler designed the first costumes for Wagner’s cycle, which included the iconic horned helmets (whose persistence in modern depictions of Vikings can be accredited to this opera), winged helmets, lamellar armour, Romanesque sandals and laurel wreaths. None of these designs were based on archaeological finds, but delighted the public, whose transportation to a fantasy realm through an epic opera was little concerned with the practical issues a Norseman might face on a North European battlefield in a pair of leather sandals.
It is however, worth remembering that Doepler’s horned helmets – none of which have been unearthed in Viking grave sites – were actually inspired by those depicted on the Oseberg tapestry. The textiles found in the Oseberg Viking ship grave, the site where two elderly women were buried within a Viking ship in Norway 834 AD, depict a religious procession of animals, wagons and people, some of whom wear costume. The character leading this procession appears to be an armed male figure in a horned helmet, who is larger than the other figures; it has been suggested that this figure is Odin, with his status as king of all gods emphasised by his size. Certain features of the grave’s contents, such as panels of the ceremonial wagon depicting intertwining motifs of cats, have contributed to archaeologists’ theory that the older woman buried may have been a priestess of the goddess Freyja. Another textile fragment from the Oseberg burial chamber depicts a figure in a horned helmet; in one hand he bears two crossed spears (possibly suggesting the identity of Odin again, given the god-king’s affiliation with the weapon and his powerful spear, Gungnir) and he faces a man who appears to be clothed in a bear skin. It has been suggested that this scene depicts Odin facing one of his chosen warriors, a berserkr who acquires the power of a bear by donning its pelt. This scene has its parallel in the one depicted on the Torslunda plate from the 6th – 8th centuries AD, portraying a one-eyed, horned figure in an ecstatic spear-dance (a cultic behaviour suggested to send warriors into a frenzy before battle) with an Úlfhéðinn, a warrior wearing a wolf-pelt. These wolf-warriors held similar function to berserkir in Germanic mythology, and although their exact nature is debated among scholars, there is substantial evidence for their close affiliation with and worship of Odin as his ‘elite’ warriors. It is likely, then, that the horned figure depicted on the Oseberg tapestry bearing spears and facing a bear-warrior was in fact Odin. This suggests that horned helmets had a cultic purpose and were used in displays of worship to the highest of gods, although this obviously all speculation to some extent. Therefore, as many of us know today, horned helmets are not a completely fictional invention; they were likely to have been only used on important religious occasions and not in common occurrence.
A central character in Wagner’s play is Brunhild, a Valkyrie often attested to in Norse literature including Volsunga Saga and the Edda’s, but who was also part of the German courtly poem of Nibelungenlied. In 19th century Germany, however, the Norse sources were viewed as less “tainted” by foreign influence on the continent, and therefore more “Germanic” in origin. Her depiction in both the operatic cycle and in various paintings through the 19th century paintings clearly set a precedent for the style that female characters playing similar roles (shieldmaidens) would adopt in later works of fiction. These include Tolkein’s Eowen of Rohan, and Lagertha’s portrayal in the ever historically inaccurate but ever popular, Vikings TV show. Brunhild and many other characters from Norse myths were even depicted with large shields befitting the style of Roman cavalry, while real Viking shields were smaller and round, so that they would fit on their backs when mounted. The size of shields was limited by the length of a warrior’s spine when riding.
Brunnhild in a Victorian style
In the Romantic Period, Thor himself was depicted like a Greek god, lacking all traces of Scandinavian origin such as leathers or fur in his armour. Nils Blommer’s artistic depictions of the goddess Freyja resplendent in more modern clothing seem to draw inspiration from more “classical figures”, such as Venus.
A depiction of Freyja and Frigg in "modern" dresses
Snorri Sturluson’s sagas and accounts of Norse mythology were rebranded in 1889 by Samuel Laing, a Victorian philologist hailing from Orkney. His translation of Sturluson’s work has remained as a principal influence on English releases of these sagas, and are often considered tarnished by his own strong political and personal agendas that permeate the work. The cover to Laing’s 1889 translation greets readers with the image of Sturluson, brooding and solemn as he writes on board an absurdly sized ship, accompanied by as ‘Saga’, or history, personified. This figure is a female’s; scantily clad and clearly influenced by Greek fashion and statues. Despite her dress, the confident stance of ‘Saga’ embodies the Victorians’ view of history and oral tradition as a ‘sacred force of nature.’ The inclusion of long-branch runes on the book cover, at a point where few academics were versed in the history and languages of ancient Scandinavia, were probably added to create a powerful sense of mystery and exclusivity to the viewer, and to mystify the common man.
Laing was a Victorian who held particular responsibility in fabricating a skewed and often idealised concept of the Old North. His translation omits such unsavoury and coarse matters as King Sigurðr insulting an unsightly woman after demanding he have one with his meal, instead depicting him as a saintly royal who pilgrimaged to the Holy Land and dined with Byzantine emperors in Magnússona saga. Despite this, Laing was responsible for popularising interest in Old Norse literature and myths and was invaluable to shedding light on the lineages of kings, and even the mighty Odin, whose mortal beginnings are recorded in Ynglinga saga.
Victorian Britian’s admiration for romanticism and rediscovering nature are reflected in Laing’s many translations and dissertations. He often praised Norwegian farmers and landowners as maintaining the spirit of their Viking ancestors, who he claimed possessed ‘the human mind in a state of barbarous energy and action, and with the vitality of freedom’ in opposition to minds in ‘a state of slavish torpidity and superstitious lethargy.’
Laing’s blatant hostility towards Catholicism and Britain’s lethargy, which he blamed on Anglo-Saxon origins of reserving Latin education for the elite and excessive spirituality, cannot be over-emphasised in his work. His writings on the Vikings presented them to his Victorian audience as technologically advanced shipbuilders free from the constraints of monkish life, whose oral traditions passing down sweeping sagas and ancient myths were wrongfully wiped out by Christianisation.
Therefore, Laing and those who followed him in the desire to make the Old North accessible to the common reader, always attempted to translate the sagas into a form of English combined with features of northern vernacular, avoiding the Latin of the old elite. Victorian English was so influenced by Latin and French language, however, that this proved an immense challenge for translation.
Three Norns spinning the fates for Victorian vikings
In 1857, a great attempt was made to introduce Victorian children to Norse mythology through the publication of The Heroes of Asgard and the Giants of Jotunheim by Annie and Elizabeth Keary. The story follows children who desire to learn more about the myths of the Old North, and whose parents teach them more and more about it across the days of the week, which they point out have their origins in the naming of Germanic deities (Wodensday, Thorsday etc.). This and many other retellings of Norse myths were popularised, with some scholars hoping for ‘some young son or daughter of Odin to write a Teutonic epic’ based on the edda’s, which would overturn Europe’s neglect of Northern European’s rich cultural tapestry.
It is interesting to trace the history of Viking representations in popular literature and media, such as the description of Gudrun’s son in Vinland saga (which tells of the Viking expedition to North America) as ‘the first Yankee’ by an eccentric Victorian novelist. Vinland saga inspired many nineteenth-century novels published in America, by writers clearly enamoured by the idea of an alternative history to the country’s settlement. The same author, Ballantyne, reduces the role of Freydis, a strong-willed and fierce woman who accompanied the expedition, to that of a comedic value, clearly reflecting a need to conform to societal expectations at the time of his authorship. Many other Victorian novelists echoed Laing’s hatred of Roman Catholocisim, frequently condemning southern Europe in their literature as a breeding ground for slavery and degeneracy, contrasted with the vibrant sagas of the free North. Many adaptations of Norse myths and sagas were also adjusted to accommodate Victorian family values, thus changing their plots significantly and placing less praise on the solitary, wayward lives of young men who left their homes to raid abroad.
This blog has merely scratched the surface of Victorian literature popularising the Vikings, and the many men and women who contributed to its revival of popular interest. Tensions and contrasts between Graeco-Roman and old Northern literary and oral traditions, mounting obsession with the Vikings on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and the exclusivity of source material to learned academics all contribute to the complex history of Victorian revival of the Vikings. Latin and Ancient Greek have consistently remained more popular subjects of study than Old Norse, and it seems that worldwide fascination with southern European pantheons still remains more deeply embedded than interest in the Vikings. Groups claiming either heritage or interest with the Viking Age that followed the Victorian period have often come with darker agendas, especially those actively supportive of Nazism or Nazi sympathisers. Despite this, Viking culture, literature and art has continued to pervade everyday life, especially with the rise of social media and television shows which can bring the iconography of Vikings to the masses; axes, long-ships, pagan idols, inaccurate helmets and more. It has taken time to shrug off misconceptions about the Vikings that were invented in the nineteenth-century, such as their classical depictions in art and incorrectly translated literature, so it is inevitable that new and existing misconceptions held today will also take years to replace with objective, historical fact. Viking culture’s poignant myths about a pantheon of complex gods, and sagas telling heroic epics and tragedies of the Old North, appeal to academics, neo-pagans and general readers alike as a platform on which modern political agendas can be projected. It is at such an intersection that all those with interest in Viking history must hold themselves accountable for pursuing the objective truth about both pre-Christian religion and historical fact, and delegitimise the false claims to history made by those with personal agendas.