The Vikings’ Bad Boy Reputation Is Back With a Vengeance

A major new exhibition is reviving the Norse seafarers’ iconic image as rampagers and pillagers

This double-edged iron sword was found in Denmark’s Tisso Lake. Carsten Snejbjerg

Tom Jerso is a fairly fearsome sight to see lunging at you with a yard-long steel sword. He is not only large, he is impressively decorated. Jerso is wearing these clothes: brown leather boots tied with strips of leather thong, a long brown tunic made of coarse cloth, and a brown woolen kirtle—the knee-length sleeved shirt that tenth-century Norsemen used to pull over their heads. His sheepskin-lined scabbard is brown, too. He looks like a GIANT Advil.

Here at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, Jerso and his fellow Viking re-enactors sing ancient ballads, exchange oaths and rampage (politely), weapons glinting. With an action well-honed by experience, and a hand well protected by glove, another Viking—this one calling himself Ragnar Lodbrok (Hairy Breeches)—shoulders a broadax. His cloak, fastened by an iron brooch, is cornflower blue; his leggings are tucked into peri­winkle pantaloons, craftily ripped at the knees. He looks like an Aleve.

More pain inflictors than relievers, these Danes are on hand for the final day of “Viking,” a major exhibition that reopens at the British Museum on March 6 and runs through June 22 before moving to Berlin in September. “Over the last few decades much new evidence has come out that has changed our perception of Viking culture,” says Anne Pedersen, a curator of the show.

The world’s largest-known Viking ship, the Roskilde 6 (above, on exhibit in Copenhagen), is some 120 feet long from stem to stern. Carsten Snejbjerg
A helmet. Carsten Snejbjerg
Swords at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen bolster the Vikings’ image as warriors. The National Museum of Denmark
This brooch, which dates from 800 to 1050 A.D., was carved in the shape of a ship and made from copper alloy. The National Museum of Denmark
A ninth-century silver brooch features a Valkyrie—a female figure from Norse mythology who decides which soldiers survive battle. The National Museum of Denmark
The ship, likely owned by a king or an earl, could have been propelled by as many as 78 oarsmen. Carsten Snejbjerg
The ship, likely owned by a king or an earl, could have been propelled by as many as 78 oarsmen. Carsten Snejbjerg
This pin with a dragon’s head, made of a copper alloy, dates from around 1000 A.D. Wikinger Museum Haithabu
This silver-inlaid ax head was one of several artifacts found in a Scandinavian burial chamber. Carsten Snejbjerg
This 10th-century Jelling stone, raised by King Gorm as a memorial to his wife, features a famous runic inscription. Carsten Snejbjerg
The vessel’s length and careful construction show how shipbuilders improved their methods in the late Viking Age. Carsten Snejbjerg
Would-be Vikings storm a 2013 fire festival in Shetland. David Cheskin / PA / AP Images
Swords at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen bolster the Vikings’ image as warriors. Carsten Snejbjerg
Swords at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen bolster the Vikings’ image as warriors. Carsten Snejbjerg
This silver carving may feature Odin, a Norse god, or another figure from Norse mythology. Ole Malling / Roskilde Museum
The new exhibit includes this tenth-century Danish neck ring and other jewelry. The National Museum of Denmark
The Lewis chessmen, carved from walrus ivory, were found in Scotland—far from where they were created in Scandinavia. The Trustees of the British Museum
At an annual festival in Gudvangen, Norway, modern marauders don Viking-era clothing and weapons. Above, re-enactors tackle the martial art of glima. Thomas Haugersveen / Agence VU / Aurora Photos
A sculpted brass lion on this 11th-century gilded copper weather vane, found in Norway, guided Viking sailors from its likely perch on the bow of a ship. Carsten Snejbjerg
Gold jewelry found in Hiddensee, Germany. The National Museum of Denmark
The new exhibit features Viking artifacts dating from around the tenth century. This is a Jelling stone with runic inscriptions created by King Gorm to memorialize his wife. The National Museum of Denmark
A broad-edged iron ax blade. Carsten Snejbjerg

Since 1980, the benchmark exhibitions on Vikings have keyed on their European homelands and their colonial incursion in the Atlantic islands (British Museum, 1980); Russia and the East (in Paris, 1992); and, to commemorate the 1,000-year anniversary of the Vikings’ arrival in North America, the expansion to Greenland and Vinland (Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, 2000). By focusing on the violence of Viking society, the new exhibition revives the traditional image of Vikings as Dark Age bad boys—Pillage People, if you will, who bullied Britain and France, and even made it as far as Baghdad.

The showstopper is a Viking warship whose surviving timbers are on display for the first time. One hundred twenty-one feet from prow to stern, the boat was capable of carrying 100 troops at speed. It was discovered by chance in 1996, about a lance throw from the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark. “Warships of this kind are comparatively rare finds, and this is the largest known,” says Neil Price, a professor of archaeology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. “It serves as a symbol of the Viking raids, and also an indicator of the sophistication of the societies that launched them.”

Lithe, narrow longships, praised in sagas, allowed the Vikings to enter countries through rivers, and it’s this access that enabled them to make lightning attacks on unsuspecting coastal hamlets and plunder parts of three continents. With sailing ships and their capability to beat to windward, the whole world was brought within reach. No wonder British Museum director Neil MacGregor has said the exhibition’s centerpiece is an “11th-century weapon of mass destruction.”

They journeyed boldly;
Went far for gold,
Fed the eagle
Out in the east,
And died in the south
In Saracenland

—Gripsholm Rune-Stone (c. 1050)

Vikings were a Germanic bunch made up of Danes, Swedes, Norwegians and Gauls who, during the late eighth century, swept south across the Baltic Sea in search of land, slaves, gold and silver. They were pagans in a Christian Europe, replete with gruesome rituals. In their world, power and influence were tribal, and rule was sustained though clan, trade and military might.

In the Old Norse language, Viking may have meant “men of the bays”— sheltered coves were where they lay in ambush of merchant ships. Price likens them to 17th- and 18-century pirates—an idea that could radically change how we see the beginnings of the great raids, and how they reflect what was happening in Scandinavia at the time.

He argues the first brigands were communities in their own right. In time, the small parties of a few men and a couple of ships expanded into massive fleets of several hundred vessels and thousands of Vikings. “We do not really understand how this escalation took place,” says Price, “nor where these men actually came from in organizational or social terms.” In those days before nation states, Vikings lived in small regional clusters under petty kings and chieftains. “There is no sense that these were ‘national’ armies, so what were they?” Price asks. “And how did they operate for decades at a time in hostile territory?”

For more than a millennium, these adventurers were largely dismissed as bloodthirsty barbarians. This caricature was perpetuated by Christian monks who never forgot the savage sacking, in 793, of the Lindisfarne monastery on a tidal island off the northeast coast of England. Monks were tossed into the sea to drown, murdered in the abbey and carried off as slaves along with the church riches. “To judge from the accounts of people who had been looted,” says Jerso, “the Vikings were not nice people.”

Which is understandable. “If your monastery is being burned down, you don’t take time to admire the beautiful jewelry worn by the people burning down your monastery,” British Museum curator Gareth Williams has said.

With the publication of Peter Sawyer’s The Age of the Vikings in 1962, a cuddly makeover began to change the popular perception of the Nordic voyagers. “We Danes call that softening stueren,” says Anne Sorensen, a curator at the Viking Ship Museum. “The expression means ‘to clean something up enough so that it is appropriate to discuss in your living room.’” The reboot coincided with what Pedersen terms “a great investment in settlement excavations.” Suddenly, the Vikings were peaceful farmers, shrewd traders, artists and craftsmen of considerable subtlety and sophistication, early multiculturalists.

Norse poetry—the “waves on the shore of the mind-sea,” as the Vikings described it—was reclaimed as some of the most carefully constructed and beautifully rendered of any ancient civilization. “This attempt to present ‘new’ Vikings to the world was quite successful,” allows Price, “but it also tended to act as a kind of replacement—the old violent Vikings had become instead caring, sharing ones.” What Williams dismisses as a “fluff-bunny” rehabilitation reached its reductio ad absurdum in the Monty Python sketch in which fun-loving Vikings at a café in the London suburbs chorus “Spam, Spammity Spam, wonderful Spam.”

The new exhibition offers a fresh appraisal of Viking society as equal parts of a whole: We encounter them at sea and at war, but also as bearers of spiritual and religious concepts of immense complexity. As Williams puts it, “We are trying to provide a balanced view. The Vikings are raiders and marauders and they are traders and explorers and craftsmen. Fundamentally they are travelers—and travelers with open minds.”

Now Regin made a sword. He told Sigurd to take the sword and said he was no swordsmith if this one broke. Sigurd hewed at the anvil and split it to the base. The blade did not shatter or break.
—The Saga of the Volsungs

Jerso throws himself (literally) into fierce Viking role-playing. When not mock-marauding at festivals, he practices glima, a type of Scandinavian folk wrestling featured in Viking poetry. He loves to field-test bows and swords. “Historical research,” he explains. “I’m not sure if the swords were designed for chopping off a head, but skeletal remains suggest they did.” Jerso has tried out copies on sodden, rolled-up tatami mats, which he says have an equal difficulty of cut. “Really, all that’s required is one easy motion. You don’t have to be powerful.”

A thin smile creases Jerso’s lips. “I’m 48,” he says. “At my age, I’d either be a very, very old Viking or a very, very dead one.”

Jerso’s sword is not unlike the ones that repose like dark punctuation marks at the end of the Copenhagen show’s parade of relics, artifacts and exalted bric-a-brac. The objects were assembled out of old collections and new discoveries in 12 countries—including hoards from Norway, England and Russia—and range from the august to the mundane. Only a few of the pieces have ever been on view together at any one time.

Among the buried treasures: broad-bladed axes, spearheads with silver-inlaid sockets, a wooden bow, iron slave collars, chain mail, Thor’s hammer rings, and arrows with heads reminiscent of spearmint leaves. “The arrowheads were capable of doing far more damage than their pointed counterparts,” Pedersen explains. “The wounds they inflicted were wider and took longer to heal.”

A warrior’s skull from a grave in Gotland has ornamental lines—a primitive dental grill?—scored into the teeth. “A Viking was always one step from his weapon,” offers Jerso. (Some exhumed Vikings appear to have been a step slow.) The ritual aspects of war are tackled in amulets, charms and a matrix (a sheet-metal die) impressed with what looks to be an ulfhednar (a warrior dressed in a wolf coat), the shape-shifting cousin of berserkir (warriors possessed by a consuming frenzy), who unleashed their inhuman strength on the battlefield. The elaborate metalwork was likely a panel for a helmet. Somewhat disappointingly, none of the conical headgear on view is horned—which turns out to be myth rooted in Bronze Age religious ceremonies (and, for practical purposes, might have cramped a warrior’s style in battle).

Pedersen says a warrior’s status was often reflected in the quality of his sword, the noblest of weapons. The finest—the Ulfberht, made of high-grade steel forged in a crucible oven—was worth as much as 16 milking cows. Some of those on display in the exhibition have hilts engraved in runic, a sort of Norse code; some were ritually “killed” by folding or snapping the blades to destroy their earthly use before they were placed in a warrior’s grave. Vikings were fond of bestowing nasty nicknames on weapons, like Leg-Biter and Skull-Splitter.

The British Museum contributed the Lewis chessmen—endearing wee Viking warriors dug up in 1831 from a sandbank on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis. The figurines made a cameo in the 2001 film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Carved from walrus ivory and whale tooth, the pawns chomp on the edges of their shields in ecstatic rage.

Several brooches and pendants of silver and bronze take the shape of armed and armored female figures. The most provocative, a pendant that depicts a Viking on horseback and a second on foot, was unearthed last year in Denmark. Price hypothesizes that the figures might be either female warriors or Valkyries, the spirits of carnage that served the war-god Odin by choosing the bravest of dead warriors to inhabit his hall Valhalla in the afterlife.

Unlike the lovely Brünnhilde pining for dead heroes in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the Valkyries of the Viking Age are widely believed to have been sorceresses who took the form of gigantic battle trolls and doglike demons. These fiends used malicious magic both to select which fallen warriors were admitted to Valhalla and to ensure which died in combat. For sheer ferocity, the names of the 51 acknowledged Valkyries rival those of Viking swords: Killer, Shield-Scraper, Teeth-Grinder...

The pendant in question contests the theory that “proper” Vikings were invariably male. Price has detected some intriguing cross-gender signals. “The riders have the knotted hairstyle usually taken as a female marker in metalwork and stone sculpture iconography,” he says, “but they wear trousers, a form of clothing very much reserved for men. Whether this indicates a woman taking on a male role, or actually a new and different gender construction, we simply don’t know.”

If women did fight, he says, it’s unlikely they appeared in great numbers on the battlefield. The exhibition features a significant new find of a 3-D female figurine—a fully weaponized female—that appears to have been part of a cloak pin. “The object is exquisitely detailed,” Price says, “and, so far, unique in the Viking world.”

The most dramatic new discoveries regarding Viking warfare have come from Estonia and England. Two extraordinary boat graves have been excavated at Salme on the remote Baltic island of Saaremaa. Archaeologists date both to the early eighth century, nearly 100 years before the Viking Age officially dawned. The period is not exactly known for epic sea passages, much less sailing ships.

The largest grave held a true warship, loaded with the bodies of 33 men, each of whom showed signs of severe and probably fatal injuries. Interred in a pile, stacked like firewood at one end of the ship, they were buried with gold-handled swords before being covered with their shields laid in an overlapping dome of wood. Effectively, the dome formed a timber burial mound inside the vessel.

Price says the hastily arranged mass graves seem to have been dug after a Swedish Viking raid that ended with the presumably victorious Scandinavians burying their casualties with honor before returning home. “The discovery serves to remind us that the Vikings’ targets were not restricted to the nations of Western Europe,” he says, “and also as material evidence for just how richly armed and outfitted the raiders may have been.”

In England, on the other hand, two recent finds demonstrate that Viking offensives could also fail badly. Mass graves excavated in Dorset and Oxford contain scores of men who plainly have been executed. Stable isotope analysis of their teeth has established that most of them were Scandinavian. Price concludes that these casualties were “unsuccessful raiders taken prisoner by the locals and punished for their assaults.”

The behavior of a typical Viking suits the architectural style of the Viking Ship Museum: Brutalism. The raw concrete structure crouches on the shore of Roskilde, a tidy cathedral town established by Harald Bluetooth, king of Denmark during the latter part of the tenth century.

The museum houses five Viking ships that were scuttled in the Roskilde Fjord, strategically blocking the approach to the harbor. The oaken galleys remained undisturbed until the 1960s, when they were excavated from the seabed, preserved and painstakingly pieced together in what may have been earth’s biggest jigsaw puzzle.

The wreck in the current exhibition was uncovered along with eight medieval cargo ships during dredging operations to build an extension for the museum’s historic-ship replicas.

Tests suggest the boat was built from oak felled around the year 1025 near Oslo, possibly for King Cnut the Great, conqueror of England (1016) and Norway (1028). Only about 20 percent of the warship remains—a chunk was destroyed when unsuspecting workers sunk an iron sheet wall into the silt—but the remaining timbers span the entire length of the keel.

The ship’s slim lines represented the most advanced technology of the time. Which is all the more remarkable considering that, lacking drawn plans, the Viking built ships by “eye,” and had no written word except the runes scratched on signs and memorial stones. Sorensen reckons that technological expertise gave Norse seafarers their edge. “They lived on islands,” she says. “And on islands you don’t get anywhere unless you row or sail.”

She stresses that despite the Vikings’ violent bent, they swore by the ancient verities: the importance of family, generosity of spirit, a sense of fair play and personal honor. Physical bravery was a given. Most critical virtue: self-control. “The Vikings had morals, just not necessarily our present-day morals,” Sorensen says. “I hope visitors to the new exhibition will not go away thinking Vikings were all terrible, murderous beasts. Somehow some of the people of Scandinavia survived the Viking Age.”

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.