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)
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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.

About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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