Build me a Longship
“So which bit of the Vikings do you like best? The rape or the pillage?” a colleague asked me once. She didn’t ask me again as I answered with a long and historical diatribe. Yes, a diatribe; the Vikings, my dears, are worth it.
It is a measure of the scope and power of the Viking culture that they are always remembered and derided as ‘raping and pillaging’ as if no other culture or civilisation has ever done such terrible stuff in all their existence. This is an example of how history gets written by the men who steal the pens and paper. Britain, remember Britain? Squiggly island place off the coast of VikingLand? Britain had an empire. Oh, sorry, Empire. I don’t think this land grab was achieved by our navy and commanders mooring at the nearest harbour, rolling a tea trolley loaded with scones and jam down the gangplank and saying “Hello there, we’re from Britain, soon to be Great, do you want to join in and share with us all your natural resources? Bring us your gold and your diamonds, your minerals and coal and we’ll all have some lovely scones.” or Beads of course, they were quite high on the currency list.
No. We sailed in with swords, swagger coats and a lack of diplomacy. We owned the oceans, except for the tides that the Dutch sailed around on offering foreign peoples pancakes and tulips so that we could all share in the earth’s lucrative bounty.
So. Anyway, back to the important people, The Vikings. I’m a big fan of all things Scandinavian and all things Viking. This passion started with the Kirk Douglas film ‘The Vikings’ and its amazing Lur heavy theme tune. I loved this film as a kid, the music is stirring and the story is worthy of any Norse epic; a tale of brothers and love. Never mind the fact that they seem to sail to Wales and find it on the East Anglian coast, gloss over that, this was Hollywood.
Kirk Douglas himself, not a bad specimen of manhood and of Russian descent. The Russians being, of course, descended from the Vikings, the Rus. The rusty ones, the red ones. Who doesn’t like a Ginge in a longship?
My love was deepened by frequent trips to that most Viking of cities, York. What? The Romans? Oh yes, well I love them too but that’s for another blog.
I lived all my early life in the land of Danelaw, or Lancashire as it is also called. Every place name carries its Viking stamp. Except possibly for Miles Platting.
The Vikings were, like any culture, a mixed bunch. They were skilled and ambitious, living on a rocky archipelago or two they wondered what was over the horizon and they built ships of great beauty and engineering in order to get themselves there.
Believe me, a Viking ship is a splendour, I have visited the Vikingships Museum in Oslo. They take your breath away. It is one of the most affecting museums I have ever visited. If you’re in Oslo DO NOT miss it.
The Vikings were masters of teamwork, the yarls and their communities joining together in any enterprise. If you think they were ignorant and brutish look no further than the hoards of silver, of finely worked, craftsman jewellery. This treasure is not forged by monsters. Consider the importance of women in Viking culture; the women who were the shamans and holders of magic. Women who held sway over the homesteads while their husbands sailed off to find new lands. The women who sailed with the men as shield-maidens, equal and part of the scrummage. Women who were thought to have instinct and a better head for financial matters. Read the Havamal for the way to live like a true Viking, a manual of good sound advice, an insight.
And by the flickering firelight at the edge of the fjord, listen to the tales of the Norse men. Of Odin and Thor, of Baldr and Grimnir. We’ve been telling these tales for a long time.
Which brings me to a quick point about the Nazis. One of the sad facts is that Adolf quite liked the Northmen too and tried to culturally appropriate their heritage and lore. His dirty finger prints stain everything he touched and people sometimes think that if you like Viking culture or Norse mythology you must, per se, be a Nazi. WRONG. The Vikings were here long before the twit with the moustache. He has no claim on them. Just to be clear.
Anyone who wants to learn more would do well to read The Vikings, by the estimable Neil Oliver. It’s such a good book, very moving in parts (the swans wing in the grave, oh, sorry spoiler alert). Here is a man who confesses that he too was given an interest in the Vikings through repeated childhood viewings of The Vikings starring Kirk Douglas.
The Vikings drew me to Orkney, a never to be forgotten experience. Orkney was like a mythical land in my head for all my life and to finally go there exceeded all my expectations. The Vikings were only human, they lived and died and thought of the Gods. We look at the mystery of the runes and imagine that everything is deep and philosophical. It isn’t. For a glimpse of their humanity, read the runes at Maes Howe where one Viking wag carved, ‘I wrote this, up high’ on a long ago winters evening as he sheltered in the tomb.
Want to read more? Then here you go:
also you can try this: Nothing to do with Vikings but it passes an hour or so