Having just spent a very pleasant cycle holiday touring around Denmark, I can certainly vouch for just how important the Vikings are for Danish national identity. This is fully recognized by Danes themselves, and was explored a little in an article within the national broadsheet newspaper Politiken recently (page 3 of the Kulture section, Wednesday 27th July 2016), under the headline “Vi elsker vikingernes storhed”, which roughly translates as “We Love Viking Greatness”, (see: http://politiken.dk/kultur/medier/ECE3312983/vi-elsker-vikingernes-storhed/)
In particular, the Politiken article explores the phenomenal popularity of Viking era re-enactments, in which thousands of people dress up and ‘live as Vikings’, for a day, a weekend, or even longer. I saw a good example of the longer-duration Viking re-enactment scene last year at the Fyrkat Viking Centre, near Hobro, North Jutland (http://nordmus.dk/vikingecenter-fyrkat), where visitors could watch ‘normal’ Viking families cook meals, make textiles or work in smithies. Often, such events last for just a weekend, such as at the Moesgaard Viking Moot near Aarhus, held over the last weekend in July each year (http://www.visitaarhus.com/ln-int/moesgaard-viking-moot-gdk644190).
Operating each year since 1977, the Moot this year involves over 600 families (and 65 horses) gathered for re-enactment activities, and visited by thousands of day tourists at the site.
Mads Daugbjerg et al. have recently edited a Special Issue on the meaning and potential of re-enactment in the International Journal of Heritage Studies (2014, volume 20, issue 7-8). According to Daugbjerg et al (2014), re-enactment is a particularly effective means of heritage – ontologically intensive, performative and experiential – it can create a shared sense of knowledge that produces a collaborative heritage of possibility (Daugbjerg 2014: 728). But why are the Vikings a particular favourite for re-enactors?
Reported in the Politiken article, Anne-Christine Larsen (of the National Museum, and active Viking re-enactor) notes (roughly translated) that the Viking Age is a period that “we are often proud of because we were kings of a large part of the world, more or less for the first and only time in our history. And, moreover, it is also a period when a lot of significant things happen in Denmark – we get state building; we become Christian; towns emerge; rowing boats become sailing ships so that the world suddenly opens up”. She adds that the “surviving stories of the Vikings are full of heroes and heroines, and people lived more simply. So, when people are Vikings and cook their food over an open fire for a weekend, the go down a gear”. The archaeologist Jeanette Varberg adds that the “Viking period is a story about a time when our little country set the agenda in world history. It is not so often we experienced that in Denmark, so that’s why we like it”.
What strikes me about these quotes is how present-centred they are, in terms of the affirmation of self-identity today, both for the state of Denmark and for the community within Denmark. Being a Viking is a relaxing way to spend some ‘down time’, while also reinforcing a sense of communal identity. This works through the easy way in which the experiences of an era from more than a thousand years ago are made into ‘our experiences’: we are the Vikings, and the Vikings are us. The entire political and cultural entity of the Viking orbit of power is equated to ‘our little country’, and a narrative of Christianisation, urbanization and the development of world trade and travel is given a dimension of seemingly inevitable national destiny.
This was something that I saw during a visit to the National Museum site at Jelling, last November (‘Royal Jelling: Home of the Viking Kings’: http://en.natmus.dk/museums/kongernes-jelling-home-of-the-viking-kings/). A lot of money has been spent in a very interactive museum, which provides a means of exploring the past that is excellent fun. As with the Viking re-enactments, however, explorations of the past sometimes blurs with proclamations about the present; implying that Denmark’s status as a “Christian Country” is (literally) set in stone, and that people who are not “Christian” equally cannot be “Danes” (or Vikings).
These issues veer towards the controversy that arose when the Hollywood film Thor came out in 2011 and the black actor Idris Elba was cast as the Norse god Heimdall. There was a lot of criticism from some conservative circles (see: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/dec/17/white-supremacists-boycott-thor) who claimed that a Norse god cannot be played by a black actor. Rather than risk siding with white supremacists, therefore, it strikes me that the relationship between ‘Danishness’ and the Vikings requires some nuance, and a sense of openness about who can call themselves ‘Vikings’.
It seems to me that at the root of these debates is the fact that the Vikings have a powerful charm, perhaps only comparable to ‘Pirates’ (of the Captain Jack Sparrow variety). The Viking world is a composite of genuine macho-independence and self-confidence, alongside a seemingly quotidian sense of societal self. These elements are underlined through scholarship, with a good range of surviving archaeological evidence that attests to the sophistication of Viking art, ingenuity and navigation that is understandably celebrated. Maybe we all want to be ‘Vikings’ (and ‘Pirates’)? After all, when a relatively violent and perilous world is viewed through 1000 years of temporal distance, even massacres and slave trading can become ‘cool things’ to take ownership of and claim responsibility for? As Jeanette Varberg adds (in the Politiken article), despite an array of archaeological artifacts, the “written sources are not great and so this creates a space that we can fill with our imagination”.
Rather than being an ‘embarrassing aged relative’, the Vikings have become a ‘flexible friend’ – a vehicle for all sorts of contemporary hopes and desires. There is nothing inherently wrong with this sentiment, as long as we can all play at being Vikings.