The discovery of the New World by Leif Eriksson one thousand years ago will be celebrated this year when Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga opens at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History on April 29, 2000. Eight years after the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' first voyage to the Caribbean, the exhibition seeks to educate the North American public about an earlier episode of European history in the New World by focusing attention on the contributions made by the Vikings and their Norse descendants, who continue to inhabit North Atlantic regions into the modern day.
It turns out that educating the public about the Vikings and their relevance to North America is more necessary than one might imagine. North Americans know surprisingly little about this subject, even though it is one of the most popular topics taught in secondary schools (right after the history of Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, and American Indians). What little is presented about Vikings in North American schools only serves to reinforce the stereotypic view of Vikings as crazed warriors bent on mayhem and destruction as they careen about the coasts of Europe in their "dragon-ships," harrying defenseless monasteries, laying siege to towns and cities, and carrying off plunder and slaves to their homelands in Scandinavia. This image has been reinforced by movies, such as the famous Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis film The Vikings, and by the antics of the Minnesota Vikings football team, whose half-time shows draw heavily upon this widely-shared but one-dimensional view of the Vikings, who thank goodness - are safely back in the historical locker where they can't take issue with our misapprehensions.
Battling the Dominant Stereotype
Indeed, there is much to offer in the way of educating the American public about the Vikings, even if we were to confine our attention to their European role. For starters, that most ubiquitous of Viking symbols - the horned helmet - was never worn by Vikings. It is seen in only one dubious illustration: a faded tapestry found in the famous Viking period Oseberg ship burial from Oslo Fjord in Norway. Horned helmets were used by earlier Bronze Age peoples of Europe and Scandinavia, and some spectacular helmets have been found, but all date more than one thousand years earlier than the Viking Age, AD 750-1050. The latter was a dynamic period when literacy, Christianity, and the concept of
nationhood were beginning to take hold in these northern European regions. The old Norse religion, which had dominated the spiritual lives of the Nordic peoples for hundreds of years, included such figures as Thor, Odin, Frey and many others, none of whom wore horns. Like many features that emerge from the domain of popular culture, the origin of this icon is somewhat mysterious but is thought to be related to 19th century Nordic nationalism and its Germanic roots.
The dominant Viking stereotype, now ubiquitous in both Europe and America, concerns what was beneath the helmet! The image of the gnarled, bearded, beetle-browed Viking warrior slashing his way through the undefended monasteries, towns, coasts, and countrysides of the British Isles and Western Europe has been especially popular in recent years. Over one thousand years ago, the horrified monks and abbots who had seen Viking barbarians at their worst preserved in their writings the memory of those depredations, beginning with the famous Viking raid on Lindesfarne in northeastern England in 793. This raid certainly took place, and many more followed over the next two hundred years, but over time, the nature of Viking interaction with Europe and the British Isles changed. Vikings began to settle in territory they conquered there and along the coasts and rivers of Western Europe. While they still harried the populace and extorted danegeld as payment for not ransacking their neighbors, gradually they married in, set up farms and became much like everyone else. …