The Vikings: How History Becomes Myth, and Vice Versa

Few ancient peoples are so deeply ingrained in modern imagination as the Vikings. They generally inspire awe, rather than admiration (like ancient Egyptians might). Yet perhaps we owe them a little respect. Indeed, “Viking” is a Norse word that means “raider.” It’s “a job description,” as historian Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough says.

But she also warns that legends and accounts their enemies wrote eventually shaped much of the collective preconceptions about Vikings. “The first big Viking raid took place around A.D. 793 on the island of Lindisfarne, home of the Lindisfarne Gospels.” Yet Barraclough also reminds us that what we know about this raid comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written a century later under King Alfred, a Viking basher.

And around that time, an Anglo-Saxon cleric at the court of King Charlemagne, named Alcuin, wrote a letter to the abbot of Lindisfarne, saying “Never before has a terror appeared on our shores like this. Remember the words of the prophets, from the north, evil breaks forth.”

In other words, propaganda by Vikings’ rivals. Animosity towards them would survive well into the 20th century. Soviets were loath to even consider that these Nordic invaders may have, well, founded Kievan Rus, the foundation of present-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. It was a slap in the face of the pan-Slavic discourse that was truly at the root of Soviet doctrine.

Oh, and if you are thinking about the bloody bits, consider this. That torture known as “Blood Eagle” may have come from obscure skaldic verses. Perhaps it was a metaphor about a bird of prey. Most likely, it was a literary figure.

Perhaps Vikings should be remembered as bold seafarers who had arrived much earlier than Christopher Columbus in the Americas. They had at least temporary settlements in Newfoundland. “They colonized the North Atlantic, parts of the Scottish Isles, Iceland. They’re in Arctic Scandinavia and on the Russian waterways. They founded a colony in Greenland that lasted 500 years and got all the way to the edge of North America.” To this day, legends circulate in the Argentine province of Misiones that Vikings may have arrived as far south as there.

In other words, the written word converts myth into history. And vice versa.

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