I received an e-mail from a foreign journalist recently with an interesting question. It’s not easy to answer it, but I’ll attempt it in this post. These are the questions:
- What does the viking age mean to modern Norwegians?
- Do Norwegians consider themselves to be descendants of vikings?
- Do children play viking?
- Is Harald Hårfagre (Fairhair) a national hero?
- Did he really exist?
These are complicated questions, and the short answer to the last one is yes. I don’t think there are any historians or archeologists that would argue against it, but it makes sense to ask the question. The vikings didn’t leave behind any written texts. That was an oral tradition, and it wasn’t until they became Christians that they learned to read and write. King Olav 3 Haraldsson (king 1067-1093) was probably the first king that could read, but it’s typical that we know almost nothing about him. He was peaceful and was on good terms with the Pope, William the Conqueror, and the Danish king Svend 2 Estridssønn.
The written sources concerning the vikings were written several centuries later by people that had completely different views of the world, so there could be details that aren’t accurate, but for the most part I believe archeology has confirmed the story. King Harald Fairhair is seen as the king that united Norway. Maybe it’s arguing semantics, but he probably didn’t control the entire country. Still, I think it’s fair to say that he started building a nation, but he also had children all over the place. In other words, many claimed the throne after him, and the winners may not have had any right to the throne, which of course resulted in neverending disputes.
So Harald Fairhair was real, but perhaps not the one and only responsible for uniting all the petty kingdoms. I still think it’s worth celebrating him as a kind of hero, but truth be told, there isn’t much, if any, viking culture left today. There was a crazy public debate a few years ago. A prominent politician from an immigration skeptic party said that massive immigration was a threat to Norwegian culture. I’m not impressed with what we have done to our own culture. Norwegians have more or less rejected Norwegian cuisine, they have abandoned the religion that built this culture, and they certainly aren’t interested in the pre-Christian culture. We are doing a pretty good job suppressing our own past.
Avaldsnes with its church from 1250.
A group of Swedish jesters performed at the festival in 2018,
A monument to Harald Fairhaird in Haugesund.
Knives sold at the festival, not by Norwegans though.
Toy swords and shields. The fascination qiuckly fades from there.
I haven’t seen any evidence that the viking age means anything to us today. The vikings weren’t just tough. They were adventurous and developed crafts like blacksmith, jewelry, comb making, ship building, woodcarving, textiles, as well as trade routes. Swedish vikings went to Ukraine and Russia, Danish vikings went to England and the European continent, while Norwegians vikings went to Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland (Vinland), Ireland, Scotland, and Northern England.
I must admit that my views are strongly influenced by my experiences, because what I have seen makes me believe that the vikings would have been utterly disgusted with us. I find that many of us are two faced. It’s hard to get a straight answer. My country is supposedly based on equality, and many desperately cling on to this idea, so much that there is a strong pressure to conform. This is not a good place to be different.
The vikings had a reputation for being ruthless people, but that is of course a description given to them by their enemies. I don’t think they were utterly irremedeemable, but I’m not sure about the modern Norwegians. Friendship was important to the vikings. That meant more than family, so you could say that they chose an extended family if their own didn’t behave. I have seen behaviour in Norwegians that don’t reflect well on us. There are exceptions of course, but as a people I don’t like what we have become.
I see myself as an individualist, and although I have tried all my life to fit in, it hasn’t been easy. Many believe that Norway and Norwegians are superior, that we have the best this world has to offer. The vikings may have been ruthless, although I don’t know that what preceded and followed them was much better (Charlemagne, Roman Empire, Ottoman Empire, Russian Empire, British Empire), but I believe we are being dishonest today when we are claiming to be everything the vikings weren’t. We just exhibit the aggression covertly. Many immigrants (and it isn’t necessarily about skin colour) and disabled people encounter this attitude daily, but the official story is that we are the most tolerant, the most accepting people on the planet.
I may have digressed quite a bit in this post, but let me conclude with the questions I started with. There is a viking festival in my hometown. This was the birth place of Norway and where Harald Fairhard was buried. The local viking club hosts this festival every year in June, and although they are doing a great job, there probably wouldn’t be a festival if they relied on Norwegians. They have a camp where members of these clubs have a viking market the whole week during the festival, but many of them are visitting from England, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, and Hungary. The entertainment is provided by actors and musicians from these countries. I especially liked the Hungarian band Bordó Sárkány that played medieval music.
In some ways this makes a lot of sense, as the viking society was diverse, but I still feel it’s a shame we have so little left. You see many children at the festival too, but it’s my impression that they are not really there for the history. You can see some of the smallest children being fascinated by archery and wooden swords, but this quickly fades. I retired from teaching five years ago, and I never noticed any interest in our own history from my pupils, which I think is incredibly sad.
The festival is popular, but the sad truth is that in Avaldsnes, in reality Norway’s first capital as the king lived there, no one really cares about the past. So I wonder, do we really have an identity? All people have a dark past, and ours may have been too. We should praise the vikings’ courage, determination, ingenuity, and work ethics, but not their willingness to conquer. The danger is, not as some seem to think, that immigration is a threat to our identity. The danger is that we have none. So how do we protect ourselves when we have nothing?