Vikings: giant, hairy manly men who rarely bathed and made most of their money by raiding other countries. The society of the Vikings was a heavily male dominated one that was heavily insular, worshipped strength and viciousness above all else. It was a society where might made right, manners were unheard of, and intellectuals were derided as wusses. Right?
Wrong, actually. Dead wrong. About as far from the truth as it is possible to get, as a matter of fact. The picture painted above describes only the modern, popular culture image of Vikings, made by people who never cracked open a history book in their lives, but did read a lot of comic books and pulp fiction. The real Vikings were far more complex and interesting than that. They were also surprisingly modern in many ways.
To start with, Viking men were peacocks. They wore fancy, bright colored clothing and covered themselves in jewelry. They bathed a lot by European standards of the time. They combed their hair and styled it. They styled their beards too. In fact, hair styling was so important to Viking men that combs are a very common find in their graves. Can’t go to the next world with messy hair! Viking women tended to be much more plainly dressed, and not as given to ornamentation. The men were definitely the display gender.
Vikings only rarely went viking, or pirating, which is what the word means. The Viking Period was actually only a tiny fraction of the history of the people commonly called Vikings. Even at the height of the Viking Period, most Viking nations made 60% or more of their income from the manufacture and export of textiles. That’s right: not only were the Viking economies never driven by Viking raids, they were actually mostly driven by women. Most of the time, Viking men preferred to farm. Raiding was only undertaken under desperate circumstances, when the crops and economy were so bad that their families might starve. As soon as there was any other choice, they stopped raiding. Although all men and most women were expected to know how to fight, most men were not warriors.
In fact, not only were the Viking economies dominated by women, by their societies tended to have a strong feminist bent. Nowhere in the ancient world were the rights for each gender nearly equal. Make no mistake, they were still tilted in favor of men, but women were closer to achieving full social equality with the Vikings than with any other ancient culture. They had absolute right of divorce, could own property, lead families, and even serve in government. In the home, a wife had more authority than her husband, at least theoretically, by custom. Women were actually considered to be inherently more in touch with the spiritual than men, and were often highly influential as advisers and prophets. The female deities were actually seen as stronger and more capable than the male deities in many ways. Every time Odin goes up against the will of Frigga, for instance, he loses, for all that he is the god of victory. It is from goddesses and human women that Odin gains the bulk of his power and knowledge, not from other males. If one of the gods wants to be able to fly, they must go to a goddess, Freya, for that power. If they want to keep their immortality, they must receive it from Idunn, another goddess.
Why, then, are modern images and stories of the Vikings and their gods so dominated by warrior-themed, male oriented stories? Simple: the stories were recorded by Christians. The Viking traditions were oral. The only reason we have anything written down is because of Christian scribes, after the Vikings were conquered. The heavily patriarchal Christians particularly hated the goddess lore, and stories centered around women, so they simply didn’t write much of that down. All we have left now are fragments and hints of the original, much wider body of lore, but what we do have points to a much more gender-balanced picture.
Nor was Viking society insular. Popular depictions of the Vikings show them cut off from the rest of the world, stuck largely in their own. Many ill-educated people, particularly Folkies, even depict this supposed isolation as being the result of a powerful cultural racism. This picture, however, does not match what history shows us. The Vikings had colonies as far off as North America and Africa. They had trade relations with Greece. They, as mentioned above, made most of their money from trade with other nations. They were actually a well traveled people.
And not only were they well traveled, they were in many ways downright cosmopolitan. They were well aware of other religions, other ways of looking at the world, and they loved them. Real Vikings enjoyed the experience of interacting even with cultures radically different from their own, and adapting elements of those cultures that they took a liking to. One Viking king put “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet,” on all of his coins, in Arabic. He was not a Muslim, but he did have trade relationships with Muslim nations, and admired their culture so much that he wanted to imitate some of the trappings of that culture. Upon meeting the Greeks, there is reason to suspect that they adopted major aspects of Greek religion, including changing their male deity of fate to three female deities, like the Greek Fates. Upon encountering the Romans, they adopted many of their titles and forms of government. Bronze Age Denmark was the social and artistic capital of the known world.
This cosmopolitan attitude toward the world was reflected in Viking philosophy. They adopted a remarkably rational perspective about religion and human knowledge. The Vikings saw the world as vast and mysterious, and did not seem to think that any one person, or any group of people either, for that matter, could have absolute knowledge of The Truth. They did not view their religion as the result of divine revelation. They did not assume that it accurately described the whole of the world. They conducted their affairs like they believed that other people, other religions, other ways of looking at the world, were also potentially valid. They knew theirs was not the only way. Not only did they adopt elements of other religions, they would even take part in foreign religious ceremonies when traveling to other lands. This practice was so extensive that the early Catholic Church even had a special rite, called Prime Signing, that allowed visiting heathens to go to Church when in Christian lands.
In some ways, the Vikings were so open minded and accepting in their world view that they even make modern nations look backward and repressive by comparison. Archaeologists in England have found a statue of a one-eyed god, clearly Odin, with both male and female genitals. Although modern Western nations are only just beginning to address issues of transsexuality, the ancient Vikings were comfortable enough with it that they ascribed a transsexual nature to their chief god. This does not mean, by the way, that the Vikings were completely accepting of trans people, or homosexuals, or other non-standard forms of sexuality and gender identity. They still had their issues. They were, however, comfortable enough with them to have an open and recognized place for them in their world view.
The Vikings were a truly fascinating people. The world has changed a lot since their day, and heathenry itself is in many ways a completely different thing. But still, were an ancient Viking somehow brought forward to this day, he would not entirely find himself a fish out of water.