Vikings brings a treasure trove of history to life

By Chrissy Steinbock — Sat, 26/03/2016 - 13:11

Quick, what’s the first thing you think of when someone says Vikings? Odds are it’s a band of fierce warriors approaching the shore of a new land fresh for the plundering, all burly bearded men with horned helmets and heavy swords. While there’s some truth to that image there was a lot more to the Viking civilization too. If you’re curious, there’s still time to catch Vikings at the Canadian Museum of History, a revealing exhibition that will change everything you thought you knew about this fascinating people.

The exhibit gives a feel for the Norse people’s everyday life, as well as their beliefs and mythology while also taking a look at the Vikings’ travels. With nearly 500 artifacts brought all the way from the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm there’s everything from ancient swords and tools to finely detailed jewelry and protective amulets inscribed with curses. Though the exhibition emphasizes that there was more to the Vikings than traveling far and wide on raids there’s also plenty of detail on those voyages and the treasure acquired along the way.  Likely riding on the popularity of the breakout History channel series, the exhibition is currently on a world tour sharing rare artifacts seldom seen outside Scandinavia. Though the exhibition is called Vikings and presents a picture of the life and culture of Scandinavian peoples during the Viking Age (750-1100AD), the curators are careful to differentiate Vikings who participated in plundering, trading and colonization from Norse men, who were the farmers, craftspeople and slaves who “stayed home.” For the sake of this review, I refer to both groups as Vikings.

Developed as it was by the Swedish museum of history it’s fair to suspect that the exhibition might offer a biased picture of Viking life, downplaying the pillaging and violence in favour of a more sophisticating portrayal. There is some of that though as you learn about the Vikings’ tamper proof weights for trading, survey maps detailing the far reaches of their travels and see for yourself the ornate detail in their bronze brooches you can’t help but be impressed. The exhibition is strongest in its presentation of Old Norse religious beliefs, breathing life into the complex supernatural network of gods, goddesses, giants, destiny-weaving Norns and other mystical beings.

Though the exhibit is information-rich its design makes it accessible and digestible with eight thematic sections that can be explored in any order. The information is presented in different formats so you find yourself picking up the information effortlessly. You can even jump right into the history with interactive touch screens such as one where you can guide a virtual layer-by-layer excavation of a burial boat and gain an idea of the depth of archeological research behind such an exhibition. On another touch screen, you can learn to play Hnefatafl, one of the Vikings’ board games. The layout allows for good traffic flow and the participatory features are good for keeping younger visitors engaged. A larger audio component would have been welcome, though. There were a few listening towers that broadcasted Norse myths but without headphones it was difficult to hear them over the din.

I highly recommend checking out Vikings before it’s packed up for the next city. While there’s lots of good stuff to discover for yourself here’s a teaser with some of the fascinating things I learned on my visit.  

Vikings could hustle

In their plundering, colonizing and trade trips the Vikings really got around reaching most of present-day Europe as well as Russia, the Ukraine, North Africa and the Middle-East. Rather than just read about it, you can see the treasures they brought home from their travels: a Bronze Buddha from India, cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean, and beakers from the British Isles and the Middle East.  The Vikings were also involved in the slave trade and were so feared that like the modern day Mafia they were sometimes given payoffs to leave villages in peace.  The Vikings also traded in intangibles like religious beliefs, political ideas and even designs like the trefoil from the Frankish Empire.

Some things never change

As much as we accept that cold weather is part of living this far North it doesn’t always mean we’re fans. The Old Norse tradition’s version of an underworld was Hel, a place reserved for anyone who died a natural death which was considered dishonorable. The road to Hel was said to go “down and northwards” to a place that was so frozen over that people were buried wearing Hel shoes, which featured small spikes to keep them from slipping on the way down. The ruler of Hel was imagined to be “pale as a corpse and half blue like rotten flesh."

The Vikings also had their own take on graffiti. On two occasions they carved runic messages on one of the marble lions in the busy port of Piraeus in Athens. You can still see the etchings in the lion where it currently resides in Venice, Italy.

Viking women were powerful

Though the Icelandic sagas often portrayed women as background actors recent archeological finds show that Viking Age women were powerful in their own right. They were heads of the household and some even went out on raids and trading trips. This respect for women makes sense when you look at the revered feminine figures in Old Norse mythology such as the fertility goddess Freyja who could see into the future and conjure magic, the Valkyries, maidens who rode into battle and decided who lived, died and won a spot in Valhalla.

Vikings were into looking good

When we imagine Scandinavia we might think of a perpetually cold and colorless existence. We also probably assume that Vikings were a bunch of unkempt barbarians. Archeological research has revealed that the Vikings were actually into looking good and having nice things. The exhibition has many examples of everyday things made beautiful from ornamented beard combs to bronze-inlaid belts to detailed bronze brooches used to hold together layers of clothing. Even whetstones for sharpening tools were carved to look like pendants. Textile fragments in graves show that even though the weather was cold and the people lead a humble farm-centered lifestyle, Vikings enjoyed bright clothing and fine fabrics like silk and linen as well as the more practical wool.

Life may have been brutish and short with the constant threat of injury, epidemics, famine, and disease but those Vikings knew how to have fun. Landowners would host feasts that lasted for two whole where there was plenty of food, mead, socializing and entertainment. At the end of each day everybody passed out at the table. Whether it's doing business or throwing a party, it sounds like the Vikings have a few things to teach us. 

 Vikings is on at the Canadian Museum of History through April 17, 2016

Helpful hint: You can catch Vikings on free admission Thursdays from 4 to 8pm. 

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