Going Out

Who were the real Vikings? — New exhibition at Museum of History gives complete picture

A thousand years ago, the mere whisper of “Vikings” would have reduced the average European living along the coasts of England and Northern Europe to a quivering mass of fear and dread. Nowadays, and thanks to past popular Hollywood portrayals, Viking conjures images of giant, weathered-looking, hairy men, adorned in medieval armour with helmets festooned with large horns, and wielding battleaxes and the like. Or superheroes (Thor). Or the NFL football franchise.

What it doesn’t typically muster is a picture of everyday life led by Norsemen living between 700 and 1100 AD: their diet; their art; their livelihood; their roles in society. As it turns out, our perceptions about who the Vikings were — even the name itself — may be skewed.

Illuminating this distant period in history is a new exhibition at the Canadian Museum of History. In conjunction with the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm, Vikings attempts to reveal who the real Vikings were through a vast collection of artifacts, some that have never been seen outside of Sweden before, along with text panels and interactive displays.

This isn’t just the opportunity to bask in medieval memorabilia. Instead — and importantly — the exhibition presents recent archaeological discoveries, which are shedding new light on past stereotypes. For the first time in Canada, Vikings gives Canadians an opportunity to see these northern peoples in a more complete way.

axe
Iron Axe: Art during the Viking Age was primarily decorative and used to ornament a variety of objects. Even functional weapons often had artistic elements. This iron axe head is made in a vegetative ornamentation style. © The Swedish History Museum

Swords, helmets, runes and axe-heads are, of course, part of the exhibit, but so too are details about the farm, which represented the centre of Viking life. Women, particularly, receive more attention than they may have in the past. This is particularly important since a woman, as the “Lady of the House,” held the key position in the home —signified by the literal wearing of a key. Women also took part in trade and even carried weapons.

Key with Chain: The key was a symbol of power for a Viking woman, and it was worn fully visible outside her clothing. Old Norse written sources suggest women ruled the households and farms, while men plowed the fields and represented their families at regional meetings. Archaeological findings show that women also took part in trade and sometimes carried weapons, too. © The Swedish History Museum
Key with Chain: The key was a symbol of power for a Viking woman, and it was worn fully visible outside her clothing. Old Norse written sources suggest women ruled the households and farms, while men plowed the fields and represented their families at regional meetings. Archaeological findings show that women also took part in trade and sometimes carried weapons, too. © The Swedish History Museum

Ever wondered what Vikings ate? A smorgasbord of ‘food’ is laid out to show that they had a rich and diverse diet, which made them healthier and hence larger and stronger than other European peoples of the time.

Though the exhibition is dark (necessary to preserve objects), which may not be the most conducive for smaller children, and while some of the exhibiting structures are somewhat enigmatic (there is a futuristic-looking circular space in the centre that, ironically, may or may not be question marks), the exhibition is a wealth of information and presents a plethora of objects of immense curiosity.

Massive rune stones — one that depicts a warrior’s ascent to Valhalla, another that may or may not be Christian propaganda — elaborate jewelry, myths, clothes are juxtaposed with modern-day photographs of Swedish landscapes. These, in particular, could easily be mistaken for Canadian geography, creating a sense of connection between us and the Vikings; a connection that is strengthened, not only by the country’s Canadian-Scandinavian heritage, but also by the fact that these peoples may have been the first Europeans to Canadian shores (though renowned author Farley Mowat, who wrote on the topic in The Farfarers would have disagreed).

As it turns out, the word ‘Vikings’ is not the name of a people —it’s not even a noun. Viking is associated with doing a Viking activity, such as going on a trading expedition or raiding. And so, in that vein, go ‘viking’ this holiday season by visiting the exhibition and reconnecting with a part of Canada’s past.

Helmet Replica Finds of Viking helmets are very rare — even in Scandinavia — and none show any evidence of having horns. Though some depictions show men dancing or running in what look like helmets with horns, a closer look reveals the “horns” are actually bird heads. Such headgear was probably for ceremonial use, not for battle. © The Swedish History Museum
Helmet Replica: Finds of Viking helmets are very rare — even in Scandinavia — and none show any evidence of having horns. Though some depictions show men dancing or running in what look like helmets with horns, a closer look reveals the “horns” are actually bird heads. Such headgear was probably for ceremonial use, not for battle. © The Swedish History Museum