It’s Reigning Men: The use and abuse of Viking masculinity

This is an edited version of the paper I gave at the Midlands Viking Symposium on 27th April 2019. The Midlands Viking Symposium is a regional public engagement event that was started by Dr Christina Lee in 2005 to showcase the latest research into the Vikings.

I have removed direct references to the website I used as a case study from my paper, because I do not wish to raise its profile. I have also removed some of the more extreme examples used to illustrate my points, although the examples I cited are not the worst of the discourse found on this and related sites.

What does it mean to be a man in the Viking Age? I addressed this issue in a previous lecture as part of our series of public engagement lectures for the Bringing Vikings back to the East Midlands project. Sadly, the recording gear was not working that day, although you can watch other lectures in the series on our East Midlands Vikings website. That lecture focused on the gnomic wisdom of Hávamál (the Sayings of the High One) to show that the ideal man in Viking Age Scandinavia was not the hairy, individualistic barbarian of popular culture, but that moderation and self-control as well as courage and a sense of civic spirit were idealised traits. These verses from Hávamál illustrate that point well and steer us away from the more usual excessive focus on reputation.

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Whether people truly lived up to these ideals is a different question for another day. This post contrasts what we can learn from Old Norse literature about male archetypes with a particularly egregious example of modern use of the Vikings that supports unhealthy stereotypes about what it means to be a man.

The website I used for my case study offers training courses in being a ‘real’ man, with the opportunity to rise through the ranks and become a berserkr or ulfheðinn. Implicit in the training schedule is the idea that the organisation functions as a private military contractor and that reaching the top grade means you are now qualified as a special forces mercenary. It has been suggested that the services offered are a scam, and the site goes to great lengths to refute this accusation. However, it is the rhetoric surrounding the site that is striking, and also the discussion and rhetoric of those who are attracted to it. The focus is on the warrior elite of the Viking Age and specifically the Jomsvikings, on promoting militaristic ideals as the perfect version of masculinity. It’s very much a narrative about how men are alpha-type hunters and warriors. All this sits alongside extreme misogyny and a disdain for men who do not conform to their macho stereotype that relegates those outside their group to non-person status. So, how do the ideals of the site match up with Norse or Viking ideals as depicted in Old Norse literature? After all they claim that their praxis is rooted in genuine pre-Christian Viking ideology and practice, so it should be simple to cross match the two.

The site is broadly representative of a much louder current in popular consumption of the Vikings as becomes evident when we consider its approach to the Birka articles of recent years. When Hedenstierna-Jonson and Price first released their article about Birka Bj581, the internet exploded like a flaming dumpster fire of commentary that included many treatises on why women could never be warriors. I do not intend to discuss the rights and wrongs of Birka Bj581 because others have done that elsewhere, but I do want to briefly mention the commentary here. Sites like this picked up on it and produced essays declaring that a woman’s place was in the home not on the battlefield, using a mix of the academic discussion and spurious argument to make their case. What is evident in the violence of this response is that the presence of a potential female warrior was seen as a threat to their own masculine identity. The essay on the site about it uses ‘revisionist’ as a four-letter word throughout, decrying this research as yet another manifestation of the domination of women and the Marxist emasculation of men in modern society.

The fact that the site claims identification with the Jomsvikings is telling too. It indicates a desire to withdraw into a homosocial community where no women are allowed. The Jomsvikings of legend, for there is no certainty that they existed, were a warrior brotherhood whose base is supposed to have been at Wolin in Poland. Their rules permitted no women. These were manly men doing manly things. Perhaps, then, those most interested in this type of Viking masculinity aspire to live and die like Atli in Grettis saga, not screaming about going to Valhalla as many do in the movies, but rather with a grim jest on their lips.

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Like Atli, the Jomsvikings faced death with equanimity, some making jests or statements that underscored their courage. Jómsvikinga saga tells us that they trained for war and were prepared to die. It is not surprising that such groups are popular with sites like this. The site sets its own people up as the true descendants of the Vikings and defines its members in opposition to modern ideals, claiming that proper manliness has been forgotten and that it was only ever owned by white people from the north. However, the Jomsvikings are an anomaly in Old Norse literature and there is no certainty that they actually existed. Jómsvikinga saga describes them as living on the edge of society and separated from it. As such, they were not typical of Scandinavian society in the Viking Age, and they were not even typical of Scandinavian men.

One of the things I love about Old Norse literature is that it presents us with a broad and recognisable range of real personalities that go beyond the heroic model and many can be masculine in different ways. This is not to say that the archetypes most admired by sites like this do not exist. Beyond the Jomsvikings, we need only look to Grettir Ásmundarsson for an example of the type of man that they seem to admire most. Grettir’s arrogant masculinity may well be deemed toxic because it leads to him being outlawed and ultimately to his death. He refuses to compromise, is willing to kill as a first resort and rapes a serving woman. By all accounts, he is a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work who does try to do some good, as when he kills a troop of berserkir, but in the end he dies because he does not understand, or is not willing to adhere to, the social contract.

In contrast, here are two more positive examples. Njáll Þorgeirsson from Njáls saga was a cerebral man renowned for his wisdom and was supposed to be kindly and non-violent. He is not the warrior archetype that the site says is the only valid Viking masculinity, and yet he was greatly respected according to the account of his saga. Also in Njáls saga, we meet Gunnar Hámundarson, who was renowned for being good in a fight and was a great friend of Njál’s. Gunnar is described as intelligent and mild. Despite their wives feuding, the two men sought compromise at every turn to prevent bloodshed. Gunnar even wonders if he is less manly than other men, despite his courage being evident at every turn, thus demonstrating a more thoughtful side to his character.

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In many respects, Gunnar is the antithesis of Grettir. He understands the social contract that is necessary to keep the peace and is willing to work to maintain that peace. His is a character that is praised and thus we may look to him and those like him as archetypes of accepted masculinity in Old Norse literature.

Conclusion
In conclusion, the website privileges the warrior elite over others, creating a small band of like-minded brothers following a very narrow definition of masculinity that is rooted solely in the physical attributes of the aggressive male. It situates those who adhere to its strictures outside mainstream society. Like the Jomsvikings, they seek to occupy a liminal space and define themselves in opposition to and outside society. Their interpretation reduces to servants, to slaves, or to irrelevancy the majority of people in Viking Age Scandinavia who tended the land and livestock, made clothes, cooked food, managed farms and created the resources needed to survive. In this, the website has much company in popular culture, not least in depictions of the Vikings in movies or in House Greyjoy in Game of Thrones. Their house motto ‘We do not sow’ shows that they are rooted in an ideology of theft rather than one of constructive activity. These are simplistic, modern conceptions of what it means to be a man in the Viking Age. They demonstrate the modern privileging of the individual over society and the modern infatuation with the outlaw, bad boy. The strong individual who can stand and win against society does not exist in Old Norse literature. Even Grettir, despite being phenomenally strong, did not survive his outlawry. Where people survive their troubles, it is generally because they bend before the wind rather than standing against it, although even that is no guarantee of survival. Masculinity in Old Norse literature is complex and people are shown to have many different traits from cerebral to physical, from stupid to sly.

What Old Norse literature shows us is that these modern takes on Viking masculinity are wholly wrong. This was not an age for heroic individuals standing alone. Instead, the will and identity of the individual were subjugated to the needs of the family in the first instance and society more widely in the second. To be a real man in the Viking Age, as depicted in Old Norse literature, was to fulfil the social contract, to take one’s place in society and to perform that role as expected. Conformity and cooperation were needed to ensure peace and survival. Willingness to compromise was part of that. Those that deviated from this norm found themselves outside society without the help that they needed to survive, at which point the only question that remained was how long it would be before they died, because aggression and courage were not enough of themselves.

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Viking: The Darkest Day (Movie)

I’m a bit behind on Viking movies, and especially on writing up those I have watched, but I finally got around to watching Viking: The Darkest Day.

Viking the Darkest Day

It’s 793 and the Vikings have found their way to Lindisfarne. The movie opens with captive monks on the beach. They cry out to God and pray for deliverance. A Viking warrior approaches. The camera angle is low down and from slightly behind the warrior so that his hand, dripping blood, is centre screen. The approach happens in slow motion. All very dramatic. In this way, we are introduced to the Viking leader Hadrada [sic] who wants the Lindisfarne Gospels. He wants God’s power for his own and thinks that the book will give him that. In this way, a chase movie is set up.

Hadrada and his band of Vikings (numbering only five of them) set out in pursuit of the young monk Hereward and Abbot Athelstan who have the gospels and are trying to get to Iona, where they will be safe. Along the way, they pick up Aethelwulf of Wessex, a warrior who appears to be part of a holy warrior order dedicated to protecting the gospels, if I understood that part correctly. They also encounter and rescue Denegifu, a Pictish woman, have a brief fight with one member of a band of bandits, and meet the members of what appears to be an apocalypse cult with very goth make-up.

So, what did I think of it? I’m really not sure. I was not moved by it. There were no moments where I felt any sense of tension. It felt like the outcome was never seriously in doubt, and the slow pacing of the movie contributed to this. Even the bloody violence and the scene where Abbot Athelstan was raped lacked emotional impact. The movie was not so bad that I needed mind bleach to exorcise it from my brain, but it was not great either. It fell in that area that is probably hardest to write about because it lacked superlatives (or maybe I’m just dead inside when it comes to Viking movies these days). Here are a few points I took away from it.

As is to be expected of a Viking movie, there were only two women in the whole cast. Vikings, as Judith Jesch noted in her book Women in the Viking Age, are thought of as unequivocally male. This is strongly reflected in the majority of Viking movies where women are prizes to be won or stolen, with only a few notable exceptions. Denegifu has to be rescued, but then comes into her own as the wise woman who knows the herbs to heal Hereward. For much of the movie, despite being present she seems to have little else to do, although her final actions are crucial to the final outcome. Eara, the other woman, is the leader of the apocalypse cult. Neither of these are big roles, but I suppose we should be thankful that neither woman becomes a random love interest for no good reason other than that the writers thought it was necessary.

The Vikings conformed to the norms for most Viking movies. Their leader made decisions for the others and met opposition and alternative suggestions with threats of violence. They act like the members of the Glasgow street gang that James Patrick observed in the sixties in his book A Glasgow Gang Observed. It is clear that the Viking most willing to go to violent extremes is the Viking in charge and that any in-group conflict will always result in death. On the plus side, they are depicted as more human than in some movies with a better sense of why they are pursuing the Gospels.

The cinematography was odd. The colours were washed out to the point of being black and white throughout most of the movie. Only occasionally did we see brighter colours. I suspect that this was intended to represent something, but I really have no clue what. I might steel myself to watch it again and try to work out what was going on there.

For the rest, the movie conformed to standard medieval movie tropes. There was little attempt to adhere to any known standard of actual Viking Age dress and most of the characters wore shades of brown, because everyone in medieval movieland wears drab colours. Hadrada did wear a variation of the Gjermundbu helmet, so there was that, but the swords were clearly not Viking Age. One character did have runes on his axe which proves he was a Viking though. It seems churlish to pick out these details, when this movie really could have been a generic fantasy or historical piece with the Lindisfarne Gospels as the Magical Medieval Macguffin that drives the action. With that in mind, there is no reason why the technology should have been restricted to just Viking Age material.

In sum, I did not hate this movie, but I did not like it all that much either. The South Welsh countryside it was filmed in was lovely, the acting was pretty decent, and it tickled me that the roles of some of the monks were taken by members of Taibach RFC, but the plot and pacing did little for me. On top of that, the movie I watched was not the movie the blurb on the DVD case suggested it would be. I was expecting much worse! I am certain that it will appeal to some though, and I think that I would have enjoyed it more in my teens. If you’re curious, you can watch the trailer to see the best bits.

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There’s no such thing as the ‘Dark Ages’, but OK

Can we just stop unironically using the term Dark Ages, please? Dr Eleanor Janega lays out why here:

via There’s no such thing as the ‘Dark Ages’, but OK

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#Viking is not a verb!

The Gjermundbu Helmet

The Gjermundbu Helmet in Kulturhistorisk museum, Oslo. Photo (c) R. Dale, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

I have expanded this blog post in the light of comments received on Twitter, and to clarify a couple of issues that were not expressed particularly clearly when it began its life as a short rant.

I fear I neglect this blog too much. There is, and has been, so much going on in my life that I find making time to write on the blog a little difficult. For starters, I spent most of last year working on The World-Tree Project, an interactive, digital archive for the teaching and study of the Vikings. Check it out. There is some great material on there from weird and wacky expressions of Vikingness to brilliant teaching resources. And now I am working on Danelaw Saga: Bringing Vikings back to the East Midlands at the University of Nottingham. Follow the Centre for the Study of the Viking Age website to see what events we shall have this autumn and winter. There will be a full programme of public lectures, as well as events and the main exhibitions.

So, to the point of this short post/rantette. Every so often I come across someone earnestly explaining that ‘Viking’ is a verb in online discussions. Let’s get this straight: it is not a verb. I really don’t know why this assertion exercises me so much, but it does, so I shall repeat: Viking is not a verb.

For a more detailed discussion of what Viking means and how it is and was used head over to Norse and Viking Ramblings where Viqueen discusses the topic in more depth. And you can also read Prof. Judith Jesch’s piece on the meaning of ‘Viking’ in The Conversation. It’s all fascinating stuff, especially when considering how the modern meaning has evolved to suit our needs, and can influence our engagement with the past. Although the Oxford English dictionary does not include it yet, Viking is used as an ethnic identifier these days, as well as to refer to those warriors who sailed abroad in search of plunder. The meaning has moved on, and is not a reliable indicator of what it meant in the medieval period.

If Viking is not a verb, what is it then? The words from which our modern English word ‘Viking’ ultimately derives were Old Norse which is, broadly speaking, the language spoken in the Viking Age and medieval period in Scandinavia. See Viqueen’s blog for a brief discussion of how ‘Viking’ came to be an English word. Old Norse víking is a feminine noun that probably refers to a voyage abroad. Context suggests that it was probably violent but its actual meaning is not really known. Old Norse víkingr is a person that goes on one of these voyages. Að fara í víking means ‘to go on a viking voyage’. The word víking is still a noun in that expression, and the modern English word is also a noun according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The next question for English speakers is likely to be “Could víking have derived from a verb?” because the ‘-ing’ suffix sounds awfully verb-like in English. Modern English commonly uses the ‘-ing’ suffix to form present participles and gerunds (verbal nouns) from verbs. Thus ‘to sail’ becomes ‘sailing’. However, this is not the case with Old Norse víking and víkingr. Instead, the ‘-ing’ suffix indicates that they belong to a particular group of people, a form that we occasionally see in modern English surnames and in examples like the Old English Wuffingas (the people descended from Wuffa). Vikings were people who belonged to a group named for whatever we think the etymology of ‘Vik-’ is. For a discussion of that etymology see Norse and Viking Ramblings, but, the one thing that Old Norse víking and víkingr cannot be is a verb. The word formation does not permit it. For it to be a verb in modern English, there would have to be an English word ‘to vike’. Similarly, there would have to be an equivalent of that in Old Norse, but none exists. If it did, then the expression að fara í víking would almost certainly not have come into being, with a simple verb (perhaps að víka) being used instead.

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Northmen – A #Viking Buddy Movie

Northmen

Can’t believe how long it is since I first drafted this post. I guess that tells you something about the movie and my enthusiasm for it. Anyway, here it is now, in all its stream-of-consciousness glory.

In northern Europe in 873 a gang of ruthless Vikings are exiled from their homeland and find themselves shipwrecked in Scotland. They must carve a bloody trail through their enemies to find sanctuary in England. Where do I even begin with this movie? It’s a chase movie. It’s a buddy movie. There is gore. There is testosterone to excess. There is only one female character. I guess the Viking theme makes it easier to ignore the female characters except as objects of desire or by introducing them as women warriors, but it still feels wrong for the films to be so male-oriented. Maybe it could be remade with shieldmaidens and only one male character. After all, shieldmaidens are in vogue at the moment. At least she is front and centre in the movie poster, while Tom Hopper (Asbjörn) does the whole looking back over his shoulder so you can see his arse pose, even if it is hidden by the others.

So, snark aside, how does it play out? Not well, I’m afraid. It looks good with fantastic scenery. I’ll give it that, and Johan Hegg of Amon Amarth fame plays Valli, so it has Viking metal cred. There is also plenty of action that will appeal to many, including a ninja monk. Ok, he’s a Christian monk really, but in the Friar Tuck super-warrior with a staff mould. I can imagine that I would have enjoyed this movie much more if I were quite a few years younger and less critical in my approach. I mean, it did pull me along with it, and I did not notice the time going by as I watched it, so it was not bad in that sense. But …

The start of the bad: only one female character. And she is more prize than protagonist.Charlie Murphy plays Inghean, a Scottish princess who is kidnapped by the Vikings after a fight on the cliffs at the start.  The Viking ship is wrecked. They climb the cliffs. At the top, a coach is going past, so the Vikings and the coach guards immediately attack each other. Here’s where the film started going wrong for me. Why do Vikings on film never try to talk to the other side first (one notable exception being Vikings)?  There is never even any thought of talking to the other side. It’s all, “Yeah, we don’t know where we are. Let’s just kill the first people we see.” It’s men playing up to stereotype refusing to ask for directions! Throughout the film, this sort of attitude is prevalent. It reminds me of a dominant trend in some companies I have worked for where the bosses demanded action rather than thought. Act first, think later don’t even bother thinking. It’s a bit of a shit way to work, and does not generally lead to constructive outcomes.

So, the Vikings capture Inghean. Asbjörn is smitten. Stockholm syndrome takes over and she falls for him in the end. Cheesy! Capturing her leads to a chase across Scotland. The baddies, who are really bad and thoroughly earn their baddie credentials by various bad acts, pursue them. You’ll have to watch the film to learn how, but I doubt any of it will surprise you. While being pursued, the Vikings argue a lot. Vikings don’t make decisions by consensus. They argue and bully until all other voices are silenced by voice or blade. Respect is gained only by being louder and more aggressive or more willing to kill than the rest of the group. Camaraderie is not really present, and I cannot imagine any members of this group of Vikings actually having a bromance. They are all too macho for that. The way the Viking group works reminds me very much of Patrick’s work on street gangs in Glasgow in the 60s.(1) The leader of the gang was the one who was most willing to go the extra mile in the pursuit of violence, being the most violent and dangerous.

There is not really a lot more to the film beyond the chase. The performances are not the worst I have ever seen. The scenery is pretty, and the cinematography and production standards are pretty decent. But it still felt like it could have been a lot more than it was, and I found some disturbing values being foregrounded. In common with most of the more recent Viking films I have watched, this film emphasises violent and aggressive masculinity at the expense of thoughtfulness. It seems to be reflecting and/or reinforcing a view of masculinity as aggressive and action-oriented with no soft edges and no room for friendship. This may be a response to recent dialogues about masculinity being in crisis, with the movie presenting a model of masculine behaviour that reverts back to perceptions of older, less civilised times when men could be real men, or it could be an escapist fantasy about such things. Nevertheless, I find it ultimately unsatisfying.

  1. James Patrick, A Glasgow Gang Observed (London: Methuen, 1973)
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Viking World: Diversity and Change: 2016 Conference

Adam’s take on the excellent The Viking World 2016. Well worth a read to get a sense of what went on.

Blueaxe Reproductions

From the 27th June to the 2nd of July, I was privileged to be invited to attend the Viking World Conference 2016, hosted by the Centre for the Study of the Viking-age, at the University of Nottingham.

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As part of my invitation as well as being a full delegate at the plenary conference, I also would be manning a stall before and after lectures, and also during the breaks and lunch hour. This would contain both reproductions of original objects I had made, as well as a small display on some of the experimental and investigative work I had done into craft techniques, and objects use and function.

I have found previously that there is often a reluctance from professionals and academia to engage with a display such as this, particularly as until they spoke to me, most did not know I was also a professional within the…

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