The Viking story has fascinated people for centuries. But as a major exhibition opens at the British Museum, have people got them all wrong?
The longships arrived on 8 June. The monks at Lindisfarne didn’t know it then – the year was 793 – but it was the beginning of 300 years of bloody Viking raids on England.
“Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race,” Alcuin of York wrote at the time. “The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.”
Over 12 centuries later and the Vikings are the subject of a major exhibition at the British Museum – and they still loom large in the imagination. Blond, powerfully built men with horned helmets, nostrils flaring with naked aggression, descending on settlements to rape and pillage.
That at least is the perception. But long-held views are being challenged.
Let’s start with the helmets, so beloved of Scandinavian football fans. The Vikings never wore them. They have only been included in depictions since the 19th Century. Wagner celebrated Norse legend in his opera Die Walkure (The Valkyrie) and horned helmets were created as props for the performance of his Ring Cycle at the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876.
The horned helmet is based on historical fact, says Emma Boast from the Jorvik Centre, but it just wasn’t a Viking thing. The British Museum has a ceremonial horned helmet from the Iron Age that was found in the River Thames. It is dated 150-50 BC.
The Vikings used horns in feasting for drinking and blew into them for communicating. They were depicted in Viking broaches and pendants. They weren’t worn. And for battle it would have been a major encumbrance, adding weight to the helmet.
But today a child asked to draw a Viking will start with the horned helmet, Boast says. “I can understand that kids are drawn to that. It’s so embedded with our society that I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of that. But actually there’s a richer explanation.”
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