For those who study the Vikings professionally, there is an intrinsic fascination that drives their desire to study the Viking Age in the same way that others are drawn to ancient times, the medieval period, or even contemporary history. Yet, the Vikings’ popularity also manifests itself in popular culture, and has captivated a wide audience for nearly two centuries. From Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, a 19th century opera based on Norse and Germanic mythology, to today’s Vikings on the History Channel, the Vikings have captivated the imaginations of people across the world. This brings up an intriguing question: Why are the Vikings so popular?
Disclaimer: This is not a particularly historical post, but rather my own musings on why the Vikings have become so popular in popular culture. Everyone, it seems, has some notion of who the Vikings were, whether true or a fabrication, and the appeal of the Vikings appears to be spreading beyond Western nations. Here I will examine why the Vikings first became popular (in a very condensed summary) and why they are more popular than ever today.
First, Let’s Talk About Scandinavia
Scandinavia is arguably the easiest place to define the Vikings’ popularity. They are the region of origin of the Vikings, and Viking history is their history. Fascination with the Vikings in Scandinavia is akin to a fascination with chivalry in France, with the Moors in Spain, or the Romans in Italy. It is part of their national history and narrative, and it is their ancestry (for the most part). Therefore, the popularity of the Vikings in Scandinavia is easy to see and to understand. When I broach the subject of the popularity of the Vikings, I do so for areas outside of Scandinavia, and the reasons I will postulate for their popularity will not necessarily apply to Scandinavian countries.
How the Vikings First Gained Popularity in Western Europe
Beginning in the mid 19th century, the governments of Europe, both nascent democracies and established autocracies, sought to bend the narrative of history to build or increase the authority of their governments. In France, for example, the fledging revolutionary government created an official national narrative in which modern France was the product of the Carolingian empire, a holy Christian institution that helped to stabilize Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. In England, the official historical narrative began with the Anglo-Saxon kings, like Alfred the Great, to emphasize that the English monarchy had a long and rich history, and to reinforce their legitimacy to the people they ruled. These narratives were used to incite national fervor and support for the government, a phenomenon we call nationalism today.
It is within the context of nascent nationalism that the study of the Vikings began. Not surprisingly, the Vikings were immediately painted as a heathen enemy who threatened Christian civilization and had to be defeated (us against them). In fact, the triumph of Christendom over “the ravages of heathen men”, as written in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, was regarded as a pivotal, divinely ordained achievement, exploited by the governments of Europe as a means to further incite national pride and reinforce their legitimacy to govern.
This early historical construct of the Viking Age has created a litany of inaccurate perceptions of the Vikings that persist to today. For the history buffs out there, I share your pain. But it is the fictional representations of the Vikings, first begun in the 19th century, and perpetuated until today, that has led to what they represent to popular culture. However inaccurate, their popularity is directly derived from the caricatures popular culture has created for them based on shaky historical interpretation (and fabrication).
What is a Viking in Popular Culture?
Let’s put the historical Vikings aside for a moment and define what a Viking is in popular culture. To do this fairly (albeit anecdotally), I asked my wife, who knows close to nothing about Viking history, to describe a Viking. Here’s what she said:
“They were brutes. Bearded, dirty, mean and violent. Strong and superstitious. Didn’t they believe in magic? Just…just bad. But kinda sexy, too? I don’t know.”
Believe it or not, she’s never watched the History Channel’s Vikings, but she essentially described Ragnar Lothbrok, the show’s protagonist. Love it or hate it, the show has created the perfect caricature of what a Viking is to popular culture, minus the horned helmets. And it is this caricature that has allowed the Vikings to conquer popular culture.
How the Vikings Conquered Popular Culture
There are many subjects that have captivated modern audiences: Vampires, Werewolves, Wizards and Witches, and Vikings. Wait…how do Vikings fit in with Vampires? To answer this question, let’s first deconstruct why Vampires have become popular in recent times.
They’re ancient: Vampires are allegedly ancient creatures that began to roam the earth in the distant past.
They’re mysterious: For all we think we know about Vampires, they are still incredibly mysterious. They only reveal themselves to a select few, and their origins are always cast in shadow.
They’re dangerous: Vampires are first and foremost killers. The danger they pose makes our imaginations run wild with fear, which excites us.
They’re immoral/do not share our sense of morality: Vampires are a great “other” who live outside the bounds of our society and do not adhere to our societally imposed moral constructs.
They’re a forbidden pleasure: You’re not supposed to like Vampires. They’re the bad guys. So being attracted to one in a sexual way is a forbidden pleasure. As we all know, forbidden pleasures are a huge turn-on for many people.
If we start to run through the list with the Vikings, we quickly start to realize that they fit the bill. Are they ancient? Yes. Are they mysterious? Of course! Are they dangerous? The most. Are they immoral? Duh…Ragnar! Are they a forbidden pleasure? Considering they have been painted as “the other” for nearly two centuries, I’d say so! And thanks to Harlequin Romances, I think we can say with relative certainty that there’s a certain sex appeal to them.
Now, I could delve into the psychological reasons why all of these traits are attractive to broad audiences, but I’m not a psychologist. All I know is that people are attracted to these sorts of things, and the Vikings, as defined in popular culture, possess the right “stuff” to have broad appeal.
Is the Popular Culture Portrayal of Vikings Bad?
There are many who would argue that the popular culture portrayal of the Vikings is a tremendous disservice to society. It’s reflective of how poorly most people understand or care to understand history, and a bane on the real study of the Vikings by academics. I argue the opposite.
In an age where history and the arts are increasingly lacking funding, the rise of Vikings in popular culture has actually been a benefit to Viking studies. Interest in the subject has led to tremendous advances in the field in the past two decades. Every week, it seems, there is a new discovery, or a newly established dig to expand our understanding of the Vikings’ past. Funding in academia is a fickle thing, yet it seems Viking studies are in less of a shortage of such funds than other subjects, particularly in Europe.
For me, it is more in the interest of us all to embrace the aspects of the Vikings that give them broad appeal, and to leverage their popularity to further the funding and research of the real Vikings, as well as other topics. Understanding the past is a tremendous benefit to our society, so if enduring watching people troll around with horned helmets on Halloween helps to expand our breadth of knowledge in some way, in my opinion, it’s worth it.
There is a limit to this benefit, however, particularly when fictitious caricatures of the Vikings are used to legitimize racist or intolerant groups. An unfortunate reality with the popular portrayal of Vikings is that it has been far too easy for white supremacist groups to bastardize the historical Vikings to suit their ideologies. This, of course, is a conversation for another post, but it is worth noting in regards to whether we should allow the popular culture portrayal of Vikings to endure unchallenged.
Why do you think the Vikings are so popular? I welcome your thoughts in the comments section below.