I am writing this guest post neither as an art historian, nor as a Viking scholar, but as a descendant of the Vikings. Last weekend, I was lucky to catch the Viking exhibition at the National Museum in Copenhagen, the largest exhibition on the Vikings in 20 years. It’s a travelling exhibition which has run since June, and will close in Copenhagen on 17 November before it moves on to the collaborating institutions in England and Germany. At the British Museum in London (6 March – 22 June 2014) and the Museum of Prehistory and Early History in Berlin, the content of the exhibition will change slightly, but the focal point will – needless to say – remain the same.
The exhibition is centered around the discovery of the largest Viking ship in the world, Ægir (also called Roskilde 6), a 37-meter long warrior ship from around 1025. It is an impressive ship with space for approximately 100 men (of which 78-80 would have been rowers) and it is likely to have been the ship of a king. Ships and sailing were key to all aspects of Viking life: whether for raid or for trade, merchants, warriors, and fishermen – everybody in Viking society – would have had some important relationship to ships either through sailing or dependence on the travels of other members of their community. The ship had immense symbolic significance for the Vikings. It was a valued image in art and jewelry, and was also used as a centrepiece for burials. The famous longships – the sight of which was terrifying to those they invaded – had ensured the Vikings’ astonishing orbit of influence: from the North Atlantic to the Caspian Sea, they made their mark on many distant areas.
Like any Dane, I’ve grown up with stories about the Vikings, and they’ve always been a source of marvel and fascination. Although a relatively short period in our history (from around 800 until 1050 AD), the so-called Viking Age has had a major impact on how we define Scandinavian tradition and identity. The exhibition is a response to the most recent research and findings, offering the public insights into the latest thinking concerned with the many narratives of Viking life and customs. It is structured around four main themes: the Viking World, Raids & War, Power & Glory, and Beliefs & Ritual. For each of these areas both old and new findings are presented, and the Vikings are brought to life from many different and compelling perspectives.
But so much is still unknown. The Vikings are surrounded by myth, and having experienced this fantastic exhibition, I was made to think that what remains unaccountable and even mysterious is perhaps also what is most appealing about them. Why would this be the case? In the published catalogue to the exhibition, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark offers a useful perspective:
[W]hen reality does not give us an answer, the imagination takes over. Dream transgresses those borders put down by knowledge, and gives us those answers which reality refuses to give us. And those dreams and answers are entirely our own.
As with many other aspects of life, it seems to me that the unknown is gripping because of how it is able to inspire. If knowledge is power, the imagination is a superpower. From learning something new to teaching others, from taking our first baby steps to travelling around the world: when there are things we don’t yet know, we are granted the opportunity to fill in the gaps with our own ideas, to shape our vision and our dreams accordingly. And when we seize this opportunity, the world changes along with us. This was exactly what the Vikings accomplished as they sailed those ships into unfamiliar territories and left behind their indelible imprint. They had ambition and courage, took immense risks, and – aside from building their familiar reputation as a fearsome menace – were a positive force for social and cultural change. And the stories about these magnificent seafarers have influenced certainly my own life, but also the lives of many who come into contact with them: they are inspirational. I look forward to seeing both the new knowledge and the old myths about the Vikings being shared further as the exhibition soon makes its way to London and Berlin.
Dr Nanette Nielsen
Department of Music, University of Nottingham