Vikings! is at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh until the 12th May, 2013. £9 for adults and less if you’re not one of them; free for members or those that cannily held on to the tickets my ex left behind.
There is an Anglo-Saxon grave marker at a Christian Monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, North East England. It depicts warriors who were undoubtedly Viking raiders carrying out their first recorded raid on our green and pleasant land in AD 793. The following year is recorded in the Annals of Ulster as: “a laying waste by the heathen of all the islands of Britain.”
I’m reminded of this by a colour print stuck to the wall by the entrance.
The oldest known crucifix in present day Sweden is on display and forgive my stupidity but because there wasn’t a forensic ruler next to the image on the website I expected it to be the kind of crucifix you would find hanging proud above a church altar. I was looking forward to flouting the rules and taking a picture. It turns out that the oldest known crucifix in present day Sweden is no bigger than my stretched foreskin.
Offerings to gods that don’t matter anymore because we all chose the right one even though everyone still kills one another over the semantics of worship are positioned, lit and displayed, like the mummies before them. I’m glad my family mostly cremate our dead; the ancient are getting younger and require only the same reverence as that shoe-boxed rabbit corpse that our children will forget the minute they smoke their first joint or get their first hand-job. No, we’ll show our respect by dusting off the family tree, learning what we can and displaying the remains with all the other dinosaurs.
Drinking horns; runes; reconstructions and jewellery (expensive replicas available in the museum gift shop.) An awful lot of small trinkets; amulets; runes; craftsmen’s tools.
If your childish heart hadn’t warmed at the first telling of the horn-helmeted heathens bound for the North East in their longships then you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Vikings were rather a dull bunch.
There is a fantastic display of boat rivets suspended with wire so they’d end up in the shape of the boat absent the rotted pine wood they once held together – pointed the right way! I honestly can’t describe it without sounding sarcastic but it’s better than any of the modern art I’ve seen recently. When I arrived some of the wires were swinging and not soon after a member of museum staff bought a chair and sat down next to it to dissuade the children. It is, simply put, a fucking work of art.
Meanwhile: Beads, coins, weight and measures; just an armful of rusty swords and a spearhead. When an elderly lady bumps into me because I’m blocking the way with my silly notepad scribbling I want to embrace her for her politeness.
I lived for quite a few years in Denmark so wasn’t surprised when the exhibition told me:
“Norse women could be both highly regarded and feared.”
And not just the women that would date men like me, no, but for the Vǫlur – revered mortals said to predict the future. Then there were the mythical beings: Freyja rode a chariot pulled by cats and was the goddess of love, death, beauty, war, fertility, gold and a kinky kind of sorcery; Norns ruled our destiny; and the Valkyrie chose which men would die in battle.
And yet many Vikings settled here for the scenery and climate, inevitably choosing Christianity, just as our own pagans knelt to Rome (Boudicca was before Constantine but who even remembers the photo at the beginning of this blog?) Now why would they give all that up?
Photography wasn’t allowed inside the exhibition. A condition of entry refreshingly disregarded by the few half-term visitors that weren’t breaking the interactive displays or sitting on their hands for the reason their faces betrayed as to stop them clawing out their eyeballs.
One child snapped away at the bones with his phone as his kindly father explained why the nose is absent from skulls. Part of me wanted to continue walking behind them so I could steal some quality dad-time but I didn’t want to give the impression that I was after the boy.
The Balnakeil burial display shows the remains of a sword, found along with the same equipment you would expect of an adult warrior, except that the bones are those of a boy aged between 8 and 13 years, whose right arm bones are larger than those on the left.
Vikings thought of their children as small adults with superhuman powers; although when just around half of them would reach the age of ten you can imagine why. Life expectancies were low, with many men dying before they were 45. Women often didn’t even reach 30, no doubt due to the strain of repeated pregnancies and childbirths.
But that’s erring a little too much on the side of maudlin now. Why deal with facts when we can use an easily digestible maxim that we’ve all heard before and will serve as the backbone to my thesis.
They say the strong go off to bleed while the weak stay home to breed; and bear with me on this. You’ve got these real hard bastards sailing hundreds of miles to pillage and burn their way across a large part of the British Isles; and glorying in the spoils, rather than sail home, many decide to steal our fertile land.
So what we have now is these men ‘mating’ with the women that were too hot to simply slay or feed to the pigs. And with this combination of strength thinned out by war, and beauty thinned out by the spoils of war, we have an unwitting master race.
The Nazis attracted Scandinavian soldiers with images of the pure Aryan and I hate to be the bearer of bad news but Danish men are descended not from the proud Viking warrior but the simple farmers who wore a fine toothed comb on their belt to aid in the care of their beards. British men are descended from the bastard offspring of the rampaging heathen and the local women and girls they beat, raped and later married.
To make things easier to understand I decided to compare things to the Trojan war; not because I read the Iliad, but because I watched Troy with a hangover. Again, please bear with me.
For those unfamiliar with the classics, the universe is at war because Legolas stole Brigitte von Hammersmark; and his brother, Chopper Read – who just had a child with the Goddess Saffron – has to fight Tyler Durdan, who kills him for cutting Clu’s son’s throat. Then Durdan gets into Troy thanks to Boromir and Tron’s Omega-class destroyer starship but after loads of innocent people die really horribly for no godly reason, Legolas man’s up and shoots an arrow at the chink in Durdan’s armour and saves the princess who IS in this castle. Although in the book Legolas is killed as well so what did we learn here apart from I had too much caffeine?
Balls. I’ve just read that Achilles’ son killed Hector’s child by throwing him over the walls of Troy. Well as Achilles’ himself once said: “On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” Or was that Edward Norton?
Anyway, I apologise for treating Simpson’s epic poem with my typical bullcrap. Wasn’t it Vikings! we were talking about?
Oh yes. That’s why the metrosexual, furiously dull, assiduously vain, without shame and hopelessly Alpha Danish Male is not the battle scared warrior who would rather sail 700 miles across the North Sea than live on a farm with his wife.
Perhaps it’s me that isn’t a real Viking, because I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been back across the North sea for a woman. But the men and women who stay here, in the British Isles; who farm the land and love one another – only distrusting those from a geographical area further than 20 miles away; or with Pakistani, Persian or Polish ancestry; or black, brown or bohemian skin; or a difference of opinion in City, United or Wigan tops – they are the true descendants of the Viking.
It’s a shame this is all a silly joke. As there are plenty out there that use this kind of thinking to justify their intolerance towards the perceived invasion of their birthright, their ‘homeland’. I’m not an atheist, but I don’t pray to a god. If I did, that god would be cancer, and I would pray to it to strike down anyone that believed that borders, skin colour, sexuality or religion mattered in the slightest.
Vikings! is a dark exhibition, and by that I mean dimly lit. Maybe I’ve gotten so used to the idiot proof black outlines next to the identifying text of other artefacts but I found this all rather clumsy, and despite it being a rather sparse collection, it still felt cluttered.
Don’t get me wrong, the museum itself is one of the best I’ve ever been to. It’s recently been completely refurbished and took me three afternoons to get round the entire collection, and it’s free (I buy a coffee and throw a few quid in the box to assuage my guilt.)
I guess it’s just that they’ve set the bar so high with the main collection; plus I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to visit museums in Denmark so I can’t help but compare the quality of Vikings! to those.