There’s a whole lot more to these raiders and traders from Scandinavia than your teachers bothered to tell you.
[Edit 4/28/2023: BBC has published a series of video documentary clips with the exact title I used here. Inadvertent coincidence, and their take is excellent.]
The Vikings have taken their place alongside the Mongols and Huns in the pantheon of history, at least as it is taught to the average student, as lasting symbols of the rapacious cruelty committed by barbarians against civilized folk.
Trouble is, it’s all a myth.
Now, Viking raids were clearly violent and devastating affairs.
Most wars are.
Far from randomly attacking peaceful Christian hamlets, Vikings were taking part in a brutal war that had been going on for centuries.
It still is, in a strange way.
This in and of itself is a major tell that the story of the Vikings is just that: a story.
During the 600s and 700s, Christianity was spreading into Northern Europe — mostly by the sword.
And this was not just any kind of Christianity. In the five hundred years after Christ, the rising religion had long since been colonized by wealthy Romans who used it to maintain control over their slaves as the Roman Empire collapsed.
Christianity originated as a sect of Judaism in modern-day Palestine, where people had long suffered under brutal Roman colonial rule. It spread fast among slaves just as Buddhism had among lower caste groups in India centuries before, because as a faith system that promised eternal paradise to anyone who lived a properly moral life it gave downtrodden people hope salvation.
As the chains that bound them fell away when Rome finally died, the enslaved and exploited regained power. This threatened the hoarded wealth of the Roman elite classes, who had to adapt to both this danger as well as the steady loss of political power to the incoming Germanic migrants led by former Roman soldiers.
The elites’ solution was to embrace a form of Christianity — Roman Christianity. This happened both in the Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire, a process codified by the creation of the Bible, a written record that allowed words selected by a conclave to be taken as Divine Truth.
Naturally, only a lucky few could read it, giving them the ability to tell regular Christians how their faith was supposed to be practiced.
No longer needing the rituals and memory of the old gods of their people’s ancestors, these new priests formed an elite class that used education to secure power.
To the Germanic peoples they still saw as barbarians they offered a deal: these semi-nomadic tribes could have all the countryside that Rome had long neglected or exhausted from over-exploitation, so long as the Church could control the Roman elites’ urban property and continue to tax residents living near its chapels.
Not familiar with managing urban spaces, the barbarian chieftains of the day accepted the deal. Within a few generations, the relationship had morphed into the now-familiar alliance between Church and State that held for over a thousand year, falling apart only after the World Wars tore Europe apart in the early twentieth century.
Basically, this was an arrangement that allowed two groups of elites to exploit people with less power indefinitely. It basically destroyed Europe as most people had then known it.
Germanic tribal culture had always depended on close reciprocal bonds between chieftains and regular folk that enforced obligations of charity on rich people in exchange for their protecting and building up those less fortunate. Good leaders were generous, and poverty in their community was an affront to the gods.
The alliance with the Roman church severed this critical bond, allowing chieftains to anoint themselves Kings in memory of Caesar, who became — and remains — the true deity worshiped by anyone with power in this system.
It’s why they’re all egomaniacs obsessed with loyalty: they all know the knives will come out as soon as their back is turned, because there can be only one Caesar and whoever is it is the target of all their peers.
This in turn gave rise to the pernicious ideology that is slowly destroying humanity and the planet today, the belief system that says rich people deserve everything they have and have no real responsibility to use their wealth to help other people.
That’s the cancer that grows at the heart of Western Civilization, the thing that always enables extremist elements to gain a foothold, divide the ever-fragile myth of unified society, then trigger a brutal apocalypse of the old order that wipes everything out.
Ancient Europeans knew this as Ragnarok, the legends of the end of the world an explicit warning to not let a few powerful people ruin everything for everyone.
Naturally, anything that threatened to destabilize this convenient order had to be opposed.
And this mode of Christianity all but required that no opposing worldview be allowed to survive.
At first, the early Christian world consumed itself, wiping out heretics in purges across the remnants of old Rome.
But soon a few of the petty Germanic kings rose above the rest, embracing the idea that they deserved to be the new Caesar. And like him, they began to push the idea that Christian Europe’s job was to expand outward, forcing every people it encountered to adopt its narrow mode of Christianity.
The old Roman effort to conquer Europe across the Rhine was renewed by Charlemagne in a brutal series of conflicts called the Saxon Wars during the late 700s. In them, the Christian warriors explicitly annihilated ancient symbols of pagan belief like Irminsul while dispatches missionaries along old trade networks to begin the process of converting local lords to join the holy Crusade.
Contrary to the standard presentation of history, trade networks had connected peoples in Europe, Asia, and Africa for thousands of years.
People in the old days migrated as they pleased, moving from place to place after securing the protection of local chieftains, creating networks of association that allowed for information transfer.
Rome itself had risen primarily because it was able to control vital trade networks to wealthy Mesopotamia and Egypt along the Mediterranean coast. But for thousands of years people in the rest of Europe were trading with and traveling to the wider world as well, crossing the steppes of the East to reach China and the deserts of the South to get to India.
So when the Christian kings began to push north with genocidal intent, people knew about it.
In pre-Christian Europe, most people lived in scattered villages that specialized in the production of some locally plentiful good. Trade was a constant, family connections made through marriage aiding the process.
This was by no means a tranquil, idyllic existence. Raiding was as common as trading because the two activities are fundamentally identical.
Christian society is obsessed with violence because control over it grants tremendous power. It also promises a violence-free society, though this is scientifically impossible in a world where our daily survival depends on eating other living things, and uses expressions of violence — defined, of course, by priests — to cast certain people as deviants who society is allowed to exploit.
It’s the oldest scam in the book — our violence is good, because we’re moral, while theirs is evil, because they, well, they’re evil, right?
The Viking Age was not, in fact, a new trend. People had been sailing in ships from the lands adjacent to the Baltic Sea to trade and raid and migrate for thousands of years.
Anglo-Saxons made it to Britain that way after emigrating from modern Denmark and Germany in the wake of Rome’s collapse. They had predecessors, too.
The North and Baltic Seas are older highways than any road built by Rome. Access to the sea is the ultimate ticket to wealth and power, because it is easier to ship most stuff over water than by land.
Europe in the 8th Century AD was not a Dark Age — this was in fact a vibrant time when the region was recovering from an apocalyptic series of climate disasters two centuries prior. In villages across Scandinavia young men and women — those who could avoid getting sick, injured, or pregnant, at least — set out from home to seek their fortune.
To crew a ship, you needed a dozen or more reasonably strong people to handle the oars, because the wind is not always reliable and you didn’t carry supplies sufficient for months-long journeys away from shore. And in the old days, putting enough people trained to work together into a group also creates a reasonably effective mercenary team.
Raiding and trading always went hand in hand — and sorry, misogynists, but plenty of women went a-Viking too. The oldest coherent story from the early AD years — itself probably a retelling of a tale even older than that — is Beowulf, an epic poem about one young lordling’s adventures.
You know how every video game these days seems to be about a protagonist wandering an open world doing quests (I’m not complaining)?
That is actually a reflection of how life could be like before Europe was Christianized and locked down under the control of States and Kings. In many ways, at least in a political sense, the average person was both freer and better off then they would become during medieval times.
Of course, if you were at the bottom end of this society — as in today’s, life was no more pleasant there than anywhere else. Like virtually every other culture on Earth, the old Europeans had a class of people known as thralls who were basically wage laborers without the right to choose their employer.
This unfree status was not, however, the same institution as the chattel slavery practiced by Greece, Rome or the American South.
Thralls had basic rights and their condition was not hereditary, at least not generally, in large part because this was a world where labor was valuable enough that a mistreated thrall could escape and be swiftly taken in somewhere else.
Once again, there is no point in idealizing this era: there was no indoor plumbing, healthcare, or guarantee of surviving too many bad winters in a row. Chieftains were not always good or honorable as their position required, and life was more or less like it is today — minus technology.
Thralls, naturally, got the worst of everything.
But the bigotry against specific bounded groups whose members are assumed to be the same because of physical characteristics like skin tone is a defining feature of Christian society, not pagan.
This is largely because there was no concept of nation or even country at the time. People existed in a world of seemingly infinite size and shaped by material factors like availability of food more than superficial nonsense like skin pigmentation or genital configuration.
Still, rather than the silent, hidden violence that defines Christian society, even in its nominally secular form, in this world it was necessary to be prepared to fight at any time.
Having friends and allies was vital, and loyalty had to be demonstrated by standing at someone’s side when they were forced to fight for their lives.
This, by the way, is where the modern idea of juries actually came from. In the old days, a person could escape being held guilty of a crime if enough people swore they didn’t do it.
Because of the dangerous nature of everyday life, a Norse person traveling on a trading expedition with a boat load of furs bought from Sami peoples could very easily find themselves signing on as a fighter in some local English lord’s retinue. People able to survive long journeys where other traders sometimes turn to piracy are generally able to serve as effective soldiers when not at sea, because organization is the root of effectiveness on any battlefield.
The main question facing a Viking — the term, by the way, simply meant anyone who traveled to the Norse — was where to gain the greatest returns for their effort. The decision to raid a place instead of trade with it was made based mostly on whether the locals were seen as hostile, a condition determined by prior contact — often a raid was in retaliation for someone else’s.
Once the Saxon Crusades began under Charlemagne, the fact people were being targeted for their beliefs would have shocked communities across the pagan world. It’s likely a key reason later Norse tales of the Ragnarok myth, written down by Christian priests around AD 1000, speak of a fiery army backing Surtur the Destroyer coming to fight the old gods from the South.
For any pagan on an expedition, knowing that holy places were being destroyed automatically made Christian monasteries a legitimate target.
And naturally, because they stored wealth taxed from local peasants by the church, they were quite juicy targets too.
The Vikings couldn’t know that the survivors would turn around and write book after book detailing how horrible this was for the monks living there. Rarely do they note how vicious Christian armies were to their enemies, or their own repression of the peasants under their control.
To a Viking, the fact these giant gold banks were almost completely undefended must have seemed like absolute lunacy. They did not respect the power of the Christian deity, in large part because Christ was already essentially incorporated into the Norse pantheon as Baldr, son of gods Odin and Frygga.
As a collection of polytheistic communities, the old Norse didn’t much care who worshiped what deity. Some places favored Odin, others Freyja or her twin brother Freyr, usually represented with or even by a giant phallus.
Baldr appears in the Eddas as the god of Hope, his prophesied return from Hel after Ragnarok a reminder that all things must end, even life and death as we think of them today. The fact his death was contrived by Loke, a trickster with a vital role in the Norse pantheon, is a sign that the old Norse knew the Christian story and saw it as just another interesting idea.
Unlike the Christians, the pagans didn’t need everyone to imagine they were all part of some big monolithic society where everyone believed the same things.
To a pagan of old Europe, one’s word was their bond and loyalty to community and family was everything. While these values are scorned by Christian society, in truth they are what keep it alive.
Christian priests were aware of the threat pagans posed, and so they made them into a nightmare all good Christian believers must fear. The image of Vikings we have of today was wholly contaminated by the fact most people who ever wrote about them needed them to be savage, mindless barbarians and not just regular people like anybody else.
When applied to Muslims or people in Asia, we call that Orientalism. Christians practiced first on the Vikings before they turned the barbarian trope invented by the ancient Greeks on everyone else they disliked.
Today, Viking imagery is constantly appropriated for political purposes without any regard to who they actually were. And this cuts both ways, with the contemporary Left beginning to embrace the rhetoric of the barbarian while members of the far Right pretend the Vikings were some kind of racially pure community.
This, for the record, is a lie.
Race didn’t exist until Christians created it to justify exploiting yet another group of innocent people. Skin tone was not a major dividing factor in the old days, and in fact one of the grandest Viking burial sites discovered — buried longship and all — appears to have been for a woman born in Persia.
Vikings were just people, not wild monsters determined to murder their way to wealth and power. It took hundreds of years for Viking raids against monasteries to turn into armies marching across England and fleets of ships striking all the way to Italy, perhaps even beyond.
Meanwhile, in the east, other Vikings were settling down in modern day Ukraine to build Kyiv into one of the most important cities of the day. They were following an ancient trade network along the rivers of Eastern Europe, negotiating the passage of the lower Dnipro with steppe peoples to reach Byzantium — Miklagard — and the Middle East.
I dream of making an epic game that allows the player to walk the path of a Viking traveler from Baghdad to the colony founded in Newfoundland.
Then a sequel will let someone walk the path going the other way around.
The true story of this time has been suppressed for too long, submerged under a tide of hack and slash fantasy or cloying sermons about the threat of barbarians then and now.
In the old days, life was hard. Lots of people died violent deaths — as many, if not more, perished at the hands of Christians following Charlemagne and his Holy Roman successors than ever fell to a Viking raid.
Today, the Vikings continue to be used as a prop for people’s political charades. Yet ironically, all evidence is that we’ve entered a new Viking Age, not the first and likely not the last, either.
The history of Northern Europe has been repeatedly punctuated by episodes of mass migration. Vikings were little different than the Anglo-Saxons or the unnamed groups who had done the same thing countless times before.
And globally, today, the same processes are at work.
That’s why you see the same tired tropes revived, the fear-mongering over terrorism and immigration and China, by powerful people everywhere.
Whoever said there is nothing new under the sun was right.
The lesson is to ignore most historians and priests.
All they’re doing is telling a story. The rest of us are doing the work of actually building the new world.
We are all the new Vikings.
So pick your targets well, and return home to make your community strong.