Vikings occupy an outsized space in our collective imaginations, ranging from sagas and ancient art to Wagner operas and Marvel comics. Valhalla and valkyrie and Mjölnir aren’t just places and accutrements of the gods and choosers of the slain, but part and parcel of our pop culture. They’re also part and parcel of Northern European (and sometimes southern Eurpean) history. After all, while the early Norse were generally farmers (see: Ragnar, the not-so-humble farmer), they had a habit of getting around, both for trade and for other, more nefarious, purposes. The nefarious purposes included such great cultural forays as the sacking of Lindisfarne, which involved killing most of the monks, and the sacking of Iona (rather similar to that of Lindisfarne), along with the sacking and pillaging of towns and cities up and down the Isles and elsewhere.
These extracurriculars were, indeed, the root of the word by which we know the people. To go a-Viking meant to go raiding, not to be Norse or to be from Scandinavia. And, of course, nobody wore horned helmets–the things would have been, one assumes, terribly impractical. The Vikings exhibition, which closed at the Field Museum on October 4 (the day I visited), and which will now spend the next month being dismantled before moving to its next city, stressed that nobody wore those things. In fact, the exhibition posits that what was taken, by people whose imaginations were evidently as good as mine, to be horned helmets were actually Huginn and Muninn (though and mind/memory), chillin’ on Odin’s shoulders.
For some of us, this wasn’t actually news. (I’d like to believe it wasn’t news for anyone, but this is likely a rare moment of optimism on my part.) For some of us, it probably was. Either way, Vikings stressed the lack of horned helmets–and the non-Viking elements of that culture we know as “Viking.” There was little or no discussion of the wildest, worst of the Viking raids, such as those on Lindisfarne and Iona, an absence noted by the Trib’s Steve Johnson in his decidedly positive review of the exhibition. In fact, I’d say the name was rather a misnomer: the exhibition really focused more on the day-to-day lives of the Norse we call Vikings, and not on their little blood and strife-filled excursions to other lands.
Perhaps oddest of all, in light of the focus upon daily lives of farmers, was the warning at the entrance to the exhibition: we were all told that it contained human bones. (Oddly enough, I don’t recall any such warning when entering every exhibit ever on ancient Egypt–and all of those are filled chockfull of mummies, which are, you guessed it, human bones.) I’m also not entirely sure why the bones were along for the ride, although this may have more to do with crowding in the exhibit hall–it was packed almost shoulder-to-shoulder–than due to any issues with the exhibition’s choices themselves. Similarly, my own feeling of something akin to lack–it was a good exhibit, but somehow not quite–may have had something to do with all those people (I don’t much care for crowds, usually, although I’m fine on Michigan Ave, and fine on the Mag Mile, and on State Street, and can push my way through St. Paddy’s Day crowds like a champ), and with all those walls of text (I want art, man) than with any inherent flaws in the exhibition. I do know that my father would rather have had that replica longship inside the exhibit, where he could have studied it, and S made a few snide comments about all those replicas. But, in the end, it wasn’t the not-quite1 that struck me most about the exhibition. It was all those similarities to other places, past and present and, most likely, future as well.
The exhibition was filled with what were evidently Viking beads–probably at least some the result of (one assumes) peaceful trade missions with other countries. My mother took one look at one of those massive strands and pointed out that they were hippie beads, the same sort of things that her generation took to wearing, so many years after the Vikings. We truly don’t seem to be a very creative species, we humans: we keep on keeping on, doing the same things we’ve done for hundreds, and thousands, of years. (Of course, I’d totally wear those beads. There were oh so many colors strung together–how could I resist such a mad symphony of color?)
Hippie beads evidently stretched from the medieval (and before) to the modern, but they were far from the only evidence of one-track human imaginations. Well before the populations of Scandinavia and Iceland and Greenland decided to go a-Viking, the Celts–who once stretched from Germany through the British Isles and Ireland–created wild and imaginative artwork that is, in many ways, echoed by many of the later Norse designs, from swirling servants to–you guessed it–awesome hippie beads. One wonders at the extent of trade between peoples–and, most of all, at the similarities of our human imaginations. We really do seem to like to do variations of the same thing. Maybe, as Shakespeare wrote, we’ve been seeing our images in antique books for hundreds, and thousands, of years. It wouldn’t, somehow, surprise me all that much.
Along with the walls of text2 and the slave manacles and all those hippie beads (and surprisingly small drinking horns–dude, those things were smaller than lots of contemporary wine glasses, and they probably got passed around!), images of what my mother and I assumed to be reenactors of the good old Medieval Days were interspersed throughout the exhibition. At first, I paid almost no attention at all to those images–I’ve done my share of living history, and it looked exactly the same as much of what I’ve done.
Exactly the same is, of course, the keyword here. My mother also noted the sameness: she said it looked a lot like what happened around a fur trader’s home and outbuildings in Indiana,3 which it did–right down to the historic clothing. I guess we really aren’t terribly creative, we humans, and our images have been staring back at us for a millenia of change. Vikings tell us that, as the Field’s website for the exhibition notes, the Vikings were “voyagers.” I grew up steeped on tales of the North American fur trade; I devoured books about arrogant coureurs de bois, about hearty, teamwork-driven voyageurs, about traders and trappers and a wild world, here at my doorstep, yet somewhere far removed from anything I’d ever known. To me, the word voyager becomes voyageur, and immediately calls to mind the tough, teamworking French-Canadians who went deep into what was then the wilds of North America, doing a brisk business with people of the First Nations.
And, in truth, if the artifacts in Vikings were to be believed, those voyageurs had at least a wee bit in common with the raider-traders of yesteryear–although I do not believe that voyageurs generally raided anyone. Their world was a bit too perilous for any such shenanigans–after all, while it likely behooved a Norse raider to be large and impressive, the average voyageur was selected to be slight and wiry.4 Easier to fit all those lovely, pricey furs into the canoes if they’re kept moving by small men, after all. Both the teamworking voyageurs and the lone ranger coureurs likely left behind their genes on the vastness of the North American continent, though one likes to think that it was usually consensual. They must have been rather cocksure, attractive fellows, and certainly they were known, and celebrated, for their daring and their trips–in a way, not so different from those who went a-Viking. Except, of course, that the voyageurs were trading.
Like the Vikings, who left behind such exquisite pieces of art as the beautiful, terrible Valkyrie who heads this piece, and whose gods were a world unto themselves, beautiful, petty, terrible, and glorious, the voyageurs carried their gods with them–or, as they were generally quite Catholic, carried God and saints wherever they went, along with treasure troves of bawdy songs.5 (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a voyageur song that wasn’t, at the very least, filled with double entendres.) They left their mark on the land they traversed, scattering mutilated lob trees along their route. Perhaps the Vikings left something similar to a lob tree (a tree whose lower branches had been lobbed off–thus, a lob tree) behind; they also left runes, and occasionally scuttled boats and bodies and accoutrements of war. (Voyageurs had a high mortality rate, and left bodies behind sometimes, too.)
Viking raids seem, at least in some cases, to have presaged later Norse expansions–into Ireland, England, Scotland, the Isle of Man; into France, Germany, even Spain; into countries like Russia; into Greenland, and quite possibly to North America, well before Cristóbal Colón got lost on his way to India. The voyageurs, too, did the footwork of empire–though I like to think that it was unwitting (and that their lousy trades, glass beads for beaver pelts, were not so much them cheating people as their bosses–though I’ve always assumed that the coureurs were fully aware of their sleaze), whence they traveled, others would eventually follow. The voyageurs (and their cocky cousins the coureurs) were among the first men of European ancestry to traipse across vast swathes of North America. For that matter, Jean-Baptise Point du Sable6 himself, honored as the father of my city, was involved in the fur trade. Chicago’s hardly a hub for beaver, now.
Without longships, the Vikings would not have made it far; without their canoes, the voyageurs would hardly have been voyageurs at all. (Presumably, without longships the Vikings were the Norse farmers who populated that exhibition, so oddly named “Viking.”) Despite the importance of ships to what we know as “Vikings” and “Viking culture” (which might not really be a thing), that longship was outside the exhibit hall, in semidarkness; there were no longships, nor even any fine dragon prows, within the exhibition itself. But there was a ghost ship, my favorite part of the entire exhibition: rivets from a resurrected longship, removed, suspended on translucent wires from a lowered ceiling, shimmering in a symphony of light. It caught my attention far, far more than all those walls of text; it held me longer even than the walls of text about the gods, for though I am a huge fan of myth, that ghost ship was magic, and all that text…just wasn’t. It was probably also the one place in the exhibit where I stopped thinking of similarities, stopped amusing myself at the incredible affinities between Northern European folk art, and only looked at the piece before me. It was a stunning display, iron made magic.
For what it’s worth, I have trouble imagining a canoe made of light. Maybe it’s because there are no rivets in a birchbark canoe: rope and tar just don’t seem like they’d hold that ethereal shape too well. Cultural similarities drew me through that exhibition, and made me think when I left it, drawing parallels and wondering at this evident melding of creativity among Stone Age to Medieval Northern Europeans. But the ghost ship, with its rivets suspended in light and air, was its highlight.
1 It’s worth noting, in this section of not-quites, that nearly everything in the exhibition was Swedish–yet the Norse were definitely not just from Sweden. Admittedly the Swedish Museum in Stockholm was behind the exhibition’s organization, but it still seems a bit…lacking, when those who went a-Viking came from countries as diverse as Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and the lands that they colonized elsewhere.
2 I really, really felt that those walls of text were a (potentially fatal) flaw in the exhibition as a whole. Would be nice to see it reworked somewhat…with less reliance on all that text. The text was also entirely in English, which was an uneasy choice in a city as multilingual as Chicago. For more info on linguistic demographics, see this article from Crain’s, and this dataset from the census via the City’s web portal.
3 For more on Joseph Bailly, see information on the Bailly Homestead from the National Park Service, Bailly’s Wikipedia page, and Bailly’s Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry. Not sure if any of them discuss Bailly’s fabulously innovative (ahem) accounting practices, which is a pity.
4 They really were small–no big dudes need apply. I can no longer remember all the places I’ve read about their physical requirements (I’ve been studying the fur trade my entire life); however, the Canadian government’s resources for teachers, including this one (a pdf), discuss height requirements and lifestyle.
5 If you’re interested in more about the folk music of the voyageurs, which is its own subgenre of French Canadian music, the Minnesota Historical Society has put out a CD of voyageur songs, song, as they would have been in days of yore, by a chorus of dudes. It’s available from Amazon as well as from the Minnesota Historical Society itself. There are also lyrics available, including here, and pdfs with music and words, such as this one. Many are call-and-response songs, of which I am quite fond; I do recommend them. Also worth noting that many French-Canadian folk musicians continue the tradition; my favorite may be Montréal-based Le Vent du Nord, which has a hurdy-gurdy, guys!!, but they are far from alone.
6 We know so little about du Sable; we don’t even have an image of him, though according to his contemporaries he was of African descent. Brief synopses of his life, less mysterious than his origins, can be found at Wikipedia, WILL TV/PBS, and Britannica.
I have already talked about what I thought of the exhibition, but lots of other people liked it more. (And some liked it less.) Some (real) reviews follow:
- The Chicago Tribune
- Timeout Chicago
- Northwest Indiana Times
- The Chicago Sun-Times
- The BBC (British Museum)
If you’re interested, there’s a whole article about the beautiful rivets, including photos. There’s also an exhibition website from the Field; this remains available even though the exhibition–and those amazing rivets!–is moving on.