Vikings returned to the History Channel last fall with more blood-soaked episodes in a semblance of historical heroics: The legacy of Ragnar Lothbrok lives on in the exploits of his sons, unfolding before the eyes of a captivated audience orders of magnitude larger than the “Great Heathen Army” ever was. Moreover, there seems to be no end to contemporary fascination with Norse mythology, and the Nordic Gods have gained massive popular exposure, from the Mr. Wednesday of the Starz series American Gods to the Marvel Comics vision of The Mighty Thor. Even the Metropolitan Opera is jumping on the popular longship, as the Viking Gods return to tread the boards at the Met in Wagner’s Ring Cycle this Spring.
But who were the Vikings, anyway, and why—by the Hammer of Thor!—do they still matter? It is clear that the Norse were much more than bloodthirsty barbarians, and were in fact great shipbuilders, navigators, explorers, and craftsmen. That said, the Vikings also were pirates and pillagers and slave-traders, and we ignore this duality at our peril.
However “realistic” the History Channel’s Vikings purports to be, we have in fact largely recast the Vikings in a mold that accentuates elements we admire and rounds down the sharper edges that we would rather forget: Minnesotans celebrate their Scandinavian heritage through the NFL Vikings, as do countless other sports teams; NASA’s Mars probes were named after the Vikings, evoking the journeys of those undoubtedly intrepid Norse explorers.
It is of course the boldness, the courage, and the sense of adventure of the Viking Venture that is so easy to embrace. Enticing as that image may be, however, we should be wary of the heavily sanitized, sometimes sexy, and generally admirable contemporary vision of the Vikings, which has become for us a seductive cultural alter-ego, an avatar of the adventurous selves we would like to believe ourselves to be.