Vikings: Beyond the Legend

In keeping with my promise to design a 2019 full of joy, I ventured to the Franklin Institute to see a special exhibit that I’ve wanted to visit since October.

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The Franklin Institute is a museum in downtown Philadelphia that features historical and rare artifacts. Past exhibits have included “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs,” “Vatican Splendors,” and “Terracotta Warriors.”

Currently, the Institute is presenting the exhibition, “Vikings: Beyond the Legend.” I’ve always been a little bit curious about the Vikings. They’re often caricatured in cartoons or pop culture as a band of barbarians wearing horned hats; this exhibit busted those myths.

The Viking Age was around 8thcentury CE through 11thcentury CE and these Norse seafarers were from Scandinavia. First-hand accounts of their civilization are scarce because most of what we have that was written about Vikings was penned by their enemies. I think this is extremely fascinating. That would be like your vindictive ex-boyfriend writing your biography after you died. What would actually be fact and what would be fiction?

Shield bosses, Denmark/Norway, 750-1000 CE

Arrowheads, Denmark, 750-900 CE

Helmet & coat of chainmail, replica

I was surprised by how modern and pretty Viking jewelry was! Look at these silver arm rings and the string of beads. Couldn’t you imagine similar accessories being sold today at Anthropologie?

I absolutely adore the beads in the necklace above. I would totally rock that! Also, if you look closely, you’ll see that there are Islamic coins surrounding the string of beads. The Vikings lived in a very globalized society: they traveled across the world and traded with civilizations as far as Central Asia and the Far East. Globalization isn’t a 21stcentury phenomenon; people have always moved and migrated to distant shores.

When I think of Vikings, I rarely think of their daily life, how they dressed, where they lived. This exhibit touched on all those aspects, and even had a changing area where you could model Norseman fashion.

I was moved by how strongly our philosophy about life affects how we live our actual lives. Today’s Western society is dominated by Christian philosophy, which stresses the importance of living a moral, upstanding life now to achieve everlasting life after death in heaven. The Christian God is omnipotent and omnipresent, so even if another human doesn’t know if you do a bad thing, God knows and judges accordingly.

For the Vikings, the afterlife was not a reward or punishment for the choices you made while alive. If you died courageously in battle, you went onto enjoy a glorious afterlife as a celebrated hero in one of two places: Valhalla (ruled by the god Odin) or Folkvang (ruled by the goddess Freya). This is what made them such fierce warriors – they weren’t afraid to kill, and they weren’t afraid to die. (Did you know that the Vikings commonly fought with 3-foot-long double-edged swords? Insane. They must have had super human strength and agility.)

If you died of peaceful causes, you went to Hel, a realm that was presided over by a goddess of the same name. In Hel, you ate, drank, spent time with family and friends, practiced magic, and lived a life similar to the one you had when you were alive.

Female burial assemblage, Lerchenborg, Zealand, Denmark, 850-950 CE

Imagine how differently people would live and behave today, if there were no overriding societal belief that your actions in life could negatively impact your existence after death. Imagine if no one believed in heaven nor hell. How would the world be different?

Miniature weapons in a variety of materials were worn by the Vikings

The realm of magic belonged to women. This staff was believed to be used to foretell the future

Valkyries, servants of the god Odin, who selected warriors to bring to Valhalla

Viking gods and goddesses were powerful beings, but did not need to be worshipped, adored, or even obeyed. The Norsemen focused on remaining on good terms with the gods and other supernatural powers like spirits and creatures. I think a similar comparison would be having a billionaire cousin named Ned. Yeah, you may not approve of Ned’s lifestyle, follow his advice, or even like him. But like any rational person with a modicum of common sense, you would probably stay on Ned’s good side since he’s a pretty powerful, well-connected person with a limitless cashflow and the potential to blackball you if he so wished. The Viking gods and goddesses were powerful, but they did not need to be mindlessly adhered to.

This probably also explains why the Vikings could move so seamlessly from trading peacefully with their neighbors to raiding villages and demanding high taxes from entire kingdoms. There was no morality involved in the decision-making process.

One of the most moving points during my visit was when I saw the massive, 122-foot long recreation of the Viking warship Roskilde 6 with the original wooden planks inlaid at the bottom of the ship.

In 1996, scientists found planks of wood beneath the ocean that belonged to the Roskilde 6, which was built nearly 1000 years ago. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a close look at these thousand-year-old wooden planks because the Franklin Institute had to wrap the planks in plastic to protect them from warping in the winter humidity.

Nevertheless, I was shocked by the sheer size of the warship.

If I saw a boat like this heading towards the shores of my village back in 900 CE, I would know it was game over. We were about to get conquered. Vikings-1, my village-0.

Can you believe that the Norsemen traveled in boats that were open to all the elements? This was what a Viking boat looked like:

I was truly gobsmacked when I realized that these Norse seafarers literally fueled their boats with sheer muscle strength, ate and slept under the open sky (storm or shine!), and traveled to distant lands surrounded by sun, wind, and waves. They barely had any space to move whatsoever – about the same amount of room as a person on a budget economy plane ride!

Can you imagine rowing from Norway to Canada in a boat with barely enough leg room and only a small space underneath your seat for storing your belongings (including snacks)?! No bathroom, no aisle to stretch your legs, no below-deck quarters, no friendly hostess to pass out ginger ale and Lotus Biscoff biscuits. Just you, your fellow passengers, one seat for every bottom, and a pair of oars for every able-bodied person.

Those traveling conditions took physical strength and mental fortitude which I’m not sure that your average modern-day human has. I know I certainly don’t.

Prior to this visit, the extent of my knowledge of the early Norse people came from watching the History channel’s Vikings show. I learned so much more from my trip to the Franklin Institute. This exhibit sparked a lot of questions and thoughts for me, and inspired me to dig deeper to assess beliefs that I hold. I realized how strongly a universally-held philosophy or religion can shape the trajectory of how you live your life – and your society’s future.

The exhibit is open through March 9th, if you want to check it out for yourself!

What has inspired you lately? What has sparked you to look at things differently during the month of January?

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