We are fascinated by the Viking mentality. Their fighting spirit and their tenacity seem to have captivated the attention of an entire generation. And while I believe most people don’t really get who the Vikings were, I also believe that those of us who work with this historical era every day, need to be inclusive and stop judging people for their lack of knowledge. Even archeologists I know hesitate to call themselves experts on this subject. It’s so clouded by centuries of monotheistic dogma that it’s only now that we are really beginning to understand the Viking world.
I’m a novelist, and part of my job is to imagine what’s going on in the minds of the people I write about. I need to understand what makes people do what they do. Part of my research on the Norse mythology and -society resulted in a list of personal traits that would have been valued by the Norsemen. I wrote about some of these in Adopting a Viking Mentality – is it for you? Part I. That blogpost has been the most widely read I’ve ever written. People have been writing to me, telling that it helped and motivated them, which is immensely motivating! However, one grumpy guy suggested that this could be said about anyone anywhere. Well, maybe you could find people with a Viking mentality anywhere – as long as we’re in the year 2016. But we must understand that people haven’t always had access to ideas and the opportunity to live the way they wanted. Our concept of individuality (which the Viking mentality is all about) must have come from somewhere. Some say it came with Christianity. I disagree. When Christianity came to Scandinavia, it was used to crush the local democracy and to centralize power to a king. For which reason, my ancestors killed both Olafs, by the way. Viking mentality is about shaping your own destiny, it is a way of appreciating the fight in itself and not only as a way to achieve something. For a pre-Christian Viking, you would pray that Odin choose your side and fight beside you. But you would never expect or want that he fights for you. Which is different from the Christian belief in an allmighty deity.
But anyway, I’m writing this blogpost because I feel I should add a few ideas to make the picture more complete. Viking mentality is difficult to define, I find myself using words shaped by a society dominated by rules and regulations. But still, here are a few more ideas that I think my ancestors tried to live by:
1, Be tenacious
The Vikings did not easily give up. I don’t think they knew how to, actually. They were also extremely conservative of their ways. For decades, the Norse settlements on Greenland, Vinland and Markland (Yes, due to recent archeological finds I think it’s safe to say they had several settlements in North America) were ridiculed for not adopting the natives’ way of life. The settlers would have been more successful if they hadn’t been holding on to their Norse methods of hunting, housebuilding, clothing etc, some said. Maybe so, but we are now starting to understand that the settlers were not unsuccessful at all. They went to Vinland to find timber, and they did. And they stayed there quite a long time. Much because of their tenacity, I think.
Let me add that the Vikings did adopt lots of outlandish customs and ideas. But they weren’t likely to do so if it meant discarding their way of life or their culture.
2, Turn bad into good
You’ve heard that one before. When life gives you nothing but lemons, make some lemonade. Or, when an iceberg blocks your harbour, chop it up and start selling ice blocks to the southerners. It’s good advice and means that you have to be flexible and adjust to the fact that life happens. Walking Hrolfr, later known as Rollo, had to flee because Olaf the Hairy went on a a bit of a rampage and wanted to make a united coutry out of what is now Norway. So Rollo founded his own kingdom in Valland, later called northern France. He turned bad into good.
3, Be loyal
Loyalty was probably immensely important in the Norse society. Loyalty was the glue that made clans stick together, and a man know to be illoyal was scorned upon. When Olaf Tryggvason came to Norway, he did not have to kill the mighty earl Hákon. Hákon’s slave did that for him, but Olaf revarded him with a swift blow across the neck. Being illoyal, even to your enemy, was not of Olaf’s liking.
As a Norse man or woman, you would be loyal to your close family, your friends and to the chieftain of your clan and area. In Norway, it is unlikely that you would feel the same loyalty to a king – a fact that surprises many.
4, Have courage
I seem to have forgotten to list this one. It seems almost unecessary to mention. The Vikings were courageous – there is no doubt about it. This is one of the ideas that the whole world actually have got right about the Vikings. Bravery was valued and it was a necessity for being admitted into Odin’s great hall after you left this world.
5, Grab every opportunity
The Norsemen were opportunistic and combined with their ability to adjust to the surroundings, this gave them a reputation as the best warriors of their time. More importantly, however, it gave them an edge as tradesmen. They would travel further than others to get those rare, exclusive walrus tusks, that silk and those spices, and those many tradesmen who dealt in the ugly business of slavetrading, would travel far into the Mediterranean to sell their captured European men, women and children on the markets of the Abbasid and later Fatamid caliphate, to the Berbers and the Turks.
I like to think about the Norsemen as rebels, and the most rebellious of them were the Norwegians. As a rule, they rebelled against their kings. Where I live, in Viken, we didn’t even approve of the idea of being part of a united Norway until the very end of the Viking Age – at least not as long as that meant paying taxes to a king in the west part of the country. The Vikings were rebels and they could act quickly if they felt like it. If they got upset with some king or chieftain, they could get a bunch of lads together, sail up the coast or across the North Sea, strike at a village under his rule and steal some barrells of well matured mead, sail back and throw a party, all within a couple of weeks.
So there you have another six ideas that were probably essential for the Norsemen. Maybe you’d like to add something to the list. Part of the magic and fascination associated with the Vikings is due to the fact that there are so many things we don’t yet know. But that Viking mentality is still alive today. Their tenacity and rebellious nature is not for everyone. But maybe it is for you.
-Bjørn Andreas Bull-Hansen (copyright)