My love for vikings comes from three principal sources. How to train your dragon, a lovely animated feature set in a fictional viking village named Berk. Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, a fun filled adventure novel and a great window into fascinating Norse mythology. Trashy viking romances, full of titillation and a large vocabulary of penis related words.
I figured correctly, that I was being exposed to highly romanticized versions of a historical culture. Struck by fierce curiosity, I dug around on the internet (think Wikipedia, source of sweet and at times inaccurate wonder). They say, “Do not meet your heroes”. I disagree. Real people are much more interesting.
For the uninitiated reader, vikings were a Scandinavian seafaring people known for their numerous, appropriately carnage filled raids into the rest of Europe from 8th to 11th century, before being assimilated unwillingly by organized religion and technological superiority. They were expert ship builders and traded with most of the known world, mostly exporting high quality wool and precious amber and importing everything else.
The viking women, on almost equal footing with men, were no damsels in distress. They could inherit property, divorce husbands, remarry, cohabit and have legitimate children outside the bond of marriage. However, their husbands were chosen by the clan. They could practice medicine, exercise religious authority as priestesses and oracles and even serve as merchants. That might not seem like much to the liberated masses, but it is as good as it got in the 10th century.
I was surprised to learn of the viking social structure. The society was divided along socioeconomic lines into three classes. Thralls were slaves, either captured in battle or born to slaves. Karls were peasants who owned farm land and cattle. Jarls were the nobility. Thralls were owned by the other two classes and the usual mistreatment ensued. Hard household chores, laborious construction and death by sacrifice once their Jarl was en route to Valhalla or Folkvangr, depending upon the type of dispatch. None of my highly credible (ahem) ‘sources’ ever mentioned this. I suppose they were too busy building up the fierce, ax wielding, battle hardened, yet kind and honorable protagonist.
It is not up to us to rain judgement down upon a civilization we do not understand. However, we do know human nature. I’m no expert, yet it is hard to miss similar trends and underlying attitudes in various civilizations that evolved independently. Untouchables of India, pyramid builders of Egypt, serfs of Sparta, gladiators and miners of Rome, African plantation workers in the Americas; all slaves in one way or another, deprived of free will, subject to the whims of their overlords, objectified and at times traded, ignorant of possibility and unprotected by religious texts of the time.
History is rife with grief of the oppressed. A grief that resonates through time and remains relevant to this day. It is relevant, because it is a caution against complacency and insensitivity to violations of human dignity outside our home turf. It is a reminder, to be vigilant and to inculcate a deep sense of compassion and civic duty. We are the most fortunate homo sapiens in 200,000 years, give or take a 100,000. My friends, we must fiercely guard our freedom and liberty for ourselves and for the generations to be.