VICTORIA, B.C.—Vikings: Lives Beyond the Legends, at the Royal British Columbia Museum, is an exhibition that would like to clear up a few things.
First of all, “viking” is something you do, not something you are.
If you are raiding and pillaging, you are on a viking. To use it in a sentence, imagine a longboat of sinewy blonde Norsemen (the proper term) crossing the ocean, singing “Here we go a-viking-ing to Irish monast’ries” as they row.
The raiding and pillaging is another thing Vikings would like to discuss. Despite the fact that Norsemen did a lot of it, over four centuries and from the west coast of Ireland to the Caspian Sea, there was more than that to Scandinavian society circa A.D. 700-1100.
This exhibition hopes, by showing those other sides, to depict the culture in “a more subtle and fascinating light than ever before.”
To do this, many of its 550 items relate not to warfare but to farm life and trading, two other things central to the Norse way of life.
Examples that underline how far and wide the Norsemen traded include beads from the Black Sea, cowrie shells from Egypt and a Buddha from India. There are also swords and axes, of course, and these, rusted though they are, still look shudderingly lethal. But the largest and most dazzling part of the show is dedicated to Norse artistry, especially in jewellery (at least some of which was made from melted-down plunder).
There are brooches and amulets and a tiny, exquisitely worked silver crucifix pendant from the earliest days of Christianity in what was still a world dominated by Odin, Thor and the rest of the Asgard pagan pantheon.
There are also keys. “Women were in charge of their households and their farms,” we are told, and one sign of a woman’s status was the keys she wore, reflecting her power.
In pre-Christian Norse society, “women could be both highly regarded and feared.” Beyond their day-to-day authority, aristocratic women were also supposed to be able to “predict and manipulate destiny.”
The Norse liked to put things important to them in their graves. These could be as big as a boat (the exhibition has one example, a reconstruction) or, seemingly more humdrum, like a comb. The comb, however, was a significant item.
“We know that the Vikings were very vain,” says Kent Andersson of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm, which supplied the artifacts for the exhibition.
“Hair was very important in showing who you were,” he says. Good grooming mattered. “In every grave we find a comb.”
The Vikings show, which came from Sydney and goes on to Chicago, also has a gift shop selling a wide range of products. Among them are full-size, accurate reproductions of wooden shields, metal swords and helmets. The subtler bits of Norse life — farming and trading, making nice things — are all well and good, but if you’re dressing up, it’s way more fun to pretend you’re on a viking.
© 2015 Vancouver Courier