Why do we love the Viking Age?

From a historical perspective, the Viking Age was a short period. But it has left deep impressions. Over and over, interest in Vikings reemerges. Religious historian Fredrik Gregorius is to investigate what this fixation is all about.

Swedish hatSwedish hat for tourists Photo credit igorr1Little plastic Vikings, helmets with horns and Viking jewellery are on display at the tourist shops in Stockholm’s Old Town. An hour’s drive to the north is Old Uppsala, an archaeological site that is one of Sweden’s most historical locations. Different groups of Viking enthusiasts flock to the small hills here – for general tourist purposes, but also for Viking role play, meditation and sacrificial rituals in honour of the ancient Norse gods.

“Why can’t we let go of the Vikings? I’m curious about the nature of this fixation on Vikings”, says Fredrik Gregorius, senior lecturer in history of religion.

Fredrik Gregorius’ workplace has been at Linköping University for six years, but right now he is working from home – a situation he is not particularly happy with.

He is in the process of starting up the research project “Back to Blood: Pursuing Future from the Norse Past”, which is about interpretations of Old Norse culture in contemporary Scandinavia. The plan is to investigate the recurrent interest in Old Norse religion and Vikings from various perspectives, e.g. religious, cultural and ecological. This research will be carried out together with colleagues at universities in Stavanger and Oslo.
The Viking Age isn’t just an expression of nationalism, it’s so much more. And what this ‘more’ is, I will investigate further. After corona. The Viking Age is here to stay.
Fredrik Gregorius

If it were not for the pandemic, Fredrik Gregorius would have started his fieldwork at Old Uppsala, Uppåkra and Lofoten – places strongly associated with Vikings.

“Now I’ve missed a sacrifice in Old Uppsala organised by a faith community for Nordic nature worship. The sacrifice was to be part of my studies of religious rituals”, he says with a sigh.
Role playVikings for a day. Photo credit Ludvig Thunman / TT
It is well known that ideas about the Viking Age have been important for national socialist groups. But it is less well known that the Viking Age also has religious adherents and that certain environmentalists admire how the Vikings lived in harmony with nature.

“The Social Democratic party also referenced the Vikings in order to describe universal suffrage. It is not uncommon to point to the democratic nature of the Vikings’ thing – their governing assembly. This was particularly common in the 19th century.”

For Fredrik Gregorius, the burning question is not only how different groups use the Vikings and their places, but what they spotlight in various contexts. And what they would rather remain silent about.

“After World War II, there has been a desire to tone down the significance of Old Uppsala because Old Norse culture has been associated with Hitler. This contributed to a delay in the excavation of the site. But suppressing something actually shows how important it is! I find it interesting that the site is politically controversial to this day.”

Nor are the archaeologists and historians who harbour an interest for Old Uppsala and other historical sites spared Fredrik Gregorius’ inquisitive eye.

“How do they decide what aspects to highlight? For instance, what do museum managers choose to make exhibitions of?”

Fredrik Gregorius argues that history is interpreted based on the time and culture we live in. Which means that our interest in Vikings and Old Norse culture is an expression of what people feel is important right now.

“Old Norse mythology is not received neutrally; it’s interpreted through ideological glasses. So, for me as a religious historian, the interesting thing is not what is true, but why we interpret history in certain ways.”

Considering the fact that the Viking Age did not last long in a historical perspective, it is rather odd that it has taken hold for such a long time, and been the subject of interpretation in so many different periods. For a religious historian like Fredrik Gregorius, this is what makes it so interesting.

“The Viking Age isn’t just an expression of nationalism, it’s so much more. And what this ‘more’ is, I will investigate further. After corona. The Viking Age is here to stay.”

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