A Viking-sized Misunderstanding

Thundering Thorfinn(1)

Photo courtesy of York Archaeological Trust

For the 28th year in a row, armored Vikings are wandering around the streets of York in the UK. Battle cries rise in the distance and families carry around bags filled with what looks like ancient trinkets. Attending the Jorvik Viking Festival is like traveling back in time.

More than one thousand years ago, York was home to the Viking city Jorvik. Its population of about 30,000 made it the second largest trading port in Britain. Now, every February, the York Archaeological Trust (YAT) honors the area’s history and heritage with this week-long festival, drawing in Vikings from across Europe and the world.

The festival plays a large part in dispelling the myth that Vikings were a scary, threatening people.

“The most misunderstood part of the Viking culture is the idea that they were just a bunch of heathen warriors who invaded, raped and pillaged their way around Europe,” says Neil Evans, a member of the reenactment group Jorvik VikingR and a participant in the festival’s final battle. “The Vikings were craftsmen, traders, farmers, and explorers, and had a great understanding of maritime issues, sailing to America hundreds of years before Columbus. But let’s not forget that they brought us elements of our language and law still in use today.”

Richard Jacobs, a member of the historical archery group Elfshot, agrees. Elfshot provides the fire archery for the festival finale.

“The Vikings suffer from decades of being misunderstood,” he says. “There is a certain hyper-masculine stereotype which has arisen for the Vikings which will be very hard to shake off. It is a double edged sword, however. You want to dispel the myth that every Viking was a 7-foot giant with an enormous beard, only interested in destruction and war, but at the same time you have to use that imagery and stereotype to give people what they expect to see.”

And with events like the Best Beard competition, trader stalls, and a Viking feast, the festival organizers are doing a great job on changing the perception of ancient Vikings.

“It doesn’t take long to realize that Vikings are far more complex and thoughtful than any modern bearded axe-wielding reenactor can portray,” Jacobs says. “The Vikings had as many gods of love and fertility as they did of war … and even the gods of war themselves are known in Viking stories to love and every now and again to shed a tear. The Vikings had great art, were masters of storytelling and had a deep understanding about the world around them, but for years to come they will be reduced to grunting barbarians with big beards and even bigger bellies. The Viking Festival and the work of YAT show a good cross section of Viking life and gives the public the chance to see the Vikings in a different light.”

By far, the event not to miss is the finale battle at the end of the week. Amid battle cries and fire, two Viking hordes clash on the battleground in a struggle for revenge and honor. In the end, a fallen Viking is sent off to Valhalla in flames. Hundreds of warriors take part.

“The atmosphere really makes you feel as close to our past as you can possibly get,” Jacobs says. “There is an excitement that the public and the event organizers alike can share.”

Jorvik CityScape 003(1)

Photo courtesy of York Archaeological Trust

Interest in Viking culture continues to grow along with travel to originally Viking countries. The Jorvik Viking Festival is one of the best ways to learn about the culture and experience it with the dichotomy it truly had.

“Vikings will always conjure up romantic thoughts of longships on the horizon and brutal warfare in the minds of future generations,” Evans says. “They gave us so much. How can we forget such a people?”

Jennifer Billock

About Jennifer Billock

Jen the Managing Editor here at the Buzz, and you can also check out her Milwaukee travel blog at MetroMilwaukeeGuide.com. She is a wanderlustful travel writer, always looking for unique destinations to play in. She’s interested in traveling to the strangest and most far-flung locales, and living to write about it!