The more you know about the vikings, the history, the culture and the customs, the more you will notice how much viking culture is left in Denmark. It’s literally everywhere.
For example: We don’t say “Kristmesse” (“Christmas”) but use the pagan word “Jul”.
Our design, our language and the way we think is highly influenced by our norse legacy.
About one thousand years ago we traveled the world, and we welcomed a large number of immigrants, gaining so much from the cultural exchange, as you always do.
We started using the latin letters, and soon after the arabic numbers followed, as in the rest of the world. Over a period of five hundred years we became christians. Our architecture changed. In many ways we became a part of the pan-european culture.
In the process we traded in our religion, the runes and many customs.
What would Denmark, the Danes and everyday objects look like if we had been more culturally conservative, a thousand years ago?
We are trying to answer that question with this exhibition, and this website.
To strengthen your own culture is not to disregard other cultures; on the contrary.
Most of the things you see here do not exist in reality, but you can find many Viking-inspired things in the shops in Copenhagen.
It is even possible to buy authentic replicas of jewellery, found in archeological excavations in Scandinavia, in many jewellery shops and online: www.museum-jewelry.com.
If you want to know more about vikings there is a beautiful exhibition in the National Museum: www.natmus.dk.
Here are a few facts about viking heritage in Denmark:
The Bluetooth in your cellphone is invented in Sweden and named after the Danish King Harald Bluetooth (Harald Blåtand), and the logo is a compilation of the younger futhark runes for H and B (ᚼᛒ).
Viking is not an ethnic group but simply means raider. The word was used in most of northern Europe, so if you hear or read about English or Estonian vikings it is not a mistake.
MORE ON ETHNICITY
There were several ethnic groups in Scandinavia a thousand years ago. To the east you would find the Finnish, and to the north you would find the nomadic Sami people.
The southern and central part of Scandinavia was populated by the Norse people ("Danes"), who were increasingly being mixed with immigrants and slaves of Germanic, Saxon and Slavic descent.
According to the world's leading (and Danish) DNA researcher Eske Willerslev, there are probably more people with blue eyes and blond hair today than a thousand years ago.
The Norsemen were not one people with a king and clearly defined borders, but consisted of many small kingdoms that could fight among themselves or become allies when it suited them. On few occasions, such as the attack on York and the attack on Paris, large fleets assembled with hundreds of ships and thousands of warriors, but soon after they fought against each other again.
A well-known ethnic group was the Rus-Vikings in present-day Sweden, who primarily went on expeditions to the east and southeast, and gave name to Russia.
A mythical group was the Jomsborg Vikings in present-day Poland. They have left behind many myths but nothing archaeological.
Far from all norse people were Vikings (raiders), many were peaceful traders and most were farmers.
The most important gods in the norse religion are Odin (the all father), Thor (the protector of mankind, with his hammer Mjölnir), Freja and Frej (the goddess and god of harvest, fertility and love), and Tyr (the god of war, protection and plunder).
The weekdays are named after the norse gods: Mani (Mona), Tyr (Tiw), Odin (Woden), Thor (Thunor) and Freya (Frige).
The world consist of the gods up in Asgård (where you will find the great hall of Valhalla), the humans in Midgård, and the demons down below in Udgård.
The world will be reformed – or end – when the Fimbul winter ends in Ragnarok: The final battle between the gods and the demons.
Every human’s lifespan is decided by the length of their thread in the world tree Yggdrasil.
Odin has two ravens who will keep track of the world for him: Hugin and Munin. He sacrificed one of his eyes in an exchange for wisdom.
The norse religion is not a mythology, as there are still people practising the religion.
The Scandinavian population was christened to avoid a grand scale war with neighbouring countries around year 1000, but the process of changing the religious belief in the population began two hundred years earlier, and took three hundred years more.
MORE ON RELIGION
Now the religious situation is like this: The vast majority of the population in Scandinavia are members of the lutheran christian church, for traditional reasons, and will show up in church for a wedding or a funeral, but stay away the rest of the year. It could have been the same superficial relation to the norse religion. The Coca Cola edition of Saint Nicholaus could have been a Coca Cola rendition of Odin; Dressed in red, fat and jolly. We could have used Thor's name in the same blasphemous manner we use god's name now. A pop culture – plastic coated – edition of the norse religion.
The norse relogion was not a uniform religious institution, a thousand years ago, and there was no book with all the answers. The appearance and "function" of the individual gods could vary greatly from place to place. It would probably be put in a more fixed framework, now, if the norse religion was the primary religion in today's Scandinavia.
The nordic expansion
The vikings would drink a lot of milk, beer and mjöd (mead), eat pork, herring and cabbage as part of a healthy lifestyle. Cleanliness and vanity was also huge on the agenda. That provided them with a long lifespan and low infant mortality. This led to significant population growth.
Dividing a farm between all surviving sons would be devastating, so younger sons would have to work for the oldest, or find somewhere else to create a new farm. This is the primary reason why the vikings expanded their territory to include large parts of western Russia, England, Ireland, northern Germany, Iceland and so on. On raids and on the outlook for good farmland the Vikings went far up the russian rivers, as far as present day Afghanistan, Morocco, Turkey, Greenland and Canada.
Their ships (“dragonships”) were useable both on rivers and open sea, and they had superior navigation skills and instruments. Combined with the large shields and warrior axes, they were virtually unstoppable.
The Vikings had slaves (“Trælle”), but not in the same way as african slaves in America. The slaves in Scandinavia would be a subdued part of the family, and often sleep under the same roof as their owners. It was not uncommon that a slave was freed through marriage with a free man or woman. Even children were taken as slaves, but they could be free as well, through adoption.
This is not to imply that the life of a slave was always easy in Scandinavia a thousand years ago.
Vikings did not practise gender equality in modern respect, but it was not uncommon that women would fight alongside the men. These warrior women were called shield maidens (“skjoldmø”). But most importantly, when the men ventured out on viking campaigns in the summer months, the women would run the farms at home.
MORE ON TRAVELS AND PLACES
The travels seen on the map stretches over aproximately 350 years.
Some travel for trade, others for looting and some for occupation
Some viking place names
Vinland: L'Anse aux Meadows in Canada.
Danelagen: Northeast England.
Rusland (Russia): Named after the Rus-Vikings that conquered western part of Russia.
Heiðabýr (Hedeby): Perhaps the largest trading town in the Viking area. Located a little south of present-day Schleswig. The city disappeared.
Uppsala: City in present-day Sweden with great religious significance. Uppsala still exists, but archaeologists have so far failed to locate the main temple.
A family of discoverers
Naddoður discovered Iceland (year 860).
His brothers' grand-grand-son, Erik ("The Red") Thorvaldsson discovered Greenland (year 982),
and Eriks' son Leif ("The Lucky") Eriksson discovered Vinland (year 1021).
There was not one single kingdom that the Vikings lived in.
Scandinavia, and the areas that the Vikings occupied, consisted of numerous smaller kingdoms, and it is impossible to create a full overview of who were allies and who fought who, over the years.
On a few occasions, the Vikings have assembled giant armadas with hundreds of ships and many thousands of warriors, with one common goal, but soon after, they began to fight each other again. Keep in mind that most Viking expeditions have been neighboring towns attacking eachother.
The viking age
The beginning and end of the viking age is conveniently defined by two recorded historical events. It began with the raiding of Lindisfarne monastery in 793 AD, by a group of vikings from a fjord in Norway, and ended with the death of King Harald Harðráði in England in 1066 AD. Of course there has been Scandinavian raiders in action long before and long after, and some claim the viking age began in 700 AD and ended in 1263 AD.
In fact, the concept of the Viking Age was invented in 1864, in a campaign to strengthen the national identity among the Danes, after a lost border dispute with Germany.
It is still possible to find nationalists and racists using viking symbology in their propaganda, even though most of our knowledge points to the fact that the majority of the vikings were very curious and open to other cultures and religions, such as christianity, islam and even buddhism, and their genes were far more mixed, with far fewer people with blond hair and blue eyes, than today.
They simply did not have the perception of peoples, nationality and ethnicity that we have now. A Viking would probably not be able to understand the nationalists of today.
It is a widespread misunderstanding that there is a correlation between the words “Norse” and the country of Norway, and that “Danes” are correlated to Denmark, in history. In fact both “Norse” and “Danes” are terms related to the majority of the population in Scandinavia. It is not until long after the viking age that the countries – and borders – were established, creating the countries and populations referred to as Denmark (Danish), Norway (Norwegian), Sweden (Swedish), Iceland (Icelandic), and only a hundred years ago Finland (Finnish).
Another huge misunderstanding is the horned helmets. A single helmet with horns have been found in an excavation, and it has presumably been used in religious rites. Helmets with horns would have been impractical in a fight, and one thing the vikings were not: Impractical.
THE VIKINGS' CRUELTY
When the Vikings attacked a city, the massacre was unparalleled. They raped the women before murdering them. They dismembered the bodies of the people they had killed. They burned down the houses when they had stolen everything of value, and desecrated altars. Priests and other high-ranking officials were humiliated in public when executed slowly and painfully. A Viking attack was a bloodbath and an act of evil – and they always let some eyewitnesses escape.
This was a tactic that may have saved more lives than it has taken.
The rumor of the Vikings' superior cruelty meant that when they stood in front of a city, they were most often paid large sums for not attacking the city – so-called "Danegæld" – without a drop of blood being spilled. Larger cities in England and France in particular have contributed considerably to the prosperity of the Vikings following a polite request.
Picture from Faraos Cigarer
We know almost everything about life in Scandinavia a thousand years ago. So many treasures and graves are found, so many things preserved in writing. But some mysteries remain.
One of the most important cities of the time was the trading capital of Scandinavia, Hedeby, located a few kilometers south of present day Slesvig, in northern Germany. It simply vanished, and became an empty field. What happened?
We know when and how the vikings found and colonised Iceland, Greenland and “Wineland” (in Canada). We know that the vikings gave up on the colony in Canada and went back to Greenland after about fifty years. But we don’t know how, why and when they vanished into thin air from Greenland. What happened?
A huge mass grave containing remains of vikings have been found in England, but for once, there is nothing in writing about how and when they were killed. What happened? (Forget about “why” – they had it coming!)
Vikings has become a great part of popular culture, with a series on Netflix, where 350 years of viking history has been compressed on the shoulders of poor Ragnar Lodbrok; with Marvel fantasy movies about a weird edition of the god Thor; with misguided tattoo artists creating wild artworks; with a nutcase viking-ish clothed Trump-supporter making a fool of him self on US television, and so on.
But when the spotlight fades, they are a part of our history, and beneath the surface still a large part of our culture.
Today it is american pop culture that effects our language and customs, and the danish festival of “Fastelavn” is fading in favour of Halloween, but we will – by Odin – still say “Jul”.
We are still vikings.
What we are trying to express in this website and exhibition is the simple “what if we had preserved the norse religion, the use of runes, architecture, the clothing style, the braided beard- and hairstyles, etc.?”
MORE ON DESIGN
Danish design is today world-renowned for its simplicity and material aesthetics.
In a way very traditional, and in a way not.
Ease of use, practical use, durability and high quality are in focus, and it has not changed in the last thousand years.
But the absence of decoration and colors is new.
In the year 1000, most utensils were very colorful, and richly decorated with patterns and motifs, often taken from nature and religion – dragons, snakes, Yggdrasil, Mjölnìr, etc.
After a short fascination with new materials, such as plastics, it has again become popular to use natural materials such as wood, ceramics and leather, which may look untreated. It is mixed with glass, polished steel and polished concrete.
The keywords are "raw", "untreated", "natural" and "simple". When a Dane makes a jug, of glass and leather, it must also be able to be used as a vase or decorative jar. The shape is simple and organic. But nowadays it is rarely adorned with dragons and wicker patterns.
Original images from marjoe.dk and holmegaard.dk
During the process of creating this exhibition, I have become aware of – and honestly surprised by – how much Viking culture still exists in the Nordic countries. Hundreds of times I have been thinking "If only we had preserved ...", only to discover that we actually have.
In Sweden – where I live – we use the word "jätte" numerous times every day, which now means "much" or "big", but is the original name for the demonic giants in the norse religion. We use the pagan word "Jul" for the winter solstice, instead of "Kristmesse" ("Christmas"), in Danish we use the word "træls" (slave-like) about bad experiences, and our designs and traditions are largely influenced by the cultural heritage we have from the Vikings.
It affects our attire, decorations, interior design, architecture, language, and to a large extent the way we think.
That we are open to other cultures, adapt, borrow and steal from other cultures, learn new things, and have a pragmatic attitude to everything that comes from outside, we have that from the Vikings.
The scholars quarrel about whether the Viking Age started in the year 700 or 793, and whether it ended in the year 1066 or 1263. My claim is now that the Viking Age – culturally – started around the year 700, and is not over yet.
I am incredibly grateful that Jorcks Ejendomsselskab has given me the opportunity to create this exhibition, which has been a journey of discovery without equal into my own cultural heritage.
Graphic designer and storyteller
Are you hungry for more information – and entertainment – about vikings?
MORE ON THE LANGUAGE
The language spoken by the Scandinavian vikings is no longer spoken in its entirety anywhere. It contained a vast selection of local dialects, and has had a huge impact on the present day Scandinavian languages, such as Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, as well as English. The closest resemblance any spoken language has to the vikings' language, however, is presumably Icelandic.
Since then Danish, Norwegian and Swedish has been greatly influenced by German, French and – ironically – modern English.
Some letters are found in Scandinavian languages, that replaces sounds not represented in the Latin alphabet.
Ð / ð is found in Icelandic. It's a soft D, pronounced almost like th in "this".
Þ/ þ is soft T, pronounced almost like th in "thing".
Æ / æ is found in Icelandic, Danish and Norwegian, and is formed from the letters a and e, pronounced like e in "elf".
Ä / Ä is the Swedish equivalent to Æ.
Ø / ø is also found in Norwegian and Danish, closest english pronunciation would be "err".
(I dare you: Ask any Dane to teach you to say "Rødgrød med fløde". They will love it – you will hate the whole experience!)
Ö / ö is the Icelandic and Swedish equivalent to Ø.
Å / å is found in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, and pronounced almost like "Oh!". In old Danish family- and place names is is often written as double A (e.i. Aalborg or Kærgaarden).
The runic alphabets are called Futhark, after the first letters, and has a number of variantions over time, so you can find Elder Furthark, Younger Furthark and even Anglo-Saxon here: valhyr.com/pages/rune-converter
The in-between variations of the runic alphabets number in the hundreds.
Danish and Norwegian alphabet
In the Scandinavian countries, there are also some Finnish and Sami languages that are unrelated to Old Norse.
Since before the Viking age it was common to use the father's first name + "s' son" (or "sen" in Norway and Denmark) as surname. So Erik Thorvaldsson was the son of Thorvald Åsvaldsson, who was the son of Åsvald Ulfsson...
Girls surname would be father's name + "datter"/"dotter"/"dottir" (depending on country).
Exceptionally the mother's name were in use, like King Svend Estridsen, who's mother's name was Estrid.
From approximately 1850 AD the names were "frozen" for all future generations to have the same surname. So people with the name "Jensen" are not automatically related, but all have an ancestor some 150 years ago named "Jens".
From approximately 1850 to about 1970 is was customary for a woman to take her husband's surname, so the "-dotter" names died out.
The original way is still practiced in Iceland.
Viking names are still popular in Scandinavia
Spelling may vary