How much do we really know about the Vikings? A new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh asks this question and comes up with some interesting answers.
While most of the public is aware (hopefully) that those horned helmets are a product of Victorian imagination, some other facts about the Vikings may come as a surprise. For example, we tend to think of them as fierce pagans bellowing war chants to Odin and Thor as they cleaved their battle-axes through the skulls of whimpering Irish monks. As appealing as that image may be, in fact the Vikings converted to Christianity before much of the rest of Europe. There’s a beautiful ninth century silver cross pendant on display, and a house key with a crucified Christ on the handle.
Even the term Viking itself isn’t accurate. They were Norsemen who occasionally went “on a viking,” which means setting sail to trade or loot while the majority of the population stayed where they always did – at home fishing or growing crops.
There are also objects revealing their home life, like a folding bone comb and a little cat carved out of amber that some Norse kid probably used to play with. I’ve seen many of these objects at their permanent home at the Swedish History Museum (formerly the National Historical Museum) and can say that they are some of the best preserved and finest objects of medieval Norse culture you’ll see anywhere.
Visitors will get to some in-depth knowledge of Norse religion, shipbuilding, art, politics, the role of women and storytelling. A series of lectures are open to people who want to learn more. The exhibition is kid-friendly with lots of interactive displays. They can learn to spell their names with runes, dress up in period gear, or play Hnefatafl, a Viking board game of military strategy. If you can’t make it to Edinburgh, check out their online Viking Training School.
“Vikings!” runs until May 12.
[Image courtesy Swedish History Museum]