The commodification and rewriting of Viking culture as an inclusive , touchy-feely world is a bastardisation of history.
Living in a city like York (or Eboracum; then Eoforwic, and finally Jorvik) you find yourself frequently cheek-by-jowl with evidence of interesting history, and that’s one of the pleasures of living here. More and more, however, York has become a microcosm in which you see that history being misrepresented and ill-used, and its Viking Festival in February has changed and changed over the past decade. This is hardly the fault of the original organisers, the Jorvik Viking Centre that everyone remembers visiting as a kid; they’ve been plugging away, offering events and activities for kids for many years now, but the people attending seem less and less inclined to show an interest in that. Now, it’s all about display, and there’s ample money to be made.
More and more, a fleeting interest in history seems to be an opportunity to hit the dress-up box, misunderstand a few fragments of a few books – if that – and parade your ignorance (in appropriately Woke terms) in its abundance. Hey, did you know the Vikings had shieldmaidens, which were basically sisters doing it for themselves? Never mind the fact that the same Vikings frequently kidnapped girls to return back to their ancient kingdoms because high bridal prices and some evidence of selective infanticide had meant a dearth of marriageable women; the Vikings woz misunderstood, so they now have to be refracted through a suitably feminist mirror. That’s just one example, but you can bet your bottom dollar that this week there’ll be women milling around York with their hair in Lagertha braids, women in expensive handwoven clothing who wouldn’t know which way up to hold a shield but indeed wouldn’t ordinarily need to, as this is 2020 and they’re usually a faintly silly recruitment consultant with an office. Their interest in history (and that of their companions) doesn’t go beyond a few aesthetic tweaks and an Instagram moment. It’s yet another hobby that revolves around soundbites, silliness and Etsy.
We now have an abundance of firms who have sniffed the money-making potential in all of this, and perhaps it’s an entirely more fitting tribute to the Vikings that so much of it has descended into squabbles, competition over resources and legal threats. Starting out online, the game seems to be to cover organic cotton merchandise in ‘authentic runes’ then sell it at an exorbitant price. Should someone else try to muscle in on your runes, because a moribund language system can in fact belong to a brand apparently, then they must cease and desist. Now, these firms are moving into the arena of festivals and gigs – again, as with York, where there’s now a three-day event, sponsored by the querulous Descended From Odin and coming in at over £80 (but there’s a strongman event because as per the slogan, fans of the brand are ‘Training for Ragnarok’, which must take some doing, as I’m not sure what deadlifts can work against the complete destruction of the world). Elsewhere in the city, you can pay to get into a tent in order to decide whether you want to buy any ‘Viking goods’. Again, I have nothing in particular against Mjolnir pendants and some of these brands have been doing this for a long while, but we’re in danger of hitting full saturation point and, as with the clothing side of things, it has the potential to get ugly.
In Europe, clothing company Grimfrost have taken the step of copywriting certain words to potentially prevent their use by other firms; to come back to the above example, you can’t now just emblazon the word ‘shieldmaiden’ onto a shirt, because that word belongs to Grimfrost, who allegedly did this themselves because they were being hassled by another firm who wanted to sue them for using certain Viking-related words. We’re at the stage where lawyers will have to learn Elder Fuþark. In the UK, businesses have had their booked stalls at gigs and events bumped by more influential companies; if you want to make money from the heavy metal equivalent of Cosplay, then you’d better have a watertight legal backing these days. But be quick: the TV series Vikings, from whence a lot of this all originates, is about to come to an end forever and the mob are fickle.
Elsewhere, the TV show’s hangover seems to be the generation of what seems like a million music projects which espouse a kind of safe, toothless, feckless paganism; it’s currency is in fire play, body paint and inane drumming. Wardruna probably didn’t mean to start this, but they should apologise anyway. I went to one of these ‘paganism for prats’ shows myself once, and if you like women flick-flacking ahistorically to skull-festooned bongos then I heartily recommend it. Otherwise, you might find yourself slack-jawed at the sly cynicism of it all – at the host of bands happy to toy with their Netflix-version of early medieval aesthetics whilst continually disavowing anything to do with the history or culture they’re piggybacking.
That’s history tourism these days: the real strongarming is commercial, and the rest is shopping and fundamental dishonesty. Oh, and by the way, Heilung are playing in York this weekend… enjoy all the antlers and the godsawful sugary mead.