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.
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Hmmm. There are several things to discuss here.
1) You appear to have mistakenly used last year’s festival theme as the main source of this year’s complaint.
2) Historical authenticity does not and cannot exist in the way historians and re-enactors want it to. You are shouting into an empty tunnel of displaced nostalgia and a need for immersion.
3) Wardruna do not claim, and have never claimed to be associated with Vikings. There are no bongos used in any of their work or performances; you appear to be confusing these with the historically prevalent frame drums they use. There is also no such thing as ahistoricism; see previous point.
4) Ragnarok is not the complete destruction of the world, it is the end of a mythological cycle that recommences immediately.
5) More research required on which events are organised by the Jorvik Viking Festival and which are Descended From Odin. Your apparent confusion of these features of the festival do not add to your persuasive argument.
6) As a final point, if you truly believe that the advancement of historically reimagined music using contemporary structures and creative prompts is to be derided and discouraged, I look forward to finding out what music from the last millennium you are left with which to listen.
Oh dear! A numbered list!
1) My article is not based on any particular year’s theme.
2) Historical authenticity – I’m not sure what historians and re-enactors you are referring to, nor how I am shouting into a tunnel. I’m sure it’s clear what I’m criticising: vanity-vikings and the need to brand, sell and compete in increasingly underhand ways.
3) Try and read the piece again. If my complaint is with any one band, it’s with Heilung, whom are actually named in the article – though there were bands of this exact type last year. Wardruna’s popularity (and their association with the TV show Vikings, which as I’m sure you’re aware they provided the soundtrack for, despite not wanting to be associated with Vikings?) has led to a glut of very boring bands.
4) This is hair-splitting. The world clearly ends in order to begin over. And can you train for it? Because this still strikes me as a bloody silly slogan.
5) I don’t require any more research on what is organised by Jorvik and what is organised by DFO. Read paragraph 1.
6) Are you in a band which uses ‘contemporary structures’ and ‘creative prompts’, by any chance?
So .. I take it you some cringey, earnest pseudo-Viking Jorvik LARPer butthurt over the fact that someone isn’t half as impressed with ‘tits, robes n’ facepaint, is pagan, honest’ bands like Heilung who have jumped on the cashwagon originally launched by Wardruna (who are indeed posing as norse/viking, sat through an entire lecture by seminar in 2015 where he waxed on and on about the viking age instruments etc) or the bizarre use of Norse myth by some litigious gymbro businessprick to sell hipster-style runic vegan sportswear and accessories (so Norse, so wow) as you clearly are? As for ‘how dare you’ … why would she need to ‘dare’ to state an opinion? Do they not have free speech where you’re from? Or do you just take your hobbies so seriously that someone poking some well-deserved fun at the utter pretensions of certain musical and fashion brands who are simply profiting on the back of a very silly tv if fun and fashionable tv show burns your ego to the core?
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