The Vikings Art and Culture At first thought of the Vikings, the comic strip “Hagar the Horrible” comes to mind. As this is probably not a good basis for reference, it still can give slight glimpse, if not a distorted one, of the Viking culture. As for Viking art, a more in depth search must be done, for “Hagar” was unfortunately not actually made by the Vikings. The Viking culture was a primitive one of agriculture, hunting, and fishing. Families lived on farms together and were a tight knit labor force.
During sowing time, the men would all work together from before dawn until after dark to tend to the field, and the women would work on providing the daily necessities, such as food, clothes, and cleaning. The wife would also occasionally help in the fields, and the children would start helping out from a very young age doing their respective duties. There were less than five months of growing season in their northern climate, so the Viking husband of the farm would plant the crops and then look toward the sea.
He would head out with his neighbors for a pleasant summer of pillaging in the south. Then, he would return in the fall in time for the harvest. His wife would control all affairs of the household until he returned. If he should not return due to an unfortunate accident, his wife would inherit the land, business, and any other wealth. The eldest son of the family would take over the family farm, and the younger sons would go out to find their own careers as they became of age, possibly Vikings.
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Family was very important to the Viking people; it was a powerful unit of protection. Much like today, families provided support and assistance, and it was to their family that a person owed their obligation. A close family bond is evident as husbands, wives, and children would erect runes in honor of each other; husbands to their wives, wives to their husbands, and children to their parents. Runes were decorated monuments with inscriptions and verses for their deceased family, much as a tombstone would be now, and were often placed in public places so that they would be seen.
They also normally lived as a nucleic family, much like today, with the mother, father, and the children in the household. It was fairly uncommon to have extended family such as grandparents to live with them; most likely, because it was rare to live past the age of forty and most people did not enter the role of grandparent. As much as the Vikings were known as looters and pillagers, they were also formidable merchants. Many of their journeys were commercial and put them in contact with the farthest reaches of the world. Trade became a very important part of their culture.
While there are many stereotypes of the Viking people, such as dirty, smelly, illiterate, drunkard savages most are probably misconceptions. While they probably were dirty and smelly after sailing across the sea and maybe did not bathe that often because of the cold weather, one can assume that it was for a purpose rather than just being ignorant. The notion that they were illiterate is wrong; they simply had their own writing system with an alphabet called runic. The letters were mostly made up of vertical and diagonal lines, which made them suitable for carving into wood.
As far as the drunkard part, that is most likely the truest stereotype of them all. It is believed that the Vikings were very heavy drinkers. They would drink ale and mead, which is also called honey wine and made from fermented honey. Wine was something that was part of their trade voyages, as grapes did not grow in the cold Scandinavian climate. It is true that the Vikings pillaged many towns and killed many innocent people who came in their path, and while it was terrible, this description is coming from the people who were attacked and showing them in their worst light.
In reality, a Viking was only a Viking while at sea, once he returned home there was no more pillaging. It was back to the farm, the family, and normal everyday life. So, were they savages? Yes, to certain people they were, but to others, no. The art of the Vikings was not really art in the sense of the word. There was no art for art sake; it was mostly applied art. Their skills were used to decorate items of daily use. Weapons and ships were intricately decorated, as were drinking vessels, runes, and jewelry.
This proved their affinity for showing off their wealth and rank with whatever their possessions were. Most of the art that has survived is made of metal even though most commonly leather, wood, and bone were used. Their art was not naturalistic, but instead abstract. A common theme art was distorted and disfigured animals. Animals were a dominant subject, as they seemed to have an endless devotion to them as a source of inspiration. The gripping beast is one motif that started in the Broa Style; it is a strong, muscular animal that is shown full face with its paws gripping either itself or another nimal. The gripping beast is shown on the Oseberg ship along with two other animal motifs, S-shaped animals with ribbon-like bodies, and semi-naturalistic animals and birds. Being confronted with these images, one could not but be in awe of the energy of the decoration. Many different styles of Viking art have been identified, but no new style can be said to mark the beginning of the Viking age in Scandinavia, they grew out of the art styles of earlier centuries, the first being the Broa style, followed by the Borre, then the Jellinge, Mammen, Ringerike, and finally the Urnes.
The styles all vary slightly, but still keep with the distorted animal theme. The art of the Viking age influenced many different cultures because of their worldly travels, and they have influenced our culture in a way that we may never comprehend. They have intertwined themselves into the fabric of so many different cultures, that many of us could be part Viking.
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