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March 29, 2014

Column: Think Vikings, think pillaging and laughter

Sometimes our view of the world is completely shaken by new theories. That has happened to me with the Vikings.

You will remember the Vikings: fierce seafarers from Scandinavia who first raided Britain in AD 793 and Ireland soon afterward.

Much given to pillage and murder, they were. Had suspect table manners. Spoke Old Norse in which they said many uncouth things. Felt that if they died in battle they were going to Valhalla, an exclusive resort destination in the hereafter. Made themselves unpopular for a couple of hundred years. Wore horns on their helmets.

Except now I find in my research that they didn’t have horns on their helmets. No horned helmets? Well, that spoils the image. I always assumed that they used the horns to impale rawhide notes to themselves, as newspaper copy editors used to do with their metal spikes for rejected stories (usually mine, alas, back in the day).

In the Vikings’ case, the message would be something like: “Reminder to Self, Eric the Forgetful, to tell Olaf to repair the longboat.” But no, the Vikings did not have horned helmets, according to the experts, and many a longboat was no doubt lost because of the lack of primitive Post-It notes to remind the crew to make repairs.

Instead, the Vikings wore little caps with bunny ears knitted by their mothers. To be fair, that is not the expert view — it is just mine and reflects my frustration at having my stereotypes disturbed.

But something more disturbing has come to my attention. By odd chance I came to read a story in a London newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, that suggested the Vikings had a sense of humor and influenced British humor by introducing the concepts of sarcasm, understatement and irony.

What? The Vikings were a humorous bunch of ruffians? British humor, the only thing that makes life bearable in those damp isles, was influenced by the Vikings? Pull my other leather-strapped leg, it’s got a bell on it.

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