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Monday, January 29th, 2007, 12:20 AM
The origins of the imaginary Viking

Johnni Langer

It was during the Romantic period, in the 19th century, that the modern image of the European Barbarians was created. This process happened as an answer to the yearnings of the diverse nationalistic movements, creating an image of old landscapes and medieval characters to help in the construction of modern identities: Celtic for the French, Teutonic
for the Germans and Viking for the Scandinavians.
Immersing themselves in this Barbarian glorification, several romantic painters struggled to capture all the nostalgic atmosphere that was predominant in that period. Such was the case of the Norwegian Peter Arbo who, in 1860, painted the magnificent “Asgardreien”, representing with great realism an old Viking meeting. Also in this decade, Arbo painted other pictures which made a great impression in his contemporaries, such as “Viking Chief” and “Haakon”. In those works, the details in the armour and weapons, such as chain mail, swords and helmets were all very elaborate and correct. At the same time, another artist of Norwegian origin, Johannes Flintoe, was painting “Duel in Skiringsal”, with the same features of accuracy found in his compatriot’s work.

And the Scandinavians were not the only painters creating such historically accurate visual representations of the Viking past. In 1870 the English W. G. Collingwood finished his work “The Thingvellir”, representing an Icelandic Viking meeting and, instead of using literary sources, he actually went to Iceland, granting his painting an even more impressive amount of detail and accuracy, in both geographic and cultural terms. The amour suits and
clothing of the Icelandic Vikings were all depicted in the most precise manner.
But, despite this trend which was specially strong in Scandinavia, of rescuing with great detail the image of those fearful Barbarians, the process took an unexpected turn when certain works appeared that would totally change the routes of the European iconography.
More related to fantasy than fact, pictures representing Vikings with horns and other ornaments in their helmets became the norm rather than the exception.

Why has the former visual representation fell from grace, and why did the work of the early 19th century Norwegian painters failed to be followed? Would it be for the lack of research and much needed information?
The picture of rude Barbarians was frequently perpetrated by artists of different nationalities and, since they were not Scandinavians, they might lack any proper knowledge of the Viking culture. Therefore, this new image for the Barbarian warrior would be made out of a collection of traits associated with prejudicial concepts in the minds of people who were ultimately foreign, that is, not from Scandinavian origin. And this image was often that of a uncivilised brute, carrying all the characteristics of a sub-human creature. The best example of this new representation can be found in an illustration of French Normans, by Guizot, taken from the book “History of France”, published in 1879. The warriors were mostly shown as if they were “cavemen”, troglodytes wearing animal skins to cover their
bodies. Guizot can certainly be said to have attained the violent picture of chaos and primitivism associated with the invasion of the Nordic peoples, preserving for the Frenchmen the honour to carry the badge of civilisation. In the picture, the rider wears a helmet with a dragon wing – a totally fictitious detail, made out of pure fantasy. In reality, most of these specific ornaments for helmets – such as horns and lateral birdlike wings,
were already commonly represented in the European iconography, but they were generally associated with mythological figures.

In the debut of Richard Wagner’s opera “Tristan and Isolde”, in the city of Munich in 1865, a picture congregated all the types of fantastic helmet ornaments. The paintings and decorations used at the stage were done by J. Noerr and, in the illustration for the final act of the opera, at the moment of Isolde’s death, she is surrounded by warriors carrying helmets with branches, horns and both bird and dragon-like wings. In this specific piece of work, Wagner intended to rescue the Arthurian and medieval ethos, deriving his subject from Celtic influences.
When he created boards for the stage set, Noerr might have been using as reference material, or otherwise been inspired by, the work of François Gerard and Gustav Malmström. In 1800, Gerard painted “Ossian”, a work where he depicted an Irish soldier observing the Celtic god Oisin while he plays his harp – the soldier wears a Roman helmet, but it is decorated with an enormous, though solitary, wing. Although Swedish, the artist Gustav Malmström can also be held responsible for this change in the Viking image. He was the illustrator for the book “The Saga of Frithiof”, a modern version of the Scandinavian hero, published for Esaias Tegner in 1820. In several pictures, Malmström depicted Viking kings with small lateral horns on their helmets and, more frequently, dragon wings. The association of this legendary monster is very clear and understandable.

The ancient Scandinavians did appreciate its importance and also believed its existence, decorating their long boats, the “drakkars”, with heads and tails of dragons in their extremities. But, in the English version of the “Book of Tegner”, published in 1839, a series of paintings already showed Vikings featuring their modern image: in contrast with Malmström’s work, the horns on the helmets of those new Vikings had an uncommon size (Wawn, 2001).
As for the Celts, the bird wings (as in the modern Asterix) are also a purely random decoration, with little relation to any real Celtic ornament, and the same can be said of branches and horns. The Celtic warriors wear conical helmets in battle, some carrying wild boars ornaments (same as the Saxons), or birds and geometric connecting rods. Therefore, as the Vikings and other so called Barbarians, their battle helmets could not have been the
inspirational source of the European artists from the 19th century. There is, however, a important detail that cannot be overlooked: the Celts did have a god, Cernunnos, generally depicted with two enormous hart branches in his head. Also, in some silver reliefs of Celtic origin, it is possible to see a man carrying a helmet with ox horns alongside the god Dagda and some animals. A quite similar case can be seen in a bronze board found in Sweden,
which can be dated back to a time before the Viking Age (sixth century A.D.) where two armed warriors engage in a ritual dance. One of them is wearing a wolf head mask and the other a helmet with pointed horns. In London, a bronze helmet was found with lateral horns, dated from the first century A.D. (therefore, it would have been made already during the Iron Age). Since it is extremely fragile, it could not be used in war, so it is considered merely ceremonial. All these ornaments might have had a strict religious function, being used only in specific situations and by selected people, such as priests.
The only case, that we know of, in which a relic was found that supposedly would not fit these parameters, is described by Ole Klindt-Jensen (1960, p. 91). It is a bronze helmet found in Denmark and dated back to the Bronze Age (700 B.C.) and, according to this author, it could have been used for battles. The helmet has two enormous winding horns and symbolic details, including two eyes and a nose in the form of a hook. We do not have
better information regarding the archaeological context where this relic was found, but in the example of the other helmets, a purely religious function cannot be discarded.
So, concerning objets from periods and cultures older than the Vikings, there might have been examples that could have motivated the curiosity and the interest of the artists of the 19th century, offering them a random mix of ancient cultures on which to base their musings. An important detail cannot be forgotten: in 1860, the Danish were already among the first to engage in a serious archaeological work, with their systematic study of
prehistoric Europe. Two of their much respected publications, the “Guide to the Northern Archaeology” (1836), by Christian Thomsen, and the “Primeval Antiquities of Denmark” (1843), by Jens Worsae, were both quite popular throughout the world. Known even to Brazilian intellectuals such as Varnhagen and Manuel Porto Alegre, who had access to them from 1845 to 1860. It is possible that these publications had supplied visual subsidies
for the artists interested in reproducing the costume and equipment of the old Barbarians.

Cultural definitions and dating were still very precarious in European archaeology, allowing many misinterpretations. Some archaeological relics were already known in Europe for many decades, even centuries, such as the horns of gold of Gallehus, discovered in Denmark in 1639, and they had been studied several times since the beginning of the 19th century. The matter of the repercussion of archaeological studies both in the arts and in the public perception of a culture, or period of time, is still an unexplored field, practically open to speculations. The painters’ eventual contact with this sort of detail regarding the art and religion of the Barbarian peoples cannot be ignored. In the particular case of the Viking pictures though, a certain subject was also related to their iconography since the Middle
Ages: Germanic mythology. Nordic gods were generally conceived wearing the typical mythological regalia of the period – until the 17th century it was dominated by the Greco- Roman standards. It was only due to the work of Richard Wagner that an attempt was made to restore, or either create, a modern representation of the Germanic myths, at the same time blending them with others, taken from the Celtic world. Both historical and legendary
ancestors of the Germanic peoples were brought to light by those new ideals, serving as elements to create the myth of the supermen who would regenerate the chaotic Western Civilisation through order and leadership. It is the awakening of the concept, often present in the Wagnerian world, of idealised human archetypes also glorified in the works of Nietzsche and later in the nazi dogma.

Nothing embodies the image of strength and power better than a fearless warrior wearing a proud helmet properly adorned with ornaments taken from vigorous animals. Since antiquity, the horns are a symbol of the necessity to always confront one’s obstacles, as in the behaviour displayed by goats and other horned animals, of a furious clashing of heads to show male prowess, or the cults of fertility and prosperity associated with the bull. The
origin of the Latin word cornu, horn, is the same as that of crown, and is associated to the Eastern god Cilício, being an attribute of fertility. Also, in hebrew the word queren, means at the same time horn and power. So, one single representation - the pair of horns – can congregate diverse artistic meaning: virility, discipline, aggressiveness, force, power. All of this was crystallised during the second half of the 19th century as a common feeling towards the Barbarians and their combat equipment:

We want to see in their (the Barbarians) image a blind faith in a superior order, an unyielding discipline, a dark and mysterious depth – half-solar, half-sexual and fully masculine – which is contemptuous towards the weakness of our own collective consciousness, the hidden vices we
recognise more or less depending on our level of lucidity – something we can almost sense behind the swastika (…) and that shows itself before our eyes in all that is monumental, colossal and titanic.
(Boyer, 1997, p. 708).

By 1870, the new Barbarian aesthetics can be seen clearly in the opening of Wagner’s “The Valkyrie”, second part of the opera “The Ring of the Nibelungen”. The valkyrie were the female warriors who lead the dead from the battlefield towards Valhalla, the Germanic paradise. In the painting made by Theodor Pixis for the stage set, these warriors were represented carrying a shield, a spiral chain mail with a disk for the breastplate, winged helmets, bracelets and necklaces (in the case of these last ornaments, the Celtic culture had an obvious influence). In this same year of 1870, painter G. von Leeke carried through his work “Valkyries”, already presenting the same aesthetic standards used by T. Pixis, but with one extra detail: some warriors carry horned helmets. Some small variations can also occur, as with the valkyries of the Norwegian artist Peter Arbo, of 1872, whose winged
helmets featured very recognisable swan wings and were similar to the ones used in Wagner’s opera, “Lohengrin”, in 1858. Despite this, the standard model that would
predominated from then on, was the one with lateral wings – perhaps it was due to the descriptions found in late Norse mythology, where the female warriors were also said to be the Swan Maidens. Odin himself, father of gods, was changed from a faithful representation, as can be found in the homonymous painting by Burne-Jones, 1870 – where the god is seen wearing a long cloak and a hat – to that of an armoured warrior, wearing a
helmet with eagle wings.
This whole process may have been influenced by the aesthetics of Wagner’s operas, as can be perceived in the later painting “The License of Odin”, by F. Leeke, 1875. But no painting with Barbarian inspiration was more famous and popular than “Funeral of One Viking”, 1893, by the English Francis Dicksee. The painting portrays the moment when a Scandinavian chieftain or warlord’s body was set on fire together with his boat and belongings, to be pushed afterwards to the ocean by his friends.

The main idea behind that painting is the display of a powerful Barbarian, an imaginary figure, mythical in its stature, and seen as truthful throughout the 19th century: huge warriors, mostly with their chests naked and showing off their rigid muscles, all carrying the fantastic horned helmet. In this painting, one of the few men where there can be seen any facial detail is a leader-like figure, who is raising his hand in a symbolical last homage
to the deceased. In his other hand, he carries the torch used to set the boat on fire. This particular subject, that of the use of fire, is a constant in the Germanic tradition – at the climax of Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelungen”, the valkyrie Brunhilde throws herself into the funeral pyre of the hero Siegfried, as a symbol of individual sacrifice to redeem the
world from chaos (Schneider, 1991, p. 106). In this case, and the same goes for Dicksee’s painting, the fire carries the symbolic value of purification, illumination and redemption for the character’s tragic fate. This same subject will be repeated in the art of C. Butler (1909), Arthur Rackham (1910) and even in many contemporary painters, such as Anselm Kiefer
(Soares & Schmidt, 1999, p. 71).

In modern times, myth has a very intimate relation with literature and art, specially in its visual forms. That is because myth is manifested in, and survives through, the force of symbolism, in this case symbolic pictures. And symbolism is one of the fundamental vehicles for any artistic language. The imaginary figure of the Viking that we have been analysing here – the powerful Germanic and Scandinavian Barbarian – appears unchanged
throughout the 19th century, carrying with it the same values and meanings, as much in poetry as it was in opera or in the visual arts. As we have already said, the painters and sculptors had followed this image with precision and through several different works. The height of this trend in recovering Germanic mythological elements, appeared with the music of Richard Wagner, between 1865 and 1876: the first time that a musician dared to substitute Greek gods for the Scandinavian ones (Schneider, 1991, p. 100). And is exactly during this period that the creation of this stereotype happened, and the idealised picture of the Barbarian became part of the artists repertoire of images with which to represent their
fantasies. Carrying horned helmets, the Barbarian took care of the necessity to create a powerful identity between the historical past and the lived moment. With this, art was impregnated with history – but not a “traditional” and “correct” history: more of a mythical interpretation of an immemorial past, serving the yearnings of a collective consciousness
that fought to obtain a cultural unity as much as a political one, being a perfect example of that the German unification of 1871.

“Art reveals itself as an agent both for the destructive processes and for regenerating ones in its relation to history, religion, myths and nature. But, simultaneously, it is also subject to the same sort of process due to the passing of time and to the historical events in which each artist inserts his struggle for the survival of his artistic language” (Soares & Schmidt, 1999, p. 75). And thus, the ascension of the idealised Barbarian during the 19th
century realised motivations that went far beyond the individual interests of the artists involved in the process. It was the fruit of a moment when myth explained historical origins and was legitimated through the language of art. In our time, it remains only as a stereotype that keeps surrendering territory to new artistic interpretations. The image of Vikings and the Germanic Barbarians still continues to fascinate, but now it is conducted by a new set of values and feelings.


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