They’ve long been part of American culture as namesakes and mascots for everything from grade schools to an NFL team. There are even North American cities named “Viking.” But these days, you can also take a DNA test just to determine if you can claim a deeper Viking connection than the old alma mater. And they have their own television series now – not just a few specials like other “barbarians” but a whole series!
Even after centuries of some pretty bad press (and not without reason), what is it about the Viking?
My own Norse perspective was broadened a few years ago, not by traveling to Scandinavia – but to Eastern Canada.
Through most of my life, I’d had that “berserker” image of Vikings. They were those guys who did all the pillaging and…you know…the other thing. And my view wasn’t much altered by experiences like attending a Viking themed frat party in college where I spent the evening drinking out of a plastic helmet with horns and being called a “wench” (hey now – that’s what they called all the girls there).
Was that all Vikings were really about? Admittedly, it didn’t concern me that particular night – but I’ve thought about it since.
Which is why in the summer of 2008, when my Oregon-based folks announced they were taking a cross-country trip and wondered if I’d care to join up with them, I didn’t ponder long about a meet-up point. I’d heard there was a place in Canada where Vikings were known to have settled for a time, and I thought this would be a great chance to check it out for myself.
Mum and Dad were very kind. They could have responded with something like:
“Just to be clear, Amy – you’d like to accept our invitation by having us meet you in a spot just about as far across the continent from the Oregon coast as a person can possibly go?”
Well – yeah.
Instead of arguing, my ever indulgent parents agreed and promptly hit the road to keep their end of the bargain. And me? After journeying through the night on flights from Los Angeles, Toronto and St. John’s, I found myself waiting outside the airport in a town called Deer Lake, suitcase in hand, hoping the folks had made it the 4,000-odd miles to meet me.
They had. And together we drove north along the rugged and beautiful western coastline of the island of Newfoundland in search of Vikings!
We stopped the first night in Plum Point where it happened that another great explorer (and personal favorite of Mum’s), Captain Cook, had done some surveying. But he wasn’t the first European who sailed the ocean blue to check out the region. Nor was Columbus, as it turns out – even though he wound up with his own day.
Nope. We continued north the next day to the spot where a Viking vessel had arrived well before the Pinta, the Niña or the Santa Maria – the spot (now L’Anse aux Meadows National Park) where a pair of Norwegian historians recognized the remains of a Norse settlement that dates all the way back to the 11th century!
I don’t want to take away from Columbus’s accomplishment – and I’m certainly open to the idea that one day another archeological revelation could change the game. It’s intriguing to think that Chinese explorers may have reached these shores even earlier. Or, if it turns out Brendan the Navigator made it across the pond first, I’ll be happy to raise my glass to the man on St. Patrick’s Day.
But for now, we do know about L’Anse aux Meadows. That’s Viking scoreboard, baby.
It’s a gorgeous area of windswept grassland along the rocky (and icebergy) Newfoundland coast where a group of Norse explorers landed and constructed buildings for living and working. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, chosen for its value to the world as a place “associated with events of universal significance,” and it includes a visitor’s center, picturesque walking trails, and stone markers designating sites where the Viking buildings once stood. There are also recreations of Norse dwellings, furnishings and tools as they would have looked back in the day and (when I was there) people dressed in period costume, happy to answer questions about what life was like there 1000 years ago.
As it was, we had to rush past Gros Morne National Park, just getting a tantalizing glimpse of a collection of mountains that seemed to rival Yosemite for beauty and scope. And there’s certainly much more to see of the colorful capital city of St. John’s than I did from the airport at 3 in the morning. But, sadly, I had to get back to my job, and the folks had to turn around and head back the way they’d come.
Settling back into my home routine after such a refreshing adventure, I do remember wondering what my life might have been like if I’d been born a Viking. Would there be epic tales and songs celebrating my exploits?
“THIS is the saga of Amy the Terribly Nearsighted! Slayer of countless livestock that moved suddenly and looked really menacing when the light was low! AMY – who meant to take part in the first raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne, except the long ship left like really ungodsly early!”
Hm. Although I can’t quite picture myself as the doer of epic deeds, I still can’t help but wonder – could I be part Viking even so?
The idea’s not that farfetched. I haven’t done the Viking DNA test, but I did take one that determined my mom’s roots are largely Finnish, but with a percentage too of unspecified Scandinavian. And my dad may have had something called “Dupuytren’s contracture.” His pinky fingers developed curves at the joints that kept him from being able to straighten them – a condition that may signal a genetic link to Vikings or Celts.
In any case, I know I inherited a gene for exploring from both my folks – an insatiable desire to set off on roads less traveled just to see what lies at the end.
Could that be part of a Viking heritage? Is it the kind of spirit that drove the Norse people to keep pushing all the way to North America all those centuries ago?
Whatever else, it’s scoreboard.
More views of L’Anse aux Meadows: