The 'Viking' is one of the strongest images in contemporary popular culture. As Régis Boyer remarks in his essay in Northern Antiquity on the French reception of Old Norse literature, Vikings look out, under their now traditional horned helmets, from every herring tin in the supermarket, while a great part of the population of Normandy marks itself off from the Parisian riff-raff by putting little longship stickers on their cars. The longships are called drakkars - for reasons no one seems to know, any more than they know where the wildly impractical horned helmet idea comes from - a word which has only some resemblance to genuine Old Norse dreki, 'dragon' or 'dragon-ship'. Meanwhile, the aftershave Drakkar Noir trades on an aura of ... masculinity? menace? rape-and-pillage? and vague suggestions of a similar kind are exploited by manufacturers of everything from 'the golden loaf of the Vikings' to 'le petit Viking' baby clothes. Boyer notes the existence of 'Le Club Scandinave Viking' for body-builders, but not the (alas) late Jon-Pál Sigmarsson, the virtually albino Icelandic winner of the 'World's Strongest Man' competition, who used to beat his chest, turn engagingly puce, and roar 'I am a Viking' before destroying Geoff Capes, Grizzly Brown and all comers at the who-can-turn-over-most-cars-in-sixty-seconds contest. It may be only at the level of Raquel Welch, the leather bikini and One Million Years BC, but Old Norse literature and mythology has made its mark on European and American culture to an extent far greater than any other medieval corpus. Its stories are probably more familiar now than classical myths and images, and catching up with Biblical ones.
LRB 8 June 1995 | PDF Download