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We might applaud the tall, blond and ruggedly handsome Vikings of pop culture as being historically accurate, but authentic engagement with the past requires more than just convincing hair and make-up, says Oren Falk.

Avid viewers of Vikings, Downton Abbey or the 300 franchise share a recurring concern: the yearning for historical authenticity. It is the first topic any professed historian is asked about at a dinner party, a perennial question for the students who take our courses and a recurring feature in media coverage. Audiences expect to be entertained and titillated, no doubt, but – even when it comes to overtly fictional shows, films, comics and books – they also demand adherence to an exacting standard of period-appropriate realism. 

For historians, it is certainly gratifying, especially in these times of universal disdain for the humanities in general and for our profession in particular, to witness such ardent care for getting things historically right. But just what does ‘getting things right’ mean? Any historical representation is bound to be a mixed bag. Professional historians by and large acknowledge that, as Mark Twain might have said, we can never actually get history exactly right, but we can at least hope, every once in a while, to update our ways of getting it wrong.

In contrast, when laypeople who prize historical authenticity articulate their desires, it becomes evident that they long for something surprisingly straightforward: they want the props to look genuine. Issues such as the outlandish mentalités of people in the past – those outlooks with which we can barely empathise and jokes we do not really get – hardly impinge on the popular notion of historical authenticity. Instead, historically conscious consumers focus on concrete things, assessing authenticity by the presence or absence of anachronistic implements (such as television aerials in Downton Abbey) and the meticulous rendering of period minutiae (such as 36lb chainmail in Rome). The popular imagination, in short, identifies authenticity strictly with accuracy in the depiction of material culture. 

Academics and laypeople thus are not entirely in conversation with each other over historical authenticity. How might this gap be bridged? To engage the earnest enthusiasts on their own ground and perhaps wrestle them over to a more critical and analytical way of spectating on the historical arena, I use as a case study the History Channel’s Vikings, the fourth season of which aired this spring. The show’s investment in historical authenticity is routinely, and rightly, lauded: characters unapologetically mouth off in Old Norse, Old English and Old French; saga plotlines and Eddic mythology are cut and pasted into the script; and lavish cinematography recreates the most purple passages from Viking Age sources – a funeral ship on fire, a pagan temple where human sacrifices hang alongside eviscerated oxen and fowl, a defeated leader subjected to the notorious blood eagle. There is certainly a lot here for the authenticity buff to like, even if the occasional complaint would surely also be justified (why on earth aren’t ships’ rudders, their ‘steering boards’, located on the ‘starboard’ side?).

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My examination here focuses on a specific feature of the onscreen Vikings: the show’s representation of Norsemen’s own bodies, and specifically the image it cultivates of idealised male physique in the Viking world. Modern stereotypes of Vikings fall into two distinct groups: we tend to imagine them either as hairy, fur-clad, unwashed brutes, or else as strappingly handsome, tall, muscular jocks. The occasional Viking cameos on Monty Python’s Flying Circus might illustrate the former stereotype; 1950s Hollywood’s casting of Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis as lead Norsemen establishes the latter. The History Channel, too, errs on the side of rugged good looks. The historical authenticity of this view seems vouched for by Muhammad ibn Fadlān, an Arab diplomat who met some Norsemen on the Volga c.922: he testifies that he had ‘never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy’. But what did Vikings themselves consider to be a good-looking man?  

On the face of it, this is still a question about ‘material culture’: the material in question just happens to be human flesh and bone. But the question is also dependent on what a society holds to constitute ‘beauty’: an ideal, a mental construct, a state of mind. It makes authenticity a matter of correctly gauging the cognitive experience of past women and men, a much more elusive objective than creating a physical replica of weapons or gear. It allows the discussion of historical fidelity to ooze away from object fetishism and into the much more challenging (but, to this biased cultural historian’s mind, also much more interesting) realm of tentative reconstruction, empathetic imagination and uncertain inference from partial data. It is a question, in other words, that challenges us to think as historians rather than antiquarians.

Our sources for what Nordic men actually looked like (let alone what looks they aspired to) during the historical Viking Age, usually reckoned from sometime in the eighth century to sometime in the 11th, are in fact remarkably scant. Ibn Fadlān’s eyewitness testimony is one of the stronger pieces of evidence we have, supplemented by occasional archaeological clues. The ‘Viking Age’ was not, however, just a set period in time, any more than any other historical period: it was (and is) created by historians who look back at events and discern a unifying pattern. Some of the earliest of those historians were anonymous Icelandic authors who, from the 1100s onwards, wrote about the deeds of their forebears. These authors produced the opulent body of literature we now know as the Icelandic sagas.

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The bulk of the evidence here comes from the so-called Family Sagas, several dozens of mostly 13th-century texts set in Iceland and the wider Norse world during the 10th century (c.870-1030 ad). These sagas piece together the earliest conscious construct of a Viking Age as a distinctive period. They give highly circumstantial accounts of Icelanders’ lives and deaths, including detailed descriptions of personal appearance. We also get to hear occasional assessments of aesthetics, be it from the mouth of narrators or from fellow saga characters – or, rarely, even from a self-critic’s own mouth. In the climactic scene of Droplaugarsona saga, for instance, the protagonist Helgi is engaged in fierce combat against one Hjarrandi. ‘At that moment’, says the saga, ‘Hjarrandi lunged at Helgi, but he deflected it with his shield, and the sword glanced into his face and landed across his teeth, shearing off his lower lip. Helgi then spoke: “I never was fair-looking (fagrleitr), but you’ve hardly improved matters”. He then reached with his hand and stuffed his beard into his mouth and bit on it’, fighting on in this manner until his heroic demise.

Helgi Droplaugarson’s dying words are typical of saga sangfroid, but not entirely typical of the sagas’ character portraiture. For one thing, as already noted, Helgi volunteers his own aesthetic evaluation; usually such opinions are voiced in the third person. Earlier in the saga, the narrator’s omniscient commentary had offered a more appreciative glimpse of Helgi as a ‘well-built fellow and handsome and strong’. For another, this word-portrait in fact tells us little about Helgi’s appearance: we learn that he was bearded and that he looked less appealing when his mouth was a mangled mess of blood and hacked flesh than when he had had a full set of lips, but not much else. Usually, we hear something about what made a person count as attractive or ugly; Helgi, for instance, is also featured in Fljótsdœla saga, where the narrator contrasts him with his brother Grímr: ‘Each brother went his own way in terms of appearances. Grímr was blond and tousle-haired and altogether sightly (sjáligr), but Helgi was a well-built man, tawny-haired and ruddy, open-faced and exceptionally elegant, but the most striking thing about Helgi’s appearance was that he had an ugly mouth’.

The Advance of the Norsemen: the extent of Norse settlement and contact across the known world

Saga ideas about male beauty are largely dictated by one’s size, facial features and colouration; sartorial acumen also came into play. The narrator who admires Helgi’s physique, for instance, describes him as a mikill maðr vexti, which can be translated as ‘well-built’ but literally means ‘a man grown large’, and also as vænn ok sterkr, ‘handsome and strong’. The collocation mikill ok sterkr, ‘big and strong’, is commonplace in descriptions of handsome men. Thus Hávarðar saga says of an 18-year-old lad that ‘he became a man most likely to perform great deeds and the prettiest-looking (fríðast sýnum) of men, big and strong’. Conversely, short stature is often associated with ugliness, as in one saga’s description of the skrælingar, ‘Native Americans’, whom the Norse encounter in the New World: ‘They were small men and ill-looking (smáir menn ok illiligir), and had bad hair on their heads; they had very prominent eyes and were broad in the cheeks’. When the Norsemen notice among the skrælingar ‘one man who was big and beautiful (vænn) … it seemed to them that he must be their chieftain’.

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That said, size and strength alone did not, in the eyes of saga Icelanders, a beautiful man make. Egill Skallagrímsson, the eponymous hero of his saga and as big and strong as they come, is predicted from childhood to turn out ‘very ugly and resembling his father’. Fóstbrœðra saga tells of a certain Butraldi, a ‘well-built man, strong of muscle, ugly (ljótr) in appearance, harsh in disposition, a great killer of men, flare-nostrilled and vengeful’. In Butraldi’s case, it seems to be his visage – perhaps those gaping nostrils – rather than his overall physique that damns him.

As with Butraldi and the mealy-mouthed Helgi Droplaugarson, the sagas only seem to notice the lower halves of men’s faces when something is wrong with them: often, an ugly set of dentures. We know that Viking Age gazes really were drawn to men’s teeth: archaeology confirms that some underwent what must have been an excruciatingly disagreeable procedure, a kind of dental tattoo, involving filing and perhaps inking in their teeth. Thus, what may be the most telling anachronism in modern portrayals of Vikings – no matter how heavily made-up the actors are with fake bloodstains, rub-on grime and prosthetic scars – are the perfect orthodontic smiles they all flash.

If men’s jaws only merit notice when they detract from their beauty, however, the upper half of the head – specifically, eyes and hair – may count equally for or against them. Skarpheðinn’s eyes, as we just saw, are a redeeming feature in an otherwise unshapely face; another champion, Björn Hítdœlakappi, is said in contrast to be ‘a well-built man and beautiful and freckled, red-bearded, corkscrew-haired and droopy-eyed and the most warriorlike man’. Other attractive saga men often stand out as having ‘the best of eyes’, ‘very good eyes’, ‘altogether good eyes, blue and keen and restless’, and so forth. Likewise, we hear again and again of men said to have been handsome that they had a good head of hair (Njáll’s foster-son Höskuldr, for example, was ‘both big and strong, the prettiest-looking of men and well-haired [hærðr vel]’). This may accord well with various near-contemporary witnesses who claim that Anglo-Saxon women found irresistible – and Anglo-Saxon men were eager to imitate – Norsemen’s well-kempt coiffures. It also reminds us that combs are among the most ubiquitous finds in Viking Age archaeological contexts, from Russia to Ireland. Some sources may also give us an idea of Norse styling; Ælfric, a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon writer, speaks of ‘Danish ways, necks balded and eyes blinded’, suggesting perhaps – if it is not just an ornate, churchy metaphor for subservience to Satan – that Norsemen shaved their napes and wore their bangs low. Vikings evidently aims to depict such a style, especially in the portrayal of Ragnar’s son, Bjorn.

Hair, often long (the sagas speak frequently of mikit hárr, translatable as ‘big hair’, ‘a lot of hair’, or perhaps simply ‘mullet’, but also of ‘golden locks cascading all the way down to the shoulders’), is an essential marker of male good looks. Norway’s founding king, Haraldr, vows to neglect his hair until he should unify his kingdom; he is therefore known, in his youth, as Haraldr lúfa, ‘Mop-Head’, but after attaining his career goal he metamorphoses into Haraldr hárfagri, ‘Fair-Haired’. Lately, it has become customary to translate the latter nickname as ‘Fine-Haired’, probably because when hárr is said to be fagrt it is often associated with silk, but Old Norse does unequivocally prefer blond(e)s. Thus, Egill in early adulthood confirms the prophecy of his ugliness: he already has ‘wolf-grey and thick hair, and he soon became bald’. Elsewhere, a certain Ketill is described as ‘an ugly man and yet chieftain-like, dark and imposing’. No such qualifiers are necessary in order to call a fair-haired person beautiful: ‘he is called Helgi the White, because he was a handsome man with good hair (vel hærðr), white (i.e. blond) in colour’.

Members of the Danish Viking Olayers of Fredrikssund rehearse for a pageant marking the 75th anniversary of the Borough of Ramsgate, Kent

This preference for fair hues extended to skin colour, too: a villain might be described as ‘swarthy of hair and complexion’. The Native Americans derided above as ‘small men and ill-looking’ were condemned in another manuscript as ‘black (svartir) men’. Either adjective, it seems, is fit for characterising the skrælingar as brutish.

Vikings successfully captures many of these aspects of Norse appearance. Pallid skin is on display; likewise, characters’ hair-dos merit considerable attention. The only index on which Vikings largely departs from saga portrayals is hair colour. Surprisingly, perhaps, we find many fewer Nordic types in the show’s leading cast than we might expect: Bjorn is blond, as is the disposable Earl Siegfried, and the more formidable Earl Borg might qualify as honey-blond; but practically all the other main men – Ragnar, Rollo, Floki, Earl Haraldson, King Horik, Leif, Arne, Torstein, Kalf, not to mention the non-Scandinavians like Athelstan and King Ecbert – are dark-haired. Only among the women do we find a significant proportion of blondes (and even there, many striking beauties – Siggi, Gyda, Aslaug – are brunettes).

Finally, clothing, too, often made the man, according to the sagas. Icelanders mostly dressed in homespun woollens, but those who travelled abroad routinely returned as dapper gentlemen. Gunnarr of Hlíðarendi, the finest-looking of all saga protagonists, comes back from his travels ‘so well-dressed that there were none there [at the National Assembly] who were equally well-dressed, and people came out of every booth to marvel at him’. Laxdœla saga tells how the homecoming hero Bolli Bollason rides in from the ship that has brought him back to Iceland: ‘When he returned from this voyage, Bolli was such a sharp dresser that he would wear nothing but scarlet and fur clothes, and all his weapons were gilded’. He and his 12 companions are described as:

magnificent men all, yet Bolli stood out. He wore the furs that the King of Byzantium had given him, an outer cape of red scarlet, and he was girt with Leg-Biter, whose hilt and runnel were all arabesqued with gold thread; a golden helmet on his head and a red shield at his side, on which was painted a golden knight, and a lance was in his hand, as is the custom in foreign lands. Wherever this company passed, the women could do nothing but gawk at Bolli’s and his companions’ elegance.

The sagas do not mention skin art but we know from other sources that Norsemen in the Viking Age used their own bodies as canvasses. Ibn Fadlān describes them as ‘tattooed from finger nails to neck with dark green (or green or blue-black) trees, figures’. A little later in the 10th century, an Andalusian traveller to southern Denmark observed that ‘both men and women use a kind of indelible cosmetic to enhance the beauty of their eyes’. These aspects are nicely replicated by the History Channel’s make-up artists, who give virtually everyone on set extensive tattoos.

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Many modern stereotypes about Norse physiques thus seem to be confirmed by the sagas’ views on male beauty: beefy, blond, muscle-bound Aryan types are held up as an ideal. Unsavoury as it may be to contemplate, we must face up to the possibility that this is one thing the Nazis actually did get right. A straight line connects the male body idealised by 13th-century saga authors to countless Rassenhygiene posters from the 1930s, continuing right down to the present and to our fantasies of ‘authentic’ Vikings. 

But, by way of closing, let me reverse course and complicate the picture, calling my own conclusions into question: historical authenticity doggedly refuses to be pinned down. A key issue here is recognising that – philologically – Old Norse does things differently from modern English, and so – culturally – speakers of Old Norse in all likelihood conceived of things differently as well. Butraldi, for example, does not have a swinish nose, he is ‘flare-nostrilled’ (nasbráðr); Björn Hítdœlakappi does not have curly hair and heavy eyelids, he is ‘corkscrew-haired and droopy-eyed’ (skrúfhárr ok dapreygðr), and so forth. These examples are fairly straightforward, even if modern scholars usually detect in them a metaphorical flavour: Butraldi is hot-tempered, Bjorn has poor eyesight. But what to do with men who do not have good eyes but rather are, like the formidable Skarpheðinn, ‘well-eyed’ (eygðr vel)? This could conceivably refer to a keen observer who sees farther and clearer than any of his peers – hardly a trivial matter in a world without corrective lenses. Or it might be a metaphorical way of talking about a man of discernment – a visionary individual. Or maybe it simply highlights the disarming beauty of some men’s irresistible irises and long lashes. We may speculate and propose different answers. But the most important thing to keep in our sights, as it were, is precisely the fact of speculation: however we translate this awkward phrase into passably idiomatic English, we immediately run the risk of projecting our own biases onto the sources.

Well-eyed Skarpheðinn is but an example; the sagas complicate matters further still, for instance when they describe the ugly Native Americans not, as I (and everyone else) have translated, as having ‘very prominent eyes’ but rather, literally, as ‘very much eyed’ (eygðir váru þeir mjök). Authentic reconstruction of medieval Norsemen’s aesthetic
tastes remains, in these instances at least, stubbornly beyond our grasp. We cannot hope for historical accuracy in the representation of physical appearances until we have run the gauntlet of wrestling with cultural cues, of struggling to decipher the attitudes that would have informed a Viking Age gaze. And we must bear in mind that any reconstruction we offer remains inevitably tentative, bound up as it is with our modern interpretations.

How authentic is Vikings’ representation of Vikings, then? If we merely compare the characters who strut onscreen with the imagery imparted on us by the Icelandic sagas and the sparse Viking Age sources that supplement them, not bad at all. These finely attired TV Norsemen are, to a man, mikill ok sterkr, their bodies and faces tattooed and painted, their gazes penetrating and haunting, their hair and beards carefully kempt. But the point to drive home is that the question itself is ill-posed and ultimately unanswerable, because we would need to reorient our own mental set-up in order to be able to grasp the alien mindset to which descriptions like ‘very much eyed’, made sense.

When we find the sagas – let alone present-day representations in pop culture – confirming our stereotypes, we should immediately be on guard: odds are that we are, in fact, failing to engage with the deep past at all. We must ask ourselves not whether the historical sources have vouched for the accuracy of how we envision the past but whether the ‘historically authentic’ Vikings we gaze on might merely be our own images, reflected back to us in a tautological mirror.

Oren Falk is Associate Professor of History and former Director of Medieval Studies at Cornell University.

Barbaric Beauty

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