Viking Makeover

Sure, we all know what Vikings were like. They're the savage, sword-wielding rapists and pillagers of the movies. Or the horn- helmeted Hagar sheepishly taking orders from his wife in the funny pages. Or even the idiot wearing a fur vest and little else, cheering on a catch by wide receiver Randy Moss in Minnesota.

But those popular conceptions only hold a fraction of truth. In reality, the ancient peoples of Norway, Sweden and Denmark transformed maritime travel with their development of the wind-blown sail and rope rigging. They established an early form of parliamentary government. Their women were liberated eons before the passage of the 19th Amendment. And they reached North America (which they called Vinland) 500 years before Columbus hogged all the glory.

Dispelling (or at least diluting) these accepted stereotypes is the bluntly stated purpose of "The Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga," coming to the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The exhaustive and historical exhibit, which originated at the Smithsonian and stops here as part of an eight-city tour, celebrates the millennial anniversary of a Viking settlement established in what is now Newfoundland, Canada.

"The stereotypes have stuck with people, and it made sense because there wasn't a lot of information to go on," says local exhibit curator Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout. He says that operas and the costumed performers of the romantic period in Germany (better known as the "Kill the Wabbit" era) helped solidify the perception. "But now we have the archeological evidence to go back and see how they really were."

Part of that evidence will be a Viking coin found on a Native American reservation in Maine -- which, many believe, proves the Vikings set foot in what is now the United States. Among the 300 items on display (which come from museums and collections in nine different countries) is the oldest artifact in the exhibit, the Lindisfarne Stone (circa 832), which depicts a Viking battle. The Jònsbòk is a 13th- century book of laws whose appearance here required an act of the Icelandic parliament. Perhaps the most famous piece of Viking loot is Ranvaig's Shrine, an ornate casket taken from a monastery and given to a Viking woman who saw fit to claim the property by making a runic inscription on the bottom.

Other items include swords, figurines, carvings, jewelry and manuscripts detailing the triumphs of Erik the Red. The HMNS also will host a series of related lectures and presentations.

But surely there's some truth to the fierce Viking image we embrace today, right? Even fat, lovable Hagar is forever attempting to storm enemy castles. "Now, that's not to say that the Vikings weren't violent and never attacked anyone. Of course they did," Van Tuerenhout says. "But that's part of human culture. What era or people have not had a warlike aspect about them at some time?"

None, if you think about it. But pop culture's most recognizable Viking has at least one glaring flaw: Real Vikings never wore horns on their helmets. And don't even ask about that weird funnel on top of Lucky Eddie's head.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero