The peoples we refer to as the “Vikings” are the Germanic cultures known as the Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes, collectively called the Norse. Most today know them only as pirates, which is what the word “Viking” roughly translates into, and many were pirates, but the Norse were also farmers, fisherman, merchants, and many other occupations. However it was piracy that they first became notable for as they raided monasteries and villages in Scotland, Ireland, and England (and master pieces like the Book of Kells narrowly survived their pillaging). They made their merciless raids from their highly mobile ships, which brings us to their first art form we’ll look at. Not only were their long ships well designed from a functional standpoint, many of them were also floating art exhibits. One of the first long ships to be evacuated intact is the Oseberg Ship. The book notes it’s beautiful interlaced beast designs that frame the margin of the ship. Such designs will ring a bell with anyone who looked at the Kells page earlier in the chapter, as well as the jewelry from other Germanic tribes in earlier chapters. One striking detail not discussed is the gorgeous metal dragonhead, decorated with a similar aesthetic, but appearing far more abstract. The Oseberg ship has some enigmatic features as well, such as a bucket with a figure who looks suspiciously similar to Buddha. Here there are below:
Such images made it possible for the Norse to travel all over their known world, evidently diversifying their art while they were at it. At first they were content with raiding and trading, but soon they tried their hand at conquest and colonization. The Danes nearly conquered all England, fictionalized Bernard Cornwell’s excellent Saxon Series, and colonized the Faroe Islands. The Swedes set up a successful colony known as the Rus, which would eventually evolve into Russia. Most successful were the Norwegians who conquered Normandy, founded Dublin and Iceland, and set up ill fated colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland. Wherever they went, they took their fine art with them. Despite our image of them as brutal killers, they seemed driven to beautify the items around them.
The Norse made such a profound impact so it is little wonder today they are more myths than men. The sagas and poems they left behind actually seem to reinforce that. Both their actions and their art have served as inspiration for artists ever since.