“Vikings were never anything more than gangs, just like the criminal gangs of today,” stated Ethnologist Árni Björnsson in a recent TV interview for Stöð 2. Árni criticised the National Museum of Iceland, his former workplace, for hosting “Viking battles” as part of Reykjavík Culture Night earlier this month, saying Iceland’s historical ties to Vikings are limited at best – and that Vikings are nothing worth glorifying.
“For over 100 years, it has been trendy in the European and North American entertainment industries to refer to everyone who lived in the Nordic countries in the High Middle Ages as Vikings. That is of course far from the truth. Residents of the Nordic countries were of course first and foremost farmers and fishermen,” Árni explained. Vikings are, however, mentioned more often in sources, “just like international news today is more likely to mention terrorist acts.”
“Vikings didn’t come to Iceland”
Both the National Museum and the Settlement Exhibition hosted Viking-themed events for Reykjavík Culture Night. Árni explains that the idea that Icelanders are the descendants of Vikings is largely the product of 19th-century foreign authors, who romanticised this idea in their work: the idea has no historical basis.
“Violence has always held a certain charm. People enjoy reading crime novels, and they enjoy making up Viking stories. But I think that a public institution that wants to be taken seriously shouldn’t take part in that. I find that unacceptable, because what is Iceland’s connection to Vikings? Iceland’s settlers were not Vikings. Vikings didn’t come to Iceland, except a few elderly, exhausted ones.”
One of Iceland’s most respected ethnologists, Árni was the Director of the National Museum’s Ethnology Department between 1969 and 2002. He has written and published some 20 books, as well as countless articles and radio segments on Icelandic traditions and cultural history and holds a PhD in Ethnology from the University of Iceland.