This is a Viking. Look out, he is after your land and your women.
I’m busy revising an old conference paper on the terms víkingr and víking. These are the terms from which our word “Viking” comes (yes, obvious, sorry), but the semantics of the Viking have not been completely stable through the centuries. Since I am spending all my time reading up on the subject, I may as well share some basic info here. After all, everybody loves Vikings. Now that they aren’t running around taking our land and women, anyway…
The figure of the Viking has been banging around the Western world since at least the National-Romantic period, as an embodiment of the rough-n-tough piratical marauder (how romantic!) and of the primitive, “authentic” origins of the Nation State, being appropriated by various Germanic, north and otherwise, countries (how nationalistic!). In Sweden they had the “Gothic Society” (Det Götiska Förbundet), which reacted against the neoclassical aesthetic of the literati with an emphasis on the “Viking heritage”. Members published poetry which made use of Old Norse literature and Scandinavian Folklore (both seen as repositories of “authentic” Scandinavian ethnic and cultural identity), and when they got together they wore horned helmets (the Vikings did not have horns on their helmets, by the way– more on that later) and drank mead (an alcoholic honey beverage drunk by the Vikings– as well as everyone else from ancient Egypt to the North) out of horns. One of the most famous poems was by Erik Gustaf Geijer: Vikingen (= The Viking. Duh…). The protagonist is a young boy of common stock who heads out to sea, lives a rock-star life (fast and short) and dies a romantic icon. Not too different from Hollywood, really, appropriating Warrior types (whether Jedi or Cowboys) to give the white male bourgeoisie an illusion of a heroic journey. Haha, that sounded pretty cynical, didn’t it. Well, more on Joseph Campbell some other time…
In addition to the (still typically romantic) image of the Viking raider, the term “Viking” is now applied to the Nordic peoples as a whole, during the period which we label “The Viking Age” (late 700s-mid 1000s). We talk about “Viking Culture”, meaning the culture in Scandinavia from that period. We talk about “Viking Lore” (like the subtitle of Orchard’s new Edda translation), meaning the mythology and legendry of the Nordic peoples of that period. We talk about “Viking women”, never mind the fact that we are not talking about women who go out on Viking raids. The culture under discussion, however, did not use the term “Viking” to refer to itself. In fact, ethnic self-description was fairly rare in this age before National Romanticism. When you are the center of your world and you feel no threat to that centrality, you tend to assign ethnic markers to the peripheral Others, rather than to yourself. That is not to say that there was no sense of what we might call a “Nordic Identity”, though the primary way this was marked out was according to native language– those who spoke “The Danish Tongue” (dǫnsk tunga) as a first language, as opposed to those who didn’t.
OK, back to the terms víkingr and víking. The vast majority of the attestations of these words are from the Icelandic prose texts of the Middle Ages– long after anyone would have gone raiding or worshiped Thor. The majority of the attestations are for víkingr: over a hundred of them. Víkingr means “pirate”– in fact, it is given as a Norse translation of various Latin words for pirate (though it is also used to translate other Latin words, like those for Robber or Tyrant). The term víking, a relatively uncommon word, denotes “Viking activities”– seaborne warfare/piracy, most likely, though it could be that these two terms are not limited to specifically maritime raiding.
Víkingr is often used to refer to one of the “bad guys” in the story, and nearly always does not refer to the main protagonist in the story, though it may refer to one of his friends, or to an enemy whose place he takes. One of the few exceptions would be Egill Skallagrímsson, who is unusual in a few other ways as well, being descended from a werewolf and a berserk through his father’s line– quite the Medieval anti-hero, in fact (although Torfi Tulinius has given an interesting reading of Egils saga emphasizing the saga’s trajectory towards Christianity). Other protagonists in the sagas (both the Family sagas and the Legendary sagas) may fara í víking (go a-viking), fight Vikings, and even take their place or team up with them, but they will not themselves be labeled as “Vikings”. At least, this is what I have seen in the attestations I have looked at. My take (which I argued for at a conference in 2006 or so) is that the figure of the Viking as a disreputable pirate was just tainted enough by the pagan past that the Christian saga writers and audiences were loth to have a viewpoint character explicitly labeled víkingr— but, similar to our use of the term, the víkingr was enough of a symbol of that past that the sagas made use of encounters with Vikings, or brief periods spent engaged in “Viking activities” (without being labeled a career Viking), as a way of mediating the pagan past, pulling it together with the Christian present by making it a part of the “Story” of the Icelanders. This would be related to the figure of the Noble Heathen in the sagas– but again, more on that later (too many topics to cover!). There is more to my argument this time around, but I will save that for the actual article (if I can ever get the darn thing written).
Was “Viking” terminology always applied to Others? It is difficult to say, as the earliest attestations (in Runic inscriptions and Skaldic poetry) are difficult to interpret. This is tied to the search for the origin of the words víkingr and víking. Lots of ink has been spilled on this subject, and I don’t know that it will ever be resolved, but it is certainly interesting to speculate about. One idea that has been around for a while is a derivation from the Old Norse vík, = “bay, fjord, creek”, the idea being that Vikings would lurk in fjords to ambush their prey. One of the arguments against this etymology is the fact that the historical sources and the archaeological evidence show the Vikings making bases on islands and at river mouths, rather than holing up in fjords, etc. I’m not completely sold on this objection, though– the sagas do have examples of encounters with Vikings in fjords (certainly there are a lot of battles in fjords, though these do not always involve “Vikings” proper), and one of the advantages of the Viking ships was their ability to make it far inland via shallow creeks. If we are to assume that the term víkingr was primarily used about the pirates by their victims, then it makes sense to name them after the fjords where you encounter them (trolling a fjord and hiding around a bend in a river are probably great ways to find victims) or after the means by which they are able to invade your space. In both of these cases you find the Vikings associated with liminality, and in the latter with permeability and invasion– both what you would expect in the figuration of a hostile Other. This assumes the original use of the term víkingr carried negative connotations– but it is difficult to take that for granted, considering the problems interpreting the early evidence (Staffan Hellberg has contested many of the negative interpretations of the early uses of the the word), as well as the fact that Viking Age and Medieval Scandinavians apparently didn’t mind naming their sons Víkingr.
A related etymology would be to derive the terms from Vík, the fjord/region in Eastern Norway. This was a throwaway suggestion for a long time, until Staffan Hellberg argued it in a very thorough 80ish page article. His idea is that víkingr originally would have meant “person from Vík” (we’re talking way before the Viking age here), then later came to have negative connotations in England (which has the cognate term wīcing long before the attestations in Old Norse), and so ended up meaning “pirate/raider”. The negative meaning of the term would have made it’s way into late Viking age/early Medieval Scandinavia, primarily through ecclesiastical literature, and would have led to the development of the abstract noun víking. This would be similar to a term like “vandal”, which originally referred to a tribe during the Migration era, and now means “someone who vandalizes”– with the term “vandalize” itself coming out of the new meaning of the term “vandal”. Hellberg’s etymology has a lot going for it, not least linguistically, but I don’t think it confirms anything beyond any doubt. In any case, I haven’t yet caught up with all of the debate since then (there are a few Maal og Minne articles I need to get to).
There are a variety of other suggested etymologies. Some have tried to derive it from víg (battle), others from the Old English wīc (town, trading post, temporary settlement– ultimately derived from Latin) or from the related verb wīcian (to settle temporarily–these two would emphasize a pre-Viking age origin of the term in more peaceful contact, ie, trade), and some have tried to derive it from the Norse verb víkja (to move or turn). The last has given rise to a few different possibilities. The term might refer to the idea of “going away” (turning away from home, going abroad), so that víkingr means “one who goes abroad” and víking means “going abroad”. It could also refer to the activity of traveling around in the maneuverable Viking ships, running in to harry, then turning away and escaping to move on to another place. The term vík (bay/fjord/inlet) may also come from the verb víkja, as a part of the coastline which turns inland.
My favorite these days (and the most recent etymology I am familiar with) is Eldar Heide’s resurrection of Bertil Daggfeldt’s suggstion that the Viking terms come from víkja by way of the shifting of rowers on a sea-going voyage. The term víking would then be related to the term vika sjóvar (shift at sea, rowing shift) and would mean “going shifting” (= going to sea). This may sound weird at first, but it is similar to a standard substitution in some Scandinavian dialects where “going rowing” is taken to mean “going fishing”.
All these etymologies are a lot more involved, of course, but they give you a taste of the debate. Welcome to the world of philological inquiry. 🙂 It may seem like a mess sometimes, but you will have to deal with messiness any time you try to really understand another culture, language, time, or even person. I’m tempted to write more about that now, but I think I will save that rant for another time– stay tuned for more on philology, the humanities, translation, the Odd and the Other, and intersubjective competence. Though I doubt I’ll get to that especially soon…
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