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Olafr Reydarsson, the chieftain of the Gudvangen Viking town of Njardarheimr
A modern Norwegian viking.
Photo: Kyrre Lien

The modern vikings

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The heritage of Norsemen has a lot more to it than blood and plunder. Olafr Reydarsson, the chieftain of the Gudvangen Viking town of Njardarheimr, tells us how he earned the impressive title.

Text: Mikael Lunde

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But there is a lot more to the Viking culture than plunder and violence. In the old Viking country on the west coast of Norway, there are people today who live by their forebears’ values, albeit the more positive ones.

Modern Viking king

Thousands of Norwegians are now working to rediscover valuable, forgotten parts of their Viking heritage. Hundreds gather at Viking markets in Gudvangen or Avaldsnes – the historic home of famed king Harald Fairhair – to reenact living as Vikings and learn their crafts and trades. At Gudvangen, the Vikings have an undisputed king: Georg Olafr Reydarson Hansen. For almost 20 years he worked to establish the permanent Viking village Njardarheimr, which finally opened in 2017.

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We have 400 Vikings in Gudvangen. At the market, we have kids learning old trades and crafts. A 15 year-old boy becomes a blacksmith and a 15 year-old girl is learning textiles. When the older generation sees this, they think it’s great and they join in”, explains Hansen, combing his beard with the authentic Viking comb attached to his hip.

In addition to the comb, the cape, and the clothes, he shows us an authentic sword. “It’s made from thousands of pieces of steel, bent over and over again until it got extremely strong and extremely sharp”, he says. Out of the 3,500 Viking swords that have been found in Norway, only about 50 are one-edged like his. For him, none of this is gimmick. Far from it.

“When I put on Viking clothes, I’m not trying to be someone I’m not, but to underline who I already am”, he says. And it is not as if they reject the modern world. “We watch movies and TV, and heavy metal is the music of modern Vikings. The old and the new have to go together”, says Hansen, adding: “We are people of a new age looking to the values of an older one.”

“When I put on Viking clothes, I’m not trying to be someone I’m not but to underline who I already am.”

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Viking metal

“A lot of people approach Viking culture through the militaristic aspects or violent drawings and Snorre’s kings’ sagas”, says Ivar Peersen, co-founder and guitarist in the Norwegian “Viking metal” band Enslaved.

Since childhood, both Peersen and co-founder Kjetil Grutle have been fascinated by Old Norse culture and mythology. In the early 90s the band decided to merge Viking heritage with their black metal. Delving into the material, they encountered unexpected depths.

“At some point you realize that there’s a lot more to the mythology and history. It’s about a philosophy as much as anything else,” says Peersen. “You start discovering the nuances and appreciating the things that are more … subtle. The beautiful things.”

It is a philosophy expressed through coastlines, forests and trees – glimpses of beauty are revealed, above all, in the Vikings’ relationship with nature. “If you want to explore the Viking identity, there are two places to do it: Iceland, and the Norwegian west coast. Here you’ll experience nature and see the symbolism which is the entire foundation of their culture”, says Peersen.

“At some point you realize that there’s a lot more to the mythology and history. It’s about a philosophy as much as anything else.”

Ivar Peersen, Enslaved
Ivar Peersen, Enslaved.
Photo: Kyrre Lien

True Values

So what values are they talking about? Peersen has an unlikely example – Ragnarok, the mythological “end of the Gods”, and also the end of the world. “It has a lot to tell you about the experience of being human and about having to let some things go: to see them fade and die and then grow again, as the foundation of something entirely new.” That is how the Vikings saw both their own existence and life itself.

“In modern society, there’s a finality to all things. You start something, you stay the course, and when it comes to an end it is seen as a failure. Whilst in the Old Norse, the downfall and Ragnarok holds a completely different place. It is not final”, says Peersen. What he means by this is not to teach reincarnation, but simply to explain a mindset. “It’s about how you approach certain things, like death. Focus too much on it, and you waste an incredible amount of life. With such a mindset your focus will shift towards the present moment.”

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