• Aimee Levitt
  • The first Norsemen to wear horned helmets were characters in Wagnerian opera in the 19th century. The horned helmet became a patriotic symbol of Scandinavia after Germany invaded Denmark in 1864. It was adopted by heavy metal enthusiasts in the 1970s.

Vikings did not wear helmets with horns on them. They probably bathed and combed their hair—or at least, the archaeological record shows they were very attached to their combs. They did other things besides sail around Europe and rape and pillage and set things on fire. And they did not call themselves Vikings: “viking” is an Old Norse term for going on a trading trip or raid (sometimes it was hard to distinguish the two), which came to be applied to all medieval Scandinavians who showed up in places that were not Scandinavia.

These are some of the things you can learn at “Vikings,” an exhibit organized by the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm that will be on display at the Field Museum from February 27 till October 4, along with the Krampmacken, a modern Swedish replica of a Viking ship. But maybe the most surprising thing you will learn is that medieval Scandinavians had some pretty spectacular jewelry.

“Vikings” is similar to “Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti,” its neighbor on the museum’s first floor, in that it seeks to demystify a group of people who have been subject to a lot of romantic misconceptions. It lacks the immediacy of “Vodou” because its subjects have been dead and buried (or burned) for 1,000 years, more or less, and the exhibit’s curators can only guess at what their lives were like based on archaeological evidence. The Icelanders wrote down the myths, but most of the other written records of their activities come from Christian missionary reports of Iceland and Norway and from people in the British isles who, after several waves of invasions, were, understandably, not very fond of their visitors from the north. But, as it turns out, there’s evidence that at least one group of Norwegians feared the “vikings,” too.

The exhibit concentrates on the period between from the eighth to the eleventh centuries, when the Vikings were out exploring the seas and, at home, getting Christianized. Most of the people who lived in Scandinavia at that time were farmers. Their lives were very hard: you can tell because there are quite a few bent and fractured bones on display beside the farming implements. There are some weapons in the glass cases, too, but the explainer text notes that a lot of men carried weapons in order to look more manly, not because they actually used them regularly. They were even buried with them, since the spectacular ship-burning Viking funeral was a privilege given only to people who could actually afford to set a ship on fire.

  • Swedish History Museum
  • Clockwise from left: A sword hilt and pommel, a comb made of antler, a silver coated spearhead that says (in runes) “Rane owns this spearhead. Botfus carved it.”

Technically, since “viking” refers to a journey, women could be vikings, too, but, like the men, they mostly stayed home. They had no legal power—though they could request divorces and get their dowries back—but aristocratic women were said to have mystical powers to control fate. They also carried lots of keys. Locks were an important part of life in Scandinavia and regularly used.

  • Swedish History Museum
  • A bronze and white metal pendant that has both Christian and Old Norse symbols.

But you wanted to know about the jewelry. The Vikings were generous about bringing pretty things back home, and they ventured as far as India. Scandinavian women wore glass beads and cowrie shells and intricate Irish crosses, which maybe made Christianity more palatable, although Christianity and paganism did coexist, more or less peacefully, for a few hundred years.

There are a few interactive displays at “Vikings” that show how ships got built (they required a staggering amount of wood that pretty much deforested Norway, Sweden, and Iceland, and also probably insured that none of the horses living there had tails anymore), demonstrate how to do an archaeological dig, and, best of all, at least according to the fifth graders who got to preview the exhibit yesterday morning, Hnefatl, a board game that’s a bit like chess.

There’s a section of the exhibit given over to mythology and explaining which days of the week are named after which god (interestingly, the Norwegian and Swedish word for “Saturday” translates as “washday”), but maybe the most useful fact is that when bad Vikings died, they went to Hel. Which was frozen. As the Swedish ambassador who opened the exhibit noted, there has long been a great affinity between Sweden and Chicago.