Vikings in popular culture

I recently re-watched the Marvel comics film Thor and I was immediately drawn to some of the visual design aspects of the film in relation to my project.

The film is based upon the Marvel comics character Thor, created by Stan Lee.  Thor is part of a race called the Asgardians, who were worshiped by the Viking people as gods.  Thor is the god of thunder and the heir to his father Odin’s throne, as King of the Asgardian gods.

It is important to note that the film is based upon a fictional character that lives in fictional realms, based upon the mythical god of Norse legend.

As I watched the film, in the scenes that featured the realm of Asgard I noticed a lot of carvings adorning the walls, doors, floors and furniture, these were obviously heavily influenced by the same carvings that I researched and tried to incorporate within the thematic design of my application.  (To see my previous post on Viking carvings click here)

Below are some comparisons of the carvings and symbols that I looked at and the carvings featured within the film.,r:2,s:0,i:71,r:8,s:0,i:81

As you can see the set design has taken influence from traditional Viking carvings and I was pleased to see some examples of historical truth regarding the Vikings featured within the realm of popular media.  In a previous post (see here) I looked at probably the most popular misconception regarding the Vikings, their helmets.  This misconception has spread widely throughout popular culture, fed by inaccurate representations in many aspects of the media, see below:

By clicking the link below you can see a page featuring cartoons, all of which have Vikings with horned helmets

I thought it would be interesting to examine other examples of Viking heritage featured in popular culture.

The Vikings had a major effect on their own time period but in the 19th century they rose to prominence again, this is described on the BBC’s website

“it was Victorian Britain that really invented the Vikings as we now know them. The term ‘Viking’ was virtually unknown until the beginning of the nineteenth century”

In the book ‘Nordic Tourism: Issues and Cases’ the authors also draw attention to the role of Victorian Britain in establishing the modern interpretation of the Vikings, “It was Victorian Britain that really invented the Vikings as they are now often portrayed in public mind” (Hall, Müller & Saarinen 1961: p37)

The 19th century was a time when many Viking sagas where translated to English, Reverend William Strong translated Bishop Esaias Tegnér’s Frithiof’s Saga.  Hall, Müller and Saarinen indicate that this was a pivotal point in the Vikings emergence into popular culture “it was the publication in English of Bishop Esaias Tegner’s saga based on a 14th century Icelandic saga that captured the British public’s imagination” (Hall, Müller &Saarinen 1961: p37).  This may also be the one of the first instigators of the horned helmet misconception “The impact of the saga was profound as it was published in 16 English language versions during the 19th century, perhaps just as importantly many of the editions were published with accompanying pictures of Norseman in horned helmets thereby creating the image of the Viking and of the northern lands and values in the British imagination” (Hall, Müller & Saarinen 1961: p37).

This is an image of the Vikings that we now know through archaeological research to be false

Even though we now know this to be a falsehood, the image is deeply ingrained into popular culture Hall,  Müller and Saarinen (1961: p37) explain how this has happened “an image, albeit socially constructed in modern terms, that has subsequently been reproduced in film, television and all sorts of media. ”

Bishop Esaias Tegnér’s Frithiof’s Saga was not the only piece of Viking based text or media produced at the time, Sir George Webbe Dasent was a keen studier of Scandinavian literature and he translated Njal’s Saga amongst other Scandinavian works but translations of old text were not the only path for Viking mythology into popular culture.

Wilhelm Richard Wagner a German composer featured Viking mythology in some of his operas, in particular Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), within his operas these beings of myth and legend became characters, much in the same way that Marvel Comics Thor was a character based on myth but this is where things can become twisted.

Misconceptions of historical facts can be fuelled by the neglecting of due diligence by media producers or simply the embellishment of known facts for effect but this is not a new situation, as in the children’s game Chinese Whispers a message often gets distorted as it passes through a sting of communicators, Leavitt (2010: p97) explains:

“ In generation after generation, tellers of tales have largely unconsciously elaborated stories that refer obliquely to great themes that are sensitive for their own society, multiplying contrasting images and relations to which they allude without facing them directly. The recognition, even unconscious, of such implicit patterns would be the source of the intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction that myths offer to their receivers and would explain both their preservation and their transformation through time.

The Norse myths by definition are not based upon any proven facts, in the same way that there is no proof of any gods in any religion but what we take as fact is the earliest recounts of these beings as stories based upon the beliefs of the cultures relevant to the time, in other words the Vikings existed and they created imagery that represents their beliefs in these beings.  In the image below you can see a carved stone from the Viking period, depicting Odin the king of the gods riding his eight-legged horse Sleipnir.

Due to the lack of physical evidence, most items of Viking history shown in the media have been subject to some form of artistic licence but we need to be careful because as time goes by more artists and storyteller may add their own embellishments, based upon other already added extras or edits and this bricolage of different influence may lead to a result that bares little relation the truth.

Since the Victorian times Vikings have been dramatised in many different ways, including books, films, comics and illustrations, below are some examples:

Many Viking films have been made over the years, here is my selection based upon the films that I have actually seen:

The Vikings

The Vikings was an action/adventure film made in 1958, it starred Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis and was directed by Richard Fleischer.  This film appears to be well researched and more accurate than some of its modern day counterparts.  In the paper ‘The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages’, Author Arne Lunde (2011) describes the film “the 1958 classic Hollywood epic The Vikings, an iconic popular work that still remains the most widely-known Viking film over a half century later.


Set in Scandinavia this film is based upon the people who went on to become the Vikings.  The film follows the exploits of Beowulf, an arrogant and cocky young warrior, as he attempts to help a Danish king who’s kingdom is being terrorised by a fearsome monster.

Beowolf the film is based upon an old English poem of the same name, it dates back to the Anglo Saxon period that coincides with the Viking raids, invasion and settlement in England and I believe that it is no coincidence that the story is set in the Viking homelands.  The British Library describes Beowolf below:

Beowulf is the longest epic poem in Old English, the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest. It is one of the most famous works of Anglo-Saxon poetry, and tells the breathtaking story of a struggle between the hero, Beowulf, and a bloodthirsty monster called Grendel. ”

Although the original manuscript is written in old English, the Viking influences in the poem cannot be ignored.

One of the reasons Beowolf and the Vikings make good characters within media renditions is explained by María José Gómez Calderón, she says:

“The resetting of Beowulf as object of mass consumption is framed by the popularization of the Middle Ages. Since the Romantics defined the period as the mythical time for national origins and seasoned it with the charm of primitivism, the medieval past has allured popular imagination as a time of heroes and glorious deeds, of communal projects and attachment to local roots that reverses the individualization of industrial and post industrial eras.11 Particularly, the worldwide success of the narratives of the ‘‘sword and sorcery’’ type has codified the medieval past as a site for fantasy parallel to what we may call‘‘the historical Middle Ages.’’”Gómez Calderón 2010: p992 – 993)

13th Warrior

This film follows an Arab banished from his homeland; he joins a group of Norse warriors who are summoned to fight mysterious creatures that are causing great devastation.  The film is based on Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel, Eaters of the Dead, which is influenced by the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf.  The thing I like about this film is that it draws attention to the links between Vikings and the middle east, it is a little known fact that the Vikings traded with the middle east, artefacts have been found at either end of this trading route that prove this.


This film shows how the Vikings travelled to America and in this case they happen to accidently leave a Viking boy who gets raised by a Native American tribe.

This film is a work of fiction that should not be used in any kind of historical context other than the acknowledgment that the Vikings did travel to America; there are also lot of my favourite Viking misconceptions within this film, especially those horned helmets.

Sports Teams

There are many sports teams that use the Vikings name, below are a couple that I have chosen to examine:

The Minnesota Vikings are an American Football team playing in Americas NFL, their team name and branding is supposed to be reflection of Minnesota’s Scandinavian cultural heritage, they have a massive impact on popular culture in today’s world, as you see by searching for Vikings on the internet.  Their branding is based upon the historical Scandinavian people but as you can see below those inaccurate horns are featured once again.

The Minnesota Vikings are not the only sports team to use the Vikings as a theme, Rick Granthem believes this is due to the Vikings being associated with strength and power, he says:

In a lot of societies, Vikings have been symbols of strength, invincibility, and pure testosterone. This is the reason why a number of organizations, groups, and individuals have used Norse elements in their activities.”

In my own city up until recently we had a speedway team called the Hull Vikings, again their branding featured a large burly man with a horned helmet, see below:

Much of today’s Viking representations are still based upon the stereotypical sea faring, bloodthirsty warriors who raped and pillaged but this is very much an Anglo American point of view, in Scandinavia the view of Vikings in popular culture is very different; Hall, Müller and Saarinen (1961: p37-38) explain “in the Nordic countries the dominant image of Vikings in popular culture finds fewer refrerences to war and warriors. Instead the Viking representation is very much concerned with the people who were regarded as pirates abroad, but lived in a well-ordered society at home.”  This is a problem for the tourist industry in these countries, as tourists arrive in the Viking homelands expecting to see the stereotypical Viking representation, “it is often the more bloodthirsty image that initially inspires the Anglo American tourists to visit the Viking heritage sites or themed festivals.”  (Hall, Müller & Saarinen 1961: p37-38)  This can lead to brand confusion in the same way that I had previous concerns about my application logo (see here), when the public expects to see one thing they can struggle to identify with the accurate depiction, so causing confusion.

One who is easily influenced by popular culture, may be forgiven for thinking that the Vikings were American football playing warriors with horned helmets, who worshiped gods that came down to earth and decided to protect alongside a mysterious secret police force, a super soldier, a green raging monster and a man in a mechanical suit, but the purpose of my application is to restore the balance by providing a more accurate rendition of Viking times through my piece of Viking media. Like the storytellers of the past, I will be simply preserving the tradition of delivering the information but I hope my spin is one of accuracy made interesting through interactivity and illustration.

Hall, C. M., Müller, D. K. & Saarinen, J. (1961) Nordic Tourism: Issues and Cases, UK: Channel View Publications

Gómez Calderón, M. (2010) ‘My Name Is Beowulf’: An Anglo-Saxon Hero on the Internet’, Journal Of Popular Culture, 43, 5, pp. 988-1003, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 24 April 2012.

Leavitt, J. (2010) ‘MYTHEME AND MOTIF: LÉVI-STRAUSS AND WAGNER’, Intersections: Canadian Journal Of Music, 30, 1, pp. 95-116, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 24 April 2012.

Lunde, A. 2011, The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages, Scandinavian Studies, 83, 3, pp. 471-477, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 29 April 2012.


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