The Viking exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin until January 4, 2015
Brilliant beasts – the Vikings
The MARTIN-GROPIUS-BAU museum in Berlin is attracting people to its exhibition with “spectacular excavation finds” which are being exhibited in public for the first time along with a 37-meter-long reconstruction of a Viking longship***
What is so fascinating about these Scandinavian pirates who attacked their neighboring countries from the ninth to the eleventh century, looted thousands of tons of gold and silver, and probably murdered hundreds of thousands of people? Answer A: Their incredible success. Answer B: Their alarming resemblance to ISIS and similar gangs of criminals.
With a shake of the head, we ask ourselves: “What kind of human beings are they?” and “What is a human being anyway?”
“By nature,” if we allow ourselves to make a realistic self-assessment “humans are not really human beings at all.” Or in the words of the zoologist: “The human being is – along with ants – the most successful species on the planet. Both have three characteristics in common: the ability to build colonies, self-sacrificing bravery, and the capacity to commit merciless acts of violence in order to preserve their own species.”
Yet there is a catch to this biologistic thesis: it is only half true. That’s because it is not the genes alone that determine what makes the human being, but rather his or her education. Without being taught empathy the human being remains a beast. Only by constantly training the ability to empathize can mirror neurons develop in Broca’s area of the brain. It is through these neurons that the joy and pain witnessed in others can be sensed first-hand. The ability to feel sympathy is an indication of human education, similar to multilingualism and literature.
At first glance we may admire the Vikings as adept seafarers, but there is no reason to give sanction to their crimes.
On the contrary: this scientifically grounded exhibition takes the wind out of the sails of many a myth. For instance, the Vikings’ nautical skills were rather limited. They sailed by sight and were unfamiliar with the compass. And there is still little evidence to support the saga of Viking Leif Eriksson, who is said to have discovered America around AD 1000. The Vikings even imported their swords from Franconia, because their own armories were not technically adept enough.
Is it still possible to talk of their brilliance?
Well, around the time of “Roskilde 6” the Vikings were no longer investing their looted riches in weaponry, but in commodities. From Greenland, Ireland, and Britain to Latvia, Russia, the Ukraine, and Byzantium, they were now doing a roaring trade, transforming themselves into multilingual cosmopolitans, respected citizens, and devout Christians. Out of barbaric hordes grew civilized people.
So it is almost a fitting end to the story that the Viking descendant and Danish King Harald “Bluetooth” – who established Christianity in Scandinavia around 965 – is honored for his ability to bring people together by a logo that bears his name and with which we associate modern communication technology.
The names of online services such as Wikipedia, Wikimedia, and WikiLeaks also make reference to the Vikings, in whom they clearly see cosmopolitan role models rather than criminals.
***organized by the Museum of Prehistory and Early History, part of the National Museums in Berlin, in association with the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen and the British Museum in London.
10963 Berlin Kreuzberg
James Graham-Campbell: Das Leben der Wikinger. Krieger, Händler und Entdecker. Nikol VG, Hamburg 2002, ISBN 3-933203-45-7.
Angus Konstam: Die Wikinger. Geschichte, Eroberungen, Kultur. Tosa Verlag, Wien 2005, ISBN 3-85492-692-8 (former title Atlas der Wikinger).
Magnus Magnusson: Die Wikinger. Geschichte und Legende. Albatros-Verlag, Düsseldorf 2007, ISBN 978-3-491-96188-3.
Peter Sawyer (Ed.): Die Wikinger. Geschichte und Kultur eines Seefahrervolkes. Siedler Verlag, Berlin 2002, ISBN 3-88680-641-3
Georg Scheibelreiter: Die barbarische Gesellschaft. Mentalitätsgeschichte der europäischen Achsenzeit, 5.–8. Jh. Primus-Verlag, Darmstadt 1999, ISBN 3-89678-217-7.
Mobilität und Kulturtransfer auf prosopographischer Grundlage. Akademie Verlag, Berlin 2006, ISBN 978-3-05-004285-5.
Giacomo Rizzolatti, Leonardo Fogassi, Vittorio Gallese: Mirrors in the Mind. Scientific American Band 295, Nr. 5, November 2006, p. 30–37
Giacomo Rizzolatti, Corrado Sinigaglia: Empathie und Spiegelneurone: Die biologische Basis des Mitgefühls. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2008. ISBN 3-518-26011-1.
Museums and exhibitions in Berlin: www.museumsportal-berlin.de/en/