I’ve nearly completed the History Channel’s Vikings series. I’ve also done some additional study on the Vikings, including listening to a history of the Vikings by Lars Brownworth.
One thing is clear: there are many things about the Vikings you do not want to imitate. Many of the scenes in Vikings are hard to watch. Their morality is clearly lacking in many areas. They can rightly be accused of toxic masculinity. They worship false gods in sometimes awful ways.
All that said, the Vikings were not without virtues. In a culture that is highly sensitive to toxic masculinity, we may miss some of what we might call “the masculine virtues.” It’s rather striking to see some of the things that they do that are rooted in this “masculine” culture because they are somewhat rare in our own culture. These are things I want to remember and imitate.
I use the term “masculine virtues” to describe the virtues associated with the general tendency of men to be outward facing as supposed to the inward or home orientation of women. This is not a prescription, in my view, merely a general observation. Both men and women can and should develop masculine and feminine virtues.
Here are seven lessons from the Vikings I want to remember.
1. A thirst for exploration. In the 8th–10th centuries, the Vikings satiated their thirst to discover the world. They went as far far as Iceland, Greenland, and North America. They went south and founded an empire that became Russia. This thirst for exploration is described beautifully by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his poem “Ulysses,” who is “always roaming with a hungry heart” and “yearning in desire To follow knowledge like a sinking star, beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”
2. Hard training. The Vikings knew that success in battle meant hard training. I recently heard Henry Cloud say, “You don’t rise to the occasion. You fall to the level of your training.” If you want to be able to do well when the pressure is on, you have to train hard. In the Vikings series, King Alfred the Great asks the Viking Ubbe to train him to fight. He had spent most of his preparation as king in contemplation and study, but he knows he needs to learn to fight. Watch what happens when Ubbe begins his training.
3. Challenges are obstacles to overcome. When the Rus, the Vikings from Sweden, came to Byzantium, they saw the nearly impregnable walls of Constantinople. Most attackers gave up at that point. The Rus were different. They looked at them as simply one more challenge to overcome. A similar situation is depicted in the Vikings series with the siege of Paris. We can change the way we view difficulties, seeing them as obstacles to overcome rather than hopeless situations.
4. Honor the gods. Of course, I don’t believe in the gods, but what I value is the reverence for the divine. There is a clear sense that the gods are in charge, and they are worthy of respect and honor. One thing I like about the Vikings series is how it depicts the Viking religion in a non-judgmental way. The goal seemed to be to simply show what their religion was like and how it affected their lives. One thing that comes across clearly is the honor and respect for the gods. Respect is a clear emphasis of the Bible, but because of the good Christian emphasis on love, it’s easy to forget the respect and honor that is due to the divine. “A son honors his father, and a slave his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” (Micah 1:6).
5. Welcome death. The way the Vikings embraced death is remarkable. In a culture that seems to want to avoid death at almost any cost and has relegated the cemeteries to out of the way places, the openness to death is truly remarkable. This is true on the Christian and Viking side in Vikings. I think our culture is devoid of clear thinking on death because it is devoid of thinking about death. It’s just not a subject we talk about. We would do better to make it a regular meditation. As Seneca said, “For life, if courage to die be lacking, is slavery.”
6. A son is a very good thing. One thing that strikes me in this series is the sheer joy that the Vikings take in the birth of a son. Without downplaying the joy of daughters (I’m a father of six of them!), I think we could afford to rejoice in sons to a much greater degree and honor them much more highly. I think we could approach sons from the standpoint of their tremendous value rather than a basic stance that fears “toxic masculinity.” Out of this value, we could encourage them to turn their energy outward to service. The scene below captures this thought beautifully. Watch as Raganar, separated for many years from his son Björn, is reunited with him. He left him as a boy and discovers him as a man. Watch the joy in their reunion.
7. Celebrate your victories. And why not? Take in the good things. Don’t let a chance to celebrate pass you by. When good things happen, take them in and enjoy them. We can enjoy the good without ignoring the bad. So, celebrate! Skål!