Saturday, December 12, 2009

the viking way

i've had conversations with my father regarding the ironic history of scandinavian culture--about how a society so renowned in the past for its warlike behavior has in the present become one of the most pacifist societies on earth. it's like at some point they renounced their former selves, and transformed their natures into something diametrically opposite.

for his part, my father just shrugs, and says it's better that way. he notes that theirs was a superstitious, fatalistic, violent society with an apocalyptic vision of the future (it can be seen in their myths, which called upon warriors to fight until the final end of ragnarok, wherein the gods were doomed and the end was death for all). being a man of science, he points to the darwinian process of human evolution and notes that whatever the viking culture was, there's a reason why it died out, and hence a reason why it's better left forgotten.

for my part, being a different creature entirely, i have to say i'm not so sure. i've thought about it from time to time, and even written about it here before (reference: sagas for valhalla, santa lucia, stamford bridge). but i've come to believe that perhaps the viking spirit did not die, but goes on living today, and that at least part of it should not be forgotten, but kept very much alive. here's why:

anyone exposed to scandinavian culture will always note the prevalence of reticence. people in nordic societies just don't talk. and if they do, it's not for very long. they'll instead tend to forego talking and proceed about doing their business. oftentimes bundled up against the cold in the darkness of northern winters.

as amusing as it may seem, to me this is the prototypical viking way.

you see, the vikings explored unknown seas with only the most rudimentary navigational equipment. they traveled to new lands without knowledge of what awaited them once they arrived there. and they did so with no compasses (they had lodestones), no charts (they used reckoning), and no GPS (they followed stars). and despite all that, they ventured as far as north america, mediterranean africa, and near asia in a time when european civilization was in retreat.

these are not the actions of a civilization associated with words like fatalism, apocalypse, and doom; these are the actions associated with a word like hope. hope that there was another land. hope that there was a better place. hope that there was a tomorrow. hope that motivated people against the eternal cold and perpetual darkness to believe and seek a greater life.

actions and words. actions with words. actions for words.

because the vikings knew something that we all know--deep down inside of us in places that make us all singularly, uniquely, wholly, universally human: hope is a vision of dreams manifested as reality, but dreams are imagination entwined with expectations and reality is expectation allied with action. that is, hope ultimately requires expression. hopes calls upon action.

and there's something else i also think the vikings knew that we all really know--and that we should remind ourselves every day lest we ever forget: that if hope is ever to fulfill its promise to humanity, if hope is to ever to better the condition of the human species, then we must act despite all the prognostications of apocalyptic futures, despite all the afflictions of eternal cold and perpetual darkness, despite all the horror and misery and suffering in this world in which we live. we must act, so that we can find something more.

because hope is why fire burns through the winter.

because hope is what is meant to be.

because hope is who we are.

1 comment:

Cook said...

definitely an under appreciated culture. your lesson is inspirational.