By Luke Cairns
The Vikings, as a people, are surrounded by a fog of myth and legend. Hollywood has instilled within us a misconception about these maritime marauders that fails to pay homage to their depth of culture, their sophistication, and their importance in history. Think not of horn-helmeted, scruffy-bearded, pagan plunderers on the hunt for easy loot. Instead, imagine a hardy people made up of merchants, farmers, and renowned craftsmen, vulcanised by their harsh environment; lovers of story-telling, of celebration, of law-making and the natural world.
The Viking era spanned the 8th - 11th centuries, with this term coming from the Norse word for raid or raider, and the old Anglo-Saxon word for pirate. Those who were present on the raids were typically younger men who had left their homes in pursuit of adventure and wealth, before returning to settle down with a family. These raiders were particular about their targets, with a certain penchant for the monasteries of the British Isles, whose halls hid a wealth of gold and riches that could be traded, or melted down and made into jewellery. Culturally, this was essential for the Viking tradition of gift-giving, which fostered alliances and social bonds between clans. The exchange of valuable ornaments solidified relationships, whether through diplomatic negotiations or as a token of appreciation.
This jewellery was worn by both men and women, and consisted mainly of silver or bronze, with gold jewellery remaining a luxury of the elite. It typically manifested as decorative but functional for example, brooches to fasten garments like cloaks and tunics together. Rings and bands that were worn on the finger, or around the wrist, arms and neck and these bands had a dual function as both decoration, and currency, where the wearer could hack off parts of the jewellery and barter for goods and services. This is where we get the term ‘hack gold’ or ‘hack silver’.
One of the most striking features of Viking jewellery is the skillful use of filigree and granulation techniques. Filigree involved the twisting and soldering of fine metal wires into intricate patterns, while granulation entailed creating tiny precious metal beads and attaching them to the surface.
Viking jewellery designs were heavily influenced by their natural surroundings and mythology. The Vikings drew inspiration from animals, plants, and geometric shapes, resulting in pieces adorned with serpents, wolves, birds, and intricate knotwork. Such motifs were not only aesthetically pleasing but also carried symbolic meanings. The sun and moon were also recurring symbols, representing cosmic forces and the passage of time. Additionally, the Tree of Life, known as Yggdrasil in Norse mythology, symbolised the interconnections of all things in the cosmos. These symbols imbued Viking jewellery with a deeper significance, connecting the wearer to their cultural and spiritual heritage.
Furthermore, Viking jewellery also played a role in religious and spiritual beliefs. Many pieces incorporated symbols related to Norse mythology and paganism. The hammer of Thor was a common motif, representing protection and strength. The Valknut, a symbol associated with Odin, symbolised the connection between life and death, or heaven, hell, and earth.
In essence, the legacy of Viking jewellery serves as a testament to the depth and complexity of Viking culture, challenging the one-dimensional portrayal often perpetuated by popular media. As we reflect on the intricacies of their craftsmanship and the symbolism woven into their jewellery, we gain a deeper appreciation for the multifaceted nature of the Viking people. It is a reminder that behind the horned helmets and seafaring adventures lies a culture rich in creativity, spirituality, and a profound connection to the natural world. Visit Berganza to discover a piece of Viking history today!