If you’re thinking there’s no Viking love to be found in this town this week, look no further than South Philly, right across Pattison Avenue from the Eagles’ practice facility.
As Vikings of the Minnesota variety invade for Sunday’s NFC Championship game at Lincoln Financial Field, a shrine to far fiercer Norse warriors is hiding in plain sight at the edge of Franklin D. Roosevelt Park.
The American Swedish Historical Museum, run by the American Swedish Historical Foundation, counts itself as the oldest Swedish museum in the United States. It was founded in 1926 by a group of Scandinavians as a monument to Nordic influence in North America. Today, the under-the-radar museum counts about 13,000 visitors annually, who are guided through the aging white halls of a 17th century Swedish manor house by curators who occasionally don period dress. The 20,000 square feet of exhibits chart the complicated legacy of Scandinavians throughout the world, as well as their role in colonizing Philadelphia in the mid-1600s, before it was a Greene Countrie Twinkle in William Penn’s eye. The yellow and blue of the city’s flag? A nod to the Swedes.
But more to the point at this pigskin-impassioned moment in time, the museum also pokes holes in fake history, some of it perpetuated by the Minnesota football team.
One myth busted: Real-deal Vikings did not wear helmets with horns.
“Strategically, in battle, do you want something on your head that somebody will grab?” asked program manager Lauren Burnham, pulling at imaginary horns on top of a bystander’s noggin.
While some cultures through history wore ornamental helmets, there is no evidence that Vikings did at any point from the late eighth century through the 11th, the so-called Viking Age. Horns came along in the 19th century as add-ons to costume helmets for theatrical effect in Richard Wagner’s four-part grand opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung, based loosely on Norse sagas.
The look stuck and spread all the way to the NFL.
When Minnesota was granted an expansion franchise in 1960, it adopted the name Vikings in recognition of the state’s large Scandinavian population, which started settling there in the 1800s. Fifty-eight years later, the team is still wearing the same wrong-headed helmet design.
While the moniker may be intended to convey a brutish image, history says otherwise.
Vikings are routinely portrayed as seafaring savages, plunderers and pillagers of Northern Europe; indeed, the word viking is old Norse for “pirate raid.” Yet they had their softer side. They were primarily farmers and adventurers, said Burnham, traveling the world and trading goods. For the most part, they toiled in soil and raised cattle. And while they gave the English language such words as knife, gun, and slaughter, we can also thank them for joy, egg, and skirt.
“Vikings are so misunderstood,” Burnham said. “It was trading that was the most important thing that Vikings did around the world.”
Vikings did use horns — for drinking alcohol. They were considered ceremonial and reserved for use in large feasts.
“You drink some and you pass it to the person next to you, and they drink some,” Burnham said. “And it kind of brings everyone together.”
The museum, which includes a reference library and archival spaces, displays a small number of Viking artifacts, such as a one-handed sword, a ceremonial walking stick, and reproduction chain mail.
Its gift shop, though, is stocked with plenty of — yes — plastic horned-helmets.
A travesty, or good old Norse horse sense? As Tracey Beck, the museum’s executive director, explained: “Viking merchandise sells.”