No Thor Losers: Test Your Brawn and Beard at York’s Viking Contests

If you think Britain is a genteel land of tea-sipping sissies, think again. Viking blood runs through the veins of millions of Brits, and even today Scandinavian genes can be found in half the population of some Scottish islands.

Beginning in the eighth century, Viking raiders from Norway and Denmark attacked the coasts of Britain before settling in Scotland and northern England. By the 10th century, Jorvik (as they called what is now York, England) was a center of Norse culture larger than any contemporary Scandinavian city. Now, every February, York grabs a battle-axe, grows a mighty beard and rewinds the clock a thousand years to celebrate its Viking roots.

Inspect the Norse

The Jorvik Viking Festival — which runs from February 16-24 in 2013 — is an orgy of hand-to-hand combat, saga singing, archaeological exploration and monstrous beard wearing. At a Viking camp, visitors can hear tales of the Norse gods; barter for jewelry, tankards and pottery with authentic(-ish) 10th-century traders; and converse with warrior chiefs.

One word of advice: Don’t ask why no one is wearing horned helmets. Apparently, real Vikings preferred plain round headwear to deflect incoming axes and arrows. You can even see how you would have fared as a Viking. A Viking Strongman contest consists of manly events such as log carrying, tug-of-war and wrestling, while the annual Best Viking Beard competition rewards those with the most ferocious whiskers. (Homemade beards are permitted, just not for men).

The festival is organized by the Jorvik Viking Centre, a permanent museum built on the site of a Viking encampment more than 1,000 years old. Amid accurately reconstructed scenes of daily Viking life, a glass floor provides a view of the actual excavation beneath.

Archaeology Roadshow

While a dramatic Viking feast night may quench your thirst for authentic Norse food and wine (drunk from sheep’s horns, naturally), a Hidden York event promises to satisfy for your appetite for real history. Mick Aston, a popular British TV archaeologist, will be on hand to assess artifacts dug up in visitors’ own homes and gardens – think "Antiques Roadshow" with a minimum item age of a millennium! This event will also give you the chance to see and handle some of the genuine Viking finds unearthed in York. Year-round, kids will enjoy the Dig attraction, where they can discover Roman, Viking, medieval and Victorian finds in four excavation pits.

If all that sounds a bit too cerebral for a battle-crazed berserker Viking, adventurous travelers might head to the Up Helly-Aa festival held on Scotland's remote Shetland Islands on the last Tuesday of January. In Europe’s largest fire festival, locals dress up as Vikings and follow a "Jarl" (Scandinavian for earl) on a torch-lit procession to the harbor. There, they toss the torches into a replica longboat, reenacting the ancient Viking tradition of sending a fallen warrior to Valhalla in the blazing remains of his ship.

After singing the traditional song "The Norseman's Home," everyone heads off to party through the night until the break of day. As reflects their tough Viking heritage, the Shetlanders then dance and celebrate all over again the following night.

What did Vikings ever do for us?

The Vikings left the British more than just smoldering ruins, blond children and a fear of dragon-prowed ships. Here are just a few Norse staples that eventually became part of Britain’s heritage.

  • Every time you say "thrust," "sky," "anger," "knife," "tackle" or "egg," you’re speaking an Anglicized version of medieval Norse. Even the word "slang" came over to England on a longboat.

  • Britain’s love of fish and chips may have begun with the Vikings. Dried cod from the Lofoten Islands north of the Arctic circle was found in Viking York, and it was only after 1000 AD that cod bones became common in British archaeological sites.

  • Without the Vikings, Wednesday would have gone straight to Friday. The Norse god Thor gave his name to Thorsdag, which over time became Thursday.

  • The Vikings established many settlements in Ireland, including the predecessors of Dublin, Cork and Limerick.

  • Viking traders networked with merchants all over the world. They were the first to introduce such luxuries as Chinese silk to Britain.

by Mark Harris

Top: Men dress in traditional battle costume for the annual Jorvik Viking Festival (Photo courtesy of York Archaeological Trust)

Right: Kids can learn about Viking battle tactics at the festival. (Photo courtesy of York Archaeological Trust)

Torches and reproduction Viking ships are hallmarks of Scotland's Up Helly-Aa Procession. (Photo by Mike Pennington)