The Vikings’ Selfish Individualism

The saga hero Egil Skallagrimsson

There’s a common Romantic image of the Vikings fighting their wars for the collective well-being of their nations and homelands, putting tribal loyalty above self-interest. That image could hardly be further from the historical reality. The Vikings weren’t dutiful soldiers selflessly sacrificing themselves for their people; they were mercenaries who, when it really came down to it, cared first and foremost for their own selfish gain.

The Vikings’ particular type of individualism was rather different from the one we have today in several respects. And, to be sure, it was subject to some substantial constraints, both in theory and in practice.

As I discuss in the article The Self and Its Parts, the Norse self wasn’t thought of as something that existed prior to, or outside of, its actions and social relationships. The individual wasn’t an atomistic individual, as it is in our society. Rather, it was effectively an extension of its actions and social relationships; they were what made a man or woman who he or she was. Because of the high value placed on honor in the Viking world, and because one’s honor was largely dependent on one’s loyalty to one’s family, friends, and chieftain,[1] those social relationships imposed certain obligations on a Viking.

But those obligations were contingent upon the specific character of those social relationships. Viking society imposed no obligation to Viking society as such – let alone to mankind as such – but only to those specific people with whom one associated. In other words, Norse society afforded considerable freedom to choose one’s own social bonds (although more so for men than for women), and inasmuch as one was free to choose one’s own social bonds, one could accept or refuse an obligation. There were few absolute obligations that could not be changed by changing one’s social position – such as by leaving the chieftain one had been serving and joining up with another, or by moving to a different town or region.

And the ultimate measure of a man was not his passive obedience to authority or social expectations, but the active greatness that he achieved for himself through his own heroic efforts.[2] Exceptional men were remembered by name, and they and their deeds were celebrated in song long after their deaths. Glory was given to them as individuals, not just as members of a group. Indeed, this was, in an important sense, what gave a person the possibility of an immortal life. As one Old Norse poem (the Hávamál) puts it:

Wealth will pass,
Men will pass,
You, too, likewise, will pass.
One thing alone
Will never pass:
The fame of one who has earned it.[3]

This was complicated by the Vikings’ belief that all beings were subject to fate, because fate severely restricted the range of thoughts and actions that could truly be considered to be self-chosen.[4] But a great man was great whether he became great through fate or through choice, and his greatness would be celebrated just the same.

An illustration of Starkad from Olaus Magnus’s History of the Northern Peoples (1555)

Consider the nature of the most important Viking social and political institution: the warband, the body of warriors led by a particular chieftain. Warbands functioned so much like modern companies that Canadian sociologist Ricardo Duchesne has called them “proto-capitalistic.”[5] Warbands were groups of individuals who came together to cooperate out of shared self-interest, and to compete with other groups. They were meritocracies, and treated kinship and tribal ties as more or less irrelevant. Individual warriors chose which warband they wanted to join – subject to the chieftain’s approval, of course – and could leave and join another at any time. The warriors exchanged their services for a share of whatever spoils were obtained in battle.[6]

Viking warriors – like Indo-European warriors more broadly – were young men who were certainly motivated by the desire for wealth and power, but were also (again in Duchesne’s words) “eager for adventure, joy, and standing.” Their raids and conquests were “driven by an ethos wherein fighting and voluntarily risking one’s life was the essential ground of being worthy of respect and honor.”[7] The Viking style of warfare was therefore based on the freedom of the individual warrior to strive to outdo his peers, rather than just marching in lockstep with others.[8] Indeed, it was fairly common for members of the same warband to challenge each other to single combat to the death over a dispute about who’s deeds were greater – especially at feasts in which large quantities of alcohol were consumed.[9]

The chieftains who led these warbands weren’t autocrats. They commanded the respect and loyalty of their followers only inasmuch as they were generous with the profits of war and appreciated their followers’ accomplishments. In the words of Alfred David, one of the editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature: “In the poetry depicting this warrior society, the most important of human relationships was based less on subordination of one man’s will to another’s than on mutual trust and respect. When a warrior vowed loyalty to his lord, he became not so much his servant as his voluntary companion.”[10]

The Vikings’ graves were individual graves. The degree of their grandeur showed the status of the person buried there, and the objects that were buried with the dead person were those that were indicative of his or her individual life.[11] That way, “the fame of one who has earned it” would “never pass,” but would instead be memorialized for all passersby to see.

The targets of Viking attacks were commonly other groups of Vikings. But they didn’t stop there. They frequently captured other Vikings and sold them into slavery, just as they would foreigners captured in battle. They seem to have made little if any distinction in this regard between Vikings and non-Vikings, pagans and Christians, etc.[12]

Selfish Individualism in Norse Paganism

This ethos extended to the Vikings’ representations of, and interactions with, their gods.

For example, even though the gods all fight as one at Ragnarok, they do so like a warband: out of shared self-interest. If they don’t fight, they’ll be destroyed by the invading giants (who are fated to succeed in the end, anyway). They don’t sacrifice themselves for a “greater good” that’s antithetical to their own well-being.

Franz Stassen’s depiction of Odin hanging from Yggdrasil (1920)

Or consider the myth of Odin’s discovery of the runes. Odin “sacrifices himself to himself,” in the words of the Hávamál,[13] in order to obtain the ecstatic vision whereby he comes to understand the runes, powerful symbols that correspond to cosmic forces, and how to use them in magic. In the Hávamál, it’s clear that he does this to enhance his own power, not for any altruistic motives.

As I describe in the article on Norse theology, the relationship between the Norse gods and their human worshipers followed the same basic model as the relationship between a chieftain and his warriors. There were no absolute commandments given, and no unconditional piety was expected. The Vikings “served” their gods in the same way that they “served” their chieftains: for their own selfish gain. Humans made sacrifices to the gods with the expectation that the favor would be returned in all manner of earthly blessings.

Furthermore, since the Norse religion was never systematized or codified while it was still a living tradition, this fluidity passively afforded its adherents a considerable degree of individual choice in interpreting the shared and more or less fixed centerpieces of that tradition as they wanted. They didn’t have to particularly worry about being “orthodox” in their thinking, because there wasn’t much of a standard of orthodoxy in the first place.

Conclusion

Given all of the above, it’s extremely difficult to accurately portray the Vikings as proto-nationalists or something to that effect. If anything, they were much more like, say, the Wildlings in Game of Thrones – halfway still in the Hobbesian “state of nature.”[14]

But I think there’s a larger, and more important, message to be distilled from this. We frequently hear claims that the purpose of religion is to instill in people an altruistic moral code. But as this case study of the Vikings and their religion shows, there’s no necessary connection between religion and altruism whatsoever – let alone one in which the latter is the cause of, and justification for, the former. The essence of religion must lie elsewhere.

Want to learn more about the Vikings’ individualistic way of life, and the Vikings in general? My list of The 10 Best Books on the Vikings will surely prove helpful to you.

References:

[1] Roesdahl, Else. 1998. The Vikings. p. 62.

[2] Duchesne, Ricardo. 2012. The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (Studies in Critical Social Sciences, Vol. 28). p. 399.

[3] The Poetic Edda. Hávamál, stanza 76. My translation.

[4] See Chapter Five, “Fate,” in my book The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion.

[5] Duchesne, Ricardo. 2012. The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (Studies in Critical Social Sciences, Vol. 28). p. 341-418.

[6] Ibid. p. 375-376.

[7] Ibid. p. 367-368.

[8] Ibid. p. 369.

[9] Ibid. p. 399.

[10] Ibid. p. 398.

[11] Ibid. p. 373.

[12] Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 116-117.

[13] The Poetic Edda. Hávamál, stanzas 138-141.

[14] The reference, of course, is to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, where he describes the imagined lives of people prior to the existence of governments as unrestrained and unremitting selfish competition.

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