Divination, sorcery, runes, thunder and spirits: Vikings at the British Museum

By Emily Beeson | 01 April 2014

Exhibition review: Vikings: Life and Legend, British Museum, London, until June 22 2014

A photo of a huge recreation of a Viking warship inside a museum
The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery© Paul Raftery
Terrifying green teethed axe-brandishers, crashing onto bleak shores, ransacking the globe from East to West: many visitors to Vikings: Life and Legend probably have imagery in their mind's eye as they step through the British Museum's doors.

A photo of a tall thin gold staff
Pin with dragon's head (AD 950-1000). Hedeby, modern Germany. Copper alloy. Archäologisches Landesmuseum, Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig© Wikinger Museum Haithabu
This particular re-imagining of Viking identity is widely adopted, however, within the museum's collection of gallon-strong ale buckets and rusted broadswords: a showcase of artefacts peppered with items revealing the games, stories, mystic beliefs and daily fabric of domestic life.

Poems that have journeyed through oral tradition from as long ago as 1270 are printed on the walls, such as Voluspa, an ode which describes the “wondrous golden gaming-pieces” of Hneftafl or “The King’s Table”, a Viking board game.

Below the age-old words, semi-precious stones deftly carved into gaming pieces shine amid hoards of glittering treasure. These coins, bracelets and hefty but expertly crafted brooch-pins are the spoils of a travelling empire, unearthed beneath soils from Uzbekistan to Ireland.

The Vikings were not only reputable warriors and looters but merchants and tradespeople, covering great distances in sturdy vessels built by hand. An impressive array of materials, from jet to walrus ivory used to produce beads for jewellery, delicate combs and religious charms, are among the treasures.

A staggering reproduction of the great Roskilde 6, the 37-metre long warship discovered in Denmark, sits proudly at the exhibition's centre. Its stainless steel frame, oars, boards and original hull sections give an idea of how the ship would have looked just after 1025; the time at which the oak tree that birthed the craft is believed to have been felled.

A photo of a long thin silver sword against a black backdrop
Sword (late 8th–early 9th century). Kalundborg or Holbæk, Zealand, Denmark. Photo: John Lee© The National Museum of Denmark
There is a close look at the famed Lewis Chessmen, discovered in Shetland during the 1800s. On inspection of the pieces' comedically worried expressions, these walrus ivory and whalebone chess figures give a great insight into the Viking sense of humour, as well as their crafting abilities.

For all their lavish goods, Viking society was not a wasteful one. Craftspeople made use of beached wales, rarely killing wild animals for the purposes of their own vanity. This respect for living things was reflected in their spiritual beliefs.

Divination, sorcery and a myriad of personal gods and demi-gods played a pivotal role in their everyday lives. Magical runes, talismans depicting Odin's sacred ravens and icons used in the practices of sorceresses provide a bewitching finale.

A pictorial timeline of the Viking's vast empire and interchanging belief systems, from the venerable Pagan gods of thunder and serpent spirits of lies and death to King Harald Bluetooth and his embrace of Christianity, may leave you excited to know even more about the life and legends of these people. Thanks to this show, the mysterious Vikings now seem, at the very least, a little closer to us.

  • Open 10am-5.30pm (8.30pm Friday). Admission £16.50/£13 (free for under-16s), book online. Follow the museum on Twitter @britishmuseum and use the hashtag #VikingsExhibition.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a large jagged gold platter
Wooden tray or platter with Scandinavian decoration (10th century). Berlin-Spandu, Berlin, Germany© Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Photo: Klaus Göken-bearb
A photo of a circular silver brooch against a black backdrop
Hunterston Brooch (circa 700). Gold, silver, amber. Diam. Hunterston, Ayrshire, Scotlan© National Museums Scotland
A photo of a silver brooch of a Viking warrior against a black backdrop
Valkyrie brooch (9th century). Silver. Galgebakken, Vrejlev, Vendsyssel, Denmark© The National Museum of Denmark
A photo of a series of gold pieces of jewellery aligned in a circular dotted formation
Hiddensee Hoard. Hoard of 14 filigree pendants, spacers, brooch and neck-ring, probably made in Denmark (late 10th century). Gold. Neuendorf/Hiddensee, Rügen, Germany© Jutta Grudziecki, Kulturhistorisches Museum der Hansestadt Stralsund
A photo of a series of small chess piece-style depictions of Viking warriors holding swords
Lewis Chessmen (1150-1145)© The Trustees of the British Museum
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Latest comment: >Make a comment
Dear Emily,

I suspect the Lewis Chessmen were so named because they were discovered on the island of Lewis and not Shetland.
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