Everybody loves Vikings. Well, maybe not medieval monks or nobles. But everyone today loves Vikings. Those seafaring raiders who made a mockery of city walls and delusions of safety. The Vikings were strong, and they were tough. And they weren’t afraid of anything. Or were they?
When I was a kid, I learned from an extremely reputable TV show that Vikings were actually a little bit scared of losing sight of land. They would try to sail close enough to shore to see landmarks. When they sailed beyond the sight of land, which they had to do sometimes, they were very nervous about it. Now, you can’t believe everything you learn from a children’s cartoon show. Even the educational ones. But this image always stuck with me: The Brave Viking, afraid of the Open Sea.
This is a reasonable fear. The open sea is disorienting and mysterious. How can you tell where you are when you can’t see the shore and haven’t invented the compass? You could use the stars to navigate, but what if it’s cloudy? Or daytime? You could look to birds for guidance. They usually fly home to land somewhere. Then again, birds are highly unreliable.
Whether it was ever actually historically documented or not, I’m sure there were many would-be Viking raiders who were anxious about stepping onto a longboat and sailing into the unknown. It is just as easy to sail past Britain as it is to land there. And without modern navigation techniques, it never got any easier for the Vikings. Yet they repeatedly went beyond the limits of their sight. Far beyond. Sometimes they even discovered new lands.
What would compel these people to do such a thing. Some say it was a natural thirst for adventure, but I sort of doubt it. The whole, “I just want to see over the horizon,” thing is a fairly modern mindset. A luxury for people who aren’t constantly thirsty for plain old water.
Most Vikings were not raiders. They were farmers and craftsmen. The people that went on raids were the ones with no land to cultivate, skills to sell, or family connections to rely on. They weren’t raiding for fun. They wreaked havoc on foreign lands so they wouldn’t starve at home. Crossing open sea was terrible. But not as terrible as a long and certain death. If they were lucky, they only had to do it once. Many Viking raiders settled down and became farmers at the first chance they got, so they wouldn’t have to cross the ocean anymore.
Although there are exceptions, most regular Vikings didn’t cross the sea for glory or adventure. They did so out of necessity. Just as it is the mother of invention, necessity is the conqueror of fear.
Today there are many things to be afraid of. The economy! The election! The future! None of those things are as terrifying as crossing the open sea in a rickety boat with no compass, but they present similar challenges. Fear of scary things will never completely go away. They are scary things, after all. If you have a good reason you can face those fears anyway. If you’re lucky, you will only have to face them once. Even if you aren’t lucky, if you have faced them once and survived, then you can probably do it again.
The Vikings were brave and strong. The stuff of legend. They were also regular people. Everybody on the planet has the same abilities as the Vikings. Thankfully, we don’t all have to use them.
The Vikings teach us that if you have a place and a job that you like, then you should stay put. It is stupid to seek distant shores when you have a good life at home. If your life is not good, then you might have to cross the Metaphorical Sea. Sure, it’s scary to lose sight of the shore. It is also easy when you don’t have any other choice.
There is a good chance you will sink. But who knows, maybe you will return with a bunch of treasure. Or even better, find a new place to call your own.