October 28, 2014

Their armpits were charmpits

DOES ANYONE REALLY CARE whether the ancient Viking marauders ever took baths? I ask because their modern-day descendants appear to be somewhat sensitive on this subject. A Danish website claims, rather self-pityingly, that the Vikings “have long since had the reputation of being filthy wild animals.” This is a myth they’d like to dispel, according to the website.
The Danes are not slow to point of out that descriptions of the Vikings came mainly from Christian writers who had reason to spread fear about the bands of pagan berserkers who were ravaging Europe. “A Christian writer would be strongly biased to present the evil pagans in the worst light. To this day it is the writings of these Christians which give us the impression that Vikings were dirty savages. The reality seems to be quite the opposite.”

Frankly, if I were on the beach when a Viking longship hove into view, the last thing I’d be worried about was whether those guys with the bristling beards and large axes were suffering from halitosis or smelly armpits. But no matter, let’s hear what the Danes have to  say:

“We know from the accounts of the Anglo-Saxons that the Vikings who settled in England were considering to be ‘clean freaks’ because they would bath once a week. This was at a time when an Anglo-Saxon would bath only once or twice a year. In fact the original meaning of the Scandinavian words for Saturday was ‘Washing Day.’ “

In passing, it’s interesting to note the Danish use of the word ‘settled' above. It sounds much more genteel, and a whole lot less smelly, than the actual process of hacking and slaughter and rape and pillage that accompanied the arrival of the Vikings in England.

Nevertheless, these fine upright fellows also won praise for their cleanliness from an Arab writer called Ibn Rustah, and another called Ibn Fadian, who noted that the Vikings used to wash their faces and blow their noses every morning. The fact that they all shared the same bowl for their ablutions dismayed him somewhat, but he pointed out that no matter how they did it, they were cleaner than their European Christian cousins, who did not bother to clean their faces every day.

So there you have it on the best authority. If you ever thought Vikings were smelly beasts, you had it all wrong. Shame on you. As the poet said, a Viking by any other name would smell as sweet, then and even now.

Today’s Thought
Whoever eats bread without first washing his hands is as though he had sinned with a harlot.
— Babylonian Talmud: Sotah

“How’s the new Jewish opera singer getting along?”
“I’m not sure. She doesn’t seem to know if she’s Carmen or Cohen because she’s always so Bizet.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

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