VERCINGETORIX VERSUS THE VIKINGS!
~ A Brutey Contest ~
The original “indomitable Gaul”, Vercingetorix, united the Gaulish tribes in the first century BC against Julius Caesar, at that time governer of the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis (Provence) as he attempted to conquer them. He documented this in what was a standard starter text back when people actually learned Latin in school, Comentarii de Bello Gallico, and the period and its characters provided the inspiration for what is a standard starter text for school kids who find words hard to digest unless there are pictures to go with them, the Asterix series by Goscinny and Uderzo. Our ideas about how the Gauls looked and behaved come, in large part, from this witty and long-running comic book. They share some points of comparison with those other hairy barbarian warriors with a penchant for winged and horned helmets, the Vikings, familiar to us from pop-cultural portrayals from Wagner to Hägar the Horrible. A recent film adaptation of the Asterix book Asterix and the Normans has them meet each other, and the Gauls of course come out on top. Now, as we all know perfectly well, the Vikings who landed near the supposed site of the last free Armorican village in Roman-occupied Gaul did so almost a millennium later, eventually signing a treaty with king of Western Francia, Charles the Simple, establishing the fiefdom of Normandy (named to reflect their ‘Northman’ origins).
This is all very fascinating, no doubt, but what we really want to know, aside from placing these two civilisations in historical context and learning quotable little factoids about them, is, obviously, IF THEY DID MEET, WHO WOULD WIN IN A FIGHT, THE VIKINGS OR THE GAULS?!? Here, across the centuries, the confrontation you’ve all been waiting for: Vercingetorix and his Grumpy Gauls versus Erik the Red and his Vicious Vikings, fighting it out in a number of bruising rounds…
May the best barbarians win!
1) Swimwear/Eveningwear: Here we have a common misconception that is indelibly tied to our archetype of both Viking and Gaul: funny headgear. It turns out that neither of them actually did wear the winged helmets sported by Asterix and Obelix, or the horned helmets by which we recognise Vikings. These would both have been highly impractical, and the sensible Gaul-about-town or Viking playboy was more a fan of the simple conical or cap-style iron/leather combination without any frills. The wings and horns were affixed to the helmets of representations of Gauls and Vikings in Romantic 19th century portrayals of them, when the authors sought to link their newly rediscovered Norse and Gaulish legendary heroes with figures from classical mythology like Mercury, usually portrayed with a winged helmet. It’s true that a (very) few helmets with horns have been uncovered in archaeological digs, but these were probably for ceremonial and religious purposes, not for your actual marauding and pillaging. Ironically, the horned helmets found in certain Viking sites probably originated in Celtic cultures, linked to Cernunnos, an important god of hunting and fertility. So, one for the Gauls there. Otherwise, it’s a bit of toss up between the two cultures, sartorially speaking. The Gauls, if we are to believe the Asterix books (which are, indeed, our major source), as well as contemporary artwork, favoured stripy trousers, chequered cloaks, tunics or bare chests, long plaited hair and big droopy moustaches. They used lime to bleach and style their hair, and carried swords with leaf-shaped blades, spears, and distinctive oval shields. The Vikings, despite their reputation for being hairy, smelly, dirty great lumps of halitosis and drunken misanthropy, were actually quite particular about washing and shaving (systematically bathing once a week, which was considered borderline obsessive compulsive for the time, and having a wide variety of personal grooming implements such as combs, tweezers, razors, and even specialised “ear spoons”). They did tend to go for the “lots of fur and leather, long hair and a beard look”, but who can blame them, sailing icy seas as they did? No wonder they looked a little like turn-of-the-first-millenium bikers. They produced soap, and also used it to bleach their hair, blonds being considered to have more fun in the Viking culture as well. They liked to slaughter innocent villagers with swords, battle-axes, and spears, for the most part.
2) Ferociousness: The Vikings seem to be way ahead here, with a reputation for sweeping along the coasts of Europe and up their rivers, pillaging and looting the valuables, slaughtering, raping, or capturing the locals, and burning anything they couldn’t carry with them. It’s true that large amounts of artefacts from all over Europe reside to this day in Norwegian museums, and that monasteries around the coasts of Ireland and Britain were regularly attacked by the “scourge of the Norsemen”. They fought fiercely and mercilessly, either in lightning raids in their shallow-berthed, dragon-headed ships, or as mercenaries for whoever was paying the best, often on both sides of the same conflict. They also operated a thriving slave-trade all across Northern Europe. Their berserker warriors, who would go into hyperactive rages of bloodlust in which they felt no fear or pain, may have given rise to myths of werewolves, or men with the power to shapeshift into bears (the word comes from the Norse meaning “bear’s skin”, which they wore into battle). However, another popular myth about the Vikings, that they would drink mead from the skulls of their enemies, turns out to be apocryphal, originating in a mistranslation which substitutes “horns from the skulls of animals” – which they did drink out of – with the grisly skull-cups of our imagination. The Gauls, it turns out, were pretty bloodthirsty themselves, and they did have a thing about enemies’ skulls. There was a competition among Gaulish warriors to bring home the most severed heads from the battlefield, and these were kept as trophies, and supposed to have magical powers, bestowing protection on their owner and his home. Julius Caesar and other classical sources generally considered the Gauls to be insanely ferocious when it came to battle, their tactics involving a lot of running screaming at the enemy, often semi-naked, and being generally quite brave and reckless. Their horsemen were famously skilled, and they still rode chariots with lots of spiky implements aboard into battle long after the Romans gave up the practice, saving their charioteers for races and triumphs. When combined with a tactician like Vercingetorix, who used natural fortifications and high ground to channel the enemy’s movements, and pioneered the “scorched earth” practice of burning and stripping all the land in the path of the advancing foe, to deprive them of supplies, the Gauls were a force to be reckoned with. But still eventually conquered by the Romans. Then again, they conquered most people. If they had been around when the Vikings were, they probably would have beaten the stuffing out of them too. This makes it all the more impressive that the Gauls actually sacked Rome around 390 BC. However, disunity among the squabbling tribes meant that the Gauls very rarely agreed on a common foe, and often fought each other, or the nearby Germanic peoples. In the end there can be little doubt that the Gauls were pretty tough, even without magic potion to give them that extra oomph, but it is the Vikings who win this category. We immediately associate them with violence and mayhem, where the Gauls just don’t have the same badass reputation.
3) Mythology and Religion: The Norse mythology, as preserved in the Icelandic sagas, has come down to us in exhaustive detail, and its cultural influence has been enormous, from Wagner’s Valkyries, to The Lord of the Rings, to Marvel Comics’ slightly crappier heroes. Their rich pantheon of gods and monsters is a familiar one, informing most fantasy literature and cinema, full of dwarfs, giants, elves, trolls, and dragons, encountered by dim-but-heroic Thor, grim Odin, crafty Loki, and a variety of human heroes, adventurers, navigators, and warriors, straddling the gap between history and legend. However, we know much less about the myths and religious practices of the Gauls. Though both had a predominantly oral-history culture, the Vikings cleverly sequestered this culture in a safe place, Iceland, where it remained intact, the skalds conserving this greatest of pre-Renaissance Northern European literatures until the Christian monks arrived, quill-and-vellum in hand, to write it all down (though they couldn’t help throw in a bit of tutting about how pagan and immoral it all was; a bit like certain of today’s newspapers sighing and wringing their hands over the outrageous behaviour of young celebrities, under tons of exclusive pictures of same in various states of undress).
By contrast, the Gauls’ religion was already a bit of a mishmash of various Celtic and Germanic pantheons, with a good dollop of animism, and a sprinkle of hermetic mysticism, which varied from tribe to tribe. It was assimilated and then more or less obliterated by the Roman conquest, first by combining their cognate and analogous gods, and then when the Romans decided to stop feeding Christians to the lions, but rather start bullying everyone into joining them and getting baptised. We have lots of vague ideas about the Gauls worshipping Toutatis, (“By Toutatis!” – Asterix again), perhaps Belennos, and … um … didn’t they sort of worship goddesses, and virile Horned Gods, and dance around standing stones in feminist, organic, lunar-cycle, hand-knitted spirals, and like, meditate and open little shops with crystals and incense? Yes, the very complex, vague, multifaceted idea we have of Celtic religions has left them open to abuse by woolly-spiritual New-Agers, pagans, wiccans, and anyone who thinks “Celtic” is a genre of music. But it’s sort of their own fault. Their priest class, the druids, were mysterious and secretive, passing down a vast body of knowledge of religion, philosophy, astronomy, botany, poetry, history, and magic only to the closed circle of initiates. Druids were the religious leaders, doctors, scribes, judges, historians, political advisors, and scientists of Gaulish society. It took twenty years to become one, and they left no written records. No wonder the hippies have taken them to their braless collective bosom.
As for the Vikings, well, their modern fans, apart from nerdy blokes who spend their time playing World of Warcraft and wishing for a Xena to call their own, aren’t the best company either. Spend enough time looking into Vikings, and you’ll eventually find that they were very big with the loopy Nazi mystics, who appreciated their world of muscular Aryan heroes and busty Brunhildes, and that they have inspired a whole subgenre of Scandinavian Black Metal, featuring bands with names like Valhalla and Ragnarok, who tend to sing about Viking exploits, and then go around desecrating and burning churches and decapitating members of rival bands with broadswords. American football teams are also rather fond of them as mascots. The Gauls haven’t quite been appropriated by groups wishing to further a racial or cultural agenda in the same way, except under the general umbrella of misty Celtic-ish-ness, by the relatively harmless New-Age crowd. However, if we consider the lines engraved on the statue to Vercingetorix on the supposed site of his final defeat at Alesia (“La Gaule unie / Formant une seule nation / Animée d’un même esprit, / Peut défier l’Univers.”), and their similarity to “Ensemble, tout devient possible”, then we can be sure it’s only a matter of time.
The Verdict: The Swimwear/Eveningwear round being more or less tied, the Vikings took the lead on ferociousness, and extended it in the mythology rapid-fire round. The Gauls closed the gap, with their modern-day fans being (slightly) less objectionable than those of the Vikings, but it was only a consolation. The Vikings were always going to be favourites here, and their management team and publicists, it must be said, have been doing a much better job of getting the brand out there. It’s all very well for the Gauls to whinge about the horned helmet having been nicked from them in the first place, or how much marauding they did around Europe before anyone literate was really paying attention. Our enduring image of them is still as loveable comic-book characters with stripy trousers and moustaches. The Vikings have got this one in the bag.
Next time: battle of the non-existent holiday destinations. Where would you rather spend a fortnight, Ultima Thule or Atlantis? Answers on a postcard, please.