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I’m going to let you in on a little secret I learned about medieval Viking men while traveling around Norway: They were handsome and well groomed and maybe even…ahem…hot.

Viking men, unlike most of their medieval (and current??) counterparts, were known for their grooming. They bathed once a week, combed their hair, groomed their beards, wore nice clothing, and used scented oils to, one can only speculate, increase their appeal to the fairer sex.

I was visiting the ancient Borgund stave church in southern Norway, where in 1180 AD, Viking paganism collided with Christianity, and where both faiths failed to protect the Laerdal Valley from the Black Death just a century or two later. This site is home to one of the few original stave churches remaining in all of Europe, and is under the protection of the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments. Guests at the church are greeted by guides, fluent in many languages, who revealed to me what I am now calling “The Viking Secret.”

Outside, the church is sheltered by the steeply wooded hills of this glacial valley. The medieval appearance of the church is well-preserved, with stepped roofs and angular gables rising dramatically to the moody skies above. The walls and roofs are protected by ancient pitch-covered shingles, the ridges decorated with finials in shapes of dragons and Christian crosses. The exterior doors are heavily embellished with swirling snakes, animals, and foliage, intricate motifs that hark back to the structure’s Viking designers.

borgund stave church

It’s an ancient holy site, one that has stood for nearly a millennium against the ravages of war and the devastation of disease. Inside, the church is nearly empty, but some ancient relics remain. The massive stone altar blocks are thought to be a remnant of pagan ritual practices. The pulpit, dating from the 1500’s, still boasts colorful, if somewhat worn, paint, and the paintings of Jesus at the altar, dimly illuminated by tiny  windows set high in the walls, date to 1620.

The walls and doors of the church are heavily marked by runic inscriptions, the graffiti of the day. My guide leads me to one corner, tucked away behind an entrance pillar, where stands perhaps the most famous runic inscription at the site. It reads “Thorir carved these runes on the eve of Olavs-mass, as he travelled past here. The Fates created measures of good, evil, and great toil before me.”

The great interest of this church, to me, is the evidence that pagan beliefs lingered within the worshippers at the site, even as they adopted Christianity. Thorir’s words testify to lingering beliefs in the Fates, known as “Norns” in Norwegian mythology, who are present at every birth and cast upon the baby the toils of their coming life. These words of pagan belief were carved, presumably, on the evening before an important Christian festival for St. Olav.

But back to the “Viking Secret.” Hidden under a low eave, nearly invisible to passers-by, is a portrait of a Viking man. His hair is combed, appears clean, and his beard is tidy. He could almost pass for the medieval version of a skinny-jeaned hipster. According to the writings of English cleric John of Wallingford, writing in the 11th century, this Viking attention to personal hygiene was directly related to efforts to “seduce high-born English women.” Viking warriors were accused by this outraged English cleric of undermining the virtue of married women and seducing the daughters of noblemen, adding insult to injury to the residents of the lands they conquered.

viking portrait

I wonder as I leave the church about the travels of Thorir. Is he the handsome, well groomed man depicted in the portrait? I think it unlikely, as he seems to have been a traveler, merely passing through. Whoever this man may be, he is indeed a handsome Viking, sporting a style that, even a thousand years later, has a certain appeal and might even be described as…ahem…hot. Ah, those Viking men (and beards).

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