The Vikings and The Barbarians

“Slow down or you’ll miss him!” urged my wife and co-pilot Connie as we motored along Kelly Drive in search of the Thorfinn Karlsefni sculpture.  On Kelly Drive you can slow down only so much without being honked, cursed and gestured at by impatient motorists who are not paying any attention to the remarkable statuary.  If you want to get a good look at the public art on display, and you want to have any chance of focusing on a particular work, it behooves you to use a slower mode of transportation. It was a balmy spring day, so my willowy wife Connie and I decided to park and rent a surrey bike for our search.  We pedaled our little hearts out (or very nearly) from Wheel Fun bike rentals.  On an inclined surface a surrey-bike is not inclined to move.  It was surprisingly hard to get started and once we did, our way was crowded with walkers, many of whom were moving slower than we were, and runners all of whom were moving faster and bikers who passed us in a blur.  We pedaled on relentlessly amidst the spring tumult to where we found Thorfinn Karlsefni leaning resolutely on his battle-axe just past boathouse row where he’d been waiting patiently for us the past ninety years.  Ninety years seems a long while to Connie and me, but for Thorfinn, a millennial from an earlier millennium, a century here or there is not a bother.   

There he stood, about eight feet tall, sturdy of limb, strong of jaw, a determined expression sculpted in his facial features.  Thorfinn Karlsefni might not have looked much like this statue, but Einar Jonsson’s sculpture is sufficiently convincing and compelling to leave a lasting impression on Connie and me.  As far as we are concerned, this is Thorfinn Karlsefni.  The Viking cuts a striking figure on the bank of the Schuylkill River.  Most of the sculpture in the area makes reference to America from colonial times onward.  A woman from Boston stopped by the statue wondering what a Viking was doing here.  But long before surrey-bikes, the Boston tea party, and Columbus, the Vikings came to North America.   Upon the statue’s pedestal there is a plaque that notes:

Following Leif Ericson's Discovery of
North America in 1003, Thorfinn Karlsefni
with 165 men and 35 women established a
settlement which lasted for 3 years and
his son Snorri was born in North America

A thousand years ago Thorfinn Karlsefni and 200 of his closest friends came from Iceland on three ships in search of a place Leif Erikson had called Vinland (the current Newfoundland).  Vinland was reported to be a fertile land where grapes grew in abundance.  The Icelanders were of the same Norse stock as the Vikings who had conquered lands throughout Europe.  Notable seafarers, the Vikings sailed their swift longships over great distances.  Vikings were also notoriously brutal warriors.  They plundered, raped and pillaged.  They slaughtered men, women and children on their relentless way to infamy and property in Europe and Northern Africa.  This egregious history is no mere myth.  But such atrocities were also common in conquering peoples throughout the world at the time.  There was widespread slaughter among the English, Franks, Celts, Scots, and Welsh. Charlemagne was not above massacring Saxons by the thousands to seize their land. Yet the Vikings misbehaved with a proficiency and flamboyance that produced an image of the Viking that endures. 

Viking warriors presented themselves as flagrantly fierce.  Many of them bleached their hair with a lye-soap mixture, cultivating big-haired blondeness to make themselves appear more imposing.  Some took on the mantle of berserker.  Distinguished by the bear pelts they wore, berserkers went about the killing business with a frenzied wild-animal style of fighting that frequently proved lethal not only to the enemy but to anyone within mauling distance. 

But the warrior element was only one part of Norse society, which also included those engaged in trade, farming, crafts, weaving, story-telling and poetry.  There was even representative governance in Viking lands.  Perhaps the settlers of Thorfinn’s party were of this kinder, gentler set of Norsemen.  Maybe they just didn’t bring enough berserkers along with them.  But physical confrontations with the native population proved too strenuous for the Norse settlers.  The natives were not hospitable, and in many instances downright hostile to the poor (LOL) Viking visitors who in three years’ time concluded there were not enough grapes in all of North America to make living there worthwhile.

The Viking settlers licked their wounds and returned to Iceland to tell of the cruel New World and the indigenous people they called Skraelings, meaning barbarians.  Imagine being called barbarians by Vikings!  That is either a very low blow or a very high compliment. 

The Vikings had been the terror of Europe since their raid of Lindisfarne off the English coast in 793.  Despite their abilities in commerce, agriculture, and creative endeavors, the Vikings’ core ideal was valor in battle.  When warded off by the New World Skraelings, Thorfinn’s party was reduced to a quiet withdrawal.  There was no glory in this and no reward in Valhalla.  The Icelandic settlers simply went away, leaving perhaps their hearts and their Viking spirit in Vinland.  Thorfinn’s son Snorri, noted as the first European born in the Americas, returned to Iceland with his parents.  There Snorri grew up to become a chieftan instrumental in turning Iceland to a Christian nation, taking part in the movement that would eventually put an end to the period known as the Viking Age (800 – 1100).

Before being turned to Christianity, the Icelanders’ belief system was based on a decentralized mélange of Norse mythology and superstition.  About
870, a century and a quarter before Thorfinn Karlsefni set off for North America, Viking explorers came westward from Norway to settle in Iceland at a place they called Reykjavik, meaning Cove of Smoke in reference to the hot geothermal steam that offered comfort from the cold climate.   Geysers are plentiful in Iceland, including Geysir, the Icelandic geothermal eruption site from which the term geyser is derived.  The faith of Iceland may have changed, but the geysers continue to spout faithfully as ever.

Some of the old Viking folklore is reflected in the Icelandic verse inscribed on the shield of Thorfinn Karlsefni that translates to: 

From the island of the North, of ice and snow,
Of blossoming valleys and blue mountains,
Of the midnight sun and the dreamy mists,
The home of the goddess of northern lights.

Some of the ancient words will be familiar to ancient Led Zeppelin fans who may remember the lyrics of “The Immigrant Song”:

We come from the land of the ice and snow
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.

The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands,
To fight the horde, singing and crying: Valhalla, I am coming!

On we sweep with threshing oar, our only goal will be the western shore.

The song was written when the group toured Iceland.  Led Zeppelin got a warm reception.  In fact every tourist gets a warmer reception in Iceland than would be expected.  Despite its name and its northern exposure, positioned just outside the Arctic Circle, Iceland’s climate is surprisingly moderate.  Thanks to the geothermal activity and to the North Atlantic Current, Iceland is far less icy than one would think.   

There is one more inscription on the base of the statue.  Here the artist signed and dated his work: Einar Jonsson sculptor 1915-1918 

Philadelphian, J. Bunford Samuel commissioned this statue to be designed by Einar Jonsson, the first Icelandic sculptor.   Jonsson was trained at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen.  By 1915, the forty-year old sculptor had established himself as a capable artist in Scandanavia, having designed work ranging from the figurative to the fanciful, reflecting mythology and morality, physicality and personality. Yet his art had not become sufficiently lucrative to provide Einar the confidence to marry his beloved Anna.  The commission to create the Thorfinn Karlsefni sculpture made this possible.  In 1917 Einar and Anna were wed.  The day after the wedding they set off together for America where Einar would consummate the Thorfinn sculpture. 

The Jonssons returned to Iceland in 1920 (like the Karlsefnis had some 900 years earlier).  But Einar and Anna returned with the glory of artistic achievement.  They moved into the building that serves as the museum for Einar’s sculpture.  And there they resided until Einar’s death in 1954.         

The Icelandic state, to which Einar donated his artwork, was grateful to him in the long run.  In 1947 the Grand Cross of the Norwegian St. Olav order and the Prins Eugen honorary medal were awarded to Einar Jonsson for his art work.  But during much of his life, Jonsson found himself at odds with the artistic establishment. From the early 1900’s Einar revolted against classic and naturalistic traditions that denied sculpture the emotional expression he wanted his figures to convey.  With an avid belief in breaking the bonds of convention, Einar was a sculptor with an artist’s disposition that frequently conflicted with the ideas of those commissioning the work.  A case in point was Jonsson’s sculpture of Ingolfur Arnarson, the legendary first settler of Iceland.  Although completed in 1907, the sculpture was not installed until 17 years later because of ideological disagreements between Einar and the Workers’ Union that funded the project.

Einar’s expressionist and symbolist ideas have prevailed.  A the great many pieces of his sculpture adorn the Icelandic landscape and hundreds of his works are displayed in the museum that bears his name. 

Einar Jonsson weathered the turmoil and controversy that can befall any independent-thinking, strong-willed artist.  The merits of his works have borne out his genius over time.  But even after death, sure as the sculptures remain as a tribute to the virtuosity of the sculptor, so are they subjected to the vagaries of human passions and dispassions.  In October of 2008, around the time of a scheduled Leif Eriksson Day celebration, the Thorfinn Karlsefni statue was vandalized with stripes of red paint.  Who would do such a thing to an innocent sculpture?  This was obviously the work of Skraelings – barbarians!

By Mike Cohen

Photography by Ron Howard


Penny Balken Bach. Public Art in Philadelphia. Philadelphia,PA. Temple University Press, 1992

Robert MacLeod Gunn, MA.  The Vikings! Fury from the North.

With many thanks to Connie, my wife, my co-researcher and my co-pilot, without whom these articles would go nowhere.