There’s a common Romantic image of the Vikings fighting their wars for the collective well-being of their nations and homelands, putting tribal loyalty above self-interest. That image could hardly be further from the historical reality. The Vikings weren’t dutiful soldiers selflessly sacrificing themselves for their people; they were mercenaries who, when it really came down to it, cared first and foremost for their own selfish gain.
The Vikings’ particular type of individualism was rather different from the one we have today in several respects. And, to be sure, it was subject to some substantial constraints, both in theory and in practice.
As I discuss in the article The Self and Its Parts, the Norse self wasn’t thought of as something that existed prior to, or outside of, its actions and social relationships. The individual wasn’t an atomistic individual, as it is in our society. Rather, it was effectively an extension of its actions and social relationships; they were what made a man or woman who he or she was. Because of the high value placed on honor in the Viking world, and because one’s honor was largely dependent on one’s loyalty to one’s family, friends, and chieftain,those social relationships imposed certain obligations on a Viking.
But those obligations were contingent upon the specific character of those social relationships. Viking society imposed no obligation to Viking society as such – let alone to mankind as such – but only to those specific people with whom one associated. In other words, Norse society afforded considerable freedom to choose one’s own social bonds (although more so for men than for women), and inasmuch as one was free to choose one’s own social bonds, one could accept or refuse an obligation. There were few absolute obligations that could not be changed by changing one’s social position – such as by leaving the chieftain one had been serving and joining up with another, or by moving to a different town or region.
And the ultimate measure of a man was not his passive obedience to authority or social expectations, but the active greatness that he achieved for himself through his own heroic efforts. Exceptional men were remembered by name, and they and their deeds were celebrated in song long after their deaths. Glory was given to them as individuals, not just as members of a group. Indeed, this was, in an important sense, what gave a person the possibility of an immortal life.