When I was a lad the Vikings had a terrible reputation. They were fearsome chaps armed to the teeth, wearing distinctive helmets with horns, who thought nothing of a few days of hard rowing topped off with some raping and pillaging of the poor unfortunates who lived near the eastern coastal stretches of England. Recently, prompted by archaeological finds of magnificent and delicately wrought jewellery and other artefacts, the pendulum has swung the other way to the extent that we are invited to consider them as people of heightened artistic and cultural sensitivities who were merely responding to the population pressures of their time. The British Museum who have just announced a major Viking exhibition to be staged in the spring of 2014 plan to restore the reputation of Vikings as aggressive and savage warriors, albeit, and disappointingly, without the horned helmets.
Modern Scandinavian men, though, seem to fall a long way short of their predecessors if reports coming out of the region are to be believed. A Danish fisherman, Einar Lindgreen, plying his trade in the Oeresund Strait which separates Denmark from Sweden and is now spanned by a magnificent bridge, found to his surprise a pacu ensnared in his net. This fish is a relative of the piranha and its mouth is packed with sharp teeth. Lindgreen’s specimen is the first that has been caught in the Baltic waters.
The presence of a pacu has created a wave of panic amongst Scandinavian male swimmers, particularly those who like to practise skinny-dipping, fuelled by the comment of a piscatorial expert, Peter Resk Moller from the National History Museum of Denmark. He is reported to have said, “If they bite, they can bite hard … especially when they bite you where you really don’t want to be bitten”. Cue hysteria.
Of course some men like the thought of some gentle stimulation to their reproductive organs – that scurrilous Roman historian, Suetonius, reports that the emperor Tiberius trained little boys, whom he called tiddlers, to crawl between his thighs when he went swimming and to tease him with their licks and nibbles. Not to everyone’s taste I’m sure and, it seems, most Scandinavian men have a deep aversion to the prospect of a fish feasting on their unprotected nadgers.
Poor Mr Moeller was forced to admit that his remarks were intended to be ironic and that whilst the pacu had a mouthful of teeth and a powerful bite, being predominantly vegetarian – it uses its powerful jaws to crack open nuts that fall into its natural habitat, the Amazonian waters – it was highly unlikely to aim an attack at the swimmer’s reproductive organs. Indeed, it was a bit of a mystery what the pacu was doing so far away from its normal environment in the first place.
So there we are – it is safe once more to bathe in the bracing Baltic waters. What Erik the Viking would have made of it all, only Thor knows.