The Vikings and the Medieval Future of Space Exploration

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Dale Kedwards


University of Southern Denmark


DKK 1,344,122




Strategic Grants


This interdisciplinary project considers the ways in which the Scandinavian Middle Ages have been deployed, invoked, and shaped in discourses about space and its exploration: from the Viking program of the 1960s and 70s, to place-names adapted from Old Norse mythology on Jupiter’s moon Callisto. Its aim is to assess how the Scandinavian Middle Ages have been perceived and applied in science as well as culture from the 1960s to the present day. I will explore the ways in which planetary scientists, space agencies, and a general public continue to instrumentalise Nordic antiquity in thinking about space and its exploration, and engage the broader frame of cultural and ethical concerns that this entails.


In the 1960s, the Viking voyages of exploration and settlement were established as a new metaphor for the exploration of our solar system. This metaphor has helped us to think about distant planets not simply as astronomical 'data' – as remotely detected formations of rock, ice, and gas – but as 'new worlds'. This project examines the public reception of the Scandinavian Middle Ages in 'real time'. In 2019, the New Horizons space probe will encounter a new transneptunian object - the furthest object ever visited by a spacecraft - that scientists have called 'Ultima Thule', a name associated in medieval Nordic literature with Iceland. This project will illuminate the deep historical and cultural implications of such events as they happen for both scientific and general audiences.


This research will be undertaken in collaboration with partners at the National Museum of Iceland and the Danish Nationalhistoriske Museum. To explore the deep connectedness of these histories – of space exploration and of 20th and 21st-century medievalism – I will interview astronomers and planetary scientists involved in the naming of our solar system’s planets and moons: visit places in central Iceland where Apollo astronauts trained in the 1960s: and begin to map the uses of Old Norse mythology in planetary nomenclature. This project models a new, integrated approach to research in the sciences and humanities that will produce deeper insights into the reception of the Scandinavian Middle Ages.

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