BENTON STEPHENS: For new Benton residents, Viking culture is a lifestyle

Saturday, October 1, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:41 p.m. CDT, Saturday, October 1, 2011
The Shatlain family, from back left, Debbie, Robert and Christopher, have been involved in Viking re-enactments for six years and recently moved to Columbia. They plan the re-enactment as part of Wikinger Sturm, a re-enactment group.

COLUMBIA — Robert Shatlain and his son, Chris Shatlain, were battling it out with swords Wednesday in their front yard on Ripley Street.

"We really went all-out on that one," Robert Shatlain said as he came up the porch steps, sweating but smiling broadly.


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Chris Shatlain, 20, followed him, glowing with the same satisfied grin.

Both were dressed in linen tunics and pants. They were wearing leather boots and looked as if they had just walked out of Norse country. That's because they take Viking culture very seriously.

“For some people, it’s a hobby," Robert Shatlain said. "For me, it’s a lifestyle. I would walk around dressed like this every day if society would let me.”

Robert Shatlain; his wife, Debbie; and their children, Chris, Vanessa, 18, Linda, 17, and AnaLee, 15, moved to Columbia from Castroville, Texas, earlier this month. They brought their love of Viking history with them.

Both Robert and Chris Shatlain have their own swords made by renowned sword maker Paul Binns. They participate in re-enactments, and each has a Viking name — Robert Shatlain's is "Raudebjorn," or "Red Bear," and Chris Shatlain's is "Zieher," which means "Driver."

Robert Shatlain's interest was sparked when he met a man wearing a Viking Invasion T-shirt in a restaurant. Viking Invasion is a central Texas re-enactment group and part of a bigger organization called the Jomsvikings, which has branches in the United States, Europe and Canada. 

As soon as Robert Shatlain was invited to practice swordplay at the next Viking Invasion event, he was hooked.

“From that point on, I really got into it because of the history," he said. "It was the sword fighting. Yeah, it was fun, but I’m too damn old and too damn fat for that. So I focus on the history and the authenticity."

His love of history played a major role in his participation, and he was the driving force in gradually getting his family involved — "dragging" his wife and children into his passion for Viking culture by taking them to re-enactment events, he said.

“It’s definitely a new lifestyle type from your normal personality," Debbie Shatlain said. "For me, I'm a tie-dye, hippie-type person because I don’t believe in fighting or stuff like that."

Debbie and daughters Vanessa and AnaLee are members of the "household," which makes them responsible for jobs around the home, such as cooking, sewing and crocheting. The family tries to follow a Viking-style diet, which for them consists of a lot of fresh berries, fruits, nuts, veggies and smoked meats.

“We try to eat as best we can, but it’s not like we can find a lot of mutton or lamb or buffalo," Robert Shatlain said. "So we’re kind of stuck with beef, pork and chicken.”

AnaLee said she would rather be part of the household because she has learned valuable skills that transfer well to everyday life.

Her father said women in Viking culture did everything the men could do, except vote in the Viking council called the "Althing." When a husband went off to battle, his wife was left in charge of everything. 

“If she said do it, you better do it,” Robert Shatlain said. "And we live the same way now."

He said women were also fighters in the Viking era, and his daughter Linda is training to fight. Girls between the ages of 5 and 7 received a large knife called a scramasax so they could learn to fight and use it for household chores.

For Viking re-enactors, combat training begins with wooden handles before they move to the dulled swords more experienced fighters use.

Trainees begin by learning to throw and defend shots to the head. In re-enactments, blows cannot be thrown above the neck or below the knee, so they learn to strike and defend the shoulders and outer and inner thighs.

“It’s like a martial art; if you don’t practice, you get rusty, and somebody’s going to get hurt," Chris Shatlain said. "We’re not playing with toys here; these are real swords. They’re dull, but you can do some damage.”

Shatlain and his son listed common injuries sustained on the battlefield — chiefly eye injuries and broken bones, but there have been reports of partially severed ears.

Debbie Shatlain said she approves of the fighting, as long as no one complains.

“I said, 'I will tend to your wounds, but I will not listen to you whine,'" she said.

The Shatlains participated in re-enactments when they lived in Texas. In the battles, circles of rope create a barrier between the Vikings and the crowd of observers, Shatlain said.

As the battle ensues, re-enactors throw blows at each other and perform "show kills," Chris Shatlain said.

When a fighter is hit, he winks to his attacker to signal that it's time to end the fight. The attacker then dramatically "kills" his victim before running back into battle. 

This happens until the sole survivor on the field gets the crowd excited by calling upon the Gods: “I ask you to join me in calling upon the old gods and the new to bring the dead back to life!” 

And the battle begins again. 

Robert Shatlain said he wants to form a re-enactment group in Columbia, find a place to practice as a group and participate in the town's annual Heritage Festival next year. He would also like to make presentations at schools, “just to give the kids some history.” 

His primary goal, however, is to acquire enough land in Columbia to start a living history museum where people can visit during the day in civilian clothes or spend a weekend living the Viking lifestyle, period dress and all. 

“I believe the philosophy that if you don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it," Shatlain said. "That’s why I’m big on history.”

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Matthew Schacht October 1, 2011 | 1:04 p.m.

Good job Kate; what a neat story to find.

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