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Vikings History: An Overview of the Culture and History of the Viking Age

(See Main Article: Vikings History: An Overview of the Culture and History of the Viking Age)

Vikings history is as extensive as the people it studies. The seafaring Vikings (in Danish, the Vikinger) were a group of people that came from the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. They made an enduring name for themselves in the 8th through the 11th centuries for being tactical warriors, smart traders, and daring explorers. In fact, they arrived in America 1,000 years before Columbus ever did, and archeologists have found some of their remnants scattered as far east as Russia.

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Vikings History: The Viking Age—An Overview

(See Main Article: Vikings History: The Viking Age—An Overview)

Viking is a Verb, Not a Noun

When the quiet monks on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne saw the dragon ships approaching, they didn’t know what was coming. They were fully unprepared for the ferocity of the warriors, armed with sword, axe and shield. The attack and plunder of Lindisfarne, a rich and unprotected monastery, echoed throughout the next 300 years of European history. The Viking Age had begun.

Historians use the term the Viking Age to describe the turbulent expansion of the Scandinavian people into Europe and Russia. Beginning in A.D. 793 with the Lindisfarne raid, Norwegians, Swedes and Danes set to raiding. Any unprotected community was a target. Vikings attacked places all along the coasts of Scotland, England, Ireland, France, Italy and inland Russia. They terrorized, plundered, traded, explored and finally settled and farmed all over the lands they encountered.

Who Were the Vikings?

Simply put, the Vikings were Norwegians, Swedes and Danes, men who were usually farmers, traders, blacksmiths, and craftsmen. For various reasons, they took to raiding towns, churches and monasteries. Many of the places they attacked were on the coasts as they were easiest to reach. With their swift and easily landed ships, the Vikings could quickly swarm over the communities, killing and looting, and just as fast return to their ships and leave. They were gone before any defense or counter-attack could be made.

Strangely enough, for most of the men who went a-viking, it was only part time. When a Viking wasn’t busy farming, planting crops, for instance, they left their farms and went raiding. They often returned in time for harvest in the fall. Raiding was very profitable, however, and many farmers became full time pirates and raiders.

The people called Vikings were also fearless explorers who actually reached North America, making them the first Europeans to discover America. They settled Iceland and tried to colonize Greenland. They were also shrewd and competent traders and merchants. They traded all the goods of the north – furs, amber, iron and timber – for all the goods of the south – silver, gold, silks and spices. And all along the trade routes, the Vikings traded in slaves. Read our articles to explore these aspects of the incredible culture of these intrepid and dangerous men.

Why Scandinavians Left their Homelands

Scholars debate why the Scandinavian people began to go raiding in the late 8th century. Most likely it was a combination of factors that lead to the Vikings setting off in their long boats to raid other communities. We’ll discuss these reasons in articles you’ll find here, explaining why they left their farms and blacksmith forges to first attack and finally settle all over Europe and Russia.

Viking Ships and Navigation

The Vikings’ advanced ships and navigation techniques provided the means and skills for sailing not only over open ocean out of the sight of land but also far up inland rivers into the interior of other countries. Viking ship technology made the fearful Viking raids possible.

Special ship construction techniques made the long ships and larger dragon ships versatile enough to sail great distances, carry up to 200 men, withstand rough seas while still being light enough to drag over land or carry through portages. Explore with us as we consider Viking ship building and navigation skills. Contemporaries of the Vikings were awed by their ships and sailing skills. Find out why by reading further.

Impact of the Viking Age

The Scandinavians changed the history of Ireland, England, Russia and other European countries. They established new territories in Iceland, Greenland and temporarily, North America. From A.D. 793 to 1066, Vikings raided, traded, challenged, conquered and settled in many lands. Popular movies and novels give you a glimpse into their lives, but usually show only a part of the impact these energetic people had on the known world of the time. Reading here will give you a much better grasp of their impact on other cultures.

Viking Culture

We will explore Viking culture and the structure of their society, the roles of men and women and the daily life of the time. Here you will find articles on women and children in that warrior culture. You’ll discover how they lived, what their homes were like and what they did for fun. Examine their stunning artwork and jewelry, as well as their weaponry and armor. The brave among you can read about a Viking raid from the point of view of the victims. Come with us as we take ship with Vikings to explore the new lands of Iceland and Vinland. We’ll explain Viking ship building and their remarkable navigation skills. Find out what your name would look like in runes, the Viking writing system. Explore with us the mythology and literature of the Viking era.

Vikings History — Why Did the Viking Age Happen?

(See Main Article: Why Did the Viking Age Happen? )

While the Vikings had the runic alphabet, they didn’t have written history. Thus, we don’t know exactly why the Vikings began raiding in A.D. 793. Scholars have many theories about the reasons why the Scandinavians began leaving home on extensive raids, trading missions, explorations and settlement, which include:

  • population pressures and not enough good farmland
  • too many landless younger sons
  • easy targets of unprotected, wealthy church properties and towns
  • trade imbalances between European Christians and the pagan Vikings
  • competition among chieftains in their native lands
  • the lure of adventure in foreign lands

Population Pressures

Most scholars today agree that the population pressure theory doesn’t hold weight. As the Viking Age raids and trading brought more wealth into Scandinavian, the growing prosperity might have led to greater population growth. But a burgeoning population probably wasn’t a cause of the Viking Age.

Landless Younger Sons

The Vikings practiced primogeniture, which means the eldest son inherits everything and any younger sons nothing. Without land to farm, younger sons would need to find a way to make a living. This theory seems likely at least as one of the factors leading to the Scandinavian expansion into Europe.

Easy Targets

Vikings were not Christians, therefore, they saw no hindrance in attacking ecclesiastical centers such as monasteries. However, even in warfare, Christians did not attack properties of the Church—at least not often—so Church properties were unprotected. No doubt Vikings did see church properties as easy pickings, as the Church had grown very wealthy and usually had more wealth than even kings or merchants.

Trade Imbalances

While in previous times, Scandinavians had traded with Europeans readily, as Europe became more Christian, Christian traders began to refuse to trade with pagans or Muslims. This created problems for the Vikings, and perhaps they saw raids as a way of fixing those problems.

Power Struggles in Viking Lands

The Ynglinga saga, written by Iceland’s Snorri Sturluson, and based on earlier writings of Norwegian skalds, states that when Harald Fairhair brought Norway under his control, many minor chieftains decided to leave rather than live under the king’s rule. It seems likely that this was one of the causative factors of the Viking Age, as Vikings decided to go raiding or settle elsewhere.

Lure of Adventure

Vikings were bold, brave people who no doubt felt the lure of adventure in foreign lands. A strong Norse pagan belief was that each person’s fate was set by the Norns, and that death in battle is not only honorable, but the warrior will be taken to Valhalla by Odin, the god-father. With these beliefs, why not take chance into your hands and go raiding? After the first raid, the profitability would have been obvious to all.

 

Vikings History — From Pagans to Christians

(See Main Article: Vikings: From Pagans to Christians)

While Charlemagne “converted” pagans to Christianity by the sword, the conversion of Vikings to Christianity occurred without violence for the most part. In the early Viking Age, Viking traders noted that they suffered losses in trade contracts and deals because the other party was Christian. Christian traders tended to give more business and better deals to other Christians, discriminating against pagans and Muslims. A Viking trader might then wear a cross when he was among Christians only to change it back to his usual Thor’s hammer upon returning home. As long as the Viking trader wasn’t baptized, he could practice both religions, a common practice in Scandinavia for the next few centuries.

At first, the Viking Norse didn’t take to Christianity. They loved their own gods and were content with them. English and Frankish Christian priests and monks had begun missionary tours to the Viking lands from the 700s to 800s. However, the conversion of the Vikings took place over centuries. Even when a Danish or Swedish king became Christian and proclaimed his people were Christian, many still practiced their pagan ways and held to the old gods. By the end of the Viking Age, however, most Vikings had become fully Christian and were baptized and buried in that faith.

Denmark

While an earlier Danish Viking king, Harald Klak, had been baptized in 826, it wasn’t until King Harald Bluetooth was baptized in 965 that Christianity took a firmer hold in Denmark. Harald Bluetooth raised the Jelling Stone proclaiming that he made all Danes Christian, although the new faith lived side by side with the old for the next few hundred years. Danish Vikings accepted Christianity slowly. By 1110 the first stone cathedral was begun in Denmark’s oldest city of Ribe. It was finished in 1134. By then, most Danes had become Christian.

Norway

Although a few earlier kings had adopted Christianity, it wasn’t until 995 when Olaf Tryggvason led a successful revolt against the pagan king Hakkon Jarl that Christianity came to Norway. Olaf Tryggvason became King Olaf I and proceeded to convert Norwegians to Christianity by force. He burned pagan temples and killed Vikings who wouldn’t convert. Through these violent methods, every part of Norway became Christian, at least in name. Various kings’ sagas attribute the Christianization of Iceland and the other Western islands to Olaf’s efforts.

Sweden

During the later Viking Age, Christianity began making inroads in Sweden, with Episcopal sees being established during the 11th century. Conflict and violence also attended Sweden’s gradual conversion to Christianity, but generally the old and new faith co-existed for many years. Most Swedish Vikings of this time favored a gradual transition to the new religion while continuing some of the old religion’s rituals. By the 12th century, however, Sweden was predominantly Christian.

Vikings History — Society: Men, Women, and Children

(See Main Article: Vikings History — Society: Men, Women, and Children)

Within the male-dominated Viking society, women had a certain amount of personal power, depending on their social status. When Viking men were away from home—raiding, fishing, exploring or on trading missions—women in Viking society took over all the men’s work as well as doing their own. Women were valuable members of the society and it was shameful for a man to harm a woman.

Women’s role was domestic, taking care of the family, preparing food, laundry, milking cows, sheep and goats, making butter and cheeses, preserving food for winter, gardening, cleaning and the most time-consuming task of all, making the family’s clothes. Spinning, carding, weaving, cutting and sewing took a long time. It could take a Viking woman 35 hours to spin enough yarn for a day’s weaving, to give you some idea of how much time it took to make clothing.

Viking women married young—as early as 12 years old. By the age of 20, virtually all men and women were married. Life expectancy was about 50 years, but most died long before reaching 50. Only a few lived to 60.

Marriages were arranged by the parents of the young couple. A marriage was a contract between two families: the groom’s family paid a bride price to bride’s family when the couple was betrothed. At the marriage, the bride’s father paid a dowry. Since both families had a financial investment in the new couple, a marriage was as much a matter for the families as it was for the people involved.

Viking children did not go to school as we know it today. Rather, the boys learned all the men’s work, taught by their fathers, brothers and uncles. Girls worked along with their mothers and aunts learning how to cook, garden, take care of the domestic animals and make clothing. By the time they reached adulthood at 12 to 15, both boys and girls could effectively run a household and a farm.

As is always the case, there were exceptions to these general societal rules of behavior. When the men went to settle Iceland, Greenland and Vinland, women went with them. Vikings settled in England, Ireland and France as families. However, only men went raiding and trading while women stayed home and minded the farm.

Women in Viking society had more power than most other European women of the time. They could divorce their husbands, own some property and sell their own handicrafts. Some women became wealthy landowners. Others participated in trade—scales used for weighing silver used in trade have been found in women’s graves. Even a few weapons were found in female graves, giving the notion that some women were fighters along side of their men. Most women in Viking society, however, lived and worked in the domestic realm of the household.

Vikings History — Norse Mythology

(See Main Article: Vikings History — Norse Mythology)

In the world of Norse mythology, we find gods and goddesses, giants, strange and powerful creatures, elves, dwarves and land spirits. It is difficult for a 21st century person to conceive of the worldview of the Vikings, brimming as it was with such a variety of spiritual beings.

Yggdrasil and the Nine Worlds

The center of the Vikings’ cosmos is the ash tree Yggdrasil, growing out of the Well of Urd. Yggdrasil holds the Nine Worlds, home of gods, man and all spiritual beings. The gods live in Asgard and Vanaheim and humans inhabit Midgard. Giants live in Jotunheim, elves in Alfheim and dwarves in Svartalfheim. Another is the primordial world of ice, Niflheim, while Muspelheim is the world of fire. The last world comprises Hel, the land of the dead, ruled by the goddess Hel.

Gods and Goddesses

The gods and goddesses venerated by the Vikings are Odin, Thor, Loki, Baldur, Frigg, Freya, Freyr and Njoror. There are many other gods and goddesses in the Norse pantheon but these received the primary attention in the sagas and eddas.

  • Odin, the allfather, the one-eyed seeker of wisdom, god of magic, war and runes, hung himself on Yggdrasil for nine days and nights to find wisdom, brought the runes to mankind
  • Thor, with his magic hammer Mjolnir, protects mankind and his realm of Midgard, god of warriors
  • Loki, a dangerous half-god, half-giant trickster always wreaking havoc among the gods
  • Baldur, son of Odin and Frigg, a beautiful and gracious god, beloved of all, killed by Loki’s trickery
  • Frigg, wife of Odin, practitioner of magic, goddess of the home, mother of Baldur
  • Freya, feather-cloaked goddess of love and fertility but also of war and death
  • Freyr, her brother, god of farming, agriculture, fertility and prosperity
  • Njoror, powerful god of the sea

Giants, Elves, Dwarves and Land Spirits

Giant is not a good name for these spiritual beings; think of them as devourers, out to destroy order and return the world to primeval chaos. They are the enemies of gods, but also their relatives. Giants are dangerous to mankind, which is why Thor often hunts them. Elves and dwarves appear in the sagas, but are different from what we might picture them to be. Dwarves are miners and smiths and live underground. They are invisible, powerful spiritual beings, not short humans. Elves are also spiritual beings, demi-gods who can mate with mankind and have children with them.

Land spirits inhabit everything on the land—trees, herbs, stones and bodies of water. The land spirits (landvaettir in Old Norse) hold considerable power over the well being of the land and those who live on it. People took care to honor and placate the landvaettir. In the first law of Iceland, Vikings were told to remove the dragon heads from their ships when approaching land so they wouldn’t frighten the land spirits.

Norse mythology is intricate and complex and we’ve presented just the barest bones here. See the resources page for further information on this fascinating aspect of the Vikings’ belief system.

Vikings History—Symbols

(See Main Article: Vikings History—Symbols)

Viking symbols play a large role in their iconography, just as they do in all societies. Symbols are cultural shorthand, a sign that conveys layers of meaning about the culture. The pagan Vikings used symbols to represent their gods, beliefs and myths.

Cultural symbols can take any form, such as sounds, gestures, words, pictures and images. Most of the Vikings symbols we know about were carved on runestones, swords, axes and other items precious to the Norse people. The sagas refer to amulets the people wore, such as Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir. In the article on Viking art, we learned that the Vikings loved decorating the items around them, their weapons, bowls, tools and combs. They used their symbols in the decorative arts, in weaving, bone carving and in jewelry.

While some Viking symbols remain mysterious in that we don’t know exactly what they represent, but others have clear meanings. Many Vikings wore Thor’s hammer on thongs around their necks. Jewelry, runestones and valuable weapons were often engraved with the symbols that resonated the most with the Vikings: The Valknut, the Helm of Awe and Thor’s hammer.

The Valknut

the valknut

In the illustration you can see two Valknut symbols: three interlocking triangles that represent Hrungnir’s heart or the heart of the slain. Hrungnir is a legendary giant, discussed in Snorri Sturluson’s Eddas. The Valknut probably signifies the afterlife. The nine points of the three triangles symbolize the nine worlds of the Vikings, which will be discussed in the section on Norse mythology. The Valknut is representative of Odin, the father God of the Vikings, and his power of life over death. The Valknut is often carved on funerary steles and memorial runestones.

The Helm of Awe

The Helm of Awe

 

The term aegishjalmr means the helm of awe or terror. The symbol was used most often in magic to induce delusion or forgetfulness. A special form of magic called seior was used to create illusions or to prevent people seeing things as they really are. Thus, this symbol was used to hide someone from his or her pursuers. It is mentioned often in the sagas as being used by women who performed this kind of magic. The Helm of Awe might be engraved onto a goatskin, which was then thrown over the head of the fugitive. Even after the advent of Christianity, belief in the aegishjalmr persisted.

Thor’s Hammer, Mjolnir

Thor’s Hammer Mjolnir

Mjolnir means lightning, and Thor’s hammer indicates the god’s power over thunder and lightning. Mjolnir, a magic weapon, always came back to Thor when he threw it. Wearing Thor’s hammer as an amulet of protection was quite common as this was probably the most popular of all the pagan Viking symbols. Even during Christian times, from A.D. 1000 on, Vikings wore Thor’s Mjolnir as well as a cross on a chain or thong around their necks.

Vikings History — Sagas and Stories

(See Main Article: Viking Literature: Stories, Sagas and Myths)

Viking culture was rich in stories, tales and poems. Kings, brave heroes, beautiful women, dangerous journeys, battles, fearsome dragons and otherworldly creatures were all subjects of tales told by skalds and everyone else. In the Viking Age, no one wrote them down, but everyone knew them, mostly by heart.

Long winters when people were cooped up inside were fertile soil for these stories of old. For centuries, they were kept alive in the hearts of Scandinavians by storytellers. However, the great literature of the Viking Age was in danger of being completely lost as time went by, old folks died and younger people didn’t remember. Finally, with the advent of Christianity in Iceland, Christian churchmen taught the Icelanders to write. Educated men in Iceland saved all of it, from the poetry to the family legends and feuds, by writing it down. Most importantly, now no one would now forget this rich heritage.

Thanks to men like Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic writer, a great flowering of Viking Age literature was produced in Iceland in the 13th century. Sturluson himself produced many of these works: Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, books about Norse mythology and heroes, the Heimskringla, a book about the kings of Norway, Scandinavian history and most likely, Egil’s saga. Sturluson was a lawspeaker at Iceland’s Althing, a poet, historian and politician. Most of what we know about the Viking Age comes from these Icelandic collections of poems, tales, sagas and stories.

All of this Norse literature was written in the vernacular, the language of Iceland, which was unusual for medieval times. Latin was used by educated people and was the usual language employed when writing anything from laws to fairy tales. Viking literature in the vernacular is the only other body of writings in the people’s language besides the Irish hero tales.

Of Norse poetry, there are two varieties: skaldic poetry and eddaic poetry. Skalds were the Viking’s poets and wrote complex, compelling verse usually honoring a king or patron. Eddaic poetry was anonymous and could be about anything—its subjects were humorus, scathing, bawdy, romantic, heroic or brusquely insulting.

Sagas are stories, somewhat like historical fiction. While many of the characters and event are real, saga writers took poetic license in describing them. The events themselves took place a few hundred years before, which is why they should be considered fiction, not fact. Sagas are prose, occasionally with poetic stanzas in the text. The subjects are tales of men’s deeds, battles, journeys, feuds and fights. The subjects could be Christian or pagan, realistic or fantastic, tales of giants or saints or heroes or even regular people.

Vikings History — What Did They Eat?

(See Main Article: What Did Vikings Eat? The Diet of Conquerors)

What did Vikings eat? The Vikings farmed crops, grew gardens and raised animals, as is typical of food produced from a feudal economy. They ate what they produced on their farms or what they could hunt, fish or gather. Viking farms were generally small, but large enough to keep the family or extended family well-fed in good years. Their food was seasonal, so they might have a lot of food available to eat at some times of the year and very little to eat at others.

On a typical day at the farm, the family would eat two meals. One, the dagmal, or day meal, was served an hour after rising. The family ate the nattmal or night meal at the end of the working day. For breakfast, the dagmal, the adults might eat a bit of some leftover stew still in the cauldron from the night before, with bread and fruit. The children would have porridge and dried fruit or perhaps buttermilk and bread. The evening meal could be fish or meat, stewed with vegetables. They might also eat some more dried fruit with honey as a sweet treat. Honey was the only sweetener the Vikings knew. Vikings drank ale, mead or buttermilk daily.

Feasts would include the same foods—meat, fish, fowl, vegetables, wild greens, bread and fruit, but in a greater variety than usual meal and more of it. Vikings enjoyed drinking ale and mead at feasts. Mead is a strong, fermented drink made from honey.

Women cooked meats, vegetables and breads over the hearth—an open fire pit in the middle of the hall. A Viking wife either roasted the meat on a spit over the fire or boiled it in a soapstone pot or iron cauldron. Vikings loved rich stews, so often meats, vegetables and wild greens were stewed in the cauldron with water. Breads were baked on flat stones or iron griddles over the fire. Salt and pepper were available to most Vikings while costlier spices were imported and added to the foods of wealthier Vikings.

This of course omits the more exotic foods that Vikings obtained by trade.

Crops and Gardens

Barley and rye were the grains that grew best in the northern climate, along with oats. From these grains, Vikings made beer, bread, stews and porridge. Barley was used mostly for beer, with hops to flavor it. Flatbread was the daily bread of the Vikings. A simple dough was made from ground oats or barley, water was added and then the dough flattened out on a griddle and baked over the fire.

Vikings consumed a variety of vegetables including cabbage, onions, garlic, leeks, turnips, peas and beans. These garden crops were sowed in spring and harvested in late summer and fall. Women and children gathered wild plants and herbs, mostly greens. These wild vegetables included nettles, docks, cresses and lambs-quarters. Vikings also grew some herbs such as dill, parsley, mustard, horseradish and thyme.

What Did Vikings Eat? Meat, Fowl and Fish

Scandinavians raised cows, horses, oxen, goats, pigs, sheep, chickens and ducks. They ate beef, goat, pork, mutton, lamb, chicken and duck and occasionally horsemeat. The chickens and ducks produced eggs, so the Vikings ate their eggs as well as eggs gathered from wild seabirds. . Because most Vikings lived on the coast, they ate all kinds of fish, both ocean-going and freshwater fish. In fact, fish was probably a good 25 percent of their diet.

Dairy

Most Viking cows lived long enough to raise a calf and were then slaughtered for meat. Some cows, however, lived to about 10 years old, showing that they were milk cows. While Vikings enjoyed drinking milk, whey and buttermilk, they also used the milk to make other dairy products including cheese, skyr, a soft, yogurt-like cheese, curds and butter. Sour whey was used to preserve cooked meats in the winter.

Fruits and Nuts

Viking farms included apple orchards and such fruit trees as pears and cherries. Wild berries were harvested in the summer, including sloe-berries, lingon berries, strawberries, bilberries and cloud-berries. Walnuts were imported, but hazelnuts grew wild and nuts were a favorite treat.

Seasonal

In summer and fall, Vikings ate well as these were the seasons of plentiful, fresh food. It was important to preserve and store foods for winter and spring, when fresh foods were gone. Fish, fowl and meat were dried, salted or smoked. Vegetables and fruits were dried and stored for winter. Grains were ground and the flour made into bread, which was preserved and stored as well. Even though fresh foods were hard to come by in winter and spring, archeological studies reveal that Vikings didn’t suffer from vitamin or mineral deficiencies.

Vikings History — Explorations and Settlements: Iceland, Greenland and Vinland

(See Main Article: Viking Explorations and Settlements: Iceland, Greenland and Vinland)

When the Vikings burst out of their homelands starting in the 8th century, they raided, fought and settled in many parts of Europe and Russia, but they also took off on voyages of discovery across the Atlantic Ocean. They moved into Scotland and Ireland and most of the Atlantic Islands—Shetland, Orkney and the Hebrides. Vikings soon settled in the Faroe Islands as well and later discovered Iceland through a sailing mishap. Over the next two centuries, Viking explorers settled in Iceland, Greenland and Vinland, in what is now Newfoundland.

Iceland

Norwegian Vikings first discovered Iceland. The first was Naddod, who was blown off course sailing from Norway to the Faroe Islands in 861. He called the new island Snowland. Naddod returned to Norway and told people of his discovery. Six years later, Floki Vilgerdarson was the first Viking to set out for Iceland and find it. Floki gave the island its present name of Iceland. However, it wasn’t until 870 that people arrived to settle in Iceland.

When Harald Fairhair strong-armed Norway under his control, many people fled—some settled in Scotland, Ireland, Orkneys and Faroe Islands and Iceland. A Norwegian chieftain, Ingolfur Arnarson brought his family to Iceland in 874, settling on the southwest peninsula in a place he called Reykjavik or Cove of Smoke. Many other families from Norway, Scotland and Ireland followed. The Icelandic sagas and Landnamabok or Book of the Settlements, written 200 years later, describes the early settling of Iceland. For the next 60 years, settlers came and picked out arable land to farm.

Greenland

Icelanders discovered and settled in Greenland starting in the 980s. Erik the Red, an adventuresome and belligerent man, was exiled from Iceland for killing a man. During his three year-exile, Erik explored the southwest coast of Greenland. When he returned to Iceland, he bragged of the good land he had found, calling it Greenland to attract settlers. Icelanders settled in two main areas, the Eastern Settlement and the Western Settlement.

Farming was difficult, but settlers were able raise livestock and enough grain to feed them. Greenland was able to export furs, wool, sheep, whale blubber and walrus ivory. Due to the advance of the Little Ice Age, however, the colony declined during the 14th century. Life had become too hard, shipping too difficult due t o growing ice. By 1408, all the settlers were gone.

Vinland, North America

A trader named Bjarni Herjolfsson was sailing to Greenland. He was blown off course and sighted lands to the west. He successfully completed his journey to Greenland where he described his accidental find to Leif Ericson, son of Erik the Red. Circa A.D. 1000, Leif and a crew sailed across 1,800 miles across open sea, following Bjarni’s description of his voyage. The Greenlanders made a small settlement in the land they called Vinland. Due to hostile natives that the Vikings called skraelings, the settlement eventually failed.

In the 1960s, a Norse settlement was found at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland by an archeologist Anne Stine Ingstad and her husband Helge. Whether this is the Viking settlement mentioned in various sagas is still in dispute, but archeology proves the Vikings discovered North America 500 years before Christopher Columbus.

Viking Names and Naming Conventions

(See Main Article: Viking Names and Naming Conventions)

Viking parents named their children after a deceased relative, preferably a direct ancestor such as a grandparent or great-grandparent. Vikings venerated their ancestors. By naming a child after a dead relative, it was believed that part of the deceased person’s luck would attach to the new child and bring them success in life. In a sense, a part of the deceased lives on in the child.

If a relative died while a child was the womb, that child always took the name of that relative. If a boy’s father died before he was born, the boy received the father’s name. If an honored ancestor had a common name, then the ancestor’s byname or nickname would also be given to the child. Thus, names remained in the same families for long periods of time.

Alliteration and Variation

Many Viking parents would use two other naming conventions when giving their children names. One was alliteration. The same sound was used in the beginning of each child’s name: Olaf, Olief, Olvir, Ospak, Ottar, for example. Another principle used was variation, changing one name element while leaving the other the same for all children: Hallbjorn, Hallbera, Halldor, Hallfrid, Hallgerd, Hallkel and Halli. Alliteration and variation are ancient naming customs; naming after deceased relatives became more prevalent during the 9th century.

Name Elements

While many Viking names had only one name element, others had two name elements or more. For example, the name Bjorn meaning Bear is one name element. Bjornstein, meaning Bear Rock, is a name with two elements. It’s important to remember that name elements must be carefully used. Some name elements are used only in the first position, others only in the last position. Some are used only for males; others used only for females.

Named for a God

Viking parents also chose the name of a god to use in their children’s names. Thor, the hammer-wielding protector of humanity, was the most popular god and Thor as a name element was quite common for boy’s names: Thorald, Thorberg, Thorbjorn, Thord, Thorfast, Thorgest and so on. For girls, names with As (god) were common: Asdis, Asgerd, Ashild, Asta and Astrid.

Bynames or Nicknames

Vikings often received nicknames from people who knew them well and were usually derogatory. People themselves didn’t use their nicknames, but others referred to them by it. People could get stuck with a nickname because of a physical or character trait, their occupation, place of origin or habits.

Vikings and Norse Mythology

(See Main Article: Vikings and Norse Mythology)

In the world of Norse mythology, we find gods and goddesses, giants, strange and powerful creatures, elves, dwarves and land spirits. It is difficult for a 21st century person to conceive of the worldview of the Vikings, brimming as it was with such a variety of spiritual beings.

Yggdrasil and the Nine Worlds

The center of the Vikings’ cosmos is the ash tree Yggdrasil, growing out of the Well of Urd. Yggdrasil holds the Nine Worlds, home of gods, man and all spiritual beings. The gods live in Asgard and Vanaheim and humans inhabit Midgard. Giants live in Jotunheim, elves in Alfheim and dwarves in Svartalfheim. Another is the primordial world of ice, Niflheim, while Muspelheim is the world of fire. The last world comprises Hel, the land of the dead, ruled by the goddess Hel.

Gods and Goddesses

The gods and goddesses venerated by the Vikings are Odin, Thor, Loki, Baldur, Frigg, Freya, Freyr and Njoror. There are many other gods and goddesses in the Norse pantheon but these received the primary attention in the sagas and eddas.

  • Odin, the allfather, the one-eyed seeker of wisdom, god of magic, war and runes, hung himself on Yggdrasil for nine days and nights to find wisdom, brought the runes to mankind
  • Thor, with his magic hammer Mjolnir, protects mankind and his realm of Midgard, god of warriors
  • Loki, a dangerous half-god, half-giant trickster always wreaking havoc among the gods
  • Baldur, son of Odin and Frigg, a beautiful and gracious god, beloved of all, killed by Loki’s trickery
  • Frigg, wife of Odin, practitioner of magic, goddess of the home, mother of Baldur
  • Freya, feather-cloaked goddess of love and fertility but also of war and death
  • Freyr, her brother, god of farming, agriculture, fertility and prosperity
  • Njoror, powerful god of the sea

Giants, Elves, Dwarves and Land Spirits

Giant is not a good name for these spiritual beings; think of them as devourers, out to destroy order and return the world to primeval chaos. They are the enemies of gods, but also their relatives. Giants are dangerous to mankind, which is why Thor often hunts them. Elves and dwarves appear in the sagas, but are different from what we might picture them to be. Dwarves are miners and smiths and live underground. They are invisible, powerful spiritual beings, not short humans. Elves are also spiritual beings, demi-gods who can mate with mankind and have children with them.

Land spirits inhabit everything on the land—trees, herbs, stones and bodies of water. The land spirits (landvaettir in Old Norse) hold considerable power over the well being of the land and those who live on it. People took care to honor and placate the landvaettir. In the first law of Iceland, Vikings were told to remove the dragon heads from their ships when approaching land so they wouldn’t frighten the land spirits.

Norse mythology is intricate and complex and we’ve presented just the barest bones here. See the resources page for further information on this fascinating aspect of the Vikings’ belief system.

Vikings: From Pagans to Christians

(See Main Article: Vikings: From Pagans to Christians)

While Charlemagne “converted” pagans to Christianity by the sword, the conversion of Vikings to Christianity occurred without violence for the most part. In the early Viking Age, Viking traders noted that they suffered losses in trade contracts and deals because the other party was Christian. Christian traders tended to give more business and better deals to other Christians, discriminating against pagans and Muslims. A Viking trader might then wear a cross when he was among Christians only to change it back to his usual Thor’s hammer upon returning home. As long as the Viking trader wasn’t baptized, he could practice both religions, a common practice in Scandinavia for the next few centuries.

At first, the Viking Norse didn’t take to Christianity. They loved their own gods and were content with them. English and Frankish Christian priests and monks had begun missionary tours to the Viking lands from the 700s to 800s. However, the conversion of the Vikings took place over centuries. Even when a Danish or Swedish king became Christian and proclaimed his people were Christian, many still practiced their pagan ways and held to the old gods. By the end of the Viking Age, however, most Vikings had become fully Christian and were baptized and buried in that faith.

Denmark

While an earlier Danish Viking king, Harald Klak, had been baptized in 826, it wasn’t until King Harald Bluetooth was baptized in 965 that Christianity took a firmer hold in Denmark. Harald Bluetooth raised the Jelling Stone proclaiming that he made all Danes Christian, although the new faith lived side by side with the old for the next few hundred years. Danish Vikings accepted Christianity slowly. By 1110 the first stone cathedral was begun in Denmark’s oldest city of Ribe. It was finished in 1134. By then, most Danes had become Christian.

Norway

Although a few earlier kings had adopted Christianity, it wasn’t until 995 when Olaf Tryggvason led a successful revolt against the pagan king Hakkon Jarl that Christianity came to Norway. Olaf Tryggvason became King Olaf I and proceeded to convert Norwegians to Christianity by force. He burned pagan temples and killed Vikings who wouldn’t convert. Through these violent methods, every part of Norway became Christian, at least in name. Various kings’ sagas attribute the Christianization of Iceland and the other Western islands to Olaf’s efforts.

Sweden

During the later Viking Age, Christianity began making inroads in Sweden, with Episcopal sees being established during the 11th century. Conflict and violence also attended Sweden’s gradual conversion to Christianity, but generally the old and new faith co-existed for many years. Most Swedish Vikings of this time favored a gradual transition to the new religion while continuing some of the old religion’s rituals. By the 12th century, however, Sweden was predominantly Christian.

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