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
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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 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
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Vikings History — Ships for War and Trade
The technological innovation in Scandinavian ship building gave the Vikings the tactical superiority they needed to raid and subdue most of Europe and Russia during the Viking Age. Viking longships were fast, strong enough to cross open ocean, light enough to carry over portages and easy to maneuver with a shallow draft that allowed beach landings and river navigation. With these ships and the tactics that grew from their use, Vikings successfully raided, traded, conquered and settled all over Europe and parts of Russia. To the Vikings, their ships were symbols of power, capable of transporting them to war, to distant shores and even to the afterlife, as some Vikings were buried in their ships.
The unique design element of Viking ships were the overlapping planks of the hull using the lapstrake or clinker method of shipbuilding. Europeans used the carvel method of boatbuilding, where strakes or planks were fastened onto a skeleton of the ship’s ribs, and the plank edges butted up smooth from seam to seam. In any size or type of Viking ship, Norse ship builders laid the keel first, then added strakes or planks and fitted internal timbers as the last step. Planks were riveted together with strong iron rivets. The overlapping planks made Viking ships lighter and far more flexible than a same-sized carvel built ship.
Vikings used different ships for war and trade. The war ships were longer, shallower and narrower than the big, broad knarr, the boats built for trade and exploration. They also had smaller boats for carrying cargo, fishing and ferrying. The two main types were the longships for war and the knarr for trade and exploration.
Ships built for raids and war had shallow drafts that allowed for landings without the need for a harbor. Bigger-keeled European built ships needed deeper waters and a harbor for landing and unloading. The shallow draft of Viking vessels also permitted river navigation; Vikings could row or sail 100 plus miles inland in order to raid or set up an impregnable base on a river island or harborless ocean island. There they were safe from enemy attacks, even deep within the interior of a country. Longships were also fast, maneuverable and powered by both wind and oars. They were symmetrical and double-ended, which allowed them to reverse direction without turning around. Viking longships had an average speed of 5 to 10 knots, but could reach a peak speed of 15 knots.
Ships built for crossing the Atlantic were deeper, broader and sturdier, with room for people, livestock and tools. Smaller, coastal ships for trading expeditions were built to carry cargos of trade goods and light enough to carry overland. One such ship of the 11th century was 45 feet long, 11 feet broad and could carry 4.6 tons of goods. Trade and exploration ships relied primarily on wind for power and used oars only to maneuver for landings.
Vikings History—Vikings as Traders
Viking traders went west as far as Newfoundland in the New World, and East as far as the Volga River, down to Constantinople. When the Vikings left their homelands in the beginning of the Viking Age in the 790s, they didn’t just go to raid and loot. Many of them set out to discover or open new trade routes, to establish a more secure foundation of future income. In general, the men of Sweden went east to Russia while Norwegians and the Danes went to the west to Ireland and Scotland, England and France. All along the way they traded the goods of the north such as fur, amber, iron and walrus tusks for goods they needed from other places. They also traded in slaves.
Vikings raided, traded and settled all along Europe’s coasts. For 300 years, churches would pray to be spared the “wrath of the Norsemen.” The Vikings were equal opportunity traders and raiders. If they found an unprotected church or monastery, they’d raid. If they came to a well-defended town, they would set up trade. Early in the Viking Age, trade was done by direct barter. Eventually, Viking traders obtained a great deal of trade silver and Arabic coins, which then was used to buy goods.
Vikings established home bases and trade centers in both Dublin, Ireland and York, England. Not only did these towns attract international traders, but many Viking craftsmen settled there. Their workshops produced cups, tableware, glass beads, pottery, drinking glasses, bone and antler combs, leather goods, jewelry, and cloth. Blacksmiths and armor makers produced swords, battle axes, chainmail and armor.
During the Viking Age, Norsemen traded all up and down the coasts of Europe, establishing new homes in many locations. They took over and settled Normandy in France and southern Italy. They settled on all the Atlantic islands, the Orkneys, Shetland, Hebrides, Scilly and Isle of Man. Eventually, these Vikings intermarried and settled in permanently.
Vikings had always traded around the Baltic Sea, but in the 8th century, they began to venture into Russia, looking to establish profitable trade routes. The Norsemen, mostly Swedes with some Danes and Norwegians, found they could go south by river routes. The two main trade routes were via the Dnieper River down to the Black Sea and the Volga River route to the Caspian Sea. Vikings established trade centers and towns along the way, notably Novgorod and Kiev. Another trade town was Bulgar, where the Volga Bulgars ran the trade along with the Rus, as these Vikings came to be called.
Vikings took slaves in their raids and after battles. These slaves were always welcomed in the slave markets of Constantinople and Baghdad. During the Viking Age, slave trading was extremely profitable; slaves might be Irish, British, Franks, Slavs or any of the other tribes that came in contact with Vikings.
Vikings fostered close ties with Constantinople, becoming the Varangian guard to the Byzantine emperor. From Constantinople, Baghdad and perhaps even Persia, the Vikings could obtain goods from the Far East. Timber, iron, furs, amber, soapstone, whetstones and slaves were carried south by Viking traders. On return trips to the north, the cargo contained Arabic silver, coins, fabrics, spices, silk, fruit, wine and other goods of the south. By the end of the Viking Age, Norsemen had created a trading empire, covering most of the known world.
Vikings History — Games and Entertainment
Viking games and entertainment occupied the time of these people between conquest raids and trade journeys, and they were quite complicated. While Vikings worked hard, they also played hard. From grave goods and the sagas, we learn that Vikings played board games avidly, carved wooden dolls and toys for their children, played dice and gambled and played rough sports at their feasts and gatherings.
The board game enjoyed most often by Vikings was Hnefatafl, which they took with them to Greenland, Iceland, Scotland, Ireland and Great Britain. Unfortunately, we do not know the rules of the game except that it was a game of strategic skill. Two players of unequal strength engaged in the game. One player was by far the strongest, with the most pieces. His job was to corner the king, who was defending his castle with a much smaller force. A variety of Tafl games existed in many areas, but during the Viking Age, hnefatafl was the most popular. It lasted until the 12th century when chess was introduced into Scandinavia.
Other indoor games including drinking games with man/woman teams. Each team would drink, then boast, tell rhymes and insult the other team. The second team would then try to out-drink and out-insult the first team. The object was to see who could drink the most and remain articulate and witty. After meals, adults might bring out the dice and gamble or they might sing and tell stories.
Outdoor games were greatly popular. Based on Viking warrior skills, there were competitions in archery, wrestling, stone throwing and sword play. Horse fighting was also popular; two stallions would be goaded into fighting. Occasionally mares would be tied up around the field, within the sight and smell of the stallions. The horses would battle until one was killed or ran away.
Vikings engaged in running, swimming, tug-of-war called toga-honk and wrestling. Vikings also played a ball game with stick and ball. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to get hurt or even killed, as Vikings played rough. Women did not participate in these games, but they would gather to watch the men.
Children played with wooden toys their parents carved, or they played ball and also engaged in child versions of adult games. Child-sized replicas of weapons such as swords, shield and spears were found buried with other grave goods.
This picture of Vikings at leisure and play helps to round out the impression of Vikings as raiders and killers, left to us by their victim monks. In their leisure time, Vikings liked to play as much as any other people of the time.
Vikings History — Art
Viking art is emblematic of the surprisingly ornate material culture of the Northerners. Vikings loved elaborate decorations and they decorated many of the things they used: weapons, jewelry, runestones, ship woodwork and even their common, everyday items. They loved abstract and intricate animal designs and multiple interlacing lines. The animals depicted in their art include serpents, horses, wolves, birds and unreal, fantastic animals. As the Viking Age progressed, craftsmen varied the designs and six distinct but overlapping art styles developed. Each style is named for an area where a decorated object was found. We’ll take a look at each of the art styles.
The Oseberg style lasted most of the 9th century and appears in some Viking religious iconography. Its main feature is the gripping beast motif and sinuous animal forms. Paws grip borders, the neck of the creature, other creatures or other parts of its body. The gripping beast must have echoed something in the culture of Viking art as it stood fast for a good 150 years.
The Borre style was named for a set of bridle mounts from a ship burial at Borre, Norway. The Borre overlaps with the Oseberg and the Jelling styles, periods specific to the Viking Age. While the gripping beast remains, the sinuous creature of the Oseberg style now boasts a triangular head, a cat-like face with round eyes and protruding ears. This style appears to be purely Norse with no outside influences. It has appeared in Iceland, Russia, England, which shows Viking art existed wherever they went. Borre was prominent from the end of the 9th century to the middle of the 10th.
The Jelling style appears from the start of the 10th century and continues for about 75 years. Stylistic animals are S-shaped and intertwined, with profiled heads, spiral hips and pigtails. Borre and Jelling overlap and occasionally both are used on the same object.
The Mammem Viking art style emerged from the Jelling style and was prominent in the last half of the 10th century. Almost naturalistic lions and birds are featured as well as serpents and foliate patterns. The name comes from a small ax head from a grave site in Mammem, Denmark. The ax head was carved, then inlayed with silver. On one side of the axe head is a foliate pattern and on the other is a stylized, ribbon-like bird with tendrils on wings and tail.
The first half of the 11th century featured the Ringerike style in Viking art. Lion-shaped beasts still appear as well as plant motifs and foliate patterns. Also during this time, runestones became more prominent and were decorated in the Ringerike fashion. Ringerike animals are exceedingly curvy and thin with almond-shaped eyes and thinner, longer tendrils.
The Urnes style dates from 1050 to the 12th century and gets its name from a stave church in Urnes, Norway. Carved wooden panels reveal sinuous animals interlacing and looping, with long eyes pointed forward. Snakes and plants are also featured. The greyhound-like creature appears to be fighting with a serpent.
Vikings History — Weapons and Armor
There are a few things to keep in mind as you read about Viking weapons and armor. First, free, adult male Vikings were always armed; they hung their weapons by their bed at night, within easy reach. In an honor-based society such as the Vikings, men stood ready to defend their honor and good name at any moment. Feuds and duels were a fact of life in Viking times.
Because iron was hard to dig out of the ground, weapons could be costly. Only the richest Vikings would own the complete set of available weaponry: sword, sax (a short sword), axe, spear, bow and arrows, shield, helmet and chainmail. Poorer Vikings would carry an axe or a spear and a shield. Even the poorest Vikings had access to the ax he used at the farm.
Women, children and slaves in general did not carry weapons, although free women and children carried the knives they used in farm work. Slaves were prohibited from carrying weapons of any type.
The most expensive weapon was the sword, as it took the most iron to make. Rich men owned swords, the most prestigious weapon. Swords were double-edged and about 35 inches long. Most were pattern-welded, which means wrought iron strips and steel were twisted together then hammered into a blade with a hardened edge. Swords were often highly decorated and many had names such as Blood-hungry or Leg-biter. Vikings carried their swords in scabbards, worn over the shoulder and always accessible to the right hand.
Axes and Spears
More Viking men carried axes or spears. Battle axes had long handles, were light, well balanced and deadly. Battle axes had a variety of head shapes with a cutting edge from 3 to 6 inches. Later axe heads were much larger, from 9 to 18 inches long. The long handle allowed the warrior a longer reach in a fight. Axe heads as well as swords were richly decorated. The Mammen axe dated to 971 even had gold and silver inlay.
Spears were probably the most common weapon, taking the least amount of iron to make. They could be thrown or used to thrust at the enemy. Spear heads came in a variety of shapes and sizes from long and thin to spear heads with a wing shape near the shaft. Spear heads were also made of iron and many were decorated. Bows and arrows were also used in battle.
All Viking men would carry a round shield for protection. How rich a Viking was determined his defensive weapons. A rich man might also own chainmail and an iron helmet. Chainmail was difficult to make and no doubt quite expensive. Helmets were basically an iron bowl that protected the head, and many had a nose piece to protect the face. Poorer Vikings without access to chainmail wore thick, padded leather garments which gave some protection from edged weapons.
Viking shields could be up to a meter wide. They were made of wooden boards riveted together with an central hole for a hand grip. Shields were also highly decorated and some were painted with patterns or mythological heroes.
With these simple but effective weapons, Vikings were able to conquer major portions of England, France and Russia. Muscles from hard work and ferocity in battle won Vikings their reputation as feared warriors.
Vikings History — Law and Government: The Thing
During the Viking Age, the Norse had an oral culture and only rune writing existed. However, the Vikings had both law and government even without written law. All free men of the Vikings would gather in their communities to make law and to decide cases in a meeting called a Thing. Each community had its own independent Thing.
Rather than have all disputes settled by duel or family feuds, the Thing was instituted to both write Viking law and to decide cases of disputes within the law. The Thing met at specific, regular times. Each Thing had a law speaker who would recite the law from memory. The law speaker and the local chieftain would judge and settle the cases of dispute they heard, although all free men of the community had a say. Things were most likely dominated by a local, powerful family or families.
At the lowest level were the local, community Things. The community Thing was then represented at the next higher level Thing. In Iceland, disputes and laws were finally settled at the national Thing, or the Althing.
Malefactors who were tried at the Thing and found guilty were either fined, declared semi-outlaw or fully outlawed. To be an outlaw was a dreadful punishment for a Viking. That person was put outside of Viking law, banished from society and his property confiscated. They were to receive no help, no food and no support from anyone. Besides the terrible loneliness, these people could be killed by anyone. They often fled the country and tried to settle in some other location.
Besides the proto-court of the Thing, disputes could also be settled by arbitration, where both parties would agree on an objective third party to judge between them. A dispute could also be settled by the holmgang, or duel, which was fought either to first blood or to death. If the dispute was taken to the Thing, the loser could be subjected to a fine, which would be paid to the injured party or to partial outlawry, which would last for three years or to complete outlawry as described above.
The Thing had both judiciary and legislative powers, but no power to carry out a sentence. The injured party’s family would carry out the sentence. Politics, community decisions and new laws were also functions of the Thing. These meetings generally lasted several days, often with a festive atmosphere. Traders would bring their goods for sale and merchants would set up booths for their wares. Things were held where water was easily obtained, there was grazing for animals and fishing or hunting would provide food for all. Brew masters brought barrels of ale and mead. During the Thing, marriages were arranged, alliances were crafted, news and gossip exchanged and friendships established and renewed.
Vikings History — Life on a Viking Farm
Life on a Viking farm during the age of the Vikinger during the eighth to eleventh centuries required lots of hard, constant work. Most Viking farms raised enough crops and animals to sustain everyone who lived on the farm, human and animal. Most Vikings were farmers, a common fact of the medieval era, even if they also traded or fished part of the time. Viking farms were usually small, unless the owner was wealthy. While some farms were isolated, many grouped together in small farming villages.
Below is a list of the animals, crops and vegetables raised on a Viking farm:
- Geese, Ducks and Chickens
Because winters were so severe in the Scandinavian lands, cattle had to be kept indoors during the winter. This meant that farmers had to grow enough hay to keep their cattle alive during that time.
Besides hay, farmers grew barley, rye and oats. Women tended vegetable gardens, and some Viking farms had apple orchards as well. Plowing, sowing the crops and harvest were all done according to the seasons. Some tasks were year-round: fencing and repairing fences, mucking out animal stalls, gathering wood or dung for fires, making or repairing tools, milking cows and sheep and feeding chickens and ducks. Everyone worked, from toddlers on up. Slaves did the hardest, most backbreaking work.
When Viking men went away on fishing or raiding expeditions, the women ran the farm and did the work. For that reason, women held a certain amount of power in Viking society. Children didn’t go to school; boys learned the tasks of the men and girls learned by helping their mothers. Most Viking men returned from raiding for the harvest and to winter over at their farms.
In summer, cattle and sheep were often driven to higher ground to pasture there for the season. Pigs were often set free to roam and forage in the wild until it was time to round them up and butcher them for the winter. Horses were kept closer to the farm as they were used for farm work and transportation. Dairy cows, sheep and goats also stayed closer to the farm as they had to be milked daily. Vikings appreciated cheeses, butter, buttermilk and whey and valued them more highly than meat.
Unfortunately, we don’t know too much of Viking farming methods. Most farming tools and implements didn’t survive the 1,000 years between then and now. We do know a simple plow called an ard was used to cut grooves through the soil in preparation for sowing. Harvesting the grain required iron sickles and sharp knives for cutting hay.
We also know that Viking farms and villages didn’t stay in the same place. Both farms and villages would shift one hundred meters every generation to take advantage of fresh soils. It wasn’t until the transition to Christianity when Vikings built stone churches that villages remained in the same place.
Vikings History — Eight Interesting Features of the Vikinger
While video games and movies tend to portray Vikings as ruthless savages with oversized helmets and hollow brains, their culture and motives reach far beyond that. The term Viking means, “pirate raid” in the Old Norse language. The people of Scandinavia commonly used the word as a verb to describe a tradition where men would take off in the summers and go “viking.” Contrary to popular belief, the majority of these expeditions did not consist of raiding villages and raping women. Instead, their purpose was usually to discover new land and trade. They even had a legal system.
Catholic propaganda is responsible for most of the modern misconception about Vikings (they were pagans, not Christian) The church lost several facilities, treasures, and relics to Scandinavian people, so they made it their mission for many years to make them look like wild beasts.
They Didn’t Wear Those Horned Helmets
Pretty much every single Viking costume you have seen in a movie or video game is a lie. These warriors usually went into battle bareheaded. The whole horned-helm idea came about in Victorian times when Vikings were romanticized. Painters began to depict them as glamorous savages with horned helmets; however, nothing found during the Viking Age shows this image to be in the least bit authentic.
They Buried their Dead in Boats
Vikings loved their boats, and the Scandinavian culture was extremely superstitious. It was considered a great honor for a person to be mummified, dressed in finery, and placed to rest in a ship. They believed that these ships would transcend the dead into the afterlife. Distinguished warriors and highborn women were often put to rest in vessels, surrounded by valuable goods and sacrificed slaves.
They Loved to Keep Themselves Clean and Tidy
Several Viking excavations have turned up razors, combs, tweezers, and even ear cleaners. It turns out these savage warriors cared quite a lot about their personal hygiene. Historians also believe that the typical Viking citizen bathed at least once a week, far more than any other European group during that time.
They Liked to Ski for Fun
Roughly 6000 years ago, the Scandinavian people developed their own version of skis and used them for hunting, traveling, and entertainment. They even had a god of skiing, who was named Ullr. Kings and high lords indulged in skiing for entertainment, and sometimes had competitions where the best skiers could win prizes.
Viking Women Had Basic Rights
Vikings girls were usually forced to marry around the age of 12 and tend to a household full of kids while their husbands sailed off into awesome adventures. However, when compared to other women during that time, they enjoyed a wide range of freedoms. They had the right to inherit property, file for a divorce, and even reclaim settlements if the marriage failed.
They Used Urine to Start Fires
Vikings lived a large part of their lives on the go. Because they did not have lighters, they would collect a tree fungus called touchwood, and boil it for several days in their own urine. After the mixture was done, they would pound it into a felt like substance. The sodium nitrate found in the urine would mix with the touchwood and make the mixture easily combustible, so they could easily start a fire while on the road.
They Took Part in Human Trafficking
Many Viking businessmen made small fortunes by capturing women and young men and then selling them in giant slave markets across the Middle East and Europe. These slaves were usually referred to as thralls, and came from Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Slavic settlements raided by the Vikings.
Viking Men Often Dyed their Hair
During the Viking Era, having blonde hair was really “in” with the cool crowd. Therefore, brunette Vikings, mostly men, would use a heavily concentrated soap with high levels of lye that would bleach their hair. Historians believe that aside from being part of their culture’s beauty ideal, the bleached hair would also help keep lice away.
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