Everything you ever wanted to know about Vikings and more
Vikings were Nordic seafarers active mostly from the 8th to the 11th century. They are known for travelling across the oceans on longboats, raping, pillaging and looting along the way. While not everything we think we know about Vikings is true, they certainly did conquer much of Northern Europe, establishing communities and colonising much of the region.
The word Viking derived from the word Vik or Wic, meaning fjord or port but over time Wicing (people of the fjords) became a byword for pirate. Vikings were mostly from the coastal regions on Norway, where the long, calm fjords enabled these people to build boats and experiment with new ship-building techniques.
The Viking ships
The narrow natural harbours, protected by high cliffs and with an abundance of tall strong trees made Norway’s fjords the perfect environment to develop the long ship. Long, slender and light with a large square sail these ships could travel at great speeds and had unparalleled agility. Furthermore, the oars that the boats had, enabled them more manoeuvrability and the ability to sail when there was no wind. This made them perfect for warfare as well as trade and exploration. With a shallow hull the boats could sail up rivers and it enabled troops to deploy in shallow water.
Many well-preserved Viking ships have been found and excavated, and a number of these can be seen at Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum. These ships have been so well preserved because they were used as funeral ships and buried in the ground along with their owner and many of his or her possessions.
Where did they go?
Using their superior knowledge of navigation and ship building the Vikings spread far and wide. The Vikings expanded from Norway to cover Greenland and Iceland and the British Isles. They got as far as the Mediterranean and North Africa to the south as well as to the Middle East and Asia to the east. They also travelled past Greenland to Vinland – what is today’s North America. Leif Erikson arrived there over a thousand years ago, more than 500 years before Christopher Columbus.
Raping and pillaging and trading?
The Viking ships enabled them to attack towns on the coast or along rivers and that was certainly what they did. In 793 AD they arrived on the island of Lindesfarne off the north-east English coast. Medieval England was totally unprepared for this invasion and the Vikings had no trouble sacking towns across Scotland, the Shetland and Orkney Islands and northern England. By 866, Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan had taken York renaming it Jorvik. Not only did they sack the city but they remained there, rebuilding the city, cultivating the area and colonising the people. For the next few hundred years the Vikings would be part of the culture.
There is no denying Viking warriors were ferocious. They were famed for a furious kind of fighting known as berserkergang. They became known as the berserkers and its where we get the saying ‘someone has gone berserk’ from. Berserkers were probably hallucinating on mushrooms or drunk on strong alcohol, which removed any inhibitions.
Warriors didn’t use swords like many of their southern European enemies, instead they sometimes used spears but usually used axes. These double handed axes could smash though helmets and split shields and would instil fear into the enemy.
The Warriors would take precious metals, jewels and other plunder, which would often include women. The most beautiful women would be taken back to their homelands, while those rejected would be killed or sold to abroad as slaves. This is the reason some give as to why Scandinavian people are so attractive, because the gene pool has such a high density of beauty genes. Whether that’s true or not, it is true that the Viking traded white slaves from the lands they conquered. Selling some women as slaves to Arabs and keeping some others as Thralls for labour or domestic help.
As well as warriors, they were also skilled tradespeople. They traded for Asian spices and silks with Russians, fine wines with the French and Germans, as well as trading furs and glass more locally.
Norse mythology and religion
The Vikings were not fearful in battle because of their beliefs. They channelled Norse gods including the axe-wielding god of war Thor, and Odin, the god of Death. A mythical Valkyrie (chooser of the slain) – a female figure often riding a horse – would decide who would die in battle and who would live. And those who the Valkyrie would pick would join the other heroes who died in battle to Valhalla the Hall of the slain.
How did they have so much success?
The Vikings appeared out of nowhere and although it isn’t clear why it is thought that when Charlemagne, king of the Francs, tried to convert the pagan Vikings to Christianity they decided to fight back and take revenge. The Roman Empire had recently collapsed and the rise of Islam had disturbed many trade routes so the Vikings may have been forced to expand overseas to find new trade routes and resources.
The Viking culture
The Vikings were not a unified nation but made up of tribes ruled by chieftains who fought among themselves as much as with their neighbours. The slaves called Thralls, would do much of the labour, Jarls or free people, would farm and trade and the Jarls were the top of society. Although slavery existed women had the right to get divorced and they also had inheritance rights, so like today, Scandinavia had a very liberal political system.
The Viking legacy
The Vikings remained in many parts of the world they colonised. Many Scottish clans can be descended back to them and the Normans who would go on to conquer the British Isles in 1066 were also descended from Vikings.
In the 18th and 19th there was something of a Viking revival. Composers including Wagner and theatrical and operatic performers portrayed Vikings as murderous but noble plunderers. The image of big, dirty Vikings that the Victorian era portrayed was a myth though. They were in fact very hygienic as shown by the plentiful self-cleaning tools have been excavated. Vikings also dyed their hair blonde too, not just to show off their good looks but as a way to find lice easier. Another myth created during the revival was that they wore horned helmets. Sadly, they didn’t – although Nordic priests may have worn horned hats during certain ceremonies.
Today, it has been proven that as many as 50% of European people have inherited Norse genetics. Nearly a thousand years on that’s some good going.