A Viking Warrior

Never Offend a Viking or ‘The Thing’ Might Just Decide Your Fate

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If you offended a Viking, a normal reaction would be to kill you on the spot. If the murder took place in daylight with witnesses present and without trying to hide his act, the punishment for the crime was paying fines.

The Vikings had a complex honor and judicial system that probably developed over many centuries, long before the Viking Age.

Most conflicts were resolved between the involved families. If it was impossible to reach an agreement, the Thing (Old Norse, Old English and Icelandic:  þing, the governing assembly of free people) had the final word.

To be summoned to the Thing was regarded as a very hostile act and therefore the parties always tried to reach an agreement. The summons could also be a means to force the opponents to reach a settlement.

A Viking could be fined, sentenced to death or outlawed. Being outlawed meant that anyone could kill you without any consequences, something considered worse than a death sentence.

Would you have dared to offend one of these Vikings? (Illustration by: Stian Dahlslett ©)

Would you have dared to offend one of these Vikings? (Illustration by: Stian Dahlslett ©)

Another method to settle the matters among themselves was a duel (Old Norse:  hólmganga) – a challenge where two men fought with swords or other weapons, often about women or property.

Revenge Killings

In Viking society, all free men and women had the right to conduct revenge killings.

You could kill somebody in public without suffering serious consequences, because you were honest and did not hide your actions and gave others the opportunity to react.

It was important to take responsibility for the murder and not run away, and to pay the fines. The same applied to killing somebody in a fight.

The Tinghaugen mound in Frosta municipality in Central Norway where the Frostating governing assembly took place – probably dating all the way back to the 400s AD. (Foto: Stig Morten Skjæran)

The Tinghaugen mound in Frosta municipality in Central Norway where the Frostating governing assembly took place – probably dating all the way back to the 400s AD. (Foto: Stig Morten Skjæran)

Arson or killing someone at night was looked upon as extremely despicable because you did not give people the opportunity to defend themselves. The acts were punishable by the death penalty, or the perpetrator was outlawed.


The Vikings could be extremely violent when raiding the British Isles and mainland Europe, but at home in Scandinavia, there were severe penalties for committing violent crimes.

The whole family was responsible if a relative made an offence, such as revenge killings, and they had to pay substantial parts of his or her fines.

One example: By the killing of a free man the family hat to pay the equivalent of 189 cows. In comparison, one average male thrall (slave) had the same value as twelve cows, and a female thrall, eight cows.

Converted to today’s value 189 cows corresponds to approximately:

The killer had to pay 120,470 USD.

The killer’s brother had to pay 43,058 USD.

The killer’s uncle had to pay 11,765 USD.

The killer’s cousin had to pay 22,235 USD.

Distant relatives had to pay fines that ranged between 188 – 5059 USD.

The purpose of the fines was to take care of the victim’s family.

The punishment system in Norse society made people think twice before offending a Viking.

Top image: A Viking Warrior ( Mark Hooper / flickr )

The article ‘ Never Offend a Viking’ by Thor Lanesskog was originally published on Thor News and has been republished with permission.


Oh, well... I suppose lots can be said, but I'll be brief:

Normally for minor offences you would not just kill someone. Of course, everything depends, and there would be cases where that action was considered appropriate, but in general I think it would be more precise to suggest that the offended (in serious cases) would invite the offender to an "island walk" (Danish: "Holmgang") ie. a duel. The result of such a duel could be death, but I've not seen any sources claiming that it always turned out this way.

For all of their violence, the Viking society was actually far more orderly than is commonly recognized. Their laws were as harsh as their lives, but recognized the rights of all of the members of their society. The organization and honor of the Viking people is probably the foundation of their ability to conquer and subdue nearly any foe, no matter how great their number.

R. Lee Bowers

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