History of the Vikings: All You Need to Know
Vikings are more popular than ever. With dramas such as Vikings and The Last Kingdom the ancient Norsemen have reached new generations. Of course, there is dramatic license taken to particular historical accounts that you may see on the screen. That is where archaeological and historical work come in. And thanks to the interest in this topic these days it is almost certain that any Viking related discovery makes international headlines.
But who were the Vikings? Were they berserkers, traders, farmers, or explorers? Well, they were all of the above because Vikings were real people with an organized, rich culture filled with beliefs and traditions and military and economic ambitions. One must remember that this was a multi-faceted group of humans living in a complex world.
When was the Viking Age?
The beginning of the Viking age, which is generally said to be about 800 AD, is largely based on what one means by a Viking. In their time, there was more than one meaning for the word Viking. As Judith Jesch explains:
“víkingr was someone who went on expeditions, usually abroad, usually by sea, and usually in a group with other víkingar (the plural). Víkingr did not imply any particular ethnicity and it was a fairly neutral term, which could be used of one’s own group or another group. The activity of víking is not specified further, either. It could certainly include raiding, but was not restricted to that.”
But the generally accepted perspective is that the Viking Age began when Norsemen started raiding in other areas, thus many scholars argue that the start of Viking voyages was a 793 AD raid on the Lindisfarne monastery in England. But if one sees víkingar through the lens of seafarers who went on expeditions, the Viking Age could be argued to have begun earlier as people from Norway sailed to Ribe, Denmark, on peaceful missions around 725 AD.
The end of the Viking Age is officially given as 1066, when the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge – the last major Viking invasion into Europe.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge, 1066 by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1870. (Public Domain)
People of the Viking Age would often have a descriptive nickname, for example Sigurd the Stout and Thorfill Skullsplitter. Personal characteristics were also sometimes incorporated into Viking names, including Lover, Good, Short, Wise, and Long. The most popular Vikings ended up in the Sagas, and many of those men also became known on TV shows too – though their lives were probably far less romantic and more brutal than the fiction.
Harald “Blåtand” (Bluetooth) Gormsson was a King of Denmark and Norway who lived during the 10th century AD. He was responsible for the unification of Denmark. Although the majority of his subjects were followers of paganism, Harald did what he could to promote Christianity within his kingdom. According to some scholars, Harald got his nickname ‘Bluetooth’ because he had a dead tooth that looked blue, or dark. Today this nickname is also the name of a wireless technology standard. The creators felt that Harald Bluetooth’s ability to unite people in peaceful negotiations would be appropriate for a telecommunications technology.
Eric Haraldsson is said to have been a 10th century ruler of Norway and Northumbria. Although both monarchs are generally regarded to be the same person, there are some doubts because the Norse and Anglo-Saxon sources do not always match up. He is believed to have been a son of Harald Fairhair, a polygamous King of Norway. According to the sagas, Eric was Harald’s favorite and when he was 12, he was given five longships and began his Viking career. He first sailed eastwards, raiding the coasts of Denmark, Friesland, and Saxland, then he sailed to the west and raided Scotland and the area around the Irish Sea. The Sagas also mention that Eric was married to Gunnhild, who is said to have been an evil witch with a strong influence over her husband.
Viking are remembered as warriors. (Fotokvadrat /Adobe Stock)
Ragnar Lothbrok (Lodbrok) is probably the Viking name people are most familiar with today. He is supposed to have ransacked England and France and fathered the Great Heathen Army. However, as with the legendary King Arthur, Ragnar appears as an amalgamation of a number of historical personages and minor characters of legend. He most likely was a warlord and king of Denmark and Sweden and the first Scandinavian to invade Britain. He is mentioned in several sagas, most significantly The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok and the Gesta Danorum. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle also refers to ‘Ragnall’ and ‘Reginherus’ as a powerful and prominent Viking raider from 840 AD. Both the name Ragnar and the nickname Lothbrok had many variations. “Lothbrok” could mean “hairy breeches” or “shaggy breeches” because he is said to have crafted the breeches to fight a dragon or giant serpent and stop it from biting him.
Legends say Bjorn Ironside ruled Sweden as the first king from the House of Munsö. He lived during the 9th century AD and his father was the aforementioned Ragnar Lothbrok. The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok and His Sons states that Bjorn and his brothers continued their father’s raiding activities and terrorized the areas of England, Normandy, France, and Lombardy. He and his brothers were the commanders of the Great Heathen Army, which was a coalition of Viking warriors from Denmark and Scandinavia that launched several military campaigns against the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms during the latter half of the 9th century.
Trade and Economy
The narrative that surrounds Vikings is tied to a debate whether they were raiders or merchants. But this raider-trader dichotomy has largely been put to rest in academic circles. Much of the evidence for Viking trade emerged from the urban excavations of the late 1970s and 80s.
We can now show that the famous Scandinavian sea voyages, which eventually led to the discovery of Iceland and Greenland, have a history of some commercial travel, not just raids. The collection, curation, display, and distribution of portable wealth was central to Viking Age society and economy. Warlords wore elaborate dress, with conspicuous personal ornaments and body modifications, and engaged in personal grooming.
Norse ornaments had a secondary purpose, they were also used as currency in trade, which is probably the reason why the Vikings preferred using precious metals to craft their jewelry. Deer antlers were also important because they were used in making combs, needles, and other tools.
If an ornament was too large for the subject matter of transaction , the piece would be broken into smaller portions that would suit that particular undertaking. If you think about it, the Vikings used their jewelry like we use modern-day wallets.
Viking Raids and Weapons
Traditionally, archaeologists have proposed that changes in climate boosted agriculture, causing a sharp spike in population, which inspired the Vikings to look for new lands . Others maintain local chieftains funded treasure hunting raids to further establish their wealth, dominance, and power. There is still debate about how much Viking women participated in warfare. The Vikings went on raids and set up colonies elsewhere in Europe and as far east as Russia. By the mid-11th century the Nordic empire expanded into Britain, Iceland, Greenland, and Canada, and they also raided Italian and Spanish ports as well as Constantinople.
Between at least 795 and 836 AD, there were countless ‘hit and run’ raids by both the Norsemen and the Danes in Ireland. It is likely that Christian monasteries in Ireland were initially targeted because they were poorly defended and contained portable wealth in the form of metalwork and people. Settling in richer Christian lands also offered better prospects for some than remaining in resource-poor Scandinavia.
A famous raid took place at Luni, where Bjorn (or Hastein) sent messengers to the bishop to inform him of their leader’s death. They said that on his deathbed he had converted to Christianity and his dying wish was to be buried on consecrated ground. The bishop allowed several Vikings to bring the leader’s body into the town. Once they entered Luni, Bjorn is said to have jumped out of his coffin, fought his way to the town’s gates, and allowed the rest of the Vikings in.
Vikings in battle. (Альберт Гизатулин /Adobe Stock)
There is a widespread misunderstanding that the Vikings stood shield-by-shield, forming a close formation in battle. A typical Viking shield was relatively small and light, and used as an active weapon. They used a wide range of combat techniques. One of these is the so-called svinfylking (”Swine Array” or “Boar’s Snout”), a version of the wedge formation used to attack and break through enemy shield walls with an axe as the primary weapon, something that was effective at creating fear and panic.
The Dane axe is a two-handed weapon and was used exclusively for battle. It is most famous for its use by the huscarls (household troops) of King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 AD and is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. Another type of Viking axe is the bearded axe which could be wielded with one hand and used to hook an enemy’s weapon or shield. Off the battlefield, this axe was also used for wood-chopping.
Ships and bodies of water have held a major spiritual importance in the Norse cultures since at least the Nordic Bronze Age. Many historians suggest that the Viking ship was one of the greatest technical and artistic achievements of the European Dark Ages. These fast ships had the strength to survive ocean crossings while having a draft of as little as 50 cm (20 inches), allowing navigation in very shallow water.
These vessels were generally slender and flexible boats, with symmetrical ends and with a true keel. They were clinker built, which is the overlapping of planks riveted together. Some might have had a dragon's head or other circular object protruding from the bow and stern, for design, although this is only inferred from historical sources.
Vikings on a longship at sea. (Nejron Photo /Adobe Stock)
Viking ships motivated them to embark on their voyages of trading, raiding, and exploration. They were an important part of Viking society, not only as a means of transportation, but also for the prestige that it conferred on her owner and skipper. That’s why if a high-born clansman did not die at sea he would still be buried in a ship on land, often with weapons and pottery. There have been several such finds in the twentieth century, such as the Gokstad ship (from 890 AD) and the Oseberg ship (from the early ninth century AD). They believed that ships would also provide them with safe passage into the afterlife.
Daily Life for the Ancient Norseman and Norsewoman
The craftsmanship and shipbuilding capabilities of the Vikings are often overshadowed by stereotypical images of violent invaders, plunderers, and explorers. But there were more routine aspects to the lives of the Norse men and women as well. By occupation, Vikings were highly experienced farmers, ship builders, traders, blacksmiths, jewelers, metalworkers, cooks, garment makers, and craftsmen, and this legacy can still be seen in their descendants today.
Stamps showing ‘Everyday Life in the Viking Age.’ (Public Domain)
Norse people made beautiful and intricate jewelry in the form of bracelets, rings, necklaces, etc., out of a variety of materials including bronze, iron, gold, silver, amber, and resin. Early on in the Viking era, these ornaments were simple, but as time went by, the pieces became more detailed and sophisticated.
The Viking house was not an apolitical, neutral space. It was a stage for hierarchies in which some people were enslaved and left to dwell with cattle in the byre, while others presided in a high seat. The largest households could be composed of a couple, concubines, subordinates, farmhands, and warriors, animals, itinerant workers, guests, and a range of ‘mine, yours, and our’ children. Although they lived under one roof, everyday tasks and the architecture itself created thresholds between groups and made people different from each other.
A Viking longhouse. (Lars Gieger /Adobe Stock)
The walls of a longhouse were commonly made from a structure of wooden poles with wattle and daub infilling. Some longhouses had forges inside them, although more commonly the forge was housed in a separate building. The roof was made of thatch or wooden shingles.
Archaeologists also find things – such as pots, knives, and iron rings – buried in or near doorways. Perhaps these objects guarded the house from powers and beings from outside. And the depositing of artifacts simultaneously forged and embedded a link between people’s daily lives and their houses. The Vikings also had a very bizarre tradition that might be totally unique: they buried their own homes.
Religion and Myths
The ancient Norsemen kept few records, so our main source for their spiritual beliefs come from the Icelandic sagas and Eddas, which were written by Christians and can only be trusted as "evidence" to a certain extent. The most famous is the Prose Edda, was written by a 13th-century Christian, the Icelandic politician Snorri Sturluson.
The old pagan religion had a pantheon of gods and goddesses, with the leaders of Asgard being Odin and Frigga. Stories of their lands were inhabited with mystical beings such as elves, dwarves, giants, and trolls. They had warrior heroes slaying huge serpents, and fantastic stories of the end of days. Their tales also included a World Tree (Yggdrasil) and magical runes.
Yggdrasil, the ancient Norse Tree of Life. (Alayna/ Deviant Art)
But things changed as Christianity melded with the old ways and eventually took hold. The first Scandinavian king to be converted was the Danish exile Harald Klak (baptized in 826 AD). One of the most significant turning points in the Christianization of Scandinavia was the conversion of the Danish king Harald Bluetooth in the 960s.
Viking Funerals and Ancient Norse Afterlife Beliefs
The Vikings believed in an afterlife, and their funerary practices can be understood through archaeological and textual sources. One of the best-known accounts describing a Viking funeral is to be found in the writings of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a member of the Abbasid embassy that was sent to Volga Bulgaria. He writes of a sacrifice of a slave girl during a particularly significant burial of a Viking chief. But this type of ritual was rather rare. More popular among the Vikings was the belief that it was possible to take their worldly possessions into the afterlife with them, so they buried grave goods with their deceased.
The Vikings also believed that warriors who fell in battle would earn the right to enter Valhalla, an enormous hall located in Asgard. There, the fallen warriors would feast and fight until the arrival of Ragnarok. Thus, it was essential that dead Vikings be equipped by the living with the gear necessary for their journey to and stay in Valhalla. Apart from Valhalla, other Viking realms of the dead include Folkvangr (also for warriors), Helgafjell (for those who have led good lives), and Helheim (for those who died dishonorable deaths).
‘Helgi Hundingsbane returns to Valhalla.’ (Public Domain)
The Vikings believed that if the dead were not appeased, they could return as a draugr (or revenant) to haunt the living. These undead beings could cause much trouble for the living, including crop failure, defeat in war, and pestilence. If a draugr was suspected of causing problems, the Vikings would exhume the recently dead and look for signs of undead activity. When a draugr was identified, they would rebury the body with more grave goods, assuming that the person had been a highly respected person in life. Alternatively, a wooden stake could simply be used to pin the body to the ground and the head chopped off, so as to kill the creature.
The sagas are also full of tales of people receiving prophecy from the dead, the dead singing in burial mounds, or haunting their old houses. Throughout the first millennium, human bones were sometimes embedded within the house, including infants buried in hearths and postholes. It must have been meaningful for people to place body parts of their dead under the threshold or in the postholes of the longhouse, or to inter the dead in the house when they abandoned the settlement.
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Viking Ancestry and Legacy
The Viking Age may be considered relatively short, but their influence on future generations was significant. They influenced the English language, with words like ransack, window, market, outlaw, husband, and honeymoon; they brought chicken to the Irish diet, which the Vikings had discovered in China; and they brought items acquired through trade with Persia, Byzantium, and Asia. For centuries to follow, and still today, the Scandinavian influence can be seen in literature, crafts, decorative styles, and cuisine of cultures outside Scandinavia too.
The legacy of the Vikings lives on. (Nejron Photo /Adobe Stock)
As science progress, and DNA traces are becoming more common-place, more and more people living in the UK and Ireland are delving into the origins of their ancestry and finding Viking genes. A quick indication that Viking heritage may be present in a family is looking at surnames. If a surname ends in ‘-son’ or ‘–sen,’ the chances are pretty good that a person’s ancestors may have come across the sea from Scandinavia in the Viking era.
Between the allure of TV shows featuring the raiders, farmers, and explorers, and the continuance of their DNA, Viking heritage lives on!
Top Image: Vikings are most often remembered as warriors. Source: Nejron Photo /Adobe Stock
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