Top 10 facts about the Vikings

Top 10 facts about the Vikings

Everybody loves reading about and seeing pictures of Vikings.  They became a popular source of inspiration for art and writing in the 19th century and we have been fascinated by them ever since.  We know them as fierce warriors with horned helmets, long beards and straggly, dirty hair who rode their longboats though stormy seas to raid monasteries and churches of their treasure and killing the innocent monks who sought to protect their homes.  They pillaged and burned villages, raping the women, murdering babies and taking young people as slaves.

If we know so much about them, is there anything left to learn?  A deeper look tells us that the Vikings were, in reality, a sophisticated people with a wide ranging and progressive (for its time) culture.   From the 8th century when they first came to prominence to the 11th when they started to decline they were one of the major influences on European life and civilization.

With that in mind here is our list of the top 10 things you did not know (but really should) about the Vikings.

10. The Vikings Discovered the Americas

The Vikings discovered America
The Vikings discovered America

We all know the Americas were discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492, it is taught to all our children in school.  The sad truth is, however, that this fact is wrong.  Columbus was not the first European to discover the Americas; a Viking colony had existed in Newfoundland many centuries beforehand.

The Vikings were prolific and talented seafarers and loved nothing better than finding new lands they could raid or farm.  In the late 980s the famous Viking Eric the Red found and colonized Greenland (at the time it had a much more hospitable climate than is present today).  A visitor to Greenland was once blown off course and found land to the west.  15 years later, Eric’s son Leif decided to go in search of that land in order to colonize it.

There were a number of fairly long term expeditions to a land the Vikings called Vinland and a small settlement (L’Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland). The Vikings came in to regular contact (and fought with) the indigenous peoples whom they called skraelings.  The expeditions found wild berries for making wine in abundance and also found cereals and wild grapes growing freely in the local area.  The colony proved to be too far from other Viking settlements to be viable and was given up not long after its discovery.

Stories of Vinland were dismissed as fiction for many years but in 1961 the settlement at L’Anse Aux Meadows was rediscovered, proving Vikings really had discovered the Americas.

9. The Name Viking Has Confused Origins

The Vikings are from Iceland.  Probably.
The Vikings are from Iceland. Probably.

Where does the word Viking come from?  There are many places called Vik – did they originally come from one such place?  It would make sense but this is probably not the correct explanation for the origin of the word.

The word Vik means a bay in old Norse hence the use of the word in many place names such as Reykjavik, Narvik etc.  Vikings were also known to hide their boats in bays while waiting for victims to prey on.  The word Viking, however, was also a word in its own right, both a noun a ‘vikingr’ was a person who went away on adventures, and as a verb – to go viking was to go away on adventure or a raid.  As the years progressed and Vikings started to raid the coasts of Europe or in their parlance to go viking, the word was adopted by their enemies.

8. Viking Explorers Reached Baghdad

Vikings made it all the way to Baghdad
Vikings made it all the way to Baghdad

As mentioned previously Vikings were prolific explorers and while this sense of adventure led Norwegian and Danish Vikings to Iceland, Greenland and the eastern seaboard of the Americas it led the Swedish and Finnish Vikings to the Middle East.  Evidence of Viking travellers is found in graffiti in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and by 988AD Vikings were working in the pay of the Byzantine Emperor as members of the elite Varangian guard.

Vikings travelled even further, however, some getting as far as the Caspian Sea and meeting with the steppe tribes and from there down to Baghdad.  The Vikings (called Rus) portrayed by the middle eastern writers were very different from the marauding barbarians that the northern countries knew (and did not love). These Viking adventurers were involved in trade rather than raiding missions.  They travelled primarily along the river system with the aim of bringing amber, slaves and fur down from the northern lands and receiving silk and precious metals in return.  Many of these items can be found in the Viking hoards that are uncovered by archaeologists, a testament to the significant and far reaching trade and exploration network established by the Vikings.

7. The Word ‘Berserk’ Originated With the Vikings

Yep Vikings were crazy
Yep Vikings were crazy

The word berserk is fantastically descriptive and rather onomatopoetic.  You have probably used the word from time to time.  Dogs, for example, can be said to go berserk when cats come into their yard.  Rioters on a street might also be said to go berserk.  When you used it you probably did not think that you were using a word that originated all the way back with the Vikings.

Vikings were fearsome and skilled warriors but the most fearsome of them all were known as the berserkers.  Berserkers were a specific type of warrior, while it was normal for most men to drink alcohol before a battle in order to give them the courage to fight berserkers got downright drunk and then wound themselves up in to a frenzy by howling and biting their shields.  They dressed up in animal skins in order to look like (and perhaps to gain the attributes of) the animal, usually a bear or a wolf.  Some opponents even believed them to be shape shifters and associated them with having the protection of the powerful god Odin who was also a talented shape shifter.

The frenzy allowed the berserkers to attack with no fear of their life, the huge amount of adrenaline pumping through their system meant that they did not really notice or feel wounds while the frenzy was on them and this gave rise to the further myth that they could not be harmed.  The process of building themselves up into a battle frenzy was known as ‘going berserk’.  So terrifying were these opponents that this word, and its connotations of a frenzied rampage have persisted in our language to this day.

6. The English Names for the Days of the Week Come From the Vikings

The Vikings came up with the names for the days of the week
The Vikings came up with the names for the days of the week

Have you ever wondered where the names of the days of the week come from?  Well in English, at least, we have the Vikings to thank for those names.  Like the Romans the Vikings had a pantheon of gods each with different attributes.  The Romans named their days of the week after their gods and these names became popular around Europe.  The names persist to this day in French, Spanish, Latin and other southern European languages.  The Vikings, who influenced so much of northern Europe took the Roman names and changed them to fit the god with the most appropriate matching characteristics.

The end results are the names by which we now know our days.  Sunday is the day of the Sun and Monday the day of the moon.  Tuesday is named for Tyr a god of war, Wednesday for Odin the father of the gods and Thursday for Thor the god of thunder and storms.  Friday is named for Freya god of love and fertility.  The only day of the week not named after a Norse god is Saturday which is named for Saturn a Roman god.

The once popular but now forgotten Norse gods so beloved of the Vikings are still, therefore, an influence in our daily lives.

5. Vikings Were Excellent Farmers

An abandoned farm in Iceland. Probably a Viking farm.
An abandoned farm in Iceland. Probably a Viking farm.

The popular myth surrounding Vikings is that they spent their lives at sea using their powerful and maneuverable long boats to travel from settlement to monastery to settlement raiding, raping and pillaging along the way.

This was a popular activity amongst Vikings and its importance to Viking society should not be undermined.  Raids allowed them to obtain large amounts of wealth and trade goods as well as gathering slaves for sale or for their personal use back at home.  Raiding alone, however, would not have been sufficient to support their families back at home.  Most Vikings, therefore, farmed land back in their home countries.  Some of the men may have gone on raiding expeditions but they would have come home to their wife and children on the family farm.  The expeditions to and the colonisation of Iceland and Greenland were driven by the desire to find richer and more sustainable farmland as not all of the land available to the Vikings was suitable for intensive agriculture.

Arable farming seems to have been the main way of life in Denmark, southern Norway and central Sweden where common crops were barley rye and oats which were suitable for the harsh northern latitudes.  More marginal lands would have been used to farm animals such as sheep and goats.  Most farms would also keep pigs, chickens and at least one cow for milk, whilst horses were kept for transport.  These animals were not kept in a separate barn but lived in the main family ‘long house’, partitioned off from the living quarters.  This practice helped to keep the longhouse warm in the winter and meant that the animals could be tended to and eggs, milk etc. gathered without needing to go outside in the cold snow and rain.

Farmers across the Viking lands also grew vegetables to provide the all-important vitamins and minerals in their diet.  Common plants included cabbage, root vegetables (such as turnips, swedes etc.) peas and beans.  Their diet was further supplemented by fish from local rivers or from the sea, berries, seaweed and animals brought home from hunts either on sea or inland.

Viking farms would also produce cheese from the milk of their herd animals and keep a supply of mead and beer.

4. Vikings were Very Enlightened With Regards to Women’s Rights

Vikings were quite progressive when it came to divorce and relationships
Vikings were quite progressive when it came to divorce and relationships

Viking women had more rights than almost any other women who lived in a similar time period. While their marriages were arranged for them by the head of the family they were never ‘given away’ in that they were always considered to be a member of their birth family.  They took their dowry with them to their new home including bedding, a loom and bed, sometimes animals, a farm and jewelry.  The dowry was not passed to her husband but remained her property and was passed to her children on her death.

If a woman’s husband proved a disappointment she was free to divorce him at any time.  In order to get her divorce all she had to do was inform witnesses that she wanted to leave, firstly at the doorstep of the house and secondly next to her bed.

Unusually for the time a divorced woman would retain custody of all her smaller children, older children would be divided between the families of the mother and father and probably had a choice of where to go and would have been permitted to maintain a relationship with both parents.  Children who stayed with their mother were still legally their father’s children and had a legal right to inherit from him on his death.

Married women were considered to be responsible for the running of the house and could (at least in theory) command her husband to her will once he was over the threshold.  Women were given the keys to the money and store chests on marriage as a symbol of this responsibility.  Most Viking women carried these keys at their belts at all times both for safekeeping and as a symbol of authority.  The household responsibilities extended to religious worship and it was the wife rather than the male head of the family who led family religious worship in the house.  When their husbands went adventuring their wives were responsible not only for the smooth running of the household but of the farm as well.

3. Vikings Did Not Wear Horned Helmets

Apparently horned helmets weren't a thing.  I'm going to choose not to believe this.
Apparently horned helmets weren’t a thing. I’m going to choose not to believe this.

Of course Vikings wore horned helmets!  Every picture in a history book, every Viking in a film has a horned helmet so it must be true.

Sadly the horned helmets are a modern day myth.  Vikings did have some ornate helmets, some with wings or even horns on them but they were for ceremonial use only.  Day to day battle helmets were plain conical affairs that sat close to the head.

While this might give a disappointing picture in your mind think about it rationally.  Viking fought hand to hand either in single combat or in shield walls where they stood close together and each warrior was protected by the overlapping shields.  They used this shield wall to push at the enemy and stab over the top of, underneath or in between the gaps of shields.  Vikings therefore got very close to both each other and their enemies during battle.  A horned helmet would be an entanglement risk – a positive liability, so while the conical helmet might not have looked quite so cool it would have been a safer bet for your average Viking warrior.

So where did the glamorous image of the horned helmet come from?  It appears that it was first invented by a costume designer for Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  The image was then perpetuated by other costume designers and book illustrators.  It proved popular and it stuck in the collective public imagination.  Archaeological finds have proved, beyond doubt that Viking helmets were plain but it is much more fun to imagine these fierce warriors charging into battle with their impressive horned helms.

2. Vikings Took Great Care Of Their Personal Appearance

Vikings kept it sexy
Vikings kept it sexy

Far from being unkempt savages Vikings were, for their time, remarkably clean and presentable.   When at home they would bathe every Saturday and, of course, when possible take a sauna in a sweat lodge.

Archaeological digs have turned up a variety of grooming implements including tweezers, nail cleaners and combs, hardly the sort of things one would expect someone who did not care about their appearance to carry about with them. An English writer from 1220 described the Vikings personal habits.  They were said to comb their hair every day and change their clothes frequently.  Their beards were always kept neatly groomed and a self-respecting Viking would put a lot of effort into his hairstyle.  Men typically shaved the back of their head but wore the hair near their face long.  Women had long hair which they tied up with colored ribbons. Because they were so clean English women were known to find Viking men reasonably attractive.

Arab chroniclers, by contrast, reported that the Vikings were filthy. The real truth is probably somewhere in between i.e. that the Vikings were clean and well-groomed by the standards of northern Europe but not by the standards of the middle east where Muslims were required to wash 5 times a day.

Vikings loved to wear bright, colorful clothing with women wearing longer dresses often for the more wealthy, adorned with broaches.  Men wore shorter tunics with trousers down to their knees.  Extravagantly luxurious fabrics such as silk (which was traded for furs) were very highly prized.

1. Vikings Ran a Profitable Slave Trade

Unfortunately Vikings were slavers
Unfortunately Vikings were slavers

The Vikings made a lot of money from slaves (whom they called thralls).  Many of their raiding trips were designed with the aim of recovering, not just plunder, but also people to keep and sell as slaves.  High status captives were often ransomed back to their families and communities (this was particularly common in raids in Ireland). Most ordinary captives were, however sent back to the Viking home countries where they were either sold in markets or kept by their captors to work on their farms, some were even sent to be traded as far away as Byzantium where northern slaves were seen as exotic and were very highly prized for their light skin, hair and eyes.  Similarly Moorish slaves taken in Mediterranean raids sometimes found their way up to the north.  The legacy of this slave trade can be seen today in the blond hair and blue eyes that sometimes crop up in people from the middle east.

Once a slave came to a Viking family, whether by capture or through sale in a slave market they were the property of the family and had the same status as a farm animal.  They could be murdered without reprisal and were, occasionally sacrificed to norse gods.  Slaves were often beaten brutally and many were subject to sexual abuse.  Some were treated well and were permitted to work towards buying their freedom but this was a matter of luck as good treatment of slaves was not a societal norm.  Even the adoption of Christianity as the main Viking religion did not improve the lot of slaves.  Church leaders encouraged people to free their slaves to gain credit in the next life but did not insist on it and certainly never condemned the practice of keeping slaves.  The only concrete step they took to improve the lives of slaves was to forbid Christians from killing a slave during lent.

Slaves were not just taken in raids, any Viking who failed to pay his taxes or whose crops failed so that he was unable to support his family might be forced into slavery through poverty.

So now this list has turned everything you thought you knew about Vikings on its head.  Far from spending their lives raiding coastal settlements and instilling terror in the seaboard communities Europe Vikings were farmers who only raided as a sideline (a fun hobby that generated some extra money if you like), many preferred trading adventures to violent raids; they didn’t even have horns on their helmets!  Viking society was one of the most democratic of its day with every freeman able to vote and elect their king.  Viking women were some of the most emancipated of the ancient world and enjoyed more rights than their female contemporaries.  They loved to travel, were pious and took great care of their personal appearance and loved to wear fashion forward, bright clothing.  It seems, they have been terribly maligned and given a bad press.

It is not all good though, the Vikings may have raided only as a sideline but these raids helped to provide the raw material for their reprehensible slave trade that helped finance their economy and ease the strain of the day to day lives of Viking farmers.  They may have been misrepresented but you would still not like to be a Viking’s victim!