Top 10 facts about the Vikings

Top 10 Facts about the Vikings
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.