Life in the 21st century is often defined by the abundance of technology and the ability to pursue hobbies and dreams now that humans don’t have to solely focus on survival. Nowadays we are so concerned about social media and what we want to order for dinner that we tend to forget how civilizations used to live.
It is easy for us to get caught up in our own lives and forget that generations and generations of people existed before we showed up. Up until recently, humans did not have the luxuries that we take for granted today. One such period is the Viking Period, whose namesakes – the Vikings – faced hard conditions, but also achieved great feats as explorers, and even, surprisingly, women’s rights advocates!
Despite the vast differences between our present lifestyle and past generations’, it is very important to familiarize ourselves with the past to understand and be grateful for the present. Although humans have only been on Earth for the blink of an eye in relativity to the history of the planet, so much has occurred in human history that is worth the mention.
When many people think of Vikings, an image of a bearded, blond-haired warrior atop of a long boat comes to mind. And while some of this description definitely holds up, unfortunately, the Vikings are sometimes been misunderstood by people today, and in fact, there is so much more to them than just the commonly known imagery.
Vikings had a pretty long run as they were prominent from late late 800s ACE, until the mid 11th Century. This group of people made a big impact on history for the better and in some cases for the worse. But while they are mostly remembered for their brutality, a number of aspects from Viking history, from their influence on trade to their ingenuity when it came to keeping warm, have progressed humanity as a whole, and is largely responsible for many of the comforts we hold dear.
The Vikings also gifted the world with a rich mythology, some of which has in recent years become quite popular, thanks to TV shows such as Vikings and the Marvel franchise, which includes one of Norse Mythology’s main gods – Thor, the god of thunder. As a reflection of Viking society, these sagas told stories of bravery and exploration, discovering new worlds and facing off with formidable adversaries, both natural and supernatural.
The Vikings were revolutionary is may ways and should be given the credit they deserve, which is where we come in. And so, without further ado, here are some of the things you never knew about the Vikings.
History of the name
The first thing you need to know about the Vikings is that they didn’t actually call themselves by that famous name. While their current name has been associated with the group for hundreds of years, the name Viking only appeared for the first time in the 10th century. It is thought that the name “Viking” has Norse origins and comes from the feminine version of the word “vik,” which is translated to “small bay.” It is also thought that the name might stem from a region called Viken in Norway.
The real Vikings
While some may think that a Viking was anyone born in a Scandinavian country in the 800s, this is not the case. The definition of a Viking did not just apply to your average Scandinavian who was tending to his animals or sitting at home in Sweden but rather to the warriors who jumped in their boats and sailed off to foreign lands. This would be like saying that anyone who lived in ancient Greece was a Spartan.
Back to the start
So when did it all begin? Viking history began on the 8th of June in 793, when a group of warriors hopped on their boats and made the journey from Norway to Lindisfarne, England with hopes of conquering territory. The residents of Northern England who welcomed the Vikings were not expecting them to claim the land as their own and destroy their Abbey, but they did exactly that, attacking Christian holy sites and conquering its the land and people.
A reason to conquer
But why did the Vikings choose to conquer this small part of Northern England and unleash their wrath? Many researchers and historians have also been wondering about this but after looking into the factors of why the Vikings used brutal force from the beginning, they have no found a universally accepted conclusion. However, there are some theories such as the idea that the Vikings were escaping famine and poverty that was raging through their homeland Scandinavian countries.
The iconic helmet
As with many other time periods, our view of the Vikings is shaped by the way they are portrayed in the media. For example, a film named Viking (very creative) was released in 2016. The movie showed Vikings as the long-haired and huge warriors everyone imagines them to be. It is also commonly believed that the Vikings sported scary looking helmets everywhere they went. However, in reality there is not much evidence to suggest that this was the case. In fact, the helmets would have been detrimental to the Vikings in battle.
Was everyone blond?
A Viking character that has been popularized is Thor who has recently been played by Chris Hemsworth. Thor is a member of the Marvel universe and the cartoonists who created him based his appearance on a typical Viking with his huge muscles and long blond hair. However, contrary to popular belief, there was a mix of blonds, redheads and brunettes in Viking communities. It is true, however, that there were more blonds in Northern Scandinavia, which is known as Sweden today.
Scandinavian people are known for having blond hair and blue eyes but there were many Vikings who didn’t have long golden locks. Many Vikings bleached their hair with a chemical called lye that had multiple benefits. First, it lightened hair and made it appear blonder and secondly (and most importantly), it prevented lice from making their homes on the heads of Vikings. Some Viking men would even put lye in their beards!
In addition to being known for their distinct looks, the Vikings are also known for their brutal war tactics and for causing a lot of bloodshed. While some of this is true, there are a lot of myths when it comes to how aggressive the Vikings really were. One Viking saga described a gruesome killing ritual called the Blood Eagle, involving cutting open their victims, though there is no evidence to suggest that this ever happened.
One achievement of the past couple of centuries is the rights that women have obtained. It is hard to imagine that women were ever as free as they are today, however, it seems they were given a great deal of freedom in Viking society. Although one may think that the muscled men were the dominant ones in society, Viking women were given almost as much freedom: they were allowed to divorce their husbands, purchase their own land and go on explorations in long boats, just like the men!
Men and women
In fact, women and men in Viking society were similar in more ways than one. Archaeologists have found that the skulls of men and women were more similar than they are today and that many of the Viking women had more masculine features. In Viking culture, there were also mythological stories about women fighting in battle, called shield-maidens. While it was debated whether or not they actually existed, in 2017 DNA evidence of a female warrior was found in Sweden.
A common stereotype that comes to mind when one thinks of a Viking is a drunk, bearded man taking over new lands and pillaging local villages. While you might think that all of this fighting in wars means the Vikings were a messy and grotesque people, the opposite was true in reality. The Vikings were surprisingly hygienic and it is believed that they even had combs, razors and tweezers. This is according to the curator of a viking ship who also says that Vikings bathed around once a week.
The slave trade
Though Vikings were known for overtaking the land or people who stood in their way, within their own society, they were pretty generous and fair. However, one major part of their society was unjust and this was their use of slaves. The Vikings were notorious for enslaving the people from the lands they conquered and selling them. This was done through slave markets that existed in Europe and the Middle East.
Global warming has become a very popular topic for discussion. However, not many realize that there was another time in human history where rising the temperatures affected the earth. The Medieval Warm period was a time from around 950 until 1250 where the temperature in the North Atlantic region rose. The Vikings took advantage of the warm weather as it allowed them to conquer places like Newfoundland that would otherwise have been covered in snow.
Vikings in Africa
While it is well-known that the Vikings were fond of traveling by longboats, it has more recently been discovered that they traveled much further than once believed. In fact, researchers found that these bearded warriors traveled as far as Iraq, Israel, Russia and North Africa. One of the presumed reasons why they went on such long-reaching voyages was that only the eldest son inherited his father, leaving his younger brothers to seek out their own fortunes.
From Russia with love
As we mentioned, the Vikings traveled as far as Russia. They settled along the Baltic Sea as well as the lands that are known as Russia, Ukraine and Belarus today. It is thought that the Vikings were the first people to settle Russia and they had settlements on the land for many reason before it was transformed into a Slavic nation. While in Russia, the Vikings engaged in piracy, colonization and trade.
A Viking army
Vikings loved to raid and pillage countries like Scotland, Ireland and England and then head home. But on occasion, they would actually settle the lands that they pillaged and in 865 ACE, this was done by and army called the “Great Heathen Army.” This groups of Viking men sailed their longboats to the North of England and made their way to York. They were much more powerful than the residents who already lived there and became farmers on the land for thirteen years before they were eventually overthrown.
Although the Vikings did not discriminate about which lands they chose to conquer, they did have a special place in their hearts for England. Thus, England was greatly affected by the Viking reign and the Danish and English people signed a treaty to unite parts of England with the Danes. King Cnut of Denmark famously created the North Sea Empire, which consisted of England, Norway and Denmark but it all came to an end in 1066.
The Vikings had a presence in so many European countries and one of those was France. Specifically, the French region of Normandy in Northern France was called as such after the Viking name for Land of the Northmen. Over the years, the Vikings who settled Normandy became the Normans who invaded Belgium and other French regions. The Normans eventually went on to conquer England in a notoriously bloody battle, keeping the Vikings’ reputation of brutal warriors very much alive.
An accidental discovery
On most occasions, the Vikings were aware of the lands they wanted to invade, though as human, they sometimes made mistakes. One of their mistakes, however, turned out for the best, as it lead them to accidentally discover Iceland! While on a voyage to the Faroe Islands, the men in their longboats took a wrong turn and discovered Iceland in 830 ACE. Eventually, more Vikings came over and they settled in the land.
While it is commonly believed that Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover America, some researchers argue otherwise. There is a theory that around 500 years before Columbus ever set sail, Leif Erikson sailed from Greenland (which his father had settled) traveled to the Northern tip of Newfoundland. It was there that Leif allegedly discovered a large reserve of grapes, and before he took back a boatload of them back to Greenland, he named the place Vinland, from the word “vine.”
Since the Vikings were known for being conquerors and a brawny bunch, some evidence suggests that they did get along with other groups of people. There is a theory that the Vikings and the Native Americans in North America communicated with one another and even traded. This is based on the evidence of a silver coin from Norway that was believed to be from the 1000s. This ancient coin was not found in Norway but rather in Maine.
Something that the modern Western world has in common with the world of the Vikings is that society is divided into classes. During the 9th Century in Viking communities, the people in the highest class were the nobles, the merchants and the priests also known as the Jarls. Then came the Karls which consisted of the builders and farmers. Finally, at the bottom were the slaves also known as the Thralls.
Thor and Loki
Mythology was present in many civilizations, famously in ancient Rome and Greece. Norse society was also filled with myths that are still present in culture today (look no further than Chris Hemsworth who plays Thor). Norse mythology is full of gods, goddesses and heroes such as Freyja, Odin, Loki and Thor. Many of these gods also found their way into Germanic cultures and eventually into popular culture today. Based on the Thor movies alone it is clear that these characters have importance.
Cooking with Vikings
If you have ever visited a Scandinavian country you will know that the cuisine there is very different from the burgers and fries that we are used to in America. The same was true of the food that the Vikings used to enjoy. The Vikings loved their meat which is evident by their muscular body types as well as seafood, bread, fruits and vegetables. The Vikings also knew how to prepare their food fresh as they often hung up the fish they caught for long periods of time in order the get the best taste.
Many people have the urge to visit European countries as they are often filled with beautiful architecture and amazing cultural experiences. Many people have European cities on their bucket lists of places to visit but these people do not realize that many of these places would not exist were it not for Viking explorers. Some of these places include, Limerick, Dublin and Reykjavik. Vikings discovered these places and expanded them which led them to become the major cities they are today.
In addition to gods like Thor, there are Norse myths about warrior who transform into animals during battles. This mythology has also made its way into popular culture as J.K. Rowling based her character of Fenrir Greyback on Norse mythology. These warriors were referred to as the Berserkers, which translates to ‘to change form’. These creatures are named after the Vikings that wore animal skins during battle and destroyed their enemies.
The reason we know so much information about Viking society is because they wrote a lot of information down for us to discover. However, only a few bodies of work have remained intact for historians to piece together alongside some artifacts but we have still managed to learn a lot from what survived the centuries. One of the traces of Viking culture that was discovered is the Runic alphabet, which was an alphabet used to write Germanic languages.
A big trend nowadays is do things in our own lives to help the environment. We use solar panels on our homes, use energy saving light bulbs and even drive electric cars in order to do our part for the planet. But long before we started being eco-friendly, the Vikings were doing it without even realizing it. They often had specially designed houses that were complete with turf on the roofs! The grass helped keep the houses warm in addition to help the ecosystem.
The famous funeral
Vikings were impressive and ahead of their time in many ways, however, they were only human and ultimately had to pass on like everyone else. But even in death, the Vikings treated their fellow man in an interesting way. Death was a large part of Viking life and when a Viking died, a funeral was held out of love and respect for the person. A special burial ship was created on which all of the person’s belongings and animals would be burned along with them and pushed to sea.
Tough from birth
By now you can probably tell that the Vikings were a strong group of warriors that had a great value for conquering new lands and exploring. This value of strength was shown right as a child was born as children who were thought to be sick or disabled were abandoned and left to die. Vikings were all about power and might and if it was seen that a child would not meet this criteria, they would leave them behind.
Where did they go?
It is clear from what we have outlined about Viking society that they were good at conquering new lands and reigning over other peoples. However, there are no Vikings around today which means that they society eventually came to an end. But how did the civilization land in the history books? There are different theories about how the society came to an end and one is that it was due to the Catholic Church’s rule in Europe. Another theory is that the Viking settlers adapted the the laws of the countries they lived in.
The helmet myth
One common misconception about the Vikings is that they sported horned helmets which they wore in battle. This ,myth has even made its way into popular culture as the mascot for the football team, the Minnesota Vikings, is a blond-haired, macho man with a horned helmet on. This idea of horns on helmets came from the first archaeologists to discover viking troves of treasure. It is now believed that the horns that were discovered were actually used for drinking and were used as a ritual placed next to a person’s helmet in death.
In addition to being ahead of their time when it comes to the environment, the Vikings were also miles ahead of everyone else when it comes to science. The Vikings found a way to take fire with them wherever they travelled that was a little nasty… They would make a tinder out of fungus boiled in human discharge, which is packed with nitrates and therefore allows it to burn slowly when combined with the fungus.
The average Viking
While many think that the norm in Viking society was the be a warrior or pirate, most Vikings were just normal people who had humble jobs and lives. Most Vikings were farmers that grew barley, wheat and oats. Others had livestock such as goats, pigs and cattle. In this way, the Vikings were very similar to other civilizations at the time as the average person was focused on survival and not world domination.
Nowadays, skiing is a sport and hobby that people engage in either in competition or for fun. There are resorts set up specifically for skiers and people even fly across oceans in order to go down the best slopes. But long before people were skiing in Aspen, the Vikings were some of the first skiers as skis were discovered in Scandinavia that date back around 6,000 years. The Vikings mostly skied for transportation reasons but they also did it for fun!
Another common misconception about the Vikings is that they were a monolithic ethnic group that were all ruled over by a Swedish or Norse king. However, much to the contrary, Vikings were pretty varied in their ethnicity and there was much more diversity than one might assume. There were multiple kingdoms and tribes and additionally there were groups of Vikings all over Scandinavia that had their own unique traditions and kings.
Keeping the language
What language did the Vikings speak? It is believed that they spoke an Old Norse language which ultimately morphed into modern Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish languages. Historians believe that the modern Icelandic language is most similar to the Old Norse that the Vikings spoke. There is one town in Sweden called Alvdalen that has preserved the Old Norse language and up until the 1950’s, they even wrote in the ancient runes alphabet. Alvdalen was a sort of time capsule of Viking culture that was preserved into the modern world.
Vikings and Bluetooth
The Vikings have a lot more connection to modern technology than we thought as Bluetooth technology was actually inspired by the Vikings. Jim Kardach, the inventor of Bluetooth, named his device after Harald Bluetooth, a Viking King of Denmark. He did this after he read about the king who sought to reunite the Viking tribes. Kardach thought that Bluetooth was a uniting technology so it was a fitting name. Fun fact, the symbol of Bluetooth is actually a combination of Runes letters!
A journey to Baghdad
As we mentioned above, the Vikings conquered many European countries such as what are today know France, Northern Germany and England. Research now suggests that the Vikings even travelled as far as modern day Iraq. One suspected reason as to why they made contact with the residents of Baghdad was to have trading connections in the Middle East. They likely enforced their need for trading using the threat of violence.
The land of gowns
The Vikings even battles with Arab peoples and Persians which is evident through ancient runes texts commemorating the warriors who died in war. The Vikings had their own name for the far of lands of Central Asia and the Middle East. They referred to this geographical area as Serkland, which roughly translated in Old Norse means ‘gowns’. This is thought to be a reference to the long garments worn by the people in these places.
The siege of Paris
The Vikings were an ambitious bunch and in 832 CE, they had big aspirations to capture the treasures the city of love, Paris. The Vikings sailed in approximately 120 ships filled with thousands of warriors and journeyed to the Seine River. They didn’t make pleasant conversation with the French but rather sacked the city upon arrival. In order to get the Vikings to turn their boats around, Charles the Bald paid them in thousands of pounds of silver and gold.
In the Arctic Ocean there is a type of whale that almost resembles a unicorn. This is the narwhal, which can be identified by its very prominent tusk that grows out from its mouth. Since the Vikings survived on a diet that was meat heavy, they would hunt these whales for food and keep the tusks to use as decoration. Eventually, they tricked other Europeans peoples into buying these horns for large sums of money.
So far we have discussed the many Viking conquests but we are not done yet! The Vikings were always searching for new lands to conquer which led them to the Iberian Peninsula and the Straits of Gibraltar. They overtook the Iberian Peninsula and captured cities including Seville, Cadiz and Lisbon in addition to sacking and lotting as they went. The warriors even took García Íñiguez. King of Navarre as a hostage before the Muslim Moors sent them packing.
Unlike other civilizations whose goal it was to spread religion and culture through their waring, the Vikings were more concerned with gaining wealth. They would trade with almost anyone, even their enemies in war. They traded as far as what is now Morocco and Andalusia with Muslim rulers as well as with one Jewish-Morrish merchant, Abraham ben Jacob al-Tartushi. He even journeyed to the Viking capital in order to lock in trade routes.
Since we know that Vikings traveled so far and eve discovered some countries, you may be wondering how they were able to navigate so well. This was due to their use of the sun stone, a stone that has refractive properties that allowed them to examine what direction the sun was coming from even in cloudy skies. While this was once thought to be a myth, historians were able to replicate this process using a calcite rock called Icelandic Spar.