In popular culture, the Vikings are more myth than fact in their representations, but in truth they had more to do with the development of Western Civilization than most people realize. From their advances in naval warfare to their colonization of lands across the known world, Viking Age Scandinavians were far more than the characters used to depict them today. Here we shall dispel a few myths by presenting five facts everyone should know about the Vikings.
1. Vikings did not wear horns.
A horned helmet is not functional in battle. Any blade swung down from atop would catch on a horn and cause tremendous damage to the wearer’s head. Instead, the Vikings wore what any sensible warring culture would have worn at the time: a rounded or slightly pointed crest designed to deflect blows. Pictured below is photograph of the only helm from the Viking Age ever found. While it is beyond doubt that most Vikings would have worn something akin to this helmet, there is still a heated debate in academia over whether most Vikings wore helmets at all.
2. The word ‘Viking’ is a modern invention.
The origins of the word Viking and its usage are a hotly debated topic. What is not debated is the fact that it is not a word that was widely used during the Viking Age. Vikings were then referred to by the varied peoples of Europe they interacted with as Northmen, heathens, or other colorful descriptors to evoke disdain, as attested by the primary sources we have about them. The word Viking is thought to come from the Old Norse word Vikingr, which translates roughly to “sea rover” or “pirate”. It was also not a noun, but a verb used to describe an activity, such as “to go Viking” meaning to go abroad to raid.
In the Viking age, Scandinavians identified themselves as men from their region of origin. For example, men from the modern day region of the Oslo Fjord would have called themselves Vestfaldingi, or Men of Vesfold in modern English. This fact is well documented in a christian chronicle, Annales Bertoni (the Annals of Bertrand) who wrote of the disastrous sack of Nantes in 843 A.D. and referred to the attackers as Vestfaldingi. This tells us two things: that the Vikings held regional forms of identity, and that they introduced themselves to their victims before slaughtering them. Revisionist history surmises that the latter of these facts was likely the result of previously established trade that soured for political reasons.
3. The Vikings were prolific tradesmen.
Most people think of the Vikings as pillagers, rapists, and marauders without a clear purpose other than to terrorize. In reality, they began their journeys on their longships as tradesmen. Evidence in the writings of various chroniclers of the late 8th Century from the Frankish Empire of Charlemagne make mention of Northmen as simple tradesmen whose wares included furs, timber, and blubber. It was not until political tensions between the Carolingians and the Saxons that relations with the Danes turned sour.
The Vikings did not only trade with the West. They also travelled far to the East along the Dnieper and Volga rivers (In modern day Russia and Ukraine) in search of trade partners, some traveling as far as Constantinople. The Byzantines, who called them the Rus, were so impressed by them that they even hired some of them to become the Varangian Guard, whose duty it was to protect the Emperor. Therefore, it is important to remember the Vikings first and foremost as prolific tradesmen and explorers, rather than the tainted view that they were savages of unrelenting cruelty.
4. They were intrinsically interested in learning.
While the church in Western Europe contented itself with a monopoly on knowledge, the Vikings fostered a culture of learning which benefited them greatly at the beginning of the Viking Age. They culturally were encouraged to explore their curiosity. The acquisition of knowledge was considered a valuable resource. We know about this aspect of their culture partly because of their mythology, and partly because of archeological finds which suggest they imported a tremendous amount of technology from abroad.
In mythology, their leading deity Odin was obsessed with the acquisition of knowledge. He sacrificed an eye, for example, to learn about the Norse end times, Ragnarok. In archeology there have been finds which demonstrate a rapid succession of technological improvements in farming and warfare likely imported from foreign lands. The most popular of evidences lies with the discovery of the Ulfberht, a sword with purer steel than would be seen again in Western Europe for 800 years. It is surmised the technique they used to build such a weapon came from their travels in the East where historians propose they encountered the manufacture of Damascus Steel, another highly refined type of steel.
5. The Vikings were prolific progenitors.
If you don’t think you have Viking blood in you, think again. The Scandinavians of the Viking Age spread their seed and their people across the known world. They not only traveled to many places, they also colonized and conquered. Countries such as England, Ireland, France, The Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, and indirectly, Mongolia, are all places where the Vikings’ genetic material persists, if only slightly, to today. Have you ever wondered if you could be a Viking? Read this article on how likely it is that you have Viking blood.
As always, check out my books about the Vikings in France: