5 Facts Everyone Should Know About the Vikings.

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.

Vikinghjelm
The real Viking Helm.

 

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.

raid
The sack of Nantes by the Vestfaldingi.

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.

Варяги
The Rus trading furs with the Slavs.

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.

Ulfberht_cropped
One of the only Ulfberhts ever found.

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:

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6 Comments

  1. ryan russell says:

    Great knowledge to know!

  2. Jess Berwick says:

    Good article. Though the “Scottish” are actually part of the original “British” people. That Is fact. Whereas the English not. The English are indigenous English i.e. Germanic/Norse, not “British”. The Baltic English came to Britain as mercenaries, then rebelled, Their entire tribes and nations came and carved out a homeland and named it after themselves i.e. Engle-land. “Land of the English”. ..The Small population of Scotland had a few small settlements of Vikings, but these were abandoned. Whereas the very large English population, also settled what is now called lowland Scotland. Those English folk and lands being once part of English Northumbria (Edinburgh named after the English king Edwin) This area being given up hundreds of years later because the English were busy fighting amongst themselves and the against many Vikings armies.
    The English also colonised the Orkneys and Shetlands before the “Vikings”. And lets not forget the English and “Vikings” are for all purposes the same folk, with the same shared ancestry, culture and ancestral homelands in Scandinavia and Northern Germany. The Scottish on the other hand are actually a mix of real Britons, Irish and picts.

    1. CJadrien says:

      Thanks for the comment. I agree with you that Scotland evaded the bulk of the permanent settling by Vikings, and they are the proud descendants of the once-powerful Britons. This same fact is true of Wales and Bretagne. I think you would enjoy an article I wrote that really stirred the pot when I argued that King Arthur was not English. https://cjadrien.com/2014/04/18/king-arthur-was-not-english/ Thanks again for stopping by!

  3. steve rispin says:

    Some scholars say Edinburgh’s name is derived from an Old English form such as Edwinesburh (Edwin’s fort), in reference to Edwin, king of Deira and Bernicia in the 7th century. But modern scholars refute this, as the form Eidyn predates Edwin. Edinburgh was the location of Din Eidyn, a dun or hillfort associated with the kingdom of the Gododdin. The term Din Eidyn first appears in Y Gododdin, a poem that depicts events relating to the Battle of Catraeth, thought to have been fought circa 600 A.D.The Scots or Scotti was a Roman term for the Irish( Hibernian) raiders.The Scots emerged from an amalgamation of two Celtic peoples—the Picts & Gaels—who founded the Kingdom of Scotland in the 9th century. Later, the neighbouring Cumbrians(Britons), as well as Germanic Anglo-Saxons and Norse,mainly Norwegian were incorporated into the Scottish nation.

    1. Jane Osmond says:

      Well, my ancestors were Scottish but probably more Norse than anything else, along with plenty of other people who now like to think of themselves as Scottish. Sorry to upset you, but we probably make up a large part of Scotland as much as Iceland has many “Celtic” ancestors. We came to Britain and “went native,” our famous motto, wherever we came to settle in the British Isles

  4. Anders Honningsvag says:

    Great article and interesting reading. However, even though it’s correct they were more often referred to as Men from the north (Lindisfarne), Danes, Pagans or Northmen from the beginning, the word Viking is not entirely a modern invention,
    The word Viking is first documented in the poem Widsith from the 7th century (“siþþan hy forwræcon wicinga cynn”). The poem lists most all known tribes of it’s age, the vikings being one of them. Where the words derives from is unknown. One theory is that the Oslofjord / Skagerak-area, at that time called Viken and being mutual ground for Danes, Swedes and Northmen, gave name to name, common for these three groups, the Vik-ings, meaning those coming from Viken.
    In the saga litterature written down during the the 1200s, the word viking is mostly used as verb/ an exploration activity “å dra i viking” (to go viking). The word vik translates as cove or small bay, in other words a natural harbour/ landing for the ships, and may have been the the origin describing the activity “to go viking”.
    The word went out of use for centuries, but resurfaced when the saga litterature was translated and printed early 19th century. And when great viking ships started surfacing in the decades following, it became the preferred label for this culture of seagoing warriers. But as you point out, within this culture and before nations were invented, there was a variety of local tribes, one of them coming from Vestfold, a county south of Oslo, on the western side of Viken.
    With regards to the norse settlements in Normandy, the norwegian ancestor to William the Conqueror (Guillaume le Conquérant) was Gange Rolf (french name Rollon). It is said he was called Walking Rolf because he was too big to ride. And it is a fun fact that William’s conquest in 1066 became a success thanks to distant norwegian relatives (Harald Hardråde’s force) having worn down the englishmen further north just days earlier. It appears a storm in the North Sea became decisive for this timing, holding back William’s crossing the channel.

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