What is a Viking, Really?

Harald Hardrada, Considered to have been the last Viking king

Vikings are a popular topic these days. From football teams, to TV shows, to massive reenactment festivals, Vikings are quickly becoming the next werewolves, vampires, and zombies of popular culture. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few show up at Comicon…oh wait, they have. But unlike the afore mentioned topics du jour, Vikings were a real thing. They actually existed. So who were the Vikings? What qualifies as being Viking?

It’s all in the name

The word “Viking” is derived from Old Norse. “Vikingr” was a noun used to describe a sea-rover or pirate. It was also used as a verb, as in “to go Viking”, in other words to go raiding. At the time, a “Viking” was a man who left Scandinavia in search of new opportunities (like pillaging) abroad, and it did not describe the region, the times, or most of the people.

As the Viking Age came to a close, so did the word’s usage. It remained dormant for centuries thereafter.

Historians in the 19th Century who began to study the time period roughly between 793 A.D., the attack on Lindisfarne, and in 1066 A.D, the Norman invasion of England, picked up the word as a placeholder to describe an approximate time period, the “Viking Age”. They named it as such because the greatest impact on history was done by the raiders, and so their name became synonymous with the biggest upheaval in Europe since the Moorish invasions. As historians looked back to Scandinavia to study the culture from whence the Vikings (old usage) came, they made no etymological distinction between them, and so all of Scandinavia became “Viking”.

Today, the word is commonplace and is used to describe a greater breadth of topics—from internal politics to daily life, confined only by time and an approximate geographic location—rather than just the men who left to raid abroad.

Essentially, the word “Viking” signifies Viking Age Scandinavia, their culture, their history, their artifacts, etc.

There are of course two divergent thoughts when it comes to what is Viking and what is not. Some people are purists and believe the word Viking should only refer to the raiders who left Scandinavia. Others (most of us) accept the evolution of the word in our modern language and use it to describe the rich culture and history of Viking Age Scandinavia, as well as all the “fun” things they did across Europe at the time. A Viking, therefore, may refer to a farmer who lived in Vingulmark in 820 A.D., or a Jarl who lived in Trondheim in 850 A.D. (that would be Hakón Grjotgarsson), or a raider accompanying the warrior Hastein in the Mediterranean in 859 A.D. To we modern observers peering into the past, they all belong to the same place and time, and thus carry the same name.