One of the great frustrations of historians of the Viking Age has been the lack of written testimony on the Viking side of things. Outside of a few runes on sticks and stones, we have no significant contemporary tellings of the Viking perspective. The National Museum of Denmark seeks to change that. A new research project funded by the Krogager Foundation will seek to uncover deeper insights into the Vikings’ worldview through jewelry, amulets, graves goods, and other items found during excavations. By the end of the 3-year project, the museum hopes to publish a book about the Vikings’ worldview and the results of the project.
The Evidence Right in Front of Us
Toxic herbs, a container of fat, and the remnants of a mysterious wand perhaps used for magic are some of the unusual things that a völva – a kind of female shaman in the Viking Age – left behind in a grave when she was put to rest in the 900s in Fyrkat, Hobro. The völva’s world seems to have been surrounded by mysticism and imagination.
What do the völva’s belongings tell us about the Vikings’ view of the world? A multidisciplinary team of researchers specializing in archeology, history, anthropology, and natural sciences will seek to answer this question and the broader question of what was in the Vikings’ heads through discoveries and artifacts left behind over 1,000 years ago. The burial tomb from Fyrkat, which includes small masked amulets and jewelry with women’s figures, are some of the many finds that are part of the research project titled, ‘The thought behind things’.
“We have a tremendous amount of archaeological material from the Viking Age, which we believe can give us deeper insight into who the Vikings really were. Their belongings are key to figuring out what they were thinking and how they saw the world,” said National Museum Director Rane Willerslev.
“The past 20 years of research have expanded our knowledge of the Vikings’ religion and their rituals, but there is still much that remains undiscovered. Now we have a chance to get into their heads, and it will give us a more complete picture of who the Vikings were,” said Rune Knude, president of the Krogager Foundation.
Magic, Belief, and Ritual
One of the most compelling areas of research focuses on the life and activities of a member of Viking Age society called the völva. On several pieces of jewelry from the Viking Age, women are seen with a cat-like face. One of these pieces was found in the cult area at Tissø, in West Zealand. The female figure represented has been interpreted as a depiction of the goddess Freja, because the goddess had two cats. But Peter Pentz, a curator at the National Museum and project coordinator at “The idea behind things” has a different idea.
“I don’t think the Nordic gods were depicted with traits of the animals they had. We have no examples of, for example, the god Odin with wolf heads, even though he had two wolves, nor do we see him depicted as a horse in honor of Sleipner. I think the jewelry represents völvas who had painted their faces, or perhaps they cut their faces in some form of a trance,” Peter Pentz suggests.
Völvas were thought to possess special personal qualities. Such women were respected but also feared. A völva was thought to be able to travel in time to predict the future and practice certain forms of magic. The Icelandic sagas help us to confirm their role and place in society, and archaeological finds, such as the Fyrkat tomb, give us tangible evidence of their existence.
A bronze chalice found in the Fyrkat Grave may have played a larger role in ritual than previously thought. Previous analyses of the container have found white lead residue, indicating the use of a white dye. Since white dye occurs naturally in the environment, researchers will further investigate whether the residue in the container occurred naturally, or whether the container was used for a white dye that a völva may have used as a face paint during rituals.
The Fyrkat völva also had a purse containing herbs and a container of fat. The herbs in questions are known to be toxic, but when consumed in the right amounts, can induce hallucinations and euphoria.
“We know of witch recipes with these same ingredients from the Middle Ages. When you mix the herbs and fat and apply them to the body’s mucous membranes, you can get into a euphoric trance-like state. It could well be that this method was already known in the 900s. We do not know if the fat from the tomb has been used for that purpose, but we will investigate what it was for so that we can hopefully expand our understanding of the person in the tomb,” said Peter Pentz.
Book publishing and exhibition about the vault
The research project will conclude with the publication of a book where you can get an insight into the Vikings’ worldview and the results of the project. The exciting, new knowledge of the Vikings’ thoughts and ideas will be complemented by the National Museum’s new Viking Age exhibition, where the current narrative may change along the way. The exhibition ‘Togtet’ will open in the summer of 2021 and will change in the summer of 2024 to ‘The Divination of the Völva’.
It is well established through consensus among historians and archeologists that the Vikings did not wear horns on their helmets. There is no consensus, however, in regards to whether they wore helmets at all. A curious gap in the archeological record has led to a frustrating controversy in academia and reenactment circles alike. Until 2009, only one Viking Age helmet had ever been found, whereas archeologists have discovered countless swords, axes, shield bosses, and even ships. That so few helmets have ever been found begs the question: did the Vikings wear helmets? If they did, where did they all go?
Two divergent camps have formed over the question of whether the Vikings wore helmets. There are those who believe the Vikings did, in fact, wear helmets, and that the gap in the archeological record is a sort of fluke. The other camp finds the lack of evidence in the archeological record telling. Perhaps the Vikings—the early Vikings, at least—wore no helmets at all. The following are the arguments for and against:
The argument against Viking helmets:
To date, archeologists have only recovered one Viking Age helmet in Scandinavia (pictured below). It dates back to the 9th century and is named the Gjerbundu helmet. It is the most popular style of helmet reproduced for historical reenactment, and for good reason—it has no real competitors. Other items such as swords, axes, various articles of clothing, ships, and even maille have been more commonly found in Viking Age burials and dig sites, which has led many to question whether helmets were ever commonly worn by the warrior class of the time.
In 2009, a mass grave in Weymouth, England thought to contain the remains of a massacred Viking army revealed a well-preserved helmet with an eyepiece uncharacteristic of Anglo-Saxon headgear. Although not entirely conclusive, it is evidence that helmets may have been worn by Vikings. Yet, if the Vikings did wear helmets, how could a mass grave filled with dozens of bodies only have one? The find raises more questions than it answers.
In the last few decades, a spattering of helmet fragments have been found, but they are too incomplete to be helpful in the discussion. Some will argue that helmets were re-smelted and reused for other things, which might explain their rarity. This argument holds little merit considering the metal from many other commonly found metal artifacts would make for much easier repurposing, but we still find plenty of those in the ground. The fact that helmets are such a rare find is a strong indication that, at the very least, iron helmets were not commonly made or utilized. Until more artifacts are found, the presumption should be that Viking Age Scandinavians did not commonly wear helmets.
The argument for Viking helmets:
The lack of archeological specimens of helmets does not necessarily indicate that they were not commonly used. Metal was in high demand in the Viking Age, and even more so later in the medieval period. Quality metals, such as those found in helmets, may have been melted down, refined, and repurposed, which may help to explain the lack of helmets in the archeological record.
There is evidence in the historical record, such as in the representation of a Viking attack on Guérande in the Annales D’Angoulême (pictured below), that the Norsemen did wear helmets. Helmets are also mentioned in the sagas as being important and valuable possessions for warriors.
We also know that helmets were commonly used in Scandinavia before the Viking Age. The Sutton-hoo helmets are perhaps among the most iconic post-Roman artifacts of Britain, and they belong to a shared culture that originated in Sweden, called the Vendel. It is unlikely that Scandinavians of the Viking Age would have regressed so far as to give up on helmets. The technology was there and coupled with the artifacts we do have, and the historical and hagiographic record, we can say that the Vikings did wear helmets.
Who is right?
There is not enough information to give a definitive answer. A lack of helmets in the archeological record poses a particularly perplexing argumentative problem because it neither proves nor disproves the widespread use of helmets by the Vikings. Those who argue against the widespread use of helmets will never be able to prove they weren’t used. This problem is further compounded by artistic representations by historians from the time whose artwork may or may not be accurate. Short of a lucky find of a mass grave containing numerous helmet-clad warriors, we may never know for sure. Thus, for now, all we can really say is that we don’t know, but one person at least wore a helmet!
The National Museum of Antiquities of the Netherlands has added a recently found silver ring to its medieval collection. Dated to the mid-10th century, museum curators believe the new find was worn as a pendant, indicated by wear marks on the inside edge of the ring. The ring was found in a cornfield near Hoogwoud, in Holland.
A fairly rare find
The silver was found on Christmas Day, 2019 by a man with a metal detector in a cornfield. He later alerted The National Museum of Antiquities of the Netherlands, who bought the ring from him. The Viking ring from Hoogwoud has become part of the National Collection, and further research on its origins is in the works. Finds from the tenth and eleventh centuries are quite rare in the Netherlands. The Rijksmuseum van Oudheden is preparing an exhibition about the period, where the ring will be on display in a few years.
A ring with a thin filigree
The ring was likely forged from a single bar of silver finely crafted to resemble a braid. A filigree thread runs through the entire band, making it look as if the silver is braided. With a diameter of twenty-five millimeters, the ring is too large to be worn on a finger. More likely, it is a miniature version of the famed arm rings known to have been popular in Viking Age Scandinavia.
Viking Rings in the Netherlands
From the ninth century onward, the north of Holland, then called Frisia, was a base for Vikings from Scandinavia who launched raids on cities further inland. A Viking probably lost the jewel during his stay in the area. Similar silver rings have been found in the Netherlands before. The new ring is very similar to a gold Viking ring that was found in Friesland and is part of the collection of the Frisian Museum.
Did the Vikings conduct human sacrifice? It is a sensational claim. Not only does it make for an intriguing field of study, but it also makes for fantastic media coverage. The idea of human sacrifice is not new to the study of the Vikings. While the evidence from the historical and archeological record supports the claim that Viking Age Scandinavians sacrificed human beings, we must tread carefully when considering the ubiquity of such practices. Here I examine the evidence for human sacrifice among the Vikings, and its implications.
Textual Evidence for human sacrifice in the Viking Age
Our best textual evidence for the practice of human sacrifice comes to us by way of the bishopric of Hamburg. As early as the 830’s, the monk Anskar embarked on a mission to the north to proselytize the Scandinavians. His journey took him to Upsala, in Sweden, where he made observations of the local culture, including some rather disturbing rituals involving sacrificial human beings. The chronicler Rimbert, who wrote about the life and mission of Anskar, relates to us the following testimony:
“At this time Upsala, which was about twenty miles north of Sigtuna, was the chief center of heathenism. It contained a gilded temple surrounded by a sacred wood on which the bodies of men and animals that had been sacrificed to the gods were constantly hanging.” – Life of Anskar, the Apostle of the North
A later bishop of Hamburg, Adam of Bremen, who also worked as a missionary in Scandinavia in the 11th century, and is best known for his title work Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, observed similar rituals in Uppsala, Sweden. In his description of the rituals, he describes the sacrifice as follows:
“Of every kind of male creature, nine victims are offered. By the blood of these creatures, it is the custom to appease the gods. Their bodies, moreover, are hanged in a grove which is adjacent to the temple. This grove is so sacred to the people that the separate trees in it are believed to be holy because of the death or putrefaction of the sacrificial victims. There even dogs and horses hang beside human beings.” – Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum
Another cleric named Thietmar of Merseburg described how the Danes met every nine years at the temple in Lejre, in Zealand, in the month of January to, “Offer to their gods 99 people and just as many horses, dogs and hens or hawks, for these should serve them in the kingdom of the dead and atone for their evil deeds.”
Accounts of human sacrifice in the written record have often been discounted as false propaganda against the pagan faiths during the Christianization of Scandinavia, and we must seriously consider the possibility. However, a disparate account from the Middle East, not in line with the motives of the bishopric of Hamburg, confirms the practice of human sacrifice in certain rituals. Ibn Fadlan’s encounter with the Rus, now one of the most popular sources on the Vikings in the East thanks to Michael Crichton, disputes the claim that the observation of Anskar and Adam of Bremen were slanderous. In his testimony, he wrote:
“The men came with shields and sticks. She was given a cup of intoxicating drink; she sang at taking it and drank. The interpreter told me that she in this fashion bade farewell to all her girl companions. Then she was given another cup; she took it and sang for a long time while the old woman incited her to drink up and go into the pavilion where her master lay. I saw that she was distracted; she wanted to enter the pavilion but put her head between it and the boat. Then the old woman seized her head and made her enter the pavilion and entered with her. Thereupon the men began to strike with the sticks on the shields so that her cries could not be heard and the other slave girls would not seek to escape death with their masters. Then six men went into the pavilion and each had intercourse with the girl. Then they laid her at the side of her master; two held her feet and two her hands; the old woman known as the Angel of Death re-entered and looped a cord around her neck and gave the crossed ends to the two men for them to pull. Then she approached her with a broad-bladed dagger, which she plunged between her ribs repeatedly, and the men strangled her with the cord until she was dead.”
That Ibn Fadlan met the Swedish Vikings known as the Rus on the Volga river, and that Anskar and Adam of Bremen also visited the Swedes, may point to the idea that human sacrifice was practiced more commonly in Sweden and further East. From the textual evidence, what we can say with relative certainty is that human sacrifice was indeed a practice, albeit it is impossible to say how widespread it may have been.
Archeological Evidence for human sacrifice in the Viking Age
Five wells dating back to the late 10th Century were discovered underneath a fort in Trelleborg, Denmark. Within them, archeologists found the mangled remains of various sacrifices, ranging from horses to dogs to humans. What makes this site of special intrigue is the fact that among the human sacrifices were young children aged between 4 and 7. Their presence raises more questions than it answers. Whatever the significance of the children’s remains, the site remains among the most valid pieces of evidence for the practice of human sacrifice in Viking Age Scandinavia.
At a royal center in Lejre, in Zealand, archeologists found two male skeletons with vastly different characteristics. The first skeleton was adorned with armor, weapons, and jewelry, and was laid to rest on his back. The second skeleton had been decapitated and was bound by the hands and feet. It is thought that this second skeleton was a thrall sacrificed alongside his master.
Another find in Denmark, at a site called Dråby, also contained two bodies in differing positions. The first, a woman, was buried whole with jewelry and other grave goods. The second skeleton was that of a man whose head had been cut off. The presumption is that the male skeleton was that of a thrall sacrificed to follow his mistress into the afterlife. The grave find has lead historians to conclude that both men and women could receive human sacrifices for their burial and that both men and women could be sacrificed.
There exist a litany of other such examples across Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, and as far away as Iceland, the Orkneys, and the Hebrides. Many of the suspected sacrifices are by no means conclusive, and therefore not concrete evidence. But ample evidence in the archeological record proves, to some extent, human sacrifice was indeed practiced in Viking Age Scandinavia.
Did Viking Age Scandinavians conduct human sacrifices prior to their Christianization? The evidence says yes, and the practice appears as gruesome as we might have imagined it. However, how widespread the practice may have been remains unclear.
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As Vikings gain popularity worldwide, the endeavor to link one’s ancestry to them is picking up steam. It’s no secret that the Vikings were prolific progenitors. They traveled far in search of riches, and often those they encountered were of interest to them in more ways than one. Their genetic material made its way into populations from Ireland to Russia, and they brought people from all those places back to Scandinavia as well. The Vikings spurred intermixing between communities across Europe more than any other group since the Romans. It’s no wonder so many people believe that somewhere in their family tree, there was a Viking.
One of the most common questions I am asked is, “Do I have Viking Ancestry?” Websites abound promising to reveal a user’s hidden Viking heritage through DNA tests, but most of them are merely swindling people out of their money and genetic data with misleading marketing. Additionally, even the most reputable services that analyze DNA only go back a couple of generations and ignore the broader movements of populations over the millennia.
The truth is, genetics as a field is still very young and very imprecise. To boot, the Vikings are not a genetic group. The word Viking describes those who left home to rove. Asking if you have Viking ancestry is no different than asking if you have Caribbean Pirate ancestry. It’s not a thing. But, if a service told you your DNA was matched to Viking Age Scandinavians, I would encourage you to dig deeper into their methodology and data sets. Don’t take me wrong, I’m not saying you don’t have Viking ancestors, only that you should be skeptical of results that confirm that you do.
If DNA tests won’t reliably tell you if you have a Viking somewhere in your family tree, how could you ever know? The short answer is you can’t for certain. But no one likes to hear that answer, and that’s why I have compiled a shortlist of my own estimates as to how likely you might be to have a Viking in your family tree based on what I know from the historical and archeological record.
Do you have Viking Blood? Here are my estimates (from a historian’s perspective) on how likely you might be to have a Viking ancestor somewhere in your family tree.
**DISCLAIMER: This article is for entertainment only. It is meant to serve as a starting point for curious minds to learn more about Viking history. If something you read here piques your interest, I encourage you to explore that topic in more depth. A great place to start is my selected bibliography, where you will find some of my favorite books on the subject of Viking history.
Iceland – 99%
Iceland started as a colony of Norwegian settlers seeking to escape the political turmoil in their homeland. Their history is preserved in the Icelandic Sagas, a body of documents that record the oral tradition of the Icelanders from the Viking Age. The Saga of Egill Skallagrimson, in particular, tells of men betaking themselves a-Viking, and from the sagas, one might glean that to sail as a Viking was almost a right of passage. Iceland also stands apart from other Scandinavian countries insofar as they remained wholly isolated through most of the medieval period. Their language is the closest relative to Old Norse. If you and your family are from Iceland, it is almost guaranteed someone in your family tree took a ship and roved abroad.
Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, Sweden) – 80%
At the start of the Viking Age (~late 8th century A.D.) Scandinavia, roughly defined as modern-day Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, shared a common culture, as verified in the archeological record. These are the lands where the Vikings got their start. Over the three centuries we today call the Viking Age, Scandinavia diverged both culturally and linguistically, in part influenced by the foreign lands with which they had the most contact. The Danes preferred England and France and interacted heavily with the Saxons, Frisians, and Obrodites. Norwegians traveled the extra mile to Scotland, Ireland, and the Brittany region of France, and later Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland (America).
Meanwhile, the Swedes carved out vast swaths of territory for themselves in the East, established the city-states of Kyiv and Novgorod, and traded with the Byzantines. Not only did Viking Age Scandinavians influence the lands they roved, but those lands also influenced them! Not all Scandinavians left to go a-Viking. In fact, most probably did not. If you are from Scandinavia, you are very likely to have a Viking, or several Vikings, in your family tree.
Finland – 70%
Although the people who lived in the area known today as Finland were not part of the shared cultural boundary of Scandinavia at the outset of the Viking Age, they did over time work their way into the fabric of the Viking Age. Swedes trading with Constantinople relied on the Finns to provide the raw materials for trade, and Viking chieftains quickly learned that marrying Finnish princesses was a great way to maintain amicable relationships with them. By the time the city-states of Kyiv and Novgorod were established, many of the Vikings who participated in the eastward expansion were of mixed Scandinavian-Finnish ancestry. If you are from Finland, it is highly likely there was a Viking, or several, in your family 1,000 years ago.
The Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) – 70%
As early as the 7th Century A.D., Swedes from the island of Gotland started to move eastward. They established a colony at what is now Grobina, in Latvia, and that colony would help to facilitate the broader expansion of Viking activity in the eastern river systems. Graves from the Grobina colony reveal a shifting trend in the kinds of people who lived there throughout the 8th century. The younger the grave, archeologists have found, the more likely it is to be a warrior grave. Viking activity in the Baltic States remained steady well into the medieval period. Moreover, Sweden has continued substantial interaction with the region up to today, making it highly likely that someone from one of the Baltic States has an ancestor somewhere up the family tree who was a Viking.
The U.K. – 60%
In the 9th century, Danish Vikings carved out half of Britain for themselves in a territory called the Danelaw. Their capital was a thriving Norse city called Jorvik, today called York. In 1066, England was again invaded, this time by William the Conquerer. William brought with him Norman knights, a group of francophone Danish noblemen who could be considered among the last Vikings. The Normans ruled England and parts of France and Italy well into the high middle ages. If you are English, Scottish, or Welsh, you likely have an ancestor who was at one time a Viking.
Ireland – 60%
Before the arrival of the Norwegian Vikings, the Irish people were quite insular. They had few coastal settlements and spent the entire period from the fall of Rome to the early medieval period culturally frozen in time. When the Vikings arrived, they founded several coastal settlements in what are today Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Limerick, among others. By the time the Irish kings realized what was happening, it was too late. Ireland struggled for many years to rid themselves of the Vikings. Notably, the great kings of Leinster, such as Muiredach Mac Ruadrach, swore specific oaths to the church to help push back against the pagan invasion. In 847, the Irish scored several critical victories across the island, which forcefully expelled most of the Norse settlers from their lands, but fewer than two decades later, the Vikings returned. Scandinavian settlements in Ireland played the game of politics well and over the next century and a half they established themselves firmly in the Irish genetic pool, eventually becoming the aptly-named Hiberno-Norse. If you are from Ireland, there’s a good chance one of your ancestors was one of these debonaire pirates who settled Ireland.
Western France – 40%
Normandy is the obvious region of France one thinks of when invoking of the Vikings, but Brittany and Aquitaine were also heavily frequented by those who roved. In fact, the whole of the Brittany region was held under Viking occupation for three decades until the Bretons re-conquered it under the banner of Alain Barbe-Torte. If you are from Western France (Normandy, Brittany, Aquitaine), there’s a good chance you have a Viking in your family tree. If you are from Central or Eastern France, it is not as likely—the river systems in the Carolingian empire tended to be far more perilous than elsewhere in Europe.
Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus – 40%
Although the tribe of Swedish Vikings known as the Rus gave their name to Russia, the likelihood of having a Viking ancestor is far less there than in Finland and the Baltic States. When the Rus founded the city-states of Kyiv and Novgorod, they established themselves as rulers over the Slavs who comprised the vast majority of the population. If we are to believe the Russian Primary Chronicle (which is often dubious), the only Vikings who established themselves in Kyiv and Novgorod were noblemen. Therefore, if you are from Russia (on the European side of the Ural Mountains), Ukraine, or Belarus, there’s a chance you have a Viking ancestor.
The Netherlands – 30%
The Netherlands, known in the Viking Age as Frisia, was heavily raided for centuries and colonized on multiple occasions by the Danes. Most famous was Rurik of Dorestad, the first Viking chieftain to receive an enfeoffment from the Carolingians. In the long run, however, the Carolingians maintained too strong a hold over the region, stifling long term settlement. If you are dutch, there is a small chance that you have a Viking grandpa.
Spain and Portugal – 5%
The coast of Asturias, an early medieval kingdom in the north of Spain, was attacked several times by the Vikings. What’s more, a Viking fleet successfully sacked Lisbon and captured Seville in 844, inflicting great fear in the Moors. However, Viking activity in Iberia remained sparse. Following the humiliating defeats at the hands of the Norsemen, the Moors quickly built up their navy, which successfully repelled Viking attacks in the second half of the 9th century. Hasting, a supposed son of Ragnar Lothbrok, partook in an infamous excursion into the Mediterranean, which ended mostly in disaster due to the strength of the Moorish fleet guarding the straight of Gibraltar. If you are from the Iberian peninsula, there’s a slim chance you have a Viking in your family tree.
Italy – 5%
There exists a single account of the Vikings reaching Italy. Led by the notorious chieftain Hasting, a fleet of 30 ships sacked the city of Luna with less-than-honorable tactics. They had meant to sack Rome but realized after taking Luna that they had made a navigational error. They did not colonize Italy, and so it is exceedingly unlikely that Italians have many Viking relatives. The reason Italy figures on this list is because of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily. If you are from Italy, there is a slim chance one of your ancestors was a Viking and an indirect one at that.
The Balkans and Turkey – 5%
When the Rus attempted to besiege Constantinople, the Byzantine emperor was so impressed by their ferocity that he invited them to become his elite personal guard, later known as the Varangian Guard. The tradition of serving in the Varangian guard spread to all of Scandinavia, and it became a right of passage for Scandinavian princes and nobles to serve in it. The famed Harald Hardrada, widely regarded as the last Viking king, served in the Varangian Guard in his youth. Interestingly, the Varangian Guard persisted until the 13th century, long after the end of the Viking Age. If you are from the Balkans or Turkey, there’s a slim chance one of your ancestors served the Byzantine emperor.
Mongolia – .05%
Although the Vikings never traveled as far as Mongolia, the Mongolian Golden Horde did invade and occupy Eastern Europe for decades. During that time, they brought back their favorite new pets — blue-eyed and blond slaves. Today there is a recessive gene in Mongolia by which children are born with light hair and blue eyes. Since we know that Norse genes were present in the areas conquered by the Mongols, a tiny fraction of the population may have a Viking in their family tree. For that, of course, we have Genghis Kahn to thank.
Is your country not on this list? Leave a comment below, and I’ll add an estimate for your country.
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