Vikings have captivated the imagination of our modern society more than perhaps any other social group in history. They were brutal in their battles against professional armies of the Middle Ages, and often times ran havoc on civilian targets of their raids, sparring no one in sight.
And yet, there is still a special allure radiating from these barbaric warriors. Their pagan religiosity which was largely based on bloodshed and manliness, and the harsh climate that they had to endure in their home regions of Northern Europe have all played a major role in painting an almost mythological depiction of Vikings as demi-Gods, or at least much tougher sort of humans than we’re used to seeing. With that being said, most people don’t know many (or any) facts about them.
For that reason, we’ve done some extensive research to upgrade your knowledge on this topic with the most fascinating facts about the Vikings we could find. I just hope you won’t become a full-blown Viking after reading this!
Want to start learning about Vikings? Then click ‘Start Slideshow’ and we’ll do the rest!
‘Vikings’ Were a Very Specific Group
There is a common misconception about the word ‘Vikings’. People often refer to all axe-wielding pagans from Northern Europe as Vikings. This is not completely true, as the term ‘Vikings’ from the 800s up to 1100s was used only for seafaring raiders who invaded the coasts of Britain and continental Europe, and pillaged the nearby towns and villages.
The other inhabitants of Scandinavia in the regions of today’s Norway, Denmark and Sweden never actually referred to themselves as Vikings. Just like Columbus called the natives of America Indians due to the false assumption that he found an alternate route to India, so the name ‘Vikings’ became associated with all the Scandinavians by those outside of their own lines of communication.
The Most Famous Execution Method Is Probably A Myth
The Viking society was ruled by local chieftains, and they acted as judges as well. Some legal “disagreements” were dealt with in a duel, while some serious crimes also resulted by banishment, which is similar to how the Greeks and many ancient people punished people due to a lack of prisons.
But according to some sources, the worst punishment was the one depicted in this drawing. If you watched the HBO show Vikings, you probably saw a form of this execution, which is all called “Blood Eagle”. The back of the person on whom this severe judgment was bestowed would be opened, after which the ribs would be cracked one by one. Afterwards, salt would be poured into the open wound and the person would be left to die. There’s nothing humane about this punishment, and it’s safe to assume that it was reserved for only the worst crimes imaginable. The historical sources, such as mythological writings, grave runes and skeletal remains still do not provide enough evidence to conclude that this was indeed a real practice or a severe exaggeration. I surely hope it was the latter, because that pic does not look pretty.
The Origin Of The Word ‘Viking’ Is Unclear
Although we think that many names from history have a clearly defined origin, that’s almost never the case. Most of the people who later built their own nations and today have a clear identity also have an unclear historical origin that stretches much further down in history than the historical records we have at our disposal.
This is also true for Vikings. Historians are not sure why this name became synonymous with Vikings, but there are a few educated guesses. The first one is that it comes from the Old Norse word for a bay – ‘vik’. It could also come from the Viking district of Norway, or from some nautical term. There is also no mention of the word Viking until the 10th century, and only in 18th century did it come into popular usage.
Vikings Didn’t Wear Horned Helmets
Although Vikings wear horned helmets in many operas and older movies and TV shows, the real Vikings of the Middle Ages didn’t. There are no historical records showing any evidence that horned helmets were used, and there is no reason to assume otherwise. Horned helmets would require additional resources to create, and they were not practical in combat.
In fact, they would be a deterrence in close-quarter combat. The likely reason why horned helmets became associated with Vikings is because the interest in old Germanic culture grew in Europe during the 19th century. The truth is that the Germanic priests of old would wear these sorts of helmets during religious ceremonies, and then that look was added to the rugged and plain look of the Vikings to make them more attractive on set.
Vikings Were Artificial Blondes
We’re not the only ones trying to conform to beauty standards imposed by society. Vikings also had their beauty standards that could not be obtained naturally. First and foremost, hairstyle was the most important aspect of looking and feeling good, and blonde hair had an exquisite prestige amongst men and the ladies.
Due to this, many Vikings bleached their hair with a strong soap that had high lye content. Some went so far as to bleach their beards. This soap was also used to get rid of and prevent lice. There’s nothing better than mixing useful with the pleasant eh?
Wealthy Vikings Were Buried In Boats
The Egyptians were not the only ones who mummified the dead. Vikings who belonged to nobility or those that were wealthy merchants would after death be placed on a ship with numerous material belongings and sometimes even sacrificed slaves, and the ship would sail away into the sunset.
The ship in this case was viewed as a vessel that could transcend the mortal realm and bring the dead person into a higher reality. Of course, ships were quite expensive, so this ceremony was used only by a select few that could afford it.
Their Hygiene Was Top Notch
You might think that leather or heavy armor wearing barbarians would be uncleanly and smell kind of stale, whereas the civilized people would take much better care of their hygiene. This is where the reverse is actually true. Archeological excavations have revealed primitive tweezers, combs, razors and even ear cleaners that Vikings made from bones and antlers.
According to other sources, they bathed once a week on average and they used natural hot springs when they were available. Compare this to Medieval Christians who only bathed a few times a year, even in the more well-off Byzantine Empire. The reason for this difference in hygienic practice is not completely known, but it might have to do with the religious attitudes towards life in general. Christians of Medieval times had a more dualistic experience of life, which translated into the differentiation into “body” and “soul”, with the latter having a far more important role.
Vikings, and pagans in general had a more integrated view of the physical and spiritual part of themselves, with both having a rightful and almost equal representation in the visible realm itself. Hence, the body was not viewed as a mere vehicle for the souls manifestation on Earth, but rather as an indistinguishable part of the human experience as a whole.
Women Had Extensive Rights
Another worthy comparison could be drawn between Nordic societies and those of their Christian neighbors on the south in terms of women’s rights. Women in Nordic societies had far more rights in general, and were viewed almost as equal to men. The full rights were not actualized due to the fact that women could not compete in pure physical conflicts, and they weren’t allowed to carry weapons. They were however allowed to join in on sea voyages and raids from time to time. The rights that they did have involved private property, inheriting property from their parents, managing their land and finances and they could also ask for divorce.
All of these things were not allowed in many parts of Europe at the time. Violence against women was strictly forbidden, and there was a general rule that women would not be harmed in raids against other rival Nords. However, when it comes to slavery, the situation is a bit different, as women were taken into slavery as much as men, and the slaves did not have any of those above-mentioned rights. Which leads us to the next point.
Vikings Were Slave Traders
Viking raids were feared not so much because of the loss of material goods, but mostly because they’d take young men and women as captives. Afterwards, the slave markets would determine whether they would stay with their kidnappers to serve them or they would be sold on the slaver’s market to wealthy customers from Europe or Eastern regions.
Vikings had various social castes that we’ll mention in more detail later on, but the slaves belonged to the lowest caste called “thralls” and they had almost zero rights. However, they could be freed by their master, and resume life as a free person within their society. This was an easy way to keep the slaves content and hardworking in the hope of being released after a couple of years, and it ensured the master that the slave would most likely not try to escape in the meanwhile.
Global Warming Was Viking’s Greatest Ally
The Viking raids mostly occurred from 950s till 1250s, and one major reason is global warming. This period is also known as the Medieval Warm Period. During this time, the temperature on the Northern Hemisphere increased, and the result was less ice on the sea surface. This allowed the Vikings to travel faster and increased the frequency of their raids, as they were able to attack almost throughout the year.
On the other hand, the towns and villages that were susceptible to their attacks often could not prepare adequately as they had to supply the manpower for other expeditions at the request of their feudal lords. The reason for the overwhelming success of Viking attacks was the lack of proper defense as much as the actual fighting skills of the attackers. In the 13th century the raids became less and less potent, as Europeans strengthened their fortifications and the overall political climate became more civilized and diplomatic, putting pressure on the Vikings to drastically reduce their raids or to prepare for an organized backlash by the continental monarchies.
The Age of Vikings Started With One Brutal Raid
On June 8, 793 Viking raiders unleashed hell upon the small island of Lindisfarne, on the northern coast of England. The island was well-known for its rich abbey that was encircled by houses of farmers, craftsmen and merchants. Due to the abbey’s prestige the island was off the radar for any attacks by the Christians, so it came as a surprise for its inhabitants when a swarm of wild and tough men came from the coast wielding axes and swords.
The Vikings cared little for the monks pleads and prayers, as Christianity was foreign to them and they did not understand why these men would not fight them with honor. They saw their turning the other cheek as a sign of weakness, which was punished by a massacre and enslavement of the island’s inhabitants.
The attackers also destroyed the Lindisfarne abbey, and the event remained engraved in the historical memory of Europeans as the first major raid by the heathens. Truth be told, Vikings remained relatively silent for the next decade or two, after which their attacks became more and more severe.
The Reasons for The Viking Invasions Are Not Fully Known
Sure, there are some practical reasons that can explain the Viking raids. Stealing material possessions and enslaving men and women were on the list of priorities for the Viking raiders. But that doesn’t fully explain why the raids intensified during the early 800s. One of the most plausible reasons is the provocation caused by the reign of Charlemagne. The great emperor tried to revive the Roman Empire, and he wanted to unite his territories through diplomatic, militaristic and religious means.
Many pagans still lived in Eastern Europe and in Scandinavia, and they refused to let go of their old beliefs. This resulted in much bloodshed, and the subjugation of these people was almost always a certainty due to the power wielded by the emperor. It is entirely possible that Viking raids were a way to weaken his strength, as the Vikings did not have the number or the organizational capabilities for a real military reaction. Together with the strong financial incentive, the raids spiraled out of control and lasted in full intensity more than four centuries.
Vikings Raided from Iceland To Iraq
Although most of the pillaging was done on the neighboring European soil, Vikings were immense explorers of new territories, and they didn’t mind picking up a fight in distant lands either. Their boats ventured as far as Constantinople, Palestine, North Africa and Iceland on the far North. By some accounts they’ve sailed the Tigris river all the way to Baghdad.
However, Vikings did not colonize these distant lands, and they were mostly interested in getting immediate satisfaction of stolen goods or simply exploring the never-before-seen lands. This in part separates them from Ancient Greeks who colonized large parts of the Mediterranean coastline, as their homeland did not have enough land for all of them.
On the contrary, the rough Scandinavian climate and a lack of agricultural development did not allow the Viking populations to develop in such numbers as to require a large and widespread colonizing effect of the Greeks.
Vikings And Russians Are Closely Related
But despite them not conquering faraway places, Vikings spread to closer regions, and one of those is the northern part of European Russia. Vikings, especially those from southern parts of Sweden had a huge influence on the Russian people and their cultural development, as they inhabit large portions of the land themselves.
When the Russians came, they took many of the customs that were formerly a hallmark of Vikings, such as hair and clothing style and even the word ‘Rus’ is a Finnish word for Sweden. Arab historians at the used the words Viking and Russian interchangeably, which bears further testament to their close relations. However, as the Slavic population grew larger, the Viking element dissipated from the collective consciousness, and by 11th century the Viking tradition almost fully disappeared.
In 865, Vikings Launched a Large Invasion of England
Seeing themselves as the better fighters during their smaller raids on the English coast, in 865 the Vikings launched a full scale military operation with a large army that consisted of a couple of thousands skilled swordsmen.
This army was known as “The Great Heathen Army” and it completely surprised everyone when it descended on the Northern England territory. They marched all the way to York, one of the largest cities of England and after conquering it they settled there as farmers. However, there was to be no peace, and in 878 they suffered a crushing defeat and were kicked out of the region. The battles raged on in the coming decades, and the Vikings managed to retrieve the territory in 947.
In 9th Century Danes Took Control of England
In 865 Danes started spreading to the north and south of England with great success, and by 870s they controlled almost the whole middle of England. Their domination lasted until 878, when they were conquered by King of Wessex, Alfred the Great. However, this didn’t mean that England would get rid of Danish presence. In the aftermath of this battle, in order to ensure some peace time that was gravely needed by both sides, a treaty known as Danelaw was passed.
With that treaty Danes kept a large part of the territory between Durham in the north and London in the south. The peace didn’t last long, and in fact 11th century represented the complete domination of the Danish element when Danish King Cnut unified England, Norway and Denmark. In 1066 his son and successor Edward the Confessor died, and the Norman conquest of England followed shortly after. This eventually led to the rule of William the Conqueror, and his royal line continues to live on to this very day.
Vikings Had a Huge Influence On France
You’ve probably heard of Normandy, and the name rightly reminds you of “north men”. That’s because Normandy is the northern part of France that was colonized by Vikings. This was the perfect spot from which the Vikings could pillage the towns and villages on the territories of France and Belgium. Frankish kings payed yearly tributes of huge sums of gold to the Vikings in the hopes of quenching their thirst for violence.
But it was the French that assimilated the Vikings and turned them towards Christianity. In 911, Viking ruler Rollo married the French king’s daughter, and was baptized. This turned Normandy into a Frankish Duchy, which later became fully part of France. Normans on the other hand used their close proximity to England to invade it and conquer the Danish dynasty in 11th century.
Vikings Discovered and Colonized Iceland
Iceland was a rugged, desolate island with no inhabitants up until 830. That year, Viking sailors got lost on the way to Faroe Islands, and found Iceland by mistake. The safe distance from any potential invaders, as well as bountiful fishing opportunity was enough to attract over 20 000 colonizers. The first city Vikings founded was Reykjavik, and over the next century all the inhabitable parts of the island were colonized by newcomers.
Greenland Was Also Colonized
It might seem strange that anyone seriously settled down in Greenland during Medieval times, but the cold-resistant Vikings found it to be the perfect place for free men. Also, they found Greenland during the warm climate period. It was first discovered by an exiled Icelandic explorer Erik the Red in the 990s. Afterwards, two settlements arose, with around 5000 people each.
These settlements existed up until 1400s when the ‘Little Ice Age’ caused serious agricultural problems. The land was then abandoned, and it was taken over by Inuit who could survive on raw meat and increasingly colder conditions. At the moment, Greenland is part of Denmark and has around 50 000 inhabitants.
Vikings Discovered America
Although we traditionally believe that Columbus was the first European discoverer of America, that’s just because the real benefits of this discovery for Christendom were realized only after he brought home the news. But it was the Viking Leif Ericson, the son of Erik the Red who planted the Viking flag in North America way back in 1001. They established one settlement in today’s Newfoundland, but it only lasted for a couple of years.
The Vikings could not get adjusted to the harsh climate and they were also outnumbered by hostile natives. However, recent archeological findings in the Point Rosse site in Newfoundland suggest that there might have been more Viking settlements, but there is no definitive evidence so far.
Vikings And American Indians Were In Contact
There are some archeological findings that indicate contact between Native Americans and Vikings. One evidence of trade activity might be the Norwegian silver coin from the 11th century that was found in Maine. But the scholars are still disputing its origin and validity.
However, there is evidence of Vikings battles against Inuit in Greenland, and there were also some trading posts established in Vinland and Markland, which may have been used for trade between these two people.
Vikings Had A Hierarchical Society
Just like most traditional societies, Viking society also consisted of social classes, with each class having special rights and duties. On top were the kings, followed by Jarls, Karls, and Thralls.
Jarls were the Viking nobility. They were wealthy landowners and sometimes merchants, who could rally a large amount of warriors and had many workers.
The majority of the society consisted of Karls, who were free farmers and builders. They could own private property and had extensive personal freedom, which distinguished them from Thralls, the lowliest of men.
Thralls were slaves, usually foreigners captured in raids, and most of them were sold to various lords and merchants from other places. Although they weren’t free, there were social expectations placed upon the slave owners to treat them relatively well, and they could also have a small amount of money for their personal needs. In many barbaric societies, a free person could become temporarily become a slave if they owed money to another person.
With that being said, Karls could become Jarls, and the opposite, which means that although hierarchical values were in place, upward and downward social mobility was still possible.
Vikings Had A Rich Culture And Cuisine
Vikings enjoyed many things in life and their culture as well as cuisine reflects that fact. Their pagan beliefs included many gods and goddesses, each of them representing a psychological and worldly fact from their own lives. They had war deities, agricultural deities, sexual deities and their symbols can still be found on coins, burial grounds and metal remains of sturdy houses and ships.
Today, there is a widespread discussion about dietary habits of people from the past, with some nutritionists claiming that Northern Europeans ate mostly meat, fish and dairy, and very little grains or fruit. There is even a ‘Viking Diet’ which became popular in 2015 which follows similar principles.
Although it is true that Vikings did not have as much land for agriculture as their southern neighbors and ate a lot of meat, they oftentimes traded fur, weapons, meat and seafood for the things they were lacking, including grains and dried fruit.
Vikings Founded Some Of The Greatest European Cities
Vikings were not entirely a destructive force in the European history. In fact, although they are mostly associated with raids and pillaging of innocent peasants, Vikings founded some of the greatest cities of Europe. Just a few names worthy of mention are Dublin, Waterford, Wexford and Reykjavik.
Viking descendants in Russia founded some large cities as well, including Smolensk and Novgorod. Even those cities of the Northern hemisphere that were not directly constructed by Vikings were impacted by their influence, especially York in England.
‘Going Berserk’ Was A Real Thing
When someone goes berserk today, it implies that they are going crazy and care little for their personal safety. Well, Vikings took berserking to the next level. In truly difficult situations, the berserkers would ‘change form’ and take on a state of battle frenzy which imbued their battle prowess with otherworldly powers.
A warrior in this state would not care for his personal safety, which made him all the more dangerous. Often times, the other side would start fleeing as they could not come to terms with their unpredictability. In truth, Roman legions could also ‘go berserk’, especially the leaders of the pack. They would plunge into certain death as a sacrifice to the gods, which often resulted in extra courage and improved fighting ability of their soldiers.
Vikings Have Not Been Thoroughly Researched
The problem historians have when researching Vikings and their culture is a lack of written documents. What distinguishes empires from barbarian people is exactly that – a lack of written sources. Empires need to keep track of taxes and have a bureaucracy that is meant to keep together the vast lands that were previously conquered.
The tribal people have no use for writing, and even their religious beliefs are passed down to future generations by word of mouth. So the information that we have about Vikings usually comes from the Christian chroniclers and historians who mentioned them in passing, and they were oftentimes not very objective.
The other sources that we have are mostly Icelandic sagas, Russian and Irish texts, and the more numerous archeological findings such as coins and runes.
The Viking Age Ended For Many Reasons
The Vikings could not keep on raiding and pillaging neighboring lands forever. Sooner or later the political situation would change, and exactly that happened during 11th century. Under the pressure of continental powers, Scandinavians had to become Christianized or else they would be attacked by far larger forces than those they could muster.
By becoming Christianized, they had to follow the diplomatic protocols supervised by the Catholic Church. The Church did not look lightly upon Christians attacking other Christians, and there had to be a good reason for attack to prevent excommunication. All of this led to the pacification of Vikings, and their warlike culture could not remain the same. On top of that, the Vikings in Normandy and Russia were deeply influenced by the cultures of French and Russian masses as well. So overall, the Viking Age did not end because of some cataclysmic event or a great war, but rather due to cultural influences and outside political pressure.
The same can be felt today, as globalization and capitalism are destroying the older cultural models throughout the world, replacing them with consumer culture. Here our journey into the Age of Vikings ends. I hope you found this article entertaining and informative. For the same experience, be sure to check out more content on our website. And most importantly – have a great day!
Vikings Organized Skiing Events
We’re definitely not the first society that enjoys an adrenaline packed ski ride. Vikings developed their own version of skis, and they even had a deity dedicated to this activity called Ullr. Skiing was viewed as a noble test of agility and endurance, and kings and noblemen even created skiing competitions that were highly esteemed by the Norsemen.
Vikings Used Urine To Light Fire
This is a technique that even Bear Grills would be proud of. Vikings were often on the go, either hunting for animals or looking for settlements to attack. In order to start a fire in dire conditions, they collected tree fungus called touchwood, and they would boil it with their own urine. They would then pound this mixture to create a felt like substance which was easily combustible due to the sodium nitrate found in urine. With this mixture at hand, Vikings could light up a nice cozy fire regardless of other circumstances.
They Transformed Shields Into Weapons
Vikings used various weapons, including axes, swords and war hammers, but they were pretty creative with their use of shields as well. They had a habit of placing spikes on the shield. That way it could be used for defensive and offensive purposes. They would simply place their spiked shield in front of them and run towards the enemy, causing panic in the opponent’s lines. After the line was broken, Vikings could use their superior one-on-one fighting abilities to win the battle.