Legendary Tales And Facts From The Age Of Vikings.
An exciting and often misunderstood period of history, the Viking Age is just as much a time of seafaring, song and raiding as it looks in the movies. But the Vikings also had a complex and fascinating culture that left its impact all over the world.
Here are 26 facts, figures and legends of the Vikings. Enjoy! And make sure to check out the sources for more.
Viking berserkers were some of the most feared combatants on the battlefield. The term loosely translates from Norse as to change form and berserkers would wear bear skins into battle to channel a terrible howling fury on their enemies.
They believed they were imbued with otherworldly power, but modern scientists have theorized that the explanation is actually powerful psychoactive mushrooms or strong alcohol. Another theory has been put forth, that the rage was a form of self induced hysteria that might now be considered PTSD.
2. Because you're worth it.
To conform to Viking cultures impossible beauty standards (presumably set by having Chris Hemsworth as your god), brunette male Vikings would try to bleach their hair blonde. Men would use a strong soap with a high lye content and some use it on their beards too.
Practically speaking the bleach also killed lice.
Although rapidly senile old men were stilling calling the shots in Viking society, women enjoyed relative freedom. Especially when compared to surrounding European countries. Women married young, but could take exploratory journeys with men (to sea), and made up a large number of the hardy colonists surviving the terrible British weather.
They werent permitted to fight or carry weapons. But they could inherit property, own property of their own, and manage their own and familial finances. Which when you stop to think about it are really much more important skills to have than fighting.
4. Is it getting warm in here?
Theres a fair amount of evidence to suggest that Viking colonists took advantage of a geological period of time from 950ACE to 1250ACE called the Medieval Warm Period. When temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere increased, allowing them to start colonies on sites that would have been too cold otherwise like inhospitably freezing Newfoundland.
5. Better Call Bjorn.
Norse societies had a very complex legal system. And by complex legal system I mean they mostly settled things between four or five old dudes and killing each other. Local chiefs decided the fate of most accused, but civil matters were sometimes settled between gentlemen and their axes. (Story continues...)
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Serious crimes were usually dealt with by outlaw or banishment, (albeit into the freezing cold). But the most gruesome punishment was the Blood Eagle. A ritualized execution in which the back is cracked like a lobster as the ribs are broken one by one. Multiple Norse kings were said to have been killed this way, but they also said a lot of cool things about themselves so take it with a grain of salt.
Incidentally, salt would be poured on the wounds as the ribs pierced their chest.
6. If you can't beat 'em...
After Vikings landed on the northern coast of France, the area they colonized became know as Land of the Northmen or more simply, Normandy. The Norman people moved inward against France and Belgium, with Frankish kings paying huge sums of gold and silver to get them to leave them alone.
It didnt work, and the Vikings kept coming back for more. Sensing a more diplomatic approach might work better, a Frankish Duchy was creating for Viking leader Rollon in 911ACE. He became a vassal of the king, betrothed to the princess Gisela and was baptized as a Christian. Normandy became a legitimate part of France.
7. I'm on the Viking diet.
Viking culture didnt leave as much of a literary legacy for us as the Ancient Greeks or Chinese, but they had an incredibly diverse culture outside of raiding and pillaging. A rich mythology with hundreds of gods and heroes, a few sagas and some impressive runestones. They were also technologically advanced engineers who could build complex ships and houses.
Viking food tended to depend on where you were living, but well off members of society ate a diet that was rich in local meat, seafood, bread and vegetables. And of course, washed it all down with A LOT of different alcohol.
8. Artistic license.
The first thing many people think of when they hear the word viking is I should go play Skyrim, but after that is the iconic horned helmet. Purely fictional, those helmets would have been useless in battle, and hard to store easily without poking anyone.
They were actually an invention of German opera writers based off a ceremonial helmet of old Germanic priests. Who have long had an affinity for putting spiky things on hats.
9. Bad neighbours.
By 878ACE the Danish Vikings controlled almost all of middle England, however there rose a challenger to their conquering in the form of King Alfred the Great of Wessex. Considered one of the first kings of England, Alfred was able to beat the Danes back and signed the Danelaw, a large swath of land from Durham to London that the Danes pinky swore theyd stay in. (Story continues...)
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By the 11th century however, Danish Kind Cnut (the one who tried to stop the tides), unified England, Denmark and Norway. He was succeeded by Edward the Confessor, who died in 1066. Setting the stage for the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest of England. William the Conquerer took control of England, beginning a royal line that still continues to this day. Poor luck for the English though, going from being raided by Vikings to being ruled by the French.
10. If you don't stop fighting I'm turning this longboat around.
The Vikings were prolific explorers, reaching everywhere from North Africa to the Middle East. While most colonization was limited to the Northern hemisphere, archaeological evidence and Norse sagas have them sailing the famous Tigris River all the way up to Baghdad.
11. The time to strike.
No one is entirely certain why the Vikings chose the early 800s for their first raids, or why they chose the targets they did. Its possible the rise of Charlemange had something to do with it, or that they were aware of the political fractures left in the fringes of the Empire after the collapse of Rome.
Either way, the coastal towns made prosperous targets that were poorly defended by sea. Occams razor suggests they simply did it because it was there, and they could.
12. Not so sacred ground.
The fact that Vikings prefered raiding churches was a real hit for their PR in Christian Europe. The first in a series of raids happened to the abbey in Lindisfarne north eastern England, and it was destroyed with such ferocity and suddenness that it shaped the popular perception of Vikings for years as wretched heathen people.
Of course Vikings didnt really have the same god either so churches mostly just looked like tempting targets, loosely defended and filled with expensive things.
13. From one winter to another.
The Vikings had a huge contribution to the cultures of mainland Europe, heavily influencing English society in particular. However, there is evidence to suggest that the first people who settled in modern Russia were originally from southern Sweden. (Story continues..)
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The word Rus is likely a derivative of the Finnish word for Sweden. Arabic chroniclers like Ahmad Ibn Fadlan described the Rus people in ways that sound exactly like Vikings. By the 11th century, the Rus people were assimilated into Slavic society and had little of their Swedish tradition remaining.
14. The Great Heathen Army.
Before 865ACE Viking raids into the British Isles were limited mostly to raids on northern England, Scotland and Ireland. However, a band of Vikings described as a Great Heathen Army made landing in Northumbria and marched all the way to York. Presumably they like the real estate of the region, because they settled down there as farmers until they were defeated in 878ACE. Driven out of York, they reclaimed it again in 947ACE and the cycle of battle continued anew.
15. They made them rhyme so it's easy to remember.
Nordic society had three major social classes - jarls, karls and thralls. The jarl was the nobility, who owned land and wealth with connections to kings and large workforces. Karls made up the bulk of the population, free farmers and builders who could own their own property. Thralls were slaves, but could have small amounts of money and the rest of Viking society was encouraged not to be jerks to them.
Moving between classes was possible, and karls who did well enough for themselves could become jarls. Thralls could be granted freedom, but this would often take several generations.
16. The land of always summer.
After he was exiled from Iceland for murder, famous explorer Erik the Red discovered Greenland only a few years later. He named the land after its unusually warm climate and set up colonies. However, the good weather didnt hold up forever, and when the Little Ice Age set in around 1400ACE, the crops died and Greenland became the domain of the Inuit people. Nowadays, around 50,000 people live in Greenland, which is under Danish administration.
17. Going to wine country.
Hundreds of years before Columbus arrived in North America, Viking explorers were making journies into what is now Newfoundland. Describing their three inroads as a land of timbers, a land of flat stones and a land of wine, Leif Ericson picked the only correct option and wintered in Vinland in 1001ACE. (Story continues...)
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Although none of the settlements lasted very long, there is new evidence surfacing that points to the possibility of Vikings moving further west into Canada to Point Rosse. Technological artifacts like cooked iron and turf structures make it unclear just what the purpose of these settlements was, but it's certainly an impressive feat.
18. I prefer the term 'Norseman' actually.
Just like hipsters, anyone that was actually a Viking never called themselves a Viking. While its easy to lump all of the Nordic countries of the low medieval ages (Denmark, Sweden and Norway) together as mead swilling axe throwers. The term actually refers only to the seafaring raider cultures that landed up and down the British Isles.
The word comes from the Old Norse vikingr which was either understood as someone who came from the fjords or freebooter. Depending on your historical perspective.
19. Keeping in ship-shape.
Despite, or more like likely because of the amount of time that Viking warriors spent at sea, proper hygiene was taken very seriously. Excavations of Viking sites almost always turn up a lot primitive tweezers, razors, combs and ear cleaners made of bones and antlers. They also bathed at least once a weak, which made them comparatively much less smelly than the Europeans they were raiding who only bathed a few times a year.
20. A city of legend.
Like most great discoveries, Iceland was discovered entirely by accident around 830ACE by a Viking sailor lost on his way to the Faroe Islands. According to legend, a Norwegian chieftain went to settle the island, and threw two stone pillars from his ship vowing to make a city where they landed. That settlement would eventually become the city of Reykjavik.
21. Human capital.
The chief export of a Viking economy was other people. Warriors raided and enslaved men and women from settlements as far as the UK to Russia. The slaves formed the lowest caste of Viking society called thralls, and were sold in giant slave markets across Scandinavia, Europe and the Middle East.
22. Who is the deadliest warrior?
Owing to their exploration of North America, its very probable that Vikings had contact with the Native Americans. Limited trading is theorized to have occurred in Vinland and Markland, and Vikings and Inuit fought multiple times in Greenland. (Story continues...)
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A Norwegian coin known as the Maine Penny was found in a Native archaeological site in 1957, and was dated all thew way back to the year 1000ACE. This may have meant there was Viking contact in the continental United States, but its more likely that the coin made its way from Newfoundland.
23. Founders of greatness.
As well as the aforementioned Reykjavik, Norman, English and Rus settlements (busy guys), the Vikings were also instrumental in the founding and expansion of many other major European cities.
The Irish cities of Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick all started as Viking settlements. Which leads to an interesting question of who was making better beer.
24. All the ways to say 'I pillage you'.
Along with heinous pirate the word Viking has several potential origins and meanings, including the feminine form of the Old Norse word for a small bay, vik. Or potentially the Viken district of Norway. Or a whole bunch of nautical things really. If youve ever seen someone speaking Elvish in a Lord of the Rings movie you can understand how complicated Norse-based languages sounds sometimes.
No variant of the word appears until the 10th century, and the word only became popular in the 10th century. English has a lot of Old Norse words in it thanks to how much time was spent being killed by them. Including anger, blunder, rotten and glove.
25. Not the bookish types.
Norse culture didnt have much written record of their history, mostly leaving behind rune inscriptions and mythological sagas. Much of what we know about their conquests and customs comes from the people being raided, which were naturally a little biased. The rest was filled in by Icelandic sagas, as well as the histories of 16th Century Danish author Saxo Grammaticus and Irish/Russian texts from the Middle Ages.
Serious Viking study only started to occur around the 20th century with new translations of runes and methods of studying archaeological sites.
26. The Last King of the Vikings.
After a long and glorious (for them) three centuries of exploring, trading, building and fighting the Viking age finally began to fade in the late 11th century. Scandinavian populations were becoming rapidly Christianized and falling under the power of the Catholic Church, who tended to look down on killing your neighbour and taking their stuff.
The last great Norse king was Harald Hardrada, who died in battle invading England at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. He died like a true Viking however. Greatly outnumbered by Harold Godwinsons forces, the bridge was held by a single Norwegian while Harald rallied the shield wall. He was struck in the throat by an arrow in a state of berserkergang, wearing no armour and fighting with both hands on his sword. Hope youre having fun up there in Valhalla Harald, you earned it.
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