Vikings History: An Overview of Culture and History

The seafaring Vikings (in Danish, the Vikinger) were a group of people that came from the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. They made an enduring name for themselves in the 8th through the 11th centuries for being tactical warriors, smart traders, and daring explorers. In fact, they arrived in America 1,000 years before Columbus ever did, and archeologists have found some of their remnants scattered as far east as Russia. This is the true story of Vikings history.

Who Were the Vikings?

Contrary to some popular conceptions of the Vikings, they were not a “race” linked by ties of common ancestry or patriotism, and could not be defined by any particular sense of “Viking-ness.” Most of the Vikings whose activities are best known come from the areas now known as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, though there are mentions in historical records of Finnish, Estonian and Saami Vikings as well. Their common ground–and what made them different from the European peoples they confronted–was that they came from a foreign land, they were not “civilized” in the local understanding of the word and–most importantly–they were not Christian. 

The true Vikings history is fascinating. Simply put, the Vikings were Norwegians, Swedes and Danes, men who were usually farmers, traders, blacksmiths, and craftsmen. For various reasons, they took to raiding towns, churches and monasteries. Many of the places they attacked were on the coasts as they were easiest to reach. With their swift and easily landed ships, the Vikings could quickly swarm over the communities, killing and looting, and just as fast return to their ships and leave. They were gone before any defense or counter-attack could be made.

Strangely enough, for most of the men who went a-viking, it was only part time. When a Viking wasn’t busy farming, planting crops, for instance, they left their farms and went raiding. They often returned in time for harvest in the fall. Raiding was very profitable, however, and many farmers became full time pirates and raiders. The people called Vikings were also fearless explorers who actually reached North America, making them the first Europeans to discover America. They settled Iceland and tried to colonize Greenland. They were also shrewd and competent traders and merchants. They traded all the goods of the north – furs, amber, iron and timber – for all the goods of the south – silver, gold, silks and spices. And all along the trade routes, the Vikings traded in slaves. They have incredible culture and were seen as intrepid and dangerous men.

Did you know? The name Viking came from the Scandinavians themselves, from the Old Norse word "vik" (bay or creek) which formed the root of "vikingr" (pirate).

The exact reasons for Vikings venturing out from their homeland are uncertain; some have suggested it was due to overpopulation of their homeland, but the earliest Vikings were looking for riches, not land. In the eighth century A.D., Europe was growing richer, fueling the growth of trading centers such as Dorestad and Quentovic on the Continent and Hamwic (now Southampton), London, Ipswich and York in England. Scandinavian furs were highly prized in the new trading markets; from their trade with the Europeans, Scandinavians learned about new sailing technology as well as about the growing wealth and accompanying inner conflicts between European kingdoms. The Viking predecessors–pirates who preyed on merchant ships in the Baltic Sea–would use this knowledge to expand their fortune-seeking activities into the North Sea and beyond.

The Viking Age - Viking is a Verb, Not a Noun

When the quiet monks on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne saw the dragon ships approaching, they didn’t know what was coming. They were fully unprepared for the ferocity of the warriors, armed with sword, axe and shield. The attack and plunder of Lindisfarne, a rich and unprotected monastery, echoed throughout the next 300 years of European history. The Viking Age had begun.

Historians use the term the Viking Age to describe the turbulent expansion of the Scandinavian people into Europe and Russia. Beginning in A.D. 793 with the Lindisfarne raid, Norwegians, Swedes and Danes set to raiding. Any unprotected community was a target. Vikings attacked places all along the coasts of Scotland, England, Ireland, France, Italy and inland Russia. They terrorized, plundered, traded, explored and finally settled and farmed all over the lands they encountered.

Impact of the Viking Age

The Scandinavians changed the history of Ireland, England, Russia and other European countries. They established new territories in Iceland, Greenland and temporarily, North America. From A.D. 793 to 1066, Vikings raided, traded, challenged, conquered and settled in many lands. Popular movies and novels give you a glimpse into their lives, but usually show only a part of the impact these energetic people had on the known world of the time.

Society: Men, Women, and Children

Within the male-dominated Viking society, women had a certain amount of personal power, depending on their social status. When Viking men were away from home—raiding, fishing, exploring or on trading missions—women in Viking society took over all the men’s work as well as doing their own. Women were valuable members of the society and it was shameful for a man to harm a woman.

Women’s role was domestic, taking care of the family, preparing food, laundry, milking cows, sheep and goats, making butter and cheeses, preserving food for winter, gardening, cleaning and the most time-consuming task of all, making the family’s clothes. Spinning, carding, weaving, cutting and sewing took a long time. It could take a Viking woman 35 hours to spin enough yarn for a day’s weaving, to give you some idea of how much time it took to make clothing.

Viking women married young—as early as 12 years old. By the age of 20, virtually all men and women were married. Life expectancy was about 50 years, but most died long before reaching 50. Only a few lived to 60.

Marriages were arranged by the parents of the young couple. A marriage was a contract between two families: the groom’s family paid a bride price to bride’s family when the couple was betrothed. At the marriage, the bride’s father paid a dowry. Since both families had a financial investment in the new couple, a marriage was as much a matter for the families as it was for the people involved.

Viking children did not go to school as we know it today. Rather, the boys learned all the men’s work, taught by their fathers, brothers and uncles. Girls worked along with their mothers and aunts learning how to cook, garden, take care of the domestic animals and make clothing. By the time they reached adulthood at 12 to 15, both boys and girls could effectively run a household and a farm.

As is always the case, there were exceptions to these general societal rules of behavior. When the men went to settle Iceland, Greenland and Vinland, women went with them. Vikings settled in England, Ireland and France as families. However, only men went raiding and trading while women stayed home and minded the farm.

Women in Viking society had more power than most other European women of the time. They could divorce their husbands, own some property and sell their own handicrafts. Some women became wealthy landowners. Others participated in trade—scales used for weighing silver used in trade have been found in women’s graves. Even a few weapons were found in female graves, giving the notion that some women were fighters along side of their men. Most women in Viking society, however, lived and worked in the domestic realm of the household.

Norse Mythology

In the world of Norse mythology, we find gods and goddesses, giants, strange and powerful creatures, elves, dwarves and land spirits. It is difficult for a 21st century person to conceive of the worldview of the Vikings, brimming as it was with such a variety of spiritual beings.

Yggdrasil and the Nine Worlds

The center of the Vikings’ cosmos is the ash tree Yggdrasil, growing out of the Well of Urd. Yggdrasil holds the Nine Worlds, home of gods, man and all spiritual beings. The gods live in Asgard and Vanaheim and humans inhabit Midgard. Giants live in Jotunheim, elves in Alfheim and dwarves in Svartalfheim. Another is the primordial world of ice, Niflheim, while Muspelheim is the world of fire. The last world comprises Hel, the land of the dead, ruled by the goddess Hel.

Gods and Goddesses

The gods and goddesses venerated by the Vikings are Odin, Thor, Loki, Baldur, Frigg, Freya, Freyr and Njoror. There are many other gods and goddesses in the Norse pantheon but these received the primary attention in the sagas and eddas.

  • Odin, the allfather, the one-eyed seeker of wisdom, god of magic, war and runes, hung himself on Yggdrasil for nine days and nights to find wisdom, brought the runes to mankind
  • Thor, with his magic hammer Mjolnir, protects mankind and his realm of Midgard, god of warriors
  • Loki, a dangerous half-god, half-giant trickster always wreaking havoc among the gods
  • Baldur, son of Odin and Frigg, a beautiful and gracious god, beloved of all, killed by Loki’s trickery
  • Frigg, wife of Odin, practitioner of magic, goddess of the home, mother of Baldur
  • Freya, feather-cloaked goddess of love and fertility but also of war and death
  • Freyr, her brother, god of farming, agriculture, fertility and prosperity
  • Njoror, powerful god of the sea

Giants, Elves, Dwarves and Land Spirits

Giant is not a good name for these spiritual beings; think of them as devourers, out to destroy order and return the world to primeval chaos. They are the enemies of gods, but also their relatives. Giants are dangerous to mankind, which is why Thor often hunts them. Elves and dwarves appear in the sagas, but are different from what we might picture them to be. Dwarves are miners and smiths and live underground. They are invisible, powerful spiritual beings, not short humans. Elves are also spiritual beings, demi-gods who can mate with mankind and have children with them.

Land spirits inhabit everything on the land—trees, herbs, stones and bodies of water. The land spirits (landvaettir in Old Norse) hold considerable power over the well being of the land and those who live on it. People took care to honor and placate the landvaettir. In the first law of Iceland, Vikings were told to remove the dragon heads from their ships when approaching land so they wouldn’t frighten the land spirits.

Symbols

Viking symbols play a large role in their iconography, just as they do in all societies. Symbols are cultural shorthand, a sign that conveys layers of meaning about the culture. The pagan Vikings used symbols to represent their gods, beliefs and myths.

Cultural symbols can take any form, such as sounds, gestures, words, pictures and images. Most of the Vikings symbols we know about were carved on runestones, swords, axes and other items precious to the Norse people. The sagas refer to amulets the people wore, such as Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir.

While some Viking symbols remain mysterious in that we don’t know exactly what they represent, but others have clear meanings. Many Vikings wore Thor’s hammer on thongs around their necks. Jewelry, runestones and valuable weapons were often engraved with the symbols that resonated the most with the Vikings: The Valknut, the Helm of Awe and Thor’s hammer.

The Valknut

Three interlocking triangles that represent Hrungnir’s heart or the heart of the slain. Hrungnir is a legendary giant. The Valknut probably signifies the afterlife. The nine points of the three triangles symbolize the nine worlds of the Vikings. The Valknut is representative of Odin, the father God of the Vikings, and his power of life over death. The Valknut is often carved on funerary steles and memorial runestones.

The Helm of Awe

The term aegishjalmr means the helm of awe or terror. The symbol was used most often in magic to induce delusion or forgetfulness. A special form of magic called seior was used to create illusions or to prevent people seeing things as they really are. Thus, this symbol was used to hide someone from his or her pursuers. It is mentioned often in the sagas as being used by women who performed this kind of magic. The Helm of Awe might be engraved onto a goatskin, which was then thrown over the head of the fugitive. Even after the advent of Christianity, belief in the aegishjalmr persisted.

Thor’s Hammer, Mjolnir

Mjolnir means lightning, and Thor’s hammer indicates the god’s power over thunder and lightning. Mjolnir, a magic weapon, always came back to Thor when he threw it. Wearing Thor’s hammer as an amulet of protection was quite common as this was probably the most popular of all the pagan Viking symbols. Even during Christian times, from A.D. 1000 on, Vikings wore Thor’s Mjolnir as well as a cross on a chain or thong around their necks.

Sagas and Stories

Viking culture was rich in stories, tales and poems. Kings, brave heroes, beautiful women, dangerous journeys, battles, fearsome dragons and otherworldly creatures were all subjects of tales told by skalds and everyone else. In the Viking Age, no one wrote them down, but everyone knew them, mostly by heart.

Long winters when people were cooped up inside were fertile soil for these stories of old. For centuries, they were kept alive in the hearts of Scandinavians by storytellers. However, the great literature of the Viking Age was in danger of being completely lost as time went by, old folks died and younger people didn’t remember. Finally, with the advent of Christianity in Iceland, Christian churchmen taught the Icelanders to write. Educated men in Iceland saved all of it, from the poetry to the family legends and feuds, by writing it down. Most importantly, now no one would now forget this rich heritage.

Thanks to men like Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic writer, a great flowering of Viking Age literature was produced in Iceland in the 13th century. Sturluson himself produced many of these works: Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, books about Norse mythology and heroes, the Heimskringla, a book about the kings of Norway, Scandinavian history and most likely, Egil’s saga. Sturluson was a lawspeaker at Iceland’s Althing, a poet, historian and politician. Most of what we know about the Viking Age comes from these Icelandic collections of poems, tales, sagas and stories.

All of this Norse literature was written in the vernacular, the language of Iceland, which was unusual for medieval times. Latin was used by educated people and was the usual language employed when writing anything from laws to fairy tales. Viking literature in the vernacular is the only other body of writings in the people’s language besides the Irish hero tales.

Of Norse poetry, there are two varieties: skaldic poetry and eddaic poetry. Skalds were the Viking’s poets and wrote complex, compelling verse usually honoring a king or patron. Eddaic poetry was anonymous and could be about anything—its subjects were humorus, scathing, bawdy, romantic, heroic or brusquely insulting.

Sagas are stories, somewhat like historical fiction. While many of the characters and event are real, saga writers took poetic license in describing them. The events themselves took place a few hundred years before, which is why they should be considered fiction, not fact. Sagas are prose, occasionally with poetic stanzas in the text. The subjects are tales of men’s deeds, battles, journeys, feuds and fights. The subjects could be Christian or pagan, realistic or fantastic, tales of giants or saints or heroes or even regular people.

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