When one thinks of Vikings it generally involves an image of hulking, bearded men attacking farmsteads and villages, raping, plundering and being a general nuisance to the populace. They wear horned helmets, have large rounded shields and wield swords or axes which they swing at people in a mad berserker rage, while believing that if they die in battle they will enter Valhalla.
Unfortunately a lot of what is considered general knowledge about Vikings has been heavily influenced by popular culture over the last couple of centuries. Be it Wagner’s epic operas, Marvel comic books’ rendition of Norse gods or even sports team logos and mascots.
The Vikings were actually Scandinavians that came from Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland; most prominently known as masters of the sea during the so-called Viking Age in the 8th to 11th centuries. But a lot of what we think we may know about them is not quite right. Let’s look at a few facts about Vikings which may surprise you.
What does Viking actually mean?
The word Viking comes from the old Norse Vikingr, going back as far as the 8th century. As a noun it means pirate or sea-rover, but the term referenced the specific overseas expeditions of Vikings rather act as a unifying name for the people. Viking was in fact also a verb, as Scandinavian people would use a part of the season to “go Viking” (fara í víking in Icelandic).
While the idea that this means raiding and pillaging does have some truth to it, the primary reason for these voyages was trade and offering their services as mercenaries to foreign rulers. Vikings didn’t mind fighting as long as they were being paid, and they did indeed sometimes go to foreign lands to plunder riches, goods and slaves. Their primary source of living however, was farming, to which they would return after every trip abroad.
They traveled. A lot.
Speaking of travel, Vikings were excellent shipbuilders and seafarers. While they generally stuck to rivers and fjords, longships could traverse long distances across the Atlantic Ocean, where Scandinavians could find new opportunities for trade or new places to settle.
Not everyone knows, for example, that the Vikings were actually the first Europeans to discover the Americas. Long before Columbus was ever born, Leif Ericson sailed to North America and settled in modern day Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada. Vikings were also known to have appeared as far east as Baghdad in modern day Iraq and Novgorod, Russia.
Horned helmeted berserkers? Not so much.
One of the more popular myths about Vikings is that they wore horned helmets to battle. As far as archaeologists and historians can tell though, there is no evidence to back up this image of Scandinavian warriors. In fact, a horned helmet would be a significant vulnerability in battle, as someone could simply pull off your helmet by grabbing onto the convenient handles attached to it. Leaving your head undefended in a massive melee is generally considered a bad idea.
Vikings were also not commonly known to fly into mad berserker rages during battle. They were simply farmers choosing to fight or being forced to fight by someone or something. Sagas do tell of special warriors from which the word berserk originates though. Berserkers were known to wear animal pelts to battle instead of armor and are said to enter a temporary trance-like fury which allowed them to ignore their injuries and kill indiscriminately.
Less savages, more progressives
Scandinavians in the 8th-11th centuries had rich cultural lives and there were aspects of their society that would be considered quite forward thinking for their time. Women were not forced to marry, but could choose their husbands depending on his abilities to provide for her and the household. Wives were also in charge of the home, workers and slaves while the men were abroad.
There were also multiple provisions for divorce; a woman could divorce her husband for lack of financial support, physical violence and even “marital problems”. This had its origins in their original religious beliefs, but stayed a part of their culture despite the wide spread of Christianity during the latter parts of the so called Viking Age.
One could make an argument that certain aspects of Viking life were significantly closer to what we know today than the times between then and now. Not only did women have significant rights, but Vikings even formed the first parliament; such as the Althing in Iceland, where all freemen would gather to hear laws and petition the Althing to act as a court of law or jury.
Much of what we know about Vikings comes to us from the so-called Sagas. The primary among these are the Icelandic Sagas, which tell the stories of real living Icelanders during the Viking Age. Although many were written decades or even ages after the events in question and have a blair of fantasy to them, they are still considered significant historical and cultural sources of Scandinavian history. Sagas have been translated into a variety of languages, so if you would ever like to immerse yourself in the true world of Vikings, I would highly recommend some of them.