Modern conceptions about the legendary Vikings, their strange practices and their ancient traditions often differ immensely from the complex picture that emerges from actual archaeological evidence, not to mention the documented history of the Norse seafarers. Originating in Scandinavia, everything from the shape of their helmets and outfits to the surprising gender roles in their communities has been so thoroughly romanticized by pop culture that you probably don’t really know as much as you think about the mythical sea-loving warriors. So what’s real, and what’s just folk tale? To separate the fact from fictiom, here’s what you didn’t – and should – know about the Vikings.
When you think of a Viking, you probably think of a fierce, bearded wild man wielding an unwieldy ax. You’re not totally wrong, but it appears Viking women fought in battle as well, and just as hard as their male counterparts.
A study published in the American Journal of Anthropology shows that the remains of a 30-year-old female Viking were found in Birka, Sweden. The research shows that she was considered powerful and important in her clan. Perhaps the Vikings were ahead of their time on women’s issues, too?
You might be someone who has taken an interest in the Vikings after watching HISTORY’s popular series about them, but you might not sit next to one on a six-hour flight – even for a discounted ticket. But if you’re ever offered such a discount (yes, yes, it’s unlikely), maybe you should consider taking it.
The image of the Viking as a filthy, muddied savage depicted in television and film is largely a myth. In fact, evidence suggests Vikings had good personal hygiene, were well-groomed and placed importance on fashion and jewelry for men and women. At the time, they were even criticized by others in Europe for being too hygienic!
One of the more common myths about our Norse friends is that they were so savage that they drank out of the skulls of their fallen enemies. To those of you who thought that was a super cool fact about the Vikings, well, we’re sorry to rain on your parade.
Excavations have never uncovered anything indicating that Vikings drank out of skulls, or that they drank the blood of their fallen enemies. If it makes you feel better, though, they have shown that Vikings drank out of the horns of cattle. Not cool enough? How about the next fact, then?
The Vikings are one of the few populations on this planet that had a large number of blondes, and, indeed, blonde hair was held in high regard. It’s one of the few things pop culture gets right about our Norsemen and Norsewomen.
Not every Viking and Viking-ette was blonde – many were brunettes and redheads. Because blonde was seen as the most desirable hair color, those that weren’t blonde bleached their hair using handcrafted soap made from lye. There’s that grooming in action.
No one is sure of what the Vikings referred to themselves at the time, but we know it wasn’t “Vikings.” We also know other nations referred to them as “Norse,” “Norsemen” and “Danes.” So, if you ever happen to come across one, you know the politically correct term to use.
The term “Viking” is a 19th century word to describe Scandinavians who took part in overseas expeditions. If Vikings had a name for themselves in the collective, it was likely “Ostmen” or “Astmen,” which means “East men,” and came from the Vikings who invaded and settled along the East coast of Ireland.
Read on for some more wild facts about the Vikings!
Here’s another one European Christians – especially the Catholic Church – weren’t very excited about. Viking women were allowed to leave their marriages when they wished. Women could even divorce their husbands if they didn’t dress masculine enough, for example.
Even worse news for the Viking man, a divorce would require the husband to pay alimony. But before we praise the Norse for being a group of early feminist thinkers, let’s remember Viking women were forced into arranged marriages between the ages of 12 and 13 and could be assassinated if they were caught committing adultery.
The Vikings didn’t refer to themselves in the collective, and that might be because they weren’t as unified as you’d think. It’s true that the Vikings were all originally from Scandinavia, but they certainly didn’t see it that way and weren’t all part of one single tribe.
The Vikings had numerous clans, each organized around a chieftain with some kind of nobility who would lead the group on its overseas journeys. Much like different Native American tribes before the European invasion, it’s quite likely that Vikings in different clans didn’t know about the others.
We celebrate Columbus Day every year to mark Italian explorer Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America in 1492. It’s mostly a nice day for kids to enjoy outside of school. The thing is, though, Columbus isn’t really the first European to discover America. Viking Leif Erikson did.
It all started when a dispute between Leif’s father, Erik, and his neighbor ended up deadly for said neighbor. Erik fled Iceland and ended up in Canada. When he returned, he encouraged Leif to explore the new lands and he did, which led to his discovery of America, half a millennium before Colombus.
As we all know, the Vikings did not conquer the Native inhabitants of the Americas – that’s why it’s Columbus’s name in the history books and not heroic paintings of Vikings. Nevertheless, the Norse didn’t leave America without capturing at least one Native woman.
There is DNA evidence that shows Native American ancestry in some Scandinavians. The genetic marker found in the group of families studied in Iceland is over three centuries old, indicating that at least one Viking and one Native woman had a baby together.
So, we’ve established Vikings practiced great hygiene for their time. Like all other things, there are exceptions. The Norse used fungus and urine to light fires, proving they cared about the environment as much as they cared about fashion. Here’s how it worked.
They’d cut up a type of fungus that is found in Europe, North America and Asia. The exterior of the fungus was cut out, and the interior was cut into thin slices. As if the fungus was their sworn enemy, the Vikings would beat the slices until they became soft and flexible – and then soaked it in urine, making it extremely ignitable.
Think that was weird? Read on for some even weirder Viking facts!
The Vikings really, really wanted to conquer England. Why? Well, it’s something that remains a mystery to this day. Some historians theorize that they wanted access to England’s fertile land. Others argue they just wanted another mass of land to pillage.
The Norse didn’t succeed in conquering the entirety of England. But the “Great Heathen Army” eventually landed in Northumbria, a medieval kingdom in what is now northern England and south-east Scotland. They then conquered York and settled. Battles between the English and the Vikings continued for centuries until 1066, when it all came crashing down for the Norse.
When the Vikings weren’t busy raiding other nations, they raided each other. They would attack, plunder and enslave their own. Before we start slamming the Norse as barbarians, though, let’s remember that they didn’t really consider themselves a single nation.
Viking communities also had rules of engagement – and they took them seriously. A major rule is they didn’t attack foes they considered unworthy. The Vikings were fierce warriors, and they were often proud enough to die before surrendering a fight. They wanted their opponents to at least put up a fight.
Here’s another thing pop culture gets right about the Norse: They built really good ships. Considering their livelihood often depended on crossing seas and conquering other nations, they had to. These ships were central to the Vikings’ various military successes.
Their famed and most commonly used boats were “longboats,” which could fit as many as 60 warriors at a time and were designed to land and depart with ease. It’s just too bad Daenerys Targaryen wasn’t able to get her hands on a few of these bad boys earlier in the Game of Thrones series.
We all know the Vikings as ferocious warriors, but they had lives off the battlefield too. Much like millions of people in the modern world, Vikings enjoyed skiing and ice skating. They are thought to be the first to partake in these activities for fun.
The Norse used both as methods of transportation, too. It makes sense — when traveling through snow or ice, skiing or skating would have been much more practical. It’s unclear whether they used snowboards or nailed cool tricks on the slopes, though.
If you associate Scandinavians with height, you’re not alone. Today’s Scandinavians are among the tallest people in the world. But contrary to popular opinion, Vikings weren’t tall and muscular. The average height for a Viking man was a little bit over 5 feet 7 inches (which wasn’t terribly short back then, but it wasn’t tall either).
Vikings weren’t particularly brawny, either, as they’re often depicted in cartoons. They tended to be lean. That lack of height can partially be explained by short summers and economic difficulty. Resources, including food, weren’t abundant for the Vikings. That scarcity was also a reason for their habit of plundering.
For some even more shocking historical facts, read on!
If you thought the days of the week came from the Romans, you’re only partially right. Emperor Constantine established the seven-day week in the Roman calendar in 321 A.D. He kept the Babylonian custom of naming the first two days of the week, Sunday and Monday, after the sun and the moon.
The rest of the days, though, Constantine borrowed from the Vikings. Tuesday is named after Tyr, the Norse god of war. Wednesday is named after the great raven god Woden (Wednesday literally means “Woden’s Day” in Norse). The god of thunder and strength, Thor, gives us Thursday, and the lovely goddess of marriage, Frigg, fittingly blesses us with Friday.
This one shouldn’t be a shocker, considering many cultures during the time of the Vikings captured and held slaves. Vikings’ slaves were known as “thrawls.” In fact, one of the purposes of the infamous Viking raids was to capture people from different areas and nations.
Different theories exist about why Vikings took slaves. One theory poses that some Vikings enslaved beautiful foreign women to take as brides. Other theories offer that slaves were captured to be used in the field. The reality? It was likely a combination of both.
Here’s another piece of bad news we’re compelled to deliver you: There is no evidence that the Vikings wore helmets with two horns sticking out of them into battle. Sorry about your Halloween costume from… whenever you dressed up as a Viking.
That Vikings were all bearded men who sported these helmets is one of the biggest misconceptions about the Norse, but this time pop culture isn’t necessarily to blame. One theory suggests contemporary Christians came up with the rumor to make the Norsemen seem more satanic. Fear tactics… tisk tisk.
It would be glorious if the Vikings had gone down in one, giant, Lord of the Rings-esque battle, but according to historians, that’s not at all how it happened. So shut your eyes and scroll to the next page if the truth here is too much to handle.
As Scandinavians were increasingly converting to Catholic Christianity and the Catholic Church banned violence between Christians, the Viking way of life became harder to practice. Other Vikings moved away and settled in places like Normandy and Russia, where they were forced to bend the knee to the kings and rulers of their new home.
Vikings considered themselves world-class warriors, much like the ancient Spartans and other legendary fighting cultures. Also like the Spartans, the Vikings tragically practiced child abandonment – and sometimes murder – when a child was deemed too weak for the clan.
Viking children had five years to prove themselves physically and mentally capable of being strong, independent and ready for battle. As was the case for children in many places during the time of the Vikings, childhood didn’t really exist, with few exceptions.
Thought that was intense? Wait till you read the next few facts!
Speaking of doing things for fun, the Vikings enjoyed game nights as well when they weren’t out pillaging and plundering. An especially popular board game among Vikings was called Hnefatafl, which was similar to Chess. It was the game to play in Europe before Chess booted it during the middle ages.
On a four-cornered board, the pieces represent the king and his defenders, as well as soldiers trying to overthrow him. The goal is to get to one corner of the board if you’re the king, and to catch the king if you’re an attacking soldier. Kind of like a simulation of a siege.
In the film 300, there’s a scene in which King Leonidas famously asks Athenian soldiers, one by one, what their professions are. They respond that they are simple workers, like potters and sculptors. Then, Leonidas turns to his Spartans and asks the same question. Their response is several collective fearsome bellows.
If Leonidas were to time travel and ask the Vikings the same question, you’d probably imagine that they would respond similarly to the Spartans. But not all Vikings were warriors. In fact, many were actually farmers. These farmers enjoyed a life of growing various crops and raising livestock.
Clearly not as intricate or sophisticated as any kind of modern legal frameworks, the Vikings had their own unique justice system. Family and community disputes were handled in a system known in Norse culture as “Althing,” which means “the Thing.”
Vikings were required to attend meetings regularly at Althing, where a designated legal authority would present societal rules and settle local disputes. Sometimes these disputes were settled peacefully. Other times, they were settled by violent wrestling matches. See? Not quite as sophisticated.
You might think rugby, football and lacrosse are extremely violent sports, but to the Vikings, they’d be considered children’s games, along with skiing, ice skating and board games. Even playfulness for the Vikings was extremely brutal and sometimes resulted in death.
Just like the Dwarves of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Vikings were tremendously prideful people. That pride came at a cost when it prevented them from “tapping out” early. And the cost could be deadly or crippling.
While writing Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien was inspired to write that trilogy by a great Viking epic. It’s a tale of two separate legends, linked by a supernatural ring of power that brings tragedy to all who wear it.
Undoubtedly one of the Vikings’ favorite stories, the legend is recounted in many ancient written sources, including in Viking-age carvings in England. In some ways more similar to HBO’s Game of Thrones than Lord of the Rings, the tale involves multiple gruesome murders, dramatic suicides, deceits and broken hearts. And most importantly, a dragon.
For some more intense Viking facts, read on!
Bonds by blood are the strongest of bonds. As the legendary Don Vito Corleone put it in The Godfather, “You can do anything, but never go against the family.” As has already been established, though, the Vikings begged to differ with that idea.
The Norse valued strength over everything else. If a child was born with a disability, was extremely weak, or became very ill, it would be considered useless and be abandoned. As cruel as it sounds, this was the Viking way of aiding natural selection to ensure their people were fit to survive.
For a people often mistaken for a bunch of nomadic hordes, the Vikings left their mark on much of Europe in the form of major cities. In Ireland, for example, the Vikings founded Wexford, Cork, Waterford, Limerick and even Dublin.
Descendants of the Norse founded cities in Russia, France and England as well. In fact, the Vikings had such a deep impact on English civilization that Cambridge University launched a campaign in 2008 to recast them in a more positive light, so that those of Viking heritage could be proud of it.
Sometimes we forget that class structures existed before the advent of capitalism and the modern world. And indeed, the Norse had their own class system. The “jarls” were the chieftains, mostly composed of wealthy landowners and merchants directly tied to the king.
The class under the jarls were the karls, or freeman, who were the vast majority of the population. They pledged themselves to their jarl but mostly lived their own lives and minded their own business. At the bottom of the totem pole were obviously, the slaves.
It isn’t clear why the period of Viking expansion occurred between the late 8th century and the 11th century. Based on the historical context, though, one can get an idea of why the Vikings began their raids when they did.
After Emperor Charlemagne came into power, Christianity was high on the agenda, much to the dismay of the northern pagans. Charlemagne adopted a policy of forced conversion to Christianity throughout all of Europe. You could say the Vikings weren’t big fans.
Like quite a lot of history’s great civilizations, the reign of the Vikings eventually came to an end. Some historians attribute the Norse decline to burnout and over-expansionism. Others argue they simply couldn’t compete with the rapid expansion of Christianity throughout Europe, which banned their pagan rituals and lifestyle.
Another theory points out that Vikings settled in various scattered parts of the world as opposed to having conquered a single, united chunk of land. In doing so, they eventually fully assimilated into the local cultures. What’s for certain, though, is that the Vikings began to fade away after their final invasion of England in 1066.
Sources: HISTORY, The Telegraph, DiscoveryTheWord