Viking n : any of the Scandinavian people who raided the coasts of Europe from the 8th to the 11th centuries
- Rhymes with: -aɪkɪŋ
One of the Scandinavian seafaring warriors
Viking refers to a member of the Norse (Scandinavian) peoples, famous as explorers, warriors, merchants, and pirates, who raided and colonized wide areas of Europe from the late 8th to the early 11th century. These Norsemen used their famed longships to travel as far east as Constantinople and the Volga River in Russia, and as far west as Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland. This period of Viking expansion is known as the Viking Age, and forms a major part of Scandinavian history, with a minor, yet significant part in European history.
Once seen through the classical mindset of the "barbaric North", the historical image of the Vikings, although still under the shadow of traditional views, now shows the Vikings as aspirational, adventurous peoples, with ingenuity in ship and town construction, and a proficiency as seafarers and traders to match.
EtymologyThe word Viking comes from the Old Norse word "vikingr", lit. "one who came from the fjords", from "vik", meaning a bay, creek, fjord or inlet. By the end of the Viking period, the term referred to pirates or robbers operating by sea, known as "vikingr" in West Norse, and was used as a term for sea-born warfare and harrying in the West Norse "Viking". Though mostly used as a general term for pirates there are instances of another use in some of the Icelandic sagas. There some were considered vikings and to be "going on Viking" who sailed out to claim fame and fortune for themselves. This could involve seeking the stewardship of kings, trading in foreign parts and raiding. These names were common mainly in Scandinavia itself, however, and many other terms were generally used in the wider world. These included heathens, northmen, Lochlannachs in the Irish tongue, the people from the north, the Danes, Rus', or simply the foreigners. These terms, however, were used for the Viking peoples as a whole, and thus never accounted for the class distinction between vikings and other Norsemen nor the variety of the Nordic peoples.
The Viking AgeThe period from the earliest recorded raids in the 790s until the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 is commonly known as the Viking Age of Scandinavian History. The Normans, however, were descended from Danish Vikings who were given feudal overlordship of areas in northern France — the Duchy of Normandy — in the 8th century. In that respect, descendants of the Vikings continued to have an influence in northern Europe. Likewise, King Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England who was killed during the Norman invasion in 1066, was descended from Danish Vikings. Many of the medieval kings of Norway and Denmark were married to English and Scottish royalty and Viking forces were often a factor in dynastic disputes prior to 1066.
Geographically, a "Viking Age" may be assigned not only to Scandinavian lands (modern Denmark, Norway and Sweden), but also to territories under North Germanic dominance, mainly the Danelaw, which replaced the powerful English kingdom of Northumbria. Viking navigators opened the road to new lands to the north, west and east, resulting in the foundation of independent settlements in the Shetland, Orkney, and Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and L'Anse aux Meadows, a short-lived settlement in Newfoundland, circa 1000 A.D. Many of these lands, specifically Greenland and Iceland, may have been originally discovered by sailors blown off course. They also may well have been deliberately sought out, perhaps on the basis of the accounts of sailors who had seen land in the distance. The Greenland settlement eventually died out, possibly due to climate change. Vikings also explored and settled in territories in Slavic-dominated areas of Eastern Europe. By 950 AD these settlements were completely Slavicized.
From 839, Varangian mercenaries in the service of the Byzantine Empire, notably Harald Hardrada, campaigned in North Africa, Jerusalem, and other places in the Middle East. Important trading ports during the period include Birka, Hedeby, Kaupang, Jorvik, Staraya Ladoga, Novgorod and Kiev.
There is archaeological evidence that Vikings reached the city of Baghdad, the center of the Islamic Empire. The Norse regularly plied the Volga with their trade goods: furs, tusks, seal fat for boat sealant and slaves. However, they were far less successful in establishing settlements in the Middle East, due to the more centralized Islamic power.
Generally speaking, the Norwegians expanded to the north and west to places such as Ireland, Iceland and Greenland; the Danes to England and France, settling in the Danelaw (northern England) and Normandy; and the Swedes to the east. These nations, although distinct, were similar in culture and language. The names of Scandinavian kings are known only for the later part of the Viking Age, and only after the end of the Viking Age did the separate kingdoms acquire a distinct identity as nations, which went hand in hand with their Christianization. Thus the end of the Viking Age for the Scandinavians also marks the start of their relatively brief Middle Ages.
Viking expansionThe Vikings sailed most of the North Atlantic, reaching south to North Africa and east to Russia, Constantinople and the middle east, as looters, traders, colonists, and mercenaries. Vikings under Leif Eriksson, heir to Erik the Red, reached North America, and set up a short lived settlement in present-day L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.
Englandseealso Danelaw Traditionally, the earliest date given for a Viking raid is 789 when, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, three ships from Norway sailed to Portland Bay, in Dorset. There, they were mistaken for merchants by a royal official, and they murdered him when he tried to get them to accompany him to the king's manor to pay a trading tax on their goods. The next recorded attack, dated June 8, 793, was on the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, off the east coast of England. The resident monks were killed, thrown into the sea to drown or carried away as slaves along with some of the church treasures. After repeated Viking raids, the monks fled Lindisfarne in AD 875, carrying the relics of Saint Cuthbert with them.
In 840 and 841, Norwegians raided during the winter months instead of summer, as was their usual tactic. They waited on an island off Ireland. In 865 a large army of Danish Vikings, supposedly led by Ivar, Halfdan and Guthrum, arrived in East Anglia. They proceeded to cross England into Northumbria and captured York (Jorvik), where some settled as farmers. Most of the English kingdoms, being in turmoil, could not stand against the Vikings, but Alfred of Wessex managed to keep the Vikings out of his county. Alfred and his successors were able to drive back the Viking frontier and retake York. A new wave of Vikings appeared in England in 947 when Erik Bloodaxe captured York. The Viking presence continued through the reign of Canute the Great (1016-1035), after which a series of inheritance arguments weakened the family reign.
The Vikings did not get everything their way. In one instance in England, a small Viking fleet attacked a rich monastery at Jarrow. The Vikings were met with stronger resistance than they expected: their leaders were killed, the raiders escaped, only to have their ships beached at Tynemouth and the crews killed by locals. This was one of the last raids on England for about 40 years. The Vikings instead focused on Ireland and Scotland. The Viking presence in the British Isles dwindled until 1066, when the Norwegians lost their final battle with the English.
It is important to bear in mind that not all the Norse arriving in the British Isles came as raiders. Many arrived with families and livestock, often in the wake of the capture of territory by their forces. DNA analysis shows that a major part of the ancestry of English people in northern East Anglia, eastern Yorkshire and in the Lake District is Scandinavian in origin, presumably from colonists around this time. The populations then merged over time by intermarriage into the Anglo-Saxon population of these areas. Many words in the English language seem to be derived from old Scandinavean languages, emphasizing the importance of this contact.
ScotlandWhile there are few records from the earliest period, it is believed that Scandinavian presence in Scotland increased in the 830s. In 836, a large Viking force believed to be Norwegian invaded the Earn valley and Tay valley which were central to the Pictish kingdom. They killed Eoganan, king of the Picts, and his brother, the vassal king of the Scots. They also killed many members of the Pictish aristocracy. The sophisticated kingdom that had been built fell apart, as did the Pictish leadership. The foundation of Scotland under Kenneth MacAlpin is traditionally attributed to the aftermath of this event.
The isles to the north and west of Scotland were heavily colonized by Norwegian Vikings. Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles, Caithness and Sutherland were under Norse control, sometimes as fiefs under the King of Norway and other times as separate entities. Shetland and Orkney were the last of these to be incorporated into Scotland in as late as 1468. As well as Orkney and Shetland, Caithness and Sutherland, the Norse settled in the Hebrides. Some parts of the west coast were also settled, and Galloway, which got its name from the Gall-Gael or Foreigner Gael (as the mixed Norse Scots were known).
CornwallIn 722, the Cornish allied with Danish Vikings in order to hold Wessex from expanding into Cornwall. A Wessex Saxon army led by King Ine was beaten by an alliance of Cornish and Vikings near the Camel estuary at "Hehil", possibly somewhere near modern day Padstow. This battle, recorded in the Annales Cambriae, as well as the Vikings' continual attacks on Wessex, enabled Cornwall to stay autonomous from Wessex for the next 100 years. (Up until 838 the eastern Cornish border was still on the River Exe-River Taw line). The Danes provided tactical support to their Cornish allies by raiding Wessex which weakened the authority of the Saxons. In 831 AD, the Danes raided Charmouth in Dorset, in 997 AD they destroyed the Dartmoor town of Lydford, and from 1001 AD to 1003 AD they occupied the old Roman city of Exeter. In 1013 Wessex was conquered by the Danes under the leadership of Sweyn Forkbeard.
WalesWales was not colonized by the Vikings significantly as in eastern England or Scotland. The Vikings did, however, settle in small numbers in the south around St. David's, Haverfordwest, and the Gower. Place names such as Skokholm, Skomer, and Swansea remain as evidence of the Norse settlement. The Vikings, however, were not able to set up a Viking state or control Wales, owing to the powerful forces of Welsh kings, and, unlike in Scotland, the aristocracy was relatively unharmed.
Nevertheless, following the successful Viking alliances with Cornwall in 722 and Britanny in 865, the Britons made their peace with the Danes, and a Viking/Welsh alliance in 878 defeated an Anglo-Saxon army from Mercia, although there were still some occasional skirmishes between the Britons of Wales and the Danes.
The city of Swansea was founded by the imperialist Viking King of Denmark Sweyn Forkbeard who by 1013 was King of the Danes, Anglo-Saxons and Norwegians. Swansea is a corruption of the Norse "Sweyn's Ey", which means "Sweyn's island". The island refers to the area around the estuary of the river Tawe. The neighboring Gower peninsula has some place names of Norse origin (such as Worms Head; worm is the Norse word for dragon, as the Vikings believed that the serpent-shaped island was a sleeping dragon). Twenty miles (32 km) west of Cardiff on the Vale of Glamorgan coast is the semi-flooded island of Tusker Rock, which takes its name from Tuska, the Viking who established a settlement in the area.
IrelandThe Vikings conducted extensive raids in Ireland and founded many towns, including Dublin, Limerick, Mullingar, Wexford, Waterford and Leixlip. Literature, crafts, and decorative styles in Ireland and the British Isles reflected Scandinavian culture. Vikings traded at Irish markets in Dublin. Excavations found imported fabrics from England, Byzantium, Persia, and central Asia. Dublin became so crowded by the 11th century that houses were constructed outside the town walls.
The Vikings pillaged monasteries on Ireland’s west coast in 795, and then spread out to cover the rest of the coastline. The north and east of the island were most affected. During the first 40 years, the raids were conducted by small, mobile Viking groups. From 830 on, the groups consisted of large fleets of Viking ships. From 840, the Vikings began establishing permanent bases at the coasts. Dublin was the most significant settlement in the long term. The Irish became accustomed to the Viking presence and culture. In some cases they became allies and also intermarried throughout all of Ireland.
In 832, a Viking fleet of about 120 ships under Turgesius invaded kingdoms on Ireland’s northern and eastern coasts. Some believe that the increased number of invaders coincided with Scandinavian leaders’ desires to control the profitable raids on the western shores of Ireland. During the mid-830s, raids began to push deeper into Ireland. Navigable waterways made this deeper penetration possible. After 840, the Vikings had several bases in strategic locations throughout Ireland.
In 838, a small Viking fleet entered the River Liffey in eastern Ireland, probably led by the chieftain Saxolb (Soxulfr) who was killed later that year. The Vikings set up a base, which the Irish called longphorts. This longphort would eventually become Dublin. After this interaction, the Irish experienced Viking forces for about 40 years. The Vikings also established longphorts in Cork, Limerick, Waterford, and Wexford. The Vikings were driven out of Ireland for a short period around 900, but returned to Waterford in 914 to found what would become Ireland's first city. The other longphorts were soon re-occupied and developed into cities and towns.
The last major battle involving Vikings was the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, in which a large force from the pan-Viking world and their Irish allies opposed Brian Boru, then the High King of Ireland and his forces, a small contingent of which were Viking defectors. The battle was fought in what is the now Dublin suburb of Clontarf on Good Friday of that year. Boru, the Irish High King had gracefully allowed the Viking King of Dublin; Sigtrygg Silkbeard, one year to prepare for his coming assault. Silkbeard responded by offering the bed of his mother to several Viking lords from Scandinavia and the British Isles. The savage melee between the heavily mailed Norse and the unarmoured, yet undaunted Gaels ended in a rout of the Vikings and their Irish allies. Careful accounts were taken by both sides during the battle, and thus many famous warriors sought each other out for personal combat and glory. High King Brian, who was nearly eighty, did not personally engage in the battle but retired to his tent where he spent the day in quiet prayer. The Viking Earl Brodir of Man chanced upon Brian's tent as he fled the field. He and a few followers seized the opportunity, and surprised the High King, killing the aged Brian before being captured. Brian's foster son Wolf the Quarrelsome later tracked down and dispatched Brodir by disembowelment; Wolf watching as Brodir marched and wound his own innards around the trunk of a large tree. The battle was fairly matched for most of the day and each side had great respect for the prowess of the other; however, in the end, the Irish forced the Norse to return to the sea. Many of the fleeing Vikings were drowned in the surf due to their heavy mail coats as they struggled for the safety of their longships; others were pursued and slain further inland. After the battle, Viking power was broken in Ireland forever, though many settled Norse remained in the cities and prospered greatly with the Irish through trade. With Brian dead, Ireland returned to the fractured kingdom it had once been, but was now cleared of further Viking predation.
West FranciaWest Francia suffered more severely than East Francia during the Viking raids of the ninth century. The reign of Charles the Bald coincided with some of the worst of these raids, though he did take action by the Edict of Pistres of 864 to secure a standing army of cavalry under royal control to be called upon at all times when necessary to fend off the invaders. He also ordered the building of fortified bridges to prevent inland raids.
Nonetheless, the Bretons allied with the Vikings and Robert, the margrave of Neustria, (a march created for defence against the Vikings sailing up the Loire), and Ranulf of Aquitaine died in the Battle of Brissarthe in 865. The Vikings also took advantage of the civil wars which ravaged the Duchy of Aquitaine in the early years of Charles' reign. In the 840s, Pepin II called in the Vikings to aid him against Charles and they settled at the mouth of the Garonne. Two dukes of Gascony, Seguin II and William I, died defending Bordeaux from Viking assaults. A later duke, Sancho Mitarra, even settled some at the mouth of the Adour in an act presaging that of Charles the Simple and the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte by which the Vikings were settled in Rouen, creating Normandy as a bulwark against other Vikings.
IberiaBy the mid 9th century, though apparently not before there were Viking attacks on the coastal Kingdom of Asturias in the far northwest of the peninsula, though historical sources are too meagre to assess how frequent or how early raiding occurred. By the reign of Alfonso III Vikings were stifling the already weak threads of sea communications that tied Galicia to the rest of Europe. Richard Fletcher attests raids on the Galician coast in 844 and 858: "Alfonso III was sufficiently worried by the threat of Viking attack to establish fortified strong points near his coastline, as other rulers were doing elsewhere." In 861, a group of Vikings ransomed the king of Pamplona, whom they had captured the previous year, for 60,000 gold pieces.
Raiding continued for the next two centuries. In 968 Bishop Sisnando of Compostela was killed, the monastery of Curtis was sacked, and measures were ordered for the defence of the inland town of Lugo. After Tui was sacked early in the 11th century, its bishopric remained vacant for the next half-century. Ransom was a motive for abductions: Fletcher instances Amarelo Mestáliz, who was forced to raise money on the security of his land in order to ransom his daughters who had been captured by the Vikings in 1015. Bishop Cresconio of Compostela (ca. 1036 – 66) repulsed a Viking foray and built the fortress at Torres do Oeste (Council of Catoira) to protect Compostela from the Atlantic approaches. The city of Póvoa de Varzim in Northern Portugal, then a town, was settled by Vikings around the 9th century and its influence kept strong until very recently, mostly due to the practice of endogamy in the community.
In the Islamic south, the first navy of the Emirate was built after the humiliating Viking ascent of the Guadalquivir in 844 when they sacked Seville. Nevertheless, in 859, Danish pirates sailed through Gibraltar and raided the little Moroccan state of Nakur. The king's harem had to be ransomed back by the emir of Cordoba. These and other raids prompted a shipbuilding program at the dockyards of Seville. The Andalusian navy was thenceforth employed to patrol the Iberian coastline under the caliphs Abd al-Rahman III (912 – 61) and Al-Hakam II (961 – 76). By the next century, piracy from North Africans superseded Viking raids.
Byzantine Empire, Russia, UkraineThe Vikings settled coastal areas along the Baltic Sea, and along inland rivers in Russian territories such as Staraya Ladoga, Novgorod and along major waterways to the Byzantine empire.
The Varangians or Varyags (Russian, Ukrainian: Варяги, Varyagi) sometimes referred to as Variagians were Scandinavians who migrated eastwards and southwards through what is now Russia, Belarus and Ukraine mainly in the 9th and 10th centuries. Engaging in trade, colonization, piracy and mercenary activities, they roamed the river systems and portages of Gardariki, reaching and settling at the Caspian Sea and in Constantinople.
GreenlandTwo areas along Greenland's southwest coast were colonized by Norse settlers around 986. The land was marginal at best. The settlers arrived during a warm phase, when short-season crops such as rye and barley could be grown. Sheep and hardy cattle were also raised for food, wool, and hides. Their main export was walrus ivory, which was traded for iron and other goods which could not be produced locally. Greenland became a dependency of the king of Norway in 1261. During the 13th century, the population may have reached as high as 5,000, divided between the two main settlements of Eystribygð (Eastern Settlement) and Vestribygð (Western Settlement). Greenland had several churches and a cathedral at Gardar. The Catholic diocese of Greenland was subject to the archdiocese of Nidaros. However, many bishops chose to exercise this office from afar. As the years wore on, the climate shifted (see little ice age). In 1379 the northernmost settlement was attacked by the Skrælings (Norse word for Inuit). Crops failed and trade declined. The Greenland colony gradually faded away. By 1450 it had lost contact with Norway and Iceland and disappeared from all but a few Scandinavian legends.
North AmericaSome exploration and expansion occurred still further west, in modern-day North America, with exploration led by Erik the Red and his son, Leif Eriksson from Iceland. Leif Eriksson, known from Icelandic sagas as a descendant from a line of Norwegian Viking chieftains, who had established the first European settlement in Greenland in about 985, was most likely the first people from the old world to discover America in about 1000. Regular activity from Greenland extended to Ellesmere Island, Skraeling Island and Ruin Island for hunting and trading with Inuit groups. A short-lived seasonal settlement was established at L'Anse aux Meadows, located in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. The Norwegian Vikings called the new found territory "Vinland."
Motives for expansion
The motives driving the Viking expansion form a topic of much debate in Nordic history. One common theory posits that the Viking population had outgrown agricultural potential of their Scandinavian homeland. For a coastal population with superior naval technologies, it made sense to expand overseas in the face of a youth bulge effect. However, this theory does little to explain why the expansion went overseas rather than into the vast, uncultivated forest areas on the interior of the Scandinavian Peninsula. Moreover, no such rise in population or decline in agricultural production has been definitively proven.
Another explanation is that the Vikings exploited a moment of weakness in the surrounding regions. For instance, the Danish Vikings were aware of the internal divisions within Charlemagne's empire that began in the 830s and resulted in schism. The Danish expeditions in England also profited from the disunity of the different English kingdoms.
The decline in the profitability of old trade routes could also have played a role. Trade between western Europe and the rest of Eurasia suffered a severe blow when the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century. The expansion of Islam in the 7th century had also affected trade with western Europe. Trade on the Mediterranean Sea was historically at its lowest level when the Vikings initiated their expansion. By opening new trade routes in Arabic and Frankish lands, the Vikings profited from international trade by expanding beyond their traditional boundaries. Finally, the destruction of the Frisian fleet by the Franks afforded the Vikings an opportunity to take over their trade markets.
Viking expansion could also have originated as a means of resistance to forced Christianisation, in particular Charlemagne’s persecutions against all the Pagan people, who would’ve had to accept “conversion, or the massacre."
DeclineFollowing a period of thriving trade and settlement, cultural impulses flowed from the rest of Europe to affect Viking dominance. Christianity had an early and growing presence in Scandinavia, and with the rise of centralized authority and the development of more robust coastal defense systems, Viking raids became more risky and less profitable.
Snorri Sturluson in the saga of St. Olafr chapter 73, describes the brutal process of Christianisation in Norway: “…those who did not give up paganism were banished, with others he (St. Olafr) cut off their hands or their feet or extirpated their eyes, others he ordered hanged or decapitated, but did not leave unpunished any of those who did not want to serve God (…) he afflicted them with great punishments (…) He gave them clerks and instituted some in the districts.”
As the new quasi-feudalilistic system became entrenched in Scandinavian rule, organized opposition sealed the Viking's fate – 11th century chronicles note Scandinavian attempts to combat the Vikings from the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, which eventually led to Danish and Swedish participation in the Baltic crusades during the 12th and 13th centuries, and contributed to the development of the Hanseatic League.
Weapons and warfareOur knowledge about arms and armor of the Viking age is based on relatively sparse archaeological finds, pictorial representation, and to some extent on the accounts in the Norse sagas and Norse laws recorded in the 13th century.
According to custom, all free Norse men were required to own weapons, as well as permitted to carry them at all times. These arms were also indicative of a Viking's social status. A wealthy Viking would have a complete ensemble of a helmet, shield, chainmail shirt, and animal-skin coat, possibly reindeer hides, among various other armaments. A lesser off man, however, could only afford a single weapon, and perhaps a shield.
The spear and shield were the most basic armaments of the Viking warrior; most would probably also wear a knife of some description, commonly of the seax type. As an alternative, or perhaps in addition, to the spear a warrior might carry a bow or axe. The wealthiest Vikings would have worn a sword in addition to his primary arms and have had access to body armor, such as a helmet and a mail hauberk.
With a distinct lack of totally reliable written sources on the topic, much of the historical investigation of the Viking period relies on Archaeology.
RunestonesThe vast majority number of runic inscriptions from the Viking period come from Sweden, especially from the tenth and eleventh century. Many runestones in Scandinavia record the names of participants in Viking expeditions, such as the Kjula Runestone which tells of extensive warfare in Western Europe and the Turinge Runestone which tells of a warband in Eastern Europe. Other rune stones mention men who died on Viking expeditions, among them the around 25 Ingvar Runestones in the Mälardalen district of Sweden erected to commemorate members of a disastrous expedition into present-day Russia in the early 11th century. The rune stones are important sources in the study of Norse society and early medieval Scandinavia, not only of the 'Viking' segment of the population (Sawyer, P H: 1997).
Rune stones attest to voyages to locations, such as Bath, Greece, Khwaresm, Jerusalem, Italy (as Langobardland), London, Serkland (i.e. the Muslim world), England, and various locations in Eastern Europe.
Burial sitesThere are numerous burial sites associated with Vikings. As well as providing information on Viking religion, burial sites also provide information on social structure, and the items buried with the deceased often give some indication as to what was considered important to possess in the afterlife. Some examples of notable burial sites include:
There were two distinct classes of Viking ships: the longship (sometimes erroneously called "drakkar", a corruption of "dragon" in Norse) and the knarr. The longship, intended for warfare and exploration, was designed for speed and agility, and were equipped with oars to complement the sail as well as making it able to navigate independently of the wind. The longship had a long and narrow hull, as well as a shallow draft, in order to facilitate landings and troop deployments in shallow water. The knarr, on the other hand, was a slower merchant vessel with a greater cargo capacity than the longship. It was designed with a short and broad hull, and a deep draft. It also lacked the oars of the longship.
Longships were used extensively by the Leidang, the Scandinavian defence fleets. The term "Viking ships" has entered common usage, however, possibly because of its romantic associations (discussed below).
In Roskilde are the well-preserved remains of five ships, excavated from nearby Roskilde Fjord in the late 1960s. The ships were scuttled there in the 11th century to block a navigation channel, thus protecting the city, which was then the Danish capital, from seaborne assault. These five ships represent the two distinct classes of Viking ships, the longship and the knarr. The remains of these ships can be found on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde.
Longships are not to be confused with longboats.
GeneticsThe Vikings’ prolific expansion is still exhibited in modern genetics. Relatively high frequencies of Haplogroup R1a1 are found in Northern Europe, the largest being 23% in Iceland, and it is believed to have been spread across Europe by the Indo-Europeans and later migrations of Vikings, which accounts for the existence of it in, among other places, the British Isles.
Historical opinion and cultural legacyIn England the Viking Age began dramatically on June 8 793 when Norsemen destroyed the abbey on the island of Lindisfarne. The devastation of Northumbria's Holy Island shocked and alerted the royal Courts of Europe to the Viking presence. "Never before has such an atrocity been seen," declared the Northumbrian scholar, Alcuin of York. More than any other single event, the attack on Lindisfarne demonized perception of the Vikings for the next twelve centuries. Not until the 1890s did scholars outside Scandinavia begin to seriously reassess the achievements of the Vikings, recognizing their artistry, technological skills and seamanship.
The first challenges to anti-Viking sentiments in Britain emerged in the 17th century. Pioneering scholarly editions of the Viking Age began to reach a small readership in Britain, archaeologists began to dig up Britain's Viking past, and linguistic enthusiasts started to identify the Viking-Age origins for rural idioms and proverbs. The new dictionaries of the Old Norse language enabled the Victorians to grapple with the primary Icelandic sagas.
In Scandinavia, the 17th century Danish scholars Thomas Bartholin and Ole Worm, and Olof Rudbeck of Sweden were the first to set the standard for using runic inscriptions and Icelandic Sagas as historical sources. During the Age of Enlightenment and the Nordic Renaissance, historical scholarship in Scandinavia became more rational and pragmatic, as witnessed by the works of a Danish historian Ludvig Holberg and Swedish historian Olof von Dalin. Until recently, the history of the Viking Age was largely based on Icelandic sagas, the history of the Danes written by Saxo Grammaticus, the Russian Primary Chronicle and the The War of the Irish with the Foreigners. Although few scholars still accept these texts as reliable sources, historians nowadays rely more on archeology and numismatics, disciplines that have made valuable contributions toward understanding the period.
Until the 19th century reign of Queen Victoria, public perceptions in Britain continued to portray Vikings as violent and bloodthirsty. The chronicles of medieval England had always portrayed them as rapacious 'wolves among sheep'. In 1920, a winged-helmeted Viking was introduced as a radiator cap figure on the new Rover car, marking the start of the cultural rehabilitation of the Vikings in Britain.
Icelandic sagas and other textsNorse mythology, sagas and literature tell of Scandinavian culture and religion through tales of heroic and mythological heroes. However, early transmission of this information was primarily oral, and later texts were reliant upon the writings and transcriptions of Christian scholars, including the Icelanders Snorri Sturluson and Sæmundur fróði. Many of these sagas were written in Iceland, and most of them, even if they had no Icelandic provenance, were preserved there after the Middle Ages due to the Icelanders' continued interest in Norse literature and law codes.
The 200 year Viking influence on European history is filled with tales of plunder and colonization, and the majority of these chronicles came from western witnesses and their descendants. Less common, though equally relevant, are the Viking chronicles that originated in the east, including the Nestor chronicles, Novgorod chronicles, Ibn Fadlan chronicles, Ibn Ruslan chronicles, and many brief mentions by the Fosio bishop from the first big attack on the Byzantine empire.
Other chroniclers of Viking history include Adam of Bremen, who wrote "There is much gold here (in Zealand), accumulated by piracy. These pirates, which are called wichingi by their own people, and Ascomanni by our own people, pay tribute to the Danish king" in the fourth volume of his Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, and Egil Skallagrimsson, who mentioned that "Björn was a great traveler; sometimes as Viking, sometimes as tradesman."
In 991, the Battle of Maldon between Viking raiders and the inhabitants of the town of Maldon in Essex, England was commemorated with a poem of the same name.
Modern revivalsEarly modern publications, dealing with what we now call Viking culture, appeared in the 16th century, e.g. Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (Olaus Magnus, 1555), and the first edition of the 13th century Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus in 1514. The pace of publication increased during the 17th century with Latin translations of the Edda (notably Peder Resen's Edda Islandorum of 1665).
RomanticismThe word Viking was popularized, with positive connotations, by Erik Gustaf Geijer in the poem, The Viking, written at the beginning of the 19th century. The word was taken to refer to romanticized, idealized naval warriors, who had very little to do with the historical Viking culture. This renewed interest of Romanticism in the Old North had political implications. A myth about a glorious and brave past was needed to give the Swedes the courage to retake Finland, which had been lost in 1809 during the war between Sweden and Russia. The Geatish Society, of which Geijer was a member, popularized this myth to a great extent. Another Swedish author who had great influence on the perception of the Vikings was Esaias Tegnér, member of the Geatish Society, who wrote a modern version of Friðþjófs saga ins frœkna, which became widely popular in the Nordic countries, the United Kingdom and Germany.
A focus for early British enthusiasts was George Hicke, who published a Linguarum vett. septentrionalium thesaurus in 1703 – 05. During the 18th century, British interest and enthusiasm for Iceland and Nordic culture grew dramatically, expressed in English translations as well as original poems, extolling Viking virtues and increased interest in anything Runic that could be found in the Danelaw, rising to a peak during Victorian times.
Nazi and fascist imageryPolitical organizations of the same tradition, such as the Norwegian fascist party, Nasjonal Samling, used an amount of Viking symbolism combined with Roman symbolism and imagery widely in their propaganda and aesthetical approach.
Similar to Wagnerian mythology, the romanticism of the heroic Viking ideal appealed to the Germanic supremacist thinkers of Nazi Germany. Political organizations of the same tradition, such as the Norwegian fascist party, Nasjonal Samling, used Viking symbolism and imagery widely in its propaganda. The Viking legacy had an impact in parts of Europe, especially the Northern Baltic region, but in no way was the Viking experience particular to Germany. However, the Nazis did not claim themselves to be the descendants of any Viking settlers. Instead, they resorted to the historical and ethnic fact that the Vikings were descendants of other Germanic peoples; this fact is supported by the shared ethnic-genetic elements, and cultural and linguistic traits, of the Germans, Anglo-Saxons, and Viking Scandinavians. In particular, all these peoples also had traditions of Germanic paganism and practiced runelore. This common Germanic identity became - and still is - the foundation for much National Socialist iconography. For example, the runic emblem of the SS utilized the sig rune of the Elder Futhark and the youth organization Wiking-Jugend made extensive use of the odal rune. This trend still holds true today (see also fascist symbolism).
ReenactmentsSince the 1960s, there has been rising enthusiasm for historical reenactment. While the earliest groups had little claim for historical accuracy, the seriousness and accuracy of re-enactors has increased.
On 1 July 2007, the reconstructed Viking ship Skuldelev 2, renamed Sea Stallion, began a journey from Roskilde, Denmark to Dublin, Ireland. The remains of that ship and four others were discovered during a 1962 excavation in the Roskilde Fjord. This multi-national experimental archeology project saw 70 crew members sail the ship back to its home in Ireland. Tests of the original wood show that it was made out of Irish trees. The Sea Stallion arrived outside Dublin's Custom House on 14 August 2007.
The purpose of the voyage was to test and document the seaworthiness, speed and manoeuvrability of the ship on the rough open sea and in coastal waters with treacherous currents. The crew tested how the long, narrow, flexible hull withstood the tough ocean waves. The expedition also provided valuable new information on Viking longships and society. The ship was built using Viking tools, materials and much the same methods as the original ship.
NeopaganismGermanic neopagan groups place emphasis on reconstructing the culture and pre-Christian beliefs of the Germanic peoples, including the Viking era of Norse culture.
In fictionSpearheaded by the operas of German composer Richard Wagner such as Der Ring des Nibelungen, Vikings and the Romanticist Viking Revival have inspired many works of fiction, from historical novels directly based on historical events like Frans Gunnar Bengtsson's The Long Ships (which was also filmed) to extremely loosely based historical fantasies such as the film The Vikings, Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead (movie version called The 13th Warrior) and the comedy film Erik the Viking.
Modern influence is also exhibited in the genre of Viking metal. A popular sub-genre of heavy metal music, originating in the early 1990s as an off-shoot of the black metal sub-genre. This style is notable for its lyrical and theatrical emphasis on Norse mythology as well as Viking lifestyles and beliefs. Popular bands that contribute to this genre include Turisas, Amon Amarth, Einherjer, Valhalla, Týr, Ensiferum, Falkenbach, and Enslaved.
Horned helmetsApart from two or three representations of (ritual) helmets – with protrusions that may be either stylized ravens, snakes or horns – no depiction of Viking Age warriors' helmets, and no actually preserved helmet, has horns. In fact, the formal close-quarters style of Viking combat (either in shield walls or aboard "ship islands") would have made horned helmets cumbersome and hazardous to the warrior's own side.
Therefore it can be ruled out that Viking warriors had horned helmets, but whether or not they were used in Scandinavian culture for other, ritual purposes remains unproven. The general misconception that Viking warriors wore horned helmets was partly promulgated by the 19th century enthusiasts of Götiska Förbundet, founded in 1811 in Stockholm, Sweden, with the aim of promoting the suitability of Norse mythology as subjects of high art and other ethnological and moral aims.
The Vikings were also often depicted with winged helmets and in other clothing taken from Classical antiquity, especially in depictions of Norse gods. This was done in order to legitimize the Vikings and their mythology, by associating it with the Classical world which has always been idealized in European culture.
The latter-day mythos created by national romantic ideas blended the Viking Age with glimpses of the Nordic Bronze Age some 2,000 years earlier, for which actual horned helmets, probably for ceremonial purposes, are attested both in petroglyphs and by actual finds (see Bohuslän and Vikso helmets).
The cliché was perpetuated by cartoons like Hägar the Horrible and Vicky the Viking, and sports uniforms such as those of the Minnesota Vikings and Canberra Raiders football teams.
The regular Viking helmets were conical, made from hard leather with wood and metallic reinforcement for the regular troops and the iron helmet with mask and chain mail for the chieftains, based on the previous Vendel age helmets from central Sweden. The only true Viking helmet found, is that from Gjermundbu in Norway. This helmet is made of iron and has been dated to the 10th century.
Savage maraudersDespite images of Viking marauders who live for plunder and warfare, the heart of Viking society was reciprocity, on both a personal, social level and on a broader political level. The Vikings lived in a time when numerous societies were engaged in many violent acts, and the doings of the Vikings put into context are not as savage as they seem. Others of the time period were much more savage than the Vikings , such as the Frankish king, Charlemagne, who cut off the heads of 4,500 Saxons for practicing paganism (Bloody Verdict of Verden) in one day. Most Vikings were traders, although some did plunder, often monasteries around Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, as they had a lot of valuables in gold and silver. As monasteries were centers of learning and writing, their experiences were much more likely to enter the historical record. However, considerable literature in the monasteries would have been destroyed during the plunderings.
One of the Vikings' largest profit-centers was the slave trade; any group that acts as slave-takers is likely to be viewed with disdain by their victims. During the period of the Vikings, slavery was common throughout Northern Europe, and the fact that many slaves were captured persons was irrelevant in law. A person from Poland could be captured and later sold in England, for example. Slavery was common amongst the Scandinavians themselves, as well.
In the 300-year period where Vikings were most active, there were approximately 347 recorded attacks that spread from the British Isles to Morocco, Portugal, and Turkey. In Ireland, where the Vikings are most famous for attacking monasteries, there were 430 known attacks during this 300-year period.
Skull cupsThe use of human skulls as drinking vessels is also ahistorical. The rise of this myth can be traced back to an Ole Worm's Runer seu Danica literatura antiquissima of 1636), warriors drinking ór bjúgviðum hausa [from the curved branches of skulls, i.e. from horns] were rendered as drinking ex craniis eorum quos ceciderunt [from the skulls of those whom they had slain]. The skull-cup allegation may also have some history in relation with other Germanic tribes and Eurasian nomads, such as the Scythians and Pechenegs.
UncleanlinessThe image of wild-haired, dirty savages sometimes associated with the Vikings in popular culture is a distorted picture of reality. Non-Scandinavian Christians are responsible for most surviving accounts of the Vikings and, consequently, a strong possibility for bias exists. This attitude is likely attributed to Christian misunderstandings regarding paganism. Viking tendencies were often misreported and the work of Adam of Bremen, among others, told largely disputable tales of Viking savagery and uncleanliness.
However, it is now known that the Vikings used a variety of tools for personal grooming such as combs, tweezers, razors or specialized "ear spoons". In particular, combs are among the most frequent artifacts from Viking Age excavations. The Vikings also made soap, which they used to bleach their hair as well as for cleaning, as blonde hair was ideal in the Viking culture.
The Vikings in England even had a particular reputation for excessive cleanliness, due to their custom of bathing once a week, on Saturdays (unlike the local Anglo-Saxons). To this day, Saturday is referred to as laugardagur / laurdag / lørdag / lördag, "washing day" in the Scandinavian languages, though the original meaning is lost in modern speech in most of the Scandinavian languages ("laug" still means "bath" or "pool" in Icelandic).
As for the Rus', who had later acquired a subjected Varangian component, Ibn Rustah explicitly notes their cleanliness, while Ibn Fadlan is disgusted by all of the men sharing the same, used vessel to wash their faces and blow their noses in the morning. Ibn Fadlan's disgust is probably motivated by his ideas of personal hygiene particular to the Muslim world, such as running water and clean vessels. While the example intended to convey his disgust about the customs of the Rus', at the same time it recorded that they did wash every morning.
Vikings of renown
- Rollo of Normandy, founder of Normandy.
- Rurik, founder of the Rus' rule in Eastern Europe.
- Askold and Dir, legendary Varangian conquerors of Kiev.
- Oleg of Kiev, led an offensive against Constantinople.
- Helgi, or Oleg, ruler of Kiev.
- Ingólfur Arnarson, colonizer of Iceland.
- Erik the Red, colonizer of Greenland.
- Leif Ericsson, discoverer of Vínland, son of Erik the Red.
- Olaf Tryggvason. King of Norway from 995 to 1000 A.D. Forced thousands to convert to Christianity. Once burned London Bridge down out of anger of people disobeying his orders (conjectured to be the origin of the children's rhyme "London Bridge is Falling Down").
- St Olaf, patron saint of Norway, and king of Norway from 1015 to approx. 1030.
- Eric the Victorious, was a king of Sweden who's dynasty is the first known to rule as kings of the nation. It is possible he was king of Denmark for a time.
- Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark, Norway, and England, as well as founder of Swansea ("Sweyn's island"). In 1013, the Danes under Sweyn led a Viking offensive against the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England. The English king was forced into exile, and in late 1013 Sweyn became King of England, though he died early in 1014, and the former king was brought out of exile, to challenge his son.
- Canute the Great, king of England and Denmark, Norway, and of some of Sweden, was possibly the greatest Viking king. A son of Sweyn Forkbeard, and grandson of Harold Bluetooth, he was a member of the dynasty key to the unification and Christianiseation of Denmark. Modern historians often call him the ‘Emperor of the North’, in lieu to his position amongst the magnates of medieval Europe, and the proximity of the Holy Roman Empire.
- Harald Hardrada, was a Norwegian king who died along with his men in an unsuccessful attempt to conquer England in 1066, at Stamford Bridge. Only a fraction of the invasion force is thought to have made their escape.
- William the Conqueror, was ruler of Normandy, and the victor at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. His kingship of England saw the end of an era, and the encroachment of continental magnates, and the ideals of Christendom. A trump in his claim on the throne was the fact his great great uncle was Canute the Great.
- Egill Skallagrímsson, Icelandic warrior and skald (see also Egils saga).
- Freydís Eiríksdóttir, a Viking woman who sailed to Vínland.
- Hastein, a chieftain who raided in the Mediterranean.
- Brodir, a Danish Viking who killed the High King of Ireland, Brian Boru.
- Grímur Kamban, Norwegian or Norwegian/Irish Viking who was, according to Færeyinga Saga, the first Nordic settler in the Faeroes, around 825 AD.
- Gardar Svavarsson, discoverer of Iceland. Originally from Sweden. There is another contender for the discovery of Iceland, Naddoddr, a Norwegian/Faeroese Viking explorer.
- Sigmundur Brestisson, Faeroese Viking chieftain who, according to Færeyinga Saga, introduced Christianity and Norwegian supremacy to the Faeroes in 999 AD.
- Tróndur í Gøtu, Faeroese Viking chieftain who, according to Færeyinga Saga, was opposed to the introduction of Christianity and Norwegian supremacy to the Faeroes.
- Ingvar the Far-Travelled, the leader of the last great Swedish Viking expedition, which pillaged the shores of the Caspian Sea.
- Ragnar Lodbrok, captured Paris.
- Björn Ironside, son of Ragnar Lodbrok, pillaged in Italy.
- Ivar the Boneless, disabled son of Ragnar Lodbrok who, despite having to be carried on a shield, conquered York.
- Thorgils (Thorgest), founder of Dublin.
- Guthrum, colonizer of Danelaw.
Notes on the text
- Downham, Clare, Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland: The Dynasty of Ívarr to AD 1014. Dunedin Academic Press, 2007. ISBN 1903765890
- Hadley, D.M., The Vikings in England: Settlement, Society and Culture. Manchester University Press, 2006. ISBN 0719059828
- Hall, Richard, Exploring the World of the Vikings. Thames and Hudson, 2007. ISBN 9780500051443
- Roesdahl, Else. The Vikings. Penguin, 1998. ISBN 0140252827
- Sawyer, Peter, The Age of the Vikings (second edition) Palgrave Macmillan, 1972. ISBN 0312013655
- BBC: History of Vikings
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Viking, or Norseman, or Northman, or Varangian (people)
- RTÉ: Reenactment of Viking voyage
- Borg Viking museum, Norway
- Ibn Fadlan and the Rusiyyah, by James E. Montgomery, with full translation of Ibn Fadlan
- Reassessing what we collect website – Viking and Danish London History of Viking and Danish London with objects and images
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