|Tomorrow is a mystery,|
but yesterday is
|Secrets of times gone by|
“”We come from the land of the ice and snow
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow!
The hammer of the gods
Will drive our ships to new lands
To fight the horde, sing and cry!
Valhalla, I am coming!
On we sweep with threshing oar!
Our only goal will be the western shore!
|—Led Zeppelin, "Immigrant Song"|
The Vikings[note 1] were ancient seafarers from Scandinavia who lived during the Viking Age, circa 793–1066 CE. Ancient Norse explorers even managed to reach the New World before Columbus. Their relevancy to RationalWiki lies in the fact that a central part of Nazi mythology are the ancient Germanics, of which the Vikings were a part of, so it goes without saying that having an article refuting some of the nonsense surrounding the Vikings would be within our purview as a wiki.
According to the Icelandic Sagas, Erik the Red (c. 950-c. 1003) established the first colony on Greenland. His son, Lief Erikson (c. 970-c. 1020), later founded Vinland, the first recorded settlement of European origin in continental North America. One settlement of the ancient Norse found in North America was the Norse ruin of L'Anse aux Meadows, located in what is now modern day Canada, specifically in Newfoundland.
Much of their history is described in the Sagas, which aren't entirely accurate but are still better than a lot of what we know about medieval Europe.
Nobody knows exactly why the Vikings first started to embark on their long raids, but it may have something to do with the warming occurring in Europe at the time. Whereas sea-ice would've previously blocked Viking longships from passage through icy waters, thanks to the warming, they could embark on even longer trips than before. And while the Norse had been fighting and raiding amongst themselves for centuries, the rest of Europe was starting to cool down after the hellhole that was Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Nevertheless, the newfound peace, which itself was largely thanks to the efforts in reunifying Western Europe by Charlemagne, would find itself undone by the Viking marauders.
Other reasons for the Viking expansions could also have included the population size reaching max capacity in Scandinavia. Along with this came political unification of previously independent petty kingdoms and tribal chiefdoms into large empires, with all the political centralization that brings. Indeed, around the time of the first Viking expansions, the semi-legendary Norse king Harald Fairhair was unifying the feuding jarldoms of Scandinavia into the Kingdom of Norway, and so this may have been one of several political, environmental, and economic impetuses leading to the Viking Age.
Advances in shipbuilding technology were another reason behind the Viking expansion, where advanced seafaring longships were built according to new designs. Prior to this, the Vikings were only capable of short journeys in what were essentially river craft.
While it is true that the first Viking raids occurred several decades before Fairhair was born, the very first being the sacking of the English monastery of Lindisfarne in 793 CE (which was accompanied by fiery dragons flying in the skyDo You Believe That?), it was only with Fairhair's rise to power that the Viking Age truly reached its height, as more and more Norsemen fled Scandinavia, seeking their fortunes elsewhere. It's worth noting that prior to the rise of Harald Fairhair, the previous Viking expeditions were either raiding parties or trading expeditions, or sometimes both, since the Vikings were not only pirates, but excellent businessmen as well. It is only with the rise of Harald Fairhair that the first Viking expeditions intent on conquering land began to set out, as with the arrival of the Great Heathen Army in England and the subsequent formation of the Danelaw in what is now Northern England.
More than pirates
in 876, Rollo, the leader of a group of vikings seized land around Rouen, France. In return for getting baptised and pledging to defend the Kingdom, swearing fealty to Charles III, he became the 1st Duke of Normandy, officially ceding these lands, the Duchy of Normandy, to Rollo. He, and the peoples he ruled over became known as the Normans.
The Normans would become very important later on, but for now let's take a detour and consider Norse refugees fleeing to Ukraine, went east and founded a state that would ultimately become the progenitor of modern Russia. They were known as the Rus', and the state these Norse pioneers founded would in time become known as the Kievan Rus'.
These Norsemen were led by the Norse chieftain Oleg the Seer, who succeeded in unifying the various Russic and Slavic tribes and successfully establishing the Kievan Rus' in what is now Ukraine. However, it wasn't until the rise of Vladimir the Great that the Rus' would shed their old pagan ways and
embrace the light of the Lord Christianize as a result of political expediency on Vlad's part. Indeed, the reason the Russians today are Eastern Orthodox and not, say, Catholic is ultimately due to Vladimir's pragmatic adoption of Christianity, which itself was done in order to ingratiate himself with the Byzantines, who were still politically relevant at the time, even after the four-century-long bashing they had received from the Muslims ever since the rise of Islam under the auspice of Muhammad and his successors.
However, the Viking expansions didn't end in Russia. Some Viking mercenaries went south and found themselves in the service of the Byzantine emperors as the Varangian guard, who were formed as a replacement of the old Praetorian guard; the Byzantines viewed foreign mercenaries as more reliable because they lacked political loyalties and could be counted upon to crush local Byzantine revolts without hesitation owing to the fact that they were, after all, foreign mercenaries only loyal to their paychecks.
After a bloody campaign, Canute was crowned King of England in 1017. He undertook many reforms, and unified England and most of Scandinavia into a single monarchy. Canute was also prudent enough to convert to Christianity, and was notable for being the first Viking king to be acknowledged by the Pope as Christian. Canute was initially harsh in his early years of power, executing several notorious English outlaws, but several years into his reign, he became more reasonable and fair as his position was no longer under any significant threat. Many of his reforms were undone after his death.
After Canute's death, he was succeeded by Harthcnut, who died childless in 1042. England fell into the hands of the native Anglo-Saxons once more. This period would be relatively uneventful under the rule of Edward the Confessor, but after Edward's death, things got heated in disputes over succession, with three different parties all claiming the throne, two of whom were in some way related to the Vikings of yore: William the Conquerer, Duke of Normandy, and Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway (Harald III) whose claim to the throne ultimately originated with Harthcnut, and was invited by Godwinson's disgruntled brother Tostig. The Norse invaders were repulsed by the successor to Edward the Confessor, Harold Godwinson, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. Shortly after Hardrada's invading army was defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, William's army arrived, leaving Harold with no time to rest, and thus the Battle of Hastings began. Still, the Saxons put up a good fight, and the Normans would've lost the battle if it weren't for the sudden slaying of Harold by a stray arrow.
The influence the Normans had on the English nation cannot be understated. After the Norman conquest of England nothing was the same. For starters, traditional Anglo-Saxon laws of governance were replaced by Norman ones. Indeed, it was the Normans who introduced traditional mainland European-style feudalism to England. With the Norman Conquest of England, the Viking Age — and by extension the Early Middle Ages — were over. Nothing would be the same. The Anglo-Saxon elite was almost entirely overthrown and replaced by the Normans. Indeed, this caused a substantial group of Anglo-Saxon refugees to flee to Constantinople and join the aforementioned Varangian guard alongside their Norse cousins.
The English language too would be forever changed, with the Old English lexicon incorporating enormous amounts of French, Latin, and Old Norse words.[note 2] This weird mixture of languages would lead to drastic changes in the English language. The need to communicate with the Norsemen in the Danelaw would lead to the simplification of English grammar, changing it from a fusional one like modern German to an analytical one like Mandarin. It would also lead to such oddities as the words for livestock and poultry themselves being largely Germanic, but the word for their food products being French (ex. including cow/beef, sheep/mutton, pig/pork, etc.).[note 3]
It was not just England where the Norman presence was felt, acquiring lands in Scotland and Ireland, and subjugating almost all of Wales. Norman forces drove the Byzantines out of Sothern Italy, establishing a presence there from which Sicily and Malta were captured from the Saracens, as was a presence in the Iberian peninsula, from serving as a major foreign combatants in the Reconquista. From Sicily and Malta, the Kingdom of Africa followed and was formed by Normans capturing Cities on the coast of North Africa. Normans were the backbone of the Crusaders, the Crusader States were essentially Norman conquests. Everywhere they went they left a legacy that can still be seen today in linguistics and physically in the form of the castles they built. They may have ceased to be Viking along the way, but it is the Vikings where their origins lay.
Religion and mythology
The Norse worshiped the classic Germanic pantheon, but had a few... extra deities as well, such as Loki, who is not found in any of the other Germanic mythologies.[note 4] The Norse would first encounter Christianity in the aforementioned Sack of Lindisfarne which occurred in 793 CE, but Norse Christianization wouldn't really start to take place until the conversion of Guthrum from traditional Germanic paganism to Christianity as a result of the peace process with the English king Alfred the Great.
It has been suggested that the reason why Mjölnir (the hammer of Thor) pendants were so popular during the Viking Age among Norsemen was that it was an act of defiance against forced conversion to Christianity, itself being a counter-symbol to the Christian cross. The Christianization of the Norse took centuries and was a long, gradual process, and even during the 19th century, Scandinavian peasants would sing odes to Odin and tell folktales of the old Germanic gods.
White nationalist figureheads
The Vikings are popular with Neo-Nazis for obvious reasons. In recent years there has been a trend of films showing Vikings hanging out with black and Middle Eastern dudes. This is because the Vikings were traders as well as raiders, so part of the profession would've inevitably involved having some form of contact with non-European peoples.
The Estonian Vikings are a central part of Estonian nationalism. Simply put, having awesome Viking warriors as part of your ancestry is always a boon, but the reasoning goes deeper than this, as for mainly political reasons Estonia prefers to consider itself a Baltic nation or a part of Scandinavia, and not part of the former Russian bloc or Eastern Europe.
There are two main problems with the idea of Estonian vikings.
- There is no evidence that the Viking remains in Estonia were the ancestors of today's Estonians.
- The Estonians who lived in Estonia during the Viking Age were actually a different cultural group than modern Estonians.
There is however, some archaeological evidence of Viking-style warriors on the island of Saaremaa, and proponents of the Estonian Viking theory tend to dub these Oeselians (after the islands' Swedish name, Ösel). This is generally combined with some contemporary documents which briefly mention some raiders from somewhere in the vicinity of Estonia.
It should be note that not even the archaeologists who excavated the remains made any comments about ethnicity.[note 5]
Hats with horns
It is a common misconception that Viking helmets featured horns. Viking helmets were typically iron and bowl shaped, with the more advanced version including face guards, which could be decorated. The iconic, but inaccurate, depiction of Viking headgear originates from German nationalism. A process of imaginatively combining Norse and medieval German history resulted in a romanticized Nordic identity where characters combined traits from both.
Runes (or fuþark) were an early writing system for Germanic languages, mainly used by the Vikings to write Proto-Norse and Old Norse. There were several Runic alphabets, generally used during different time periods.
From the 2nd to 8th century, the Elder fuþark was the main Runic alphabet, and used for writing in Proto-Norse. The Vikings as a whole emerged slightly after this time; however, very early Viking artifacts do feature these runes.
From the 9th to 11th centuries, the Younger fuþark became dominant in Scandinavia, with several other Runic alphabets used elsewhere, such as Anglo-Saxon runes in France and Britain, and Marcomannic runes, which was a mix of the two possibly used by Germanic peoples in Bavaria, although it is suspected by some that Marcomannic runes were an invention by later scholars attempting to recreate a later alphabet in runic form.
Apparently, Vikings suffered a lot from arthritis.
Some Afrocentrists think the Vikings were black. No, really. Never mind the fact that black people aren't often found far north of the equator for obvious reasons (outside of immigrants, there are no indigenous black peoples found that far north of the tropics), and that most people found in Scandinavia today have a light skin tone, including all ethnic groups indigenous to Scandinavia, who share demonstrable ancestral and cultural links to the Vikings of yore.
Some Norwegian dude once wrote an eight-volume etymological dictionary called The Viking and the Red Man: The Old Norse Origin of the Algonquin Language (pretty catchy title for a dictionary) in which he tried to show that the Algonquian languages have tons of words from Old Norse. Never mind the fact that Old Norse is Indo-European whereas Algonquian, is well, Algic, or the fact that the two language families are indigenous to two completely separate continents.[note 6]
The Vikings didn't exclusively deal out chaos and bloodshed. They were also keen merchants, as well as quite hygienic, being considerably more clean (for the day, of course), than the peoples of the various nations they raided and traded in, and so wooed quite a lot of women because of it. Because, let's be real, anyone would rather be with someone who doesn't smell like a bloated corpse and bathes at least a few more times a year than the average medieval peasant.
The former Viking strongholds of Iceland, Norway, and Sweden are tops in gender equity today. So perhaps it shouldn't have been a huge surprise that DNA testing and osteology analysis confirmed that the remains of a Viking tactician buried at Birka, Sweden, were of a woman. Women in general in Viking Age Scandinavian society at the time held more power than their peers in continental Europe during the time, being heads of their households and being primarily responsible for textile production, among other things. While they would have ultimately been subordinate to their husbands, their dominance in domestic affairs cannot be understated, as this epitaph from the grave of a woman buried in the Viking Age attests to:
There's also good evidence that some women were actually merchants, as graves have been found with goods buried in them such as coins, weights, needles, and so on and so forth. Interestingly, these finds only occur at places that were key trading centers of the time, and one of them was Birka, Sweden, interestingly enough. While this isn't conclusive in and of itself, as it is possible that these women merely came from merchant families, it says something as to the status of these women in medieval Scandinavian society.
The modern Viking
- Noble savage - what Romanticists often tended to depict them as
- Scandinavia - where they ultimately hailed from
- Middle Ages - the time period the Vikings existed in
- Viking Answer Lady for all your Viking queries
- Derived from the Old Norse term vikingr, roughly meaning "pirate" or "raider" in modern parlance, vikingr was both a noun and a verb; since being a Viking was viewed as a profession, it was often said that men would "go Viking", meaning they went on a raiding/trading expedition overseas.
- Though it should come as no surprise that the core of the modern English language is still essentially Anglo-Saxon.
- The Normans spoke a form of French simply called "Norman". Even though they were partial Viking descendants, the Normans had completely assimilated themselves into wider French culture, such that essentially nothing outside of their name was Norse anymore
- However, Frank's Casket dating back to the 7th Century CE depicts the slaying of the Germanic god Balder by Mistletoe, (who in the Eddas was convinced by Loki to slay Balder after Freyja, Balder's mother, had gotten everything else but the lowly mistletoe, to swear an oath not to harm Balder in any way her folly being that she believed the mistletoe to be so insignificant as to not be worthy of her attention, since how could such a pathetic thing even be capable of killing a god such as Balder? Loki ended up proving her wrong), so this could be interpreted as evidence that Loki wasn't solely indigenous to the Norse pantheon and rather belonged to the wider Germanic pantheon.
- However, it is probable that these ancient "Viking-style warriors" were in some way ancestral to the modern day Estonians, but probably no more than any other modern Baltic ethnicity.
- The two continents in question being North America and Eurasia. Arguably, the latter depends on one's own personal definition of "continent," but let's save the semantics for later, mkay?
- This is the only verse on a Swedish scribed stone commemorating a woman found to date.
- History of Greenland, a story of Inuits and Vikings Government of Greenland.
- Leif Eriksson the Lucky Encyclopædia Britannica.
- "How the Vikings Became the World's First Climate Change Profiteers" from Salon
- Harald Fairhair from Badass of the Week
- Maggio, Edward (1997). Private Security in the 21st Century: Concepts and Applications. Sudbury, Massachusetts: Jones and Bartlett Publishers. pp. 4–5. ISBN 978-07637-5190-6.
- "Canute the Great" - English Monarchs
- "Harold Godwinson" - English Monarchs
- Thomas, Hugh M. (April 2003). "The Significance and Fate of the Native English Landowners of 1086". The English Historical Review 118 (476): 303–333.
- Heath, Ian (1995). Byzantine Armies AD 1118–1461. London: Osprey. ISBN 978-1-85532-347-6.
- "Old English" - The History of the English Language
- "Loki" - Ancient History Encyclopedia
- Dumville, David; Lapidge, Michael (1985). The Annals of St Neots with Vita Prima Sancti Neoti, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: a Collaborative Edition. Cambridge. ISBN 978-0-85991-117-7.
- "Thor" - The Ancient History Encyclopedia
- Thorpe, Benjamin (1851). Northern Mythology, Compromising the Principal Traditions and Superstitions of Scandinavia, North Germany, and the Netherlands: Compiled from Original and Other Sources. 3 vols. Volume 2 Scandinavian Popular Traditions and Superstitions. Lumley. WorldCat Catalog
- See the Wikipedia article on The 13th Warrior.
- Viking helmets, National Museum of Denmark
- Viking Age Arms and Armor - Viking Helmets, hurstwic.
- Types of Viking Helmets, Harry Atkins, 16 May 2018
- Copper Magnetic Bracelets - Viking, HolisticMagnets.com
- Needle release optimal treatment for Viking disease, Science Daily
- The Vikings and Baron Dupuytren's disease, Adrian E Flatt, Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent). 2001 Oct; 14(4): 378–384.
- THE ANCIENT CELTS AND VIKINGS WERE BLACK PEOPLE – BY DR CLYDE WINTERS, Africa Resource
- "Vikings were quite hygienic and trimmed and dyed their beards to woo women"
- [World Economic Forum. The Global Gender Gap Report: 2018. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2018.pdf Accessed Sep. 13, 2019.]
- Michael Greshko, "Famous Viking warrior was a woman, DNA reveals." National Geographic, Sep. 12, 2017. Accessed Sep. 13, 2019.
- "Women in the Viking Age" - Ancient History Encyclopedia