This Is What the Vikings Were Actually Like — and It’s Not Like on TV

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In Old Norse, Vīkingr means “pirate” or “sea rover,” and that couldn’t be more accurate. The Vikings were Scandinavian people who scavenged and pillaged a region encompassing Scandinavia, North America, the Mediterranean, and Central Asia and Russia from the 8th to 11th centuries. What caused their expansion is debated, as some historians believe it was spurred by the religious persecution of the Saxon Wars led by Charlemagne– while others insist it was due to the economic and political weakness that occurred in Britain and western Europe.

Regardless of motive, the Vikings left an indelible mark on the lands they both raided and settled. Today, we have pieced together what their culture looked like– from religious and social structures, seafaring practices, clothing and appearance, and even cuisine. We’ve also dispelled certain purveying myths about them, like the belief that they wore horned helmets into battle and the idea that they were big-boned and hulking.

If you want to get a grip on these well-known peoples, or if you want to call “B.S.” the next time a TV show about the Vikings is produced, read on.

 

A confluence of factors led to Viking expansion or the “Viking Age,” as some call it.

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Although religious persecution and political motives are likely stories, it’s also possible that demographic expansion and technological advances were a part of the picture. Population growth, evinced by agricultural advances and improved reproductive outcomes, led to internal scarcity and compelled the Scandinavians to explore other lands. Additionally, the advent of the larger sail improved tacking abilities, and 24-hour sailing permitted the Vikings to go farther than before.

What was the Viking religion?

Well, you see, this is a loaded question. Prior to the Viking Age, Charlemagne waged a religio-political war in Saxony. Charlemagne’s blood-thirst was partially motivated by his missionary ideals, seeking to replace the pagan religions of Saxony with Christianity. This conquest did eventually succeed yet it lasted 32 years, or seventy percent, of Charlemagne’s rule. In the meantime, the Vikings maintained their pagan beliefs.

Wax Poetic:

The Poetic Edda is a series of Old Norse poems contained in the Codex Regius, or konungsbók, meaning “king’s book” in Icelandic. Believed to have been created in the 1270s, these documents are the best-preserved insights to Norse mythology. The Poetic Edda, which is also referred to as the Elder Edda, was authored by anonymous sources though historians believe that they were likely minstrels.

Viking paganism unraveled:

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Contrast to Christianity, Viking paganism was a polytheistic religion with two pantheons, the Ӕsir and Vanir. The former contained famed Gods (Odin and Thor) and represented celestial energies. Conversely, Vanir symbolized Earthly forces. Fertility was home to the goddess Freyja, among others. The Vikings believed that these two pantheons engaged in an ancient war before realizing that their powers were equal, merging under one.

The creation of the universe!

As part of Norse mythology, the Vikings believed that the universe began when Muspelheim (fire and heat in the south), and Niflheim (cold and ice in the north), collided in the void of Ginnungagap. From this clash emerged Ymir, who bore the first man and woman from his armpit. From his legs sprung Jӧtnar, or all entities excluding gods and goddesses. Soon the jӧtnar begat three gods, Odin, Vili, and Vé, who slain Ymir and from his flesh fastened the world that humans inhabit.

In Norse Mythology, there are nine “homeworlds,” connected by a sacred ash tree, Yggdrasil.

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These nine homeworlds, or Níu Heimar in Old Norse, are as follows: Asgard (home of the Ӕsir), Álfheimr (home of the Light Elves), Niðavellir (home of the Dwarves), Midgard (home of humans), Jötunheimr, (home of the Jӧtnar), Vanaheim (home of the Vanir), Niflheim (a world of ice and snow), Muspelheim (a world of fire and lava), and lastly, Helheimr (the world of the dishonored dead). Each day, the Gods from the various homeworlds assemble at Yggdrasil and discuss governance.

In Norse paganism, sorcery, or Seiðr, was practiced.

These shamans could be of both sexes, but it was far more acceptable for females to fulfill the role. In fact, males who practiced Seiðr wrought a social taboo upon themselves, referred to as “Ergi.” Ergi was an epithet used to accuse a man of being effeminate. This degradation was so serious that it necessitated the accused to defend themselves in a duel, or a holmgang. Depending on which party won the holmgang, righteous debts were paid.

The Vikings are generally regarded as a non-literate culture, preferring oral tradition to the written word.

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In fact, most of the surviving literature that is available to us is from cultures that interfaced with them. That said, the Vikings did have an alphabet and are renowned for their runic inscriptions. These carvings, laid into stone, are referred to as runestones and are mainly found in Scandinavia. Runestones were primarily erected to commemorate the dead and often reserved for the wealthy or other honorable members of society.

Runes and the Occult.

Some earlier versions of runestones were not dedicated to people or signed by the makers, making it possible that they were used for mythical purposes. The experts on casting these spells and foretelling events were referred to as “Rune Masters,” and they had various methods for transmitting runic messages. One of these rituals required the Rune Master to inscribe runes on several pieces of bark, toss them in the air, and based on which side each landed on, provide the answer to a question.

Seafaring is what the Vikings did best and the ships they built contributed to their unique success.

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The Longship was formed over the course of centuries by Norsemen and perfected during the Viking Age. It’s characterized by its narrow silhouette, light frame, and shallow draught hull, or the distance between the waterline and the bottom of the ship, the keel. The shorter the draught, the more easily the ship can navigate in shallow waters.

The Longship gave the Vikings a competitive edge due to several other traits.

The design of the ship was double ended, meaning that the tapered ends were identical to allow the Vikings to change direction on a dime. This was particularly useful in northern waters, where icebergs and sea ice were prevalent. The sail of the ship was accompanied by oars to allow for maximum efficiency. In fact, replicas of Longships have reached speeds of 25 knots, or near 29 mph. Finally, in a yogic feat of ship construction, the Vikings designed their Longships to be flexible. This was done by loosely nailing the boards of the ship, permitting them to adapt to a spectrum of currents.

The Longship wasn’t the only vessel the Vikings used.

The Knarr was a mercantile ship used to carry bulk cargo. It had a broader body and deeper draught, allowing it to withstand heavy loads. One unique feature of the Knarr was the “beitass,” or the spur attached to the sail, allowing it to navigate into the wind.

The life of a Jarl:

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A Jarl, Karl, and Thrall walk into a bar…just kidding! These three terms represent the social classes of the Vikings. The jarls were aristocratic and enjoyed occupations in politics, hunting, and administration. Their wealth was showcased in their land, number of devotees, ships, and treasures. Their followers worked for them and protected them in battle, but in exchange they were provided sustenance, clothing, and equal protection.

The life of a Karl:

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Members of the middle echelon of Viking society were Karls, and much like any old bell curve, they represented the bulk of the population. Although decisively not wealthy, they were still freemen who could own land or start a family or business. They even had the ability to upgrade to a Jarl, if they were blessed with good enough fortune.

The life of a Thrall:

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The last and least fun club to be a part of is the Thralls, or slaves, in Viking culture. They were considered property and expected to perform chores for their owners. Typically, a Thrall was thrust into their position by either capture from a raid, barter, or through punishment for a crime. That said, the Vikings generally disapproved of maltreatment of Thralls and they were able to enjoy certain liberties such as marriage, earning a wage, and even eventual freedom.

Burial practices varied in Viking culture.

Evidence of simple pit graves, tumuli, and ship burials all exist and are spread throughout modern-day Europe, Scandinavia, Russia, and the Baltic. During the early Viking Age, cremation before burial was common, as their paganism lent the belief that the smoke from their burning bodies would help carry them to the afterlife. Although romantic, ship burials for Vikings were rare and reserved for the elite. After all, building a ship only to send it adrift was wasteful! More often, gravestones were scattered in the shape of a ship or tumuli were constructed to recreate their form.

The Vikings also maintained elaborate ceremonies to venerate their dead.

If the deceased kept slaves during their lifetime, they could be sacrificed and buried with their owners. There’s even a morbid account of a slave woman who was forced to drink alcohol, raped by every man in the village, and then strangled and stabbed by the village matriarch before being placed in the boat with her master and set on fire. WHAT?

The Viking women:

“Viking women” is technically a misnomer, since the word is strictly applied to the Norse men who launched their notorious campaigns. However, that doesn’t mean that women didn’t accompany men on their voyages– they were a critical part of settling in new lands. Although their status wasn’t equivalent to that of the men, women enjoyed a semblance of freedom. They had the right to own property, divorce their husbands and reclaim the dowry from their soured marriages.

Women could be warriors, too.

Although rare, women could also be warriors. Termed as “Valkyrie,” they fought with the Varangian Vikings against the Bulgarians in 971 B.C.E. Valkyries also have a place in Norse Mythology, being capable of choosing those who will live and those who will die in battle.

Appearances

As a seafaring people, we wonder, were the Vikings “beach-bod” ready? Skeletal evidence supports that they were smaller than our modern depictions of them. Interestingly, this same pile of bones which indicate that men and women were more similar looking than we are today. The women had pronounced brow bones and the men had smaller jawbones than expected. These similarities meant that archaeologists had to examine pelvic width and other attributes to identify each skeleton’s sex.

The Vikings were very hygienic people (especially compared to the native English and Europeans)!

Evidence of fine-toothed combs, toothpicks, and tweezers exist and there are accounts that both men and women wore makeup to improve their looks. According to the texts, many Vikings bathed every Saturday. This may have influenced the modern Danish word for Saturday which is “lørdag,” derived from the word “laugardagur” in Old Norse, meaning washday.

As a well-dispersed people, Viking art adopted many influences.

Their trade routes swapped precious stones and silks from the Byzantine Empire and amber and furs from the Baltic. As a semi-nomadic people, the Vikings opted to express their artistry in everyday items that they could transport.

Historians have designated six Viking art styles: Oseberg, Borre, Jelling, Mammen, Ringerike, and Urnes.

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The Oseberg style is synonymous with the gripping beast motif, where creatures are depicted as interlocking forms. This style endured most of the 9th century. The Borre builds on the gripping beast, triangulating the head and appears to be a purely Norse development. Jelling art depicts profiled animals in an S-shaped form. The Mammen style reigned during the last half of the 10th century and used more naturalistic portrayals of animals, such as lions and birds. The Ringerike style is marked by its increasingly thin and tendriled animals. These carvings cover many of the runestones from the period. The Urnes method earned its name from a stave church in Urnes, Norway. It’s characterized by its complexly looped patterns, often employing highly abstract animal forms.

What’s on the Menu?

The most reliable evidence of what the Vikings ate has been gleaned from cesspits and kitchen middens– good thing the dirty work yielded some encouraging results! Various meats, seafood, bread, berries, and nuts were common staples. Drinks included beer, mead, and bjórr– a fruity wine (or as a sommelier would say, “full-bodied”).

Before there was an instant pot, there was the cauldron and open hearth.

The Vikings had an array of cooking techniques, making stews, roasting meat on a spit, baking bread on griddles, curing meats with whey, and churning buttermilk and making skyr, a soft cheese. It sounds like a Chef’s Table episode in the making, doesn’t it?

As a warrior culture, sporting usually centered around combative exercises like wrestling and fist fighting.

One game of particular interest, hnútukast, required men to throw bones at their opponents with the intent to injure them. That said, it’s not clear if this game was truly played or only depicted in their legendary sagas.

The Vikings equipped themselves with weapons, but not the kind that we envision.

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Chainmail, helmets, and swords were onerous and expensive to make and likely reserved for elite warriors, whereas the bulk of Vikings used spears, axes and simple shields.  

The weapons of certain Vikings could also be carved with elaborate designs and inscriptions.

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The eponymous axes from graves at Mammen, Denmark are perfect examples of this trend, using silver inlay on the iron body of the weapons. One axehead shows the pagan tree Yggdrasil and the Phoenix Gullinkambi, perhaps in an attempt to impart mythical powers on its user.

The Vikings were such renowned warriors that the Byzantine emperor, Basil II, employed a cadre of Vikings to protect him.

This group, referred to as the Varangian Guard, proved to be so useful that they graduated to elite ranks within the Byzantine army.

The Vikings’ ventures and plunders created a lasting ripple effect.

Old Norse, merged with Old English to shape our current language. Sailing technologies were perfected and carried through the Viking Age, and cities like Dublin were first settled by the Vikings. Their culture may have been eclipsed by Christianization, but their impact remains.