Famous as the Lords of the Ocean, the Vikings had their homeland in the Nordic regions of Europe known today as Scandinavia.
Many associate Vikings with brutal robbers and people were terrified when they spotted a Viking ship approaching.
It’s true that Vikings were tough warriors who conquered many territories, but these people were also members of an amazing ancient culture that many are unfamiliar with. The legacy and traditions of the Vikings are still alive today, not only in Scandinavia, but also in countries they visited.
In this article, we examine facts and history about the Vikings who became known as the tough Norse seafaring people.
Viking culture is today associated with poetry, woodcarving and storytelling, colorful shields, berserkers, longships, Valhalla, the one-eyed god Odin and men drinking out of skulls or dying with sword in hand.
Their culture was rich and left traces in almost every area of social life.
Vikings were warriors, traders, farmers or craftsmen and shared common features such as house forms, jewelry, tools and everyday equipment. They lived in the Age of the Vikings, from around 800 AD to 1050 AD.
Vikings had a pantheon of gods and a non-standardized alphabet, called runes. They became also famous for their sailing techniques, weapons and a code of conduct.
In the Viking Age society, people were divided into three main classes; the noblemen called Jarls, the middle class, free Vikings (farmers, craftsmen, tradesmen) called Karls, and the slaves – called Thralls, who had many tasks. Kings, princess and nobles, high officials, military leaders were above them.
A household in Viking times could be very large, for one family, relatives, and employees. Houses were built of wood, stone and peat, usually consisting of one long enclosed space with a fire place in the middle, with areas for cooking, eating, sleeping and an indoor relaxation. Vikings enjoyed playing a variety of board games during long, cold winter evenings. One of the most popular board games was the Hnefatafl.
People cultivated rye, barley, oats, wheat, cabbage, peas, beans and root vegetables and used the Radl (primitive wooden plow) which prepared the ground for sowing, spades, wooden forks, and flails. Grain and hay was cut with an iron sickle and knifes were used to cut leaves. Vikings’ farm animals included pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, horses, geese and chickens.
The family was very important to the Vikings, who kept family possessions and valuables in wooden chests, locked with padlocks.
The Viking woman had a respected position in society. She was considered an equal with her husband in almost everything. When the men were out on trips women took care of the household and the defense of the estate, if necessary.
Evidence suggests that there were women warriors in the Viking era (although very rarely). Some experts suggest that Sela, Lathgertha, Hetha and Visna may well have been the names of warrior women.
The Vikings introduced excellent ceramics, distinctive style of dress with a variety of patterns and ornaments, and hairstyle.
Vikings wore clothes similar to those of people in England, Scotland and Wales at that time. Men wore tunics and trousers. Women wore long dresses, with a kind of long apron. Clothes were made from wool, linen and animal skins.
Warriors had helmets and their weapons were – a short sword and a round shield.
Vikings believed in two main families (“clans”) of gods: the Aesir (sky gods, or gods and goddesses of humankind) and the Vanir (earth Gods, or gods and goddesses of nature). They also believed in elves, dwarves, trolls and intelligent, powerful animals, like Jormungand, the sea-serpent and Fenrir.
The Tree of Life, Yggdrasil played an important role in Norse myths and legends. They also believed in Valhalla, the home for warriors who died gloriously in battle. According to Viking beliefs, the warriors who died in battle, were abducted by Valkyrie, virgins in paradise and taken by them to Valhalla, where they could feast among the gods.
The most important god was Odin (also known as Wotan). He was the god of war, magic and justice. Thor was a warrior god and god of thunder and lightning. Freyr with his sister, Freya, were gods of fertility. Behind them further was a whole pantheon of gods of Asgard, home of the gods.
End of the world in Vikings’ beliefs was Ragnarok (twilight of the gods), where a final battle will take place between good and evil, which in turn would result in the advent of a new era.
The Vikings had their own simple alphabet, Futhark – runes. Runic inscriptions have been found where Vikings lived. Runes were written on wood, bone, metal and stones. The most amazing examples of runic inscriptions are free-standing, vertical rocks.
Depending on the geographical location, the sign of the Futhark could vary.
The Rök Stone is the longest runic inscription ever discovered.
The rune stones of the Viking period were erected in memory and honor of the dead – mostly powerful people and their honorable deeds but also informed about sad fates of ordinary people (men and women). Often mentioned are the deceased’s closest kin, position in society, a short description of his or her character and the circumstances surrounding death.
Painted in bright colors, rune stones were intended to be visible by standing near roads or bridges, but they were not necessarily placed at the burial of the person they commemorated.
Around 250 rune stones are known from Viking Age Denmark after Harald Bluetooth erected the large Jelling Stone for his father, Gorm the Old, and his mother, Thyra, around 970. Most of the rune stones in Denmark were raised in the period c. 975-1025.
Most of the Scandinavian examples are from Sweden, where there are over 3000 inscriptions.
The great merit of the Vikings was to perfect the art of navigation. They were skilled ancient seafarers and ship builders.
Their famous longships, with oars along almost the entire length of a boat) were light and narrow wooden boats with a shallow-draft hull designed for easy navigation in shallow waters and for speed, reaching 15 knots in good weather conditions. The longships were double-ended, so they could reverse direction without needing to turn around – a major advantage in a sea packed with concealed icebergs and sea ice.
Longships symbolized the power of the Vikings and were decorated with carved dragon head that deterred enemies. Symbols were important to the Vikings.
The fleets, sailing to England, Scotland, France and Ireland, contained hundreds of longships, mainly used as warships and their other ships called Knarrs (or knorrs in Old Norse), which were slower served as passenger and cargo ships.Known as the lords of the oceans, the Vikings developed navigation to perfection, which in those days was very difficult. They carried portable wooden sundials which helped them on clear days and sunstones the so-called Alderney-like crystals could really have been used as an accurate optical sun compass as an aid to ancient navigation, when the Sun was hidden by clouds or below the horizon.
A wealthy Viking’s complete set of weapons was: a spear, one or two javelins, a wooden shield, a Danish axe and a sword, “fire of Odin”.
Additionally, Glima – the martial arts system – was used by the Vikings. The word Glíma in Old Norse means glimpse or flash, which describes the system’s techniques. Glima is in two categories – Combat Glima and Sport Glima.
They had good armor, shields and a plethora of weapons, including double-edged swords. The prestige as a man was manifest in the fine craftsmanship of his weapons, which were so much part of him, that they had personal names like “leg-biter” or “bone-crusher” or “golden-hilt”.
By the 1100s the Vikings were weakened by domestic unrest. At the same time, many other European countries were becoming stronger and more difficult targets. The Viking raids stopped about 1100. Then, the majority of the Viking converted to Christianity and became less warlike.
Written by – A. Sutherland AncientPages.com Staff Writer
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