The Viking Age may have ended around a millennium ago but the Vikings continue to capture our imagination today, inspiring everything from cartoons to fancy dress outfits. Along the way, the seafaring warriors have been hugely mythologised and it is often difficult to separate fact from fiction when it comes to these northern Europeans.
Who Were Vickings
Viking, also called Norseman or Northman, member of the Scandinavian seafaring warriors who raided and colonized wide areas of Europe from the 9th to the 11th century and whose disruptive influence profoundly affected European history. These pagan Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish warriors were probably prompted to undertake their raids by a combination of factors ranging from overpopulation at home to the relative helplessness of victims abroad.
The Vikings were made up of landowning chieftains and clan heads, their retainers, freemen, and any energetic young clan members who sought adventure and booty overseas. At home these Scandinavians were independent farmers, but at sea they were raiders and pillagers. During the Viking period the Scandinavian countries seem to have possessed a practically inexhaustible surplus of manpower, and leaders of ability, who could organize groups of warriors into conquering bands and armies, were seldom lacking. These bands would negotiate the seas in their longships and mount hit-and-run raids at cities and towns along the coasts of Europe. Their burning, plundering, and killing earned them the name víkingr, meaning “pirate” in the early Scandinavian languages.
The exact ethnic composition of the Viking armies is unknown in particular cases, but the Vikings’ expansion in the Baltic lands and in Russia can reasonably be attributed to the Swedes. Elsewhere, the nonmilitary colonization of the Orkney Islands, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland was clearly accomplished by the Norwegians.
Facts About Them
Here are some facts about the Vikings.
1. Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets.
Forget almost every Viking warrior costume you’ve ever seen. Sure, the pugnacious Norsemen probably sported headgear, but that whole horn-festooned helmet look? Depictions dating from the Viking age don’t show it, and the only authentic Viking helmet ever discovered is decidedly horn-free. Painters seem to have fabricated the trend during the 19th century, perhaps inspired by descriptions of northern Europeans by ancient Greek and Roman chroniclers. Long before the Vikings’ time, Norse and Germanic priests did indeed wear horned helmets for ceremonial purposes.
2. Vikings were known for their excellent hygiene.
Between rowing boats and decapitating enemies, Viking men must have stunk to high Valhalla, right? Quite the opposite. Excavations of Viking sites have turned up tweezers, razors, combs and ear cleaners made from animal bones and antlers. Vikings also bathed at least once a week—much more frequently than other Europeans of their day—and enjoyed dips in natural hot springs.
3. Vikings used a unique liquid to start fires.
Clean freaks though they were, the Vikings had no qualms about harnessing the power of one human waste product. They would collect a fungus called touchwood from tree bark and boil it for several days in urine before pounding it into something akin to felt. The sodium nitrate found in urine would allow the material to smolder rather than burn, so Vikings could take fire with them on the go.
4. Vikings buried their dead in boats.
There’s no denying Vikings loved their boats—so much that it was a great honor to be interred in one. In the Norse religion, valiant warriors entered festive and glorious realms after death, and it was thought that the vessels that served them well in life would help them reach their final destinations. Distinguished raiders and prominent women were often laid to rest in ships, surrounded by weapons, valuable goods and sometimes even sacrificed slaves.
5. Vikings were active in the slave trade.
Many Vikings got rich off human trafficking. They would capture and enslave women and young men while pillaging Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Slavic settlements. These “thralls,” as they were known, were then sold in giant slave markets across Europe and the Middle East.
6. Viking women enjoyed some basic rights.
Viking girls got hitched as young as 12 and had to mind the household while their husbands sailed off on adventures. Still, they had more freedom than other women of their era. As long as they weren’t thralls, Viking women could inherit property, request a divorce and reclaim their dowries if their marriages ended.
7. Viking men spent most of their time farming.
This may come as a disappointment, but most Viking men brandished scythes, not swords. True, some were callous pirates who only stepped off their boats to burn villages, but the vast majority peacefully sowed barley, rye and oats—at least for part of the year. They also raised cattle, goats, pigs and sheep on their small farms, which typically yielded just enough food to support a family.
8. Vikings skied for fun.
Scandinavians developed primitive skis at least 6,000 years ago, though ancient Russians may have invented them even earlier. By the Viking Age, Norsemen regarded skiing as an efficient way to get around and a popular form of recreation. They even worshipped a god of skiing, Ullr.
9. Viking gentlemen preferred being blond.
To conform to their culture’s beauty ideals, brunette Vikings—usually men—would use a strong soap with a high lye content to bleach their hair. In some regions, beards were lightened as well. It’s likely these treatments also helped Vikings with a problem far more prickly and rampant than mousy manes: head lice.
10. Vikings were never part of a unified group.
Vikings didn’t recognize fellow Vikings. In fact, they probably didn’t even call themselves Vikings: The term simply referred to all Scandinavians who took part in overseas expeditions. During the Viking Age, the land that now makes up Denmark, Norway and Sweden was a patchwork of chieftain-led tribes that often fought against each other—when they weren’t busy wreaking havoc on foreign shores, that is.
11. They came from Scandinavia
But they travelled as far as Baghdad and North America. Their descendants could be found across Europe – for instance, the Normans in northern France were Viking descendants.
12. Viking means “pirate raid”
The word comes from the Old Norse language that was spoken in Scandinavia during the Viking Age.
13. But they weren’t all pirates
The Vikings are infamous for their plundering ways. But many of them actually travelled to other countries to settle peacefully and farm or craft, or to trade goods to take back home.
14. A Viking landed on American shores long before Columbus
Although we commonly credit Christopher Columbus with being the European who discovered the land that would become known as the “New World”, Viking explorer Leif Erikson beat him to it by a whopping 500 years.
15. Leif’s father was the first Viking to set foot in Greenland
According to Icelandic sagas, Erik the Red journeyed to Greenland after being banished from Iceland for murdering several men. He went on to found the first Viking settlement in Greenland.
16. They had their own gods…
Although Viking mythology came long after Roman and Greek mythology, the Norse gods are far less familiar to us than the likes of Zeus, Aphrodite and Juno. But their legacy on the modern-day world can be found in all kinds of places, including superhero films.
17. … and the days of the week are named after some of them
Thursday is named after the Norse god Thor, pictured here with his famous hammer.
The only day of the week not named after a Norse god in the English language is Saturday, which is named after the Roman god Saturn.
18. They ate twice a day
Their first meal, served approximately an hour after rising, was effectively breakfast but known as dagmal to the Vikings. Their second meal, nattmal was served in the evening at the end of the working day.
19. Honey was the only sweetener known to the Vikings
They used it to make – among other things – a strong alcoholic drink called mead.
20. They were proficient shipbuilders
So much so that the design of their most famous vessel – the longship – was adopted by many other cultures and influenced shipbuilding for centuries.
21. Some Vikings were known as “berserkers”
The berserkers were champion warriors who are reported to have fought in a trance-like fury – a state that was likely to have been at least partly induced by alcohol or drugs. These warriors gave their name to the English word “berserk”.
22. The Vikings wrote down stories known as sagas
Based on oral traditions, these tales – which were mostly written in Iceland – were usually realistic and based on true events and figures. They were, however, sometimes romanticised or fantastical and the accuracy of the stories is often hotly disputed.
23. A sword was the most prized Viking possession
The craftsmanship involved in making them meant that swords were extremely expensive and therefore likely to be the most valuable item that a Viking owned – if, that is, they could afford one at all (most couldn’t).
24. The Vikings kept slaves
Known as thralls, they carried out household chores and provided the labour for large-scale construction projects. New thralls were captured abroad by the Vikings during their raids and either taken back to Scandinavia or to Viking settlements, or traded for silver.
25. They were very into physical activity
Sports that involved weapons training and training for combat were particularly popular, as was swimming.
26. The last great Viking king was killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge
Harald Hardrada had come to England to challenge the then king, Harold Godwinson, for the English throne. He was defeated and killed by Harold’s men at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
27. Harald’s death marked the end of the Viking Age
1066, the year in which Harald was killed, is often given as the year in which the Viking Age came to an end. By that point, the spread of Christianity had dramatically changed Scandinavian society and the military ambitions of the Norse people were no longer the same.
With the taking of Christian slaves banned, the Vikings lost much of the economic incentive for their raids and began to focus instead on religion-inspired military campaigns.
‘Lost’ Viking Village Artifacts Emerge From Norwegian Basement Archive
It isn’t rare for a once prosperous medieval town to be abandoned and slowly get side-lined in the annals of history. Nothing exemplifies this statement better than the lost Viking village of Borgund, on the west coast of southern Norway.
The Discovery of the Viking Village of Borgund, Norway
The Borgund Kaupang Project was launched in 2019 by the University of Bergen to re-examine the countless Viking village artifacts found in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, which have long been housed in a basement archive, according to Science Norway .
At the time of discovery in 1953, a piece of land near Borgund church had been cleared, uncovering a lot of debris and objects that were immediately traced to the Norwegian Middle Ages . Over the course of that year and the following summer some 45,000 objects were painstakingly put away into storage after a cumbersome excavation. It was only in 2019 that these items were taken out of storage to piece together the history of a thousand-year-old Norwegian Viking village that the world knows little about.
“The 45,000 objects from the 5,300 square meter excavation area in Borgund have just been lying here,” said Danish archaeologist and project manager Professor Gitte Hansen. “Hardly any researchers have looked at this material since the 1970s.”
What’s particularly interesting is that the town of Borgund is mentioned in Viking sagas and charters from the Middle Ages. Sagas mention the existence of the town as early as at least 985 AD, as this was where Håkon Jarl and his sons journeyed before the battle against the Jomsvikings in 985 AD, states the University of Bergen (UIB) press release . King Håkon was the de facto Norwegian ruler between 975 and 995 AD.
Reconstructing Borgund’s Viking History From Written Sources
From a historical point of view, sagas are always taken with a pinch of salt. The reasoning for this is twofold.
First, sagas are semi-legendary or legendary in nature, bordering on mythology, and have a tendency to conflate the king’s association with gods. For example, this saga associated King Håkon ’s lineage with Sæming, son of Odin.
Second, revisionist history writing is cautious in accepting verbatim sources that are issued from the perspective of those at the apex of society, who are never fair or judicious with their representations of reality. This is largely due to the assertion of power and prestige that comes with the burden of disparately designed social hierarchies.
Then there is a reference to Borgund in relation to the Battle of Bokn in 1027 AD, which has been accepted by this group of historians and researchers as the oldest written evidence for the existence of the Viking village.
The limited written sources about Borgund in the Middle Ages refer to it as one of the “small towns” ( smaa kapstader ) in Norway. “Borgund was probably built sometime during the Viking Age,” adds Professor Hansen, who is also head of the Department of Cultural History at UIB.
Difficulty in Reconstruction and Moving Forward
Within a hundred odd years, Borgund became the most expansive Viking village on the western coast between Trondheim and Bergen. It flourished till the mid-14th century AD, when it was actually at its peak.
However, the plague defined Europe in the Middle Ages had a terrible impact on Borgund, to such an extent that by the end of the 14th century AD, Borgund disappears from the annals of history. This coincided with the Little Ice Age which left much of northern Europe much colder and snowier than before.
Unfortunately, the recovered Borgund Viking village textiles (250 pieces in total) have suffered as no conservation effort was made to preserve them, apart from leaving them in storage. Yet, Hansen admits that she is rather grateful for even having the tattered fabrics to hold onto. Credit for the excavation in 1953 and ’54 goes to Asbjørn Herteig, one of the pioneers of modern medieval archaeology.
Herteig’s strength lay in subverting historical interests from important buildings and centers of power like churches, monasteries, and castles. His method was to assemble a meticulous collection of seemingly trivial artifacts. This included shoes’ soles, pieces of cloth, slag, potsherds (ceramic and otherwise), to name a few, that helped piece together the lives of ordinary people.
The unfinished Borgund Viking village investigations indicate a dense settlement of houses and at least three marble churches . The nearby fjord, known as Borgundfjordfisket, was a rich cod fishery that harvested in late February and early March. The inhabitants ate a lot of fish, as proven by the countless fish bones, and fishing gear artifacts found at the site.
The Borgund Viking village was probably created in the 10th century AD, and there is evidence of trade and contact with the rest of Europe, particularly Western Europe. Numerous pieces of English, German, and French tableware were found at the site. An exchange of art, music, and fashion also occurred. The last official mention of Borgund was from 1384 AD, in a royal decree which instructed the farmers of Sunnmøre to buy their goods in the market town of Borgund.
Financed by the Norwegian Research Council, the ambitious and historically crucial documentation of Borgund Viking village has been captured in detail on the official Facebook page of the BKP and the Per Storemyr Archaeology and Conservation Group page . A five-part documentary series has been prepared by the BKP and can be accessed here . The BKP team includes archaeologists, geologists, osteologists (bone experts), metal scientists, and art historians.