1) Wealth may vanish in the wink of an eye. Gold is the falsest of friends.
This expression is slightly hypocritical given that one of the main reasons for the Viking expansion, from the mid-8th century CE, was to plunder, raid, and pillage as much treasure as possible. Furthermore, numerous hoards have been discovered all around Europe, where Vikings have buried their prized possessions for safekeeping. Nevertheless, this expression speaks of an early warning against consumerism and that, yes, the best things in life are free.
2) Even in the sheath the sword must be sharp – so too the mind and spirit within the body.
Thanks to Hollywood, everyone can picture a Viking, right? A big hulking, brawny mess of toxic masculinity and violence at its worst. However, part of any Vikings' training regime was to exercise the mind as well as the body. Strategic board games – including a Viking version of chess – were popular ways to keep one's mind as sharp as one's sword.
Strategic games, often echoing the intricacies of battle and governance, played an integral role in Viking mental training and leisure. Photo: Paul Hudson / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)
3) Better a brief spell of honor than a long rule of shame.
Often overlooked by traditional histories is the role that honor played in Viking societies. Every aspect of their culture – from gender relations to beliefs about the afterlife – was deeply influenced by concepts of honor. One major reason Viking chieftains launched raids was not only to obtain worldly possessions but also to gain honor. And why did so many young men join these raids? They sought both honor and the tangible rewards of gold, silver, and women. To rule with honor was seen as the ultimate achievement every Viking chieftain and elite aspired to. It's a sentiment modern politicians worldwide would do well to remind themselves of daily.
4) All guests should speak well of their host or not speak at all.
I bet you didn't think Vikings had table manners, did you? Hospitality was a significant aspect of Viking societies. Feasting and merrymaking were not just popular pastimes but also political tools. Local elites, rulers, and chieftains could use a feast to influence attitudes and events, from the people they governed to allies and potential adversaries. Since hospitality was regarded so highly, insulting a host was a grave and sometimes even deadly offense. Better hold your tongue if the roast boar is undercooked...
Amidst the clinking of horns and jests, Vikings navigated a world of high hospitality stakes, where a misstep could mean more than just a bruised ego. Illustration: The Viking Herald
5) Too much ale and a man's heart is laid bare.
Speaking of feasting, what Viking feast would be complete without plenty of alcoholic drinks, including wine, ale, and mead? This sentiment, from the Saga of Olaf Haraldsson, reflects the societal expectations that people in Viking societies had regarding proper behavior at a party. We all love a good time and a lively party, but no one appreciates a drunken baboon. Wise words to live by when your office Christmas party comes around this year...
6) Better to fight and fall than to live without hope.
If first you fail, try, try again. How do you think the Vikings conquered and settled vast swathes of the British Isles, modern-day France, Iceland, and Greenland? What began as mere predatory raids – which were sometimes repelled by locals, including the Anglo-Saxons and the Franks – eventually turned into full-fledged invasions and conquered territories. This, of course, was a process that spanned centuries and involved many failed invasions, lost battles, and sunken ships. Imagine if the Vikings had just stayed at home; the entire course of history would be drastically different – and this author might very well be out of a job!
On the vast seas, Viking longships sailed not just as vessels of conquest but as symbols of hope, determination, and unyielding spirit. Illustration: The Viking Herald
7) Stand by your own trial and not by what others say.
Given that the Vikings were responsible for the beginnings of representative democracy – if you know a thing or two – many people are surprised to learn that they were a people obsessed with rules, law, and order. Trials would often be conducted at tings where the whole community would come out, have a say, and gossip. Regardless of the local village gossip, you should always stand up for yourself.
8) It is an old custom for the wisest to give way.
This is a Viking expression that we should all live by. It speaks to the often rare ability to let things slide and to pick your battles wisely. Is getting into an intense argument with your spouse, loved one, friend, boss, or petty king worth it? The Vikings weren't always hot-headed and rushing off into battles all the time, and neither should you.
As the Viking's primary legal and social assembly, the ting played a critical role, prompting many to journey large distances to participate in these community events. Illustration: The Viking Herald
9) A person's actions are often worse than their intentions.
Looking at the positive side of human nature isn't necessarily something that springs to mind in the insecure, deadly, and violent world of early medieval Europe. However, this expression, taken from the pages of the Saga of Hrafnkell Freysgoði, sums up how pragmatic people in Viking societies were. Everyone, even a rapacious Viking, makes mistakes, and often, they're not malicious in nature... But all bets are off if they've stormed your ramparts and are brandishing a sword.
10) Everyone has some friend, even among his enemies.
Gotta love the Vikings; they drop two meanings in this one expression. The first part speaks to the fact that we are truly never alone. Regardless of whether you're having a bad day at work or home, we all have people – family, friends, or work colleagues – or things – house plants, pets, The Viking Herald – that are integral parts of our lives. We should never feel truly alone because we aren't. There are people who love, cherish, and depend on us.
The second part speaks to the commonalities of human life. People who may appear as enemies or who have vastly different opinions or politics from ours might still share much in common with us. Yes, Alfred the Great may be the King of Wessex, a kingdom we're desperately trying to conquer, but he might have more in common with us than we think. We are, after all, just humans... and early medieval warriors.
The stories and resolutions of an era, captured skillfully in stone, ensured that Viking legacies would withstand the test of time. Illustration: The Viking Herald
11) Many a man keeps his word of foster-brothership but middlingly well.
Friendship was just as important to people in Viking societies as it is to us moderns today. This pearl of wisdom, found in The Saga of Thorstein Viking's Son, discusses how easy it is to claim friendship but a bit harder to prove it. Your faithful friends should be kept as close to you as your Frankish sword in the midst of battle. In fact, even closer.
12) The hand turns to its wonted skill, and that which was learned in youth is always familiar.
There have been a multitude of studies showing how easy it is for people to learn languages before they hit puberty. When we are young, our brains are like sponges, ready and eager to absorb as much information and skills as possible. Whether it's learning a new language or learning how to forge a sword properly, develop skills in your youth (or today) so you can have them later in life. This expression is a great encouragement to pick up that old tennis racquet, French grammar book, or guitar that you spent countless hours with when you were younger and cooler...
In the rapid pace of today's world, the Viking spirit prompts us to stay awake, aware, and always in pursuit of our Valhalla. Illustration: The Viking Herald
13) A sleeping man is an ignorant man too.
The last Viking expression to live by should make you feel ready to launch a daring raid across the high seas yourself. This is all about being proactive and not procrastinating (one of the chief adversaries of any writer, especially for us here at The Viking Herald). Things should not be put off, and you should try to tackle any challenges – be they personal or professional – head-on. That sort of proactiveness will surely secure you a spot in Valhalla one day.
For more on Viking skaldic poems and expressions, listen to a podcast from The Forum by the BBC here.
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