It seems that every day, thanks to modern science, a new Viking grave is being uncovered, or a new ship discovered.
There are now, more than at any other time, more books, films, podcasts, and yes – even websites – about the Vikings.
They seem to permeate both the popular imagination and pop culture.
Perhaps the greatest cultural legacy that the Vikings bequeathed us is the sovereign Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
Before the so-called "Viking Age" (c. 793 – 1066 CE), the Scandinavian peninsula was a fragmentary collection of cultures, societies, peoples, and polities.
The formation of these scattered coastal communities into unified medieval kingdoms is one of the most impressive legacies that the Vikings have bequeathed us.
What began as a series of raids organized by local communities soon began to snowball with these communities' need for larger political, economic, and social organization.
This need for collective organization was soon exploited by individuals who brought in serious amounts of resources (especially people and treasure) from raiding and trading adventures.
Small trading communities, often on the coast, soon began to transform into large entrepots with the influx of people and wealth. As an example, the two small towns of Hedeby (in Demark) and Birka (in Sweden) both saw rapid transformations into international centers of commerce and trade with large multiethnic, multicultural, and polyglot populations.
During the 10th century CE, the Christianization of Scandinavia began to make inroads as many of the local political elites and powerful converted. Ruling dynasties then sought legitimization from the Catholic Church.
These ruling dynasties, often winning bloody and prolonged power grabs, would eventually rule over huge swathes of territory – sometimes together (Cnut the Great's formation of the "North Sea Empire" would see much of England, Denmark, and Norway along with some of Sweden unified under one crown) and, by the end of the Viking Age, the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden would emerge as three distinct and separate political entities.
Would this process have happened without the Vikings?
It is always hard to prove a negative; however, the influx of resources and people, coupled with economic growth that came from Viking raids, trading, and colonization of land abroad, accelerated the formation of these kingdoms.
No Vikings = no Denmark, Norway, or Sweden. As simple as that.
Long story short
The image of a Viking penning a great tale goes somewhat against the common popular stereotype.
Vikings were, so the popular assumption goes, just a bunch of savage marauders who were hellbent on destroying and killing the intellectual elite of their age, priests, and monks.
Yet the Vikings were, quite simply, the greatest storytellers of the early medieval age aside from, perhaps, Tang China and the Abbasid Caliphate.
The Vikings' greatest gift to us (or most Hollywood movie moguls nowadays would agree) is the Norse sagas.
- READ MORE: What you need to know about Norse sagas
These are a collection of stories and histories, poems and prose, which were (mostly) compiled in Iceland during the "Viking Age."
The subject matters for these sagas were wide-ranging, from family drama and disputes (Íslendingasögur) to a potted history of the semi-legendary rulers of early Viking societies (Konungasögur) and everything in between.
Aside from the sagas, the Vikings left us a great deal of Norse mythology and cosmogony. Their religion, which evolved from Germanic paganism, was more or less stamped out by the end 11th century CE.
However, that did not mean that their pantheon of gods, myths, legends, and stories were stamped out too.
The trials and tribulations of Thor, Sigurd and his dragon, Idun and her Golden Apples, the Æsir-Vanir war, and Ragnarök have all fascinated people since they were first told in the primeval formation of Viking societies.
Authors like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien, as well as every Hollywood studio (think the numerous Thor movies or any of the Lord of The Rings adaptations), owe a huge debt of gratitude for mining the cultural treasure trove of the Vikings.
J.R.R. Tolkien was, alongside his genre-defining literary works, a scholar of the Viking Age and the myths and culture of the Norse. Photo: As-Designer / Shutterstock
At ease on the high seas
With a population of about 5.5 million, Norway nowadays has over 1 million recreational boats. That means about 20% of the population not only can sail but owns a sailboat.
Sailing is a favorite pastime of most Scandinavians, from the lowliest writer at The Viking Herald to the current king of Norway, Harald V. And from whom, do you suppose, did Scandinavians get that intrinsic love of sailing from?
Yep, you guessed it, those Vikings again.
The Vikings came from societies that were like an early medieval version of that Kevin Costner movie, "Waterworld." Lakes, rivers, seas, and oceans surrounded their communities, villages, and towns.
Utilizing water for transport was not only practical but also efficient. It was only until the advent of the railway in the mid-19th century CE that overland travel, especially in Scandinavia, was made accessible and fast.
Before this, sailing was the quickest way to travel. Think of a Viking, in the north of Norway, say Trondheim, trying to lug it overland all the way down to Hedeby, in Demark.
He (or she) had to lug their wares, or weapons, all the way down the spine of the Scandinavian Alps. It would have taken months. In comparison, a quick journey on a ship would have cut that journey into a few days at worst.
If it wasn't for the Vikings' seemingly insatiable appetite for raiding, trading, and colonizing, then who knows if the present population of Scandinavia – and especially Norway - would have developed their love of sailing.
King Harald V of Norway, when he represented Norway in sailing at the 1964, 1968, and 1972 Olympic Games, was just the latest following in a long line of Scandinavian rulers who were at ease on the high seas.
Scandinavians likely got their intrinsic love of sailing from the Vikings. Photo: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock
The Vikings were the preeminent maritime explorers and sailors of early medieval Europe.
Their skilled engineering and scientific prowess saw them perfect the longship, perhaps the greatest maritime technological achievement of medieval Europe.
This aerodynamic ship was able to be carried over land, sail upstream, or whizz across the notoriously troubled waters of the North Atlantic.
The Vikings were able to strike villages, towns, and cities all over Europe, from Sevilla to Paris, from Aachen (where they apparently made turned the Imperial Palace that Charlemagne had built into stables) all the way to the gates of Constantinople.
The Viking longboat was the perfect weapon for these deadly warriors. Without them, the Vikings would have – at best – bothered the communities close to the Danevirke in northern Germany and possibly some societies in the Baltic.
They would not have been able to terrorize civilizations, cultures, and peoples as well as plunder them, across Europe, from the Baltic to the Black Sea and everywhere in between.
Aside from the longboat itself, the Vikings were also highly skilled navigators. No other early medieval civilization traveled as far or as wide.
From constructing a settlement on the island of Newfoundland, modern-day Canada, to traversing the many river systems of Eastern Europe, the Vikings were at ease on any body of water.
The fact that they settled in Greenland and Iceland, two remote places only accessible by crossing the North Atlantic Ocean, should be a testament to their nautical skill.
Furthermore, they had only the most rudimentary of navigational tools, making their skilled maritime navigation even more impressive.
By utilizing their nautical skills, the Vikings helped forge new trade networks. Scholars and academics have acknowledged the debt that later medieval trade networks – like the Hanseatic League – owe to the Vikings who helped establish the trading nature of many of these towns, hundreds of years before.
It is no wonder that Europe still possesses many of the busiest ports in the world, many of which the Vikings played more than a helping hand in establishing over a millennium ago.
Fingerprints all over the modern world
Given that the last Viking raid took place more than a millennium ago, they have left a lasting legacy.
From establishing modern trade networks to influencing Hollywood movies, from helping to build the foundations of the contemporary nation-states of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden to advancing nautical and maritime science, the Vikings have their fingerprints all over the modern world.
Sky History has an article on the legacy and impact of the Vikings, available to read here.
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