As such, we feel it is our mission to again break down and bust some common Viking misconceptions, all in the name of educational fun.

Most people in early medieval Scandinavia were Vikings

Whoever helped popularise this common misconception needs to be sent, at once, to Nilfheimr (the Norse version of hell)! To bust this myth as soon as possible: most men in early medieval Scandinavian societies were NOT Vikings. What we call a Viking comes from the Old Norse word Vikingr – which has a similar meaning to the modern English word "pirate." So, a Viking was not an ethnic group, a people, or even a society but a simple job description.

Early medieval societies in Scandinavia were, it is true, dominated by Vikings. However, not every single member of the society was a Viking. In fact, the majority of people in Viking societies had never even set foot on a boat, let alone pillage and plunder a wealthy monastery. For all the swords and longboats, Viking societies were predominantly small tenant-based agricultural societies.

Most Vikings were young men who took part in Viking voyages for the usual motivating factors – fame, glory, loot, treasure, and women – and, hopefully, return to the community from whence they left. Furthermore, it was the Viking element of society that often explored and settled territories abroad – from the isles of Scotland to Iceland to the Volga River system – but then shortly after, followed by women and children. There is historical evidence that women could also be Vikings, but this was more the exception than the rule.

It is fair to say that the Vikings played a huge role in early medieval societies in Scandinavia, but it should be worth noting that not every single person in these societies boarded a longship to terrorize rich monasteries in the Western Hemisphere.

The Samí are believed to have settled in the subarctic region of the Scandinavian Peninsula in the early first few centuries of the Common Era. Illustration: Nikola Johnny Mirkovic / Unsplash

The Vikings were the only people living in early medieval Scandinavia

Early medieval Scandinavia was awash with peoples, ethnic groups, and societies, of which Vikings were only present in one. 

The men who would become Vikings were often from (but not limited to) North Germanic peoples – a Germanic linguistic group that originated in the Scandinavian Peninsula. Yet the North Germanic peoples were not the only population present in this far northern region of Europe.

The Samí are a Finno-Uric language-speaking people who settled in the subarctic region of the Scandinavian Peninsula (huge northern swathes of Finland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden, the Sápmi). The Samí are believed to have settled in this region of Scandinavia in the early first few centuries of the Common Era. This was approximately the same time that the North Germanic peoples started to establish communities and societies in the more southern regions of Scandinavia. 

It is only in recent times that an academic consensus has been reached on the approximate same time period of settlement of Scandinavia for these two groups of people. Before this, it was widely assumed, wrongly, that the Samí settled northern Scandinavia centuries before the North Germanic peoples arrived.

The Norse referred to the Samí as the Finnar, and though somewhat separated by geography, culture, and language, there was a significant interaction between the two groups of peoples. Economic opportunities (especially the rich trade of walrus ivory and furs), as well as social interactions (marriages), did take place. However, the Finnar are depicted in a somewhat negative light according to many of the Norse sagas. They were apparently notorious for their magical and prophetic skills.

To the east of Scandinavia lay the "Vikings Lake" (The Baltic Sea), which became a sort of early medieval highway for many Viking raiders, traders, and settlers. Here in this region lay the Baltic Slavs. Such a significant amount of trade and intermarriage between these two peoples occurred that a researcher at the University of Bonn has called the southern areas of Scandinavia, during this period, as being a "melting pot of Slavic and Scandinavian elements." 

Flowing eastward, Norsemen would also establish foundational polities of Slavic significance. Viking warriors would help unite these "East Slavic" lands into what would become the Kievan Rus – to which both the modern states of Russia and Ukraine can trace their historical foundation back to.

A common misconception is that Vikings were lawless barbarians. Illustration: iobard / Shutterstock

Viking societies were like an early medieval version of "The Wild West" - lawless, barbaric, and wild

A common misconception is that the Vikings were mere brutish barbarians more interested in satisfying their carnal desires than ruling with sober judgment and wisdom. The legal and judicial systems in early medieval Viking societies, however, totally disprove this misconception. They were, in fact, highly complex and structured.

The Norse, during the so-called Viking Age, had a mostly oral culture with only some rune writing existing. Yet even with this mostly oral tradition, people in Viking societies still managed to create laws and governance. All free men in Viking communities would gather in their communities to make laws and also to discuss judicial cases. These common meetings were called a Ting. In fact, one of the world's oldest parliaments, the Icelandic Althingi, was established at the height of the "Viking Age" in 930 CE. However, it would take over two centuries for the laws decided here to be written down as literacy, during this period, was almost non-existent.

Aside from Iceland, most local and regional communities in the Viking sphere of influence had a Ting. Each required a law speaker to recite the law (yes, the entire breadth and scope of the law) by heart and from memory. The law speaker would liaise with a local chieftain to decide, judge, and settle the cases heard. Though all free men had a voice, the Ting was often dominated by local elites – often powerful families.

Should a malevolent person be found guilty, there were three sentences that could be handed out. A person could be fined, declared a "semi-outlaw," or, more drastically, fully outlawed and banished from that community. Their property (if they had any) was confiscated, and they could not receive any support from anyone else in that community. 

Perhaps the most famous "outlaw" of Viking society was Erik the Red, whose banishment, on account of manslaughter, forced him to become an explorer and who would eventually, according to the sagas, "discover" Greenland and help establish a first Norse settlement there.

The success of the Ting allowed it to be exported, by Viking raiders, traders, and settlers, to a vast area of the North Atlantic world. Many modern locations can trace their foundation to the establishment of a Viking-era assembly. If you have ever been to Gauting (Norway), Fingay Hill (England), Tingwalla (Sweden), or Tingnaes (on the Faroe Islands), then you have stood in a place where the rule of law was very much alive in the "Viking Age."

Drinking from the skulls of enemies - another misconception. Illustration: papi8888 / Shutterstock

They drank from the skulls of their defeated enemies

Imagine the end of a battle where a Viking ruler has defeated some poor army. As the Vikings leave the battlefield, one chops off the head of a defeated foe to fashion into a drinking cup. At the feast later that night, the Viking ruler uses this skull as a drinking vessel to imbibe a little (a lot) mead or ale. This is not only a widespread misconception but, let's face it, a very cool image. However cool this image may be – and it has been used in an assortment of Hollywood movies, including Conan the Barbarian – it is simply not true. It appears that this misconception comes from a misunderstanding of an Old Norse poem.

The root of this misconception goes back to a 17th-century Danish author, Ole Worm, who published a book titled Runir seu Danica literatura antiquissmia… eller literatura runica ("Runes or the Most Ancient Danish Literature"). In this book, published in 1636 CE in Latin, Worm translates a poem in which the hero, upon entering Valhalla, will drink beer from "the curved branches of a skull."

This was intended as being a poetic way of saying that the hero would drink ale from a drinking horn – a common way to imbibe ale and other alcoholic liquids during the early medieval period in Scandinavia. Yet Worm misunderstood the poetic metaphor and literally translated this metaphor so that the hero would "drink ale from the skulls of the slain." 

This image was so powerful that it persisted in the imagination of the public right through the early modern period through to the early movies of Arnold Schwarzenegger!

What should also be remembered is that the Vikings were not the first warriors who were said to drink from the skulls of their enemies. Other early medieval northern European polities, like the Frankish Kingdoms or the Byzantine Empire, often saw Vikings as being mere "barbarians." They were seen as uncultured and uncouth compared to the more "cosmopolitan" and "educated" (dare we say somewhat more decadent…in the Viking's defense?) societies. 

The Lombards of Italy and various Eurasian Steppe peoples (such as the Pechenegs or the Huns) were also said to have drunk from the skull of their enemies, but it is the Vikings who, today, are stuck with this historically inaccurate slander.

You can read part 1 of our deep dive into Viking misconceptions here.  

For more on the Slavic influence on Viking societies, feel free to read a Smithsonian article here.

History Extra also has busted some common Viking myths; you can check it out here.

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