When you hear the word "Vikings," you might think of burly hotheads hoisting hornfuls of mead, never backing down from fights, ever eager to conquer the world. But the Vikings had a lot more to them than booze and brawls... Or so many researchers think. National Geographic writes:
Yale history professor "[Anders] Winroth is among the scholars who believe the Vikings were no more bloodthirsty than other warriors of the period. But they suffered from bad public relations – in part because they attacked a society more literate than their own, and therefore most accounts of them come from their victims. Moreover, because the Vikings were pagan, they played into a Christian story line that cast them as a devilish, malign, outside force."
It's important not to minimize or romanticize Viking brutality. Still, the prevailing academic opinion today is that the Vikings' reputation was worse than the reality.
Either way, the Viking legacy spans centuries. They are still remembered, studied, and awed at today, and will likely continue to be for many years more. So, let's get to know these Scandinavian sailors of old.
We're bringing you an introduction to the "real" Vikings; ancient Norse farmers, fishers, traders, and – less often but most prominently – raiders. Read on for an overview of Viking history.
Where did the Vikings come from?
The Vikings lived and worked during the Viking Age, which lasted from around the 8th to 11th centuries. The Viking lifestyle largely originated in what is modern-day Scandinavia. But how – and why – it arose in that geographical context is unknown.
Let's rewind to pre-Viking-Age Scandinavia. The lands we today know as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden were likely first inhabited during the Stone Age. Between 10,000 and 8,000 BC, when melting ice sheets gave way to land, people began to move in. The first settlers of Scandinavia are thought to have been semi-nomadic hunter-fishers who stayed close to the coasts.
Dated to about 8,000 BC and found near Odense, Denmark, a skeleton known as the Koelbjerg Man is the first-known Scandinavian. In 2018, scientists published genetic research pointing to possible migration routes that could have led early settlers, like the Koelbjerg Man, to the area. Authors of Population genomics of Mesolithic Scandinavia wrote:
"The Scandinavian peninsula was the last part of Europe to be colonized after the last [Ice Age]. By analyzing the genomes of early Scandinavian hunter-gatherers, we show that their migrations followed two routes: One from the south and another from the northeast along the ice-free Norwegian Atlantic coast. These groups met and mixed in Scandinavia, creating a population more diverse than contemporaneous central and western European hunter-gatherers."
Of course, migrations didn't stop in the Stone Age. Migrants continued to flow into (and out of) Scandinavia over the years, adding their own genetic, linguistic, and cultural infusions to the populations already living there. Ancient Scandinavians were, no doubt, diverse and dynamic. They didn't have set-in-stone characteristics that remained unchanged over thousands of years. Instead, they changed and adapted continuously, just like we do today, and just like humans always have.
One major cultural adaptation, which might have been brought in by new migrants, was the development of agriculture. This would have been a significant change for the earliest Scandinavians. Agriculture provided steadier sustenance than meat from wild animals, which had to be followed around from place to place. On one hand, agriculture ensured a stable food source, but it also required more attention. So, life changed from semi-nomadic to settled, with people beginning to build houses for year-round living, gardens in tow. Scientists date the start of Scandinavia's agricultural revolution to around 4,000 BC.
But let's move out of the elusive Stone Age now – and into periods for which we have more archeological findings upon which to base our understanding of the ancient Scandinavians.
During the Nordic Bronze Age, which lasted from about 1,700 to 500 BC, Scandinavia was sparsely inhabited. At this time, the land was dotted by farmsteads featuring long, wooden abodes – something like proto-Viking-Age longhouses. Farming and fishing were the primary sources of economy.
Later, during the Nordic Iron Age which lasted from about 500 BC to 800 AD, larger villages began to pop up.
A depiction of a Scandinavian longhouse. Source: Erik Mclean / Pexels
The bottom line is – we don't have precise answers as to why and how exactly the Viking lifestyle began in Scandinavia. What we're more clear on is when it happened.
Starting at the turn of the 8th century came the Viking Age.
How did the Vikings live?
What was it that made the Vikings – Viking? How did the Viking Age differ from the Iron Age?
"Ages" are defined by modern-day experts. Any noticable shift from one "Age," or era, to another is usually prompted by a massive change in human behavior or activity. For example, when production of iron advanced to the point that the metal almost entirely replaced bronze in tool- and weapon-making, the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron.
To kick off their own Age, the Vikings brought about a massive change themselves.
They (quite revolutionarily) took to the seas as a means of survival, outside of just fishing. The Vikings still farmed and fished locally, of course – but they turned Scandinavian society upside down when they, with the help of their famed longships, added two novel sources of economy: trading and raiding.
At the start, Viking raids were hit-and-runs with no long-term organization behind them. The first killings and small plunders were carried out by Vikings who sailed from Scandinavia to Wessex from 787 AD on, as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
"In this year  came first three ships of Norwegians from Hørthaland [probably around Norway's Hardanger Fjord]: and then the reeve rode thither and tried to compel them to go to the royal manor, for he did not know what they were: and then they slew him. These were the first ships of the Danes to come to England."
During this incident, the Vikings landed somewhere in what is today the UK and killed the king's local administrator, known as the reeve. The slaying happened after he ordered them to his base. The circumstances of the standoff are somewhat unclear, but it seems the Vikings took offense to being given an order – and then took back to the seas right after.
This set the stage for the most (in)famous early mention of Vikings. The next exploit that got them into the history books was the 793 raid of Lindisfarne, an island off the coast of northern England. Known as a holy island, Lindisfarne was home to a monastery that served as a major pilgrimage center at the time. Northumbrian scholar, and tutor to Charlemagne's children, Alcuin heard about the Viking raid soon after it was carried out. Alcuin lamented the plundering in a letter to King Ethelred of Northumbria:
"Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold the church of St. Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples..."
The Lindisfarne raid is thought to mark the official start of the Viking Age.
After it, Viking conquests became much more systematic. Through organized and well-planned efforts, the sailors spread their territory significantly, colonizing parts of Europe, and spreading to other continents as well. Vikings didn't necessarily rummage and pillage for fun (though we can't speak for all of them…) – and certainly not out of boredom. Instead, Vikings' expeditions were more often than not aimed at establishing settlements on global trade routes.
A possible example of Viking expansions. Source: Max Naylor via Wiki Commons (Public Domain)
Vikings were not all about rummaging and pillaging all the time, though.
Not all Vikings (male or female) went on raids, and for those who did, it wasn't a full-time job. At home, most Vikings were farmers. They spent their days growing crops such as oats and barley and feeding livestock such as pigs, sheep, and chickens. If not farming, Vikings took on jobs such as fishing or crafting various goods.
When they weren't sowing seeds or sailing the seas, Vikings passed the time, well, fairly normally. We believe they engaged in entertainment through sports such as wrestling and racing, and even played a type of Viking chess called "Hnefatafl."
Additionally, Viking women apparently had more rights than those from other contemporaneous European societies. Though we don't know the exact details of gender roles in Viking society, it appears women could divorce, and inherit their husband's belongings in case of death. They were also likely viewed as the head of house if their husband was out of town for a prolonged time. Some signs additionally point to Viking women partaking in battle as warriors equal to their male counterparts.
In rarer cases, women rose to very high places in Viking society. For example two women, one of which is thought to have been a sort of ruler, were found buried with a ship. This was unusual as typically only men were entitled to that type of grave.
Another story tells of a female Viking captain. In the late 9th century, Aud the Deep-Minded is said to have captained a longship with a crew of men on a journey she commissioned to Iceland. Aud supposedly later became one of the Icelandic colony's most legendary settlers.
What religion did Vikings follow?
Throughout the Viking Age, most Vikings were not Christian – unlike most of their European counterparts – and this was one of the main differences that set them apart from the rest of the continent. Vikings were pagan.
Vikings believed in Norse mythology, a colorful, complex, and intricate set of beliefs used to link the natural with the supernatural. This was the Vikings' way of making sense of life and the world around them.
In Norse mythology, the base of existence was understood as the tree known as Yggdrasil, which was split into nine realms. The realm of Asgard was home to the Norse gods, including the goddess Frigg (or Freya) and her husband Odin, while Midgard housed mortals. Certain Midgardians, those who were thought to possess supernatural powers, held a special place in Viking society. They could interpret messages from the gods and relay them to other mortals.
As for the Viking afterlife, existence after death depended on whether one proved themselves worthy during their lifetime. For example, heroic women, especially those who died in childbirth, were thought to spend eternity in the Hall of Frigg (called Fensalir). Soldiers who died in battle spent their afterlife in Odin's hall of Valhalla.
What did Vikings look like?
To answer this question, let's look at the etymology of the term "Viking." During the Viking Age, víkingr seems to have referred to someone who went on expeditions – usually via sea, and usually abroad. But the word did not imply any particular ethnicity. DNA analyses show that Vikings were genetically diverse. So, when considering the ethnogenesis of the Vikings, experts have actually leaned toward looking at "Viking" as a way of life, not a matter of heredity.
Then, being Viking didn't mean having a specific genetic code nor particular physical traits. It seems to have been a thing of culture; of nurture rather than nature. Basically, anyone who lived and worked in the Viking Age culture that originated in – but was not limited to – Scandinavia, was a Viking. There were blonde, brown-haired, and black-haired Vikings, with blue, green, and brown eyes, and lighter or darker skin.
A depiction of a Viking man. Source: Андрей Chepelovskyi / Pexels
Contrary to their depictions in pop culture, Vikings probably looked cleaner than other Europeans. Vikings may have bathed at least once a week, which was a much higher frequency than that of other cultures in Europe. Importance was also placed on hair. Women and men often wore their hair long and styled in various ways. Beard-styling seems to have been in place, as well. Viking artifact troves found by archeologists have included combs, tweezers, and ear picks.
The average Viking was thought to be of muscular build. In fact, with active and grueling duties as sailing and farming, especially in a rugged landscape like Scandinavia, their physical appearance is assumed to be more muscular than the average person today. One of the first physical descriptions of Vikings, written by Arab scholar Ibn Fadlan in the 10th century, states:
"I saw the [Vikings] when they came hither on their trading voyages and had encamped by the river Itil. I have never seen people with a more developed bodily stature than they. They are as tall as date palms, blond and ruddy, so that they do not need to wear a tunic nor a cloak; rather the men among them wear a garment that only covers half of his body and leaves one of his hands free.
"Each of them has an ax, a sword, and a knife with him, and all of these whom we have mentioned never let themselves be separated from their weapons. Their swords are broad-bladed, provided with rills, and of the Frankish type. Each one of them has from the tip of his nails to the neck figures, trees, and other things, in dark green."
The last sentence points to the Viking art of tattooing, which was probably not uncommon – and to specific drawings they might have permanently displayed on their bodies. It's no surprise that trees are mentioned; remember the sacred Yggdrasil from which all life extends?
What were key events of the Viking Age? A Viking history timeline
787: The first international Viking attack in history is recorded.
A depiction of a Viking longship. Source: Barnabas Davoti / Pexels
793: The first major Viking raid happens in Lindisfarne, kicking off the Viking Age.
841: Vikings take over an ecclesiastical settlement in Ireland. This would later become the city of Dublin.
844: The earliest known Viking raid on Spain takes place.
860: The first documented Viking siege is launched on Constantinople, but Vikings seem to leave before breaching the walls. It's unknown exactly what happened.
866: Danish Vikings take York, establishing a foothold in England.
c. 870: Vikings sail to Iceland and set up a community on the island.
c. 872: Harald Fairhair becomes the first king of all Norway, and, according to the Icelandic sagas, he rules until 931.
c. 878-890: The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum is signed and carried out. It lays the groundwork for the political split of England between King Alfred of the West Saxons and the Danes.
911: French king Charles the Simple grants land to Norwegian chieftain Rollo after the Viking besieges Paris. Rollo goes on to found Normandy.
982: Exiled from Norway and then Iceland, Viking Erik the Red sails to Greenland, searching for a new place to live. He finds it in Greenland. He later returns to Scandinavia, gathers over 20 ships filled with supplies and settlers, and establishes a colony on the island.
986: According to the sagas, Viking ships sail close to Newfoundland and spot land.
955: Christianity significantly affects the Vikings the return of Olaf Tryggvasson (Olaf I) to Norway. The king had converted to Christianity while on a journey to England. Soon after, he built the first Christian church in Norway.
1000: Christianity reaches Iceland.
c. 1002: According to the sagas, Leif Erikson (son of Erik the Red) travels to the North American coast with his ship crew. He is considered by some to be the first European on American soil.
1015: Olaf Haraldsson (Olaf II) becomes king and launches a major campaign to spread Christianity throughout the region. He is later beatified.
1021: [Added post-publish] Groundbreaking archeological evidence points to Vikings being present in Newfoundland at this time.
1016: Danish Vikings, under King Cnut, begin to rule England for some time.
1028: King Cnut also conquers Norway, ending Olaf II's rule. Olaf dies the same year.
1066: The end of the Viking Age, per some experts, occurs when Viking King Harald Hardrada is killed by the English at Stamford Bridge.
Do Vikings exist today?
The Viking spirit certainly lives on, especially in pop culture. Thanks to a surge in popularity in Viking-related entertainment – think History's hit show Vikings, RGP Assasin's Creed: Valhalla, and Marvel's Thor movies – people are eager to channel their inner Viking. So, it's no surprise that Viking-related events, tourist offerings, and even ancestry test promotions abound in our day.
However, Vikings, "real" Vikings – of the 8th-11th century Scandinavian sailor type – don't exist anymore. Remember how we said that "Viking" is more of a lifestyle, or job description, than anything else? The Viking way of life simply isn't present today, having faded out centuries ago.
But... If you do happen to spot a longship full of horn-drinking sailors, yelling excitedly over chests of gold plunder... Do write to us and let us know.
If not, we're always happy to hear other Viking-related news tips or topic ideas!
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