One of the most interesting and intriguing facts that I have learned, having spent a few years reading, researching, and writing about people in Viking societies, is what most of them did. 

Despite the popular images of Viking raiders and warriors, if you lived in what is now the Nordic region during the Viking Age (c. 750–1100), you would likely be engaged in agricultural pursuits, like the majority of the population, rather than in raiding or trading. 

Farming was the economic and cultural backbone of Viking societies throughout this age. The development of trading towns and urban life was only a feature of the later period. 

In fact, by the turn of the 2nd millennium, it is estimated that some of the larger towns in Scandinavia – Birka, Hedeby, and Nidaros – had only a little more than a thousand inhabitants. 

As mentioned by Bettencourt, Cesaretti, Lobo, Ortman, and Smith in their 2016 article in PLOS One, Scandinavian towns can be compared to European cities further south, such as Cordoba and Constantinople, which housed populations 100 times as large! 

Urban life dwindled in comparison to farming communities, and it should be no surprise that even time was measured with the passing of agricultural seasons. 

The warmer months were for recovering from the winter, planting and tending to crops and, by the end of the warmer months, harvesting. 

Smack bang in the middle of the warmer months was summer, a time of celebration for all people in Viking societies. 

The Årsnäs community, established in 1963 near Kode on Sweden's west coast, celebrates Midsummer with traditional dances, competitive games, and a festive dinner featuring seasonal delicacies. Photo: Mikael Häggström (Public domain)

An astronomical event 

You will have to forgive the author, as history, not science, was a preferred subject at school. 

However, without getting too bogged down in science, we all know that the Earth spins on an axis and moves around the Sun. 

An astronomical event occurs every year when one of the Earth's poles has a maximum tilt towards the Sun. 

What this means for us Earth dwellers is that the Sun reaches its highest position relative to the celestial equator, resulting in the longest day and the shortest night of the year. 

Anyone who has lived in the Nordic region will know that a glimpse of sunlight is a joyous, almost spiritual, event. 

For people in Viking societies – who saw the sun less as an excuse for utepils or a tan and more for extra hours of hard agricultural toil – this period was crucial. 

The extended daylight allowed more work to be carried out, and in an era where food insecurity was rife, these few extra hours could be the difference between life and death, between surviving the cold, dark, and harsh Nordic winters or not. 

Midsummer was a time to celebrate the growth of crops, including the huge harvests of wheat and barley, as well as the produce from their home gardens, which could include garlic, cabbage, or wild carrots. 

This was also a time to celebrate the rich fertility of the land, which enabled these crops to grow and provided Viking societies with the nourishment and food to survive another year. 

The bonfire on the sea in Oslo's port during Midsummer is a vivid continuation of Old Norse solstice traditions, where such fires were believed to enhance the sun's strength and ensure bountiful harvests. Photo: AnastassiaVassiljeva / Shutterstock

Celebrate sunny times 

The celebration of Midsummer was an integral part of cultural, religious, and social life for people in Viking societies. 

First and foremost, this was a celebration, a time of joy and festivity. 

It marked the maximum strength of the sun, and people in Viking societies, like their Scandinavian ancestors today, knew how life-giving the sun's properties are. 

Communal feasts – a popular occurrence throughout early medieval European societies, including those in the Nordic region – could be held. 

Plenty of food would be served, including prized game and copious amounts of beer and mead

Part of the communal feasting included sacrificial offerings to the gods, particularly those associated with fertility, like Freyja or Thor

People would often leave these offerings out in the natural environment in places like fields, rivers, or streams. 

This was done to appease the gods and to ensure fertility and prosperity for the future. 

What would a celebration be without cutting some moves on the dance floor? (Not that dance floors were invented then, but you get my point.) 

Traditional music, dancing, and poetry were all parts of the celebration, which helped to strengthen communal and societal bonds. 

It was also an auspicious time as many people performed magical rituals – including those who practiced seidr – to try and gain insight into the colder, darker months ahead. 

The painting "Midsummer Eve Bonfire on Skagen's Beach" captures the enduring tradition of Midsummer celebrations, which persisted despite the Christianization of Viking societies. Source: Peder Severin Krøyer (1851–1909), Public domain

Did Christianity ruin a good pagan celebration? 

What some historians have labeled the "Viking Age" should really be thought of as the advent of Christianity into the Nordic world... not quite as catchy. 

Running concurrently with the exploits and adventures of Viking figures like Ragnar Lothbrok, Harald Bluetooth, and Harald Hardrada was the less celebrated, slow and pervasive creep of Christianity into Viking societies. 

It was during the Viking Age that Christianity – a vibrant new religion competing with entrenched beliefs – had to accommodate and adapt. 

Academic Sandra Billington mentioned in her 2008 article in the respected journal Folklore that this meant a syncretism of pagan cultural traditions and practices, like the festivities of Midsummer, was incorporated into Christianity, easing the transition for new converts from the Old Norse religion

Midsummer celebrations continued, but as the Christian Church gained dominance over the hearts and minds of people in Viking societies, the old pagan elements were subtly replaced. 

Instead of offerings to the Norse gods, a celebratory mass might bring together the whole community where they could offer up prayers of thanks to the Christian God instead. 

Unlike many of the cultural and religious traditions of people in Viking societies, this syncretism allowed the celebration of Midsummer to continue and remain an important part of Nordic social and cultural life for more than a millennium. 

A time of joy 

Since the age when Vikings roamed the open seas and rivers, the celebration of Midsummer has been a popular date on the calendar of people living in the Nordic region. 

It has remained an integral part of Nordic culture and communal celebrations for more than a millennium and continues to be an important date of cultural fun and festivity. 

Should you find yourself in that neck of the woods this Saturday, June 22, you're in for a treat; the modern descendants of people in Viking societies certainly know how to throw a Midsummer party! Skål! 

For more information on how Sweden celebrates Midsummer, visit Forbes here.

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