People in Viking societies often get a bad rap. All are lumped together with a small warrior minority who went about raping, ravaging, and raiding vast swathes of Western Europe and its surroundings. 

However, the majority of people who lived in Viking societies were employed in more peaceful occupations, such as agriculture or domestic work

We sometimes forget that the people in these societies were just like us – they loved to let their hair down (so to speak) and enjoy themselves, as not all their life revolved around raiding and raping. 

A popular pastime in the early medieval period, as now, was sports and recreation. 

Aside from whiling away the hours in an era before smartphones and Netflix (which probably sounds horrible to all those Gen Z readers), sports and recreation played an important societal role. 

They not only helped to form social and societal bonds but were also ways for everyone, including men who would go off Vikingr, to hone their physical and mental skills. 

Let’s look at some popular pastimes that people in Viking societies undertook. 

From a young age, Vikings engaged in mock battles, which were essential in honing their combat skills and tactical abilities, ensuring they were well-prepared for facing actual enemies. Illustration: The Viking Herald

War and peace... and play 

Throughout early medieval Europe, the Vikings were renowned for their martial prowess and warrior skills. 

When they weren’t on the battlefield, Vikings could practice their skills with mock combat. 

This was a popular form of recreation that could involve things like wrestling, spear throwing, and even mock duels with wooden shields and swords. 

Mini wars could also be fought, pitting groups of Vikings against each other to help practice battlefield tactics and strategies. 

Whilst we often have an image of a Viking wielding a sword or an axe, they were also renowned for their archery skills

Archery contests, in their downtime, were a popular form of entertainment but also a way to hone their skills. 

Contests could involve target shooting or even tests of marksmanship. This practice led to the bow and arrow being one of the most effective and efficient weapons of destruction wielded by Vikings. 

The prominence of ships in Viking culture is evident from archaeological finds, making boat racing a popular pastime that served both as a training exercise for raids and a community event. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Fun on the water 

Though swimming skills were almost non-existent throughout early medieval Europe, some people in Viking societies could swim. 

Given the geographic position of Scandinavia – surrounded by water – and the many lakes, rivers, and streams that dot the peninsula, it was natural that sailing would play an important part in Viking societies. 

One only has to see some of the greatest Viking archeological finds – ship burials uncovered at Oseberg or Gokstad – to realize the great importance that people in Viking societies placed upon ships. 

Boat racing, therefore, was a natural pastime and could involve either Vikings training for an upcoming raid or broader participation from local villages or towns. 

Whilst Scandinavia isn’t renowned for its warmer months, many people still liked to take a dip. 

Swimming and bathing were fun ways of cleaning up and cooling off on a balmy day. 

On a more serious side, learning how to swim was also a vital skill that many Vikings required given the amount of time they spent plying the high seas and snaking down the many river systems of Europe and its surroundings. 

Viking societies embraced board games like Hnefatafl, a strategic game inspired by chess and spread through trade routes, reflecting their interaction with diverse cultures and love for intellectual challenges. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Viva Las Vikings 

Like other civilizations, cultures, and societies throughout the ages, people in Viking societies in early medieval Europe had a particular enjoyment of gambling. 

Dice games and gambling were popular pastimes, especially when accompanied by an alcoholic beverage or two. Wagers could include money, goods, or even slaves on the mere roll of dice. 

Whilst horses were not as integral a part of Viking culture as in some contemporary societies in Eurasia, people in Viking societies were known to keep and ride horses

Horse races could also become a popular form of entertainment and warrior training, which could include large bets being placed and lots of money, goods, or precious jewels changing hands. 

People in Viking societies also enjoyed board games such as Hnefatafl, a strategic game similar to chess but with simpler rules and a focus on asymmetric gameplay, as reported in a study by Mark A. Hall published in A History of Everyday Life in Medieval Scotland (2011).

This was believed to be inspired by chess, an Indian invention modified in Persia and then picked up by Arab traders and spread along the many trade routes and networks that they plied their wares along. 

Mercantile exchanges between the Arab and Viking worlds, even if mostly indirect, saw this popular board game inspire a range of tafl games still played throughout the Nordic world today. 

These games were also played across the many Viking settlements throughout Europe, with the most brilliant example uncovered being the Lewis Chessmen

The practice of skiing in Viking societies, which dates back thousands of years and was initially popularized by the Sami people, was essential for transportation and hunting during harsh winters. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Skalds, sagas, and skiing 

For those long and cold winter nights, which, let’s face it, are plenty in the Nordic world, nothing could give greater pleasure than cuddling up in front of a fire and hearing a poem, saga, or story. 

Skaldic poets were renowned for their oratorical and poetic skills, and they were revered members of Viking society. They were also a popular sight at feasts or festivals. 

The rich tapestry of the Norse literary and mythological canon was very much crafted and perfected over many a fireside chat during the long and cold recesses of winter. 

Speaking of winter, it should be no surprise that skiing was a popular pastime in Viking societies. 

It has been estimated that skiing has been practiced in the region for thousands of years, mainly by the indigenous Sami people, as noted by John Weinstock in his study published in Northern Review (2005). 

However, it first came to the broader world’s attention in the early medieval period, thanks to people in Viking societies being willing to brave the winter chill. 

Not only was this the most effective means of transport in snow-laden regions, but it was also a practical means of hunting. 

Rudimentary ice skating also took place when rivers and lakes froze over. 

With a history of practice dating back at least a millennium, you’ll understand why the Nordic countries dominate every Winter Olympics! 

Though a little-known and little-studied aspect of Viking societies, a genuine love of sport and recreation played an important role as it offered opportunities for competition, entertainment, and socialization. 

It also provided social interactions, helped people remain physically fit, and, if they were warriors, helped them hone their martial and strategic skills.

For more information on Viking pastimes, visit the National Museum of Denmark here

Further reading 

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