Vikings have been characterized as barbaric, violent people. We've immortalized them in our comic books, movies, and TV series. However, there is a lot about Vikings that has become fictionalized. So let's separate the fact from fiction.
A Unified Group?
The Vikings were not just one unified group of people. In fact, they were spread throughout parts of Europe making settlements in Denmark, England, Ireland, Greenland, and France. They were mostly farmers, artisans, merchants, and explorers who were lead by Kings, or Chieftains.
Over the years Vikings have been generalized as people who cause destruction wherever they traveled. In reality, they were typically very peaceful people. Most would travel the seas to engage in trade, not warfare. When Vikings would settle in areas with an established culture, they would adapt their lifestyle to fit with the new society.
Women would do all the household duties from cooking and cleaning to making clothes and tending to the animals. Viking women even came up with a fascinating way to iron which involved the use of whalebone plaques. They would lay the clothes on the plaque and run a heavy stone over the clothing to smooth out the creases.
As a sign of good luck and a happy marriage new brides were given a cat. The reasoning was that cats were a symbol of the Goddess of love, Freyja. She was said to ride in a cart pulled by several felines. It's speculated that the Norwegian Forest Cat, or skogkatt, was the cat most commonly presented to the brides.
Influenced The Names Of Cities
As Vikings explored and settled across Europe they named the cities in which they created settlements. You can still find hints of this in modern-day cities throughout the UK. Cities that end in -thorpe, -thwaite, -toft, -keld, -ness, -by, or -kirk are big indicators that Vikings used to live in the area.
Weapons Of Choice
Vikings have always been characterized as fierce warriors. So it's no surprise that they used a lot of weapons in battles. The most popular choices were swords and axes. Though due to the amount of iron needed to make a proper sword, it was the more expensive option. Other Vikings even used spears as well as bows and arrows.
The Viking culture had a judicial system that did not include the death penalty. If someone was found guilty of a heinous crime, usually murder or rape, they would be considered outlaws. If you were sentenced to be an outlaw, all property and possessions you owned would be taken away and you would be forced to live in exile by yourself.
Most Vikings had the usual pets of today, such as dogs and cats. But there were some owned more exotic birds like peacocks and falcons. Surprisingly, one of the most popular pets was a brown bear. They were called "house bears" by the Vikings since they were so common to own. The wealthy were the only ones who owned polar bears.
Fire On The Go
Vikings made felts out of a type of fungus called touchwood or hoof fungus to start fires. They would slice and beat the fungus before tossing it to boil in urine. The boiling process allowed sodium nitrate to soak into the fungus so when it was lit, the felt would slowly smolder not burn. This allowed the Vikings to take the fire with them.
Constant Trimming Of Nails
The Vikings were very superstitious about the end of time, or Ragnarok. When the ship, Naglfar, would appear that signified the beginning of the end. The ship would be made entirely out of the fingernails and toenails of the dead. So Vikings would constantly cut their nails to prevent them from being used as building materials for the ship.
Berserkers appear in many Nordic sagas, but it is unknown how many existed. They were said to be battle-frenzied warriors who did not feel pain. In battle, they'd wear wolf or bear pelts, screaming as they attacked their enemies. It is rumored that berserkers would take hallucinogenic mushrooms or copious amounts of alcohol to induce their rage.
Vikings lived in longhouses which were made of timber and thatched roofs or turf and sod. These homes could be up to 250 feet long. The Vikings homes would house all family members, including extended family, and usually all animals. Some houses used turf roofs to act as a natural insulator.
Little Written History
Most of the Viking history was passed down orally. Skalds, or bards, recounted epic poems, or stories, of the famous Viking Kings and battles. It was until many converted to Christianity that they started to write down their history.
Two Meals A Day
Vikings would typically eat two big meals a day. At the beginning of the day, around sunrise, was dagmal. This consisted of stew from the night before as well as bread and fruit. Vikings would eat a second meal in the evening called nattmal. This would be a stew of fish or meat with vegetables.
If someone suffered from an abdominal injury, they would be fed an onion or leek soup. The reasoning: once the soup was ingested if a smell started emanating from the patient's stomach it would indicate that the injury was untreatable.
Early Version of Parliament
The Vikings had a form of government which operated similarly to a modern-day parliament. Everyone would gather together from Althing, which translates to "the Thing." At these meetings, people would discuss new laws, problems, and vote on solutions.
Creative Ways To Settle An Argument
If two people were in a dispute, they would typically resort to a Holmgang. A Holmgang was a type of duel in which the participants would choose the rules, location, and the weapon. These would usually end in incapacitation or death. Whomever would win was considered to be favored by the Gods.
Four Classes of Society
The Viking culture consisted of 4 main classes: Thralls, Karls, Jarls and the Kings. The Thralls were the lowest class and were typically slaves. They worked the hardest and did the dirtiest of jobs. The Karls were everyday people. The Jarls made up the wealthy class of nobles. Usually, a King, or Chieftain, was the head of the village or town.
Cats On Sea
It has been recently discovered that cats joined the Vikings during their sea travel. Felines were used as a way to protect food supplies. By having them on board, it would ensure that the ship would not become overrun with rodents which would help with the spread of disease.
Female Viking Warriors
In Viking culture, women were tending to the house and children, but there is evidence to prove that some took to the battlefield. These women were called Shieldmaidens. Some would disguise themselves as men while others proudly showed their true self. The stories of Hervor and Freydís Eiríksdóttir are immortalized in sagas, though they contain some fiction.
Contrary to popular belief, most Vikings were brunette or redhaired. But in Viking culture, it was favored to have blonde hair. Many Viking men and women resorted to using a soap called lye to wash their hair. Lye acted as a way to naturally bleach hair. It also had a hygienic property, keeping lice away.
The Vikings had different types of ships that they would use for trading, battle, and fishing. Longships were adorned with an ornate dragon to instill fear in their enemies and best used for raids. These boats could travel in shallow bodies of water to aid in surprise attacks. A knörr was a ship used for trading and extended travel. Smaller boats were used for fishing.
Symbolism of Keys
Once married a woman would receive the keys to the house and any chests owned by her husband. A woman would display her keys on her waist to symbolize her power in the household. If a husband took the keys from his wife, it could be considered grounds for divorce.
Traveled Farther Than Europe
It is well-known that the Vikings traveled throughout Europe. But did you know that they went much farther? They traded with people in Northern Africa, in what are the modern-day countries of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. The Vikings even made settlements in North America 500 years before Columbus was even born.
Vikings used a writing system called the runic alphabet. Runes functioned as both letters and symbols, it was even said that they had magical powers. We still use runes to this day, just look at the sign for Bluetooth. It's a combination of the Hagall, H rune, and the Bjarkan, B rune. These are the initials of Harold Gormsson was a Danish King nicknamed "Bluetooth."
Vikings were born into one of three classes.
Vikings didn’t have kings. Instead, they were separated into broad categories: Jarls (the nobles), Karls (your average, everyday Viking), and Thralls (the slaves). The good news was that being born into a class didn’t necessarily mean you’d be stuck there forever; Thralls sometimes worked their way up into higher classes. The bad news? It didn’t happen very often.
Vikings were warriors and poets, and poetry was considered a gift from the gods.
Poetry wasn’t just a means of expressing their unbridled teenage angst. During the Viking Age, stories — and, more importantly, histories — weren’t actually written down, so skalds passed along literature and mythology through poetry. They could also f— with an individual’s social standing through sarcasm, proving you should never dare to piss off a writer.
Settling disputes and passing laws happened at a thing called the “Thing.”
Because originality was not necessarily their strong suit, Viking meetings were literally called “things.” Pretty much everything necessary to run a society (even one as loosely structured as theirs) happened at the thing, from electing officials to avenging injuries. But the best thing about the thing is that it happened pretty consistently, so folks could take care of all of their things on the reg.
Women had rights.
Unlike other European women at the time, Viking women had actual power. Not that they were going up against men for key political positions or anything, but they had control of the homestead in their husbands’ absence, could own property and sell their own shit, and they could file for divorce. Female fighters were also fairly commonplace, just in case there was still any doubt about female badassery.
They were considered an adult by the time they were 12.
Forget high school prom or working to make it into a decent university to get a degree in a field that will have nothing to do with the career you wind up in. By the age any of that shit would have happened for a Viking kid (you know, if it had existed), they would have already been married and popped out a few Viking runts of their own. Although, considering the average lifespan was around 50 years, getting married at 12 would have been like walking down the aisle at 25 today, so, perspective?
Vikings had a thing for good hygiene.
Just because the movies make them look like savages doesn’t mean they actually smelled like savages. Vikings in actuality kept themselves clean, regularly taking baths and cutting and grooming their hair. Viking dudes with long hair were probably a hell of a lot cleaner than 90% of the hipster douchebags you see with similar hairstyles today, tbh.
Medicine basically consisted of magic runes and god worship.
While herbal medicine was around to some extent, the majority of health problems were addressed via what Vikings considered to be magic. Healing runes were commonly used, as were prayers to healing deities, like the goddess Eir. Because who really needs actual medicine when you can just pray shit away instead?
The days of the week are named after Viking gods.
With the exception of Saturday (which came from the Romans and is named for Saturn’s day), we can thank the Norse gods for our entire week:
Sunday — Sol, goddess of the sun
Monday — Mani, goddess of the moon
Tuesday — Tyr, god of war
Wednesday — Odin (or Woden), the Raven god
Thursday — Thor, god of thunder
Friday — Frigg, goddess of marriage
Wood was kind of a big deal.
Not only was timber traded for precious metals, but certain trees and groves of trees were thought to be holy. Makes sense, if you think about the fact that tree groves were around before religious temples were built. Vikings also believed that the entire fabric of the universe (which was comprised of nine worlds) was held together by the World Ash, or Yggdrasil. Maybe now you’ll be a little more appreciative of all those #2 pencils you blew through in school.
Viking warriors smelled death via onion soup.
If they were wounded in battle, Viking warriors were given a hot onion broth. If, after eating it, the broth could be smelled from the wounds, it was a sign that vital internal organs had been injured to the point that death was inevitable. Or maybe just that said warrior had serious digestive issues. Either way, he wasn’t coming home alive.
Vikings wanted to die in battle.
Because if they died in battle, they would sit at Odin’s table in Valhalla. And in Valhalla, fallen warriors would battle each other all day long, presumably because that was a thing that they really wanted to do for the rest of eternity. Or at least until Odin planned to use them as his own personal backup during Ragnarok.
But only half of the fallen warriors would get to sit with Odin.
The other half would go to Freyja in Folkvang. And actually, according to Norse mythology, Freyja got to choose her half first, and there honestly doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between the two places, aside from one being a hall and the other being a field. If you weren’t cool enough to bite it on the battlefield, you wound up in Hel, which also isn’t bad; you’d eat, drink, practice magic, and basically live your best life until the end of time.
Dead Viking chieftains were set on fire in a boat.
And sometimes, one of their thrall girls would volunteer to go with them, as part of a ritual that feels like it should only be practiced in a modern horror film. Because it doesn’t matter how drunk you get us, we would never willingly go from tent to tent to have sex with all the village men before we’re taken aboard a dead man’s ship and raped by six more, all before we’re held down and stabbed in the ribs by a woman called the Angel of Death. No thanks.
That rainbow you’re looking at is actually a magic bridge between worlds.
It’s called Bifrost, and it connects Asgard (the god realm) to Midgard (Earth). It’s protected by Heimdallr, a god with a fancy horn, a cool horse, and a real goddam love of gold. It’s his job to keep an eye out for the start of Ragnarok, essentially the end of the world via flood, but he gets to drink mead while he waits. Sounds like a pretty sweet gig to us.
Viking navigation consisted of everything short of actual compasses.
Who needs actual navigational accuracy when you can navigate via memory, astronomy, landmarks, birds, whales, and chants instead? Crazy as it sounds, a lot of the tactics used by Vikings really worked. Some birds, for example, tend to keep near land, so listening for them makes finding land easy, even in dense fog.
Contrary to popular belief, Viking Berserkers didn’t take hallucinogenic mushrooms to induce battle rage.
The rumor was started in 1784 by a priest named Ödmann, who suggested the famous battle rage of Viking Berserkers was a result of taking magic mushrooms. But there isn’t actually any real account of them doing so, and in fact were probably just in a self-induced hypnotic trance. No drugs. Just good old fashioned crazy.
The “blood eagle” was a very real thing, though.
Well, probably. Vikings were said to have used a form of torture called the “blood eagle,” and it’s about as terrible as you can imagine. Essentially, a victim's ribs were cut out of the back of their body before their lungs were pulled through, like wings. It seemed to be a punishment reserved for royalty, and even if the accounts are a little embellished, it’s not like they’re totally unbelievable, either.
Erik the Red was too violent, even by Viking standards.
And it may have been genetic. As a result of his father having committed manslaughter, he and the rest of his family were forced to move from Norway to Iceland in 960 AD. Erik did pretty alright for 20 years, until some of his thralls were killed by a neighbor. That incident set a sort of murder spree in motion, which resulted in Erik getting his ass kicked out of Iceland in 982 AD.
Somewhere in Sweden, people still speak an ancient dialect of Old Norse.
It’s called Elfdalian, and it developed in relative isolation in northern Dalarna, Sweden. Plus, up until the 20th century, Elfdalians’ primary writing system was dalrunes, an actual Germanic runic script. So if you want to a taste of old school Viking history, maybe hop on a plane to Sweden sometime.
Still, 20% of the words we use today come from Old Norse.
Like “anger” (from “angr”) or “berserk” (from “berserkr”), both of which seem pretty obviously Viking. But “awkward?” Or “freckle?” Those aren’t exactly words that scream warrior society. “Reindeer,” though… we all knew the probability of Santa Claus being some low-key Berserker was pretty high.