2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History 1500 and before (including Roman Britain); General history

The term Viking commonly denotes the ship-borne explorers, traders, and warriors of the Norsemen who originated in Scandinavia and raided the coasts of the British Isles, France and other parts of Europe from the late 8th century to the 11th century. This period of European history (generally dated to 793– 1066) is often referred to as the Viking Age. It may also be used to denote the entire populations of Viking Age Scandinavia and their settlements elsewhere.

Famed for their navigation ability and long ships, Vikings in a few hundred years colonized the coasts and rivers of Europe, the islands of Shetland, Orkney, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland circa 1000 , while still reaching as far south as North Africa, east into Russia and to Constantinople for raiding and trading. Vikings are also widely believed to have been early explorers of North America, with putative expeditions to present-day Canada taking place as early as the 10th century. Viking voyages grew less frequent with the introduction of Christianity to Scandinavia in the late 10th and 11th century. The Viking Age is often considered to have ended with the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066.

The word viking was introduced to the English language with romantic connotations in the 18th century. However, etymologists assign the earliest use of the word to Anglo-Frankish writers, who referred to "víkingr" as one who set about to raid and pillage. In the current Scandinavian languages the term viking is applied to the people who went away on viking expeditions, be it for raiding or trading. In English it has become common to use it to refer to the Viking Age Scandinavians in general. The pre-Christian Scandinavian population is also referred to as Norse.

The Viking Age

humb|left|The Gokstad viking ship at display in Oslo, Norway]] The period of North Germanic expansion, usually taken to last from the earliest recorded raids in the 790s until the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, is commonly called the Viking Age. The Normans, however, descended from Scandinavian Vikings that were granted parts of northern France (Normandy) in the 8th century (William the Conqueror's grandfather was a Viking), and from the indigenous population of Neustria. In that respect, the Vikings continued to have an influence in Europe. Likewise, King Harold Godwinson was descended from Danish Vikings. Many of the medieval kings of Norway and Denmark were married to English and Scottish royalty.
Geographically, a "Viking Age" may be assigned not only to the Scandinavian lands (modern Denmark, Norway and Sweden), but also to territories under North Germanic dominance, mainly the Danelaw, Scotland, the Isle of Man and Ireland. Contemporary with the European Viking Age, the Byzantine Empire experienced the greatest period of stability (circa 800– 1071) it would enjoy after the initial wave of Arab conquests in the mid-7th century.

Viking navigators also opened the road to new lands to the north and to the west, resulting in the colonization of Shetland, Orkney, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and even an expedition to, and a short-lived settlement in, Newfoundland circa 1000.

In Athens, Greece, some Swedish vikings wrote a runic inscription on the Pireus lion
In Athens, Greece, some Swedish vikings wrote a runic inscription on the Pireus lion

During three centuries, Vikings appeared along the coasts and rivers of Europe, as traders, but also as raiders, and even as settlers. From 839, there were Varangian mercenaries in Byzantine service (most famously Harald Hardrada, who campaigned in North Africa and Jerusalem in the 1030s). Important trading ports during the period include Birka, Hedeby, Kaupang, Jorvik, Staraya Ladoga, Novgorod and Kiev. Generally speaking, the Norwegians expanded to the north and west, the Danes to England and France, settling in the Danelaw, and the Swedes to the east. But the three nations were not yet clearly separated, and still united by the common Old Norse language. The names of Scandinavian kings are known only for the later part of the Viking Age, and only after the end of the Viking Age did the separate kingdoms acquire a distinct identity as nations, which went hand in hand with their christianization. Thus it may be noted that the end of the Viking Age (9th–11th century) for the Scandinavians also marks the start of their relatively brief Middle Ages.

There is evidence showing that the Vikings reached the city of Baghdad, from archeologists discovering loot. However, the Vikings were far less successful in establishing settlements in the middle east, due to the far more centralized and powerful Arab power present, namely that of the Umayyad and then Abbasid empires.


After trade and settlement, cultural impulses flowed from the rest of Europe. Christianity had an early and growing presence in Scandinavia, and with the rise of centralized authority along with a stiffening of coastal defense in the areas the Vikings preyed upon, the Viking raids became more risky and less profitable. With the rise of kings and great nobles and a quasi- feudal system in Scandinavia, they ceased entirely - in the 11th century the Scandinavians are frequently chronicled as combating "Vikings" from the Baltic, which would eventually lead to Danish and Swedish participation in the Baltic crusades and the development of the Hanseatic League. For more info learn about Faroe Islands.

Historical records

A composite image made from several sides of the Ledberg Runestone having illustrations of what probably are Varangians in the Byzantine Empire and a Byzantine ship
A composite image made from several sides of the Ledberg Runestone having illustrations of what probably are Varangians in the Byzantine Empire and a Byzantine ship

The earliest date given for a Viking raid is 787 when, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a group of men from Norway sailed to Portland, in Dorset. There, they were mistaken for merchants by a royal official, and they murdered him when he tried to get them to accompany him to the king's manor to pay a trading tax on their goods. The next recorded attack, dated June 8, 793, was on the monastery at Lindisfarne—the "Holy Island"—on the east coast of England. For the next 200 years, European history is filled with tales of Vikings and their plundering.

Vikings exerted influence throughout the coastal areas of Ireland and Scotland, and conquered and colonized large parts of England (see Danelaw). Wales also saw some Viking settlements on its coast; the modern day city of Swansea takes its name from Sweyne Forkbeard who was shipwrecked at modern day Swansea Bay; neighbouring Gower Peninsula has many place names of Norse origin (such as Worms Head. Worm is the Norse word for dragon, as the Vikings believed that the serpent shaped island was a sleeping dragon). Twenty miles west of Cardiff on the Vale of Glamorgan coast is the semi-flooded island of Tusker Rock, which takes its name from Tuska the Viking whose people semi-colonised the fertile lands of the Vale of Glamorgan. The Britons of Cornwall allied with the Vikings in an unavailing attempt to expel the Saxons from Cornwall in 838. Vikings travelled up the rivers of France and Spain, and gained control of areas in Russia and along the Baltic coast. Stories tell of raids in the Mediterranean and as far east as the Caspian Sea.

Significantly, the Celtic nations of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and in 838 Cornwall, during their battles against the Anglo-Saxons, decided to ally with the Vikings against the Saxons. Possibly as a result, the modern-day Celtic nations of the British Isles, in particular the cities of Cardiff and Swansea in Wales, and in Ireland the cities of Cork, Dublin, Limerick and Waterford, have a certain pride in what is perceived as "Viking ancestry".

Adam of Bremen records in his book Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, (volume four):

  • Aurum ibi plurimum, quod raptu congeritur piratico. Ipsi enim piratae, 'quos illi Wichingos as appellant, nostri Ascomannos regi Danico tributum solvunt.
"There is much gold here (in Zealand), accumulated by piracy. These pirates, which are called wichingi by their own people, and Ascomanni by our own people, pay tribute to the Danish king."

Viking expansion

British Isles


yellow: Danelaw
yellow: Danelaw

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, after Lindisfarne was raided in 793, Vikings continued on small-scale raids across England. Viking raiders struck England in 793 and raided a Christian monastery that held Saint Cuthbert’s relics. The raiders killed the monks and captured the valuables. This raid was called the beginning of the “Viking Age of Invasion”, made possible by the Viking longship. There was great violence during the last decade of the 8th century on England’s northern and western shores. While the initial raiding groups were small, it is believed that a great amount of planning was involved.

During the winter between 840 and 841, the Norwegians raided during the winter instead of the usual summer. They waited on an island off Ireland. In 865 a large army of Danish Vikings, supposedly led by Ivar, Halfdan and Guthrum arrived in East Anglia. They proceeded to cross England into Northumbria and captured York ( Jorvik), where some settled as farmers. Most of the English kingdoms, being in turmoil, could not stand against the Vikings, but Alfred of Wessex managed to keep the Vikings out of his country. Alfred and his successors continued to drive back the Viking frontier and take York.

A new wave of Vikings appeared in England in 947 when Erik Bloodaxe captured York. The Viking presence continued through the reign of Canute the Great (1016-1035), after which a series of inheritance arguments weakened the family reign. The Viking presence dwindled until 1066, when the Norwegians lost their final battle with the English. See also Danelaw.

The Vikings did not get everything their way. In one situation in England, a small Viking fleet attacked a rich monastery at Jarrow. The Vikings were met with stronger resistance than they expected: their leaders were killed, the raiders escaped, only to have their ships beached at Tynemouth and the crews killed by locals. This was one of the last raids on England for about 40 years. The Vikings instead focused on Ireland and Scotland.


The Vikings conducted extensive raids in Ireland and founded a few towns, including Dublin. At some points, they seemingly came close to taking over the whole isle; however, the Scandinavians settled down and intermixed with the Irish. Literature, crafts, and decorative styles in Ireland and the British Isles reflected Scandinavian culture. Vikings traded at Irish markets in Dublin. Excavations found imported fabrics from England, Byzantium, Persia, and central Asia. Dublin became so crowded by the 11th Century that houses were constructed outside the town walls.

The Vikings pillaged monasteries on Ireland’s west coast in 795, and then spread out to cover the rest of the coastline. The north and east of the island were most affected. During the first 40 years, the raids were conducted by small, mobile Viking groups. From 830 on, the groups consisted of large fleets of Viking ships. From 840, the Vikings began establishing permanent bases at the coasts. Dublin was the most significant settlement in the long term. The Irish became accustomed to the Viking presence. In some cases they became allies and also married each other.

In 832, a Viking fleet of about 120 invaded kingdoms on Ireland’s northern and eastern coasts. Some believe that the increased number of invaders coincided with Scandinavian leaders’ desires to control the profitable raids on the western shores of Ireland. During the mid-830s, raids began to push deeper into Ireland, as opposed to just touching the coasts. Navigable waterways made this deeper penetration possible. After 840, the Vikings had several bases in strategic locations dispersed throughout Ireland.

In 838, a small Viking fleet entered the River Liffey in eastern Ireland. The Vikings set up a base, which the Irish called longphorts. This longphort would eventually become Dublin. After this interaction, the Irish experienced Viking forces for about 40 years. The Vikings also established longphorts in Cork, Limerick, Waterford, and Wexford. The Vikings could sail through on the main river and branch off into different areas of the country.

One of the last major battles involving Vikings was the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, in which Vikings fought both for High King Brian Boru's army and for the Viking-led army opposing the High King. Irish and Viking Literature depict the Battle of Clontarf as a gathering of this world and the supernatural. For example, witches, goblins, and demons were present. A Viking poem portrays the environment as strongly pagan. Valkyries chanted and decided who would live and die.


While there are few records from the earliest period, it is believed to be clear that a Scandinavian presence in Scotland increased in the 830s. In 839, a large Viking force believed to be Norwegian invaded the Earn valley and Tay valley which were central to the Pictish kingdom. They slaughtered Eoganan, king of the Picts, and his brother, the vassal king of the Scots. They also killed many members of the Pictish aristocracy. The sophisticated kingdom that had been built fell apart, as did the Pictish leadership. The foundation of Scotland under Kenneth MacAlpin is traditionally attributed to the aftermath of this event.

The isles to the north and west of Scotland were heavily colonised by Norwegian vikings. Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles, Caithness and Sutherland were under Norse control, sometimes as fiefs under the King of Norway and other times as separate enteties. Shetland and Orkney were the last of these to be incorporated into Scotland in as late as 1468. The vikings also intermixed with the original inhabitants as in with the inhabitants of Galloway to become the Gallgaels.


Wales was not colonised by the Vikings as heavily as eastern England and Ireland. The Vikings did, however, settle in the south around St. David's, Haverfordwest, and Gower, among other places. Place names such as Skokholm, Skomer, and Swansea remain as evidence of the Norse settlement. The Vikings, however, were not able to set up a Viking state or control Wales, owing to the powerful forces of Welsh kings, and, unlike in Scotland, the aristocracy was relatively unharmed.


Gaul or West Francia suffered more severely than East Francia during the Viking raids of the ninth century, which destroyed the Carolingian Empire, though it suffered less severely than the Low Countries. The reign of Charles the Bald, whose military record was one of consistent failure, coincided with some of the worst of these raids, though he did take action by the Edict of Pistres of 864 to secure a standing army of cavalry under royal control to be called upon at all times when necessary to fend off the invaders. He also ordered the building of fortified bridges to prevent inland raids.

Nonetheless, the Bretons allied with the Vikings and, at the Battle of Brissarthe in 865; both Robert, the margrave of Neustria, a march created for defence against the Vikings sailing up the Loire, and Ranulf of Aquitaine died in the battle. The Vikings also took advantage of the civil wars which ravaged the Duchy of Aquitaine in the early years of Charles' reign. In the 840s, Pepin II called in the Vikings to aid him against Charles and they settled down at the mouth of the Garonne. Two dukes of Gascony, Seguin II and William I, died defending Bordeaux from Viking assaults. A later duke, Sancho Mitarra, even settled some at the mouth of the Ardour in an act presaging that of Charles the Simple and the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte by which the Vikings were settled in Rouen, creating Normandy as a bulwark against other Vikings.


By the mid 9th century, though apparently not before (Fletcher 1984, ch. 1, note 51), there were Viking attacks on the coastal Kingdom of Asturias in the far northwest of the peninsula, though historical sources are too meagre to assess how frequent or how early raiding was. By the reign of Alfonso III Vikings were stifling the already weak threads of sea communications that tied Galicia (a province of the Kingdom) to the rest of Europe. Richard Fletcher attests raids on the Galician coast in 844 and 858: "Alfonso III was sufficiently worried by the threat of Viking attack to establish fortified strong points near his coastline, as other rulers were doing elsewhere." In 968 Bishop Sisnando of Compostela was killed, the monastery of Curtis was sacked, and measures were ordered for the defence of the inland town of Lugo. After Tui was sacked early in the 11th century, its bishopric remained vacant for the next half-century. Ransom was a motive for abductions: Fletcher instances Amarelo Mestáliz, who was forced to raise money on the security of his land in order to ransom his daughters who had been captured by the Vikings in 1015. Bishop Cresconio of Compostela (ca. 1036–66) repulsed a Viking foray and built the fortress at Torres del Oeste (Council of Catoira) to protect Compostela from the Atlantic approaches. The city of Póvoa de Varzim in Northern Portugal, then a town, was settled by Vikings around the 9th century and its influence kept strong until very recently, mostly due to the practice of endogamy in the community.

In the Islamic south, the first navy of the Emirate was called into being after the humiliating Viking ascent of the Guadalquivir, 844, and was tested in repulsing Vikings in 859. Soon the dockyards at Seville were extended, it was employed to patrol the Iberian coastline under the caliphs Abd al-Rahman III ( 912– 61) and Al-Hakam II ( 961– 76). By the next century piracy from Saracens superseded the Viking scourge.

Explanations of the expansion

Map showing area of Scandinavian settlement in the eighth (dark red), ninth (red), tenth (orange) and eleventh (yellow) centuries. Green denotes areas subjected to frequent Viking raids.
Map showing area of Scandinavian settlement in the eighth (dark red), ninth (red), tenth (orange) and eleventh (yellow) centuries. Green denotes areas subjected to frequent Viking raids.

Why the viking expansion took place is a much debated topic in nordic history, and there are no clear answers.

One common theory is that the viking homelands were overpopulated. A growing poulation or a lacking ability of the agriculture to support the existing population should have caused a lack of land. For a people living near the coast in possession of good naval technologies, it makes sense to expand overseas in the course of a typical youth bulge effect. One problem with this explanation is that, as a result of the lack of sources, no such rise in population or decline in agricultural production has been proven. This theory is widely accepted as a part of the solution, since it is hard to imagine why a people would colonise new territories if there was not a lack of land at home. However, it does little to explain the plundering raids and trading expeditions, or why the expansion went to overseas countries and not into the big, uncultivated forest areas of the Viking homelands on the Scandinavian peninsula.

Another explanation is that the Vikings used temporary weakness in the regions they travelled to. For instance, the Danish vikings were aware of the internal division of the empire of Charlemagne that begun in the 830's and resulted in the splitting up of the empire. The Danish expeditions England can also have profited from the dissunity of the different English kingdoms.

The decline of old trade routes can also be a part of the explanation. The trade between western Europe and the rest of the Eurasian continent had suffered from a severe decline as a result of the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and the expansion of Islam in the 7th century. At the time of the Viking, the trade on the Mediterranean Sea was at its lowest level. By, for instance, trading furs and slaves against silver and spices with the arabs, and then trading the silver and spices for weapons with the Franks, the vikings acted like a middlehand in the international trade, picking up the role the declining mediterranian trade had previously filled.

Another important factor when it comes to trade is that the destruction of the Frisian fleet by the Franks. This gave the vikings the opportunity to take over its old markets. However, both the explanation underlining dissunity and the one underlining trade explains how the expansion was possible, more than why it occurred. This is why we can consider that in addition to the economic factor, there is also another reason of first Vikings’ raids, they could also originate in resistance to forced Christianization, in particular Charlemagne’s persecutions against all the Pagans people: who have to accept “conversion or the massacre”

Icelandic sagas

Norse mythology, Norse sagas and Old Norse literature tell us about their religion through tales of heroic and mythological heroes. However, the transmission of this information was primarily oral, and we are reliant upon the writings of (later) Christian scholars, such as the Icelanders Snorri Sturluson and Sæmundur fróði, for much of this. Many of these sagas were written in Iceland, and most of them, even if they had no Icelandic provenance, were preserved there after the Middle Ages due to the Icelanders' continued interest in Norse literature and law codes.

Vikings in those sagas are described as if they often struck at accessible and poorly defended targets, usually with impunity. The sagas state that the Vikings built settlements and were skilled craftsmen and traders.

Rune stones

Many rune stones in Scandinavia record the names of participants in Viking expeditions. Other rune stones mention men who died on Viking expeditions, among them the around 25 Ingvar stones in the Mälardalen district of Sweden erected to commemorate members of a disastrous expedition into present-day Russia in the early 11th century. The rune stones are important sources in the study of the entire Norse society and early medieval Scandinavia, not only of the 'Viking' segment of the population (Sawyer, P H: 1997).

Runestones attest to voyages to locations, such as Bath, Greece, Khwaresm, Jerusalem, Italy (as Langobardland), London, Serkland (i.e. the Muslem world), England, and various locations in Eastern Europe.

Burial sites

There are numerous burial sites associated with Vikings. some examples are:

  • Gettlinge gravfält, Öland, Sweden, ship outline
  • Jelling, Denmark, a World Heritage Site
  • Hulterstad gravfält, near the villages of Alby and Hulterstad, Öland, Sweden, ship outline of standing stones


The etymology of "Viking" is somewhat vague. One path might be from the Old Norse word, vík, meaning "bay," "creek," or "inlet," and the suffix -ing, meaning "coming from" or "belonging to." Thus, viking would be a 'person of the bay', or "bayling" for lack of a better word. In Old Norse, this would be spelled víkingr. It may be noted that Viken was the old name of the region bordering on the Skagerrak, from where the first norse merchant-warriors originated. Later on, the term, viking, became synonymous with "naval expedition" or "naval raid", and a víkingr was a member of such expeditions. A second etymology suggested that the term is derived from Old English, wíc, ie. "trading city" (cognate to Latin vicus, "village").

The word viking appears on several rune stones found in Scandinavia. In the Icelanders' sagas, víking refers to an overseas expedition (Old Norse farar i vikingr "to go on an expedition"), and víkingr, to a seaman or warrior taking part in such an expedition.

In Old English, the word wicing appears first in the Anglo-Saxon poem, " Widsith", which probably dates from the 9th century. In Old English, and in the writings of Adam von Bremen, the term refers to a pirate, and is not a name for a people or a culture in general. Regardless of its possible orgins, the word was used more as a verb than as a noun, and connotated an activity and not a distinct group of individuals. To "go viking" was distinctly different from Norse seaborne missions of trade and commerce.

The word disappeared in Middle English, and was reintroduced as viking during 18th century Romanticism (the " Viking revival"), with heroic overtones of " barbarian warrior" or noble savage. During the 20th century, the meaning of the term was expanded to refer not only to the raiders, but also to the entire period; it is now, somewhat confusingly, used as a noun both in the original meaning of raiders, warriors or navigators, and to refer to the Scandinavian population in general. As an adjective, the word is used in expressions like " Viking age," "Viking culture," "Viking colony," etc., generally referring to medieval Scandinavia.


Miniatures of two different types of longships, on display at Vikingeskibsmuseet in Roskilde, Denmark.
Miniatures of two different types of longships, on display at Vikingeskibsmuseet in Roskilde, Denmark.

There were two distinct classes of Viking ships: the longship (the largest also known as "drakkar", meaning "dragon" in Norse) and the knarr. The longship, intended for warfare and exploration, was designed for speed and agility, and were equipped with oars to complement the sail as well as making it able to navigate independently of the wind. The longship had a long and narrow hull, as well as a shallow draft, in order to facilitate landings and troop deployments in shallow water. The knarr, on the other hand, was a slower merchant vessel with a greater cargo capacity than the longship. It was designed with a short and broad hull, and a deep draft. It also lacked the oars of the longship.

Longships were used extensively by the Leidang, the Scandinavian defense fleets. The term "Viking ships" has entered common usage, however, possibly because of its romantic associations (discussed below).

In Roskilde are the well-preserved remains of five ships, excavated from nearby Roskilde Fjord in the late 1960s. The ships were scuttled there in the 11th century to block a navigation channel, thus protecting the city which was then the Danish capital, from seaborne assault. These five ships represent the two distinct classes of the Viking Ships, the longship and the knarr.

Longships are not to be confused with longboats.

Modern revivals

See also 19th century Viking revival. Early modern publications, dealing with what we now call Viking culture, appeared in the 16th century, e.g. Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (Olaus Magnus, 1555), and the first edition of the 13th century Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus in 1514. The pace of publication increased during the 17th century with Latin translations of the Edda (notably Peder Resen's Edda Islandorum of 1665).


The word Viking was popularized, with positive connotations, by Erik Gustaf Geijer in the poem, The Viking, written at the beginning of the 19th century. The word was taken to refer to romanticized, idealized naval warriors, who had very little to do with the historical Viking culture. This renewed interest of Romanticism in the Old North had political implications. A myth about a glorious and brave past was needed to give the Swedes the courage to retake Finland, which had been lost in 1809 during the war between Sweden and Russia. The Geatish Society, of which Geijer was a member, popularized this myth to a great extent. Another Swedish author who had great influence on the perception of the Vikings was Esaias Tegnér, member of the Geatish Society, who wrote a modern version of Friðþjófs saga ins frœkna, which became widely popular in the Nordic countries, the United Kingdom and Germany.

A focus for early British enthusiasts was George Hicke, who published a Linguarum vett. septentrionalium thesaurus in 1703– 05. During the 18th century, British interest and enthusiasm for Iceland and Nordic culture grew dramatically, expressed in English translations as well as original poems, extolling Viking virtues and increased interest in anything Runic that could be found in the Danelaw, rising to a peak during Victorian times.

Nazism and Fascism

Similar to Wagnerian mythology, the romanticism of the heroic Viking ideal appealed to the Germanic supremacist thinkers of Nazi Germany. Political organizations of the same tradition, such as the Norwegian fascist party, Nasjonal Samling, used viking symbolism and imagery widely in its propaganda. The Viking legacy had an impact in parts of Europe, especially the Northern Baltic region, but in no way was the Viking experience particular to Germany. However, the Nazis did not claim themselves to be the descendants of any Viking settlers. Instead, they resorted to the historical and ethnic fact that the Vikings were descendants of other Germanic peoples; this fact is supported by the shared ethnic-genetic elements, and cultural and linguistic traits, of the Germans, Anglo-Saxons, and Viking Scandinavians. In particular, all these peoples also had traditions of Germanic paganism and practiced runelore.

Staged fight during a Viking festival
Staged fight during a Viking festival

This common Germanic identity became - and still is - the foundation for much National Socialist iconography. For example, the runic emblem of the SS utilized the sig rune of the Elder Futhark and the youth organization Wiking-Jugend made extensive use of the odal rune. This trend still holds true today (see also fascist symbolism).

Living history

Since the 1960s, there has been rising enthusiasm for historical reenactment. While the earliest groups had little claim for historical accuracy, the seriousness and accuracy of re-enactors has increased during the 1990s, including many re-enactment groups concentrating on an accurate representation of the Viking Age.

Popular misconceptions


There is a conception that the vikings were very tall and large men. Ibn Fadlan and various European sources mention that the vikings were of great stature. A number of modern studies have been conducted which show vikings to have been on average between 66.3in (168.4cm) and 69.3in (176cm) tall. There is variation, and higher ranking vikings tended to be taller (likely due to better nutrition), but the vikings were, compared to people of today, not incredibly tall men. Compared to people of other parts of Europe of that time the Vikings might have been above average in height.

Horned helmets

Apart from two or three representations of (ritual) helmets with protrusions that may be either stylized ravens, snakes or horns, no depiction of Viking Age warriors' helmets, and no actually preserved helmet has horns. In fact, the formal close-quarters style of Viking combat (either in shield walls or aboard "ship islands") would have made horned helmets cumbersome and hazardous to the warrior's own side. Therefore it can be ruled out that Viking warriors had horned helmets, but whether or not they were used in Scandinavian culture for other, ritual purposes remains unproven. The general misconception that Viking warriors wore horned helmets was partly promulgated by the 19th century enthusiasts of the Götiska Förbundet, founded in 1811 in Stockholm, with the aim of promoting the suitability of Norse mythology as subjects of high art and other ethnological and moral aims. The Vikings were also often depicted with winged-helmets and in other clothing taken from Classical antiquity, especially in depictions of Norse gods. This was done in order to legitimize the Vikings and their mythology, by associating it with the Classical world which has always been idealized in European culture. The latter-day mythos created by national romantic ideas blended the Viking Age with glimpses of the Nordic Bronze Age some 2,000 years earlier, for which actual horned helmets, probably for ceremonial purposes, are attested both in petroglyphs and by actual finds (See Bohuslän ). The cliché was perpetuated by cartoons like Hägar the Horrible and Vicky the Viking.

Savage marauders

Despite images of Viking marauders who live for plunder, the heart of Viking society is reciprocity, on both a personal, social level and on a broader political level. The Vikings lived in a time when numerous societies were engaged in many violent acts, and the doings of the Vikings put into context are not as savage as they seem. Others of the time period were much more savage than the Vikings, such as the French king, Charlemagne, who cut off the heads of 4,500 Saxons ( Bloody Verdict of Verden) in one day , partly because they would not accept the Christian faith. Actually, the Vikings were not at all as war-crazed as people tend to believe. Most were traders, although some did plunder, often monasteries around Scotland, Wales and England, as they had a lot of valuables in gold and silver.

In the 300-year period where Vikings were most active, there were only approximately 347 attacks that spread from the British Isles to Morocco, Portugal, and Turkey. This number is a lot smaller than most seem to think. In Ireland, where the Vikings are most famous for attacking monasteries, there were only 430 known attacks during this 300-year period.

Skull cups

The use of human skulls as drinking vessels is also ahistorical. The rise of this myth can be traced back to a Ole Worm's Runer seu Danica literatura antiquissima of 1636), warriors drinking ór bjúgviðum hausa [from the curved branches of skulls, i.e. from horns] were rendered as drinking ex craniis eorum quos ceciderunt [from the skulls of those whom they had slain]. (Scandinavian skalli/skalle: skal means simply "shell" and skál/skål "bowl".) The skull-cup allegation may have some history also in relation with other Germanic tribes and Eurasian nomads, such as the Scythians and Pechenegs.


The image of wild-haired, dirty savages sometimes associated with the Vikings in popular culture is a distorted picture of reality. Non-Scandinavian Christians are responsibile for most surviving accounts of the Vikings and consequently, a strong bias exists. This attitude is likely attributed to Christian misunderstandings regarding paganism. Viking tendencies were often misreported and the work of Adam of Bremen, among others, told largely disputable tales of Viking savagery and uncleanliness.

However, it is now known that the Vikings used a variety of tools for personal grooming such as combs, tweezers, razors or specialized "ear spoons". In particular, combs are among the most frequent artifacts from Viking Age excavations. The Vikings also made soap, which they used to bleach their hair as well as for cleaning, as blonde hair was ideal in the Viking culture.

The Vikings in England even had a particular reputation of excessive cleanliness, due to their custom of bathing once a week, on Saturdays (as opposed to the local Anglo-Saxons). To this day, Saturday is referred to as laugardagur/laurdag/lørdag/lördag "washing day" in the Scandinavian languages, though the original meaning is lost in modern speech in most of the Scandinavian languages ("laug" still means "bath" or "pool" in Icelandic).

As for the Rus', who had later acquired a subjected Varangian component, Ibn Rustah explicitly notes their cleanliness, while Ibn Fadlan is disgusted by all of the men sharing the same vessel to wash their faces and blow their noses in the morning. Ibn Fadlan's disgust is probably motivated by his ideas of personal hygiene particular to the Muslim world, such as running water and clean vessels. While the example intended to convey his disgust about the customs of the Rus', at the same time it recorded that they did wash every morning.

Popular culture

Vikings and the Romanticist Viking Revival have inspired many works of fiction, from historical novels directly based on historical events like Frans Gunnar Bengtsson's The Long Ships to loosely historical fantasies like Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead to the outright silly, like Erik the Viking.

Famous Vikings

  • Sweyne Forkbeard of Swansea - (the man who founded Swansea in Wales)
  • Askold and Dir (legendary Varangian conquerors of Kiev)
  • Björn Ironside (pillaged in Italy and son of Ragnar Lodbrok)
  • Brodir the Dane (Danish Viking responsible for killing the High King of Ireland, Brian Boru)
  • Egill Skallagrímsson (Icelandic warrior and popular skald, see also Egils saga)
  • Eirik Blodøks
  • Erik the Red (discoverer of Greenland)
  • Leif Ericson (discoverer of America/ Vinland, son of Erik the Red)
  • Freydís
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