Fast Facts: The Vikings

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Featured Image: The pommel of a Viking sword. Credit: Keeshu, Haitabu Museum, Germany.

  • The People of the north of Europe were greatly feared throughout the continent, although relatively little is known about them today. Most of that comes from others’ writings about them. But with the help of archeological evidence, we know they were a largely agricultural people organized around clans that sometimes warred with each other.
Danes invading England. Image: "Miscellany on the life of St. Edmund," Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

Danes invading England. Image: “Miscellany on the life of St. Edmund,” Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

  • For reasons that are still debated, the Vikings banded together during the Middle Ages and went on long-distance raiding parties throughout Europe, conquering and pillaging, sometimes with hundreds of ships. Their feats are made all the more remarkable because they were able to do so effectively with no king or central government.
  • One popular theory proposes a growing population and harsh climate in Scandinavia made fertile farmland scarce. The opportunities of an unguarded Europe looked preferable to fighting each other.
  • Also known as Norsemen, Vikings came from modern-day Denmark, Sweden and Norway. The Danes pushed south into Southwestern Europe and toward the Mediterranean. The Swedes pushed southeast toward modern-day Russia. The Norwegians went west into the Atlantic, toward the British Isles and beyond.
  • Because of the many deep, crisscrossing rivers of Europe – and Vikings’ ingeniously designed boats – they could sail deep into the continent and just as swiftly escape out of it. One expedition attacked Paris this way with a fleet of 120 ships, in 845 A.D. The first recorded attack came against a monastery at Lindisfarne in England about 50 years earlier. By 880 A.D., a big chunk of England was conquered and became known as the Danelaw.
  • Warfare was a hallowed activity for the Norse. Getting killed in battle was a surefire way to reach Valhalla, an afterlife were Viking warriors feast, drink and kill for eternity.
Runestones were used tribute to the dead or to honor great voyages and battles. Although Vikings were mostly non-literate, they believed the runes held mythical powers. Image: Berig.

Runestones were used to tribute the dead or to honor great voyages and battles. Although Vikings were mostly non-literate, they believed the runes held mythical powers. Image: Berig.

  • One of the favorite activities of the Norsemen was skiing. They even worshiped a god of skiing, Ullr. Mountain climbing and ice-skating were also pastimes long before they became popular hundreds of years later. They made their skates from sharpened animal bone.
  • Vikings also became avid traders, when they weren’t killing. There’s evidence that some have reached as far as Baghdad in the pursuit of trade. Their name for the Muslim world was Serkland.
  • Many Norse words have influenced English words, like place names. –dales are valley towns, –thorpes are settlements, –wicks are harbors and -becks are streams. The word Thursday is named after the god of thunder, Thor.
  • Vikings are known for settling in foreign lands, adopting and absorbing local culture. This happened in Normandy, an area conquered in the north of France. It happened when a Viking group called the Rus’ seized Kiev, a distant city of Slavic people in the far east of Europe. The Kievan Rus’ principality became the first great Eastern Slavic nation and would later be called Russia.
  • The modern capital of Ireland, Dublin, was founded by Vikings.
  • Scandinavia was one of the last places in Europe to completely convert to Christianity.
  • Characters and stories from Norse sagas helped inspire Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” the most famous opera in the German language.
  • Along with beer and mead, Vikings drank bjórr, a strong fermented fruit wine with honey.
Image: Max Naylor.

Image: Max Naylor.