A Viking is one of the Norse (Scandinavian) explorers, warriors, merchants, and pirates who raided and colonized wide areas of Europe from the late eighth to the early eleventh century. These Norsemen used their famed longships to travel as far east as Constantinople and the Volga River in Russia, and as far west as Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland. This period of Viking expansion is known as the Viking Age, and forms a major part of the medieval history of Scandinavia, the British Isles and Europe in general.
A romanticized picture of Vikings as Germanic noble savages emerged in the 17th century, and especially during the Victorian era Viking revival, in Britain taking the form of Septentrionalism, in Germany that of "Wagnerian" pathos or even Germanic mysticism, and in the Scandinavian countries that of Romantic nationalism or Scandinavism. These clichéd depictions in contemporary popular culture are often ironised to the effect of presenting Vikings as cartoonish characters.
Etymologists trace the word to Anglo-Frankish writers, who referred to "víkingr" as one who set about to raid and pillage, as in the saga of Egil Skallagrimsson. In 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 and many other languages, Viking might refer to the Viking Age Scandinavians in general. The pre-Christian Scandinavian population is also referred to as Norse, although that term is properly applied to the whole civilization of Old-Norse-speaking people.
The word Viking appears on several rune stones found in Scandinavia. In the Icelanders' sagas, víking refers to an overseas expedition (Old Norse fara í víking "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 origins, the word was used more as a verb than as a noun, and connoted 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.
The term Varangians made its first appearance in Byzantium where it was introduced to designate a function. In Russia it was extended to apply to Scandinavian warriors journeying to and from Constantinople. In the Byzantine sources Varangians are first mentioned in 1034 as in garrison in the Thracian theme. The Arabic geographer Al Biruni has mentioned the Baltic sea as the Varangian Sea and specifies the Varangians as a people dwelling on its coasts. The first datable use of the word in Norse literature appears by Einarr Skúlason in 1153. According to Icelandic Njalssaga from the 13th century, the institution of Varangian guard was established by 1000. In the Russian Primary Chronicle the Varangian is used as a generic term for the Germanic nations on the coasts of the Baltic sea that likewise lived in the west as far as the land of the English and the French
The period from the earliest recorded raids in the 790s until the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 is commonly known as the Viking Age of Scandinavian History. The Normans, however, were descended from Danish Vikings who were given feudal overlordship of areas in northern France — the Duchy of Normandy — in the 8th century. In that respect, descendants of the Vikings continued to have an influence in northern Europe. Likewise, King Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England who was killed during the Norman invasion in 1066, was descended from Danish Vikings. Many of the medieval kings of Norway and Denmark were married to English and Scottish royalty and Viking forces were often a factor in dynastic disputes prior to 1066.
Geographically, a "Viking Age" may be assigned not only to Scandinavian lands (modern Denmark, Norway and Sweden), but also to territories under North Germanic dominance, mainly the Danelaw, which replaced the powerful English kingdom of Northumbria. Viking navigators opened the road to new lands to the north, west and east, resulting in the foundation of independent settlements in the Shetland, Orkney, and Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and L'Anse aux Meadows, a short-lived settlement in Newfoundland, circa 1000 A.D. Many of these lands, specifically Greenland and Iceland, may have been originally discovered by sailors blown off course. They also may well have been deliberately sought out, perhaps on the basis of the accounts of sailors who had seen land in the distance. The Greenland settlement eventually died out, possibly due to climate change. Vikings also explored and settled in territories in Slavic-dominated areas of Eastern Europe. By 950 AD these settlements were completely Slavicized.
From 839, Varangian mercenaries in the service of the Byzantine Empire, notably Harald Hardrada, campaigned in North Africa, Jerusalem, and other places in the Middle East. Important trading ports during the period include Birka, Hedeby, Kaupang, Jorvik, Staraya Ladoga, Novgorod and Kiev.
There is archaeological evidence that Vikings reached the city of Baghdad, the center of the Islamic Empire. The Norse regularly plied the Volga with their trade goods: furs, tusks, seal fat for boat sealant and slaves. However, they were far less successful in establishing settlements in the Middle East, due to the more centralized Islamic power.
Generally speaking, the Norwegians expanded to the north and west to places such as Ireland, Iceland and Greenland; the Danes to England and France, settling in the Danelaw (northern England) and Normandy; and the Swedes to the east. These nations, although distinct, were similar in culture and 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 the end of the Viking Age for the Scandinavians also marks the start of their relatively brief Middle Ages.
The Vikings sailed most of the North Atlantic, reaching south to North Africa and east to Russia, Constantinople and the middle east, as looters, traders, colonists, and mercenaries. Vikings under Leif Eriksson, heir to Erik the Red, reached North America, and set up a short lived settlement in present-day L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.
The motives driving the Viking expansion form a topic of much debate in Nordic history. One common theory posits that the Viking population had outgrown agricultural potential of their Scandinavian homeland. For a coastal population with superior naval technologies, it made sense to expand overseas in the face of a youth bulge effect. However, this theory does little to explain why the expansion went overseas rather than into the vast, uncultivated forest areas on the interior of the Scandinavian Peninsula. Moreover, no such rise in population or decline in agricultural production has been definitively proven.
Another explanation is that the Vikings exploited a moment of weakness in the surrounding regions. For instance, the Danish Vikings were aware of the internal divisions within Charlemagne's empire that began in the 830s and resulted in schism. The Danish expeditions in England also profited from the disunity of the different English kingdoms.
The decline in the profitability of old trade routes could also have played a role. Trade between western Europe and the rest of Eurasia suffered a severe blow when the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century. The expansion of Islam in the 7th century had also affected trade with western Europe. Trade on the Mediterranean Sea was historically at its lowest level when the Vikings initiated their expansion. By opening new trade routes in Arabic and Frankish lands, the Vikings profited from international trade by expanding beyond their traditional boundaries. Finally, the destruction of the Frisian fleet by the Franks afforded the Vikings an opportunity to take over their trade markets.
Snorri Sturluson in the saga of St. Olafr chapter 73, describes the brutal process of Christianisation in Norway: “…those who did not give up paganism were banished, with others he (St. Olafr) cut off their hands or their feet or extirpated their eyes, others he ordered hanged or decapitated, but did not leave unpunished any of those who did not want to serve God (…) he afflicted them with great punishments (…) He gave them clerks and instituted some in the districts.”
As the new quasi-feudalilistic system became entrenched in Scandinavian rule, organized opposition sealed the Viking's fate – 11th century chronicles note Scandinavian attempts to combat the Vikings from the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, which eventually led to Danish and Swedish participation in the Baltic crusades during the 12th and 13th centuries, and contributed to the development of the Hanseatic League.
According to custom, all free Norse men were required to own weapons, as well as permitted to carry them at all times. These arms were also indicative of a Viking's social status. A wealthy Viking would have a complete ensemble of a helmet, shield, chainmail shirt, and animal-skin coat, possibly reindeer hides, among various other armaments. A man of lesser means, however, might only have a single weapon, and perhaps a shield.
The spear and shield were the most basic armaments of the Viking warrior; most would probably also wear a knife of some description, commonly of the seax type. As an alternative, or perhaps in addition, to the spear a warrior might carry a bow or axe. The wealthiest Vikings would have worn a sword in addition to their primary arms, and would have had access to body armor, such as a helmet and a mail hauberk.
Runestones attest to voyages to locations, such as Bath, Greece, Khwaresm, Jerusalem, Italy (as Langobardland), London, Serkland (i.e. the Muslim world), England, and various locations in Eastern Europe.
There were two distinct classes of Viking ships: the longship (sometimes erroneously called "drakkar", a corruption of "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 defence 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 Viking ships, the longship and the knarr. The remains of these ships can be found on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde.
Longships are not to be confused with longboats.
The first challenges to anti-Viking sentiments in Britain emerged in the 17th century. Pioneering scholarly editions of the Viking Age began to reach a small readership in Britain, archaeologists began to dig up Britain's Viking past, and linguistic enthusiasts started to identify the Viking-Age origins for rural idioms and proverbs. The new dictionaries of the Old Norse language enabled the Victorians to grapple with the primary Icelandic sagas.
In Scandinavia, the 17th century Danish scholars Thomas Bartholin and Ole Worm, and Olof Rudbeck of Sweden were the first to set the standard for using runic inscriptions and Icelandic Sagas as historical sources. During the Age of Enlightenment and the Nordic Renaissance, historical scholarship in Scandinavia became more rational and pragmatic, as witnessed by the works of a Danish historian Ludvig Holberg and Swedish historian Olof von Dalin. Until recently, the history of the Viking Age was largely based on Icelandic sagas, the history of the Danes written by Saxo Grammaticus, the Russian Primary Chronicle and the The War of the Irish with the Foreigners. Although few scholars still accept these texts as reliable sources, historians nowadays rely more on archeology and numismatics, disciplines that have made valuable contributions toward understanding the period.
Until the 19th century reign of Queen Victoria, public perceptions in Britain continued to portray Vikings as violent and bloodthirsty. The chronicles of medieval England had always portrayed them as rapacious 'wolves among sheep'. In 1920, a winged-helmeted Viking was introduced as a radiator cap figure on the new Rover car, marking the start of the cultural rehabilitation of the Vikings in Britain.
Norse mythology, sagas and literature tell of Scandinavian culture and religion through tales of heroic and mythological heroes. However, early transmission of this information was primarily oral, and later texts were reliant upon the writings and transcriptions of Christian scholars, including the Icelanders Snorri Sturluson and Sæmundur fróði. 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.
The 200 year Viking influence on European history is filled with tales of plunder and colonization, and the majority of these chronicles came from western witnesses and their descendants. Less common, though equally relevant, are the Viking chronicles that originated in the east, including the Nestor chronicles, Novgorod chronicles, Ibn Fadlan chronicles, Ibn Ruslan chronicles, and many brief mentions by the Fosio bishop from the first big attack on the Byzantine empire.
Other chroniclers of Viking history include Adam of Bremen, who wrote "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" in the fourth volume of his Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum.
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.
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. 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).
On 1 July 2007, the reconstructed Viking ship Skuldelev 2, renamed Sea Stallion, began a journey from Roskilde, Denmark to Dublin, Ireland. The remains of that ship and four others were discovered during a 1962 excavation in the Roskilde Fjord. This multi-national experimental archeology project saw 70 crew members sail the ship back to its home in Ireland. Tests of the original wood show that it was made out of Irish trees. The Sea Stallion arrived outside Dublin's Custom House on 14 August 2007.
The purpose of the voyage was to test and document the seaworthiness, speed and manoeuvrability of the ship on the rough open sea and in coastal waters with treacherous currents. The crew tested how the long, narrow, flexible hull withstood the tough ocean waves. The expedition also provided valuable new information on Viking longships and society. The ship was built using Viking tools, materials and much the same methods as the original ship.
Modern influence is also exhibited in the genre of Viking metal. A popular sub-genre of heavy metal music, originating in the early 1990s as an off-shoot of the black metal sub-genre. This style is notable for its lyrical and theatrical emphasis on Norse mythology as well as Viking lifestyles and beliefs. Popular bands that contribute to this genre include Turisas, Amon Amarth, Einherjer, Valhalla, Týr, Ensiferum, Falkenbach, and Enslaved.
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 Götiska Förbundet, founded in 1811 in Stockholm, Sweden, 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 and Vikso helmets).
The regular Viking helmets were conical, made from hard leather with wood and metallic reinforcement for the regular troops and the iron helmet with mask and chain mail for the chieftains, based on the previous Vendel age helmets from central Sweden. The only true Viking helmet found, is that from Gjermundbu in Norway. This helmet is made of iron and has been dated to the 10th century.
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 for excessive cleanliness, due to their custom of bathing once a week, on Saturdays (unlike 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 Vikings in the east, Ibn Rustah explicitly notes their cleanliness, while Ibn Fadlan is disgusted by all of the men sharing the same, used 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.