The Truth Behind What Vikings Were Really Like
Today, many people think of Vikings as a brutal culture consisting of hulking blonde men who raided villages and slaughtered everyone in their path. This larger-than-life persona also encourages the belief that Vikings were especially cruel in warfare.
It’s certainly true that stories of terrifying Viking raids weren’t invented from thin air, but the truth has been distorted over the years, leading to several misconceptions about Vikings. They were a diverse group of people who did a lot more than pillage villages. It’s time to learn the truth about the Vikings and separate the fact from fiction.
Vikings Appreciated Art
Modern people often think of ancient humans as less intelligent individuals who led boring lives. As the misconception goes, these people had simple lifestyles and spent their whole lives hunting, farming and gathering food, with little time left for recreation, entertainment or creativity.
Vikings Had Great Hygiene
Unlike other groups of ancient people, the Vikings had great personal hygiene routines. They bathed regularly and had well-groomed hair. Combs, razors and tweezers have been found at Viking archaeological sites. Tools used to remove ear wax have even been found.
Vikings Didn’t Use Human Skulls for Cups
Vikings were fierce warriors, but they weren't heinous. Many drawings show Vikings using human skulls as cups, but that was never customary among actual Vikings. This myth originated from a poor translation of an ancient poem. The poem was called Krakumal 25, and it was part of a series.
Viking Men Had Beauty Regimens
All Vikings certainly weren’t blonde, but blonde hair was a coveted beauty standard for Viking men. In fact, they may have been some of the first people in history to bleach their hair. They didn’t have modern bleach, of course, so they rubbed a lye mixture in their hair and on their beards.
Vikings Participated in Slavery
The slave trade was a huge part of the Viking economic system. Under the law that most Vikings followed, thieves and murders were sentenced to a lifetime of slavery, so slaves sometimes came from Viking tribes. After raids, the strongest survivors were captured and sold as slaves.
Vikings Didn't Pillage Every Village in Sight
Vikings didn't set out to kill everyone in their path, although they did destroy villages at times. Their targets were often chosen based on opportunity, which is why they were notorious for attacking religious buildings. Monasteries were often completely isolated and unprotected, making them appealing targets.
Vikings Had a Lot of Fun
Vikings may have lived in a time when survival was a full-time job, but they still made time for fun. Many ancient civilizations of the world were serious subscribers to the "work hard, play hard" ideal. For Vikings, skiing was a common way to have some fun.
Vikings Made a Portable Fire
We often think of ancient humans rubbing sticks together to make fire, but Vikings had a much more modern way of doing it. They must have had a chemist somewhere among them, because it’s pretty baffling to think about how they realized this worked.
Not All Vikings Were Fierce
Despite all the wild stories, Vikings weren't born fierce fighters. Some Vikings were in fact considered by their peers to be more pleasant than the rest. Not all vikings were warriors, as many were simple workers such as farmers, potters, and sculptors.
Vikings Didn't Use Axes Very Often
Art involving Vikings usually includes them holding huge swords or axes, but that wasn’t true of the average Viking. Especially during a raid, smaller, less cumbersome weapons were more common. Swords, spears and knives were common weapons of choice, and some Viking tribes even used bows and arrows during raids.
The Wealthy Went to War
In many civilizations, the poorest people fight wars while the wealthy stay at home. It was just the opposite for the Vikings. People were primarily concerned with survival, and the poorest people's days were consumed with farming and hunting to have enough food to eat.
Women Had Rights
Vikings are often confused with barbarians, so it’s assumed that Viking women were treated poorly. Viking women were free to become warriors, and they had plenty of other rights that were extremely rare for women in history. In fact, Vikings gave women rights that most other "civilized" societies have only extended to women in the last couple of hundred years.
King Harald Wasn’t the King of All Vikings
In 1066, Viking King Harald Hardrada lost the Battle of Stamford Bridge. This Battle was fought in England in the same area that is still known as Stamford Bridge today. Many historians view the loss as the official end of the Viking Age.
No One Called Them Vikings
Although there is a Swedish word, vikingr, that is often incorrectly associated with the Vikings, no one who lived during the Viking Age would have used the word Viking in reference to the people. Vikingr means pirate and is not a complete definition or the root for the modern term.
Vikings Did Abandon Sick Children
Sadly, Vikings did abandon sick children, but the process wasn’t a flippant personal decision made by parents. To live the Viking lifestyle, men, women and children had to be strong and capable of doing hard work. If a child was weak and a burden, the child was presented to the village elders to decide whether he or she could live.
The Viking Impact on Modern History
One of the world's most famous landmarks is the Louvre museum, and we have Vikings to thank for the iconic house of art being built. In 1190, the Louvre was built to protect Parisians from raiding Vikings. A well-built fortress was often enough to deter Vikings, who typically preferred easier prey.
Vikings Didn't Wear Armor
You often think of medieval knights as wearing shining armor and chainmail, but Vikings kept things a little more natural. They lived relatively close to the North Pole, so reindeer were one of the many animals they encountered on a regular basis.
Vikings Raided for Survival, Not Fun
Because Vikings developed a reputation for destroying monasteries and killing priests, many historians assumed that Vikings raided in response to religious persecution. Deeper research indicates that Vikings actually raided simply to survive. The people lived in the Scandinavian region, which has harsh, cold winters.
Vikings Were Not Pirates
Some people think of Vikings as ancient pirates, but this false perception comes from faulty translation. The word Viking is similar to a Scandinavian term, vikingr, which means pirate. Many people assume that Vikings were pirates because of this similarity.
Not All Vikings Were Buried in Boats
Like many other ancient societies, Vikings believed a person's profession during life had a strong bearing on them in the afterlife. They thought Vikings who were warriors would continue to be warriors in the afterlife. A boat to get from place to place was even more important than weapons to a Viking raider.
All Women Weren't Warriors
Viking gender roles were certainly different than the historical standard of women being housewives and men being breadwinners, but Viking women weren't usually warriors either. Stories about valiant female Viking warriors are so popular that it is sometimes assumed all female Vikings participated in war.
They Didn’t Eat Often
You might think a group of people known for pillaging villages would consist of big eaters, but that's not quite the case. Traditionally, Vikings only ate two meals a day. The first meal of the day was called dagmal, while the second and final meal was called nattmal.
Vikings Were (Kind of) Peaceful
People are often remembered for their worst behaviors. It’s a fact that Vikings pillaged and raided villages. Acts of violence, such as rape and mass murder, were part of the raiding lifestyle, but there was much more than that to Viking culture.
Vikings Were Trash Talked by the Church
The scary Viking image was in many ways perpetuated by religion. Vikings lived at a turning point in human history. Modern religions, such as Christianity, where people serve one God and worship in a church, started gaining popularity at a time when the ancient pagan religions — characterized by sacrifices, temple worship and polytheism — were still thriving.
Some Vikings Were Gingers
If you have red hair, you might have Viking blood. Although Vikings originated from Scandinavia, they didn't all have fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes as many believe. Red hair is common in people from the western side of Scandinavia, just as blonde hair is common for people in northern Scandinavia. Essentially, ginger Vikings were just as common as blonde Vikings.
The Viking "Image" Comes from a 19th Century Picture
Modern people think of the Vikings as big blonde men who wore helmets with horns on them. Archeologists have yet to find a horned helmet that dates to the Viking era. This stereotypical misrepresentation has been linked to a drawing in a book published in the 19th century, hundreds of years after Viking civilization had ended.
The Vikings Didn’t Have a Single Country
The Maya and Inca civilizations are examples of ancient cultures with tribes that were still organized into a larger economic and governmental system. This wasn’t the case with the Vikings. Vikings lived in several small tribes, and although many of them traded together, they didn’t use one overarching governing system to rule them all.
Some Vikings Lived in North America
Recent archaeological discoveries prove that the Vikings traveled farther than most people thought. They are known for traveling to distant lands and making conquests. The civilization started out in the Scandinavian region but quickly spread to other parts of the world.
Viking Isn’t the Name of an Ethnic Group
Referring to all the people who lived in Scandinavia during what historians now refer to as the Viking Age is actually a huge misnomer. Viking isn’t an ethnic group, and not everyone who lived in Scandinavia from 800 to 1066 AD was a Viking.
Vikings Weren’t Huge
Vikings are often thought of as tall, muscular, blonde brutes. However, analysis of skeletal remains proves that, on average, they were much shorter than we thought. In fact, they were about 4 inches shorter than the average modern man.