10 incredible facts about Vikings you may have missed out on

The horned helmet of the Vikings was rather a Victorian age embellishment, so as to romanticize the ‘noble barbarity’ (read oxymoron) of these adventurous seafarers from the Scandinavian lands. However, there is more to the Vikings than just the stereotypical myths that were fabricated later – firstly by the Catholic factions of the medieval world and later the European romanticists of the 19th century. So, without further ado, let us check out 10 amazing historical facts about Vikings you may not have known about.

1) The very term ‘Viking’ means piracy in Scandinavian sources –

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In terms of written Scandinavian sources, the term Viking pertains to either piracy or a pirate raid; while the person participating in such an endeavor was known as vikingr. However, quite interestingly, the origin of the term Viking is still not known, with researchers listing a few probabilities. The first among these entails a derivation from vik – which means an inlet of fjord; thus denoting a Viking as a ‘pirate hidden in a fjord’. Other alternatives include vikja – which means ‘to move or turn aside’; thus making a Viking the ‘one who makes a detour’.

But more importantly, the multitude of impressions that the Vikings had on their opponents and victims can be comprehended by the various then-contemporary names that these sea-faring invaders were given. The Irish called them Gaill or ‘strangers’; the German chroniclers called them Ascomanni or ‘Ashmen’ (probably derived from some of Viking ships made of ash wood); the Byzantine sources mention them as Varangoi (derived from var – a group of men sworn to each other); and the Muslim sources describe them as al-Madjus or ‘heathen wizards’!

2) Some vikings formed dedicated brotherhood of warriors –

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The ‘holy orders’ of the Crusades fueled many Christian brotherhoods consisting of dedicated warriors – and they might have been inspired by their Northern European predecessors from Scandinavia. These brotherhoods or military guilds from the Viking Age were known as Viking-laws (derived from Vikinge-lag), and they were formed due the expansionist tendencies of various Scandinavian warlords. In essence, they were organized as free companies of mercenaries – with their members comprising experienced soldiers who lived under a strict code of conduct. To that end, these military brotherhood never undertook campaigns on their own; instead they presented themselves during summers, and relied on patrons like Viking kings and princes who paid high sums for their services in upcoming conflicts – thus initiating a private military contract of sorts.

One of the famed (and often historically disputed) Viking-laws were the Jomsvikingelag or Jomsvikings, who were supposedly established by none other than Harald Bluetooth himself. Though not mentioned in then-contemporary sources, their tales were made renowned by later Danish accounts and the famed Jomsviking Saga. According to many such literary tid-bits, their mighty home fortress of Jomsborg was situated near Wollin, near the mouth of the Oder river. As for their might, the members (ranging from 900 to 2000 warriors) were always between the ages of 18 to 50, and they had to prove their prowess in a tough fighting duel known as Holmgang. And after induction, the Jomsvikings were expected to show no fear or tendency to flee even when they were hopelessly outnumbered in actual battles.

3) Vikings included women in their raid parties –

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A new study based on Viking DNA shows that these daredevil seafarers had been more than just pillagers and raiders. To that end, the groups mostly comprised of family men who traveled with their wives on the long expeditions. The study in question was done on 45 Norse skeletons dating from the so-called Viking Age, from 796 AD to 1066 AD. These remains were salvaged from different parts of Norway, while their examination entailed the close assessment of the DNA carried in the mitochondria (which are basically the ‘powerhouses’ of the cell). In biological terms, mitochondria are initially stored in the cytoplasm of a mother’s egg, and as such are passed from generation to generation by ONLY following a maternal lineage.

The researchers studied these salvaged components by comparing them with present-day mitochondrial DNA extracted from 5,191 people of European descent. The material was additionally cross-examined and compared with DNA of ancient Icelanders. The interesting results showed that the maternally-passed DNA related to the modern people from the North Atlantic region, including English, Swedes and Scots. However, the closest matches were found in the case of the present-day natives from Orkney and Shetland Islands.

This pattern does signify that women (and also perhaps their children) accompanied the much heralded Viking raiders, especially when they took part in extended, far-flung campaigns and colonization expeditions. This is what Erika Hagelberg, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oslo and co-author of the study, had to say about the findings –

It overthrows this 19th century idea that the Vikings were just raiders and pillagers. They established settlements and grew crops, and trade was very, very important.

4) Vikings were better traders, ‘later’ plunderers –

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Pencil Prelim by Tom Lovell.

Following up on the aforementioned quote, a very recent research suggests that the Vikings already had substantial trade networks connecting Denmark and Norway before the conventional start of the Viking Age in 793 AD (when an English island was raided). According to archaeologists from University of York, the marine-based trade networks were already established by 725 AD, and the nexus was probably centered around Ribe, a bustling center of commerce on the west coast of Denmark. To that end, one of the major economic activities of the zone related to the peaceful trading of handcrafted combs made out of reindeer antlers (the animals were possibly brought to Denmark by Norwegian Vikings).

As Steve Ashby, a lecturer of medieval archaeology at the University of York, makes it clear –

This shows us that merchants and other travelers from the north were visiting Ribe long before the start of the Viking Age as we know it. Even in its early stages, the town was attracting visitors from afar. We have long wondered whether Ribe, and places like it, kick-started the Viking expansion in trade, travel and warfare, but it has been difficult to prove [until now].

5) Yes, Vikings were the first Europeans to reach America –

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Painting by Christian Krohg

To start off with the histrionic statement – Christopher Columbus was not the first European to reach the Americas. The honor is commonly believed to belong to one Leif Erikson, the intrepid Viking explorer from Iceland who arrived in North America almost 500 years before Columbus, and also established the Norse settlement at ‘Vinland’ (a location which is estimated to be around present-day Newfoundland). It was called so because of the abundant grapes growing there, and the perceived fertility of the land.

Now, in terms of history, archaeologists had tried for centuries to find the exact location of the so-called Vinland. But they were only partially successful in 1960 when the site known as L’Anse aux Meadows (in the northern tip of Canada’s Newfoundland) exhibited evidences of a Viking settlement that may have equated to Leif’s American settlement of Leifsbúðir. And interestingly enough, the L’Anse aux Meadows was probably just one of the settlements established by the Scandinavians, with mentions of other settled places (further south) being made in Saga of Erik the Red.

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  • George Meladze

    First of all, ‘Viking’ is no nationality of ethnicity. Some Scandinavians/Norsemen were vikings, some were not. The majority of them were farmers. Some of them might vikja – avoid ordinary life and become Vikingar, but most of them led industrious agricultural life, ranching, sowing, reaping, weaving and so on.

  • William M Smith

    Dattatreya – Very good short Viking history. I will be attending a Viking conference in Sept of this year in St Louis. Would like to use some of your photos and ship building showing the chest seats. For your information they also used the position of the moon at mid day to determine their longitude and direction at sea. The moon takes 29.6 days to circle the earth in a counterclockwise direction. If the moon apears at say 3 oclock at mid day today it will be 12 degrees counterclockwise at mid day tomorrow. This is why most of high sea Viking ships had 15 orr locks on each side of their ship. Worked like a built in compass, all they had to do to maintain direction was keep the moon in its proper window made by the orrsman of the day.

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