10 incredible facts about Vikings you may have missed out on

6) Vikings pioneered one-to-one storage on their ships –

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While modern air transportation, with its shambolic overhead bin system, is a seat of confusion and disorder, Vikings, of the late 8th to 11th centuries, had already conceived a way of implementing one-to-one storage on board their ships. There was a practical side to this – when 30 stout Vikings sat themselves down on deck, there was hardly ever any place left for luggage. Consequently, they devised an innovative on board storage system, in which their chests actually doubled as seats. With their unique multipurpose, space-saving credentials, these Viking crates made the job of sailing (and raiding) with supplies far easier.

Interestingly, these oak crates originated as trunks that were carried by the Vikings, and then nailed in their respective positions along the ship. Furthermore, the storage boxes followed a certain design protocol whereby their top edges were slanted – so as to push off the undulating waves of intrusive sea water. The top portions were also finished with minimalist polish, thus imparting a smooth surface that made sitting easier.

7) The Vikings were fond of skiing, and used skis for hunting –
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Canvas print by Woodsy Art / Painting by Knud Bergslien

In terms of chronology, Scandinavians have a history of skiing that goes back to at least 6,000 years. Suffice it to say, Vikings also had a knack for skiing, mostly due to the practical reasons that made this mode of transportation easier over vast expanses of snow and ice. As a matter of fact, depictions (like a Viking archer carved on a rune stone in Sweden) and even evidences of ancient skis had been found in the so-called Fennoscandic territory.

One such discovery entails a decorated ski from Kinnula, Finland, which was found to be dated from the early Viking Age. Quite interestingly, the extant specimen had width of 12.5 cm while its length was only 101 cm – which suggested that it may have used by shorter people. There is also the probability that such short skis were specifically used for hunting in grounds that were covered with thick vegetation and deep snow. As for the Viking fondness for skiing, the outdoor activity was perhaps given the status of personification through Ullr – a Norse god who is an excellent archer, hunter, skater, and skier.

8) The Vikings were actually dedicated to hygiene –
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Image Credit: MassoGeppetto

Our popular notion of filthy, barbaric Vikings takes a back seat when it comes to actual archaeological evidences complemented by various medieval sources. To that end, the most common artifacts found from Viking Age graves pertain to combs. The combs were accompanied by other personal grooming items like razors, tweezers and even ear spoons. And, if these objects were not enough, the Vikings were also known to use a very strong lye-based soap. However, these soaps possibly had greater socio-cultural purposes beyond just cleanliness – since the lye was used for bleaching their beards. In other words, Vikings preferred to be blonds with lighter complexioned facial hair.

As for literary sources, in chapter 18 of Víglundar saga, the titular character asks one Ketilríður to cut and wash his hair before he lives for Norway. After it is done, he promises her to permit no one else to cut and wash his hair as long as she is alive. This affectionate tradition of a woman washing a man’s hair is mirrored in other sagas too – like in Heiðarvíga Saga, a character named Odd is prepared for riding to an adventurous trip with his horse saddled and weapons furnished. Still the final preparation for his journey is completed only when his wife washes his hair as a cleansing ritual.

9) Few elite Vikings warriors used swords made by advanced technology that was perfected 800 years later –

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One of the most baffling cases of military history, is the evidence of the so-called Ulfberht swords. Crafted with advanced technology that basically became the standard in 18th century (800 years after the Viking Age), these weapons were made of ‘crucible steel’ with greater carbon content. In fact, the carbon percentages analysed from the swords were found to be whopping three times higher than comparable swords from the epoch (9th century to 11th century AD), which in turn endowed the blades with outstanding strength.

This unique subject matter was made popular by NOVA/National Geographic’s 2012 documentary ‘Secrets of the Viking Sword‘, and according to the film, over 170 such hi-tech Ulfberht swords have been salvaged by archaeologists. Now, from the perspective of medieval sword-making, the very first predicament of the conventional process entailed the removal of impurities (known as slag) from the ore. This was because early-medieval blacksmiths didn’t have the advantage of heating the ore to very high temperatures (of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit) that would make the procedure of removal easier – due to the unavailability of the required furnaces. As a result, the expert smiths back then had to pound the hot metal during forging, so as to maintain the high quality of the blades.

However, during latter times after the Industrial Age, craftsmen were able to achieve higher temperatures for impurity removal, and they further improved upon the process by mixing carbon that made the brittle iron stronger. And intriguingly enough, the aforementioned Ulfberht swords from the Viking Age conformed to the metallurgical quality of these later-aged advanced crucible steel weapons – as is evident from greater carbon content and lack of slag in their respective compositions.

10) Berserk fury was most probably a form of paranoia, as opposed to actual battle rage –

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A big chunk of the Viking Age coincided with paganism among the Vikings, and during these centuries, the berserkir or berserkers were seen as humans who possessed supernatural powers by the blessing of Odin himself. In that regard, much had been said about their so-called berserk fury which allowed such men to forgo pain and demonstrate fanatical levels of strength, like killing well-armored enemies in just a single stroke. However, in reality, going ‘berserk’ was probably just a form of delusion/paranoia also known as lycanthropy. In medical terms, lycanthropy is defined as rare psychiatric syndrome that encompasses a delusion that the affected person can transform (or has transformed) into a non-human animal. Literary evidences do point to such cases of lycanthropy – like in the example of the Volsunga Saga where Sigmund wears wolf skins, howls when aggravated, and even goes on to use the speech of wolves.

Other possibilities of going berserk might have entailed hereditary conditions and even epileptic seizures. Some researchers have also put forth the hypothesis that berserk fury may have been induced by ingestion of materials with psychoactive properties. In any case, berserkers did project an aura of awe and fear even during Viking times – as is evident from their frequent postings as high level bodyguards of pagan Viking chieftains (as described in Hrafnsmal and Harald Fairhair’s Saga).

Other Sources: The Vikings by Ian Heath (Osprey Publishing) / On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry by Fabing, Howard D. (published in Scientific Monthly)

3 Comments on "10 incredible facts about Vikings you may have missed out on"

  1. George Meladze | August 30, 2015 at 2:21 pm |

    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.

  2. William M Smith | August 20, 2015 at 8:21 pm |

    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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