Late in the 8th century AD strange ships began appearing in the bays along the coasts of Europe. Some of these ships were quite long for that era. They were strongly built of oak, and from 40 to 60 oarsmen sat on the rowers' benches. Each ship had a single mast with a square sail that was often striped in brilliant colors. Bright shields overlapped along the gunwale. The ships were pointed at each end so that they could go forward or backward without turning around. They had tall curved prows, usually carved in the shapes of dragons.
These dragon ships, as they were often called, usually appeared in a bay at about dawn. As soon as the ships reached the beach, tall blond men jumped out, shouting battle cries. Armed with swords and battle-axes, they attacked the sleeping villagers. They killed many of them, captured some of the youths and maidens, and gathered all the loot that their ships could carry. Then they sailed away.
These marauders, or pirates, came from Scandinavia--what is now Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The people who lived there were Norsemen, or Northmen. Those Norsemen who took part in these swift, cruel raids along the coast were called Vikings. Their expression for this type of warfare was to "go a-viking." Vik in Norse means "harbor" or "bay." The Vikings came to be the most feared raiders of their time and were the only Norsemen with whom most Europeans came in contact. Their name was given to the era that dated from about AD 740 to about 1050--the Viking Age.
The raids of the Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries are among the best-known episodes of early medieval history. These fierce attacks from Scandinavia fell on the British Isles, the Atlantic and North Sea shoreline of the Carolingian Empire, which included most of what are now France, Germany, and the Low Countries, and to the east on what became Russia. They took a heavy toll on the fragile political development and stability of Europe, although the damage caused by the Vikings may well have been exaggerated by the main historians of the period. These historians were usually priests who looked upon the pagan Vikings with particular horror. In addition, the Church, as a wealthy and relatively defenseless target, may have suffered more heavily than many other sectors of European society. Despite the notoriety the Vikings attracted because of their ferocity, within a century or two they converted to Christianity and settled in the lands they had raided. At the same time, the Vikings were developing new outposts of settlement in Iceland, Greenland, North America, and the North Atlantic, and establishing kingdoms in Scandinavia along the lines of the European kingdoms to the south. As they became assimilated in their new lands, they became farmers and traders as well as rulers and warriors.
In the harsh climate of Scandinavia the thinly scattered population lived by farming, fishing, and trading—mostly by sea. Viking political organization resembled that of other early Germanic peoples: a society of warrior chiefs and loyal followers. However, the Scandinavian world had never come under Roman or Christian influence, and its population was small and dispersed. As a result, these groups did not consolidate into kingdoms until around the time the Vikings began to venture on their raids in about 800. For several generations after the raids began, the bands of Danes or Vikings or Northmen, as they were known in Western Europe, arrived mostly as separate and small-scale undertakings, not as royal expeditions or large invasions.
The pre-Christian religion of the Vikings was similar to that of other Germanic tribes. They worshiped a number of gods, including Odin, the god of war and leader of the Norse gods; Thor, the god of thunder; and Balder, the god of light. Viking warriors believed that if they died heroically they would be called to dwell with Odin in Valhalla, his palace in the realm of the gods. Opposing the Norse gods were a host of evil giants, led by Loki. Vikings believed that both gods and men would eventually be destroyed in the Ragnarok, a mighty battle against the giants, but that a new, peaceful world would emerge from this disaster.
The basic economy of Scandinavia was agricultural. The short growing season sufficed to meet the demand for grain, for cattle and stock grazing. Because the people of this world mostly lived along the coasts, fishing played a significant part in their lives, as did sea trade. Even before the Viking raids began, the markets of Europe to the south were always interested in the raw goods of the North Sea and the Baltic. Furs, timber, amber, and slaves (mostly from Slavic regions) were primary commodities.
Conquests and Settlements
At first these Viking attacks were made by small bands. Later there were more men and more ships, which roamed farther and farther from their homelands. To the north and east they attacked the Lapps, Finns, and Russians. To the west they conquered and held for generations large parts of Britain and Ireland. To the south they occupied northern France. The Norsemen did not actually conquer any country south of France, but their ships sailed along the coasts of Spain and Portugal. They plundered Sicily and the northern shores of Africa and attacked Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.
To the west the Vikings did not stop with the British Isles but crossed the Atlantic Ocean to take Iceland away from the Irish monks who had settled there. In 874 they began to colonize Iceland, and during the years that followed, many freedom-loving people came to Iceland as settlers. In about the year 982 Eric the Red sailed westward from Iceland. He landed on the coast of Greenland and gave the island its name. Later he founded the first colony there. His son, Leif Ericson, sometimes called Leif the Lucky, is believed by most historians to have been the first explorer to reach the North American mainland. About the year 1000 he landed at a place that he called Vinland. Vinland was identified as Newfoundland in 1963 when archaeologists uncovered the remains of a Viking settlement at the extreme northern tip of the island.
While the Vikings were discovering lands and waging war, they were telling each other adventure tales that later were known as sagas, from the Icelandic word for story. Poets also were singing the praises of Norse heroes and gods and describing the Norse way of life. In this way the Norsemen preserved major parts of the early history of the Scandinavian countries and of Russia, Germany, Britain, and Ireland.
Why the Vikings Were Powerful
The Vikings probably were descended from blue-eyed and blond invaders from the south of Scandinavia. There they found and conquered a short, dark-haired race. Long-limbed and muscular, with flaxen or red hair hanging below their shoulders, Norsemen were trained from childhood to be strong and self-reliant. Running, jumping, and wrestling took the place of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Their other subjects were skating, skiing, snowshoeing, swimming, rowing, and riding horseback. As soon as a youngster could carry a weapon, he was taught to thrust a sword, to swing a battle-ax, and to throw a spear.
A part of their success was due to their religion, for the Norsemen's gods were warriors too. Thor the Thunderer made constant war against the ice and snow giants of the North. The chief god, Odin, presided over Valhalla, the warrior's heaven. Death in battle was considered the most honorable death. Only by that death could a Norseman enter Valhalla. So the Norsemen battled unafraid and joyful, calling upon their gods to help them.
The Norsemen were the most skilled and daring seamen of their day. Because the compass was still unknown, they navigated by sun and star. When fog hid the stars, their ships drifted until the weather cleared. Not fearing death, they took great chances. Their experiences and discoveries were therefore many.
The Norsemen dared not risk open fires aboard their wooden ships, and in those days there were no stoves. So, unless they were on a long sea voyage, they would anchor in a quiet bay each evening. Then they pitched tents on the shore, kindled fires, and cooked their food. Porridge with dried meat or fish was the usual diet. Sometimes they had bread, butter, and cheese. If they spent the night aboard ship, they unrolled their skin sleeping gear and stretched out on the rowers' benches. A successful Viking expedition might bring fortune, fame, and, perhaps, noble rank to those who took part. So by the time they were 15 or 16, Norse boys were eager to try their luck in battle.
Trade Is Developed
The early Viking voyages were mostly raids in which Christian churches and monasteries were robbed and burned and peaceful villages were plundered. But in later times piracy was often combined with trading. A pirate expedition might stop off to do a little quiet trading, and a trading expedition might turn to a little pirating.
As time went on, trade among the Scandinavian countries and with the rest of Europe grew. Norway sent herring and salt to Sweden. Denmark received sheep from the Faeroe Islands. Greenland imported timber from Labrador and grain and iron from Europe. It paid for these in walrus and narwhal ivory, furs, live falcons, and even live polar bears.
Norwegian Viking expeditions started in the spring after the seed was sown or in the autumn when crops were harvested. At home the Norsemen were mainly farmers and stockmen. They also hunted and fished. After a successful voyage or two, many retired from the sea and were often succeeded by their sons.
During wars and raids, villagers who were not killed by the Vikings were often taken as slaves. These slaves, called thralls, were usually Irish, Finns, Germans, or Slavs. A free Norseman might be enslaved for a debt or crime, but this was rare. Many slaves were voluntarily freed by their masters, especially after the introduction of Christianity, and there was much intermarriage.
The Norsemen at Home
The houses of the Norsemen differed according to the resources of each country. In Norway houses were built of rough pine logs. The roofs were usually covered with turf or straw. In Iceland, which had few trees, houses were built of turf, rocks, and driftwood. Both in Iceland and Greenland heavy timbers needed for the frames of buildings were brought from Norway and later from North America.
A house had only one room and was built with a pitched roof. A poor man might have two or three huts. The estate of a rich man had so many buildings that it looked like a village. In later centuries, several of these buildings were often connected by passageways.
The houses were plain on the outside. All the decoration was indoors, where most of the woodwork was carved, painted, and touched with gilt. On festive occasions, brightly embroidered tapestries would be hung on the walls, and long tables were set up for feasting. The Norsemen had a great variety of foods and beverages. Mutton and beef were plentiful. Until its use was forbidden, the favorite meat was horsemeat. The Norsemen also used fish and cereals, eggs from wild and domestic fowl, and milk products. They had few vegetables. Honey was the only sweet, and bees were kept to supplement the wild honey. Meat and fish were often dried, smoked, or pickled. Many foods were preserved in brine or in sour whey, a preservative still in use among Scandinavians. Butter was never salted. It was eaten fresh or was fermented for use like cheese.
Norsemen liked both fresh and sour milk and buttermilk too. The favorite drink was whey. They had a food named skyr that was much like cottage cheese. Apples and berries were their only fruits. Porridge was cooked in enormous kettles over an open fire. Although boiling was favored for most foods, meat was sometimes baked in hot ashes. Bread was baked in ashes or in clay ovens.
At feasts the Norse drank quantities of ale. From honey they made a fermented drink called mead, and wealthy Norsemen imported wine from France. There were long and sometimes rowdy drinking festivals, at which sagas were told and poems were recited.
All wealthy Norsemen dressed lavishly for events like weddings and funerals and for things, as the assemblies were called. Skins and furs of tame and wild animals were used, but the most common material was a woven woolen cloth, called vadmal. Dyes were expensive, so poorer people wore the cloth in its natural color. The rich wore it in bright colors, often striped and patterned. Silk and linen, which were imported and costly, were used mostly for underwear.
Since the Vikings traded with so many countries, they often brought home new ideas for dress and adornment. The native dress of both sexes in early times was similar. The main garment was a long buttonless tunic, which might be narrow or wide. If wide, it was gathered around the waist with a belt. It had an opening that was slipped over the head and tightened with a brooch. The custom was to wear a gown of one color and a cloak of another. A man's tunic was usually sleeveless, perhaps to show off his muscles and gold arm rings. Young women wore their hair long and caught around the forehead with a band, sometimes made of pure gold. Noble and wealthy men also wore their hair long with a band to keep it in place.
The young Norsemen loved games, especially those that helped to develop their bodies. They played ball games on the ground and on ice. Wrestling and fencing were popular sports. Young Norsemen used skates made of the bones of animals. According to a Norwegian historian, an unusual sport involved walking on oar blades while a boat was being rowed. In another game two or three small swords were thrown in the air and then caught; to play with three swords at once without injuring oneself required great skill.
Norsemen loved music and dancing. They had a fidla, or fiddle, a horn made from a buck's horn, and also a kind of harp. The high point at a feast was the performance of a skald, or professional poet.
There were no public schools. All education was given at home, with a parent, nurse, or visitor acting as teacher. Children were often sent to the home of a rich man, sometimes a relative, to be educated. Both girls and boys learned to sing, to recite and compose poetry, and to tell sagas.
Girls were also given lessons in how to spin, weave, and dye wool; to sew, knit, and embroider; to wash and to cook; and to make butter and cheese.
Some girls and most boys learned to read and cut runes, which were the letters of the ancient alphabet used by the Norsemen. Just as the English alphabet is often called the ABCs, that of the Norsemen was called futhork after the first letters. The early Norse alphabet had 24 letters. The later Norse alphabet had 16.
At first runes were used for scratching names on personal belongings or for simple memorials. Later these memorials grew more elaborate. Thousands of these memorial stones have been found on the Scandinavian peninsula and in Denmark. North of Upernivik, in Greenland, the discovery of a little rune stone was considered proof that Vikings had traveled more than 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Others carved runes on the statue of a lion in Athens, Greece.
In the early history of the Norsemen there were no nations in the modern sense. People lived in what might be called tribal communities. These communities were independent of one another, and banded together only for some common purpose. When the title konungr (king) was given to the chief of a community, it did not carry the meaning that it has now. There were many kings. Often one would rule over a small section of land no larger than a county, and some of the kings were war chiefs who had no land.
Each community had a thing (assembly), which acted as a court and legislative body. Only those who owned land could be members. A king could hold his position only as long as the people wanted him. Before a new king could take office, he had to have the consent of the members of the assembly.
Next in rank were the jarls, nobles who often had about as much power and land as the kings. Both kings and jarls had to rule according to law. No laws were written down until around 1100. Before then the laws were really traditions and opinions of the majority of the people. The people elected lawmen who had to know these unwritten laws and explain them to the rulers.
Later in Sweden and in Denmark people began to unite under one king. In 872 Norway had a single king, known as Harald Fairhair. But Harald undid much of Norway's unity by giving each of his numerous sons the title of king. Norway therefore remained divided for some time. When Harald became king, some dissidents went to Iceland and founded a colony there. While the people of Iceland did not unite under one king at that time, Iceland was the only country to form a national assembly during the Viking Age. Called the Althing, it first met in 930 and is the oldest national assembly in the world.
A young Viking, King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway, became a convert to the Christian religion some time before AD 1000. His passion for the new religion was backed by a military force that threatened all who refused baptism. Some Norsemen had already become Christians, mainly through Irish influence, though on the whole the Vikings were content with their own gods. Gradually Norway was Christianized, then the Faeroe Islands and Iceland, and finally Greenland. The first Christian missionaries in Greenland were brought there from Norway by Leif Ericson.
A Viking chieftain was buried with everything he might need to get to Valhalla. One third of his property might be used in this way. (Another third went to his widow and the remainder to his children.) The goods buried included money, tools, changes of clothing, weapons, horses, chariots, boats, and even ships. Women's graves contained many of the things they might need in afterlife, such as needles and thread, looms, kitchen utensils, and cooking vessels.
Sometimes a dead warrior would be placed aboard his ship, which was set afire and allowed to drift out to sea. Sometimes people were buried in boat-shaped coffins, which were covered with earth mounds. Fortunately, ships were not always burned, and a few have been preserved.
Next to the sagas, graves have been the best source of information about the Norsemen. In Scandinavian museums there are examples of almost every art known to the Viking Age. Among these are jewelry, weapons, furniture, and bronze and silver utensils. Most have survived because they were made of such durable materials as stone, metal, and hardwood. But woolen clothes in good condition have been found in parts of Greenland where they had lain in the frozen soil for centuries.
History from the Sagas
The Norsemen, like the Greeks of Homer's time, were storytellers and poets. At all assemblies, weddings, and funerals, those skilled at storytelling and reciting verses would perform.
When Christianity came to the mainland of Scandinavia, folk poems and stories were frowned upon by the clergy. But Iceland was protected by distance from the influence of Europe. So, long after Christianity became the official religion, the Icelandic people struggled to preserve their historical and literary heritage. Their religious leaders enjoyed the storytelling and found no offense in it.
During the 12th and 13th centuries, the clergy and scholars of Iceland wrote many manuscripts. All were written as the saga tellers related them. Some were true and some were pure fiction. Among the serious historical records are sagas that tell of the kings and of Viking conquests. They tell of their discovery and colonization of Iceland and Greenland and their discovery of the American mainland.
Two significant manuscripts dealing with the religion and philosophy of the Norsemen were written in Iceland--the Elder Edda (in poetry) and the Younger Edda (in prose). Much of what is known of early Norse mythology came from the Eddas. In Iceland much of the old Norse language has been retained. In Norway, Sweden, and Denmark the languages are as different from the old Norse as modern English is from early Anglo-Saxon.
There is no consensus on the extent of Viking migration and their contribution to the population in the lands where they settled. Estimates differ on whether hundreds or thousands settled abroad. There is also disagreement as to whether the settlers were primarily men, who intermarried abroad, or whether whole families came. In Iceland, of course, all life and social organization sprang directly from the Viking settlers, but the impact of the Viking settlers in the British Isles and in France is much harder to determine accurately.
In addition, the Vikings created a rich body of vernacular literature in which they celebrated their heroic past. The Icelandic sagas represent a vast collection of both stories and histories. Some concern the great leaders of heroic days and the kings of the 11th and 12th centuries; many others deal with the families, feuds, and changing fortunes of the petty chieftains of Icelandic farmsteads and valleys in the 13th and 14th centuries. The more historical sagas describe what is known about the colonization of Iceland, the voyages to North America, and the rise of the powerful kings who led the efforts toward conversion and political consolidation. The Poetic Edda of Snorri Sturluson, who wrote in the early 1200s, portrays pre-Christian Viking history and mythology.
Signs of the Viking influence are found in the languages, vocabulary, and place-names of the areas in which they settled. These offer clues regarding the density of migration, the ease of assimilation, and the preservation of distinct northern institutions and usages. An early form of popular or open government can be seen in the open air Althing of Iceland, where the free farmers came to voice complaints, resolve feuds, and enunciate and interpret the law for free men and their families and dependents. Icelanders view this as the earliest form of parliamentary government in Europe. The jury of English common law was a direct outgrowth of Viking ideas about community obligations and sworn investigations, both vital steps in building a civil society.
The Vikings were one of several waves of attackers to fall on Europe in the centuries after the short-lived eminence of the Carolingian Empire. Others included the Magyars from Asia, who appeared on the eastern frontiers, and the Muslims, who worked outward from Spain and the Mediterranean. At first, the Vikings’ impact was primarily disruptive and destructive. Gradually the Vikings became part of the larger European community as they were attracted by a more settled life, and as Christian Europe’s ability to resist their attacks grew. The Vikings were great sailors and ferocious enemies, but also storytellers and workers of the highest level.
Norse Gods and Mythology
Scandinavian Mythology, pre-Christian religious beliefs of the Scandinavian people. The Scandinavian legends and myths about ancient heroes, gods, and the creation and destruction of the universe developed out of the original common mythology of the Germanic peoples and constitute the primary source of knowledge about ancient German mythology. Because Scandinavian mythology was transmitted and altered by medieval Christian historians, the original pagan religious beliefs, attitudes, and practices cannot be determined with certainty. Clearly, however, Scandinavian mythology developed slowly, and the relative importance of different gods and heroes varied at different times and places. Thus, the cult of Odin, chief of the gods, may have spread from western Germany to Scandinavia not long before the myths were recorded; minor gods—including Ull, the fertility god Njord, and Heimdall—may represent older deities who lost strength and popularity as Odin became more important. Odin, a god of war, was also associated with learning, wisdom, poetry, and magic.
GODS AND HEROES
See separate entries on most of the deities mentioned.
Valhalla (Old Norse Valhöll,"hall of the slain"), in Old Norse mythology, the hall of slain heroes, ruled by the king of the gods, Odin, in the realm of the gods, Asgard. The hall had 540 doors, through each of which 800 heroes could walk abreast, and the roof was made of shields. The souls of heroic soldiers killed in battle were brought to Valhalla by warrior maidens called Valkyries. The heroes fought during the day, but their wounds healed before night, when they banqueted with Odin.
Valkyries, in Scandinavian mythology, warrior maidens who attended Odin, ruler of the gods. The Valkyries rode through the air in brilliant armor, directed battles, distributed death lots among the warriors, and conducted the souls of slain heroes to Valhalla, the great hall of Odin. Their leader was Brunhild. The Valkyries play an important part in the opera Die Walküre (The Valkyries, 1856) by the German composer Richard Wagner.
Odin (Old Norse Odhinn, Anglo-Saxon Woden, Old High German Wôdan, Woutan), in Norse mythology, king of the gods. His two black ravens, Huginn ("Thought") and Muninn ("Memory"), flew forth daily to gather tidings of events all over the world. As god of war, Odin held court in Valhalla, where all brave warriors went after death in battle. His greatest treasures were his eight-footed steed, Sleipner, his spear, Gungnir, and his ring, Draupner. Odin was also the god of wisdom, poetry, and magic, and he sacrificed an eye for the privilege of drinking from Mimir, the fountain of wisdom. Odin's three wives were earth goddesses, and his eldest son was Thor, the god of Thunder.
Thor, in Norse mythology, the god of thunder, eldest son of Odin, ruler of the gods, and Jord, the earth goddess. Thor was the strongest of the Aesir, the chief gods, whom he helped protect from their enemies, the giants. He had a magic hammer, which he threw with the aid of iron gloves and which always returned to him. Thunder was supposed to be the sound of the rolling of his chariot. Thursday is named for Thor.
Balder or Baldur, in Norse mythology, the god of light and joy, son of Odin and Frigga, king and queen of the gods. Having dreamed that Balder's life was threatened, Frigga extracted an oath from the forces and objects in nature, animate and inaminate, that they would not harm Balder, but she forgot the mistletoe. The gods, thinking Balder safe, cast darts and stones at him. The malicious giant Loki put a twig of mistletoe in the hands of Balder's twin, the blind Hoder, god of darkness, and directed his aim against Balder, who fell pierced to the heart. After the death of Balder, Odin sent another son, the messenger Hermod, to the underworld to plead for Balder's return. The god would be released only if everything in the world would weep for him. Everything wept except one old woman in a cave, and Balder could not return to life.
Loki, in Norse mythology, the handsome giant who represented evil and was possessed of great knowledge and cunning. He was indirectly responsible for the death of Balder, god of light and joy. According to the Poetic Edda, a collection of Scandinavian myths, Loki and Hel, goddess of the underworld, will lead the forces of evil against the Aesir, or gods, in the titanic struggle of Ragnarok, the end of the world.
Hel, in Norse mythology, the goddess of the dead. She dwelt beneath one of the three roots of the sacred ash tree Yggdrasil and was the daughter of Loki, the spirit of mischief or evil, and the giantess Angerbotha (Angerboda). Odin, the All-Father, hurled Hel into Niflheim, the realm of cold and darkness, itself also known as Hel, over which he gave her sovereign authority.
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