Who were the Vikings? The definition of a Viking is “one belonging to the pirate crews from among the Northmen, who plundered the coasts of Europe in the eight, ninth, and tenth centuries.” Some historical accounts have presented an image of the Vikings as brutal, savage, unfeeling warriors who pillaged and burned with reckless abandon. This is not the whole story. While the Vikings were great warriors, they did not kill for sport or burn and pillage without a motive. They were cunning warriors who sought to make, and ultimately did make, great changes in the lands they conquered.
The period known as the Viking Age started in the 9th century and lasted until the 11th century. During this time, Viking ships sailed from Scandinavia, at the center of the Viking World, out across the Northern Hemisphere. They went out on voyages of piracy and invasion, and journeys of exploration, commerce, and settlement. (The Vikings-Donovan. Pg. 15). The Vikings expanded their empire over a great distance. To the east, they traveled as far as the Black Sea and to the west they sailed at least as far as the coast of North America. No one knows exactly why the Vikings decided to expand. Some believe their quest for expansion was due to the overpopulation of their homeland, while others believe that climatic conditions and crop failure forced their migration. (From Viking to Crusader. Rizzoli)
Before the year A.D. 1100 the Vikings were polytheistic. They believed that the leader of the gods was Odin, who was the god of battle, poetry, and death. He was also the father of all of the other gods. He presided over Valhalla (“the Hall of the Chosen”), the Viking heaven. It was believed that when a Viking died in battle, a warrior maiden called a Valkyrie escorted him to Valhalla. Once the warrior arrived at Valhalla, he began a new life where he fought all-day and feasted all night. This belief in the conditions of the Viking afterlife shows us that the Vikings held fighting and feasting in very high regard.
The Vikings had several other very important gods as well. The most popular god was Thor. He was the ruler of thunder and the sky. Thor was so popular that many Vikings wore lucky charms shaped like the hammer Thor supposedly swung to make thunder. Another very important god was Freya, who was the goddess of love and the “provider” of large families. (The Vikings…Living History).
To honor their gods, the Vikings offered sacrifices. A chieftain-priest called a gothi conducted these sacrifices. They were held either inside a temple or at sacred location outside. Vikings could offer anything of value to be sacrificed. Precious metals, clothes, and other inanimate items were buried or thrown in a bog. Sacrificial animals were eaten. The greatest sacrifice of all was to give up a son. This happened on a number of occasions but one in particular stands out. When a war between Earl Hakon (ruler of Norway from 965-995) and a neighboring band of Vikings was going badly, Earl promised to sacrifice his son. The battle changed immediately and Earl’s Vikings defeated the neighboring Vikings with minimal losses. Earl gave his son to a servant to be put to death. After the Vikings converted to Christianity sometime between 1050-1100 AD the practice of making sacrifices ended. (The Vikings…Living History)
In Viking society there were three classes of people. They were the Bondis, Jarls, and Thralls. The Jarls were military leaders and sometimes priests. The Bondis were farmers or merchants, and the Thralls were slaves who were either born into slavery or captured in battle. A Jarl would own a farmstead and around 30 Thralls. He could also hire poorer freemen to work for pay. The Thralls had to cut their hair short and wear white coats. The Thralls did most of the heavy labor on the farm. Thralls lived very hard lives. A Jarl was allowed to beat his Thralls to death as long as he publicly announced what he’d done on the same day. (The Viking World…Campbell)
Although the Vikings shared many customs (way of life, treatment of women, respect for elders), a common religion, and a language called Old Norse, they were not a unified nation. They did, however, have very definite codes of behavior. Their first loyalty was to their clan (family) and secondly they were loyal to their local community. Each year, these communities held meetings called “Things”. The purpose of these meetings was to allow freemen to vote on their leaders and laws. Before the year 800 A.D. the Vikings were many scattered tribes. Some time after 800 A.D., Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (three important Viking Kingdoms) began to take shape. New Viking communities were established in Iceland and Greenland as well. Even with the emergence of these new kingdoms the Vikings never had one central government. Each kingdom had its own hierarchy of leadership.
The Vikings were very ferocious warriors. They were well known for their vicious raids on monasteries and other places. The Vikings raided monasteries because most of the country’s wealth could be found in their treasure rooms. The Vikings were not mindless killers. They had laws against attacking traders, farmers, women, or men already involved in a fight. Unfortunately, these laws were not always followed. Raiding was a normal part of a Viking’s life. In the eyes of a Viking, a Viking’s success could be measured by his raiding proficiency. (The Vikings…Living History.)
The Vikings were most feared because they used the seas as their highways. They could show up quickly and were nearly impossible to track. The Vikings were very skilled shipbuilders and navigators and only sailed between the months of April and early October. Their ships had a maximum speed of about 7 knots under oars. They were usually around 76ft.long. To enemies these ships were known for their incredible swiftness and maneuverability. This was because the ships were equipped with rudders. The ships could hold between 40 and 60 people. (From Viking to Crusader…Rizzoli)
The Viking Age ended when many states in Europe developed the feudal system. This system gave the local lords wealth and property in exchange for their services as cavalry soldiers in the army. The Viking raiders were no match for these heavily equipped, well trained soldiers. Consequently, the Viking settlements were crushed by these armies. During their existence, the Vikings had a definite impact on world history that will never be forgotten. They have left a legacy in history as having been fearless, cunning, and brutal warriors who had a dramatic impact on the advancement of civilization. (The Vikings…Living History.)