What We Know About Vikings and Slaves

What We Know About Vikings and Slaves

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More than a thousand years after the Viking Age drew to a close, there’s still a lot we don’t know about these seafaring Norse warriors, who explored territory from the furthest reaches of Russia to the earliest settlement in North America and left a lasting mark on the lands and peoples they encountered.

Now, archaeologists are attempting to piece together a clearer picture of one of the darker aspects of the Viking world: slavery.

Historical accounts make it clear that when they raided coastal towns from the British Isles to the Iberian Peninsula, the Vikings took thousands of men, women and children captive, and held or sold them as slaves—or thralls, as they were called in Old Norse. According to one estimate, slaves might have comprised as much as 10 percent of the population of Viking-era Scandinavia.

While hard evidence in the archaeological record may be scarce, what seems clear is that slavery played an important part in the Viking way of life, as in many societies both before and since. In fact, the desire for slaves might have been one of the main reasons Vikings began raiding in the first place.

Evidence of slavery in the Viking Age

Many of these slaves came from the British Isles and Eastern Europe. In one historical account of Viking-era slavery, an early-medieval Irish chronicle known as The Annals of Ulster, described a Viking raid near Dublin in A.D. 821, in which “they carried off a great number of women into captivity.”

This is one of numerous written sources referring to slavery in the Viking world, which include historical chronicles produced within northern European monasteries—often by people who were the victim of Viking attacks. Other sources emerged from the Arab world, including the account of the 10th-century geographer Ibn Hawqual, who in A.D. 977 wrote of a Viking slave trade that extended across the Mediterranean from Spain to Egypt.

“These sources provide very clear indications that Viking raiding groups are engaging in slaving activity,” says Ben Raffield, an archaeologist at Sweden’s Uppsala University who is conducting research on the Viking slave trade as part of the Viking Phenomenon project.

In contrast to the wealth of historical and literary evidence for Viking-era slavery, actual archaeological proof remains relatively sparse. In an article published in the journal Slavery & Abolition in April 2019, Raffield detailed what has been discovered so far, starting with a collection of iron collars and shackles found at several sites thought to be Viking slave trading hubs, like Dublin (Ireland), Birka (Sweden), and Hedeby (Denmark).

Though it’s been suggested the objects could have been used for restraining animals, rather than humans, Raffield argues that their presence in these urban centers (rather than rural areas), as well as their concentration near the harbors tends to support their use on slaves. “They look strikingly similar to all kinds of restraints that have been used on humans throughout history, from antiquity to the early modern period,” he says.

Aside from the collection of restraints, researchers have discovered what may be evidence of slave quarters—an arrangement of smaller houses surrounding a large house at Sanda, a Viking site in Sweden. “The few that have been excavated seem to have been used for crafting activities, things like textile making,” Raffield says. “They strangely look quite similar to what you see in the United States in the antebellum period.”

A need for women?

Scholars have long wondered why the Vikings suddenly emerged as a formidable raiding force in the late eighth century, starting with their attack on the Christian monastery of Lindisfarne, located on the northeast coast of England, in A.D. 793.

The answer might have been a need for foreign slave labor to help build their enormous fleets of ships and produce the textiles for their sails. Raffield and his colleagues see the desire to take slaves as a possible motivating factor behind the Viking expansion. “Fleets of hundreds of ships [were] sailing out of Scandinavia in the 9th century,” he says. “We wonder whether you would need a new labor force to produce the materials you need to do that.”

Slaves—who could also be traded at international markets—may have represented another type of resource for the Vikings, too. Evidence suggests Vikings often targeted women and girls in their raids, suggesting the existence of sexual slavery, as well as intermarriage. There are also indications that Vikings practiced polygamy, which in their highly stratified society would have meant that poorer unmarried men might have had limited access to women, and would have targeted female slaves as concubines (or even wives).

DNA mapping of the modern Icelandic population found that up to two-thirds of Iceland’s female founding population had Gaelic origins (either Ireland or Scotland) while only one-third had Nordic roots. The reverse was true for the male population, suggesting that many Nordic men in Iceland had children with women who were likely taken in raids from the British Isles.

It’s also possible that in addition to sexual motives, Vikings might have targeted women as slaves because of their specific value as a source of skilled labor. “Quite often in a slaving context, women are taken because in a lot of societies they are traditionally the people who produce high-value goods,” says Raffield. “A lot of people think if you wanted captives for labor, you would take men, but that's not necessarily the case. Textile working in Scandinavia, for example, is strongly associated with women.”

How Vikings treated slaves

Whatever motivated the Vikings to start taking slaves, evidence suggests they were often brutal with those who had the misfortune to be captured. In one study, research Anna Kjellström of Stockholm University examined the skeletal remains of presumed Viking-era slaves found in graves in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and found that they showed signs of abuse and decapitation.

In some cases, the slaves were buried alongside their masters, suggesting they may have ended up as human sacrifices, and included with grave goods to accompany powerful Vikings into the afterlife.

While written sources provide strong evidence of slavery in the Viking world, the slaves themselves—why they were taken, how they were transported, where and how they lived—left little trace on the archaeological record.

Raffield stresses the need to more fully excavate Viking sites where slaves are believed to have lived. Ultimately, there may be limits to how much we’ll ever know about forced labor in the Viking Age, beyond the evidence gleaned from written sources and archaeological digs.

“The thing about studying slavery and captivity is that these groups are often described in the archaeological literature as invisible, or unseen,” Raffield cautions. “Their movements are curtailed, they're denied of possessions, they're not always accorded formal habitation—places to sleep, places to live. They're really hard to identify in the archaeological record.”

How we think about the term ɾnslaved' matters

T he year 1619 is momentous in American history, as a recent visit by the current US president attests. In July, Donald Trump visited Jamestown, Virginia, to commemorate two events in 1619: the July creation of the colony’s representative government, the House of Burgesses, and the August arrival of people he termed “enslaved Africans”.

This phrase improves upon a commonplace in American discourse, the one-word “slaves”. But the term “enslaved”, in and of itself, merits further comment, as history and as ideology. How we use these words makes a crucial difference when we think about the meanings of our past.

People were not enslaved in Virginia in 1619, they were indentured. The 20 or so Africans were sold and bought as “servants” for a term of years, and they joined a population consisting largely of European indentured servants, mainly poor people from the British Isles whom the Virginia Company of London had transported and sold into servitude.

Enslavement was a process that took place step by step, after the mid-17th century. This process of turning “servants” from Africa into racialized workers enslaved for life occurred in the 1660s to 1680s through a succession of Virginia laws that decreed that a child’s status followed that of its mother and that baptism did not automatically confer emancipation. By the end of the seventeenth century, Africans had indeed been marked off by race in law as chattel to be bought, sold, traded, inherited and serve as collateral for business and debt services. This was not already the case in 1619.

Even in 1700, Africans were hardly the only unfree colonists, for a majority of those laboring in Virginia were people bound to service. They were indentured whites. Population numbers are crucial in understanding the demography of labor in early Virginia. By 1680, only about 7% of Virginians were of African descent 20% of Virginians were of African descent by 1700, and by 1750, the 100,000 enslaved Virginian men and women accounted for more than half the population. Here lies the demography of enslavement.

In short, the 1619 Africans were not “enslaved”. They were townspeople in the Ndongo district of Angola who had been captured by Imbangala warlords and delivered to the port of Luanda for shipment to the Americas. Raiding, capturing and selling people was not an exclusively African practice.

Raiding for captives to sell belongs to a long human history that knows no boundaries of time, place or race. This business model unites the ninth-12th-century Vikings who made Dublin western Europe’s largest slave market (think of St Patrick, who had been enslaved by Irish raiders in the fifth century) and 10th-16th-century Cossacks who delivered eastern European peasants to the Black Sea market at Tana for shipment to the wealthy eastern Mediterranean. The earliest foreign policy of the new United States of America targeted the raiders of the Barbary Coast who engaged in a lively slave trade in Europeans (think Robinson Crusoe). Sadly, the phenomenon of warlords who prey on peasants knows no boundaries of time or place.

There’s more to Virginia history, of course, than bondage. There’s freedom, not only after the American civil war, but also in the 17th century, when an Angolan man called Antonio, arriving in Virginia in 1621, became Anthony Johnson, a wealthy free farmer and slave-owning planter in Northampton and Accomack counties. His immediate descendants prospered. His eighteenth-century descendants, living within a hardened racial regime, did not. It is in the eighteenth century that we find the more familiar, hardened boundaries of racialized American identity.

In Jamestown in July 2019, the president of the United States spoke within a post-eighteenth-century American ideology of race. He dedicated some 688 words to the “settlers” who “worked hard. They had courage and abundance, and a wealth of self-reliance. They strived mightily to turn a profit”. These “settlers” were hardy Christians who “forged what would become the timeless traits of the American character”.

But what, in presidential discourse, of the “enslaved Africans” arriving the following month of August? They received 67 words that did not include working hard, and the history they “forged” was different. Here lies an emblematic version of the American ideology of race.

Within this ideology of race, the Jamestown Africans of 1619 are always already enslaved, so that seeing the 1619 Africans and their descendants as slaves seals them within the permanent identity of enslavement. It says Africans and their descendants are the same as slaves.

Scholars call this kind of thinking “essentialist”– you are intrinsically what you always must be. When enslavement is the essence of black identity, black people cannot figure as American working men and women who play an active role in American history. It is the “settlers” that is, non-Africans, who forge “the timeless traits of the American character”. They, not African workers, belong to the crucial core of this version of American history. The Africans are an afterthought, so that the president can skip quickly to the Rev Martin Luther King Jr, and finally, to 27 words on how black people have also contributed to the United States of America.

Why is this history of 1619 important now, at a time when versions of American society compete politically, when one fraction of the citizenry plots a return to an America whose image was white, and another fraction of the citizenry embraces an evolution into a multiracial, multicultural democracy? Because how we envision our past shapes how we see ourselves today. One of the favorite objectives of white pride makes this point.

People proud to be white occasionally argue they should be able to celebrate their white heritage during a “White History Month.” But what, exactly, would a White History Month celebrate? The president’s version of Virginia history would say the “settlers” who “forged what would become the timeless traits of the American character. They worked hard. They had courage and abundance, and a wealth of self-reliance”. As though only white people worked hard, as in an unfortunate but prevalent trope of proud white American identity. A history for our times is not so myopic.

A multicultural, multiracial version of US history is broader than easily categorized heroes, insiders, and outsiders. The history that can serve us now recognizes a continual process in which identities are shared, shaped and changed over time and place. It understands that statuses of freedom and servitude are not permanent, essential identities. It can see identity as processes that continue as we speak.

Nell Irvin Painter is the author of The History of White People and Creating Black Americans: African American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present

This article was amended on 21 August 2019 to clarify that St Patrick was enslaved by Irish raiders in the fifth century.

Vikings may not be who we thought they were, DNA study finds

History books typically depict Vikings as blue-eyed, blonde-haired, burly men sailing the North Atlantic coast to pillage wherever they set foot on land. While some of that may be true, a new genetic study of Viking DNA is flipping much of this history on its head.

In the largest genetic study of Viking DNA ever, scientists have found that Vikings — and their diaspora — are actually much more genetically diverse than we may have thought and were not necessarily all part of a homogenous background.

Sequencing the genomes of over 400 Viking men, women, and children from ancient burial sites, researchers found evidence of genetic influence from Southern Europe and Asia in Viking DNA dating back to before the Viking Age (750 - 1050 A.D.).

The authors also note that individuals not related to Vikings genetically, such as native Pictish people of Scotland and Ireland, sometimes received traditional Viking burials — suggesting that being a Viking was not so much about specific family roots but about a sense of internal identity.

In the study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, an international team of researchers reports findings from their six-year-long study of 442 human remains from burial sites that date back between the Bronze Age (2400 B.C.) to the Early Modern period (1600 A.D.)

When comparing the genetic material of these ancient samples with 3,855 present-day individuals from regions like the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Sweden, and data from 1,118 ancient individuals, they discovered more intermixing of genetic material than they'd originally imagined, lead author and director of The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre at the University of Copenhagen, Eske Willerslev, said in a statement.

"We have this image of well-connected Vikings mixing with each other, trading and going on raiding parties to fight Kings across Europe because this is what we see on television and read in books — but genetically we have shown for the first time that it wasn't that kind of world," explains Willerslev.

"This study changes the perception of who a Viking actually was — no one could have predicted these significant gene flows into Scandinavia from Southern Europe and Asia happened before and during the Viking Age."

Based on these results, Willerslev says that even well-known imagery of Vikings being blonde and blue-eyed (like Chris Hemsworth's depiction of Thor) may not be totally true, especially for Vikings with Southern European roots. The authors write that their analysis also confirmed some long-held theories and hunches about the movement of Vikings during this time.

What'd they find — One of the first hunches that the study was able to confirm was the final destination of different threads of Viking migration from modern-day Scandinavia.

The DNA of ancient Danish Vikings cropped up in England while Norwegian Viking DNA was found in Ireland, Iceland, and Greenland. Unexpectedly though, they also found evidence of DNA similar to present-day Swedish populations in the western edge of Europe and DNA similar to modern Danish populations further east.

The researchers write that this unexpected discovery suggests that complex settling, trading, and raiding networks during these times resulted in communities of mixed ancestry.

Even more, the study's analysis shows that this mixed ancestry was taking place even before the so-called Viking Age, explains Martin Sikora, a lead author on the study and associate professor at the Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen.

"We found that Vikings weren't just Scandinavians in their genetic ancestry, as we analyzed genetic influences in their DNA from Southern Europe and Asia which has never been contemplated before," said Sikora. "Many Vikings have high levels of non-Scandinavian ancestry, both within and outside Scandinavia, which suggest ongoing gene flow across Europe."

And some "Vikings" weren't of genetic Viking descent at all, researchers found when analyzing a Viking burial site in Orkney, Scotland. Despite being put to rest in traditional Viking style (including swords and other Viking memorabilia,) when sequencing the DNA of these remains the authors found that the two individuals buried at this site were in fact of Pictish (or, early-Irish and early-Scottish) decent.

The researchers write that this discovery suggests that being a Viking was not necessarily about how far back your Nordic roots reached but instead had more to do with one's lived identity.

"The results change the perception of who a Viking actually was," said Willerev. "The history books will need to be updated."

In addition to providing a more nuanced look at this transformational period of history, this new genetic insight can also help scientists better understand how different traits, like immunity, pigmentation, and metabolism, are selected for across genetic groups.

Inside the longhouse

If you were to walk into one of these Viking longhouses, you could be greeted with the smell of burning firewood and roasted pork. For you see in the middle of these longhouses there was a long fireplace that the family used to cook their food. Above the fireplace there was a small hole in the roof, so the smoke could get it out.

However, it does not seem that the hole in the roof was enough ventilation, and there probably was a considerable amount of smoke in the house at any given time. Breathing in smoke on a daily basis like this would probably have increased the risk of lung diseases especially for women and children.

Inside a Viking longhouse

On the walls along with the house, there would be all kinds of decorations, from wall tapestry depicting the Norse sagas to shields, oil lamps, and probably also some dried herbs and flowers.

Along the side of the wall in the house, there were planks that were both used as beds but also as benches to sit on during the day. The people living here would in general stay in the western part of the house, while the animals together with the slaves would stay in the eastern part of the house.

The walls on the inside were bound together with a truss of wood an architectural method that was new to the Viking Age. The use of truss made it possible to have a larger open space, without having too many posts to carry the roof in the middle of the room. The truss framework also gave the walls the curved shape that we all know, because some of the weight from the roof was pushed out on some of the posts that supported the roof.

Inside a Viking longhouse

The longhouses were not easy to build, it was very time-consuming and demanded a lot of manpower. It took a long time to gather all the wood and do the necessary woodworking before it could be used to build the house. The wood also had to be of high quality so it would last for many years.

If there were a lack of manpower or the house had to be built quickly, the walls could also be built with braided willow twigs and clay.


The creation of Russia began with Viking adventurer-traders who opened up trade routes beginning around A.D. 800 on the great Russian rivers like the Dnieper and the Volga between the Baltic, Black and Caspian Seas. They dominated the land and ruled the cities in the 9th and 10th centuries. At its height the territory under their control stretched from Lake Onega in the north, near the Black Sea in the south , the Volga in the east and the Carpathian Mountains in the west. They remained in the region until the 11th century when they were assimilated by indigenous tribes. [Source: Robert Paul Jordan, National Geographic, March 1985]

Soviet scholars traditionally maintained that a confederation of Slav tribes existed three centuries before the Vikings arrived. But many Western historians have maintained the first rulers of what is now Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus were Scandinavians. Viking chiefs became rulers of Slavic cities like Novgorod and Kiev. The Slavs were often their subjects.

The Viking in Russia came as traders not conquerors. They first appeared in the region in the 6th century and has some run ins with the Khazar. The Norwegians and Danish Vikings were centered primarily in western Europe, but the Swedes looked eastward to the Baltic and what is now Russia. Many of the Vikings that traded in present-day Russia hailed from Birka and Gotland in present-day Sweden.

Rus and Varangians

Early Scandinavians in Russia were known as Rus to the Slavs (Rhos to the Byzantines). Rus is an Arabic word and the source of the word Russia. It may have been used to describe the dominant Kievan Viking clan and later became affixed to the Eastern Slavs in the north, while those in the south became known as Ukrainians and Belarussians. The Rus were also called Varangians and Varyagi. The Baltic was known as the Varangian Sea and their trade routes were called the Varangian Way.

The Rus mingled with the local people and helped set up a series of small principalities centered around single families and clans. They became concentrated in places like Novgorod, Smolensk and Kiev. Viking princes became rulers in Novgorod and Kiev in 862 and 882.

By the ninth century, these Scandinavian warriors and merchants, had penetrated the East Slavic regions. According to the Primary Chronicle , the earliest chronicle of Kievan Rus', a Varangian named Rurik first established himself in Novgorod, just south of modern-day St. Petersburg, in about 860 before moving south and extending his authority to Kiev. The chronicle cites Rurik as the progenitor of a dynasty that ruled in Eastern Europe until 1598. Another Varangian, Oleg, moved south from Novgorod to expel the Khazars from Kiev and founded Kievan Rus' about A.D. 880. During the next thirty-five years, Oleg subdued the various East Slavic tribes. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In A.D. 907, Oleg led a campaign against Constantinople, and in 911 he signed a commercial treaty with the Byzantine Empire as an equal partner. The new Kievan state prospered because it controlled the trade route from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and because it had an abundant supply of furs, wax, honey, and slaves for export. Historians have debated the role of the Varangians in the establishment of Kievan Rus'. Most Russian historians--especially in the Soviet era--have stressed the Slavic influence in the development of the state. Although Slavic tribes had formed their own regional jurisdictions by 860, the Varangians accelerated the crystallization of Kievan Rus'. *

Who Were the Vikings

The Vikings were a seafaring people who hailed from settlements along the fjords of Norway, the sandy shores of Denmark and the coastal and river areas of Sweden. They lived off of animals they hunted, fish they caught in the sea and whatever they could take from their raids. Norse, or Northmen or Norseman, was the term used by medieval Europeans to describe Scandinavians. All Vikings were Norse but all Norse were not Vikings. [Source: Pritt Vesilind, National Geographic, May 2000]

It is kind of surprising that the calm, peace-loving Norwegians, Danes and Swedes descended from the Viking, a people renowned for their brutality. Norwegians, Danes and Swedes each descended from separate Viking groups. The Finns did not descend from Vikings.

The Vikings were mostly pagan Norsemen from Norway and Danes from Denmark. "To go Viking" meant to go on voyage of pillage and piracy. The word viking comes from the Norse word víking ("pirate," which in turn is comes from a verb (roughly equivalent to "go viking") which meant to embark on an expedition of piracy and plunder. The norse word viking in turn is believed to have been derived from the Old Norse word, vík, which means creek, inlet, or bay (where Vikings hid before launching a raid). It also may be related to the Old English word wic ("camp or temporary settlement" or the old Norse word víkja ("to move speedily").

The Danes were known primarily for raiding and pillaging the Britain, Ireland, France and coastal Europe. Their ancestors, the Normans, set up settlements in France and raided coastal settlements in the Mediterranean and set up colonies in Sicily. The Swedes were known primarily as traders, who open up river routes into Russia from the 8th to 11th and helped set up the state of Kiev in the late 9th century, and traveled as far as Istanbul, Baghdad and the Caspian Sea. The Rus from Sweden gave the Russians their name.

Early History of the Vikings

What we know about the Vikings is based on description by other Europeans and even Arab traders, archeological excavations, and Viking chronicles such as the Icelandic sagas. There were few written records. Reports for Christian sources tended to exaggerate Viking violence.

The Vikings evolved from northern European Germanic tribes that invaded Rome and gave birth to the Anglo and Saxon tribes that invaded Britain. The Germanic tribes that became Vikings began settling in Scandinavia in the 5th and 6th century and developed a Germanic language called Norse. By the time they had begun pillaging Europe in the 9th century, there were distinctive Swedish, Danish and Norwegian tribes.

In Scandinavian before the Viking Age, Scandinavian tribes in Norway and Denmark fought among themselves for dominance and Swedish raiders vied for control of the Baltic Sea against groups like the Kurs, the Saarlased or Oeselians (from the Estonian island of Saaremmaa), who have been called the original Vikings of the Baltic.

The Vikings that entered Russia were primarily Swedes who lived on rivers and bays that were situated across the Baltic from Russia. These Swedes made there way overland to great Russian rivers—the Volga, the Dnieper, and the Dvina—where they set up trading post and traded walrus tusks (the major source of ivory in Europe), furs and slaves captured in Russian forests with Muslim traders for silks, spices and gems from the Orient and Africa.

In the 11th century the lights dimmed on the Viking empire. This was brought about the fact that the place they used to raid had built up strong defenses and their conversion to Christianity mellowed them. The Viking that lived outside of Scandinavia were absorbed by the cultures around them they spoke slavic languages and medieval French not the precursors of Swedish and Norwegian. The Vikings became more settled down after accepting Christianity in 11th and 12th century. Even before that instead of returning home to Scandinavia in the winter after a summer of raiding, they began establishing settlements, which were more convenient for launching their activities. Later these Vikings intermixed with local people and engaged in trading rather than raiding.

Vikings: Raiders or Traders?

The Danes were known primarily for raiding and pillaging the Britain, Ireland, France and coastal Europe. Their ancestors, the Normans, set up settlements in France and raided coastal settlements in the Mediterranean and set up colonies in Sicily. The Swedes were known primarily as traders, who open up river routes into Russia from the 8th to 11th and helped set up the state of Kiev in the late 9th century, and traveled as far as Istanbul, Baghdad and the Caspian Sea. The Rus from Sweden gave the Russians their name.

The Viking are remembered mostly as raiders and pillagers who showed little mercy for people they conquered. They were one of history's most wantonly destructive and nihilistic races ever, according to the war historian John Keegan. The plundered convents and monasteries, something that even the Mongol hordes and Tamerlane didn't do. Most Vikings raiders were only part time raiders. "They robbed, looted and killed and then went home and settled.”

Most Viking were not raiders. Instead they were farmers, herders, fishermen, traders, craftsmen, shoemakers, poets and storytellers as well as devoted family men. In York, England, Vikings were even urbanites. An archeologist there told National Geographic, "Despite the Vikings' savage reputation there's not a single sword. The artifacts reveal people making a living, weaving, gathered around fires telling stories.: Many scholar say the Vikings were forced to raid because of a shortage of arable land in their homeland.

In Russian, the Vikings were known as traders. The Russian historian Nadia Milutenko told National Geographic, “The Viking didn't have a fatherland to die for, just one king or another. They came as traders not conquerors. And very soon they became part of the people who lived there.” Ultimately the Vikings were extremely practical and adaptable. If they arrived a poorly defended port they pillaged. If the fort was well fortified and defended they traded.

Life of Vikings in Russia

The Rus lived in wattle-and daub houses and hand-worked iron and bronze and made glass and amber beads. They also used grinding stones and weights and balances. The main cities had earth ramparts, ship repair and food storage facilities, and graves with both cremated and nonburned remains. Among the craftsman were blacksmiths, jewel makers, silversmith and carvers of bone combs.

Life revolved around the seasons. Beginning in November, the Rus settled in small settlements made from logs along rivers and lakes and went into the countryside seeking tributes, raiding those who refused to pay up. When the ice began breaking up in April, they Rus took to the rivers in fleets of river boats filled with cargo.

Viking kept slaves. They took Celtic and Russian slaves. Many Scandinavians are descendants of Scandinavian Viking who intermarried with Celtic and Russian slaves. Many slaves were freed or married to free men. For those who remained slaves, their offspring were freed.

Scandinavians developed the notion of a popular assembly. Community assemblies, called things, acted as legislatures and courts. They introduced assemblies it in the year A.D. 1000 to present-day Russia, but they didn't really catch on.

Large caches of artifacts from Viking settlements have been found on Lake Ladoga in Russia and Gotland in Sweden in the Baltic. Large amounts of coins have been found. Many are believed to have been buried to keep them away from pirates. Artifact recovered Rus graves at Gnezdovo, a 10th century settlement in the forest near Smolensk, include silver Scandinavian-style pendants, Slavic style jewelry, and Arab-style bronze ornaments with scabbard clips and circular cloak fasteners.

Descriptions of the Rus

Some Vikings in Russia lived up their stereotype of big time partiers. Describing the Swedes who colonized Russia an Arab trader wrote, "They stupefy themselves by drinking this nabid [possibly beer] night and day sometimes on of them dies cup in hand."

Describing 10th century Novgorod, the Arab geographer Ibn Rustah wrote: "As for the Rus, they live on an island. that takes three days to walk around and is covered with thick undergrowth and forests it is most unhealthy. They harry the Slavs, using ships to reach them they carry them off as slaves and. sell them. They have no field but simply live on what they get from the Slavs' lands. When a son is born, the father will go up to the newborn baby, sword in hand throwing it down, he says, 'I shall not leave you with any property: You have only what you can provide with this weapon.'"

The Arab diplomat Ibn Fadlan wrote: "Never had I seen people of more prefect physique they are tall as date palms, blonde and ruddy. They wear neither coat nor mantle, but each carries a cape which covers one half of his body leaving one hand free. Their swords are Frankish in pattern, broad, flat, and fluted."

Viking Trade in Russia

Byzantium based in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) was the richest empire in the Viking era and the easiest way for the Vikings to reach it was via the rivers of Russia. There were two main trade routes used by the Rus that began in the Baltic Sea. One went down the Dnieper River to the Black Sea and Constantinople. The other followed the Volga to the Caspian Sea.

The Vikings traded furs, amber, honey, beeswax, weapons and slaves from the north for silks and silver. Most of the goods that made their way between Europe, Russia and the Middle East followed Viking trade routes. Of the 120,000 coins found in Gotland Sweden, 50,000 were of Arabic origin (the rest were mostly English or German).

The Rus traveled in convoys and flotillas, often with more than more than hundred boats, and built fortified trading posts. They traveled on the inland waterways in shallow-draft boats carved by local residents from tree trunks. They were about 20 feet long and 7 to 10 feet wide.

Volga Trade Route

The Volga route was the most traveled route. It began on Gulf of Finland (an eastern arm of the Baltic Sea east of present-day Helsinki), where traders ventured on the Neva River to Lake Ladoga. From Lake Ladoga travelers they moved southward on of three small rivers and portaged stretches to two upper arms of the Volga. Along the way, the Rus were forces to pay tribute to Jewish Khazars and Muslim Bulgars, whose territory they passed through.

Until it was blocked by hostile tribes in the 970s, the Volga was the main trade route for Arab silver to Europe. The city of Bulgar and the Khazar port of Itil were the main trade centers.

After reaching the Caspian Sea, the Rus sailed to its southern shores, where they met up with Silk Road camel caravans with goods from China, Baghdad and Persia. Ancient coins from China and Samarkand found in Sweden most likely came on this route.

The Muslim traveler and explorer Ibn Battuta traveled in Russia in 14th century. On traveling down the frozen Volga river in the wintertime, he wrote: "I put on three fur coats and two pairs of trousers and on my feet I had woolen boots, with a pair of boots quilted with linen cloth on top of them and on top of these again was a pair of horsehide boots lined with bearskin." He says he was so weighted down he had to be lifted on his horse.

Dnieper Trade Route

The Dnieper route began in what is now Riga on the Baltic and followed the Western Dvina River to Vitebsk for portage to Smolensk on the Dnieper. An alternative route began in Gulf of Finland. Traders ventured on the Neva River to Lake Ladoga and then headed south on the Lovat Volkhov River to Velikiye Luki to Smolensk.

Large ocean-going vessels traveled down the Neva River to Lake Ladoga, where cargo was unloaded and switched to smaller vessels better equipped for traveling the narrower inland waterways.

The journey from Kiev to the Black Sea took about six weeks. When the Rus traders reached the Black Sea they attached sails to their boats. A Viking rune stone was discovered in 1905 on the island of Berzany in the mouth of Dnieper at the Black Sea. A couple rune stones also lie in Haghia Sofia in Istanbul.

Portages on the Dnieper

The most dangerous part of the journey on the Dnieper was a series rock-strewn rapids about 200 miles upriver from the Black Sea that could only be navigated during a few weeks of high water each year. Some of the rapids could be navigated by skilled oarsmen. Other had to be portaged.

During the portages, Rus traders were often attacked by local tribes. The most feared of these was the Turkic Petchenegs. In 972, they killed Prince Svyatoslav of the Rus and made a drinking cup of his skull. Those that made it through the section if rapids often stopped at St. Gregory's island to offer sacrifices of birds, bread and meat.

In 950, the Byzantine emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, wrote: "At the forth great rapid, which in Rus is called Airfor [Ever fierce]. everyone brings their ship to land and those who are in it stand watch after they disembark. These sentinels are necessary because of the Petchenegs who lie constantly in ambush. The rest take their belongings out of the dugouts and lead the slaves, fettered in chains, across the land for six miles, until they are past the rapids. After that they transport their vessels, sometimes by hauling them, sometimes by carrying them on their shoulders, past the rapids.”

When the Arabs met the Vikings: New discovery suggests ancient links

The discovery of a silver ring with an Arabic inscription in a Viking grave has added credence to the ancient accounts of Arab travellers in their encounters with the Norsemen, and points to a fascinating trade and cultural exchange.

“I have never seen bodies as nearly perfect as theirs. As tall as palm trees, fair and reddish, they wear neither tunics nor kaftans. Every man wears a cloak with which he covers half of his body, so that one arm is uncovered. They carry axes, swords, daggers and always have them to hand. They use Frankish swords with broad, ridged blades.”

So the Arab traveller Ahmad Ibn Fadlan recorded his meeting more than 1,000 years ago with a strange race he called the “Rusiyyah”, now commonly known as Vikings.

Ibn Fadlan first met the Norse warriors as they travelled across the Russian steppes, sailing their longships down the Volga river and looking to trade with the Arab world.

There were women as well, who each wore “a small box made of iron, silver, brass or gold, depending on her husband’s financial worth and social standing, tied at her breasts. The box has a ring to which a knife is attached, also tied at her breasts.

“The women wear neck rings of gold and silver. When a man has amassed 10,000 dirhams, he has a neck ring made for his wife.

“When he has amassed 20,000 dirhams, he has two neck rings made. For every subsequent 10,000 dirhams, he gives a neck ring to his wife. This means a woman can wear many neck rings.”

Among the Arabs who encountered Vikings, the reaction was a mixture of horror and fascination. The knife worn by the women may have actually been a scoop for ear wax. The men were tattooed and performed brutal burial rituals that included killing female slaves.

Almost as bad, they were seen washing their faces and heads each day with “the filthiest and most polluted water”.

Travelling north at about the same time was Ibrahim Ibn Yacoub Al Tartushi, from what was then the Muslim kingdom of Al Andalus in Spain.

Reaching Schleswig, now the town of Hedeby on the border of Germany and Denmark, the Vikings lived in a society in which women could divorce whenever they liked and where both sexes wore “artificial eye make-up”, Al Tartushi wrote.

Even worse, was their singing: “ I never heard any more awful singing then the singing of the people in Schleswig. It is a groan that comes out of their throats, similar to the bark of the dogs but even more like a wild animal.”

The Arabs might have been largely unimpressed with the Vikings, but they made a big impression on the Norsemen, new archaeological discoveries show.

A rare ring with an inscription in Arabic has been uncovered at a Scandinavian site.

Professor Sebastian Warmlander, a biophysicist who is part of the research team that published its findings in March, says it is the only ring of this type ever found.

“The ring may therefore constitute material evidence for direct interactions between Viking Age Scandinavia and the Islamic world,” says Prof Warmlander.

“There are written sources speaking of Viking and Arabic travellers visiting each other. But it is difficult to know if these written documents are true. Finding physical objects of Islamic origin in Viking Age Sweden means that these written sources become more trustworthy.”

The non-gilded silver alloy ring was found in a 9th century woman’s grave at the Viking trading centre in Birka, Sweden.

It is set with a violet stone inscribed with Arabic Kufic writing, interpreted as reading “il-la-lah” (for “or to Allah”).

The angular script was developed in the 7th century, dominated Arabic writing in the 8th to 10th centuries and waned in popularity during the 12th century when it was replaced by the cursive Naskh style. The ring is not the first evidence of its kind regarding links between Vikings and the Muslim world, but “is arguably so far the best evidence for direct contacts”.

“The ring went straight from the Caliphate to Sweden,” says Prof Warmlander. Silver dirham coins have also been found in Viking-era archaeological sites, but the wear on the coins showed they had travelled far and wide.

The research paper on the Birka ring concludes: “It is not impossible that the woman herself, or someone close to her, might have visited – or even originated from – the Caliphate or its surrounding regions.”

As for the 1,000-year-old written accounts from Arab travellers, Prof Warmlander says they should be “taken with a grain of salt”. “The black eye make-up, for instance, has a practical function to avoid being blinded from strong sunlight, such as when on a ship at sea or in a white snow-covered landscape. I would expect people living in a desert to use similar black eye make-up,” he says.

The connection between the Vikings and Arab Muslims has long been neglected. One exception was the Hollywood film The 13th Warrior made in 1999, with Antonio Banderas as Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a fictional character based on the real-life traveller.

A mysterious character, the real Ibn Fadlan was a key member of a diplomatic mission sent by Abbasid Caliph Al Muqtadir in 921 from Baghdad to the upper reaches of the river Volga, in answer to a request for diplomatic assistance from the king of Volga Bulgaria.

The king had recently converted to Islam and needed help in training jurists, instructing his people in how to pray properly, and in financial assistance to build a mosque and a fort. Visitors to this year’s Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which runs from today until Wednesday, will be able to discover more about Ibn Fadlan and the story of Vikings and the Arabs.

Professor James Montgomery, who will be one of the speakers at a session dedicated to this topic on Saturday, says hundreds of thousands of Islamic silver coins have been excavated in Scandinavia.

“The relationship was primarily one of trade,” says Prof Montgomery. “The Vikings were obsessed with silver dirhams coined in Muslim lands. They traded weapons, furs and slaves for money.”

Prof Montgomery will discuss his work in the recent volume of the NYU Press Library of Arabic Literature: Two Arabic Travel Books, where his section is a translation of the travel account of Ibn Fadlan’s Volga mission.

“There is little evidence of cultural exchange. Occasionally a group of Vikings is described as raiding the lands they visited, although the sources that describe them as peaceful in their dealings with the Muslims outnumber those that describe them as violent,” he says.

Professor Thorir Hraundal Jonsson, the other guest speaker on Saturday, says the archaeological evidence, such as the ring and other finds – that include Arabic weighing scales, beads, vessels, censers (incense burners) and over a quarter of a million Islamic silver coins – “are evidence of a cultural exchange”.

“Contacts between Vikings and Arabs/Muslims were both peaceful and violent. Since most of the contacts took place via trade, the relationship was mostly peaceful, but we also have accounts of Viking raids in the Caspian Sea which resemble accounts we have from Europe in a similar period,” says Prof Hraundal Jonsson.

The Vikings took goods such as honey, furs, iron, amber and slaves from the Baltic region to the Caliphate.

“I believe the topic is very relevant today because it evokes a time when Europe and the Middle East maintained a special relationship, predating the Crusades,” says Prof Hraundal Jonsson, of the University of Iceland, whose work has focused on how medieval Arab texts reflect the expansion of Vikings into the Islamic world.

“It is also important for the study of the Vikings in that it shows that they enjoyed much more diverse cultural contacts than previously thought.”

Prof Warmlander says: “In the Scandinavian research tradition, there is a tendency to focus on the Scandinavian transition from Viking Age paganism to Christian Catholicism. Contacts with other religions, such as Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, has largely been neglected. But such contacts must have taken place, and most likely influenced the Viking culture. Objects of Islamic origin tell us that the Vikings must have been aware of many other cultures and belief systems.”

While the Arabs generally regarded the Vikings as barbaric, there is still much to discover. Ibn Fadlan’s account gives a peek into what the Vikings thought of their visitors.

“One of the Rusiyyah said: ‘You Arabs, you are a lot of fools,’ and when Ibn Fadlan asked him why he said that, the man replied: ‘Because you purposefully take your nearest and dearest and those whom you hold in highest esteem and put them in the ground, where they are eaten by vermin and worms.’

“‘We, on the other hand, cremate them there and then, so that they enter the Garden on the spot.’”

• Arabs and Vikings in the Middle Ages, Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, Saturday, 16.45-17.30pm. With Prof Thorir Hraundal Jonsson and Prof James Montgomery.

Vikings may have first taken to seas to find women, slaves

On 8 June 793 C.E., a band of foreign warriors attacked the Christian monastery of Lindisfarne on the English coast, wrecking the church, killing the monks, and making off with all the treasure their ships could hold. This brutal attack has long been thought to mark the start of Viking aggression. But archaeo logist Neil Price of Sweden’s Uppsala University suspects that the roots of the Viking era go back long before this raid.

Armed with a $6 million grant—a princely sum in archaeology—Price and his colleagues want to know the extent to which a need for captive labor and overseas wives helped drive Viking expansion, transforming the provincial Scandinavian sailors and fur traders of the earlier Vendel period into international explorers and marauders. “The social processes are going on long before” the Lindisfarne raid, Price said after his talk at a symposium on Vikings at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology here last week. “We can erase this boundary between the Vendel and Viking eras.”

A few kilometers from Price’s office at Uppsala, Viking leaders and warriors gathered each spring to plan raids on distant lands. Now, Price plans his own assault, gathering specialists from across Europe to nail down the social and economic forces that spurred the Viking phenomenon. At the meeting, he and his colleagues laid out research plans and discussed preliminary finds. Rather than excavate, the team intends to use the Swedish Research Council’s largest ever archaeo logical grant to reexamine spectacular existing finds using modern methods such as isotopic analysis.

“Price’s project goes to the core of the question that all Viking scholars ask: Why the Vikings?” says Jan Bill, an archaeologist at Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History. “Just putting some order into the old excavations and publishing them properly will tell us a lot about the background to the Viking age,” adds archaeologist Marek Jankowiak of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, who specializes in the period but also is not part of the project.

The sudden and dramatic breakout by the Vikings has long puzzled scholars. The Lindisfarne raid inaugurated 3 centuries of expansion that led to settlement of Iceland, Greenland, and, briefly, Newfoundland in Canada. To the east, Vikings dominated the rivers of today’s western Russia and Ukraine, sent diplomats to Constantinople, and traded as far afield as Baghdad and North Africa.

But although previous scholars identified the raids as the start of the Viking era, Price stresses that their way of life began long before. In the Vendel period from about 550 C.E. to 790 C.E., Scandinavians exported iron and furs and developed impressive seafaring skills. And between 2008 and 2012, researchers discovered two ship burials on the edge of the Baltic Sea in Estonia, 250 kilo meters from the Swedish coast. The burials are “the most significant Viking discovery of the last hundred years,” Price says—and they apparently predate the Lindisfarne raid by nearly a century, according to dating by radio carbon and artifact styles.

Doubled-edged swords like this one from an Estonian ship burial show that Scandinavians far from their homeland fought fiercely before the accepted start of the Viking era.

Found on the island of Saaremaa in the town of Salme, the two war boats served as graves for 40 men. In one, 33 men were stacked atop one another and covered with wooden shields. Elite soldiers were buried with elaborately decorated double-edged swords, and a man who appeared to be the chieftain clasped a sword with a jeweled hilt and held a gaming piece made of walrus ivory in his mouth.

Working with Estonian collaborators, “we plan to throw massive science” at these ancient vessels to glean everything possible about this period, Price said. He’ll also focus on some spectacular ship burials at Valsgärde, just outside of Uppsala, dated from the sixth century to the 11th century. The area includes 60 tombs, including those of women, and hundreds of artifacts yet to be carefully analyzed.

Price and his colleagues wonder whether the burials will yield evidence of slavery, which they increasingly see as a powerful factor driving the Viking expansion. Price said the need for slaves may have begun during the Vendel era, when the fast-growing fleet of ships demanded an enormous number of massive woolen sails. This required transforming land into pasture for sheep, producing wool, and making sails—a labor-intensive craft. A single 90-square-meter sail might take a single person up to 5 years to produce, said Ben Raffield, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, who is involved in the project. Price adds that “each ship needed two sails, and there were hundreds of ships,” raising the possibility that slave labor was needed to maintain the fleet.

Historical sources make it clear that the “Vikings were taking, transporting, and selling slaves,” Raffield said in his talk. He estimates that slaves comprised as much as 25% of Scandinavia’s population. Norse sagas mention slaves—“thralls” in Old Norse—who were often given pejorative names like Stinky, Stumpy, and Stupid. But compelling archaeological evidence has been elusive. Iron manacles and collars hint at slavery, but might have been used for prisoners or dogs. Raffield plans to search for evidence of special vessels designed to carry captives.

Other archaeologists have found tantalizing hints of slavery in existing remains. About one in 25 male Viking burials in Sweden and Norway includes teeth incised with deep grooves. The marks were long thought to indicate a warrior class, but at least some of these men were decapitated and placed in a burial with another man, said Anna Kjellström of Stockholm University, who is also part of the project. “You can make a strong argument that these were special slaves who were ritually killed” upon the death of their master, she said in her talk. “The slaves may have been in front of us all the time.” The team plans extensive isotopic analysis to discover whether the victims were local or recent, perhaps involuntary, arrivals.

The research program also will analyze changes in Viking society as shown by land use. For example, by the 10th century, architectural clues to slavery become clear. At a site outside Stockholm near today’s Ikea, a small round hut dug into the ground sits on a slope above a large manor house. The hut appears to have been the living quarters for slaves at the height of Viking prosperity, said Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson of Stockholm University. At another Swedish site, Sanda, a large house is surrounded by much smaller structures, possible slave quarters. “It’s not going too far to see these as the big house on a plantation,” Price said.

Other researchers praise the team’s integration of details into a fuller picture of Vendel and Viking society. “It is now clear that we cannot fully understand the Vikings without taking into account slave hunting and slave trade,” Oxford’s Jankowiak said. “The ‘business model’ of the Baltic Vikings appears to have depended on it.”

The team also will tackle the disturbing issue of sexual slavery. There are hints of polygyny in Germanic cultures from this time, though researchers aren’t sure of its extent in Viking society or in the Vendel era. But if it were prevalent, Price speculates, poorer men would have been eager to seek wives outside Scandinavia. Researchers hope to understand more by pulling together DNA and other data to determine relations and origins among Viking dead.

The argument that Vikings set out to capture women gets tantalizing support from recent genetic studies of living people in Iceland, which has not experienced a significant migration since the Vikings settled it more than a thousand years ago. About three- quarters of male Icelandic settlers hailed from what is today Norway, although well over half of the women were from the British Isles, according to genetic studies of today’s Icelanders. That suggests that Viking men partnered with British women on a massive scale. “We must be talking about some degree of coercion,” Price said. His team will emphasize examining the remains of Viking women—long understudied—to understand their origins.

Price adds that much more work is required to understand the emergence of the Vikings’ raiding society. “This is just the start of a decade of research,” he says.

New Studies show Vikings filed their teeth, had female warriors and loved bling

Vikings were pretty out of this world, even for Medieval standards. Anthropologists studying Viking skeletons have revealed that many of them filed and probably painted their teeth, and we also know that they ironed their clothes with hot rocks, traveled with their spouses and had complex social interactions. Perhaps it’s time we rethink our image of classical Vikings.

We’ve been writing quite a lot about Viking studies this week, and the main takeaway seems to be that the idea of huge brutes who just raped, pillage, drank and sailed is really not accurate. Although they did many raids and conquests Viking society mostly depended on agriculture and trade. They cared about their families, colonized with their spouses about 50% of all Viking warriors were female. They also had a very strong sense of honor, both in battle and in the social system. The problem with the stereotypical view of vikings is that they got a lot of bad press – some 300 years of it.

“The traditional image of the Vikings was invented by 19th century Romantics,” explains Gareth Williams, curator of the exhibition, Vikings: life and legend. They’ve been portrayed as big, muscular savages with very silly helmets. Well, how else would a Romantic depict a Viking? But they were a hugely complex society who picked up cultural influences from all the countries they visited. And they were very much into their bling – sheer ostentatious showing-off.”

In fact, there is evidence that they actually weren’t more violent than other cultures at the time but they did one big PR mistake: they pillaged churches.

“That reputation comes from the fact they raided monasteries and churches. The monks wrote accounts of this and, from their point of view, it was a complete outrage that these pagans attacked religious institutions. Yet it was perfectly acceptable for a Christian ruler at the time to kill 7,000 Slavs in a day because they didn’t want to be converted.”

Now, don’t get me wrong – no one is saying the Viking society was a peaceful one – on the contrary. They were pirates and pillagers… like most societies at the time. They also traded slaves and were brutal warriors, showing little mercy to their enemies. They also practiced human sacrifice and took hallucinogenic drugs… but they also had a very strange sense of fashion.

A Swedish anthropologist analyzed 557 Viking skeletons dating from A.D. 800 to 1050 and discovered that 24 of them bore deep, horizontal grooves across their upper front teeth. It’s the first time that dental modification (a practice found in many cultures around the world) was reported in Europe.

Image credits: Stefan Lovgren, via National Geographic.

“[These] unique finds of deliberate dental modification … reveal what we did not know before, that this custom is practiced around the world and also in Europe,” said Caroline Arcini, an anthropologist at the National Heritage Board in Lund, Sweden.

Since no other European culture exhibited this practice and Vikings travel quite a lot, anthropologists believe they learned these techniques from other places.

“Vikings are well known for their acquisitive habits, but until now we’ve thought of this in terms of gold, silver, and booty, not facial decoration,” said William Fitzhugh, a Viking expert at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

The places where they were likely to learn this are West Africa and the Americas – places which we know the Vikings explored.

“However, African teeth modification was of a different sort, with teeth filed into points,” Fitzhugh said.

So, through a process of elimination, they probably learned this in America.

“The only place I know of [where people] have similar horizontal filing marks on their teeth … is the area of the Great Lakes in America and the present states of Illinois, Arizona, and Georgia.”

It’s not clear exactly why they did this, but it probably marked some type of achievement. It was both a symbol of pride and a way to scare enemies – because the teeth carvings were likely dyed (probably with red). This body modification probably made them even more terrifying. The marks are so well made that a person of great skill most likely filed them.

“We do know that the Vikings took pride in their appearance, combed their hair, and ironed their clothes with hot rocks,” Fitzhugh said. [They] now seem to have taken pain to decorate their teeth. When in-filled with pigment, these grooves would have made Viking warriors look even more terrifying to Christian monks and villagers,” he added.

Indeed, they may not have placed great value on how they smelled (though some records indicate that they washed more than Christians), but hair was very important for them. Combs are one of the most common finds in graves and there is significant evidence that indicates that Vikings took great care of their hair.

Vikings also liked to wear ridiculously big jewelry one necklace from the exhibition measures 10 inches in diameter (25 cm) and weighs 4 lbs (almost 2 kilos).

34. It’s Called Fashion, Look It Up

We think of the Vikings as brutal, dirty men who spent all their time raiding and pillaging, but there was a lot more to Viking culture than that. In fact, Viking nobles were quite the dandies: They would show off their wealth with silk clothes and fancy jewelry, and kept themselves well groomed with nice haircuts. These principles of fashion and hygiene were passed down to the regular folk as well, though they generally went about it in a more relaxed way.

Wikimedia Commons


The etymology of "viking" is uncertain. In the Middle Ages it came to mean Scandinavian pirate or raider, while other names such as "heathens", "Danes" or "Northmen" were also used. [19] [20] [21]

The form occurs as a personal name on some Swedish runestones. The stone of Tóki víking (Sm 10) was raised in memory of a local man named Tóki who got the name Tóki víking (Toki the Viking), presumably because of his activities as a Viking. [22] The Gårdstånga Stone (DR 330) uses the phrase "Þeʀ drængaʀ waʀu wiða unesiʀ i wikingu" (These valiant men were widely renowned on viking raids), [23] referring to the stone's dedicatees as Vikings. The Västra Strö 1 Runestone has an inscription in memory of a Björn, who was killed when "on a viking raid". [24] [25] In Sweden there is a locality known since the Middle Ages as Vikingstad. The Bro Stone (U 617) was raised in memory of Assur who is said to have protected the land from Vikings (Saʀ vaʀ vikinga vorðr með Gæiti). [26] [27] There is little indication of any negative connotation in the term before the end of the Viking Age.

Another less popular theory is that víking from the feminine vík, meaning "creek, inlet, small bay". [28] Various theories have been offered that the word viking may be derived from the name of the historical Norwegian district of Víkin, meaning "a person from Víkin".

However, there are a few major problems with this theory. People from the Viken area were not called "Viking" in Old Norse manuscripts, but are referred to as víkverir, ('Vík dwellers'). In addition, that explanation could explain only the masculine (víkingr) and not the feminine (víking), which is a serious problem because the masculine is easily derived from the feminine but hardly the other way around. [29] [30] [31]

Another etymology that gained support in the early twenty-first century, derives Viking from the same root as Old Norse vika, f. 'sea mile', originally 'the distance between two shifts of rowers', from the root *weik or *wîk, as in the Proto-Germanic verb *wîkan, 'to recede'. [32] [33] [34] [35] This is found in the Proto-Nordic verb *wikan, 'to turn', similar to Old Icelandic víkja (ýkva, víkva) 'to move, to turn', with well-attested nautical usages. [36] Linguistically, this theory is better attested, [36] and the term most likely predates the use of the sail by the Germanic peoples of North-Western Europe, because the Old Frisian spelling Witsing or Wīsing shows that the word was pronounced with a palatal k and thus in all probability existed in North-Western Germanic before that palatalisation happened, that is, in the 5th century or before (in the western branch). [35] [34] [37]

In that case, the idea behind it seems to be that the tired rower moves aside for the rested rower on the thwart when he relieves him. The Old Norse feminine víking (as in the phrase fara í víking) may originally have been a sea journey characterised by the shifting of rowers, i.e. a long-distance sea journey, because in the pre-sail era, the shifting of rowers would distinguish long-distance sea journeys. A víkingr (the masculine) would then originally have been a participant on a sea journey characterised by the shifting of rowers. In that case, the word Viking was not originally connected to Scandinavian seafarers but assumed this meaning when the Scandinavians begun to dominate the seas. [32]

In Old English, the word wicing appears first in the Anglo-Saxon poem, Widsith, which probably dates from the 9th century. In Old English, and in the history of the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen written by Adam of Bremen in about 1070, the term generally referred to Scandinavian pirates or raiders. As in the Old Norse usages, the term is not employed as a name for any people or culture in general. The word does not occur in any preserved Middle English texts. One theory made by the Icelander Örnolfur Kristjansson is that the key to the origins of the word is "wicinga cynn" in Widsith, referring to the people or the race living in Jórvík (York, in the ninth century under control by Norsemen), Jór-Wicings (note, however, that this is not the origin of Jórvík). [38]

The word Viking was introduced into Modern English during the 18th-century Viking revival, at which point it acquired romanticised heroic overtones of "barbarian warrior" or noble savage. During the 20th century, the meaning of the term was expanded to refer to not only seaborne raiders from Scandinavia and other places settled by them (like Iceland and the Faroe Islands), but also any member of the culture that produced said raiders during the period from the late 8th to the mid-11th centuries, or more loosely from about 700 to as late as about 1100. As an adjective, the word is used to refer to ideas, phenomena, or artefacts connected with those people and their cultural life, producing expressions like Viking age, Viking culture, Viking art, Viking religion, Viking ship and so on. [38]

The term ”Viking" that appeared in Northwestern Germanic sources in the Viking Age denoted pirates. According to some researchers, the term back then had no geographic or ethnic connotations that limited it to Scandinavia only. The term was instead used about anyone who to the Norse peoples appeared as a pirate. Therefore, the term had been used about Israelites on the Red Sea Muslims encountering Scandinavians in the Mediterranean Caucasian pirates encountering the famous Swedish Ingvar-Expedition, and Estonian pirates on the Baltic Sea. Thus the term "Viking" was supposedly never limited to a single ethnicity as such, but rather an activity. [39]

In Eastern Europe, of which parts were ruled by a Norse elite, víkingr came be perceived as a positive concept meaning "hero" in the Russian borrowed form vityaz' ( витязь ). [40]

Other names

The Vikings were known as Ascomanni ("ashmen") by the Germans for the ash wood of their boats, [41] Dubgail and Finngail ( "dark and fair foreigners") by the Irish, [42] Lochlannaich ("people from the land of lakes") by the Gaels, [43] Dene (Dane) by the Anglo-Saxons [44] and Northmonn by the Frisians. [37]

The scholarly consensus [45] is that the Rus' people originated in what is currently coastal eastern Sweden around the eighth century and that their name has the same origin as Roslagen in Sweden (with the older name being Roden). [46] [47] [48] According to the prevalent theory, the name Rus ' , like the Proto-Finnic name for Sweden (*Ruotsi), is derived from an Old Norse term for "the men who row" (rods-) as rowing was the main method of navigating the rivers of Eastern Europe, and that it could be linked to the Swedish coastal area of Roslagen (Rus-law) or Roden, as it was known in earlier times. [49] [50] The name Rus ' would then have the same origin as the Finnish and Estonian names for Sweden: Ruotsi and Rootsi. [50] [51]

The Slavs and the Byzantines also called them Varangians (Russian: варяги , from Old Norse Væringjar 'sworn men', from vàr- "confidence, vow of fealty", related to Old English wær "agreement, treaty, promise", Old High German wara "faithfulness" [52] ). Scandinavian bodyguards of the Byzantine emperors were known as the Varangian Guard. The Rus' initially appeared in Serkland in the 9th century, traveling as merchants along the Volga trade route, selling furs, honey, and slaves, as well as luxury goods such as amber, Frankish swords, and walrus ivory.[26] These goods were mostly exchanged for Arabian silver coins, called dirhams. Hoards of 9th century Baghdad-minted silver coins have been found in Sweden, particularly in Gotland.

During and after the Viking raid on Seville in 844 CE the Muslim chroniclers of al-Andalus referred to the Vikings as Magians (Arabic: al-Majus مجوس), conflating them with fire worshipping Zoroastrians from Persia. [53] [54] When Ibn Fadlan was taken captive by Vikings in the Volga, he referred to them as Rus. [55] [56] [57]

The Franks normally called them Northmen or Danes, while for the English they were generally known as Danes or heathen and the Irish knew them as pagans or gentiles. [58]

Anglo-Scandinavian is an academic term referring to the people, and archaeological and historical periods during the 8th to 13th centuries in which there was migration to—and occupation of—the British Isles by Scandinavian peoples generally known in English as Vikings. It is used in distinction from Anglo-Saxon. Similar terms exist for other areas, such as Hiberno-Norse for Ireland and Scotland.

Viking Age

The Viking Age in Scandinavian history is taken to have been the period from the earliest recorded raids by Norsemen in 793 until the Norman conquest of England in 1066. [59] Vikings used the Norwegian Sea and Baltic Sea for sea routes to the south.

The Normans were descendants of those Vikings who had been given feudal overlordship of areas in northern France, namely the Duchy of Normandy, in the 10th century. In that respect, descendants of the Vikings continued to have an influence in northern Europe. Likewise, King Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, had Danish ancestors. Two Vikings even ascended to the throne of England, with Sweyn Forkbeard claiming the English throne in 1013 until 1014 and his son Cnut the Great being king of England between 1016 and 1035. [60] [61] [62] [63] [64]

Geographically, the Viking Age covered Scandinavian lands (modern Denmark, Norway and Sweden), as well as territories under North Germanic dominance, mainly the Danelaw, including Scandinavian York, the administrative centre of the remains of the Kingdom of Northumbria, [65] parts of Mercia, and East Anglia. [66] Viking navigators opened the road to new lands to the north, west and east, resulting in the foundation of independent settlements in the Shetland, Orkney, and Faroe Islands Iceland Greenland [67] and L'Anse aux Meadows, a short-lived settlement in Newfoundland, circa 1000. [68] The Greenland settlement was established around 980, during the Medieval Warm Period, and its demise by the mid-15th century may have been partly due to climate change. [69] The Viking Rurik dynasty took control of territories in Slavic and Finno-Ugric-dominated areas of Eastern Europe they annexed Kiev in 882 to serve as the capital of the Kievan Rus'. [70]

As early as 839, when Swedish emissaries are first known to have visited Byzantium, Scandinavians served as mercenaries in the service of the Byzantine Empire. [71] In the late 10th century, a new unit of the imperial bodyguard formed. Traditionally containing large numbers of Scandinavians, it was known as the Varangian Guard. The word Varangian may have originated in Old Norse, but in Slavic and Greek it could refer either to Scandinavians or Franks. In these years, Swedish men left to enlist in the Byzantine Varangian Guard in such numbers that a medieval Swedish law, Västgötalagen, from Västergötland declared no one could inherit while staying in "Greece"—the then Scandinavian term for the Byzantine Empire—to stop the emigration, [72] especially as two other European courts simultaneously also recruited Scandinavians: [73] Kievan Rus' c. 980–1060 and London 1018–1066 (the Þingalið). [73]

There is archaeological evidence that Vikings reached Baghdad, the centre of the Islamic Empire. [74] The Norse regularly plied the Volga with their trade goods: furs, tusks, seal fat for boat sealant, and slaves. Important trading ports during the period include Birka, Hedeby, Kaupang, Jorvik, Staraya Ladoga, Novgorod, and Kiev.

Scandinavian Norsemen explored Europe by its seas and rivers for trade, raids, colonization, and conquest. In this period, voyaging from their homelands in Denmark, Norway and Sweden the Norsemen settled in the present-day Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norse Greenland, Newfoundland, the Netherlands, Germany, Normandy, Italy, Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Estonia, Ukraine, Russia and Turkey, as well as initiating the consolidation that resulted in the formation of the present day Scandinavian countries.

In the Viking Age, the present day nations of Norway, Sweden and Denmark did not exist, but were largely homogeneous and similar in culture and language, although somewhat distinct geographically. The names of Scandinavian kings are reliably known for only the later part of the Viking Age. After the end of the Viking Age the separate kingdoms gradually acquired distinct identities as nations, which went hand-in-hand with their Christianisation. Thus the end of the Viking Age for the Scandinavians also marks the start of their relatively brief Middle Ages.

Intermixing with the Slavs

The Vikings significantly intermixed with the Slavs. Slavic and Viking tribes were "closely linked, fighting one another, intermixing and trading". [75] [76] [77] In the Middle Ages, a significant amount of ware was transferred from Slavic areas to Scandinavia, and Denmark was "a melting pot of Slavic and Scandinavian elements". [75] The presence of Slavs in Scandinavia is "more significant than previously thought" [75] although "the Slavs and their interaction with Scandinavia have not been adequately investigated". [78] A 10th-century grave of a warrior-woman in Denmark was long thought to belong to a Viking. However, new analyses suggest that the woman was a Slav from present-day Poland. [75] The first king of the Swedes, Eric, was married to Gunhild, of the Polish House of Piast. [79] Likewise, his son, Olof, fell in love with Edla, a Slavic woman, and took her as his frilla (concubine). [80] She bore him a son and a daughter: Emund the Old, King of Sweden, and Astrid, Queen of Norway. Cnut the Great, King of Denmark, England and Norway, was the son of a daughter of Mieszko I of Poland, [81] possibly the former Polish queen of Sweden, wife of Eric. Richeza of Poland, Queen of Sweden, married Magnus the Strong, and bore him several children, including Canute V, King of Denmark. [82] Catherine Jagiellon, of the House of Jagiellon, was married to John III, King of Sweden. She was the mother of Sigismund III Vasa, King of Poland, King of Sweden, and Grand Duke of Finland. [83] Ragnvald Ulfsson, son of Jarl Ulf Tostesson and the Wendic Princess Ingeborg, had a Slavic name (Rogvolod, from Slavic Рогволод). [84]


Colonization of Iceland by Norwegian Vikings began in the ninth century. The first source mentioning Iceland and Greenland is a papal letter of 1053. Twenty years later, they appear in the Gesta of Adam of Bremen. It was not until after 1130, when the islands had become Christianized, that accounts of the history of the islands were written from the point of view of the inhabitants in sagas and chronicles. [85] The Vikings explored the northern islands and coasts of the North Atlantic, ventured south to North Africa, east to Kievan Rus (now – Ukraine, Belarus), Constantinople, and the Middle East. [86]

They raided and pillaged, traded, acted as mercenaries and settled colonies over a wide area. [87] Early Vikings probably returned home after their raids. Later in their history, they began to settle in other lands. [88] Vikings under Leif Erikson, heir to Erik the Red, reached North America and set up short-lived settlements in present-day L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada. This expansion occurred during the Medieval Warm Period. [89]

Viking expansion into continental Europe was limited. Their realm was bordered by powerful tribes to the south. Early on, it was the Saxons who occupied Old Saxony, located in what is now Northern Germany. The Saxons were a fierce and powerful people and were often in conflict with the Vikings. To counter the Saxon aggression and solidify their own presence, the Danes constructed the huge defence fortification of Danevirke in and around Hedeby. [90]

The Vikings witnessed the violent subduing of the Saxons by Charlemagne, in the thirty-year Saxon Wars of 772–804. The Saxon defeat resulted in their forced christening and the absorption of Old Saxony into the Carolingian Empire. Fear of the Franks led the Vikings to further expand Danevirke, and the defence constructions remained in use throughout the Viking Age and even up until 1864. [91]

The south coast of the Baltic Sea was ruled by the Obotrites, a federation of Slavic tribes loyal to the Carolingians and later the Frankish empire. The Vikings—led by King Gudfred—destroyed the Obotrite city of Reric on the southern Baltic coast in 808 AD and transferred the merchants and traders to Hedeby. [92] This secured Viking supremacy in the Baltic Sea, which continued throughout the Viking Age.

Because of the expansion of the Vikings across Europe, a comparison of DNA and archeology undertaken by scientists at the University of Cambridge and University of Copenhagen suggested that the term "Viking" may have evolved to become "a job description, not a matter of heredity," at least in some Viking bands. [93]


The motives driving the Viking expansion are a topic of much debate in Nordic history.

Researchers have suggested that Vikings may have originally started sailing and raiding due to a need to seek out women from foreign lands. [94] [95] [96] [97] The concept was expressed in the 11th century by historian Dudo of Saint-Quentin in his semi imaginary History of The Normans. [98] Rich and powerful Viking men tended to have many wives and concubines these polygynous relationships may have led to a shortage of eligible women for the average Viking male. Due to this, the average Viking man could have been forced to perform riskier actions to gain wealth and power to be able to find suitable women. [99] [100] [101] Viking men would often buy or capture women and make them into their wives or concubines. [102] [103] Polygynous marriage increases male-male competition in society because it creates a pool of unmarried men who are willing to engage in risky status-elevating and sex seeking behaviors. [104] [105] The Annals of Ulster states that in 821 the Vikings plundered an Irish village and "carried off a great number of women into captivity". [106]

One common theory posits that Charlemagne "used force and terror to Christianise all pagans", leading to baptism, conversion or execution, and as a result, Vikings and other pagans resisted and wanted revenge. [107] [108] [109] [110] [111] Professor Rudolf Simek states that "it is not a coincidence if the early Viking activity occurred during the reign of Charlemagne". [107] [112] The ascendance of Christianity in Scandinavia led to serious conflict, dividing Norway for almost a century. However, this time period did not commence until the 10th century, Norway was never subject to aggression by Charlemagne and the period of strife was due to successive Norwegian kings embracing Christianity after encountering it overseas. [113]

Another explanation is that the Vikings exploited a moment of weakness in the surrounding regions. Contrary to Simek's assertion, Viking raids occurred sporadically long before the reign of Charlemagne but exploded in frequency and size after his death, when his empire fragmented into multiple much weaker entities. [114] England suffered from internal divisions and was relatively easy prey given the proximity of many towns to the sea or to navigable rivers. Lack of organised naval opposition throughout Western Europe allowed Viking ships to travel freely, raiding or trading as opportunity permitted. The decline in the profitability of old trade routes could also have played a role. Trade between western Europe and the rest of Eurasia suffered a severe blow when the Western Roman Empire fell in the 5th century. [115] The expansion of Islam in the 7th century had also affected trade with western Europe. [116]

Raids in Europe, including raids and settlements from Scandinavia, were not unprecedented and had occurred long before the Vikings arrived. The Jutes invaded the British Isles three centuries earlier, pouring out from Jutland during the Age of Migrations, before the Danes settled there. The Saxons and the Angles did the same, embarking from mainland Europe. The Viking raids were, however, the first to be documented in writing by eyewitnesses, and they were much larger in scale and frequency than in previous times. [114]

Vikings themselves were expanding although their motives are unclear, historians believe that scarce resources or a lack of mating opportunities were a factor. [117]

The "Highway of Slaves" was a term for a route that the Vikings found to have a direct pathway from Scandinavia to Constantinople and Baghdad while traveling on the Baltic Sea. With the advancements of their ships during the ninth century, the Vikings were able to sail to Kievan Rus and some northern parts of Europe. [118]


Jomsborg was a semi-legendary Viking stronghold at the southern coast of the Baltic Sea (medieval Wendland, modern Pomerania), that existed between the 960s and 1043. Its inhabitants were known as Jomsvikings. Jomsborg's exact location, or its existence, has not yet been established, though it is often maintained that Jomsborg was somewhere on the islands of the Oder estuary. [119]

End of the Viking Age

While the Vikings were active beyond their Scandinavian homelands, Scandinavia was itself experiencing new influences and undergoing a variety of cultural changes. [120]

Emergence of nation-states and monetary economies

By the late 11th century, royal dynasties were legitimised by the Catholic Church (which had had little influence in Scandinavia 300 years earlier) which were asserting their power with increasing authority and ambition, with the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden taking shape. Towns appeared that functioned as secular and ecclesiastical administrative centres and market sites, and monetary economies began to emerge based on English and German models. [121] By this time the influx of Islamic silver from the East had been absent for more than a century, and the flow of English silver had come to an end in the mid-11th century. [122]

Assimilation into Christendom

Christianity had taken root in Denmark and Norway with the establishment of dioceses in the 11th century, and the new religion was beginning to organise and assert itself more effectively in Sweden. Foreign churchmen and native elites were energetic in furthering the interests of Christianity, which was now no longer operating only on a missionary footing, and old ideologies and lifestyles were transforming. By 1103, the first archbishopric was founded in Scandinavia, at Lund, Scania, then part of Denmark.

The assimilation of the nascent Scandinavian kingdoms into the cultural mainstream of European Christendom altered the aspirations of Scandinavian rulers and of Scandinavians able to travel overseas, and changed their relations with their neighbours.

One of the primary sources of profit for the Vikings had been slave-taking from other European peoples. The medieval Church held that Christians should not own fellow Christians as slaves, so chattel slavery diminished as a practice throughout northern Europe. This took much of the economic incentive out of raiding, though sporadic slaving activity continued into the 11th century. Scandinavian predation in Christian lands around the North and Irish Seas diminished markedly.

The kings of Norway continued to assert power in parts of northern Britain and Ireland, and raids continued into the 12th century, but the military ambitions of Scandinavian rulers were now directed toward new paths. In 1107, Sigurd I of Norway sailed for the eastern Mediterranean with Norwegian crusaders to fight for the newly established Kingdom of Jerusalem, and Danes and Swedes participated energetically in the Baltic Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries. [123]

A variety of sources illuminate the culture, activities, and beliefs of the Vikings. Although they were generally a non-literate culture that produced no literary legacy, they had an alphabet and described themselves and their world on runestones. Most contemporary literary and written sources on the Vikings come from other cultures that were in contact with them. [124] Since the mid-20th century, archaeological findings have built a more complete and balanced picture of the lives of the Vikings. [125] [126] The archaeological record is particularly rich and varied, providing knowledge of their rural and urban settlement, crafts and production, ships and military equipment, trading networks, as well as their pagan and Christian religious artefacts and practices.

Literature and language

The most important primary sources on the Vikings are contemporary texts from Scandinavia and regions where the Vikings were active. [127] Writing in Latin letters was introduced to Scandinavia with Christianity, so there are few native documentary sources from Scandinavia before the late 11th and early 12th centuries. [128] The Scandinavians did write inscriptions in runes, but these are usually very short and formulaic. Most contemporary documentary sources consist of texts written in Christian and Islamic communities outside Scandinavia, often by authors who had been negatively affected by Viking activity.

Later writings on the Vikings and the Viking Age can also be important for understanding them and their culture, although they need to be treated cautiously. After the consolidation of the church and the assimilation of Scandinavia and its colonies into the mainstream of medieval Christian culture in the 11th and 12th centuries, native written sources begin to appear in Latin and Old Norse. In the Viking colony of Iceland, an extraordinary vernacular literature blossomed in the 12th through 14th centuries, and many traditions connected with the Viking Age were written down for the first time in the Icelandic sagas. A literal interpretation of these medieval prose narratives about the Vikings and the Scandinavian past is doubtful, but many specific elements remain worthy of consideration, such as the great quantity of skaldic poetry attributed to court poets of the 10th and 11th centuries, the exposed family trees, the self images, the ethical values, that are contained in these literary writings.

Indirectly, the Vikings have also left a window open onto their language, culture and activities, through many Old Norse place names and words found in their former sphere of influence. Some of these place names and words are still in direct use today, almost unchanged, and shed light on where they settled and what specific places meant to them. Examples include place names like Egilsay (from Eigils ey meaning Eigil's Island), Ormskirk (from Ormr kirkja meaning Orms Church or Church of the Worm), Meols (from merl meaning Sand Dunes), Snaefell (Snow Fell), Ravenscar (Ravens Rock), Vinland (Land of Wine or Land of Winberry), Kaupanger (Market Harbour), Tórshavn (Thor's Harbour), and the religious centre of Odense, meaning a place where Odin was worshipped. Viking influence is also evident in concepts like the present-day parliamentary body of the Tynwald on the Isle of Man.

Common words in everyday English language, such as the names of weekdays (Thursday means Thor's day, Friday means Freya's day, Wednesday means Woden, or Odin's day, Tuesday means Týr's day, Týr being the Norse god of single combat, law, and justice), axle, crook, raft, knife, plough, leather, window, berserk, bylaw, thorp, skerry, husband, heathen, Hell, Norman and ransack stem from the Old Norse of the Vikings and give us an opportunity to understand their interactions with the people and cultures of the British Isles. [129] In the Northern Isles of Shetland and Orkney, Old Norse completely replaced the local languages and over time evolved into the now extinct Norn language. Some modern words and names only emerge and contribute to our understanding after a more intense research of linguistic sources from medieval or later records, such as York (Horse Bay), Swansea (Sveinn's Isle) or some of the place names in Normandy like Tocqueville (Toki's farm). [130]

Linguistic and etymological studies continue to provide a vital source of information on the Viking culture, their social structure and history and how they interacted with the people and cultures they met, traded, attacked or lived with in overseas settlements. [131] [132] A lot of Old Norse connections are evident in the modern-day languages of Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Faroese and Icelandic. [133] Old Norse did not exert any great influence on the Slavic languages in the Viking settlements of Eastern Europe. It has been speculated that the reason for this was the great differences between the two languages, combined with the Rus' Vikings more peaceful businesses in these areas and the fact that they were outnumbered. The Norse named some of the rapids on the Dnieper, but this can hardly be seen from the modern names. [134] [135]


The Norse of the Viking Age could read and write and used a non-standardised alphabet, called runor, built upon sound values. While there are few remains of runic writing on paper from the Viking era, thousands of stones with runic inscriptions have been found where Vikings lived. They are usually in memory of the dead, though not necessarily placed at graves. The use of runor survived into the 15th century, used in parallel with the Latin alphabet.

The runestones are unevenly distributed in Scandinavia: Denmark has 250 runestones, Norway has 50 while Iceland has none. [136] Sweden has as many as between 1,700 [136] and 2,500 [137] depending on definition. The Swedish district of Uppland has the highest concentration with as many as 1,196 inscriptions in stone, whereas Södermanland is second with 391. [138] [139]

The majority of runic inscriptions from the Viking period are found in Sweden. Many runestones in Scandinavia record the names of participants in Viking expeditions, such as the Kjula runestone that tells of extensive warfare in Western Europe and the Turinge Runestone, which tells of a war band in Eastern Europe.

Other runestones mention men who died on Viking expeditions. Among them include the England runestones (Swedish: Englandsstenarna) which is a group of about 30 runestones in Sweden which refer to Viking Age voyages to England. They constitute one of the largest groups of runestones that mention voyages to other countries, and they are comparable in number only to the approximately 30 Greece Runestones [140] and the 26 Ingvar Runestones, the latter referring to a Viking expedition to the Middle East. [141] They were engraved in Old Norse with the Younger Futhark. [142]

The Jelling stones date from between 960 and 985. The older, smaller stone was raised by King Gorm the Old, the last pagan king of Denmark, as a memorial honouring Queen Thyre. [143] The larger stone was raised by his son, Harald Bluetooth, to celebrate the conquest of Denmark and Norway and the conversion of the Danes to Christianity. It has three sides: one with an animal image, one with an image of the crucified Jesus Christ, and a third bearing the following inscription:

King Haraldr ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother that Haraldr who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian. [144]

Runestones attest to voyages to locations such as Bath, [145] Greece (how the Vikings referred to the Byzantium territories generally), [146] Khwaresm, [147] Jerusalem, [148] Italy (as Langobardland), [149] Serkland (i.e. the Muslim world), [150] [151] England [152] (including London [153] ), and various places in Eastern Europe. Viking Age inscriptions have also been discovered on the Manx runestones on the Isle of Man.

Runic alphabet usage in modern times

The last known people to use the Runic alphabet were an isolated group of people known as the Elfdalians, that lived in the locality of Älvdalen in the Swedish province of Dalarna. They spoke the language of Elfdalian, the language unique to Älvdalen. The Elfdalian language differentiates itself from the other Scandinavian languages as it evolved much closer to Old Norse. The people of Älvdalen stopped using runes as late as the 1920s. Usage of runes therefore survived longer in Älvdalen than anywhere else in the world. [154] The last known record of the Elfdalian Runes is from 1929 they are a variant of the Dalecarlian runes, runic inscriptions that were also found in Dalarna.

Traditionally regarded as a Swedish dialect, [155] but by several criteria closer related to West Scandinavian dialects, [156] Elfdalian is a separate language by the standard of mutual intelligibility. [157] [158] [159] Although there is no mutual intelligibility, due to schools and public administration in Älvdalen being conducted in Swedish, native speakers are bilingual and speak Swedish at a native level. Residents in the area who speak only Swedish as their sole native language, neither speaking nor understanding Elfdalian, are also common. Älvdalen can be said to have had its own alphabet during the 17th and 18th century. Today there are about 2,000-3000 native speakers of Elfdalian.

Burial sites

There are numerous burial sites associated with Vikings throughout Europe and their sphere of influence—in Scandinavia, the British Isles, Ireland, Greenland, Iceland, Faeroe Islands, Germany, The Baltic, Russia, etc. The burial practices of the Vikings were quite varied, from dug graves in the ground, to tumuli, sometimes including so-called ship burials.

According to written sources, most of the funerals took place at sea. The funerals involved either burial or cremation, depending on local customs. In the area that is now Sweden, cremations were predominant in Denmark burial was more common and in Norway both were common. [160] Viking barrows are one of the primary source of evidence for circumstances in the Viking Age. [161] The items buried with the dead give some indication as to what was considered important to possess in the afterlife. [162] It is unknown what mortuary services were given to dead children by the Vikings. [163] Some of the most important burial sites for understanding the Vikings include:

  • Norway: Oseberg Gokstad Borrehaugene.
  • Sweden: Gettlinge gravfält the cemeteries of Birka, a World Heritage Site [164]Valsgärde Gamla Uppsala Hulterstad gravfält, near Alby Hulterstad, Öland.
  • Denmark: Jelling, a World Heritage Site Lindholm Høje Ladby ship Mammen chamber tomb and hoard.
  • Estonia: Salme ships – The largest ship burial ground ever uncovered.
  • Scotland: Port an Eilean Mhòir ship burial Scar boat burial, Orkney.
  • Faroe Islands: Hov.
  • Iceland: Mosfellsbær in Capital Region [165][166] the boat burial in Vatnsdalur, Austur-Húnavatnssýsla. [160][167][168]
  • Greenland: Brattahlíð. [169]
  • Germany: Hedeby.
  • Latvia: Grobiņa.
  • Ukraine: the Black Grave.
  • Russia: Gnezdovo.


There have been several archaeological finds of Viking ships of all sizes, providing knowledge of the craftsmanship that went into building them. There were many types of Viking ships, built for various uses the best-known type is probably the longship. [170] Longships were intended for warfare and exploration, designed for speed and agility, and were equipped with oars to complement the sail, making navigation possible independently of the wind. The longship had a long, narrow hull and shallow draught to facilitate landings and troop deployments in shallow water. Longships were used extensively by the Leidang, the Scandinavian defence fleets. The longship allowed the Norse to go Viking, which might explain why this type of ship has become almost synonymous with the concept of Vikings. [171] [172]

The Vikings built many unique types of watercraft, often used for more peaceful tasks. The knarr was a dedicated merchant vessel designed to carry cargo in bulk. It had a broader hull, deeper draught, and a small number of oars (used primarily to manoeuvre in harbours and similar situations). One Viking innovation was the 'beitass', a spar mounted to the sail that allowed their ships to sail effectively against the wind. [173] It was common for seafaring Viking ships to tow or carry a smaller boat to transfer crews and cargo from the ship to shore.

Ships were an integral part of the Viking culture. They facilitated everyday transportation across seas and waterways, exploration of new lands, raids, conquests, and trade with neighbouring cultures. They also held a major religious importance. People with high status were sometimes buried in a ship along with animal sacrifices, weapons, provisions and other items, as evidenced by the buried vessels at Gokstad and Oseberg in Norway [174] and the excavated ship burial at Ladby in Denmark. Ship burials were also practised by Vikings abroad, as evidenced by the excavations of the Salme ships on the Estonian island of Saaremaa. [175]

Well-preserved remains of five Viking ships were excavated from Roskilde Fjord in the late 1960s, representing both the longship and the knarr. The ships were scuttled there in the 11th century to block a navigation channel and thus protect Roskilde, then the Danish capital, from seaborne assault. The remains of these ships are on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde.

In 2019, archaeologists uncovered two Viking boat graves in Gamla Uppsala. They also discovered that one of the boats still holds the remains of a man, a dog, and a horse, along with other items. [176] This has shed light on death rituals of Viking communities in the region.

Everyday life

Social structure

Viking society was divided into the three socio-economic classes: Thralls, Karls and Jarls. This is described vividly in the Eddic poem of Rígsþula, which also explains that it was the god Ríg—father of mankind also known as Heimdallr—who created the three classes. Archaeology has confirmed this social structure. [177]

Thralls were the lowest ranking class and were slaves. Slaves comprised as much as a quarter of the population. [178] Slavery was of vital importance to Viking society, for everyday chores and large scale construction and also to trade and the economy. Thralls were servants and workers in the farms and larger households of the Karls and Jarls, and they were used for constructing fortifications, ramps, canals, mounds, roads and similar hard work projects. According to the Rigsthula, Thralls were despised and looked down upon. New thralls were supplied by either the sons and daughters of thralls or captured abroad. The Vikings often deliberately captured many people on their raids in Europe, to enslave them as thralls. The thralls were then brought back home to Scandinavia by boat, used on location or in newer settlements to build needed structures, or sold, often to the Arabs in exchange for silver. Other names for thrall were 'træl' and 'ty'.

Karls were free peasants. They owned farms, land and cattle and engaged in daily chores like ploughing the fields, milking the cattle, building houses and wagons, but used thralls to make ends meet. Other names for Karls were 'bonde' or simply free men.

The Jarls were the aristocracy of the Viking society. They were wealthy and owned large estates with huge longhouses, horses and many thralls. The thralls did most of the daily chores, while the Jarls did administration, politics, hunting, sports, visited other Jarls or went abroad on expeditions. When a Jarl died and was buried, his household thralls were sometimes sacrificially killed and buried next to him, as many excavations have revealed. [179]

In daily life, there were many intermediate positions in the overall social structure and it is believed that there must have been some social mobility. These details are unclear, but titles and positions like hauldr, thegn, landmand, show mobility between the Karls and the Jarls.

Other social structures included the communities of félag in both the civil and the military spheres, to which its members (called félagi) were obliged. A félag could be centred around certain trades, a common ownership of a sea vessel or a military obligation under a specific leader. Members of the latter were referred to as drenge, one of the words for warrior. There were also official communities within towns and villages, the overall defence, religion, the legal system and the Things.

Status of women

Like elsewhere in medieval Europe, most women in Viking society were subordinate to their husbands and fathers and had little political power. [180] [181] However, the written sources portray free Viking women as having independence and rights. Viking women generally appear to have had more freedom than women elsewhere, [181] as illustrated in the Icelandic Grágás and the Norwegian Frostating laws and Gulating laws. [182]

Most free Viking women were housewives, and the woman's standing in society was linked to that of her husband. [181] Marriage gave a woman a degree of economic security and social standing encapsulated in the title húsfreyja (lady of the house). Norse laws assert the housewife's authority over the 'indoor household'. She had the important roles of managing the farm's resources, conducting business, as well as child-rearing, although some of this would be shared with her husband. [183]

After the age of 20, an unmarried woman, referred to as maer and mey, reached legal majority and had the right to decide her place of residence and was regarded as her own person before the law. [182] An exception to her independence was the right to choose a husband, as marriages were normally arranged by the family. [184] The groom would pay a bride-price (mundr) to the bride's family, and the bride brought assets into the marriage, as a dowry. [183] A married woman could divorce her husband and remarry. [181] [185]

Concubinage was also part of Viking society, whereby a woman could live with a man and have children with him without marrying such a woman was called a frilla. [185] Usually she would be the mistress of a wealthy and powerful man who also had a wife. [180] The wife had authority over the mistresses if they lived in her household. [181] Through her relationship to a man of higher social standing, a concubine and her family could advance socially although her position was less secure than that of a wife. [180] There was no distinction made between children born inside or outside marriage: both had the right to inherit property from their parents, and there were no "legitimate" or "illegitimate" children. [185] However, children born in wedlock had more inheritance rights than those born out of wedlock. [183]

A woman had the right to inherit part of her husband's property upon his death, [183] and widows enjoyed the same independent status as unmarried women. [185] The paternal aunt, paternal niece and paternal granddaughter, referred to as odalkvinna, all had the right to inherit property from a deceased man. [182] A woman with no husband, sons or male relatives could inherit not only property but also the position as head of the family when her father or brother died. Such a woman was referred to as Baugrygr, and she exercised all the rights afforded to the head of a family clan, until she married, by which her rights were transferred to her new husband. [182]

Women had religious authority and were active as priestesses (gydja) and oracles (sejdkvinna). [186] They were active within art as poets (skalder) [186] and rune masters, and as merchants and medicine women. [186] There may also have been female entrepreneurs, who worked in textile production. [181] Women may also have been active within military office: the tales about shieldmaidens are unconfirmed, but some archaeological finds such as the Birka female Viking warrior may indicate that at least some women in military authority existed. [187]

These liberties of the Viking women gradually disappeared after the introduction of Christianity, [188] and from the late 13th-century, they are no longer mentioned. [182]

Examinations of Viking Age burials suggests that women lived longer, and nearly all well past the age of 35, as compared to earlier times. Female graves from before the Viking Age in Scandinavia holds a proportional large number of remains from women aged 20 to 35, presumably due to complications of childbirth. [189]


Scandinavian Vikings were similar in appearance to modern Scandinavians "their skin was fair and the hair color varied between blond, dark and reddish". Genetic studies suggest that people were mostly blond in what is now eastern Sweden, while red hair was mostly found in western Scandinavia. [190] Most Viking men had shoulder-length hair and beards, and slaves (thralls) were usually the only men with short hair. [191] The length varied according to personal preference and occupation. Men involved in warfare, for example, may have had slightly shorter hair and beards for practical reasons. Men in some regions bleached their hair a golden saffron color. [191] Females also had long hair, with girls often wearing it loose or braided and married women often wearing it in a bun. [191] The average height is estimated to have been 67 inches (5'5") for men and 62 inches (5'1") for women. [190]

The three classes were easily recognisable by their appearances. Men and women of the Jarls were well groomed with neat hairstyles and expressed their wealth and status by wearing expensive clothes (often silk) and well crafted jewellery like brooches, belt buckles, necklaces and arm rings. Almost all of the jewellery was crafted in specific designs unique to the Norse (see Viking art). Finger rings were seldom used and earrings were not used at all, as they were seen as a Slavic phenomenon. Most Karls expressed similar tastes and hygiene, but in a more relaxed and inexpensive way. [177] [192]

Archaeological finds from Scandinavia and Viking settlements in the British Isles support the idea of the well groomed and hygienic Viking. Burial with grave goods was a common practice in the Scandinavian world, through the Viking Age and well past the Christianization of the Norse peoples. [193] Within these burial sites and homesteads, combs, often made from antler, are a common find. [194] The manufacturing of such antler combs was common, as at the Viking settlement at Dublin hundreds of examples of combs from the tenth-century have survived, suggesting that grooming was a common practice. [195] The manufacturing of such combs was also widespread throughout the Viking world, as examples of similar combs have been found at Viking settlements in Ireland, [196] England, [197] and Scotland. [198] The combs share a common visual appearance as well, with the extant examples often decorated with linear, interlacing, and geometric motifs, or other forms of ornamentation depending on the comb's period and type, but stylistically similar to Viking Age art. [199] The practice of grooming was a concern for all levels of Viking age society, as grooming products, combs, have been found in common graves as well as aristocratic ones. [200]

Farming and cuisine

The sagas tell about the diet and cuisine of the Vikings, [201] but first hand evidence, like cesspits, kitchen middens and garbage dumps have proved to be of great value and importance. Undigested remains of plants from cesspits at Coppergate in York have provided much information in this respect. Overall, archaeo-botanical investigations have been undertaken increasingly in recent decades, as a collaboration between archaeologists and palaeoethno-botanists. This new approach sheds light on the agricultural and horticultural practices of the Vikings and their cuisine. [202]

The combined information from various sources suggests a diverse cuisine and ingredients. Meat products of all kinds, such as cured, smoked and whey-preserved meat, [203] sausages, and boiled or fried fresh meat cuts, were prepared and consumed. [204] There were plenty of seafood, bread, porridges, dairy products, vegetables, fruits, berries and nuts. Alcoholic drinks like beer, mead, bjórr (a strong fruit wine) and, for the rich, imported wine, were served. [205] [206]

Certain livestock were typical and unique to the Vikings, including the Icelandic horse, Icelandic cattle, a plethora of sheep breeds, [207] the Danish hen and the Danish goose. [208] [209] The Vikings in York mostly ate beef, mutton, and pork with small amounts of horse meat. Most of the beef and horse leg bones were found split lengthways, to extract the marrow. The mutton and swine were cut into leg and shoulder joints and chops. The frequent remains of pig skull and foot bones found on house floors indicate that brawn and trotters were also popular. Hens were kept for both their meat and eggs, and the bones of game birds such as black grouse, golden plover, wild ducks, and geese have also been found. [210]

Seafood was important, in some places even more so than meat. Whales and walrus were hunted for food in Norway and the north-western parts of the North Atlantic region, and seals were hunted nearly everywhere. Oysters, mussels and shrimp were eaten in large quantities and cod and salmon were popular fish. In the southern regions, herring was also important. [211] [212] [213]

Milk and buttermilk were popular, both as cooking ingredients and drinks, but were not always available, even at farms. [214] Milk came from cows, goats and sheep, with priorities varying from location to location, [215] and fermented milk products like skyr or surmjölk were produced as well as butter and cheese. [216]

Food was often salted and enhanced with spices, some of which were imported like black pepper, while others were cultivated in herb gardens or harvested in the wild. Home grown spices included caraway, mustard and horseradish as evidenced from the Oseberg ship burial [205] or dill, coriander, and wild celery, as found in cesspits at Coppergate in York. Thyme, juniper berry, sweet gale, yarrow, rue and peppercress were also used and cultivated in herb gardens. [202] [217]

Vikings collected and ate fruits, berries and nuts. Apple (wild crab apples), plums and cherries were part of the diet, [218] as were rose hips and raspberry, wild strawberry, blackberry, elderberry, rowan, hawthorn and various wild berries, specific to the locations. [217] Hazelnuts were an important part of the diet in general and large amounts of walnut shells have been found in cities like Hedeby. The shells were used for dyeing, and it is assumed that the nuts were consumed. [202] [214]

The invention and introduction of the mouldboard plough revolutionised agriculture in Scandinavia in the early Viking Age and made it possible to farm even poor soils. In Ribe, grains of rye, barley, oat and wheat dated to the 8th century have been found and examined, and are believed to have been cultivated locally. [219] Grains and flour were used for making porridges, some cooked with milk, some cooked with fruit and sweetened with honey, and also various forms of bread. Remains of bread from primarily Birka in Sweden were made of barley and wheat. It is unclear if the Norse leavened their breads, but their ovens and baking utensils suggest that they did. [220] Flax was a very important crop for the Vikings: it was used for oil extraction, food consumption and most importantly the production of linen. More than 40% of all known textile recoveries from the Viking Age can be traced as linen. This suggests a much higher actual percentage, as linen is poorly preserved compared to wool for example. [221]

The quality of food for common people was not always particularly high. The research at Coppergate shows that the Vikings in York made bread from whole meal flour—probably both wheat and rye—but with the seeds of cornfield weeds included. Corncockle (Agrostemma), would have made the bread dark-coloured, but the seeds are poisonous, and people who ate the bread might have become ill. Seeds of carrots, parsnip, and brassicas were also discovered, but they were poor specimens and tend to come from white carrots and bitter tasting cabbages. [218] The rotary querns often used in the Viking Age left tiny stone fragments (often from basalt rock) in the flour, which when eaten wore down the teeth. The effects of this can be seen on skeletal remains of that period. [220]


Sports were widely practised and encouraged by the Vikings. [222] [223] Sports that involved weapons training and developing combat skills were popular. This included spear and stone throwing, building and testing physical strength through wrestling (see glima), fist fighting, and stone lifting. In areas with mountains, mountain climbing was practised as a sport. Agility and balance were built and tested by running and jumping for sport, and there is mention of a sport that involved jumping from oar to oar on the outside of a ship's railing as it was being rowed. [224] Swimming was a popular sport and Snorri Sturluson describes three types: diving, long-distance swimming, and a contest in which two swimmers try to dunk one another. Children often participated in some of the sport disciplines and women have also been mentioned as swimmers, although it is unclear if they took part in competition. King Olaf Tryggvason was hailed as a master of both mountain climbing and oar-jumping, and was said to have excelled in the art of knife juggling as well.

Skiing and ice skating were the primary winter sports of the Vikings, although skiing was also used as everyday means of transport in winter and in the colder regions of the north.

Horse fighting was practised for sport, although the rules are unclear. It appears to have involved two stallions pitted against each other, within smell and sight of fenced-off mares. Whatever the rules were, the fights often resulted in the death of one of the stallions.

Icelandic sources refer to the sport of knattleik. A ball game akin to hockey, knattleik involved a bat and a small hard ball and was usually played on a smooth field of ice. The rules are unclear, but it was popular with both adults and children, even though it often led to injuries. Knattleik appears to have been played only in Iceland, where it attracted many spectators, as did horse fighting.

Hunting, as a sport, was limited to Denmark, where it was not regarded as an important occupation. Birds, deer, hares and foxes were hunted with bow and spear, and later with crossbows. The techniques were stalking, snare and traps and par force hunting with dog packs.

Games and entertainment

Both archaeological finds and written sources testify to the fact that the Vikings set aside time for social and festive gatherings. [222] [223] [225]

Board games and dice games were played as a popular pastime at all levels of society. Preserved gaming pieces and boards show game boards made of easily available materials like wood, with game pieces manufactured from stone, wood or bone, while other finds include elaborately carved boards and game pieces of glass, amber, antler or walrus tusk, together with materials of foreign origin, such as ivory. The Vikings played several types of tafl games hnefatafl, nitavl (nine men's morris) and the less common kvatrutafl. Chess also appeared at the end of the Viking Age. Hnefatafl is a war game, in which the object is to capture the king piece—a large hostile army threatens and the king's men have to protect the king. It was played on a board with squares using black and white pieces, with moves made according to dice rolls. The Ockelbo Runestone shows two men engaged in Hnefatafl, and the sagas suggest that money or valuables could have been involved in some dice games. [222] [225]

On festive occasions storytelling, skaldic poetry, music and alcoholic drinks, like beer and mead, contributed to the atmosphere. [225] Music was considered an art form and music proficiency as fitting for a cultivated man. The Vikings are known to have played instruments including harps, fiddles, lyres and lutes. [222]

Experimental archaeology

Experimental archaeology of the Viking Age is a flourishing branch and several places have been dedicated to this technique, such as Jorvik Viking Centre in the United Kingdom, Sagnlandet Lejre and Ribe Viking Center [da] in Denmark, Foteviken Museum in Sweden or Lofotr Viking Museum in Norway. Viking-age reenactors have undertaken experimental activities such as iron smelting and forging using Norse techniques at Norstead in Newfoundland for example. [226]

On 1 July 2007, the reconstructed Viking ship Skuldelev 2, renamed Sea Stallion, [227] began a journey from Roskilde to Dublin. The remains of that ship and four others were discovered during a 1962 excavation in the Roskilde Fjord. Tree-ring analysis has shown the ship was built of oak in the vicinity of Dublin in about 1042. Seventy multi-national crew members sailed the ship back to its home, and Sea Stallion arrived outside Dublin's Custom House on 14 August 2007. The purpose of the voyage was to test and document the seaworthiness, speed, and manoeuvrability of the ship on the rough open sea and in coastal waters with treacherous currents. The crew tested how the long, narrow, flexible hull withstood the tough ocean waves. The expedition also provided valuable new information on Viking longships and society. The ship was built using Viking tools, materials, and much the same methods as the original ship.

Other vessels, often replicas of the Gokstad ship (full- or half-scale) or Skuldelev have been built and tested as well. The Snorri (a Skuldelev I Knarr), was sailed from Greenland to Newfoundland in 1998. [228]

Cultural assimilation

Elements of a Scandinavian identity and practices were maintained in settler societies, but they could be quite distinct as the groups assimilated into the neighboring societies. Assimilation to the Frankish culture in Normandy for example was rapid. [229] Links to a Viking identity remained longer in the remote islands of Iceland and the Faroes. [229]

Knowledge about the arms and armour of the Viking age is based on archaeological finds, pictorial representation, and to some extent on the accounts in the Norse sagas and Norse laws recorded in the 13th century. According to custom, all free Norse men were required to own weapons and were permitted to carry them at all times. These arms indicated a Viking's social status: a wealthy Viking had a complete ensemble of a helmet, shield, mail shirt, and sword. However, swords were rarely used in battle, probably not sturdy enough for combat and most likely only used as symbolic or decorative items. [230] [231]

A typical bóndi (freeman) was more likely to fight with a spear and shield, and most also carried a seax as a utility knife and side-arm. Bows were used in the opening stages of land battles and at sea, but they tended to be considered less "honourable" than melee weapons. Vikings were relatively unusual for the time in their use of axes as a main battle weapon. The Húscarls, the elite guard of King Cnut (and later of King Harold II) were armed with two-handed axes that could split shields or metal helmets with ease.

The warfare and violence of the Vikings were often motivated and fuelled by their beliefs in Norse religion, focusing on Thor and Odin, the gods of war and death. [232] [233] In combat, it is believed that the Vikings sometimes engaged in a disordered style of frenetic, furious fighting known as berserkergang, leading them to be termed berserkers. Such tactics may have been deployed intentionally by shock troops, and the berserk-state may have been induced through ingestion of materials with psychoactive properties, such as the hallucinogenic mushrooms, Amanita muscaria, [234] or large amounts of alcohol. [235]

The Vikings established and engaged in extensive trading networks throughout the known world and had a profound influence on the economic development of Europe and Scandinavia. [236] [237]

Except for the major trading centres of Ribe, Hedeby and the like, the Viking world was unfamiliar with the use of coinage and was based on so called bullion economy, that is, the weight of precious metals. Silver was the most common metal in the economy, although gold was also used to some extent. Silver circulated in the form of bars, or ingots, as well as in the form of jewellery and ornaments. A large number of silver hoards from the Viking Age have been uncovered, both in Scandinavia and the lands they settled. [238] [ better source needed ] Traders carried small scales, enabling them to measure weight very accurately, so it was possible to have a very precise system of trade and exchange, even without a regular coinage. [236]


Organized trade covered everything from ordinary items in bulk to exotic luxury products. The Viking ship designs, like that of the knarr, were an important factor in their success as merchants. [239] Imported goods from other cultures included: [240]

    were obtained from Chinese and Persian traders, who met with the Viking traders in Russia. Vikings used homegrown spices and herbs like caraway, thyme, horseradish and mustard, [241] but imported cinnamon. was much prized by the Norse. The imported glass was often made into beads for decoration and these have been found in the thousands. Åhus in Scania and the old market town of Ribe were major centres of glass bead production. [242][243][244] was a very important commodity obtained from Byzantium (modern day Istanbul) and China. It was valued by many European cultures of the time, and the Vikings used it to indicate status such as wealth and nobility. Many of the archaeological finds in Scandinavia include silk. [245][246][247] was imported from France and Germany as a drink of the wealthy, augmenting the regular mead and beer.

To counter these valuable imports, the Vikings exported a large variety of goods. These goods included: [240]

    —the fossilised resin of the pine tree—was frequently found on the North Sea and Baltic coastline. It was worked into beads and ornamental objects, before being traded. (See also the Amber Road).
  • Fur was also exported as it provided warmth. This included the furs of pine martens, foxes, bears, otters and beavers.
  • Cloth and wool. The Vikings were skilled spinners and weavers and exported woollen cloth of a high quality. was collected and exported. The Norwegian west coast supplied eiderdowns and sometimes feathers were bought from the Samis. Down was used for bedding and quilted clothing. Fowling on the steep slopes and cliffs was dangerous work and was often lethal. [248] , known as thralls in Old Norse. On their raids, the Vikings captured many people, among them monks and clergymen. They were sometimes sold as slaves to Arab merchants in exchange for silver.

Other exports included weapons, walrus ivory, wax, salt and cod. As one of the more exotic exports, hunting birds were sometimes provided from Norway to the European aristocracy, from the 10th century. [248]

Many of these goods were also traded within the Viking world itself, as well as goods such as soapstone and whetstone. Soapstone was traded with the Norse on Iceland and in Jutland, who used it for pottery. Whetstones were traded and used for sharpening weapons, tools and knives. [240] There are indications from Ribe and surrounding areas, that the extensive medieval trade with oxen and cattle from Jutland (see Ox Road), reach as far back as c. 720 AD. This trade satisfied the Vikings' need for leather and meat to some extent, and perhaps hides for parchment production on the European mainland. Wool was also very important as a domestic product for the Vikings, to produce warm clothing for the cold Scandinavian and Nordic climate, and for sails. Sails for Viking ships required large amounts of wool, as evidenced by experimental archaeology. There are archaeological signs of organised textile productions in Scandinavia, reaching as far back as the early Iron Ages. Artisans and craftsmen in the larger towns were supplied with antlers from organised hunting with large-scale reindeer traps in the far north. They were used as raw material for making everyday utensils like combs. [248]

Medieval perceptions

In England the Viking Age began dramatically on 8 June 793 when Norsemen destroyed the abbey on the island of Lindisfarne. The devastation of Northumbria's Holy Island shocked and alerted the royal courts of Europe to the Viking presence. "Never before has such an atrocity been seen," declared the Northumbrian scholar Alcuin of York. [249] Medieval Christians in Europe were totally unprepared for the Viking incursions and could find no explanation for their arrival and the accompanying suffering they experienced at their hands save the "Wrath of God". [250] More than any other single event, the attack on Lindisfarne demonised perception of the Vikings for the next twelve centuries. Not until the 1890s did scholars outside Scandinavia begin to seriously reassess the achievements of the Vikings, recognizing their artistry, technological skills, and seamanship. [251]

Norse Mythology, sagas, and literature tell of Scandinavian culture and religion through tales of heroic and mythological heroes. Early transmission of this information was primarily oral, and later texts relied on the writings and transcriptions of Christian scholars, including the Icelanders Snorri Sturluson and Sæmundur fróði. Many of these sagas were written in Iceland, and most of them, even if they had no Icelandic provenance, were preserved there after the Middle Ages due to the continued interest of Icelanders in Norse literature and law codes.

The 200-year Viking influence on European history is filled with tales of plunder and colonisation, and the majority of these chronicles came from western witnesses and their descendants. Less common, though equally relevant, are the Viking chronicles that originated in the east, including the Nestor chronicles, Novgorod chronicles, Ibn Fadlan chronicles, Ibn Rusta chronicles, and brief mentions by Photius, patriarch of Constantinople, regarding their first attack on the Byzantine Empire. Other chroniclers of Viking history include Adam of Bremen, who wrote, in the fourth volume of his Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, "[t]here is much gold here (in Zealand), accumulated by piracy. These pirates, which are called wichingi by their own people, and Ascomanni by our own people, pay tribute to the Danish king." In 991, the Battle of Maldon between Viking raiders and the inhabitants of Maldon in Essex was commemorated with a poem of the same name.

Post-medieval perceptions

Early modern publications, dealing with what is now called Viking culture, appeared in the 16th century, e.g. Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (History of the northern people) of Olaus Magnus (1555), and the first edition of the 13th-century Gesta Danorum (Deeds of the Danes), by Saxo Grammaticus, in 1514. The pace of publication increased during the 17th century with Latin translations of the Edda (notably Peder Resen's Edda Islandorum of 1665).

In Scandinavia, the 17th-century Danish scholars Thomas Bartholin and Ole Worm and the Swede Olaus Rudbeck used runic inscriptions and Icelandic sagas as historical sources. An important early British contributor to the study of the Vikings was George Hickes, who published his Linguarum vett. septentrionalium thesaurus (Dictionary of the Old Northern Languages) in 1703–05. During the 18th century, British interest and enthusiasm for Iceland and early Scandinavian culture grew dramatically, expressed in English translations of Old Norse texts and in original poems that extolled the supposed Viking virtues.

The word "viking" was first popularised at the beginning of the 19th century by Erik Gustaf Geijer in his poem, The Viking. Geijer's poem did much to propagate the new romanticised ideal of the Viking, which had little basis in historical fact. The renewed interest of Romanticism in the Old North had contemporary political implications. The Geatish Society, of which Geijer was a member, popularised this myth to a great extent. Another Swedish author who had great influence on the perception of the Vikings was Esaias Tegnér, a member of the Geatish Society, who wrote a modern version of Friðþjófs saga hins frœkna, which became widely popular in the Nordic countries, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

Fascination with the Vikings reached a peak during the so-called Viking revival in the late 18th and 19th centuries as a branch of Romantic nationalism. In Britain this was called Septentrionalism, in Germany "Wagnerian" pathos, and in the Scandinavian countries Scandinavism. Pioneering 19th-century scholarly editions of the Viking Age began to reach a small readership in Britain, archaeologists began to dig up Britain's Viking past, and linguistic enthusiasts started to identify the Viking-Age origins of rural idioms and proverbs. The new dictionaries of the Old Norse language enabled the Victorians to grapple with the primary Icelandic sagas. [252]

Until recently, the history of the Viking Age was largely based on Icelandic sagas, the history of the Danes written by Saxo Grammaticus, the Russian Primary Chronicle, and Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib. Few scholars still accept these texts as reliable sources, as historians now rely more on archaeology and numismatics, disciplines that have made valuable contributions toward understanding the period. [253] [ citation needed ]

In 20th-century politics

The romanticised idea of the Vikings constructed in scholarly and popular circles in northwestern Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries was a potent one, and the figure of the Viking became a familiar and malleable symbol in different contexts in the politics and political ideologies of 20th-century Europe. [254] In Normandy, which had been settled by Vikings, the Viking ship became an uncontroversial regional symbol. In Germany, awareness of Viking history in the 19th century had been stimulated by the border dispute with Denmark over Schleswig-Holstein and the use of Scandinavian mythology by Richard Wagner. The idealised view of the Vikings appealed to Germanic supremacists who transformed the figure of the Viking in accordance with the ideology of a Germanic master race. [255] Building on the linguistic and cultural connections between Norse-speaking Scandinavians and other Germanic groups in the distant past, Scandinavian Vikings were portrayed in Nazi Germany as a pure Germanic type. The cultural phenomenon of Viking expansion was re-interpreted for use as propaganda to support the extreme militant nationalism of the Third Reich, and ideologically informed interpretations of Viking paganism and the Scandinavian use of runes were employed in the construction of Nazi mysticism. Other political organisations of the same ilk, such as the former Norwegian fascist party Nasjonal Samling, similarly appropriated elements of the modern Viking cultural myth in their symbolism and propaganda.

Soviet and earlier Slavophile historians emphasized a Slavic rooted foundation in contrast to the Normanist theory of the Vikings conquering the Slavs and founding the Kievan Rus'. [256] They accused Normanist theory proponents of distorting history by depicting the Slavs as undeveloped primitives. In contrast, Soviet historians stated that the Slavs laid the foundations of their statehood long before the Norman/Viking raids, while the Norman/Viking invasions only served to hinder the historical development of the Slavs. They argued that Rus' composition was Slavic and that Rurik and Oleg' success was rooted in their support from within the local Slavic aristocracy. [ citation needed ] . After the dissolution of the USSR, Novgorod acknowledged its Viking history by incorporating a Viking ship into its logo. [257]

In modern popular culture

Led by the operas of German composer Richard Wagner, such as Der Ring des Nibelungen, Vikings and the Romanticist Viking Revival have inspired many creative works. These have included novels directly based on historical events, such as Frans Gunnar Bengtsson's The Long Ships (which was also released as a 1963 film), and historical fantasies such as the film The Vikings, Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead (movie version called The 13th Warrior), and the comedy film Erik the Viking. The vampire Eric Northman, in the HBO TV series True Blood, was a Viking prince before being turned into a vampire. Vikings appear in several books by the Danish American writer Poul Anderson, while British explorer, historian, and writer Tim Severin authored a trilogy of novels in 2005 about a young Viking adventurer Thorgils Leifsson, who travels around the world.

In 1962, American comic book writer Stan Lee and his brother Larry Lieber, together with Jack Kirby, created the Marvel Comics superhero Thor, which they based on the Norse god of the same name. The character is featured in the 2011 Marvel Studios film Thor and its sequels Thor: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok. The character also appears in the 2012 film The Avengers and its associated animated series.

The appearance of Vikings within popular media and television has seen a resurgence in recent decades, especially with the History Channel's series Vikings (2013), directed by Michael Hirst. The show has a loose grounding in historical facts and sources, but bases itself more so on literary sources, such as fornaldarsaga Ragnars saga loðbrókar, itself more legend than fact, and Old Norse Eddic and Skaldic poetry. [258] The events of the show frequently make references to the Völuspá, an Eddic poem describing the creation of the world, often directly referencing specific lines of the poem in the dialogue. [259] The show portrays some of the social realities of the medieval Scandinavian world, such as slavery [260] and the greater role of women within Viking society. [261] The show also addresses the topics of gender equity in Viking society with the inclusion of shield maidens through the character Lagertha, also based on a legendary figure. [262] Recent archaeological interpretations and osteological analysis of previous excavations of Viking burials has given support to the idea of the Viking woman warrior, namely the excavation and DNA study of the Birka female Viking warrior, within recent years. However, the conclusions remain contentious.

Vikings have served as an inspiration for numerous video games, such as The Lost Vikings (1993), Age of Mythology (2002), and For Honor (2017). [263] All three Vikings from The Lost Vikings series—Erik the Swift, Baleog the Fierce, and Olaf the Stout—appeared as a playable hero in the crossover title Heroes of the Storm (2015). [264] The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011) is an action role-playing video game heavily inspired by Viking culture. [265] [266] Vikings are the lead focus of the 2020 video game Assassin's Creed Valhalla, which is set in 873 AD, and recounts an alternative history of the Viking invasion of Britain. [267]

Modern reconstructions of Viking mythology have shown a persistent influence in late 20th- and early 21st-century popular culture in some countries, inspiring comics, movies, television series, role-playing games, computer games, and music, including Viking metal, a subgenre of heavy metal music.

Since the 1960s, there has been rising enthusiasm for historical reenactment. While the earliest groups had little claim for historical accuracy, the seriousness and accuracy of reenactors has increased. The largest such groups include The Vikings and Regia Anglorum, though many smaller groups exist in Europe, North America, New Zealand, and Australia. Many reenactor groups participate in live-steel combat, and a few have Viking-style ships or boats.

The Minnesota Vikings of the National Football League are so-named owing to the large Scandinavian population in the US state of Minnesota.

During the banking boom of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Icelandic financiers came to be styled as útrásarvíkingar (roughly 'raiding Vikings'). [268] [269] [270]

Common misconceptions

Horned helmets

Apart from two or three representations of (ritual) helmets—with protrusions that may be either stylised ravens, snakes, or horns—no depiction of the helmets of Viking warriors, and no preserved helmet, has horns. The formal, close-quarters style of Viking combat (either in shield walls or aboard "ship islands") would have made horned helmets cumbersome and hazardous to the warrior's own side.

Historians therefore believe that Viking warriors did not wear horned helmets whether such helmets were used in Scandinavian culture for other, ritual purposes, remains unproven. The general misconception that Viking warriors wore horned helmets was partly promulgated by the 19th-century enthusiasts of Götiska Förbundet, founded in 1811 in Stockholm. [271] They promoted the use of Norse mythology as the subject of high art and other ethnological and moral aims.

The Vikings were often depicted with winged helmets and in other clothing taken from Classical antiquity, especially in depictions of Norse gods. This was done to legitimise the Vikings and their mythology by associating it with the Classical world, which had long been idealised in European culture.

The latter-day mythos created by national romantic ideas blended the Viking Age with aspects of the Nordic Bronze Age some 2,000 years earlier. Horned helmets from the Bronze Age were shown in petroglyphs and appeared in archaeological finds (see Bohuslän and Vikso helmets). They were probably used for ceremonial purposes. [272]

Cartoons like Hägar the Horrible and Vicky the Viking, and sports kits such as those of the Minnesota Vikings and Canberra Raiders have perpetuated the myth of the horned helmet. [273]

Viking helmets were conical, made from hard leather with wood and metallic reinforcement for regular troops. The iron helmet with mask and mail was for the chieftains, based on the previous Vendel-age helmets from central Sweden. The only original Viking helmet discovered is the Gjermundbu helmet, found in Norway. This helmet is made of iron and has been dated to the 10th century. [274]


The image of wild-haired, dirty savages sometimes associated with the Vikings in popular culture is a distorted picture of reality. [8] Viking tendencies were often misreported, and the work of Adam of Bremen, among others, told largely disputable tales of Viking savagery and uncleanliness. [275]

Use of skulls as drinking vessels

There is no evidence that Vikings drank out of the skulls of vanquished enemies. This was a misconception based on a passage in the skaldic poem Krákumál speaking of heroes drinking from ór bjúgviðum hausa (branches of skulls). This was a reference to drinking horns, but was mistranslated in the 17th century [276] as referring to the skulls of the slain. [277]

Margaryan et al. 2020 analyzed 442 Viking world individuals from various archaeological sites in Europe. [278] They were found to be closely related to modern Scandinavians. The Y-DNA composition of the individuals in the study was also similar to that of modern Scandinavians. The most common Y-DNA haplogroup was I1 (95 samples), followed by R1b (84 samples) and R1a, especially (but not exclusively) of the Scandinavian R1a-Z284 subclade (61 samples). The study showed what many historians have hypothesized, that it was common for Norseman settlers to marry foreign women. Some individuals from the study, such as those found in Foggia, display typical Scandinavian Y-DNA haplogroups but also Southern European autosomal ancestry, suggesting that they were the descendants of Viking settler males and local women. The 5 individual samples from Foggia were likely Normans. The same pattern of a combination of Scandinavian Y-DNA and local autosomal ancestry is seen in other samples from the study, for example Varangians buried near lake Ladoga and Vikings in England, suggesting that Viking men had married into local families in those places too. [278]

Unsurprisingly, and very much consistent with historical records, the study found evidence of a major influx of Danish Viking ancestry into England, a Swedish influx into Estonia and Finland and Norwegian influx into Ireland, Iceland and Greenland during the Viking Age. [278]

Margaryan et al. 2020 examined the skeletal remains of 42 individuals from the Salme ship burials in Estonia. The skeletal remains belonged to warriors killed in battle who were later buried together with numerous valuable weapons and armour. DNA testing and isotope analysis revealed that the men came from central Sweden. [278]

Female descent studies show evidence of Norse descent in areas closest to Scandinavia, such as the Shetland and Orkney islands. [279] Inhabitants of lands farther away show most Norse descent in the male Y-chromosome lines. [280]

A specialised genetic and surname study in Liverpool showed marked Norse heritage: up to 50% of males of families that lived there before the years of industrialisation and population expansion. [281] High percentages of Norse inheritance—tracked through the R-M420 haplotype—were also found among males in the Wirral and West Lancashire. [282] This was similar to the percentage of Norse inheritance found among males in the Orkney Islands. [283]

Recent research suggests that the Celtic warrior Somerled, who drove the Vikings out of western Scotland and was the progenitor of Clan Donald, may have been of Viking descent, a member of haplogroup R-M420. [284]

Margaryan et al. 2020 examined an elite warrior burial from Bodzia (Poland) dated to 1010-1020 AD. The cemetery in Bodzia is exceptional in terms of Scandinavian and Kievian Rus links. The Bodzia man (sample VK157, or burial E864/I) was not a simple warrior from the princely retinue, but he belonged to the princely family himself. His burial is the richest one in the whole cemetery, moreover, strontium analysis of his teeth enamel shows he was not local. It is assumed that he came to Poland with the Prince of Kiev, Sviatopolk the Accursed, and met a violent death in combat. This corresponds to the events of 1018 AD when Sviatopolk himself disappeared after having retreated from Kiev to Poland. It cannot be excluded that the Bodzia man was Sviatopolk himself, as the genealogy of the Rurikids at this period is extremely sketchy and the dates of birth of many princes of this dynasty may be quite approximative. The Bodzia man carried haplogroup I1-S2077 and had both Scandinavian ancestry and Russian admixture. [285] [286] [287]


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