Consider a ruthless civilisation of almost animal-like warriors descending upon your homeland via the rivers and seas that surround you and twist in and around your countryside. An entire civilisation of seaborne pirates establishing settlements in nations of upon nations with a fearsome efficiency that modern-day dictatorships could only wish to have. Well just take a quick glance at the ‘Vikings’.
This was an entire people of Nordic sea-warriors who would go from country to country, looting their people and establishing settlements of their own, and sometimes even establishing trade deals with some nations. At its peak, the Vikings had reached countries such as England, Germany, Russia, Turkey and even Canada! However despite having a reputation of being barbarous and unyielding warriors famed for looting and pillaging, there is a deep culture embedded within the Vikings which many people are unaware of. There is a rich culture deeply rooted in the Nordic people which continues to live on in the form of their modern day descendants of Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden etc.
Nearly all of the information that has ever been recorded on the Vikings has not been by Viking sources themselves, due to them being illiterate, but by those who came into contact with them. Everything from their beliefs and daily activities to their method of war is recorded by secondary witness accounts.
Old Norse Language
The dialect that was spoken amongst the Vikings was known as ‘Old Norse’ which has now evolved into the modern Scandinavian languages. Old Norse was spoken from the 9th to the 13th Century, with written forms of it continuing well into the 15th Century. Old Norse in itself is regarded as being part of the Germanic grouping of languages, which also includes languages such as English and German.
All these languages in fact derive from one ancestor language which is known as Proto-Germanic. This is in essence a considerable branch of the Indo-European languages. Scholars tend to split Proto-Germanic into three further branches.
These are Northern Germanic, Eastern Germanic and Western Germanic. Old Norse, the commonly spoken dialect of the Vikings, falls under Northern Germanic. Old Norse was further split into East and West Old Norse which led to the evolution of modern languages such as Danish, Swedish and Norwegian.
On the lower end of the scale, the languages which fall under Eastern and Western Germanic include commonly spoken modern day languages such as Dutch, English, Modern German, Flemish and Afrikaans. Due to Old Norse being the ancestor of the Scandinavian languages, the vocabulary within them commonly interchanges. One such example is the word ‘ring, circle’. In Old Icelandic the word is hringr and in Old Norwegian appears as ringr. As the Viking Empire expanded so too did its language, with it being spoken as far as the British Isles, Russia, mainland Europe, Byzantium which is now Istanbul and even North America.
Faith or Fiction?
One question that many historians are quizzed upon is one which regards the faith and religious beliefs of the Vikings. Did they follow any of the major religions of the world or were they instead pagans, meaning they held a belief separate to that of the major faiths. Just as is common when it comes to paganism, the Vikings believed in an array of gods, rather than the One God. They believe their deities to be split into two groups, the Esir and the Vanir. They believe these two groups fought in a ruthless ancient war until they came to realize their equality in power and as of then, ruled as one. The Vikings held fast in the belief in an array of realms where different beings were found and were ruled by particular deities. These realms revolved and bonded around a tree known as Yggdrasil which was to be found in the centre of these worlds.
The three major realms which were believed to exist were known as Niflheim, Midgard and Asgard. Nifflheim is described in Norse texts as being a dark, cold place reserved for the worst of the worst. The word itself is translated as the land of freezing mist. This place was seen as being on the lowest part of the Norse universe. Then there is Midgard. Midgard is essentially Earth. A place where all mortals live in, and only after death do they leave. In Norse texts, it is said that Midgard contained a bridge, known as the Rainbow Bridge which linked Midgard and Asgard.
This was the auspicious place where the Esir gods would live, such as Odin, Frigg and Thor. This realm, led by the Esir god Odin, was known to be in the middle of the Viking world and on the highest stage of the Norse universe. In this realm itself there were a multitude of other realms such as Valhalla, a place for those who had been killed in battle.
In addition to the realms mentioned above there were many other realms such as Vanaheimr, Jotunheim, Alfheim and Helheim. As mentioned before, the Vikings believed in an array of gods, who were split into two separate groups, the Esir and the Vanir. So who were these gods? Well one such god was Odin. He was viewed as being one of the most revered gods according to Norse mythology. He is seen as essentially the one who overlooks the rest of the gods.
In terms of his ‘attributes’ he is commonly associated with death, wisdom, healing, knowledge, battle and prophecy. In Norse texts, the ‘gods’ are commonly associated with unique appearances that usually depict their personalities as well. When it comes to Odin, he is described as being one-eyed and long-bearded. He is believed as wielding a spear known as Gungnir. Also according to Norse texts he rode into battle mounted on top of an enormous eight-legged horse known as Sleipnir with two ravens perched upon both his shoulders called ‘Hugin’ (thought) and ‘Munin’ (memory).
Then there is ‘Thor’, the hammer wielding ‘god’ who was seen as the protector of mankind and the fortress in Asgard. In terms of his ‘attributes’ he has been described as being associated with thunderstorms, oak trees and less commonly, healing. In terms of physical appearances he has been described in Norse mythology as being red-haired, red-beaded and fierce eyed. He has been described as travelling in a chariot, similar to the Greek deity Zeus, that is pulled by two goats known as Tanngrisnir and Tanggnjostr, which are eaten by Thor by on a daily basis and then magically resurrected. Just as is common in Norse warfare, the weapons and armour associated with Thor all named in Norse texts. His mighty hammer is known as Mjolnir, his belt Meginjoro, his iron gloves Jarngreipr and his staff Grioarvolr.
A figure that is controversial throughout Norse religious texts is Loki. He is described as being associated with shape-shifting and believed as being a trickster due to his actions towards the other ‘gods’.
He is a controversial figure in Norse texts due to not really falling in any category that is usually associated with the Norse Gods. His father is known as Farbauti, who has been recorded as a giant of some sort, and his mother is believed to be Laufey, whose identity is known completely as to whether she was believed to be a goddess or some type of other being. As a result of trickster qualities he somehow became the blood brother of Thor and from then forth he set out to cause conflicts between the other Norse ‘gods’ and their people. He is famously associated with ‘Ragnarok’, the Norse take on Doomsday. It was believed by the followers of the Norse religion that a time would come when doom would be bought on the ‘gods’ by Loki and his wolf son Fenrir. It is essentially when time for the ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ would come to an end and so will it for the cosmos. It is believed that all the ‘deities’ were foretold of their eventual demise and when the time would come the realms as the ‘deities’ knew it to be would come to an end. They, along with the humans of Midgard, would abandon all their oaths they had stood by for millennia and so too would this happen to all forms of kinship. They believe a hellish army under the leadership of Loki to attack the abode of the ‘gods’ and raze it to the ground just like they would then do to Earth, or Midgard as they knew it by. It is written in various Norse texts that in the aftermath of this destruction there would be nothing in existence and this anti-cosmic void is known as Ginnungagap, a time of perfect darkness.
However it is written that this period of silent darkness would not reign for too long as the realms would rise once more, with the earth raised back from the oceans, and a pair of humans known as Lif and Lifthrasis would rise in the Earth, similar to the belief in Adam and Eve, and the ‘gods’ would be risen and go back to their usual works. Ragnarok is not essentially a word by word copy of the usual Doomsday, or Day of Judgment that the major religions believe in but is instead similar to the Islamic belief in thousand year periods where civilisations would be replaced with new civilisations.
In terms of their day to day lives, there have been a lot of details recorded thanks to key archaeological discoveries not only in Scandinavia but across the UK particularly and also according to key witness accounts in addition to the few Norse texts produced by the Norsemen themselves. For the Vikings employment was mostly based on labour such as farming, fishing and crafting, as was common with the times.
The most common route in terms of earning a living to sustain their families was farming. Many Vikings would tend to the crops and animals they owned on their land, with the whole family usually involved in the day to day running of the farms. Usually this would be enough to sustain their families with little left over to sell in markets. Another key method of trading for the Vikings was fishing. Many Vikings would take advantage of the plethora of lakes, rivers and ocean shores that are plenty in the Scandinavian region to catch food, stock not only for the basic survival of their families, but also to trade at local markets that were the backbone of the economy during those times. Due to the constant expansion of the Viking empire trading became ever popular to the foreign goods that were brought back home. Merchants would go along with various Viking ships and bring back an eclectic range of foreign goods such as fabrics, metals and jewellery which would then be traded for gold and silver, the prevalent currency of the time. The Vikings, due to their crafting and farming background and their constant thirst for conquering other nations, had combined these attributes in producing a specific diet produced by traditional cooking methods. Due to farming and fishing being key methods of earning a living, the diet mostly consisted of fish and livestock, usually bred on their land.
This diet would not only help them sustain themselves on long sea journeys, but would also ensure they would never run out of food stock, due to the constant availability of fish in the waters. This was in the long run a clever, yet coincidental, method to keep up the morals of their warriors as they would never have to alter their diet whilst out on their quests. The agricultural background of the Vikings was one of the key reasons why Vikings were able to sustain themselves for so long, especially when conquering faraway lands. The warriors would just use their agricultural knowledge, and after seizing land for cultivation they would establish farms across masses of land. This was a solid foundation stone in ensuring they would remain in these lands for years to come.
Most of the time the largest food item they would usually carry in their ships would be alcoholic drinks due to their historically famous inclination towards such drinks. Consumption of alcohol was prevalent with all members of society, including children, with one reason being that they would be worried in regards to getting illnesses from the water. The fact that children consumed alcohol just as commonly as the elders may be a shock to someone in the modern-day world; however the type of alcohol consumed at the time was very weak in its potency meaning it was ‘safe’ to drink with meals. Archaeological discoveries have uncovered a vast range of cooking methods adopted by the Vikings, preservation and boiling in internal fire pits being key methods. Preservation was a method adopted by the Vikings to ensure that the natural cycle of food would be prolonged, which would help them to survive the harsh winters that are ever prevalent across Scandinavia.
Fish and livestock would be dried and stored away for these long winters. In addition to this, another technique of cooking in those times revolved around using internal fire pits. They would use thick metal cauldrons that would be heated in these pits and if enough heat wasn’t produced, hot stones would be brought from large fire pits from the outside.
Ships: The Viking Trademark
One famous aspect which is historically ever associated with the Viking civilisation is their ships. Ships were the heart and soul of the Viking empire. These would be the secret weapon that the Vikings employed in conquering nations upon nations.
When foreign lands would set their sights upon these ferocious ships in the far off sea heading towards them it would create chaos as the Vikings had ensured a reputation of associating destruction with their ships. Not only were these capable of travelling long distances, they were also intrinsically designed to suit the life of luxury that the Vikings had adapted to over the years of their expansion.
It was not only the long ship that the Vikings had in their naval army, which has been ever associated with the likes of those in the Spanish Armada, instead there was a number of different ships that the Vikings had brought into service over their years of advancement. One such variation was known as the Knarr. This was a ship specifically designed to withstand rough sea oceans and travel long distances in order to bring back goods from far off lands.
Then there is the smaller variation of the Knarr, which was known as the Byrding. This would be used for transportation as well but only for domestic journeys in between the smaller islands or across coastal routes. This was a small ship, with only a crew of 15 Vikings, yet it was also a faster version of the Knarr. When it came to transportation of passengers the Vikings had employed the Skute. These were very small ships that were used for journeys where employing large ships was not needed. Last but not least is the famous Longship of the Vikings. This was just not one variation but had many sub-classes of its own.
It would range from the smaller Karv to the fully equipped warship known as Busse. These ships were designed so that their aim of transporting as many Vikings in one trip could be fulfilled, hence being the ultimate ship to employ when it came to quests.