They came, raided and pillaged, then left – only to return on the next tide and do it all again. The Vikings of Scandinavia who rampaged across (and later, ruled parts of) England between the late eighth and 11th centuries were famed as brutal, bearded warriors – but were they like as a people? Here are seven things you may not know about the Northmen…
Who were the Vikings?
When scholars write about Vikings, they often refer to groups of people from the Scandinavian lands of Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
While much of Europe was Christian by the eighth century, these areas were not. However, not everyone went ‘Viking’ – many continued to farm the land or might return to farming after a few years of raiding, while others such as Anglo-Saxons and Franks might also ‘go Viking’. This was not about belonging to a ‘race’ or even a religion. Being a Viking was an activity.
This became possible because of the development of ship technology, and it was encouraged by the growing strength of Scandinavian chieftains. What better way to enhance a reputation than by taking followers on raids to acquire greater riches? This rather dodgy redistribution of wealth stimulated an international exchange network, meaning that a living could be made by mixing trading and raiding. Vikings might be raiders one day and then sell their ill-gotten gains elsewhere the next.
What religion did the Vikings believe in?
Pagan Viking beliefs, whose origins seem to lie in a period long before the Viking Age, include a pantheon of gods, from Odin ‘the All-Father’ through to the thunder-god Thor, and Freyja, a powerful female deity, whose coat of falcon feathers gave her the ability to fly.
Stories were told about the gods inhabiting the stronghold of Ásgard, whose world was linked with the earthly realm by the rainbow-bridge or Bifröst. Gods fought giants and each other, tricked and stole, fell in and out of love, and the world would end in a pre-ordained final battle at the ‘Twilight of the Gods’ – Ragnarök.
Vikings were able to adapt some of these myths to the Christian views of Doomsday, and Viking art, particularly in the tenth century, reflects the mixture of Christianity and pagan beliefs. However, we should bear in mind that much of what is written about pagan Viking beliefs comes from the 13th-century pen of Snorri Sturluson, a Christian Icelander who was interested in making sense of the beliefs of his pagan ancestors in a way that played down what must have been many local variations in religious beliefs and practice.
He says little about the influences of the Sami people (indigenous Scandinavians) and the shamanic practices, which specialists have only begun to appreciate in the last 30 years, and the similarity between Viking cosmology may be the result of contact with Christianity or even the adaptations of stories by Snorri himself.
What was Valhalla and how did Vikings get there?
For a Viking, what two things would be desired the most in the afterlife of Valhalla, the hall of slain warriors? Feasting and fighting, of course.
If chosen to die by the mythical Valkyries, a Norse warrior longed to be welcomed by the god Odin into Valhalla, a magnificent hall with a roof thatched with golden shields, spears for rafters, and so large that 540 doors lined its walls. The honoured dead, known as the Einherjar, spent all day honing their battle skills against each other in preparation for Ragnarök – the end of the world – then every night, their wounds magically healed and they partied like only Vikings could.
Their drinking horns never emptied thanks to Heidrun, a goat on the roof of Valhalla that ate from a special tree and produced the finest mead, and there was always enough meat as the boar named Sæhrímnir came back to life after each slaughter so it could be cooked over and over.
To join the Einherjar, a Viking had to die in battle – and even then, they only had a 50:50 chance. The half not chosen to go to Valhalla instead went to the field of the goddess Freya, so they could offer to the women who died as maidens their company.
As for the old or sick, they went to an underworld called Hel. It was largely not as bad as the name suggests, though there was a special place of misery reserved for murderers, adulterers and oath-breakers, where a giant dragon chewed on their corpses.
Did Viking shield-maidens exist?
Apologies to fans of the hit series Vikings: historians just can’t agree on whether Norse warrior women like Lagertha actually existed. While there are stories of shield-maidens, or skjaldmaer, in historical accounts, nearly all can be dismissed as unreliable, apocryphal, allegorical or more myth than reality.
Still, tantalising clues and mysterious finds – including artefacts showing women carrying swords, spears and shields – have boosted the idea that Viking women went into battle alongside men. In the 12th century, the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus wrote of women in Denmark who sought “so zealously to be skilled in warfare that they might have been thought to have unsexed themselves”. In 2017, meanwhile, archaeologists discovered that a 10th-century grave of a warrior, filled with weapons, actually belonged to a woman.
Who was Ivar the Boneless?
The wonderfully named ‘Ivar the Boneless’, son of the even more improbable ‘Ragnar Hairy Breeches’ (aka legendary Viking hero Ragnar Lothbrok), was one of the leaders of the Great Heathen Army of Danes that invaded England in AD 865.
Ivar and his brother Ubba are attributed with the defeat of the Northumbrians and the capture of York, later to become the major Viking centre of Jorvik. He is also renowned for the gory execution of royal prisoners, most notably the East Anglian king (and later saint) Edmund – who was beaten, tied to a tree, shot with arrows and then beheaded – and Ælle of Northumbria, who had his ribcage and lungs pulled out, a type of killing known as the ‘Blood Eagle’.
It is not known how Ivar came by the nickname ‘the Boneless’, although some have suggested it could have been due to an unnatural flexibility during combat or because he suffered from a degenerative muscular disorder, eventually resulting in him having to be carried everywhere. Unless his body is ever recovered – which would be difficult if he really was ‘boneless’ – we will never know.
What was a Viking sunstone?
The Vikings were superb sailors who got as far afield as Russia and North America, but their navigational techniques haven’t always been completely understood. A mysterious ‘sunstone’, mentioned in a medieval Icelandic saga, was considered mere legend until an opaque crystal, made from Iceland spar, was recently discovered among the navigation equipment of a sunken Tudor shipwreck.
Intriguingly, scientists have proven that Iceland spar, when held up to the sky, forms a solar compass that indicates the Sun’s location, through concentric rings of polarised light, even in thick cloud cover or after dusk. It’s now thought that this was the mysterious sunstone that helped guide Vikings such as ‘Lucky’ Leif Erikson to Newfoundland, and usage of it may have persisted until the end of the 16th century.
When did the Viking Age end?
It is traditionally said that the raiding, pillaging age of the Vikings, which began in Britain with the ransacking of Lindisfarne in AD 793, ended with the failure of Harald Hardrada’s invasion in 1066.
Yet the Viking influence spread from the Middle East to North America, and could not be undone by a single defeat in battle. At the same time that Hardrada was picking up his career-ending neck injury at Stamford Bridge, the Norman Conquest was being launched. Its leader, and future king of England, was William – the great-great-great-grandson of Rollo, a Viking.
This content first appeared in BBC History Revealed