Danish seamen, painted mid-twelfth century.
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The term Viking (from Old Norse víkingr) is customarily used to refer to the Norse (Scandinavian) explorers, warriors, merchants, and pirates who raided, traded, explored and settled in wide areas of Europe, Asia and the North Atlantic islands from the late 8th to the mid-11th century.[1]

These Norsemen used their famed longships to travel as far east as Constantinople and the Volga River in Russia, and as far west as Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland, and as far south as Al-Andalus.[2] This period of Viking expansion – known as the Viking Age – forms a major part of the medieval history of Scandinavia, Great Britain, Ireland and the rest of Europe in general.

Popular conceptions of the Vikings often differ from the complex picture that emerges from archaeology and written sources. A romanticised picture of Vikings as Germanic noble savages began to take root in the 18th century, and this developed and became widely propagated during the 19th-century Viking revival.[3] The received views of the Vikings as violent brutes or intrepid adventurers owe much to the modern Viking myth which had taken shape by the early 20th century. Current popular representations are typically highly clichéd, presenting the Vikings as familiar caricatures.[3]



The Old Norse feminine noun víking refers to an expedition overseas. It occurs in Viking Age runic inscriptions and in later medieval writings in set expressions such as the phrasal verb fara í víking "to go on an expedition". In later texts such as the Icelandic sagas, the phrase "to go viking" implies participation in raiding activity or piracy, and not simply seaborne missions of trade and commerce. The related Old Norse masculine noun víkingr appears in Viking Age skaldic poetry and on several rune stones found in Scandinavia, where it refers to a seaman or warrior who takes part in an expedition overseas.[4] The form also occurs as a personal name on some Swedish rune stones. There is little indication of any negative connotation in the term before the end of the Viking Age. Regardless of its possible origins, the word was used to indicate an activity and those who participated in it, and not to any ethnic or cultural group.

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 is synonymous with pirate and a Scandinavian. 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.

There are several theories on the etymology of the word Viking. According to recent research, the word dates from before the sail was taken into use by the Germanic peoples of North-Western Europe, because the Old Frisian spelling shows that the word was pronounced with a palatal k and thus in all probability existed in North-Western Germanic before that palatalization happened, i.e. in the 5th century or before (in the western branch). In that case the word can be explained from the Old Scandinavian maritime distance unit, vika (f.), which probably originally referred to the distance covered by one shift of rowers. The Old Norse feminine víking (as in the phrase fara í víking) may originally have been a sea journey characterized 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 characterized 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. – The starting-point of the distance unit vika is the verb that in Old Scandinavian had the form víka (Old Icelandic víkja) 'to recede, turn to the side, give way, yield', and the idea behind it seems to be that the tired rower moves aside for the rested rower on the thwart when he relieves him. At the same time, vika is the same word as a week 'seven days'; in both cases the real meaning is 'a shift, a rotation'. A sea week really means 'a rotation (of rowers)', and seven days really is a rotation of week-day gods – Wednesday is Wōdanaz's day, Thursday is Þunaraz's day, Friday is Frijjō's day, etc.

The idea that the word Viking is connected to the maritime distance unit vika has been put forward by at least four persons independently since the early 1980s, and has gained substantial support among scholars in recent years. Traditionally, two other explanations have been favoured: 1. The word Viking derives from the feminine that in Old Scandinavian had the form vík and which means 'a bay'. The idea would then be that the Vikings would seek shelter in bays and attack merchant ships from there, or make land raids from there. 2. Viking derives from the name Vík(in) 'the Norwegian coast of the Skagerrak Sea'. The idea would then be that Vikings originally was a term for the peoples of this area, and secondarily assumed the meaning 'pirates, sea raiders' because these peoples played a prominent role in the Viking raids. Both these explanations are highly problematic. The first is contradicted by the fact that all seafarers make for harbour in bays; that can hardly have distinguished the Vikings; to the contrary. According to the sources, the Vikings rather made camp on headlands and islands, which were more easily defendable from land-based armies. The second explanation faces several problems: First, people from Vík(in) are in Old Norse manuscripts referred to as víkverir 'Vík dwellers', never as víkingar. Second, no medieval source, neither from Scandinavia nor the rest of Europe, connects the Vikings with the Norwegian Skagerrak coast. Third, this explanations runs into formal linguistic problems. In addition, these explanations could only explain the masculine (Old Scandinavian víkingr) and ignore the feminine (Old Scandinavian víking), which is a serious problem because the masculine can easily be derived from the feminine but hardly vice versa.

In the modern Scandinavian languages, the word Viking usually refers specifically to those people who went on Viking expeditions.[5]

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 not only to seaborne raiders from Scandinavia, but secondarily to any Scandinavian who lived during the period from the late eighth to the mid-11th centuries, or more loosely from c. 700 to as late as about 1100. As an adjective, the word is used to refer to ideas, phenomena or artefacts connected with Scandinavians and their cultural life in these centuries, producing expressions like "Viking age", "Viking culture", "Viking art", "Viking religion", "Viking ship", and so on. The people of medieval Scandinavia are also referred to as Norse, although this term properly applies only to the Old-Norse-speaking peoples of Scandinavia, and not to the Sami.


Askeberg, Fritz, 1944: Norden och kontinenten i gammal tid. Studier i forngermansk kulturhistoria. Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell.

Heide, Eldar, 2005: «Víking - 'rower shifting'? An etymological contribution». Arkiv för nordisk filologi 120. 41–54.

Heide, Eldar, 2008: «Viking, week, and Widsith. A reply to Harald Bjorvand». Arkiv för nordisk filologi 123. 23–28.



The most important primary sources for information on the Vikings are different sorts of contemporary evidence from Scandinavia and the various regions in which the Vikings were active.[6] 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.[7] The Scandinavians did write inscriptions in runes, but these are usually very short and formulaic. The contemporary documentary sources upon which modern knowledge is based therefore consist mostly of texts written in Christian and Islamic communities overseas, that had often been negatively affected by Viking activity. These texts reflect varying degrees of bias and reliability, but not more so than is usually the case in early medieval writings, and they remain very important. Since the mid-20th century, archaeological sources have helped build a more complete and balanced picture.[8] The archaeological record is particularly rich and varied, and provides knowledge of rural and urban settlement, crafts and production, ships and military equipment, and pagan and Christian religious artefacts and practices. Archaeology also provides the main source of evidence for circumstances in Scandinavia before the Viking Age.

Evidence from after the Viking Age can also be important for understanding the Vikings, although it needs to be treated very 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 twelfth to 14th centuries, and many traditions connected with the Viking Age were written down for the first time in the Icelandic sagas. The reliability of these medieval prose narratives about the Scandinavian past is often doubtful, but some elements remain worthy of consideration, such as the great quantity of skaldic poetry attributed to court poets of the tenth and 11th centuries that was included in these writings. The linguistic evidence from medieval and later records and Old Norse place-names in Scandinavia and elsewhere also provides a vital source of information for the social history of Viking Age Scandinavia and the Viking settlements overseas.

A consequence of the available written sources, which may have coloured how we perceive the Viking Age as a historical period, is that we know a lot more of the raids to western Europe than those to the East. One reason for this is that the peoples living in north-eastern Europe at the time were illiterate. Another reason is that the vast majority of the written sources from Scandinavia comes from Iceland, a nation originally settled by Norwegian colonists. As a result there is much more material from the Viking Age concerning Norway than for instance Sweden, which, apart from Runic inscriptions, has almost no written sources from the early Middle Ages.


Good-quality written historical sources for Scandinavia during the Viking Period are scarce, but the archaeological record is rich.[9]


The vast majority of runic inscriptions from the Viking period come from Sweden and date from the 11th century. Many runestones in Scandinavia record the names of participants in Viking expeditions, such as the Kjula runestone which tells of extensive warfare in Western Europe and the Turinge Runestone which tells of a warband in Eastern Europe. Other runestones mention men who died on Viking expeditions. Among them are around 25 Ingvar runestones in the Mälardalen district of Sweden, erected to commemorate members of a disastrous expedition into present-day Russia in the early 11th century. The runestones are important sources in the study of Norse society and early medieval Scandinavia, not only of the 'Viking' segment of the population.[10]

Runestones attest to voyages to locations such as Bath,[11] Greece,[12] Khwaresm,[13] Jerusalem,[14] Italy (as Langobardland),[15] London,[16] Serkland (i.e. the Muslim world),[17] England,[18] and various locations in Eastern Europe.

The word Viking appears on several runestones found in Scandinavia.

Burial sites

There are numerous burial sites associated with Vikings throughout Europe—in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany and other North Germanic regions. As well as providing information on Viking religion, burial sites also provide information on social structure. The items buried with the deceased give some indication as to what was considered important to possess in the afterlife.[19] Some examples of notable burial sites include:


Miniatures of two different types of longships, on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark.
An early 20th-century illustration of Vikings leaving their ship: the representation of neither the vessel nor the details of personal dress (including horned helmets) is accurate.

There were two distinct classes of Viking ships: the 'longship' (sometimes erroneously called "drakkar", a corruption of "dragon" in Norse) and the 'knarr'. The longship, intended for warfare and exploration, was designed for speed and agility, and was equipped with oars to complement the sail as well as making it able to navigate independently of the wind. The longship had a long and narrow hull, as well as a shallow draft, in order to facilitate landings and troop deployments in shallow water. The knarr was a dedicated merchant vessel designed to carry cargo. It was designed with a broader hull, deeper draft and limited number of oars (used primarily to maneuver in harbors 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.[20]

Longships were used extensively by the Leidang, the Scandinavian defence fleets. The term "Viking ships" has entered common usage, however, possibly because of its romantic associations (discussed below).

In Roskilde are the well-preserved remains of five ships, excavated from nearby Roskilde Fjord in the late 1960s. The ships were scuttled there in the 11th century to block a navigation channel, thus protecting the city, which was then the Danish capital, from seaborne assault. These five ships represent the two distinct classes of Viking ships, the longship and the knarr. The remains of these ships can be found on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde.

Longships are not to be confused with later-period longboats. It was common for Viking ships to tow or carry a smaller boat to transfer crews and cargo from the ship to shore.

Experimental archaeology

On 1 July 2007, the reconstructed Viking ship Skuldelev 2, renamed Sea Stallion,[21] began a journey from Roskilde, Denmark to Dublin, Ireland. The remains of that ship and four others were discovered during a 1962 excavation in the Roskilde Fjord. This multi-national experimental archeology project saw 70 crew members sail the ship back to its home in Ireland. Tests of the original wood show that it was made of Irish trees. The 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 maneuverability 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 I have been built and tested also. The Snorri (a Skuldelev I Knarr) was sailed from Greenland to Newfoundland in 1998, for example. [22]

Viking-age reenactors have undertaken experimental activities such as iron smelting and forging using Norse techniques. [23]

The Viking Age

The Gokstad Viking ship on display in Oslo, Norway.

The period from the earliest recorded raids in the 790s until the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 is commonly known as the Viking Age of Scandinavian history. Vikings used the Norwegian Sea[24] and Baltic Sea for sea routes to the south. The Normans were descended from Danish and Norwegian Vikings who were given feudal overlordship of areas in northern France — the Duchy of Normandy — in the 10th century.[citation needed] 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.

Geographically, a "Viking Age" may be assigned not only to Scandinavian lands (modern Denmark, Norway and Sweden), but also to territories under North Germanic dominance, mainly the Danelaw, including Scandinavian York, the administrative centre of the remains of the Kingdom of Northumbria,[25] parts of Mercia,[26] and East Anglia.[27] 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;[28] and L'Anse aux Meadows, a short-lived settlement in Newfoundland, circa 1000 A.D.[29] Many of these lands, specifically Greenland and Iceland, may have been originally discovered by sailors blown off course.[citation needed] They also may well have been deliberately sought out, perhaps on the basis of the accounts of sailors who had seen land in the distance. The Greenland settlement eventually died out, possibly due to climate change. Vikings also explored and settled in territories in Slavic-dominated areas of Eastern Europe, particularly the Kievan Rus. By 950 AD these settlements were largely Slavicised.

A reconstructed Viking Age long house

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.[30] In the late 10th century, a new unit of the imperial bodyguard was formed which traditionally contained large numbers of Scandinavians. This 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. The most eminent Scandinavian to serve in the Varangian Guard was Harald Hardrada, who subsequently established himself as king of Norway (1047–66).

Important trading ports during the period include Birka, Hedeby, Kaupang, Jorvik, Staraya Ladoga, Novgorod and Kiev.

There is archaeological evidence that Vikings reached the city of Baghdad, the centre of the Islamic Empire.[31] The Norse regularly plied the Volga with their trade goods: furs, tusks, seal fat for boat sealant and slaves. However, they were far less successful in establishing settlements in the Middle East, due to the more centralised Islamic power.[citation needed]

Generally speaking, the Norwegians expanded to the north and west to places such as Ireland, Scotland, Iceland and Greenland; the Danes to England and France, settling in the Danelaw (northern/eastern England) and Normandy; and the Swedes to the east, founding the Kievan Rus, the original Russia. However, among the Swedish runestones which mention expeditions over seas, almost half tell of raids and travels to western Europe. Also, according to the Icelandic sagas, many Norwegian Vikings went to eastern Europe. These nations, although distinct, were similar in culture and language. The names of Scandinavian kings are known only for the later part of the Viking Age. Only after the end of the Viking Age did the separate kingdoms acquire distinct identities as nations, which went hand in hand with their Christianization. Thus the end of the Viking Age for the Scandinavians also marks the start of their relatively brief Middle Ages.

Viking expansion

Map showing area of Scandinavian settlement in the eighth (dark red), ninth (red), tenth (orange) and eleventh (yellow) centuries. Green denotes areas subjected to frequent Viking raids.[image reference needed]

The Vikings sailed most of the North Atlantic, reaching south to North Africa and east to Russia, Constantinople and the Middle East, as looters, traders, colonists, and mercenaries. Vikings under Leif Eriksson, heir to Erik the Red, reached North America, and set up a short-lived settlement in present-day L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

The motives driving the Viking expansion form a topic of much debate in Nordic history. One common theory posits that Charlemagne "used force and terror to Christianise all pagans", leading to "baptism, converting or death by iron and blood", and as a result "Vikings and other pagans wanted to avenge".[32][33][34][35][36] Professor Rudolf Simek confirms that "it is not a coincidence if the early Viking activity occurred during the reign of Charlemagne".[37][38] Because of the penetration of Christianity in Scandinavia, serious conflict divided Norway for almost a century.[39]

Another common theory posits that the Norse population had outgrown the agricultural potential of their Scandinavian homeland.[citation needed] For a coastal population with superior naval technologies, it made sense to expand overseas in the face of a youth bulge effect. Raiding by sea may have been easier than trying to carve out new farms in their vast interior arboreal forest, which is not highly productive soil. No such rise in population or decline in agricultural production has been definitively proven.

Another explanation is that the Vikings exploited a moment of weakness in the surrounding regions. For instance, the Danish Vikings were aware of the internal divisions within Charlemagne's empire that began in the 830s and resulted in schism.[citation needed] 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 Roman Empire fell in the 5th century.[40] The expansion of Islam in the 7th century had also affected trade with western Europe.[41] Trade on the Mediterranean Sea was historically at its lowest level when the Vikings initiated their expansion.[citation needed] By opening new trade routes in Arabic and Frankish lands, the Vikings profited from international trade by expanding beyond their traditional boundaries.[citation needed]

The end of the Viking Age

During the Viking Age, Scandinavian men and women travelled to many parts of Europe and beyond, in a cultural diaspora that left its traces from Newfoundland to Byzantium. But this period of energetic activity also had a pronounced effect in the Scandinavian homelands, which were subject to a variety of new influences.[42] In the 300 years from the late 8th century, when contemporary chroniclers first commented on the appearance of Viking raiders, to the end of the 11th century, Scandinavia underwent profound cultural changes.

In the late 11th century, royal dynasties legitimised by the Church were asserting their power with increasing authority and ambition, and the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden had taken shape. Towns were appearing which functioned as secular and ecclesiastical administrative centres as well as market sites, and monetary economies were beginning to emerge based on English and German models.[43] 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.[44] Christianity had taken root in Denmark and Norway with the establishment of dioceses during 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 simply on a missionary footing, and old ideologies and lifestyles were transforming. It was not until 1103, however, that the first archbishopric was founded in Scandinavia, at Lund (in the southernmost part of present-day Sweden, previously part of Denmark).

The assimilation of the nascent Scandinavian kingdoms into the cultural mainstream of European Christendom altered the aspirations of Scandinavian rulers and those 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. The medieval Church took the position 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 in the 11th century. Eventually, outright slavery was outlawed, and replaced with serfdom at the bottom rung of medieval society. Scandinavian predation in Christian lands around the North Sea and the Irish Sea diminished markedly.

Blar a' Bhuailte, site of the Vikings' last stand in Skye

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 a host of Norwegian crusaders to fight for the newly established Kingdom of Jerusalem, and the Danes and Swedes participated energetically in the Baltic Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries.[45]

Weapons and warfare

Our knowledge about arms and armour of the Viking age is based on relatively sparse 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, as well as permitted to carry them all the time. These arms were also indicative of a Viking's social status: a wealthy Viking would have a complete ensemble of a helmet, shield, chainmail shirt, and sword. 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 tended to be considered less "honourable" than a hand weapon. 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 King Harold II) were armed with two-handed axes which could split shields or metal helmets with ease.


Medieval perceptions of the Vikings

Europe around 900

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.[citation needed] 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.[46]

Norse mythology, sagas and literature tell of Scandinavian culture and religion through tales of heroic and mythological heroes. However, early transmission of this information was primarily oral, and later texts were reliant upon 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 Icelanders' continued interest in Norse literature and law codes.

The 200-year Viking influence on European history is filled with tales of plunder and colonization, 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 many brief mentions by the Fosio bishop from the first big attack on the Byzantine Empire.

Other chroniclers of Viking history include Adam of Bremen, who wrote "There 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 the fourth volume of his Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum.

In 991, the Battle of Maldon between Viking raiders and the inhabitants of the town of Maldon in Essex, England was commemorated with a poem of the same name.

Post-medieval perceptions of the Vikings

Early modern publications, dealing with what we now call Viking culture, appeared in the 16th century, e.g. Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (Olaus Magnus, 1555), and the first edition of the 13th century Gesta Danorum of 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 Olof Rudbeck were the first to set the standard for using runic inscriptions and Icelandic sagas as historical sources.[citation needed] During the Age of Enlightenment and the Nordic Renaissance, historical scholarship in Scandinavia became more rational and pragmatic, as witnessed by the works of the Danish historian Ludvig Holberg and the Swede Olof von Dalin.[citation needed]. An important early British contributor to the study of the Vikings was George Hicke, who published his Linguarum vett. septentrionalium thesaurus 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 original poems which 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, member of the Geatish Society, who wrote a modern version of Friðþjófs saga ins frœkna, which became widely popular in the Nordic countries, the United Kingdom and Germany.

The fascination with the Vikings reached a peak during the so-called Viking Revival in the late 18th and 19th centuries. In Britain this took the form of Septentrionalism, in Germany that of "Wagnerian" pathos or even Germanic mysticism, and in the Scandinavian countries that of Romantic nationalism or 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 for rural idioms and proverbs. The new dictionaries of the Old Norse language enabled the Victorians to grapple with the primary Icelandic sagas.[47]

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 The War of the Irish with the Foreigners. Although few scholars still accept these texts as reliable sources, historians nowadays rely more on archeology and numismatics, disciplines that have made valuable contributions toward understanding the period.[48]

The figure of the Viking in twentieth-century politics

The romanticised idea of the Vikings constructed in scholarly and popular circles in northwestern Europe in the nineteenth 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.[49] 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 racialist ideology of the Germanic master race.[50] Building on the linguistic and cultural connections between Norse-speaking Scandinavians and other Germanic groups in the far 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 organizations 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. In communist Russia, the ideology of Slavic racial purity led to the complete denial that Scandinavians had played a part in the emergence of the principalities of the Rus', which was supposed to have been founded by Slavs. Evidence to the contrary was suppressed until the 1990s. The city of Novgorod now enthusiastically acknowledges its Viking history, and has included a Viking ship in its logo.[51]

The Vikings in modern music, literature, and popular culture

A giant Viking welcomes visitors to the town of Dannevirke in New Zealand, founded by 19th Century Scandinavian settlers.

Led by the operas of German composer Richard Wagner, such as Der Ring des Nibelungen, Vikings and the Romanticist Viking Revival 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.

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 re-enactors has increased. The largest such groups include The Vikings and Regia Anglorum, though many smaller groups exist in Europe, the UK, North America, New Zealand, and Australia. Many reenactor groups participate in live-steel combat, and a few have Viking-style ships or boats.

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

Common misconceptions concerning the Vikings

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 Viking Age warriors' helmets, and no preserved helmet, has horns. In fact, 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.

Therefore historians believe that Viking warriors did not use horned helmets, but whether or not 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, Sweden. 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 in order 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.[52]

Cartoons like Hägar the Horrible and Vicky the Viking, and sports uniforms such as those of the Minnesota Vikings and Canberra Raiders football teams have perpetuated the mythic cliché of the horned helmet.

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

Use of skulls as drinking vessels

The use of human skulls as drinking vessels—another common motif in popular pictorial representations of the Vikings—is also ahistorical. The rise of this legend can be traced to Ole Worm's Runer seu Danica literatura antiquissima (1636), in which Danish warriors drinking ór bjúgviðum hausa [from the curved branches of skulls, i.e. from horns] were rendered as drinking ex craniis eorum quos ceciderunt [from the skulls of those whom they had slain]. The skull-cup allegation may also have some history in relation with other Germanic tribes and Eurasian nomads, such as the Scythians and Pechenegs, and the vivid example of the Lombard Alboin, made notorious by Paul the Deacon's History.

There may also be some confusion between "skull" and the Norse/Icelandic word for a drinking cup, skál. This is a common toast in Scandinavian countries.


The image of wild-haired, dirty savages sometimes associated with the Vikings in popular culture[clarification needed] is a distorted picture of reality.[1] Non-Scandinavian Christians are responsible for most surviving accounts of the Vikings and, consequently, a strong possibility for bias exists. This attitude is likely attributed to Christian misunderstandings regarding paganism. Viking tendencies were often misreported and the work of Adam of Bremen, among others, told largely disputable tales of Viking savagery and uncleanliness.[53]

The Anglo-Danes were considered excessively clean by their Anglo-Saxon neighbours, due to their custom of bathing every Saturday and combing their hair often. To this day, Saturday is referred to as laugardagur / laurdag / lørdag / lördag, "washing day" in the Scandinavian languages. Icelanders were known to use natural hot springs as baths, and there is a strong sauna/bathing culture in Scandinavia to this day.

As for the Vikings in the east, Ibn Rustah notes their cleanliness in carrying clean clothes, whereas Ibn Fadlan is disgusted by all of the men sharing the same, used vessel to wash their faces and blow their noses in the morning. Ibn Fadlan's disgust is possibly because of the contrast to the personal hygiene particular to the Muslim world at the time, such as running water and clean vessels. While the example intended to convey his disgust about certain customs of the Rus', at the same time it recorded that they did wash every morning.

Genetic legacy

Studies of genetic diversity provide some indication of the origin and expansion of the Viking population. The Haplogroup I1 (defined by specific genetic markers on the Y-chomosome) is sometimes referred to as the "Viking haplogroup".[citation needed] This mutation occurs with the greatest frequency among Scandinavian males: 35 percent in Norway, Denmark and Sweden, and peaking at 40 percent within western Finland.[54] It is also common near the southern Baltic and North Sea coasts, and then successively decreases the further south geographically.

Genetic studies in the British Isles of the Y-DNA Haplogroup R1a1, seen also across Scandinavia, have demonstrated that the Vikings settled in Britain and Ireland as well as raiding there. Both male and female descent studies show evidence of Norwegian descent in areas closest to Scandinavia, such as the Shetland and Orkney Islands. Inhabitants of lands farther away show most Norse descent in the male Y-chromosome lines.[55]

A specialised surname study in Liverpool demonstrated marked Norse heritage, up to 50 percent of males who belonged to original families, those who lived there before the years of industrialization and population expansion.[56] High percentages of Norse inheritance—tracked through R1a1 haplotype signatures—were also found among males in the Wirral and West Lancashire.[57] This was similar to the percentage of Norse inheritance found among males in the Orkney Islands.[58]

Recent research suggests that the Scottish warrior Somerled, who drove the Vikings out of Scotland and was the progenitor of Clan Donald, may himself have been of Viking descent—a member of Haplogroup R1a1.[59]

Well known Vikings and Norsemen of the Viking Age

Known from Viking Age sources

  • Bagsecg, a Viking who Invaded and pillaged in England in 870, but was killed in 871 at The Battle of Ashdown.
  • Cnut the Great, king of England and Denmark, Norway, and of some of Sweden, was possibly the greatest Viking king. A son of Sweyn Forkbeard, and grandson of Harold Bluetooth, he was a member of the dynasty that was key to the unification and Christianisation of Denmark. Some modern historians have dubbed him the ‘Emperor of the North’ because of his position as one of the magnates of medieval Europe and as a reflection of the Holy Roman Empire to the south.
  • Egill Skallagrímsson, Icelandic warrior and skald. (See also the medieval tale Egils saga).
  • Eric the Victorious, a king of Sweden whose dynasty is the first known to have ruled as kings of the nation. It is possible he was king of Denmark for a time.
  • Godfrid, Duke of Frisia, a pillager of the Low Countries and the Rhine area and briefly a lord of Frisia.
  • Godfrid Haraldsson, son of Harald Klak and pillager of the Low Countries and northern France.
  • Guthrum, coloniser of Danelaw.
  • Halfdan, pillaged in England conquered London and Northumbria, later remembered as a son of Ragnar Lodbrok
  • Harald Bluetooth (Harald Gormson), who according to the Jelling Stones that he had erected, "won the whole of Denmark and Norway and turned the Danes to Christianity". Father of Sweyn Forkbeard; grandfather of Cnut the Great.
  • Harald Fairhair, remembered in the medieval sagas and thus commonly revered in popular histories as the first king of all Norway, who conquered and ruled the whole extent of medieval Norway from 870–930. Now considered by historians to have been the successful ruler of a more limited domain in south-western Norway in the 10th century.
  • Harald Hardrada. A half-brother of St Olaf, Harald cut his teeth as a mercenary in Russia and Byzantium before returning to Norway in the mid-1040s. He forced his nephew Magnus the Good to share power with him, and then ruled the whole kingdom alone after the early death of Magnus in 1047. Harald attempted to revive the North Sea domain of Cnut the Great, but having failed to conquer the Danes he died at Stamford Bridge in 1066, during an unsuccessful attempt to conquer England. Harald was the first ruler of Norway successfully to have guaranteed the succession for his own sons. Although it was from him that the medieval Norwegian dynasty descended, his historical importance has been obscured by the treatment of Harald Fairhair and St Olaf (Olaf Haraldsson) in medieval writings.
  • Harald Klak (Harald Halfdansson), a 9th c. king in Jutland who made peace with Louis the Pious in order to win Frankish support in his struggle for power. In 826 he became the first Scandinavian ruler to accept baptism, but he was unable to maintain his authority in Jutland and was possibly the first Viking to be granted Frankish land in exchange for protection.
  • Ivar the Boneless, the disabled Viking who conquered York, despite having to be carried on a shield. Later remembered as a son of Ragnar Lodbrok.
  • St Olaf (Olav Haraldsson), patron saint of Norway, and king of Norway from 1015 to approx. 1030.
  • Olaf Tryggvason, king of Norway from 995 to 1000. Remembered as an aggressive missionary ruler in the medieval Icelandic sagas, in which the extent of his authority has almost certainly been grossly exaggerated.
  • Ragnar Lodbrok, captured Paris. Developed into a legendary Viking hero in medieval writings.
  • Rollo of Normandy, founder of Normandy.
  • Rorik of Dorestad, a Viking lord of Frisia and nephew of Harald Klak.
  • Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark, Norway, and England, as well as founder of Swansea ("Sweyn's island"). In 1013, the Danes under Sweyn led a Viking offensive against the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England. The English king was forced into exile, and in late 1013 Sweyn became King of England, though he died early in 1014, and the former king was brought out of exile to challenge his son.
  • Ubbe Ragnarsson, pillaged in England and was killed in 878 at The Battle of Cynwit, another supposed son of the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok.
  • William the Conqueror, ruler of Normandy and the victor at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. William was a Norman French-speaking fifth-generation descendant of the Viking war-leader Rollo, the first Scandinavian ruler of Normandy; but Norman historians since Dudo of St-Quentin still celebrated the old Norse heritage of the ducal dynasty. William's great great uncle was the great Danish king Cnut the Great. The Norman assertion of power in England after the successful invasion of 1066 saw the end of the Anglo-Saxon rule in England.

Known from later medieval sources

See also


  1. ^ a b Roesdahl, pp. 9–22.
  2. ^ "Los vikingos en Al-Andalus (abstract available in English)". Jesús Riosalido. 1997. Retrieved 2010-05-11. 
  3. ^ a b Johnni Langer, "The origins of the imaginary viking", Viking Heritage Magazine, Gotland University/Centre for Baltic Studies. Visby (Sweden), n. 4, dez. 2002
  4. ^ The Syntax of Old Norse By Jan Terje Faarlund; p 25 ISBN 0-19-927110-0; The Principles of English Etymology By Walter W. Skeat, published in 1892, defined Viking: better Wiking, Icel. Viking-r, O. Icel. *Viking-r, a creek-dweller; from Icel. vik, O. Icel. *wik, a creek, bay, with suffix -uig-r, belonging to Principles of English Etymology By Walter W. Skeat; Clarendon press; Page 479
  5. ^ See Gunnar Karlsson, "Er rökrétt að fullyrða að landnámsmenn á Íslandi hafi verið víkingar?", The University of Iceland Science web April 30, 2007; Gunnar Karlsson, "Hver voru helstu vopn víkinga og hvernig voru þau gerð? Voru þeir mjög bardagaglaðir?", The University of Iceland Science web December 20, 2006; and Sverrir Jakobsson "Hvaðan komu víkingarnir og hvaða áhrif höfðu þeir í öðrum löndum?", The University of Iceland Science web July 13, 2001 (in Icelandic).
  6. ^ Hall, pp. 8–11
  7. ^ Lindqvist, pp. 160–61
  8. ^ Hall, 2010, p. 8 and passim.
  9. ^ Roesdahl, pp. 16–22.
  10. ^ Sawyer, P H: 1997
  11. ^ baþum (Sm101), see Nordiskt runnamnslexikon PDF
  12. ^ In the nominative: krikiaR (G216). In the genitive: girkha (U922$), k--ika (U104). In the dative: girkium (U1087†), kirikium (SöFv1954;20, U73, U140), ki(r)k(i)(u)(m) (Ög94$), kirkum (U136), krikium (Sö163, U431), krikum (Ög81A, Ög81B, Sö85, Sö165, Vg178, U201, U518), kri(k)um (U792), krikum (Sm46†, U446†), krkum (U358), kr... (Sö345$A), kRkum (Sö82). In the accusative: kriki (Sö170). Uncertain case krik (U1016$Q). Greece also appears as griklanti (U112B), kriklati (U540), kriklontr (U374$), see Nordiskt runnamnslexikon PDF
  13. ^ Karusm (Vs1), see Nordiskt runnamnslexikon PDF
  14. ^ iaursaliR (G216), iursala (U605†), iursalir (U136G216, U605, U136), see Nordiskt runnamnslexikon PDF
  15. ^ lakbarþilanti (SöFv1954;22), see Nordiskt runnamnslexikon PDF
  16. ^ luntunum (DR337$B), see Nordiskt runnamnslexikon PDF
  17. ^ serklat (G216), se(r)kl... (Sö279), sirklanti (Sö131), sirk:lan:ti (Sö179), sirk*la(t)... (Sö281), srklant- (U785), skalat- (U439), see Nordiskt runnamnslexikon PDF
  18. ^ eklans (Vs18$), eklans (Sö83†), ekla-s (Vs5), enklans (Sö55), iklans (Sö207), iklanþs (U539C), ailati (Ög104), aklati (Sö166), akla-- (U616$), anklanti (U194), eg×loti (U812), eklanti (Sö46, Sm27), eklati (ÖgFv1950;341, Sm5C, Vs9), enklanti (DR6C), haklati (Sm101), iklanti (Vg20), iklati (Sm77), ikla-ti (Gs8), i...-ti (Sm104), ok*lanti (Vg187), oklati (Sö160), onklanti (U241), onklati (U344), -klanti (Sm29$), iklot (N184), see Nordiskt runnamnslexikon PDF
  19. ^ Roesdahl, p. 20.
  20. ^ Block, Leo, To Harness the Wind: A Short History of the Development of Sails, Naval Institute Press, 2002, ISBN 1-55750-209-9
  21. ^ Return of Dublin's Viking Warship. Retrieved 14 November 2007.
  22. ^ [1]
  23. ^ [2]
  24. ^ C.Michael Hogan. 2011. Norwegian Sea. Eds.Peter Saundry & C.J.Cleveland. Encyclopedia of Earth. National Council for science and the Environment. Washington DC
  25. ^ "History of Northumbria: Viking era 866 AD – 1066 AD"
  26. ^ "Identity and Self-Image in Viking Age England" October 3, 2007
  27. ^ Toyne, Stanley Mease. The Scandinavians in history Pg.27. 1970.
  28. ^ The Fate of Greenland's Vikings, by Dale Mackenzie Brown, Archaeological Institute of America, February 28, 2000
  29. ^ The Norse discovery of America
  30. ^ Hall, p. 98
  31. ^ Vikings' Barbaric Bad Rap Beginning to Fade
  32. ^ Rudolf Simek, "the emergence of the viking age: circumstances and conditions", "The vikings first Europeans VIII–XI century – the new discoveries of archaeology", other, 2005, pp. 24–25
  33. ^ Bruno Dumézil, master of Conference at Paris X-Nanterre, Normalien, aggregated history, author of conversion and freedom in the barbarian kingdoms. 5th – 8th centuries (Fayard, 2005)
  34. ^ "Franques Royal Annals" cited in Peter Sawyer, "The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings", 2001, p. 20
  35. ^ Dictionnaire d'histoire de France – Perrin – Alain Decaux and André Castelot – 1981 – pages 184/185 ISBN 2-7242-3080-9
  36. ^ "the Vikings" R.Boyer history, myths, dictionary, Robert Laffont several 2008, p96 ISBN 978-2-221-10631-0
  37. ^ . Rudolf Simek, "the emergence of the viking age: circumstances and conditions", "The vikings first Europeans VIII–XI century – the new discoveries of archaeology", other, 2005, pp. 24–25
  38. ^ François-Xavier Dillmann, "Viking civilisation and culture. A bibliography of French-language ", Caen, Centre for research on the countries of the North and Northwest, University of Caen, 1975, p.19, and" Les Vikings – the Scandinavian and European 800–1200 ", 22nd exhibition of art from the Council of Europe, 1992, p. 26
  39. ^ "History of the Kings of Norway" by Snorri Sturlusson translated by Professor of History François-Xavier Dillmann, Gallimard ISBN 2-07-073211-8 pages 15,16,18,24,33,34,38
  40. ^ Macauley Richardson, Lloyd. "Books: Eurasian Exploration" Policy Review. Hoover Institution
  41. ^ Crone, Patricia. Meccan trade and the rise of Islam First Georgias Press. 2004.
  42. ^ Roesdahl, pp. 295–7
  43. ^ Gareth Williams, 'Kingship, Christianity and coinage: monetary and political perspectives on silver economy in the Viking Age', in Silver Economy in the Viking Age, ed. James Graham-Campbell and Gareth WIlliams, pp. 177–214; ISBN 978-1-59874-222-0
  44. ^ Roesdahl, pp. 296
  45. ^ The Northern Crusades: Second Edition by Eric Christiansen; ISBN 0-14-026653-4
  46. ^ Northern Shores by Alan Palmer; p.21; ISBN 0-7195-6299-6
  47. ^ The Viking Revival By Professor Andrew Wawn at bbc
  48. ^ The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings By Peter Hayes Sawyer ISBN 0-19-820526-0
  49. ^ Hall, pp. 220–1; Fitzhugh and Ward, pp. 362–64
  50. ^ Fitzhugh and Ward, p. 363
  51. ^ Hall, pp. 221
  52. ^ Did Vikings really wear horns on their helmets?, The Straight Dope, 7 December 2004. Retrieved 14 November 2007.
  53. ^ Williams, G. (2001) How do we know about the Vikings? Retrieved 14 November 2007.
  54. ^ Annals of Human Genetics. Volume 72 Issue 3 Pages 337–348, May 2008
  55. ^ Roger Highfield, "Vikings who chose a home in Shetland before a life of pillage", Telegraph, 7 Apr 2005, accessed 16 Nov 2008
  56. ^ Excavating Past Population Structures by Surname-Based Sampling; The Genetic Legacy of the Vikings in Northwest England, Georgina R. Bowden et al., Molecular Biology and Evolution, 20 November 2007
  57. ^ A Y Chromosome Census of the British Isles, Capelli et al., Current Biology, Vol. 13, May 27, 2003
  58. ^ James Randerson, "Proof of Liverpool's Viking past", The Guardian, 3 Dec 2007, accessed 16 Nov 2008
  59. ^ "DNA shows Celtic hero Somerled's Viking roots". Scotsman. 2005-04-26. 


  • Downham, Clare, Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland: The Dynasty of Ívarr to AD 1014. Dunedin Academic Press, 2007. ISBN 1903765890
  • Fitzhugh, William W., and Ward, Elisabeth I., Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000. ISBN 156098970
  • Hadley, D.M., The Vikings in England: Settlement, Society and Culture. Manchester University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-7190-5982-8
  • Hall, Richard, Exploring the World of the Vikings. Thames and Hudson, 2007. ISBN 978-0-500-05144-3
  • Hall, Richard, Viking Age Archaeology (series Shire Studies), 2010. ISBN 978 0 74780 063 7
  • Lindqvist, Thomas, 'Early Political Organisation: (a) An Introductory Survey', in The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: Prehistory to 1520, ed. Knut Helle. Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 0521472997. pp. 160–67.
  • Roesdahl, Else. The Vikings. Penguin, 1998. ISBN 0-14-025282-7
  • Sawyer, Peter, The Age of the Vikings (second edition) Palgrave Macmillan, 1972. ISBN 0-312-01365-5
  • Williams, Gareth, 'Kingship, Christianity and coinage: monetary and political perspectives on silver economy in the Viking Age', in Silver Economy in the Viking Age, ed. James Graham-Campbell and Gareth WIlliams, pp. 177–214; ISBN 978-1-59874-222-0

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