This article is about the Viking people. There is also an article about NASA's Viking program.
The Vikings or Varangians were traders from Scandinavia who in the years between 800 and 1050 colonised, raided and traded the lengths of the coasts, rivers and islands of Europe and North America. They called themself Norsemen.
The Vikings were a Germanic tribe, like the Goths, Vandals, and the Saxons. Although they are by foreigners commonly conceived of as a people bringing terror and destruction in their wake, it should be noted that many also made settlements, traded and co-existed more or less peacefully with their neighbours.
In Russia and the Byzantine Empire, the Vikings were known as Varangians (Væringjar), and the Scandinavian bodyguards of the Byzantine emperors were known as the Varangian Guard.
Other names include Danes, Northmen, Norsemen Germanians and Normans.
|Table of contents|
2 Historical records
3 The Viking World
6 Myths on Vikings
7 See also:
The Germanic word-stem vik or wik has to do with markets, and was the usual suffix to mean "market town" in the same way that burg means "fortified place".
Sandwich and Harwich in England still show this termination, and the recently excavated Frankish port town of Quentovic shows the same ending.
The Viking propensity for trade is easily seen in market ports such as Hedeby; close to the border with the Franks it was effectively a crossroads between the cultures, until its eventual destruction by the Norwegians in an internecine dispute in c. 1050.
The first report of a Viking raid dates from 793, when the monastery at Lindisfarne on the east coast of England was pillaged by foreign seafarers.
For the next 200 years, European history is filled with tales of Vikings and their plundering.
Vikings conquered most of Ireland and large parts of England, they travelled up the rivers of France and Spain, and gained control of areas in Russia and along the Baltic coast.
Stories tell of raids in the Mediterranean and as far east as the Caspian Sea.
The Viking World
The achievements of the Vikings were quite exceptional.
For instance they made distance tables for sea voyages that were so exact that they only differ 2-4% from modern satellite measurements, even on long distances such as across the Atlantic Ocean.
The Norwegians travelled to the north-west and west, to the Faroes, Shetland, Orkney, Ireland and the northern parts of England. Except in Britain and Ireland, Norwegians mostly found largely uninhabited land and established settlements.
In about the year 1000 A.D, North America was discovered by Bjarni Herjólfsson and settlement attempted by Leif Ericsson and Thorfinnur Karlsefni from Greenland who called it Vinland. A small settlement was placed on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland, near L'Anse aux Meadows, but previous inhabitants and a cold climate brought it to an end within a few years (see Freydis). The archaeological remains are now a UN World Heritage Site. It has now been scientifically established that at the height of the Viking expansion, the northern hemisphere entered into a period of unusual and long lasting cold which lasting for several hundred years. This mini-iceage decimated the Greenland colonies, stopped the Viking westward expansion and hampered the Viking homelands.
Besides allowing the Vikings to travel far distances, their longships gave them tactical advantages in battles. They could perform very efficient hit-and-run attacks, in which they attacked fast and unexpectedly and left quickly before a counteroffensive could be launched. Longships could also sail in shallow water, allowing the Vikings to get far inland along rivers. A reason for the raids is believed by some to be overpopulation caused by technological advances such as the use of iron, although another cause could well be pressure caused by the Frankish expansion to the south of Scandinavia. For people living along the coast it seems natural to seek new land by sea. Another reason is that in that period several European countries (particularly England, Wales and Ireland) were in internal disarray and easy prey; the Franks, however, had well-defended coasts and heavily fortified ports and harbours. Pure thirst for adventure may also have been a factor. The reliance on Longships was also detrimental to the Vikings later on. As other cultures developed larger, faster and more powerful ships, the Viking failed to maintain the technological ship building race.
Norse mythology and Old Norse literature tell us about their religion with heroic and mythological heroes; however, the transmission of this information was primarily oral and we are reliant upon the writings of (later) Christian scholars such as Snorri Sturlusson and Sæmundur Fróði "the Wise" Sigfússon for much of this.
After decades of plundering, resistance in other parts of Europe became more effective and Christianity was introduced into Scandinavia, which led to milder tendencies.
In addition the kingdoms of Norway, Denmark and Sweden evolved and it is to be believed that their kings wanted more peaceful circumstances.
Myths on Vikings
There is no evidence whatsoever that the Vikings on any occasions wore helmets with horns.
This is a latter-day myth created by national romantic ideas in Sweden at the end of the 19th century, notably the Geatish society, and further imprinted by cartoons like Hagar The Horrible or Asterix and numerous fictious movies.
The related Celts may have used horned helmets for ceremonial purposes however.