How the Vikings Worked


Colonizers, merchants, and ruthless raiders, the Vikings swept out of Scandinavia to terrorize Europe in swift vessels like this Danish reproduction.
Colonizers, merchants, and ruthless raiders, the Vikings swept out of Scandinavia to terrorize Europe in swift vessels like this Danish reproduction.
Ted Spiegel/National Geographic/Getty Images

It is late m­orning at a monastery on the coast of Ireland. The year is 817. From the shore comes a cry of alarm -- dragon boats have appeared on the horizon, approaching quickly with wind filling their sails. A monk runs into the monastery to warn the others. This place holds Christian holy relics, gold, tapestries, jewels and spices. It is also home to a small herd of cattle and other livestock, plus two dozen monks and several nuns. All of these things make the monastery a magnet for the men on the dragon boats -- the Vikings.

Quickly the monks work to hide the holiest of artifacts, to mount some kind of defense, but the Vikings hit the shore with stunning speed. They wear terrifying masks and helmets of iron, bearing iron swords and wooden shields. The monks and nuns alike are slaughtered in the attack, and some of them are tortured. Everything of value is loaded into the low-slung dragon boats, including the cattle and the holy relics. The surviving men and women are captured ­as well -- they will be sold as thralls, slaves to their new Scandinavian masters. Anything built of wood is set on fire. By late afternoon, the site of the monastery is silent, the Vikings long-since gone, and nothing remains but ash.

This is the terror that swept much of Europe in the ninth through 11th centuries, the Age of Vikings. These are the Vikings as we most commonly know them, through the writings of survivors, pop-culture depictions, and even their own epic sagas -- brutal, merciless raiders striking from the northern seas. But the Vikings were more than raiders and pillagers. They were a key part of a rich Scandinavian culture that not only ravaged the shores of Europe, but settled them as well. Vikings founded Dublin, conquered Normandy, ruled more than half of England, and even discovered and settled in North America centuries before Christopher Columbus was born. They also set up profitable trade routes that reached as far as North Africa.

Today we're going to strip away the mythology and take a look the real Vikings and the culture that spawned them. We'll try to understand where they came from, what made them so bloodthirsty and what drove them to become one of the world's superpowers at the apex of their era. Then we'll explore the mythology, in all its hammer-wielding, horned-helmeted, battle-crying glory.

Who Were the Vikings?

The Scottish New Year's celebration known as Hogmanay incorporates Viking imagery and traditions from the region's Norse and Gaelic roots.
The Scottish New Year's celebration known as Hogmanay incorporates Viking imagery and traditions from the region's Norse and Gaelic roots.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

While the term Viking is used in a general way to describe the people of Scandinavia during the medieval period, it's really a name for a profession -- it's like if we called all Spanish or French people Pirates. The Scandinavians were also explorers, farmers, fishermen and merchants -- not just Vikings. Indeed, the people who are usually referred to as Vikings were actually made up of several different groups, including the Danes, the Swedes and the Norwegians, who were themselves often broken into small petty kingdoms.

The actual Vikings were all men. They used their expertise at seamanship and battle to make raids on the towns and churches of neighboring kingdoms. These raids were part of an intensely masculine, warlike culture that emphasized battle as a way for a man to prove himself.

Going on such a raid was known as going "i viking" [source: Haywood 2000]. The true origin of the word Viking is lost to history, and there are many competing theories. Some suggest it's derived from an Old Norse word, vikingr, which means "pirate" [source: MacShamhrain]. However, it's likely that vikingr originated with the Vikings' victims and was only later adopted by the Vikings themselves. Thus, it may come from the Old English word wic, which means "port of trade," referring to the Vikings' habit of attacking such places [source: Haywood 2000]. Yet another theory suggests that it's based on the Norse word vik, meaning "bay" or "body of water," or a similar sounding word which meant "to turn away" or "to leave on a journey" [source: Cohat].

In any case, the modern conception of the term Viking comes from the written historical records of the time. Most literate people in that era were church officials. Vikings tended to attack churches for their wealth. Christians were especially horrified by these attacks, because they defiled the sanctity of such places. As a result, most of the surviving written records come from Christian accounts and depict Vikings in a particularly harsh light. That isn't to say that such a depiction isn't justified -- the Viking attacks on European towns and churches were brutal and terrifying -- but it only presents one aspect of Scandinavian culture.

We'll look at the traditions and culture of the Vikings in the next section.

Viking Culture

A dragon ship, as depicted in a manuscript
A dragon ship, as depicted in a manuscript
Anglo-Saxon School/The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images

Vikings were pagans -- they worshipped a pantheon of multilpe gods and goddessess, each one representing some aspect of the world as they experienced it. Scandinavians eventually converted to Christianity, but more slowly than other peoples of Europe. There was no central church in any of the Scandinavian kingdoms, nor were any of their religious traditions consistently written down. As a result, Viking religion was highly personalized and varied from one place to another. It evolved over time to a greater extent than codified religions usually do [source: Wolf].

Central to their religion were two groups of gods, the Aesir and the Vanir. The gods lived in Asgard, a kingdom that was connected to mortal Earth (known as Midgard) by a rainbow bridge known as Bifrost. The pantheon included Odin, the primary god, Thor, the hammer-wielding god of thunder, and Frejya, the goddess of fertility and beauty. There were also evil giants, dark elves and dwarves. The gods were destined to fight against the giants and other evil forces in a battle known as Ragnarok. Norse prophecy predicted that the gods would lose this battle, allowing Asgard, Midgard and the entire universe to collapse into darkness and chaos.

Warriors who died nobly in battle could end up in Valhalla, a sort of warrior heaven where everyone gets to fight alongside Odin, die, feast and do it all over again the next day. They were escorted to Valhalla by the Valkyrie, which were sort of like warrior angels who assisted Odin. In truth, there were no female Viking warriors -- Scandinavian society was primarily patriarchal, with men holding most political and economic power.

When wealthy or powerful Vikings died, their body may have been burned on a boat along with many of their possessions, or they may have been entombed in a barrow, a large earthen chamber. In either case, pets and sometimes slaves were sacrificed and buried (or burned) along with the Viking. There is also evidence that Scandinavians offered ritual human sacrifices in religious ceremonies [source: Wolf].

Vikings didn't write down their history (except for the occasional runestone inscription) until they had converted to Christianity. Any history prior to that was passed on through an oral tradition carried on by skalds. Skalds were Scandinavian bards who recited epic poems (called sagas) recounting the deeds of famous Viking kings and lords. These poems could be incredibly long and detailed. Some of the sagas were eventually written down in later eras, but most of them are lost to history.

These are the Viking traditions, but what about that symbol most often associated with the Vikings: the horned helmet? We'll look at the military and nonmilitary technology used by the Vikings in the next section.

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Viking Weapons and Ships

Iron blades for Viking swords
Iron blades for Viking swords
European/The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images

When the Northmen went i viking, they were well-armed and armored. Although a variety of weapons were used, including bows, lances and javelins, Vikings most commonly carried sturdy axes that could be thrown or swung with head-splitting force. The Viking longsword was also common -- a typical sword was about as long as a man's arm.

For armor, Vikings wore padded leather shirts, sometimes fronted by a breastplate of iron. Wealthier Vikings could afford chain mail shirts. They wore helmets of iron as well. Some were made of a solid piece hammered into a bowl or cone shape. Others were made of separate pieces riveted to an iron headband and riveted at the seams, or used leather to connect the pieces. An iron or leather nosepiece extended down to protect the face -- in some cases a more elaborate face guard was built to surround the eyes. Cheek guard extensions weren't uncommon. Viking shields were made of wood, again often fronted with pieces of iron.

A replica of a Viking helmet
Photo courtesy of Hurstwic

One thing Vikings almost certainly did not wear on their heads was a horned helmet. Such a device would be impractical in battle, with excess weight poorly distributed, offering no real protective value. Archaeologists found such helmets at Scandinavian settlements and, in the absence of technology that allows us to date things precisely, assumed they belonged to the Vikings. Such helmets may have been worn by Scandinavian chieftains in the pre-Viking era. The image of the Viking in a horned helmet was cemented by use as costuming in operas, the preeminent pop culture entertainment in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Along with their weapons, the Vikings are well-known for their boats. The Viking longship, with which they are usually associated, was not the only type of vessel the Scandinavians built. They made merchant ships and cargo vessels as well. However, all of their designs have several common characteristics:

  • Riveted wood construction
  • Keel (the piece of wood on the bottom of a boat that helps keep it from tipping over)
  • Single mast with a square wool sail
  • Double-sided hull (both bow and stern were shaped the same, so the ship could move in either direction without turning around)
  • A side rudder
Viking warships often sported fearsome dragon carvings at both bow and stern.
Anders Blomqvist/Nordic Photos/Getty Images

The hulls were coated with tarred animal fur to seal them against water. In all, a typical 70-foot longship would have required 11 trees, each three feet in diameter to build, plus a very tall tree to make the keel [source: Wolf]. Warships were narrower and had more oars to increase speed. The oarsmen didn't have special seats, they just sat on the crossbeams that made up the internal framework of the boat, or on trunks that contained their possessions. The oar holes could be covered by wood­en discs, and warships had mounts where the Vikings' shields could be lined up, adding extra protection from attacks.

The square Viking sail could be as large as 330 square feet of double-thick wool, often dyed red or with red stripes to strike fear into their enemies [source: Cohat]. The Vikings also used metal anchors and primitive navigation devices.

Next: Why were the Vikings so warlike?

Why Did the Vikings Pillage?

Scandinavians were certainly not the only people of their era to raid and pillage their neighbors, but they did it with greater frequency and a brutal efficiency not seen in other cultures. What drove them go i viking? There are several competing theories, and no single reason probably fully explains it. A combination of several factors likely caused the Vikings' bloodthirsty behavior.

  • Terrain - Scandinavians lived on islands or peninsulas with no room to expand. The land was usually poor for farming or too mountainous to live on, and the climate was very cold. So they looked elsewhere, not only for places to settle or conquer, but for places where they could simply take the resources they lacked at home.
  • Population pressures - Scandinavian cultures existed for several hundred years before they developed their reputation as plunderers. What changed? Population. Advances in agricultural technology and the climate allowed them to grow more food and farm more land. The additional resources lead to a healthier population, longer life expectancy and an overall population increase. This population pressure manifested as squabbles between various clans and kingdoms within Scandinavia, but it also manifested as a drive to leave home, explore and conquer new lands.
  • Tradition - Coastal raiding may have started out as a simple job. Some Scandinavian men made their living doing this dangerous work. But it grew into a tradition that fed on itself, until virtually every male Scandinavian was lining up to join the raids. Young men were expected to test themselves in this manner.
  • Exile - Viking law frequently relied on exile as a penalty for convicted criminals. When you send convicted criminals off in a longboat by themselves to exile, there's a good chance some coastal pillaging and plundering might occur.
  • Greed - The Vikings wanted things: coins, livestock, thralls, treasures, spices, works of art, raw materials. They probably didn't want these things any more than other cultures did, and they often acquired them through simple trade. But with their skill at sea and violent tendencies, they often found themselves in a position to take whatever they wanted.

In the next section, we'll see how Vikings became a powerful political force in medieval Europe and learn how they governed themselves at home.

Viking Politics

Reenactment of the Battle of York by the Vikings against the English
Reenactment of the Battle of York by the Vikings against the English
Sisse Brimberg/Cotton Coulson/Keenpress/National Geographic/Getty Images

Early Viking raids were launched from settlements in Scandinavia. Following the attacks, the Vikings would return home with their plunder. They eventually began to establish trading outposts in the lands they raided, such as Ireland and England. These outposts also served as launching points for raids. The Vikings even conquered and held some of the territory they attacked. In 839, a Danish Viking conquered Ulster in Ireland, established a settlement that would one day become the city of Dublin and crowned himself king [source: Cohat]. Over time, the small Viking raiding parties grew into armies. They sailed up rivers or marched overland, striking far inland from the coastal locations they usually attacked. Vikings even laid siege to Paris and probably would have captured it had the people not paid a ransom.

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The Viking army in France caused great problems for the Franks, continually raiding and besieging towns. The Frankish King Charles the Simple eventually made a deal with a Viking leader named Rollo. Under the condition that he convert to Christianity, Rollo was granted the territory now known as Normandy, which in its original form meant something like, "Land of the Northmen." Some Scandinavians settled in the area and gradually blended into the French culture that surrounded them [source: Haywood 2000].

Danish Vikings controlled about half of England from the late ninth century into the 11th century [source: Haywood 2000]. This area was known as the Danelaw. It wasn't quite a Viking kingdom -- rather, Danish laws held sway due to the influence of various Scandinavian lords. The amount of direct rulership of the Viking leaders over the region varied over the decades.

Meanwhile, Ireland was conquered, retaken, reconquered and taken again by various Scandinavian factions and Celtic peoples. Eventually, the Celts in Ireland and the Anglo-Saxons in England absorbed the Nordic people who came to live with (and sometimes rule over) them through intermarriage and adoption of customs and traditions. These people adopted Christianity readily, though the religion spread more slowly into Scandinavia itself.

In the Viking homelands, governance took the form of a primitive democracy. Each kingdom was divided into districts. Within each district, all free men met at regular intervals in an assembly called a thing. Kings, nobles, rich men, warriors, merchants and farmers all technically had an equal voice in the proceedings, which could include political decisions, land disputes and criminal trials. An elected or appointed official known as a law-speaker acted as an impartial judge to guide the meetings. However, those with more wealth and power had more influence than others, and there were few formal procedures. If a dispute could not be settled, they often resorted to duels or torturous trials known as ordeals [source: Wolf]. In an ordeal, someone might be ordered to walk on water or hold hot iron -- think of the Salem witch trials. If the person remained unscathed, he must be innocent by virtue of the gods looking out for him.

For more information on Vikings and other historical warriors, try the next page.

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Sources

  • Cohat, Yves. The Vikings: Lord of the Seas. Harry N. Abrams (March 30, 1992).
  • Fitzhugh, William (2005). "Early Encounters with a 'New' Land: Vikings and Englishman in the North American Arctic." In De Cunzo, Lu Ann & Jameson, Sohn H. (Eds.), Unlocking the Past: Celebrating Historical Archaeology in North America (53-61). University Press of Florida; First edition (March 30, 2005).
  • Haywood, John. Encyclopaedia of the Viking Age. Thames & Hudson (May 2000).
  • Haywood, John. Atlas of World History. Barnes & Noble (2001).
  • Short, William R. "Viking Age Arms and Armor: Viking Helmets." http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/viking_helmets.htm
  • Macshamhrain, Ailbhe. The Vikings: An Illustrated History. Interlink Publishing Group (March 2003).
  • Wolf, Kirsten. Daily Life of the Vikings. Greenwood Press (November 30, 2004)

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