We often learn about the Vikings from what we see on TV or hear in the classroom. However, this era in our history is fairly unexplored – the traditions they held and the practices they observed differ from the documented history we have from the Norse seafarers. Having found an unironic place in pop culture, what is real and what is fake? We break down everything you need to know about the Vikings.
Their Women Were Fighters, Too!
It may seem counterintuitive, but the Vikings were strong believers in having women fight in the front lines. Studies from the American Journal of Anthropology show that a female body, estimated to be around 30 years of age, was found buried in Birka, Sweden. This location was considered wildly important, perhaps highlighting what they thought of her? This, alongside the hard-working female fighters, made women incredibly valuable.
The image of dirty, savaged, Vikings in pop culture couldn’t be further from the truth! It has been well recorded that Vikings had excellent personal hygiene and were generally well-groomed, placing an equal amount of importance on jewelry and fashion. In fact, the Vikings were considered too hygienic by their European counterparts and were even laughed at for their efforts at the time. This was a time when bathing once a week was the norm. They actually pioneered daily washing.
No Skulls For Meals
A fun part of dressing up as a Viking is the novelty skull you get to carry around with you to drink out of. Even a red wine can make it look like you’re drinking blood! Unfortunately, the myth of them drinking out of their enemies’ skulls was proven to be false. No Viking excavations have ever uncovered evidence to suggest they drank the blood of people they fought in a battle. However, they did use to drink out of the horns of their cattle, if that helps?
Blondes Are Better
Based out of Scandinavia, the Vikings had many blondes in their clans. Having blonde hair was considered to be incredibly luxurious and beautiful. In fact, it’s one of the main thing pop culture has kept alive today. Not every Viking and Viking-ette was blonde – some were brunette and redheads – but they would often go so far as to dye their hair to appear more attractive and desirable to find a mate. They really were known for grooming, and made good use of it, too!
Only We Call Them Vikings
Even though we call them Vikings today, they actually referred to themselves as ‘Norse’ or ‘Norsemen’ at the time they were alive. No one knows quite where the name Viking came from, although there is evidence from historians that suggests ‘Viking” is a 19th-century term to describe a Scandinavian who explored the world. Now a pop culture staple in the 21st century, we know Vikings. If you met one today, they wouldn’t recognize the name you are calling them!
Divorce Was Allowed
Viking women were allowed to divorce their husbands – a practice that was wildly ahead of the times in Europe. To the horror of the Catholic Church, women could file for divorce and leave their husbands for any reason – even if the men were deemed too feminine. Bad news for the men: they were forced to pay alimony. Before we credit the Vikings for their progressive attitudes, a gentle reminder that these were usually arranged marriages when the women were actually 12 or 13-year-old girls.
There Was More Than One Tribe
Although history paints them as a united tribe, this wasn’t actually the case. Many studies have seen that there were many clans within the Vikings with leaders that would organize overseas travel. In the same way that there were different Native American tribes, it’s possible that the Vikings didn’t know about all the different tribes and clans. This seems strange to us today since we consider them all of one period in time, but they certainly wouldn’t agree with our assumption!
Vikings Discovered America, Not Christopher Columbas
Even though Columbas Day is celebrated each year to symbolize the discovery of America in 1492, it was actually a Viking called Leif Erikson who first laid eyes on the country. After an argument between Leif’s father, Erik (‘Erikson’, get it?), and their neighbor, Erik fled to Canada. Upon his return, he persuaded his son to travel to new lands. When he did, he visited America. He would explore the US hundreds of years before Columbas. Why is there no Erikson day?
A Trans-Atlantic Love Affair
We know now that Christopher Columbas didn’t discover America and that it was the work of Leif Erikson. It turns out he may have found love as well as the entire continent – DNA evidence shows Native American ancestry in Scandinavians. This means that they must have brought back a Native American to their homeland, spanning whole generations who must still carry the blood. This may have diluted the blonde hair and blue eyes they deemed as desirable, but it’s always better to have a little diversity in your bloodline.
They Used Interesting Kindling
When Vikings needed to make fires and keep themselves warm at night, they used rather unconventional methods in doing so. Known for their impeccable hygiene, the Norse used urine and fungus to light and maintain fires. It appears they cared as much about environmental waste as they did about keeping warm! We can’t imagine how bad the smell must have been, but the method wouldn’t have been adopted without a proven track record of success. Still, better not try this at home.
Their Obsession With England
The Vikings wanted one thing more than all the rest – to conquer England. They, like, really wanted it. The reasons why they had such an obsession for this little Island remains a mystery today. Some say it had something to do with the particular fertile earth, others say it was just for the sake of it. Ultimately, they didn’t conquer all of England but did they did settle their “Great Heathen Army” in Northumbria, an area between North England and South Scotland. This was the case until 1066 and the Battle of Hastings.
A Divided House
Even when they were not working on a common goal like conquering England, they always loved a battle. It wasn’t uncommon for them to attack and enslave their own people! As mentioned above, there were plenty of tribes and clans within the Norsemen, so even if we consider them all one people, they did not. They never attacked people who were deemed weaker or unworthy – they always liked a fight and didn’t waste their time with people who were not worth a fight.
We know they were famous for their helmets and horns, but Vikings also built strong ships that they used for travel and exploration. This makes sense, considering all the combative travel they embarked on and all the seas they crossed. Their most famous boats were called ‘longboats’, which held around 60 members of their clan at once. They could easily port and were designed for convenience. There are some still around today that can be explored by eager fans. Check them out!
They Liked Relaxing, Too!
What do you do when you don’t want to fight your friends or enemies? We know that they must have had a lot of energy because even when they weren’t fighting they would engage in recreational sports. Like most of us today, the enjoyed activities like ice skating or skiing – even considered some of the first people in the world to engage in such a sport. Historians suggest they designed skiing as a way to move around – makes sense since they were in Scandinavia.
They Were Shorter Than You Think
The average height of a Norseman was a modest 5”7. This isn’t too short, but it certainly isn’t the 6”2 giant you imagine today. It makes sense – a lot of people were shorter back in the Viking times. As for body type, they weren’t considered to be as wide as they’re depicted today, either. They were generally more slender and lean. Their body shape possibly has something to do with their short summers and a scarce amount of food.
You Say Their Names Everyday
The modern names for each of the seven days of the week are all named after the Vikings. It’s true that the Romans started the trends by naming Sunday and Monday after the Sun and the Moon, but Vikings continued this trend for the remaining seven. Tyr, the god of War, was the inspiration for Tuesday; Wednesday was given its name from raven God Woden; Thursday belongs to Thor, the God of Thunder; and finally Friday fittingly for the God of Marriage, Frigg. Any ideas for Saturday?
They Were Slaveowners
This isn’t too shocking since they occasionally enslaved their own people, but the Vikings kept more than their fair share of slaves. Often, the Norsemen would capture people, name them ‘thrawls’, and have them as slaves in their communities. A lot of their raids acted as a way to explore nations and capture their people. There are a few ideas as to why they kept slaves. Some kept beautiful women as wives while others took strong men to help with agriculture and the fields.
Not All Their Helmets Had Horns
Another nail in your Halloween costume coffin – Viking never wore helmets with horns! I know, shocking. It appears that without the horned helmets and skull goblets, what did they even look like? History shows they were bearded men with helmets, but no horns. Historians believe that Christians painted them as people with horns to make them seem more evil and demonic than they were. This media tactic is often used by groups that intend to villainize a group of people and was later used by the Nazis on the Jews in the 1930s.
Vikings Abandoned Weak Children
In the Norsemen, it was incredibly important to be considered strong and a worthy opponent to your adversaries. They tried to raise their children with the same loyalty and power they desired, and it was often bad news if the child couldn’t keep up. Sadly, the Vikings would abandon – or sometimes even murder – their children if they didn’t live up to the pressures of the clan. Usually, children were given around five years to prove themselves as strong and independent, meaning childhood didn’t really exist.
They Kind of, Just, Went Away
If you’re expecting an epic ending to the Viking journey, then you might be disappointed. There was no Harry Potter-style epic great battle, nor a meteorite like the dinosaurs. With the Vikings, it was simply down to bureaucracy and civility. Christianity and the Catholic Church banned violence, so Vikings moved away to Russia. There, they were forced to kneel to Kings. So basically, their rule just kind of fizzled out over time. So yeah, that’s about it from the Vikings and their epic journey. The end.