The Vikings’ ancestors were Germanic peoples who, some 2,000 years before the Viking era, began migrating from northwestern Europe into Denmark, Norway, and Sweden—Scandinavia. Like their forebears, the Vikings were farmers, even those who went on raids. In colder parts of Scandinavia, they depended more on hunting, fishing, and whaling. Viking merchants lived in larger communities, and from these they plied Europe’s trade routes in their robust sailing craft. What, then, would take such seemingly innocuous people from obscurity to notoriety in just one generation?
One possibility is overpopulation, but many historians feel that this would have been true only of western Norway with its limited arable land. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings says: “Most of the first generations of Vikings were seeking wealth, not land.” This was especially true of kings and chieftains who needed a substantial income to retain their power. Other Vikings may have left Scandinavia to escape family feuds and local wars.
Another factor may have been that it was common for wealthy Viking men to have more than one wife. As a result, they had many children. Usually, however, only the firstborn son received the family inheritance, leaving his younger siblings to fend for themselves. According to the book The Birth of Europe, disinherited sons “made up a large and dangerous warrior élite who were obliged to make their own way by any means, be it conquests at home or piracy abroad.”
The Vikings had the right vehicle for hit-and-run raids—the longship. Historians praise the longship as one of the finest technological achievements of the early Middle Ages. Of shallow draft and powered by sail or oars, these sleek vessels made the Vikings the masters of every sea, lake, and river within their sweep.
Some historians say that the Viking era dawned in the middle of the eighth century, just prior to the Viking raid on Lindisfarne. Whatever the case, the Lindisfarne raid helped bring the Vikings into the public consciousness. From England they turned to Ireland, once again targeting treasure-filled monasteries. With their longships filled with loot and slaves, the Vikings sailed home for the winter. In 840 C.E., however, they broke with tradition and wintered in their plundering grounds. The Irish city of Dublin, in fact, began as a Viking enclave. In 850 C.E., they also began to winter in England, their first base being the Isle of Thanet at the mouth of the Thames River.
Soon both Danish and Norwegian Vikings arrived in the British Isles, no longer as raiding parties but as armies in flotillas of longships. Some of these ships may have been 100 feet long [30 metres] and may have carried up to 100 warriors. In the following years, Vikings subdued northeast England, an area that came to be known as the Danelaw because Danish culture and law were dominant there. However, in the south of England in Wessex, Saxon King Alfred and his successors held the Vikings at bay. But then, after a great battle at Ashington in 1016 and the death of King Edmund of Wessex later that same year, the Viking leader Canute—a professed Christian—became sole king of England.
Deep Into Europe and Beyond
In 799 C.E., Danish Vikings began raiding the area then called Frisia—the coastal region of Europe that stretches roughly from Denmark to the Netherlands. From there they rowed up such rivers as the Loire and the Seine and pillaged towns and villages deep in the heartland of Europe. In 845 C.E., Vikings even plundered Paris. Frankish King Charles the Bald paid them 7,000 pounds [3,000 kg] of silver to withdraw from the city. But they returned and raided even beyond Paris as far as Troyes, Verdun, and Toul.
Vikings also sailed to Spain and Portugal, where their first known raid occurred in 844 C.E. They sacked several small towns and even occupied Seville temporarily. “However,” says the Cultural Atlas of the Viking World, “the Arab defenders put up such fierce resistance that the Vikings were quickly repulsed, their forces almost destroyed.” Nonetheless, they returned in 859 C.E.—this time with a fleet of 62 ships. After ravaging parts of Spain, they raided North Africa; and even though their ships were now brimful of loot, they went on to Italy and sacked Pisa and Lina (formerly Luna).
Vikings from Sweden sailed east across the Baltic and into some of the great waterways of Eastern Europe—the Volkhov, Lovat’, Dnieper, and Volga rivers. These eventually took them to the Black Sea and the rich lands of the Byzantine Empire. Some Viking merchants even reached Baghdad by way of the Volga River and the Caspian Sea. Eventually, Swedish chieftains became the rulers of the vast Slavic lands of the Dnieper and the Volga. The invaders were called the Rus, a term that some hold to be the origin of the word “Russia”—“Land of the Rus.”
To Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland
Norwegian Vikings focused on many of the outer islands. For instance, they occupied the Orkneys and the Shetlands in the eighth century and the Faeroes, the Hebrides, and eastern Ireland in the ninth century. Vikings even colonized Iceland. There they established the parliamentary body the Althing. Still existing as the governing body of Iceland, the Althing is the West’s oldest parliamentary assembly.
In 985 C.E., a Viking named Erik the Red established a colony in Greenland. Later that year fellow Norseman Bjarni Herjolfsson set off from Iceland to join his parents in Greenland. But he was blown off course and overshot Greenland. “Bjarni was probably the first Norseman to sight North America,” says the Cultural Atlas of the Viking World.
On the basis of Bjarni’s report, and probably after the year 1000, Leif Eriksson, son of Erik the Red, sailed westward from Greenland to Baffin Island and then down the coast of Labrador. He came to a promontory of land he called Vinland, after the wild grapes or berries growing there.* Leif wintered there before returning to Greenland. The following year Leif’s brother Thorwald led an expedition to Vinland, but he was killed in a skirmish with natives. A few years later, however, between 60 and 160 Vikings established a settlement in Vinland, but because of the ongoing hostility of the indigenous people, they stayed only about three years, never to return. Almost 500 years passed before an Italian explorer in the service of England, John Cabot, claimed North America for England.
The End of the Viking Era
By the end of their era, the Vikings had created a number of new political states over which Scandinavian dynasties ruled. But they did not remain foreigners for long, for many Vikings were eventually assimilated into their newfound cultures, even religiously. For example, Viking chieftain Rollo, who seized part of the territory on the French coast that is called Normandy (meaning “Land of the Northmen,” or Normans), converted to Catholicism. One of his descendants was William, Duke of Normandy. After the battle of Hastings in 1066, which pitted descendants of Norman and English Vikings against one another, victorious Duke William was crowned king of England.
William promptly blocked all further Scandinavian influence in England and introduced a new feudal era involving medieval French systems of government, land ownership, and economics. Hence, “if one date has to be chosen to mark the end of the Viking Age,” says the book The Vikings, by Else Roesdahl, “it has to be 1066.” The 11th century also saw the original Viking kingdoms in Scandinavia make the transition to independent nation states.
The three centuries of Viking history are action packed. Yet, the image of the Vikings as being nothing more than raiding barbarians who wielded sword and ax is not complete. They also proved to be adaptable by eventually colonizing distant lands and even becoming absorbed by the local cultures. As farmers they settled down to permanent residences, and as rulers they sat on foreign thrones. Yes, the Vikings proved to be masters not just of sail and sword but of plow and politics as well.
Outside Scandinavia the Vikings were usually called heathen, Danes, Northmen, or Norsemen. As most modern historians use the term “Viking” for all Scandinavians of the Viking era, we have adopted that term in this article. The origin of the term “Viking” is obscure.
Vikings worshiped many mythical gods, including Odin, Thor, Frey, Freya, and Hel. Odin, the god of wisdom and war, led the pantheon. His wife was Frigga. Thor was a slayer of giants and ruler of winds and rain. Frey was an immoral god of peace and fertility. His sister Freya was goddess of love and fertility. Hel was goddess of the underworld.
Norse mythology is the basis for the names of certain days of the week in English and some other languages. Tuesday is named for Tyr, son of Odin (also known as Woden); Wednesday is Woden’s day; Thursday, Thor’s day; and Friday, Frigga’s day.
Like their worshipers, Viking gods supposedly obtained their wealth through theft, daring, and guile. Odin promised that those who died valiantly in battle would have a place in the celestial realm of Asgard (a home of the gods), in the great hall of Valhalla. There they could feast and fight to their hearts’ content. Viking nobles were often buried with a boat or with stones laid out in the form of a boat. Food, weapons, ornaments, slaughtered animals, and perhaps even a sacrificed slave were also interred. A queen’s maid might be buried along with her.
The horned helmet often associated with the Vikings predates the Viking era by over 1,000 years and was apparently only worn ceremonially. Viking warriors wore simple conical helmets made of metal or leather, if they chose to wear a helmet at all.