So, ‘Vikings’ is back on TV in all its gruesome glory! For those who have not seen the series I would highly recommend it to any lover of bloodthirsty action. The show actually presents the Vikings moderately accurately and avoids some of the false conventional stories associated with the Norsemen. Imagine a Viking now: hulking stature, thick beard, long blond hair with a horned helmet and wielding a bloody axe, right? Well, to a degree yes, but in fact there is far more to these nautical Scandinavians than the stereotypes expressed through the media. With this in mind, here are seven facts you may not have known about the Vikings:
1. The word “Viking” was not established in England until around the 19th century. It was invented to group together the inhabitants of Scandinavia from around 800 to 1050 AD. Prior to this the Vikings were known as Norsemen, relating to the French area of Normandy, which was ravaged by these raiders. Indeed, raiders were exactly what these people were, rather than the warrior definition which is often accepted in the modern age. There was no organised Viking army; instead there were scattered tribes with chieftains who would conduct war with each other as often as they would pillage foreign lands. Obviously, it was far more profitable to raid abroad, especially because it had less immediate consequences than attacking your neighbours. This explains why occasionally tribes would ally together to strengthen their forces before jumping in their ships for a spell of piracy and plunder.
2. Unfortunately for any fancy dress lovers the Vikings did not appear to wear the fashionable horned helmets which they are now renowned for. There has only been one authentic Viking helmet found which dates to the 10th century, and on it, there were no horns, nor even a place to attach horns on the iron plating. The absence of archaeological evidence suggests that the Vikings probably wore leather skullcaps, typical of the European age. More appealing to those lovers of the Vikings is the suggestion that they fought without any headgear at all. The depiction of the horned helmet may have emerged during the 19th century, a period of cultural reinventions in which nations were competing to have the most impressive legendary heritage. In one of these folkloric sagas a Swedish illustrator, Gustav Malmström, depicted a Norse hero with dragon wings and horns on his helmet. Once again, entertainment appears to have superseded history.
3. The Vikings are usually portrayed as enormous men with blond hair. However, evidence shows that they were not superhumanly tall but distinctly normal and varied in terms of height. Even in the modern age, Scandinavians are associated with blondness and the Vikings were no different, seeing their hair colour as an ideal of beauty. Far from famous for their vanity, it may come as a surprise that these Norsemen went to great lengths to look their best, using a high powered soap to effectively bleach their hair. We can imagine hair dye did not have quite the same health and safety requirements as we know now. One advantage of this method of hair dye was the eradication of head lice, killed in the bleaching process.
4. Continuing on the theme of hygiene, the popular image of a Viking is a barbaric man matted with the blood of his enemies. But in fact they took great care in maintaining their cleanliness through bathing and grooming. Vikings would bathe themselves on a regular basis, probably several times a week, and this marked them out as one of the cleanest factions in the Europe. These people fashioned numerous cleaning tools from animal bone, the most prominent of these being the everyday comb. The comb was adopted at all levels of society and was most likely designed to stop the spread of lice. Other items which have been found in excavations include: tweezers, razor blades, and most interestingly, ear-spoons. The modern equivalent of the ear-spoon being the cotton swab, the Viking version was slightly more impressive, often ornamented and worn around the necks of women in society.
5. The signature weapon of the Vikings in public perception is without doubt the axe. However, in reality the Vikings were skilled blacksmiths who focussed on the crafting of swords which were both durable and lightweight. In the Viking sagas there is a mythical test in which the sword is placed in a stream and a hair floated down towards it; if the hair was cut the sword was deemed useable. In battle they used a variety of tactics, including an effective shield wall supported by archers. The Vikings’ greatest technological achievement was their ships. ‘Longships’ were lighter and faster but also stronger than any ships before them, and in fact many of the ships that followed them. Each ship used over 10 oak trees and required around 25,000 hours of manual labour. Being their primary asset, these ships swiftly became the craft around which Viking society revolved.
6. Despite their reputation as pillaging pirates, the main focus of most Vikings was farmland. The TV show captures this aspect of society very well, as the community organises annual raids rather than being constantly at war. Viking society was not ostentatious but concentrated on providing enough food for the occupants of the village. The majority of the men in the village would spend their time sowing crops, hunting and raising cattle to survive the harsh Scandinavian winter months. They certainly did not live a life of revelry and luxury; raiding was done to provide more income through slave trading and the theft of valuable items. Furthermore, pillaging was only one aim of the expeditions overseas. Many Vikings settled in lands such as Greenland where they had access to better farmland. Although Vikings are immediately identified as warriors, they were primarily farmers, craftsmen and merchants; their trade routes stretched from the Byzantine Empire to North Africa and to most of Europe. This, of course, begs the question of how, after almost 300 years of success as a hybrid group of people, the Vikings came to decline.
7. The surrounding cultures were by now astutely aware of the danger of the Vikings and began to organise stalwart defences. Kingdoms developed in Norway, Sweden and Denmark which encapsulated the fragmentary Scandinavian world and raiding communities became outdated. Finally, the rise of Christianity in Europe meant the Vikings were singled out as pagans and this had a significant impact upon their trade. Initially, many Viking leaders converted simply to gain access to wealth and support from Christian missionaries. However, over time the shamanistic rituals began to fade out of society and the majority adopted a monotheistic way of life. Paganism died out and the Vikings became part of the Christian movement which swept across Europe. Interestingly, there are currently plans in Iceland to build the first temple to the Norse Gods in around 1,000 years. The high priest of Iceland’s neo-pagan ‘Asatru Association’ has been recognised by the Icelandic state and can therefore conduct marriages. So for any romantics who fancy doing something quirky when they marry, there’s a unique idea!