Present day researchers don’t think the Vikings, who were groups of unorganized clans living in the Nordic area of Europe, were the bloodthirsty savage giants that they are often made out to be. In fact, they were clean, average size men. They were incredible seafarers and prolific traders.
While they may not have been constantly at war, the Vikings were still violent and brutal warriors. They defeated nearly every foe they ever faced. Due to their dedication to the warrior lifestyle, violence and war were part of everyday life for them. These are some horrifying facts about their lives.
10. Magic Mushrooms
The Vikings were the most dominant fighting force in Europe between the late 8th century and the mid-11th century. One huge advantage the Vikings had over the people they invaded was that when they went into a battle, they would enter into a trance-like state called “Berserker.” In this state, they would indiscriminately butcher anyone who got in their way.
One theory published as to how the Vikings entered these Berserker states is that they ate Psilocybin mushrooms. Better known as magic mushrooms. First reported in The American Journal of Psychiatry, the theory is that the mushrooms, which grew in the area where the Vikings lived, caused them to have hallucinations. It also increased their adrenaline levels, causing the Berserker state.
As advantageous as it may have been for the Vikings, slaughtering people while high on mushrooms couldn’t nearly be as fun as watching The Wizard of Oz while listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, right?
9. Viking Soup
Since bloody and violent skirmishes were part of Viking life, Viking women became pretty knowledgeable about battle wounds. Specifically, Viking women had a way to gauge how bad a stab or slash wound was. They would feed the injured warrior a broth that had onions, leeks, and herbs.
After eating it, the women would smell the wound. If they smelled the broth they knew that the wound was too deep, and there was no way to fix it. With death coming soon, the women would do nothing to help heal the dying warrior. They would focus their time and use their remedies only on warriors that they could help.
The Vikings used a number of different weapons, like long axes and spears. Even their shields were used as offensive weapons. However, their most prized weapons were their long swords. The Vikings would name their swords like “Widow-Maker” and “Corpse-Bramble,” and the swords would be passed down generation to generation. As Viking boys grew up, their fathers would talk about all the men who died by the sword. This helped pass along their family history and instill the idea of nobility in battle.
The swords were double edged and sharp enough to cut through a human skull, or cut off a limb with one slice. The men carried their swords at all times, usually on their back, and slept beside them. They needed to be armed all the time because of family disputes. Factions of Vikings were constantly at war, after all. Men were expected to be able to defend their homes, their families, and help defend their leaders and their leaders’ property.
The Viking justice system is rather different than the laws of today. Notably, insulting someone of a higher class was off limits, but killing someone wasn’t always illegal. For example, if someone was murdered, then their family could kill the murderer. Of course, this led to long-lasting, back-and-forth blood feuds.
Another way of settling disputes was Holmgangs. No, a Holmgang wasn’t a band of ruffians who were big fans of actor Ian Holm. They were fights, sometimes to the death. It was essentially a duel, with one person challenging another he felt had wrong him. It was to be held within the week of the challenge and someone could volunteer to fight in place of the person who was challenged. At the beginning of the duel, the challenger would read the rules, which varied from region to region. Rules included things like what weapons were to be used, how many shields could be used, who could take the first strike, what would signify the winner, and what the compensation would be for the victor. Of course, sometimes the only way the Holmgang would come to an end was when one of the fighters died.
If the person who was challenged didn’t show up for the duel, they were automatically deemed guilty. If the charge was bad enough, then anyone, from any social class, would be legally able to kill that person. This meant that if the leader of the clan didn’t show up for a duel, a slave could kill him without any legal repercussions.
The Vikings loved violence, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that their games make UFC look like the ballet. In Viking games, death and serious injuries were common. The rule was that men could stop playing whenever they wanted. If they got killed, it was their own fault.
One game they played was a “swimming” competition, and we use that term very loosely. The point of the game was for the men to hold an opponent underwater for as long as he could. If the man couldn’t reach the surface, he drowned. Another game involved two teams and a ball, and it was essentially a game of full contact “keep away.” The game was rather violent and was only played once a year in the autumn. Wrestling was another major aspect of the Viking culture. It helped them stay fit and in fighting shape, even when they weren’t raiding villages.
If the games themselves weren’t dangerous enough, fights and brawls could erupt at any time. In one account, there was a game that was being played by a group of boys. A six-year-old boy drove an ax into the head of another boy because he was roughed up by the boy earlier in the game. If the fights didn’t end on the field, they could lead to blood feuds that could last for years.
For some perspective on how violent the games were, one warrior could still fight in battle, but the games were too intense and he could only watch.
Since the Vikings lived in the Nordic area of Europe, where conditions can be incredibly harsh and violence was a part of their everyday life, they wanted their children to be strong. In Viking culture, everyone, including children, were expected to work. As they got older, all males were expected to fight and all females were expected to work around the home, amongst other duties. If an infant was born with a deformity or something else was wrong, they were often placed outside and died from exposure.
Girls were more likely to be left to die than boys. While women enjoyed more rights in Viking society compared to other societies, girls were considered less valuable. Males could own land, riches, and be valued warriors. Whereas girls needed to be married off, and a dowry would need to be provided to the new family.
4. Sexual Slavery
It’s believed the Viking Age started in 793 AD, when raiders, probably from Norway, attacked the Lindisfarne monastery off the coast of northeastern England. The Vikings continued to raid villages and monasteries along the European coast until 1066. However, researchers were never really sure why the Vikings began their raids.
One theory is that the Viking men may have wanted women because of an upset in the male to female ratio, thanks to gender selective infanticide. This has led some researchers to believe that the main reason Viking men started invading different areas in Europe wasn’t to pillage. Instead, they were focused on kidnapping women to be their wives.
Some genetic testing that was performed on modern Icelandic citizens backs up this theory. What they tested was the specific mitochondria that you get from your mother and your father. The Vikings colonized Iceland over a thousand years ago and since then, there has been relatively little migration to the country. So, researchers were able to formulate where the settlers of Iceland came from. Their testing found that about 80% of male settlers in Iceland came from Norway and 63% of the women settlers came from the British Isles. That would suggest there was large scale interbreeding between the Norwegian men and women from the areas where the Vikings invaded. It’s incredibly unlikely that the women would have immigrated to Iceland by themselves on their own free will.
3. Erik the Red Was Too Violent For the Vikings
The Vikings were fierce and dedicated warriors that were known for their brutality. And somehow, Erik Thorvaldsson was too violent for them. Better known as Erik the Red, he was born in Norway sometime around 950. When Erik was a child, his father was exiled over a murder, and his family moved to Iceland. This would become a theme for Erik.
Erik gained his famous nickname because of his red hair and the fact that he was a volatile and violent man. This temper would get him in trouble around 980. While living in Haukadale, Iceland, Erik’s servants triggered a landslide, destroying his neighbor’s house. A kinsmen of the man, Eyiolf the Foul, killed the servants in retaliation. Infuriated, Erik killed Eyiolf and an enforcer of his clan. The family of Eyiolf demanded justice, and Erik was banished.
Erik and his family moved north, but remained in Iceland. They set up a farm on the island of Oxney. Once settled there, a new neighbor named Hfran the Dueler, who was building his home, asked Erik if he could borrow some wooden beams that had special religious meaning. Erik agreed, but when he went to get them back, Hfran refused to return them. A brawl ensued and two of Hfran’s sons and a few of his friends were killed. Erik, once again, was banished.
Erik and his family settled in Greenland, becoming the first people to do so. After his banishment ended, he returned to Iceland and encouraged people to move to Greenland. Two colonies were established and Erik lived out the rest of his days with his family there. That family included his son, Leif Erikson, who was the first European to travel to North America and set up colonies, beating Christopher Columbus by almost 500 years.
2. Child Sacrifices
Due to Christian writings, there were rumors that Vikings committed human sacrifices. However, the monks responsible for those writings never saw the actual ceremony. The writings have been dismissed as propaganda.
On the other hand, there are writings from the Vikings that say that humans are the ultimate sacrifice and Odin supposedly demanded it. However, there was no concrete evidence that Vikings performed human sacrifices until 2011, when human bones, along with sacrificial jewelry and weapons, were found at a site known for religious rituals in a Viking settlement near Tissø, Denmark. This finding also helped substantiate an earlier theory regarding the discovery of children’s bones found in a well, along with sacrificial jewelry, near a Viking settlement in Trelleborg, Denmark.
The bones came from five children that were between the ages of four and seven. Wells were of significant importance to the Vikings. Notably, Odin gained his knowledge from drinking from a well, so sacrificial wells certainly would make sense in the Viking culture. It’s believed that children were sacrificed in extreme cases when the Vikings were hoping to reconnect with the gods.
1. Blood Eagle
The Vikings supposedly had a rather gruesome form of execution called the Blood Eagle, and it appears that it was reserved for royalty.
The Blood Eagle had multiple stages, starting with the victim being tied face down. Then the real fun began. The shape of an eagle with outstretched wings would be carved into the man’s back. Then the ribs would be hacked from the spine one by one with an ax. Once that was done, the bones and skin were pulled back to make the victim’s back look like wings. Supposedly, this was done while the victim was still alive, which was important for the next stage when salt was rubbed into the wounds on the back. To end it all, the lungs were pulled out through the back, spread over the wings made from the flesh and bone of the back. Witnesses could watch the lungs exhale their last breath, making it look like the wings were fluttering.
The Vikings depicted the execution in their artwork, and according to their writings it happened at least twice. However, modern day researchers are unsure if the Blood Eagle was actually performed, or if it was just a metaphor for what the executed went through.