The Norsemen that we call Vikings in the modern parlance ranged across much of Scandinavia from the 8th to 11th centuries. Modern people are fascinated by what the lives of these Vikings must have been like, which you can tell from the number of movies and TV shows we keep making about them. Problem is, a lot of things get misinterpreted or overlooked. There’s a lot more to Vikings than we may realize. Take a look!
10. They Sold Unicorn Horns
The life of a Viking was by no means all pillaging and raiding, the way some older movies make it seem. Vikings had a robust home life, and many of them were simple farmers for the most part. They were also traders and because of their seafaring nature they were able to go places and find things that many others across Europe had never seen before. That gave the Vikings a remarkable advantage when it came to selling unusual items. And maybe that meant that one or two Vikings would be a little unscrupulous when it came to describing what it was they were selling it.
While native hunters in Canada and Greenland had long been harvesting narwhal for their meat and made use of that long tusk that makes the whale famous, when Europeans first saw those horns their minds who went to what at the time must have been a very obvious conclusion. It had come from a unicorn.
A narwhal tusk is actually a spiral tooth that grows from inside its mouth through the lip and straight through the whale’s face, basically. It spirals around and around as it grows to keep it straight. The result of this is that it does meet the historical, albeit fictional, description of what a unicorn’s horn might look like. Viking sailors who were able to find narwhal in the frigid northern waters that they called home took advantage of the beliefs of other Europeans that this had come from the mythical creature. It likely ensured they could get a much higher price from a buyer.
9. They Didn’t Wear Horned Helmets
Ask just about anyone to describe a Viking and you’ll likely get the picture of a burly, muscle-bound warrior carrying a giant sword and wearing a massive horned helm over their unruly blonde hair. And while Norsemen were known to be blonde, and they did favor swords in battle, that helmet on their head is the product of pure fiction.
Horned helmets were probably just not a thing that Vikings wore. In fact, we only have a few remaining examples of Viking helmets and none of them had horns attached to them in any way. There are artistic examples of warriors depicted wearing helmets, particularly a tapestry found out of Norwegian burial site, that show off some Berserker warriors wearing horned helmets. However, there isn’t really any contemporary research that shows this was a literal practice that the warriors engaged in. Furthermore, if they were going to battle, traveling to new lands on their boats, space would have been at a premium and making room for a giant and admittedly impractical horned helmet would have been a bad idea.
While it’s possible that horned helmets were worn for ceremonial purposes, the fact is that in a real-world setting those giant horns would have gotten in the way of getting the job of battle done. It’s just as likely that very few Vikings wore any helmets at all when they went to battle, and those that did wore the very plain kind such as the one single example of a surviving Viking helmet that exists today.
8. The Biggest Fossilized Poop Ever Came From a Viking
If we’ve learned anything about history, it’s that not everything was rainbows and sunshine. Sometimes bad things happened, sometimes things got dirty. And sometimes historians have to acknowledge that the fossilized relic that they found is the world’s largest Viking poop.
Known by the curiously distinguished name of the Lloyds Bank coprolite, this 8-by-2 inch turd is housed at the Jórvík Viking Centre in York, England. It was discovered in 1972 under where Lloyds Bank was being built. Today it’s worth a stunning $39,000.
The turd, which is scientifically called a coprolite because that is a bit more of a respectable name, is significant because these fossilized remains are usually very rare. And this is the largest one that’s ever been discovered. Analysis showed that the Viking who produced this monster was a man who ate a lot of meat and some cereal grains. Also notable were the number of parasitic worms that were in this poor guy’s gut.
7. Vikings Never Drank Brennivin
Brennivin is an Icelandic schnapps flavored with caraway seeds and something of Iceland’s unofficial beverage. The name translates to “fire wine” and it’s also called the Black Death. It’s widely touted as being a traditional Viking drink and you can find a number of sites that imply the same. Problem is, none of it is true.
According to historian Stefán Pálsson the Icelandic government instituted prohibition in 1915. As with American prohibition, people had no respect for this law and started moonshining. By 1975 prohibition had ended, and the government needed a way to combat the widespread prevalence of the illegal booze trade. So they came up with cheap and easy to make Brennivin. It worked so well that it not only dominated the market, it started to get a reputation as a kind of bum wine, a cheap booze that was easy to abuse.
To combat Brennivin’s bad reputation, marketing experts swooped in and crafted the whole idea that the fire wine was a throwback to the age of Vikings, a powerful drink imbibed by Iceland’s warrior ancestors.
6. Vikings Gave Money for Children’s Teeth
If you ever had reason to Google the origins of the Tooth Fairy myth, or just feel like opening another window and trying it right now, you’ll find many dentist’s websites that recount the tale of how the Tooth Fairy has Viking origins. That’s a great over-simplification of what really went on, but you can definitely see where the Tooth Fairy story may have evolved from a Viking custom.
There was no fairy in Viking lore that came and took teeth from children; however the Vikings did prize the children’s teeth as good luck charms. The concept of a “tooth fee” was something that the Vikings created where they would give something of value in exchange for children’s teeth. And it’s said that the collected teeth were strung together on necklaces meant to bring luck in battle.
5. Vikings Used to Leave Graffiti
Maeshow was a burial site located on the Orkney Islands, dating back to the Neolithic period. When it was excavated in 1861, the excavators discovered that they had been duped into believing they were the first to discover it. Inside the chamber they discovered a series of runic graffiti left by Vikings.
Vikings had discovered the site 800 years prior and taken shelter from a winter storm. The runes they peppered the site with leave no question that these were just the works of bored men looking to tag a wall in the exact same way someone with a can of spray paint might do today.
One of the inscriptions on the wall reads “Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women.” It’s written next to an image of a dog. Others read “Ofram the son of Sigurd carved these runes” and “Tholfir Kolbeinsson carved these runes high up.”
4. Theres’s an Old Saxon Poem Depicting Jesus as a Viking Warrior
Have you ever wondered how Christianity managed to spread to so many different groups of people throughout Europe? Part of the reason it was so appealing was because those spreading it managed to adapt it to fit the audience. In few places was this more obvious than in the poem that depicts Jesus as a Viking warrior. Because if you want people to believe in your God, make him something they can get behind.
The poem called the Heliand was written in the 9th century and, aside from making Jesus a warrior chieftain, it also called the Last Supper “The last mead-hall feast with the warrior-companions.”
3. Vikings Had Remarkably Good Hygiene and Bleached Their Hair
We often depict the stereotypical Viking from pop culture as sort of wild and unkempt, a barbarian of the North that was rude and gruff. Historical evidence suggests that personal hygiene was actually very important to the Viking people. The men were known to use a lye-based dye to lighten their hair because they did seem to prefer blonde. We have discovered burial sites for both men and women which contain a wide variety of grooming materials, including combs and other hair care tools.
It’s known that the women would often wash and cut hair for the men, especially before they left to go on journeys. There were also legal prohibitions in place against intentionally making someone else dirty. In fact, if you pushed another man into water, dirt, food, or even urine there were severe punishments for doing so. That indicates that cleanliness was something that the Viking people took seriously.
2. Vikings Used Urine-Soaked Fungus as a Firestarter
Anyone who’s watched Survivor, or Naked and Afraid, or has just forgotten to bring matches when they went camping knows that starting a fire is not the easiest thing in the world. Modern technology makes it fairly simple, sure, but before the advent of matches and lighters, and without a handy flint, how did ancient peoples pull this off?
In the case of Vikings, they managed to find some help in the natural world to create a kind of chemically fueled tinder. Growing in and around Europe is a fungus that is known as Touchwood or Tinder Fungus. Not the most clever name, but it was descriptive.
For the Vikings this wasn’t as simple as just having a mushroom around that was combustible. The way Tinder Fungus works is that the Vikings would cut away the outside of it to get to the inner meat of the fungus. That interior stuff would be cut into slices and beaten thin.Once it was beaten down to a felt-like material they would char it to make char paper, which is something that survivalists use even today. Essentially, it is a charred piece of fabric that is extremely easy to ignite with even a simple spark or two. Good stuff for starting fires if you have it.
The Vikings would then boil this Tinder Fungus char cloth in their own urine. The sodium nitrate in the urine allowed this fungus char cloth to be able to smolder for days on end without actually catching fire. That meant that Vikings could carry this smoldering cloth around with them in a container as they traveled, and easily start a fire with some dry kindling and tinder as needed, without having to worry about getting a new spark going each time.
1. Vikings Sailed with Cats
If you’ve ever wondered how domestic cats got so widespread around the world, wonder no more. Vikings were largely responsible for helping our feline friends spread around Europe and the world as they were known to sail with cats on board their vessels to help control the rodent population.
Genetic research has shown that cats expanded around the world in major waves. The first ancient expansion was basically where the domestic cat originated in the Middle East. A second expansion occurred later and was largely due to seafaring people like the Vikings. And as it turns out, rodent control was not the only benefit Vikings found in having cats.
Additional research has shown numerous cat skeletons in Viking burial pits. The reason for this wasn’t that they had a particular fondness for burying their beloved feline friends so much as Vikings apparently used them for their fur. The study of numerous cat skeletons has shown most of them in these burial pits had either broken necks or clear marks on their skulls and bones showing that they had been skinned using a tool of some kind. The cats that thrived in these cold climates likely would have had fairly robust pelts that could have made for some warm clothing at the time.