The first record of the Scandinavian people known as the Vikings, or Norsemen (Northmen), was when they raided England in 793 A.D. The word Viking comes from the Scandinavian term vikingr, a word for “pirate.” Essentially, Scandinavian men would go on “a Viking” during the summer in which they’d raid the coastal areas of countries like France and England. Even today, over 1,200 years after they first made landfall in England, the Vikings have a reputation as fierce warriors and amazing seafaring people that explored more of the world than anyone before them.
The Viking Age is commonly believed to have started in 793 A.D. when the Lindisfarne monastery, which is off the coast of Northumberland in northeastern England, was attacked. The invaders were most likely Vikings from Norway. However, one researcher argues that the Viking Age actually started earlier when the Vikings sailed from Norway to a trading post on Denmark’s coast 70 years before their raid on Lindisfarne. After making contact with the Danes, the Vikings didn’t raid them; instead they established a trading route.
Evidence to back up the trade route theory are combs made from reindeer antlers that were found in Denmark. Carbon dating determined the bones were from an animal that lived around 720 A.D. At the time, reindeers weren’t found in Denmark; they were only found in Norway and the Vikings were known to use reindeer antlers in their day-to-day lives. These findings also debunk the notion that the Vikings were simply raiders that took what they wanted because they were also skilled traders.
Also, these decades of trading gave them training that made them better sea travelers, which led to their explorations and raids.
9. Women Vikings Travelled with the Men
For many years, it was believed that when the Vikings came to new land, they just took what they wanted; this included women. This led many people to believe that when the Vikings set up a new settlement, they would just bring in local women. That changed in 2014, when DNA evidence seemed to suggest that the Vikings would travel with women from their home country to places as far flung as Canada and Russia. There is also evidence to suggest that they came along on the journeys to help colonize the areas. In fact, it is thanks to the women Vikings that a place like Iceland was colonized because the island was uninhabited before the Vikings got there. The women’s roles were to help tend the farms while the men were away on raids or dead.
8. Viking Feasts
Besides being notorious raiders and amazing seafarers, the Vikings were also known for their incredible feasts. It is believed that the reason for the feasts was so the host could show off and make himself look powerful because of how many resources he had. These banquets, where they served beef and beer, were held to win favor with local workers and gain political alliances. The banquets often hosted people from different Viking factions and the dinners were actually more common than battles between the different factions. Because after all, we think most people would rather eat steak and drink some beer rather than battle a group of Vikings (even if you’re a Viking yourself).
This type of system only worked for a while in Iceland. Shortly after the Vikings settled there, a mini-ice age set in and the winters grew to be nine months long. Due to the cold, the cows needed to be kept inside, which meant they couldn’t graze. This forced the Vikings to feed them from their food supply so they could only keep a practical amount of cows, which meant there was not enough beef for elaborate feasts. Also, without the barley, alcohol production would have gone down.
During the ice age, the Vikings in Iceland started more sheep herding because sheep were better suited to the weather. Also, the ice age spelled the end of the chieftains’ positions of power; without the steaks and the beer, they stopped being mentioned in the Viking Sagas. Yes, that’s right, as soon as they stopped supplying the beer and food, their supporters ditched them. That sounds colder than an Icelandic winter during an ice age.
7. Drug Users
According to Old Norse literature, Viking warriors would enter a state called berserkir, which in English means “Berserker,” or literally, “bear-shirts.” When a Viking went berserk, they would enter into a trance-like fury that would help them in battle.
One theory as to how they enter this state was through eating Amanita muscaria, which are hallucinogenic mushrooms. The theory, which was first proposed in 1956 in The American Journal of Psychiatry, says that they would have consumed them in a ritual and when they started fighting they would have felt the effects of the mushrooms. Evidence suggests that the mushrooms would have grown in the Scandinavia at the time and descriptions of the Berserker state are consistent with the effects of eating mushrooms.
The lesson here is if someone with Viking blood in them asks you to do mushrooms, just say no.
6. They Filed Their Teeth
After examining 557 Viking skeletons from about 850 to 1050 A.D., a Swedish anthropologist discovered that 24 of them had their front teeth filed in a horizontal manner so that the teeth are all the same height. This finding seems to indicate that the Vikings used dental modification. However, why they did it and who taught the procedure to them is a mystery.
One theory is that the Vikings may have learned the skill from West Africans, but the West Africans filed their teeth into points and did not do the same horizontal file on the front teeth that was found on the Vikings. One would imagine that the Vikings, who already tried to look ferocious as part of their battle strategy, would have done it in the same fashion because we doubt there is anything more terrifying than a Viking with pointed teeth.
The only known people who filed their teeth like that were Native Americans living around the Great Lakes area. This has led to speculation that if they share the same dental work, then it is possible that the Vikings and the Native Americans came into contact with each other during the Vikings’ short term settlement in Newfoundland, Canada.
5. The Viking Compass
Easily, one of the most impressive things about the Vikings was their seafaring skills. From their home in Scandinavia, they explored more of the world than anyone before them. Two notable feats is that they reached modern day Russia and they made it all the way to North America 500 years before Christopher Columbus was born. That makes them the first Europeans in North America, and they had settlements there. But how did they do it? At the time, no other civilization came close to traversing the same distances. What made the Vikings different?
Researchers believe that the main reason they were able to travel great distances was because of their compass technology. During that era, people could sail during the day because they followed the sun, but at night or when it was cloudy, venturing too far from land was very dangerous. With their special compass, the Vikings would have been able to keep going in the right direction, even without the sun. However, only one piece of the mythical compass has ever been found and that is the Uunartoq disc which is dated to the 11th century and was found in Greenland. Only half of the wooden disc remains, but researchers believe it was used with a pair of crystals called sunstones and a flat wooden slab. The compass is thought to use crystals called sunstones, which were calcite stones that produced light patterns if they were exposed to UV ray polarization in sunlight. The light patterns would have lined up with the markings on the dial. Then, once they knew the direction, a specially designed wooden slab, called a shadow stick, which simulates the way sun casts a shadow when it hits the gnomon on a sundial, would mark the direction. This allowed them to guide their ships when the sun wasn’t visible, like on a cloudy day or at night.
It is also important to point out that no sunstones have ever been found at known Viking archaeological sites, but medieval writings and evidence found in a wrecked ship make it appear that they did exist and the Vikings had access to them.
According to Viking folklore, the Norse god Odin gained his strength while drinking mead as a child. Also, if a warrior died in battle, when he got to their heaven, Valhalla, he was rewarded with a cup of mead. Needless to say, mead was a very important drink to the Vikings.
Mead wasn’t some mythical drink either, it was an actual substance they drank on Earth and it helped keep the Vikings healthy and helped with infections. The reason mead was so effective was because its main ingredient was honey. Honey has been used for thousands of years as a natural remedy that acts as an antibacterial microbe that helps with physical healing. Another aspect is that mead was made from fermented honey and during the fermenting process, the lactic acid bacteria, which is the most medicinal aspect of honey, multiplied from 100 million per gram of honey into 100 billion per gram. This would have made the mead act like an antibiotic, which would have made the Vikings healthier against infection and illness, which in turn would have made them better warriors.
3. The Middle East
The relationship between Vikings and Christians is pretty well established; mainly that the Vikings raided the Christians, often attacking their churches and monasteries. Experts do not think that these holy places were targeted because the Vikings were against Christianity, in fact, since the Vikings believed in many gods, it would not have been a problem for them to accept the Christian God among their own. It is believed that they attacked churches and monasteries because they were often stored with riches and weren’t heavily guarded.
Besides interacting with Christians, the Vikings also made it all the way to what is now known as the Middle East and they developed a trade route with Persia about 1,000 years ago after the two civilizations came across each other while travelling on the Russian steppes. One of the main things the Vikings purchased was Persian silk and it may have been important to them because some silk was found in a burial ship discovered in Norway that was dated to 834 A.D. Also found on the burial ship was a statue of what looks like a seated Buddha, but it has never been proven if the Vikings ever interacted with Buddhist civilizations.
However, back to the Persians, besides the silk, there is more evidence to back up that they interacted with Muslims and that is a ring found in a Viking woman’s grave in Sweden, just outside of Stockholm. The ring has an inscription in Arabic Kufic writing that says “il-la-la,” which researchers have translated to “for/to (the approval of) Allah.” The ring is made from silver alloy and colored glass. Glass work had been going on for 5,000 years in the Middle East, but it wasn’t common in Viking culture, meaning there is a good chance the ring came from somewhere in the Middle East.
2. They Founded Dublin and Other Irish Towns
In a number of cases, the Vikings set up settlements on inhabitant lands like Greenland, Iceland, Normandy, and Newfoundland, Canada. They also had settlements and kingdoms near places they raided, like in Great Britain.
After the Vikings invaded Ireland in 795 A.D., they set up a kingdom called Dyflin, which would later become Dublin. Dyflin was a major trading post for the Vikings and a stronghold in Ireland. The Vikings ruled Dublin for 300 years, although they were kicked out for a short time. Eventually, the Vikings and the Gaelic people melded with each other, which created an amalgam culture.
Besides Dublin, they established a few other Irish towns like Waterford, Wexford, Wicklow, and Limerick, and these towns became the first trading posts in Ireland.
1. Caused the Spread of the House Mouse
One animal that is found on every continent except Antarctica is Mus musculus domesticus, or simply known as the house mouse. It is thought that these animals are so widespread, especially in Europe, because they hitched rides on Norwegian Viking ships, which helped spread their population. The Vikings would have been ideal travelling companions for the mice, because the mice would have hidden in the food supply the Vikings needed to conquer new areas. Viking architecture would have also been conducive to mice because they would have burrowed into the walls.
Researchers looked at mouse DNA and made a family tree for house mice. They were able to trace the lineage and they found that the mouse population across Europe rose as the Vikings expanded across Europe.
It is also unclear if the Vikings knew about the mice, but there were records of them bringing cats with them on their journeys. The again, the Vikings might have just been cat people.