By Bryndís Víglundsdóttir
In this paper, I intend to share information I have gathered about the Vikings from books, articles, and conversations with people who are knowledgeable about the Vikings and of course, the knowledge I have gained by reading our Sagas.
My main sources:
(Njáls saga, Egils saga, Fóstbræðra saga, (The Saga of the Sworn Brothers) Landnáma, (Book of the Settlement) various bits of wisdom online from the Arne Magnusson Institute, and www.ismennt.is)
So, what about the Vikings?
The word vikingur (M) refers to a man who is a pirate and seafarer. In Icelandic there is also the word víking (F) – fara í víking - go vikinging- which means to launch a Viking trip.
A Viking trip/raid was an attack on communities where preferably the people being attacked were not protected. The Vikings would steal such property as they could find and, more often than not, also take people to sell on the slave markets or take them to their homes to use them there as slaves for manual work and/or for sex.
Nowadays the word has in several languages, e.g. English, been made to refer to Nordic people of a certain period, commonly called the Viking period or Viking age, 793-1066.
During this time the Vikings were very active on the oceans, going on raiding trips, sometimes great distances. As a rule, they also traded and would sometimes offer people they were “visiting” to choose between trading or fighting. One such raid is recounted in Egils saga, chapters 46-49.
Egill and his brother Þórólfur were on a Viking trip and took land in Kúrdaland (western Lithuania). The offer to trade was accepted and it looked like the settlement was very poorly defended so Egill and his crew thought this would be an easy visit. They traded for some days and when the trading was about over a large group of men, all holding swords and axes rushed out of the woods and attacked the Vikings. Egill and twelve of his men were captured but Egill, being a real Viking, managed to free himself and his men and they had their revenge.
The beginning of the Viking period is usually marked by the raid on the monastery on the island Lindisfarne on the coast of northeastern England in the year 793. This may not be the first Viking raid as no one knows when the first Viking boat sailed.
The end of the Viking age is marked by the event when Haraldur harðráði (the “hard ruler”), king of Norway was defeated in the battle at Stamford Bridge, England in the year 1066.
Men who lived in different Nordic countries and "turned Viking" when they were raiding went to different locations for their pillaging. Thus the Vikings from the area later to be called Denmark would frequent their visits to England, the settlements on the shores of the North Sea (Holland and northern Germany), and France. Those from what later was named Norway would raid Scotland and Ireland and the islands north of Scotland. They eventually settled in the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland. Swedish Vikings sailed east to Russia where they were called “Russ.”
They established a state in northwestern Russia that they named Garðaríki and
sailed the powerful Russian rivers all the way south to the Black Sea. They were
avid traders and the trade was blooming from Greenland to Russia and Istanbul.
Historians maintain that peaceful dealings were the rule rather than skirmishes and killings. Nordic men formed the bodyguard at the court of Konstantinopel and were named Væringjar (Varangians.) The hero Gunnar of Hlíðarendi (see Njáls saga) served as a væringi in Konstantinopel.
We have looked at raiders on the ocean who would keep their vessels on inlets (vík- therefore their names víkingur) and take off from the inlets for their raids. When they returned home they were farmers and “normal people”. These men are considered to have been skilled in many ways. They had to be skilled at navigating their boats, both for sailing, fishing, and seal and whale hunting. They had to be good in battle and knowledgeable in reading and interpreting Nature (the stars and the winds) and the leaders on the raids had to be of such strong character that the crew would respect their orders.
Gradually the Vikings began to settle in the areas that they “visited” and clearly
liked. Several Viking communities were established. The best known are the ones
called Danelaw of eastern England, the islands north of Scotland (Auður djúpúðga-
the deep minded), Dublin in Ireland, Burgundy in northern France (Hrólfur-Rollo), the Faroe Islands (Þrándur í Götu). Iceland (numerous persons) and Greenland (Eric the Red and Leif the Lucky One). The Nordic people assimilated in most of these regions, but the Faroe Islands and Iceland were not inhabited when the Nordic people settled there. It is fair to assume that generally, the Vikings were the sons and daughters of various Nordic settlements during the Viking age. Most of the early settlers were “former” or still active Vikings who brought their culture and customs with them and continued to practice them in the new location. Besides knowing the “Viking traits” they also proved to be good farmers and very skilled at working with wood and iron. Several Viking ships have been found such as the Gauksstadaship (found in the Oslo fiord) and several ships found at Roskilde, Denmark. These ships demonstrate very fine woodworking skills. And let us not forget either that many Vikings were fine poets.
The “Viking traits” were certainly practiced in Iceland during the settlement
period and onwards for centuries as is reported in our Sagas. The Vikings did
not forget their traits!
The sword was the most common weapon in the Viking area. The bow was also
common and popular. Using the bow effectively required much strength and
practice. The Vikings used helmets, not however with horns as Hollywood shows
the Viking helmets. Their helmets were of metal, the shape being similar to the
modern beanie. The shield was an important protection besides the helmet. Some
men wore armour. They took good care of their weapons and protective gear as
this was very important.
In our Sagas there is only one man, a son of a settler, Egill Skalla-Grímsson said to have gone Vikinging. Normally he was a good farmer and tradesman on his farm, Borg on Mýrar, Borgarfjördur, and then he would become a Viking, sail abroad killing and plundering. If any of his neighbors didn't go by his rules he visited them and let them see his weapons but did not have to use them. Seeing Egill was enough. This fierce Viking was also one of our best poets- raised and loved as a child by Þorgerður Brák, an Irish slave. (Read about Egill in action, Egils saga chapters 46-48). There were many more who went abroad to participate in Viking battles but didn't lead raids as Egill did. One settler, Leif the Lucky was a peaceful missionary of the Christian custom.
Some maintain that the majority of the early settlers in Iceland were former Vikings. Recent gene studies reveal that about half of all the women in Iceland during the settlement period were of British stock while four of five male settlers were of Nordic stock. Scientists believe that this may be explained by the fact that most of the male settlers in Iceland had moved from the Nordic countries to Great Britain, married local women, or had taken local concubines. These men probably took or stole the area they then called their own and were correctly named Vikings in the old Nordic meaning of the term.
Later many of them were driven from Britain. Settling in Iceland must have seemed a fairly good choice. Many written accounts of this pattern are available. So it is fair to assume and say that Iceland was settled by “burnt out” Vikings and their women. The people of Nordic stock (Vikings) who remained in Britain assimilated and contributed their skills and know-how to the communities where they settled.
There are many famous Vikings who are known all over the world. One of them,
Ragnar loðbrók (Ragnar "hairy-breeches") has been made famous by Hollywood. The story of how Ragnar won the beautiful Þóra for his wife is well known. Þóra owned a serpent that she kept in a box where it lay on a bed of gold. The serpent kept growing and so did the gold. It became so huge that it needed a whole ox for a meal. Þóra's father offered anyone who could kill the serpent his daughter for a wife. Ragnar made breeches that he had treated with tar and sand to protect his legs from the serpent's poison. He killed the worm and Þóra became his wife. Later he got Áslaug, the daughter of Sigurður who slayed the dragon Fáfnir for his second wife.
Ragnar was killed in England around 860, about fifteen years before Iceland was settled. A descendant of Ragnar, the settler Þórður at Höfði in Skagafjördur had nineteen children by his wife so it is probably safe to assume that most if not all Icelanders are the descendants of Ragnar loðbrók!
Some details about the daily life during the Viking times.
Most of the people we are looking at were farmers, responsible for their families, the workers on the farm, and the livestock. They kept cattle and sheep and some also owned hogs. They cultivated grains such as barley, rye, and oats and some even grew wheat which was considered a luxury in those days. They also grew some beans and root vegetables. Homemade tools were used in the fields. Vikings who lived close to the ocean relied on fish for their daily food and they also caught seals and walruses. They used nets, lines, and harpoons for their catching and hunting.
Life was not all work. The people of the Viking times played and had fun. Several chess games were played, people loved to sing and recite rhymes, they danced and some even knew and showed magic tricks. In the summer people would dip into the rivers or lakes and during the winter they would ski. Competing in running, jumping, and wrestling was popular - just as it still is.
Hollywood has created an image of the Vikings that is not quite real. They are shown extremely tall, almost keeling over due to all the muscles on their arms and body, all have a shock of hair on their handsome heads-and on we could go. In reality, men were tall if they reached 5 feet 5 inches and the average height of women was 5 foot 2 inches. The Viking population did not reach a high age compared to the people of our times. Only a few became older than fifty-five. A common Viking feature was long hair that was well-kept, clean, and combed. The men grew long beards that they kept clean and sometimes braided. It may be deduced that the Vikings were a neat group as they used to bathe on Saturdays. In an Irish annal, it is stated that the women of Dublin much preferred to have “close contacts” with the clean Vikings rather than with the filthy Irishmen!
The clothes were made of skin, woven woolen material, and linen. The wool was spun and woven into cloth and then sewn into clothes on the farms. The richer people could get foreign material, even of brightly colored silk. Such clothes were called colored clothes. Both men and women wore a tunic. Men and women alike wore a robe over the tunic and closed it with a brooch. Men wore tight pants and high socks. A belt was always put around the waist. Neither adults nor children would wear underwear of any kind.
Sometimes the clothes were decorated with embroidery or ribbons and sometimes people would put on headbands or caps. Both men and women used jewelry, stones and pearls, brooches, necklaces, rings, and a great amount of jewelry has been unearthed from Viking era locations.
People of the Viking era living in Scandinavia had all the wood they needed to build their homes of wood. The settlers in Iceland did not have timber to build houses and homes so they had to use the material available which was lava rocks, loam, and turf.
In a country like Iceland where earthquakes are quite frequent houses built of this material would fall and become ruins easily. It was also a major task to make the walls withstand wind, rain, and snow.
The staple food in Iceland was meat, fish, and dairy products. Grains were scarce. Bread was made of grains and only served on feasts. Ale was also drunk -while feasting. The fish was dried and consumed in that form besides also being eaten fresh. The food was not fried, just cooked in water. Several products were made from the milk and were a very important part of the diet.
People did invite friends and families to their homes to enjoy good food, good mead (ale), and friendship. Often a sacrifice was offered to the gods during these parties.
I hope you have a somewhat broader idea of what the people of the Viking period were like, how they lived and got along now that you have read this paper.
If you have some questions about the Vikings, feel free to send a question or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will try to answer.