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The word Viking derives from the Old Norse word vik, meaning “inlet,” probably a reference to the Vikings’ habit of using bays, sounds, and fjords—ubiquitous along the Scandinavian coasts—as places from which to stage attacks on seagoing vessels. Through three centuries of sustained military and mercantile endeavors, the Vikings played a significant role in the diffusion of Norse culture throughout Europe.
The Vikings appeared on history’s stage during the eighth century CE. In 793 CE a group of Viking marauders from Scandinavia besieged, captured, looted, and destroyed a Christian monastery on Lindisfarne, a small island located just off the northeastern coast of England. This was the first in a long series of military incursions made by seafaring Scandinavian warriors. During the next two centuries their quest for land and wealth would take them as far west as Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, and the northern tip of the New World. They would make their presence known along the Atlantic coasts of France, Portugal, and Spain. They would also penetrate the interior of Europe via its network of rivers, eventually reaching both Baghdad (Iraq) and Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey). Paris, York, and Dublin would experience their fury. They would also establish footholds at Novgorod and Kiev in Rus.
Scholars do not know with any degree of certainty what elicited this wave of conflict. But like other popular migrations that have taken place throughout history, such as those that occurred in the Mediterranean basin during the twelfth century BCE and in Europe during the fifth century CE, a common stimulus tends to be a gradual (or radical) shift in weather patterns that alters the cycle of subsistence. Consequently, scholars have postulated that a significant climatic change in northern Europe produced warmer temperatures, caused glacial recession, and led to two significant environmental anomalies—one biological, the other social. The first was a decrease in the rate of infant mortality, accompanied no doubt by a rise in the male birth rate. The second was a burgeoning population of young males who could neither be assimilated fully into economic life nor provided with sufficient means for survival given prevailing inheritance customs. This perceived lack of resources perhaps fostered an atmosphere of desperation that propelled the Vikings into Europe and the Atlantic in pursuit of conquest and profit. The derivation of the word Viking is the Old Norse word vik, meaning “inlet.” Thus, the name probably refers to the Vikings’ penchant for using bays, sounds, and fjords— ubiquitous along the Scandinavian coasts—as places from which to stage attacks on seagoing vessels.
Feared for their martial prowess, Viking warriors were equally adroit in military operations on sea and land. They mastered the construction and sailing of the longship, a durable vessel that could reach a maximum speed of 18.5 kilometers per hour and traverse 200 kilometers in a typical day. It was of inestimable value to the Vikings, given the quickstrike surprise tactics that were one of the cornerstones of their military strategy. In ground combat the Vikings employed an impressive array of weapons, including swords, spears, javelins, battle-axes, knives, bows, arrows, shields, and body armor. The average height of a Viking warrior was 1.72 meter, roughly .07 meter taller than most European males whom they would encounter on the battlefield. This physical advantage, along with their skill in psychological warfare, made them a formidable force with which few could reckon. They had even their own cadre of elite military personnel—the Berserkers. Named for their unique attire (bear skins), these operatives appear to have used shamanic techniques to alter their normal state of consciousness in preparation for combat. Byzantine rulers recognized the prowess of Norse (Viking) warriors and utilized their services in the Varangian Guard, a select unit that provided protection for the emperor.
Viking warriors had a particularly strong religious attachment to the Norse god Odin, known popularly as the “Father of Victories.” Those warriors who lost their lives in battle expected to be ushered by divine escorts, the Valkyries, to Valhalla, Odin’s palatial hall in the divine land of Asgard. Here they would feast and continue to train for the ultimate battle, called “Ragnarok,” in which the entirety of the cosmos along with its divine and human inhabitants would be destroyed. This final cataclysm would lead to the generation of a new universe, which would be repopulated by a remnant of gods and humans. Odin was considered the patron of war, poetry, and the futhark—the runic alphabet. Norse myth records that he obtained the runes (characters of the alphabet) after being hung upside down on yggdrasil—the “world tree”—for nine days.
The Norse pantheon consisted of two divine families: the Aesir and the Vanir. The former was made up of the gods living in Asgard. In addition to Odin, these gods included Thor, god of thunder and wielder of the divine hammer Mjollnir; Loki, the divine trickster; and Heimdall, guardian of Bifrost, the bridge leading to the celestial abode of the Aesir. The Vanir lived in the sacred land of Vanaheim and consisted of deities closely associated with the world of nature. The most important of these were Njord, god of wind and sea; Freyja, goddess of love and fertility; and Freyr, twin brother of Freyja and god of sun and rain. In general, the Vikings believed themselves to inhabit a world suffused with the numinous (supernatural) and to be intimately linked with an assortment of spiritual A Viking tower in the midst of celtic cross markers in a Burren, Ireland, cemetery. entities. With the embrace of Christianity, this older stratum of belief would not be eclipsed. It would live on in the popular imagination and the development of syncretistic (relating to the combination of different forms of belief or practice) traditions in religion and the arts.
The peoples of northern Europe had a fondness for poetry and an appreciation for its evocative power. Poetry was a particularly effective vehicle for preserving and passing on their myths, epics, and legends. The mythology that helped to shape the social world of the Vikings contained a rich assortment of stories dealing with creation, the exploits of their gods, and the culmination of history. Two thirteenth-century sources provide the context and background necessary for understanding these stories. Together they open a window onto the world of Norse imagination. The first is Saxo Grammaticus’s History of the Danes (c. 1215 CE), written from a distinctly Christian perspective. The second is the Prose Edda (c. 1220 CE), written by Snorri Sturlson, an Icelandic poet. Viking achievements in the utilitarian and decorative arts were also significant. The former category included their manufacture and embellishment of weaponry (e.g., ships, swords, axes, and shields), utensils (e.g., vessels for drinking), and musical instruments. The latter category included jewelry such as pins, necklaces, and bracelets. Wood, textiles, stone, and metal were the preferred artistic media.
The Vikings left an indelible mark on Western civilization. Through three centuries of sustained military and mercantile endeavors, they played a significant role in the diffusion of Norse culture throughout Europe. This cultural legacy continues to flourish; some of its ancient lore and rituals having been reclaimed today by religious seekers who use it to fashion neopagan spiritualities. Other elements native to it have long been part of popular Christian practice (e.g., the Christmas tree, which may be a cultural refl ex of the Norse yggdrasil). Deep resonances between Norse eschatological conceptions (those relating to the final events in the history of the world) and those of both Christian theology and scientific cosmology promise to make Viking society a source of fascination in the twenty-first century as research into global conceptions of cosmic and human origins continues.
- Allan, T. (2004). Vikings. New York: Barnes and Noble Books.
- Campbell, G., Batey, C., Clarke, H., Page, R. I., & Price, N. S. (Eds.). (1994). Cultural atlas of the Viking world. Abingdon, U.K.: Andromeda Oxford.
- Time-Life Books. (1998). What life was like when longships sailed. Alexandria, VA: Author.
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