Vikings and the Old Norse
- See also: European history
The Nordic countries are remembered for the Viking Age, a period during the 9th and 10th centuries, when the Norsemen sailed the seas and rivers of Europe, reaching as far as Canada and Central Asia. Before the Viking Age, Northern Europe also has an interesting prehistory, going back to the end of the Ice Age, around 10,000 BC.
| Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden|
Vikings and the Old Norse • History • Sami culture • Winter • Right to access • Hiking • Cuisine
Many English-speakers who visit the Nordic countries ask where they can see real Vikings. However, no tribe or nation has ever been called Viking; it is simply the word for "sailor" or "pirate" in Old Norse, a language spoken in Denmark, Norway and Sweden before AD 1000. While some Norsemen travelled overseas for settlement, fishing and commerce, a few pursued a career as bandits or mercenaries (the true Vikings), most remained in Scandinavia, and were, by definition, not Vikings.
When it comes to the other two Nordic countries, Iceland was settled by Norsemen in the 9th century. Finland, as well as northernmost Sweden and Norway, have been populated by the Finns and the Sami people since prehistory. They belong to the Finno-Ugric peoples, with a culture completely different from the Norse, until they were annexed by Sweden and Norway during the 13th and 14th centuries.
Though Norsemen had cruised the Baltic Sea for centuries before, historians consider the Viking Age to begin with the raid at Lindisfarne in AD 793, ending with the Christianization and unification of the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden around AD 1000, maybe extending to the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Old Norse prehistory
During the last Ice Age, most of northern Europe was below a glacier, which started melting away around 10,000 BC. The Norse creation myth correctly describes the Norsemen's homeland as created from ice; the later story about the world being built by the slain body of Ymir, the Giant. Since the ice melted, the Scandinavian peninsula has been rising from the sea, at some places as much as 1 meter every 100 years. Therefore, the sceneries and coastlines have been changing, and many places that were navigable water in AD 1000 are dry land today.
The cave in Karijoki is the only known pre-glacial human settlement in northern Europe.
The first settlers followed the melting ice. Farming and metalworking spread from southern Europe to Scandinavia; however, there are plenty of archaeological sites, with remnants of pottery and rock carvings. The three-age system (stone, bronze and iron age) is actually based on Nordic archaeology, and might be deficient to describe the prehistory of most places except northern Europe.
The Old Norse were a Germanic people, who shared much in common with the continental Germans and Anglo-Saxons. Whilst Germany was Christianized during the early Middle Ages, the Germanic pagan culture and mythology continued to survive in Scandinavia up until the 14th century.
During the Migration Period from the 4th to 8th centuries, some tribes from northern Europe travelled south, towards the Mediterranean. Due to lack of sources, the line between fact and fiction is hard to draw. The legendary Goths, who invaded Rome during the 5th century, are believed to have partial descent from southern Scandinavia; either Götaland or Gotland.
A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine.
"From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord." – Prayer allegedly said by English monks.
Most Swedish, Norwegian and Danish people during the Viking Age were farmers or fishermen who remained in Scandinavia. Some men (and in a few cases women) joined expeditions of settlement, commerce, exploration and piracy, reaching as far as present-day Canada, Morocco and Caucasia, taking part in the foundation of great nations such as the Russian Empire, France and England.
The first Christian missionaries arrived in the 9th century, but the church got a foothold only in the 11th century, as the Nordic kings were baptized.
Old Norse heritage
With Christianity and monarchy came stone churches, castles, and the first substantial written records, marking the beginning of historical time in Scandinavia, and the Middle Ages. The pagan Norsemen themselves left behind rather few artifacts, such as rune-stones with short messages (in a writing style similar to instant messages of the 21st century), wooden buildings and ships (of which most are gone), and burial mounds. Therefore, much of our knowledge about the Viking Age is unreliable.
Most Old Norse literature, such as the Edda, an epic poem which contains much of the Norse mythology, as well as the sagas which describe the history of Iceland, were handed down by oral tradition, until written down in the 12th to 15th centuries, when Old Norse religion and Viking lifestyle had been replaced by Christianity and more organized kingdoms. Knowledge gaps have to a large extent been filled by European scholars' knowledge of Greco-Roman polytheism. This however is problematic to an extent as the Romans tried to reconcile several different pantheons (starting with their own and the Greek) by giving them a interpretatio romana and thus (sometimes falsely) equating gods to their Roman ones. Therefore the earliest written records about Germanic tribes, which were written by the Romans still color our interpretation of their gods and while there are undoubtedly similarities, they may have become overemphasized first by the Romans and then by classically trained scholars.
Most contemporary records about Vikings were written by their enemies or Christian missionaries, and might describe them as more brutal than they actually were. Norse farmers who remained in Scandinavia were forgotten in the context.
The Old Norse heritage, especially the Viking identity, was revived through a wave of nationalism in the 19th century, though not very true to reality. For instance, real Vikings did not have horned helmets. If you think about it a horned helmet would be an immense disadvantage in a combat situation as your opponent could simply grab the horns to throw away your helmet. Or a weapon that would otherwise be deflected could get caught in the horns, causing significantly more damage.
Today, there are neo-Pagan societies around the Nordic countries. Their practice has however very little in common with either world religions such as Christianity, or other polytheistic tradition, and not taken very seriously. Nordic religion is very much what you make of it.
- See Nordic history for the Nordic countries past AD 1000.
Pre-Viking Age sites
- Ales Stenar (Ale's Stones), Kåseberga (15 km east of Ystad). Nicknamed "the Stonehenge of Sweden", a 67 metre long stone ship formed by 59 large boulders of sandstone, a megalithic monument from the Nordic Iron Age, around 600 AD. You can reach the site by car or by bus from Ystad. There are lots of information signs at the parking lot. Walk the 700 metres up the hill from the parking lot and you will reach the stones. There is no entrance fee to the Stones but a guided tour will cost you 40 SEK per person, free for children younger than 17..
- Rock Carvings in Tanum. A UNESCO World Heritage Site. Carvings have been made during the Swedish Bronze Age.
- Alta Rock Carvings. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Swedish History Museum (Historiska Museet), Narvavägen 13-17 (Stockholm/Östermalm). Open daily 10:00-17:00 May-Sep, Tu-Su 11:00-17:00 and Th 11:00-20:00 Oct-Apr.. If you're interested in older Scandinavian history, from the Stone Age to the Vikings, you will want to visit the Swedish History Museum. In the Gold Room, you'll find gold treasures from the Bronze Age to the 16th century.
- Stallarholmen Viking Festival (near Strängnäs). Annually the first weekend of July, in a village with plenty of runestones and other Viking-age artifacts.
- Birka (Ekerö, Stockholm County).
- Gotlands Museum, Strandgatan 14 (Visby, Gotland). Open 10 AM-6 PM. Though Gotland's Golden Age was during the Hanseatic League years from the 13th century, the island was a commercial center long before, possibly the home of the legendary Goths. Entrance: 80-100 SEK.
- Gunnes gård, Ryttargatan 270 (Upplands Väsby). A reconstructed Viking Age farm, mostly open during summer.
- Rök Runestone (Near Ödeshög). The world's largest runestone, and the oldest known written record in Sweden. The name of the village Rök has the same roots as rock (named for the stone), which means that Rök Stone is a tautology.
- Reykjavik City Museum: The Settlement Exhibition Reykjavík 871±2 (Minjasafn Reykjavíkur) (Reykjavik).
- Oslo Viking Ship Museum.
- Roskilde Viking Ship Museum, Vindeboder 12 (follow the signs from the cathedral), ☎ +45 4630 0200, e-mail: email@example.com. 10AM-5PM. A museum with several original viking ships, a viking research center, a harbour with copies of viking ships, and a shipyard making new ships. 80-115 Kr, students 70-100 Kr, children free.
- Uppsala, Sweden. Once the site of a legendary pagan temple, which brought visitors from all around Scandinavia. The temple was however lost; no-one knows what it looked like, or where it stood. North of the city are some impressive burial mounds.
- L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site (Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula, Canada.).
- Lindisfarne, England. The Norse raid at Lindisfarne in AD 793 marks the beginning of the Viking age.
- JORVIK Viking Centre (York, England), ☎ +44 1904 543400. Daily 10AM-4PM (winter), 10AM-5PM (summer). The world famous JORVIK Viking Centre is a must-see for visitors to the city of York and is one of the most popular visitor attractions in the UK outside London. Welcoming over 16 million visitors since 1984, JORVIK Viking Centre invites visitors to journey through the reconstruction of Viking-Age streets as they would have looked 1000 years ago. £6.25 and upwards.
- Ribe, Denmark
- Jelling, Denmark. A UNESCO World Heritage site with a runestone and a burial mound.
- Battle Abbey and Battlefield, High Street, TN33 0AD, ☎ +44 1424 773792, fax: +44 1424 775059. open 1 Apr-30 Sep 10AM-6PM, 1 Oct-31 Mar 10AM-4PM, closed 24-26 Dec and 1 Jan. southern end of the High Street, now maintained by English Heritage, the Abbey was established after 1070 on the site of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Pope having decreed that the Norman conquerors should do practical penance for the deaths inflicted in their conquest of England. William the Conqueror initiated the building, but it was only completed and consecrated in 1094 in the reign of his son William II (Rufus). The Abbey is in an incomplete, partly ruinous state, having been dissolved during the Reformation, then re-used as a private home. Visitors can stand on the reputed site where Harold was slain on 14 October 1066. adults £7.80, children £4.70, concessions £7, family ticket £20.30.
- Trelleborg Castle (East of Slagelse). Viking Ring Castle DKK 100.
- Järnåldershuset i Körunda (North of Nynäshamn). A reconstructed Viking Age longhouse.
- Up Helly Aa (Shetland Islands). Europe's largest and most famous fire festival. It takes place on the last Tuesday in January. Over the year the 'Guizer Jarl' or Viking Chief and his squad prepare costumes, weapons and a replica heraldic style Viking Galley and torches. There is a torchlight procession of over 800 participants and then the Galley is ceremoniously burned. Tickets to the halls are by invitation only, but public tickets are available for the Town Hall from the committee. Although the Lerwick festival is the largest and most famous, eleven other fire festivals are held across the islands.