Vikings and the Old Norse

See also: European history
A modern Viking ship replica.

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.

Understand

Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden
Vikings and the Old NorseHistorySami cultureWinterRight to accessHikingCuisine

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.

Northern Europe had some contact with the Roman Empire; see Amber Road.

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.

The Vikings

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.

Iceland was settled during the 9th century, with Reykjavík as its first settlement. In 930 AD the settlers founded the Alþing, the world's oldest surviving parliament.

There were Norse settlements on Greenland and Newfoundland, but these went extinct due to harsh climate, infighting within the communities and conflict with natives.

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.

Locations

Pre-Viking Age sites

Viking Age

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