Updated: Dec 24, 2020
The time of the Vikings is one often associated with action and adventure, as well as myth and magic. It is a fascinating and intriguing period of history. However all the stories told around the Vikings can make it difficult to separate the fact from the fiction. Here are ten things that most people don’t know about the Vikings.
1. Vikings didn’t have horns on their helmets
Images of Vikings are often used throughout our modern world in media and advertising. The chances of are that when you see these images, they will be of a Viking warrior with horns on their helmet. However, while Viking helmets have been found in various archaeological digs, there is no evidence that Vikings ever had horns on their helmets.
It is thought that Vikings were first depicted with horned helmets in the 19th century by Costume designer Carl Emil Doepler, who included horned helmets in his gorgeous costume designs for the 1876 performance of Wagner's classic Norse saga, Der Ring des Nibelungen.
2. Vikings discovered America
You are probably aware that Vikings were good sailors and that the Vikings sailed across the North Sea in order to Invade Britain. However the Vikings travelled much further than Britain. They sailed across to Iceland, Greenland and finally America.
It is said that the Norse colonisation of North America started around the 10th century. In recent years a number of buildings and artefacts have been discovered in North America which shows that the Vikings not only visited America, but settled there for a time.
The Icelandic Sagas tell us of Leif Eriksson, who travelled across the ocean from Greenland to a land he called Vinland, or ‘Wineland’. This land was in fact North America and was named Vinland by Leif because of the grape vines discovered on the land, which could be used to make wine.
3. Viking is an action not a race of people
We often use the term Viking to refer to the people who came across from Scandinavia and invaded Britain. They originated from the Norse population of present day Norway, Sweden and Denmark. They were known as Norsemen or ‘North Men’.
In Old Norse Viking was used to describe the activity of going on expeditions, usually abroad, by sea and with other people. A Vikingr was a person who went on one of these expeditions. It was a neutral term which does not refer to a particular ethnicity of people. The word could be used to describe both the group they themselves belonged to and other expedition groups.
4. Gender roles were not as rigid as you may think
When we think of ancient civilisations we think of male dominated society’s where woman had little or no voice and no rights. Whilst it is true that in the Old Norse society men were viewed as the more important gender, women had more freedom and power than in other ancient civilisations.
In general men would do the hunting, fighting, trading and farming; and women’s roles revolved around the home, cooking, caring for the home, weaving and raising children. Although the man was technically ‘in charge’, the woman still played an active role in managing her husband. Norse women had complete authority in the home, especially when their husbands were absent. If the man of the household died, his wife could inherit his wealth and take on his role on a permanent basis, singlehandedly running the family farm or trading business.
The majority of Viking burials found by archaeologists reflect these traditional gender roles: Men were generally buried with their weapons and tools, and women with household items, needlework and jewellery.
However a grave of a Viking Warrior was discovered in 1889. This person was buried with swords, armour and two sacrificed horses. It was assumed when it was discovered that this warrior was a man. However more recently these remains were tested using DNA analysis and it has been discovered that this Viking Warrior was in fact a woman. Could it be that some Norse women actually fought alongside their men?
5. Vikings had a parliament
When you think about Vikings you probably likely to think of unruly thugs attacking and pillaging villages, running around doing whatever they want, with no organisation. However the Vikings actually took the law very seriously and even had their own version of parliament.
Norse people would have regular public assemblies known as a thing (or þing in Old Norse). Each individual Norse community would have it’s own thing. Things were usually held at a set location consisting of either natural or man-made mounds. The purpose of these assemblies was both to settle disputes between people and to make political decisions. All local free men were allowed to attend and contribute to the proceedings, which were overseen by a local official law keeper (Kind of like a judge today), whose job it was to memorise and recite the law. Slaves and women were not allowed to vote on the happenings at a thing, despite this women would still often attend the assemblies.
Things were not just about law and politics. Things were also a centre for religious activity, as well as trade and exchange. At Thingvellir in Iceland you can still see the remains of the booths, or huts, where traders came to do business with the people who were attending the meeting.
6. Vikings were really clean
The Norse people we know as Vikings took hygiene and their appearance very seriously. Some of the most frequently discovered artefacts from the time are combs, razors, tweezers, ear spoons and other personal grooming tools. The items have been found carefully stored away in wooden boxes as well as buried alongside the dead. Combs and other grooming tools were often ornately decorated with holes drilled into them so the person could keep their tools attached to their belt or round their neck.
Other people from the time, such as the Anglo-Saxons, would bath sporadically, perhaps twice a year. Unlike these cultures the Norse people brushed their hair daily, regularly trimmed both their hair and beards and bathed once a week. In fact the Old Norse word for Saturday was Laugardagr which translates as ‘pool-day’ or ‘bathing-day’. Christian monks from the time, such as John de Cella, have written accounts mentioning the Danes bathing practices which were viewed as frivolous and unnecessary by them.
7. Vikings had slaves
Most ancient civilizations throughout time have taken people as slaves and the Vikings were no different. Viking slaves were known as thralls (in Old Norse), they were often acquired from Viking raids to other countries, including Britain. Once captured they were brought back to Scandinavia and traded alongside other goods and farm animals. The native Norse people could themselves end up in slavery if they ended up in debt that they were unable to pay back or if they committed crimes, such as murder or theft.
Thralls were the lowest class of people in the Old Norse society, they had no personal rights and were completely at the mercy of their masters in terms of living conditions. Thralls could be bought and sold at will, as with any other property, however they could be freed by their masters at any point and could sometimes even buy their own freedom.
8. Vikings loved to play sport
Sport is not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Vikings, but in-fact they loved all sorts of different games and sports.
The saga’s have numerous references to sporting games enjoyed at the time. Some of the sporting activities mentioned include, ball games, skin throwing games, wrestling, swimming and horse fights. These sporting games, known as leikar, were popular community events which could last for numerous days at a time. Only men are thought to have competed in the games, but both men and women would come together for the feasts that accompanied the leikar.
One popular game at the time was a game called Knattleikr, which roughly translates as ‘ball game’. Each player had a stick which they would use throughout the game and the object of the game seemed to be to get a ball through the opposing teams goal. at the beginning of a game, every player would be paired with an opponent of comparable strength and agility from the other team. The pair would chase, fight, wrestle and even hit each other with the stick during the game. This made Knattleikr appear more like a mock battle than what we would think of today as a sport.
9. Vikings could get divorced
Marriage proposals were always initiated by the man, never by the woman. The families of the man and his future bride would then get together and discuss the terms of the marriage. The bride would not have much, if any, say in anything that happened in this process, including whether she was happy with her future husband or not.
However, divorce was common and relatively easy. A divorce could be started by either the husband or the wife. If the wife wanted a divorce because of wrongful actions carried out by her husband, then he may have to pay her a significant amount of money so that she could provide for herself after the marriage was annulled.
So, although a woman could be married off without her say so, at least there was a way she could get out of the marriage if she was extremely unhappy at a later date.
10. Vikings could take fire with them on long journeys
Starting a fire from scratch without modern fire lighting equipment such as matches and lighters is no easy feat. Even someone accomplished and well-practiced at fire lighting could take up to an hour to make a fire from scratch, using a flint and striker. This would not be convenient for a Viking on an expedition who has spent the whole day sailing, has just set up camp and now needs to make a fire in order to eat dinner.
But they had a solution!
The Vikings would find a type of fungus known as touchwood fungus. A lot of varieties of fungi make great tinder for starting fires as they catch alight easily. However, they didn’t just take the fungi with them they processed it to make fire lighting even easier.
To do this they took thin slices of the fungus and beat it until the slices became soft and flexible. Next the slices were charred without the presence of oxygen (much like making char cloth). Finally they boiled their charred fungus in urine! Urine contains a substance which has similar chemical properties to saltpetre used in gunpowder. Once completed this charred urine fungus could be ‘lit’. It would smoulder without burning for days on end.
This allowed them to take their own source of fire with them when they went on expeditions. When a fire was needed all they had to do was blow on the smouldering fungus to light their tinder. Much quicker and easier than alternative methods!