Updated: Feb 2, 2021
When we refer to Vikings, we are usually talking about the Norse people who originated from present day Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
There are some Old Norse names that we would recognise today, such as Edward, Edith, Harold and Matilda. However, a lot of the names, such as Beigarthr, Hothbrod and Gunvara, may sound strange to modern ears. Despite this there are some similarities between how the Vikings named their children and how we name children today.
Old Norse naming systems consisted of a First, or given name, followed by a patronym (like our modern surnames) and in some cases a byname (which is similar to a nickname in our modern society).
It was very common for children to be named after someone in their family. Usually if a baby was named after a family member, the family member would be someone who was deceased. Often the child would be named after a direct ancestor, such as a grandparent, but it was not unheard of to name children after extended family members, such as aunts or uncles. If a family member died while the child was in the womb then it was common for them to be given the name of the recently deceased relative.
The meaning of the name was very important when choosing a name for a child. It was believed that a child would take on the characteristics of the one they were named after. Children could be named after popular gods, such as Thor, in the hope that they would grow up strong and brave. Animal names were also used quite often, again in the hope that the child would take on some of the positive characteristics of their animal namesake. Children could also be named after some of the animals present in the Norse myths, for instance a child named Orm (meaning snake), could have been named after Jormangunder, the Midgard serpent, who encircles the earth and bites his own tail. Occasionally children would be named after a particular attribute that the parents wanted their child to have, for instance one name for girls was Frida, which translates as peace.
The Vikings could also be quite creative when naming their children and the way that the name sounded was often just as important as the name itself. Many Old Norse names had only one element to them, whilst others had two (or even more) elements to them, allowing people to give their children a variation of a popular name. Some parents would use a consistent name element to name all their children. For instance, perhaps naming their children Hallbjorn, Hallbera, Halldor, Hallkel etc.
The Vikings did not have surnames in the same way that we do today, with a huge variety of differing names with differing origins. They would use patronyms (and occasionally matronyms) to distinguish between people with the same given name.
A Patronym is simply a name that comes from the child’s father and would mean son-of (-son) or daughter-of (-dottir). For instance, Harald, the son of Erik would be known as Harald Erik's son, or Harald Erikson. If Erik had a daughter named Svala then she would be known as Svala Erik’s daughter, or Svala Eriksdottir. Often Viking families alternated the name of the eldest so that Arn Gunnarsson might be the father and son of Gunnar Arnsson, and the grandfather and grandson of Arn Gunnarsson. We still have surnames today ending with the -son suffix, such as Johnson and Stephenson, however the -dottir suffix is no longer seen today, despite being popular at the time.
A matronym is a similar concept to a patronym but giving the child a name based on the child’s mothers name rather than their fathers. Although matronyms were occasionally used it was much more common for patronyms to make up the name.
It was extremely common for Old Norse names to also include at least one nickname, or byname. This could be used instead of, or as well as the persons family name. Bynames were not given at birth, but would be assigned by a friend or relative at some point during the person’s life (much like a nickname today). These names were not commonly used by the person themselves, but other people would refer to them by the name. Usually bynames were given based on physical characteristics, personality traits, occupation, where they came from, or their habits.
Bynames were often (but not always) derogatory to the person. Words used as bynames included Wise, Fox, Fool, Grey Cloak, Hairy Britches, Flat Nose, Seal Head, Short, Stout, Forkbeard, Bald, Blood-axe, Fine-hair, Iron Side, Smooth Tongued, Deep Minded, Boneless and many more. These names could also be ironic, so a man with a dark complexion could be 'the fair', or an unusually tall man might be named 'the short'.
It was less common for women to be given bynames, although it did happen. In most cases, if a woman was given a byname, she was given a name that described her wisdom, beauty, wealth or speech habits. Overall bynames given to women seemed much kinder than those given to males.