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Viking

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For other uses, see Viking (disambiguation).
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The name Viking is a loan from the native Scandinavian term for the Norse seafaring warriors who raided the coasts of Scandinavia, the British Isles, and other parts of Europe from the late 8th century to the 11th century, the period of European history referred to as the Viking Age. The word was introduced to the English language with romantic connotations in the 18th century. Today, somewhat controversially, the word is also used as a generic adjective referring to Viking Age Scandinavians. The medieval Scandinavian population in general is more properly referred to as Norse.

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Etymology

The etymology of "viking" is somewhat unclear. One path might be from the Old Norse word vík, meaning "bay", "creek" or "inlet", and the suffix -ing, meaning "coming from" or "belonging to". Thus, viking would be an activity in creeks, or "creeking". A vikingr is a person engaged in such activity. Later on, the term viking became synonymous with "naval expedition, raid", and a vikingr was a member of such expeditions. A second etymology suggested derives from Old English wíc, ie. "trading city", (cognate to Latin vicus, "village").

The word vikingr appears on several rune stones found in Scandinavia. In the Icelandic sagas, víking refers to an overseas expedition (Old Norse farar i vikingr "to go on an expedition"), and víkingr to a seaman or warrior taking part in such an expedition. In Old English, the word wicing appears first in the 6th or 7th century in the Anglo-Saxon poem Widsith.

In medieval use (eg. Widsith, and the writings of Adam von Bremen), a viking is a pirate, and not a name for the people or culture in general. Indeed, when Scandinavian raiders left their boats, stole horses and rode across country, they were never referred to as "vikings" in English sources.

The word disappeared in Middle English, and was reintroduced as viking during 18th century Romanticism. During the 20th century, the meaning of the term was expanded to refer not only to the raiders, but also to the entire period; it is now, somewhat confusingly, used as a noun both in the original meaning of raiders, warriors or navigators, and sometimes to refer to the Scandinavian population in general. As an adjective, the word is used in expressions like "Viking age", "Viking culture", "Viking colony" etc., generally referring to medieval Scandinavia.

During the last century, speculations began about whether foreign traders, known as varyags who had trade posts along the Russian rivers down to the Byzantine Empire were of Scandinavian origin, and since then the term has been interpreted also to refer to tradesmen from Scandinavia who established colonies in Russia. Early Scandinavian colonies in North America are also labelled as "Viking" by modern English speakers. It should be noted, however, that no written sources, in the cases of Vinland, Rus, or Varyags, use the term "Viking."

Scandinavians in general were not Vikings; they were farmers, fishers and hunters, as were most other people in Europe. As the Scandinavian shores were attacked by enemy forces, they established the defence fleet called ledung, which was also used as protection against Vikings. Though a common practice today, calling all northmen (Scandinavians) Vikings, rather than reserving the word solely for those involved in piracy, can lead to misunderstanding and confusion. As members of the ledung fleet, as well as farmers and fishers now and then attacked by Vikings, most Scandinavians probably saw Vikings as their enemies and fought against them with all their effort.

Historical records

A composite image made from several sides of the Ledberg Runestone having illustrations of what probably are Varangians in the Byzantine Empire and a Byzantine ship

The earliest date given for a Viking raid is 789, when, according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, a group of men from Norway sailed to Portland, in Dorset. There, they were mistaken as merchants by a royal official, and they murdered him, when he tried to get them to accompany him to the king's manor to pay a trading tax on their goods. The next recorded attack, dated June 8, 793, was on the monastery at Lindisfarne on the east coast of England. For the next 200 years, European history is filled with tales of Vikings and their plundering.

Vikings exerted influence throughout the coastal areas of Ireland and Scotland, and conquered and colonised large parts of England (see Danelaw). They travelled up the rivers of France and Spain, and gained control of areas in Russia and along the Baltic coast. Stories tell of raids in the Mediterranean and as far east as the Caspian Sea.

Adam of Bremen

Adam of Bremen records in his book Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, (volume four):

Aurum ibi plurimum, quod raptu congeritur piratico. Ipsi enim piratae, 'quos illi Wichingos as appellant, nostri Ascomannos regi Danico tributum solvunt.
"There is much gold here (in Zealand), accumulated by piracy. These pirates, which are called wichingi by their own people, and Ascomanni by our own people, pay tribute to the Danish king."


Saxo Grammaticus

Rune stones

Many rune stones in Scandinavia record the names of participants in expeditions collecting Danegeld in England, and at least two rune stones mention men who died i viking, i. e. "on an expedition".

A number of rune stones also use the word viking as a personal name, e. .g "This stone was erected by Halfdan and Öystein, sons of Viking."

Some testify to long voyages and to the deaths of some of their participants. The following example is in fornyrðislag from the Högby Runestone in Sweden, raised by a man who mourns the loss of all his five sons:

Góðr karl Gulli (The good freeman Gulli)
gat fimm syni. (had five sons.)
Fell á Føri (He fell on the Fyrisvellir)
frøkn drengr Ásmundr, (the brave champion Asmund,)
endaðis Ossur (Assur came to his end)
austr í Grikkium, (eastwards in the Byzantine empire,)
varð à Holmi (in Bornholm(?) he was)
Halfdan drepinn, (slain, Halfdan,)
Kári varð at Dundee/Öddi. (Kari so was in Dundee/at the point of Zealand (?))
Auk dauðr Búi. (Boe is dead as well.)

Icelandic sagas

13th century

King Harald I of Norway finally was forced to make an expedition to the west to clear the islands and Scottish mainland of Vikings. Numbers of them fled to Iceland, but the Norse sagas are rather subjective in their descriptions, and hence the Vikings in those sagas are sometimes characterized as heroes, later shaping the attitude against Vikings during the 18th century Romantic period. Still, in Scandinavia, no Viking was part of the society described together with other accepted professions. It may even be possible that Vikings were outlaws – several sources name Vikings in association with Jomsborg/Julin, which, according to modern history, was a refugee center for Slavic pirates, as opposed to the descriptions in the Norse saga.

Viking ships and Viking longships

There were no specific "Viking ships" or "Viking longships"; Vikings used any of the common Scandinavian longships. These boats were identical to those used by the Scandinavian defense fleets, known as the ledung. The term "Viking ships" has entered common usage, however, possibly because of its Romantic associations.

There is no evidence connecting any discovered longship to any particular classical Viking raid. Nor has any "Viking" boat construction site, or harbour, been found or excavated. Thus, our knowledge of the actual boats Vikings used is limited.


The Viking Age

See main article Viking Age.

The period of North Germanic expansion, usually taken to last from the earliest recorded raids in the 790s until the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, is commonly called the "Viking Age." The Vikings may be seen as late joiners in the Migrations period, and thus the period links Late Antiquity with the high Middle Ages. Geographically, a "Viking Age" may be assigned not only to the Scandinavian lands (modern Denmark, and southern Norway and Sweden), but also to territories under North Germanic dominance, mainly the Danelaw, Scotland, the Isle of Man and Ireland. Contemporary with the European Viking Age, the Byzantine Empire experienced the greatest period of stability (circa 8001071) it would enjoy after the initial wave of Muslim conquests in the mid-seventh century.

Viking navigators also opened the road to new lands to the north and to the west, resulting in the colonialization of Shetland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and even a short expedition to Newfoundland, circa 1000 AD.

During three centuries, Vikings appeared along the coasts and rivers of Europe, as raiders, but increasingly also as traders, and even as settlers. From 839 there were Varangian mercenaries in Byzantine service (most famously Harald Hardrada, who campaigned in North Africa and Jerusalem in the 1030s). Important trading ports during the period include Birca, Hedeby, Kaupang, Jorvik, Staraja Ladoga, Novgorod, and Kiev. Generally speaking, the Norwegians expanded to the north and west, the Danes to England, settling in the Danelaw, and the Swedes, (called the Rus) to the east. But the three nations were not yet clearly separated, and still united by the common Old Norse language. The names of Scandinavian kings are known only for the later part of the Viking Age, and only after the end of the Viking Age did the separate kingdoms acquire a distinct identity as nations, which went hand in hand with the christianization. Thus it may be noted, that the end of the Viking Age (9th11th ct.) for the Scandinavians also marks the start of their relatively brief Middle Ages.

See also: History of Denmark, List of Danish monarchs, History of Iceland, History of Norway, List of Norwegian monarchs,History of Sweden, List of Swedish monarchs.

Decline

After decades of trade and settlement, Christianity was introduced into Scandinavia by the 11th century, and the process of Christianization was mostly completed during the Middle Ages. However, elements of the old faith and secret blóts remained until the 19th century (and played a role in the emergence of Asatru in the mid 20th century). The influence of the Norse, seeing themselves then as part of wider European civilization as well as the technical advances in warfare, made the Viking raids less desirable and less profitable, and eventually the political structures based on them were replaced by structures based more on continental feudalism.

Sagas

Norse mythology, Norse sagas and Old Norse literature tell us about their religion through tales of heroic and mythological heroes. However, the transmission of this information was primarily oral, and we are reliant upon the writings of (later) Christian scholars such as Snorri Sturluson and Sæmundur "fróði" ("the Wise") Sigfússon for much of this, both of whom were Icelanders. An overwhelming amount of the sagas were written in Iceland.

Vikings in those sagas are described as if they often struck at accessible and poorly defended targets, usually with impunity. The sagas state that the Vikings built settlements and were skilled craftsmen and traders. Their ruthlessness and courage in battle is well documented by contemporary chroniclers, and they were feared along the western coast of France and in Britain. It is the effectiveness of these tactics that earned them their formidable reputation as raiders and pirates, but the chroniclers paid little attention to other aspects of Viking culture. This is further accentuated by the absence of contemporary primary source documentation from within the Viking communities themselves, and little documentary evidence is available until later, when Christian sources begin to contribute. It is only over time, as historians and archaeologists have begun to challenge the one-sided descriptions of the chroniclers, that a more balanced picture of the Norsemen has begun to become apparent. The most famous "Viking settlement", Jomsborg, is today regarded as legendary by historians; it was probably nothing more than a village of Slavic pirates.

Modern revivals

See also 19th century Viking revival.

Early modern publications dealing with what we now call Viking culture appeared in the 16th century, e.g. Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (Olaus Magnus, 1555), and the first edition of the 13th century Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus in 1514. The pace of publication increased during the 17th century with Latin translations of the Edda (notably Peder Resen's Edda Islandorum of 1665).

Romanticism

According to the Swedish writer Jan Guillou, the word Viking was popularized, with positive connotations, by Erik Gustaf Geijer in the poem The Viking, written at the beginning of the 19th century. The word was taken to refer to romanticized, idealized naval warriors, who had very little to do with the historical Viking culture. This renewed interest of Romanticism in the Old North had political implications; A myth about a glorious and brave past was needed to give the Swedes the courage to retake Finland, which had been lost in 1809 during the war between Sweden and Russia. The Geatish Society, of which Geijer was a member, popularized this myth to a great extent. Another author who had great influence on the perception of the Vikings was Esaias Tegnér, another member of the Geatish Society, who wrote a modern version of Frithiofs Saga, which became widely popular in the Nordic countries, the United Kingdom and Germany.

A focus for early British enthusiasts was George Hicke, who published a Linguarum vett. septentrionalium thesaurus in 17035. During the 18th century, British interest and enthusiasm for Iceland and Nordic culture grew dramatically, expressed in English translations as well as original poems extolling Viking virtues, and increased interest in anything Runic that could be found in the Danelaw, rising to a peak during Victorian times.

Richard Wagner's works are strongly influenced by Norse mythology.

Fascism

The Romanticist heroic Viking ideal, and the Wagnerian mythology, also appealed to the Germanic supremacist thinkers of Nazi Germany, as reflected, for example, in the runic emblem of the SS, and the neo-Nazi youth organization Wiking-Jugend, and its Odal rune symbol (see also fascist symbolism).

Living History

Since the 1960s, there has been rising enthusiasm for historical reenactment. While the earliest groups had little claim for historical accuracy, the seriousness and accuracy of reenactors has increased dramatically during the 1990s, including many reenactment groups concentrating on an accurate representation of the Viking Age.

Myths about Vikings

Danish Viking Toy

Horned helmets

There is no evidence whatsoever that the Vikings on any occasion wore horned helmets. This is a latter-day myth created by national romantic ideas in Sweden at the end of the 19th century, notably the Geatish Society, blending the Viking Age with glimpses of the Scandinavian Bronze Age some 2000 years earlier, for which actual horned helmets, probably for ceremonial purposes, are attested both in rock carvings and by actual finds (See Bohuslän [1]). The cliche was perpetuated by cartoons like Hagar the Horrible and Vicky the Viking (anime).

Skull cups

The use of human skulls as drinking vessels is also unhistorical. The rise of this myth can be traced back to a mistranslation of an Icelandic kenning. In the Latin translation of the Krakumal by Mágnus Ólafsson (in Ole Worm's Runer seu Danica literatura antiquissima of 1636), warriors drinking ór bjúgviðum hausa [from the curved branches of skulls, i.e. from horns] were rendered as drinking ex craniis eorum quos ceciderunt [from the skulls of those whom they had slain]. Scandinavian skalle, skal means simply "shell" or "bowl". The skull-cup allegation has some history also in relation with other tribes. The Scythians, for examples, are reported to have drunk from the skulls of their enemies by Herodotus and Strabo.

Uncleanliness

The image of wild-haired, dirty savages sometimes associated with the Vikings in popular culture has hardly any base in reality. The Vikings used a variety of tools for personal grooming such as combs, tweezers, razors or specialised "ear spoons". In particular, combs are among the most frequent artifacts from Viking Age graves, and one can conclude that a comb was the personal equipment of every man and woman. The Vikings also used soap long before it was reintroduced to Europe after the fall of the Byzantine Empire. The Vikings in England even had a particular reputation of excessive cleanliness, due to their custom of bathing once a week (as opposed to the local Anglo-Saxons). As for the Rus', Ibn Rustah explicitly notes their cleanliness, while Ibn Fadlan is disgusted by the women sharing the same vessel as the men to wash their faces in the morning. Ibn Fadlan's disgust is thus probably motivated by ideas of personal hygiene particular to the Muslim world (for instance, Muslims are required to wash only with running water), while the very example intended to convey the disgusting customs of the Rus' at the same time records that they did in fact wash every morning.

Famous Vikings

See also:

Culture:

Historians:

Archaeology:

Bibliography

  • Brøndsted, Johannes (1960). The Vikings, trans. Kalle Skov. Harmondsworth: Penguin. New translation 1965. ISBN 0140204598.
  • Davidson, H. R. Ellis (1964). Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Harmondsworth: Penguin. New edition 1990 by Penguin Books. ISBN 0140206701.
  • Davidson, H. R. Ellis (1976). The Viking Road to Byzantium. London: Allen and Unwin. ISBN 0049400495.
  • Graham-Campbell, J. (date?). The Viking World.
  • Rosedahl, E. (date?). Viking Age Denmark.
  • Sawyer, P. H. (date?). Medieval Scandinavia
  • Sawyer, P. H. (1962). The Age of the Vikings

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