20 Facts About the Vikings | History Hit

20 Facts About the Vikings

Laura Mackenzie

30 Jul 2021
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The Viking Age may have ended around a millennium ago but the Vikings continue to capture our imagination today, inspiring everything from cartoons to fancy dress outfits. Along the way, the seafaring warriors have been hugely mythologised and it is often difficult to separate fact from fiction when it comes to these northern Europeans.

With that in mind, here are 20 facts about the Vikings.

1. They came from Scandinavia

But they travelled as far as Baghdad and North America. Their descendants could be found across Europe – for instance, the Normans in northern France were Viking descendants.

2. Viking means “pirate raid”

The word comes from the Old Norse language that was spoken in Scandinavia during the Viking Age.

3. But they weren’t all pirates

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The Vikings are infamous for their plundering ways. But many of them actually travelled to other countries to settle peacefully and farm or craft, or to trade goods to take back home.

4. They didn’t wear helmets with horns on

The iconic horned helmet that we know from popular culture was actually a fantastical creation dreamt up by costume designer Carl Emil Doepler for an 1876 production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.

5. In fact, most may not have worn helmets at all

Only one complete Viking helmet has ever been found suggesting that many either fought without helmets or wore headwear made of leather rather than metal (which would have been less likely to survive the centuries).

6. A Viking landed on American shores long before Columbus

Go on a trip to Valhalla and back with one of our crocheted horned helmet hats.
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Although we commonly credit Christopher Columbus with being the European who discovered the land that would become known as the “New World”, Viking explorer Leif Erikson beat him to it by a whopping 500 years.

7. Leif’s father was the first Viking to set foot in Greenland

According to Icelandic sagas, Erik the Red journeyed to Greenland after being banished from Iceland for murdering several men. He went on to found the first Viking settlement in Greenland.

8. They had their own gods…

Although Viking mythology came long after Roman and Greek mythology, the Norse gods are far less familiar to us than the likes of Zeus, Aphrodite and Juno. But their legacy on the modern-day world can be found in all kinds of places, including superhero films.

9. … and the days of the week are named after some of them

Thursday is named after the Norse god Thor, pictured here with his famous hammer.

The only day of the week not named after a Norse god in the English language is Saturday, which is named after the Roman god Saturn.

10. They ate twice a day

Their first meal, served approximately an hour after rising, was effectively breakfast but known as dagmal to the Vikings. Their second meal, nattmal was served in the evening at the end of the working day.

11. Honey was the only sweetener known to the Vikings

They used it to make – among other things – a strong alcoholic drink called mead.

12. They were proficient shipbuilders

The longships were motored by a combination of manpower and wind.

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During the early years of the Cold War, the fear of Communist infiltration had a firm foothold in America. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had a mandate to investigate subversive activities on the part of private citizens and organisations with possible Communist ties.

By 1947, their gaze had fallen on the famously liberal town of Hollywood. It was 20 October when they launched a 9-day hearing that was to rock Tinseltown to its core.

Here is how it happened:

1. The creation of the Hollywood blacklist

This is the most infamous repercussion of the ‘Red Scare’ on Hollywood. The first hearing saw Hollywood heavyweights Walt Disney, Gary Cooper and Ronald Reagan, among others, give statements decrying communism in the film industry.

[caption id="attachment_14239" align="alignnone" width="690"]hollywood blacklist 10 December 1947: 9 members of the Hollywood 10 surrender to US marshals. Left to right: Robert Adrian Scott, Edward Dmytryk, Samuel Ornitz, Lester Cole, Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, John Howard Lawson and Ring Lardner Jr.[/caption]

At the end of it, ten industry professionals were singled out for contempt of Congress by refusing to co-operate. They were sentenced to jail time, fines and were all barred from the working in the business again. They became known as the ‘Hollywood Ten’, the first of many to be ‘blacklisted’ and it terrified their peers.

In his 1981 autobiography, Hollywood Red, screenwriter Lester Cole stated that all of the Hollywood Ten had in fact been Communist Party USA members although at that time it was mostly unconfirmed rumour.

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2. Uniting the Hollywood elite under a singular statement

On December 3rd 1947, a closed-door meeting by 48 of the most powerful executives in Hollywood took place. What emerged from the meeting was a statement issued by Eric Johnston, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

This statement, known as the 'Waldorf Statement' – whose signatories included the heads of MGM, Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and 20th Century Fox – condemned the actions of the Hollywood Ten.

More worryingly however, they promised to not 'knowingly employ a Communist' and 'to this end… invite the Hollywood talent guilds to work with us to eliminate any subversives: to protect the innocent; and to safeguard free speech and a free screen wherever threatened.'

This was Hollywood’s official declaration of war on the Communist ideology.

[caption id="attachment_14242" align="alignnone" width="690"]reagan red scare blacklist Actor and later politician Ronald Reagan was a vocal anti-communist.[/caption]

3. Thousands blacklisted and put in jeopardy

According to a new study by Elizabeth Pontikes of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, thousands of artists who were affiliated or connected to those blacklisted suffered setbacks to their careers.

Allegedly an actor’s chance of working in Hollywood fell by 13% if he or she had a mere association with a stigmatised actor. Even the smallest of connections put you at risk. In the early fifties, a pamphlet entitled Red Channels identified 151 entertainment industry professionals who were affiliated with the Reds. Most of them were barred from the industry for good.

In 1951 HUAC launched a second investigation into Communism in Hollywood. At the height of the blacklist in the mid-fifties, the Screen Writers Guild authorised the movie studios to omit the names of any individuals who had failed to clear their names from the credits of their movies.

[caption id="attachment_14243" align="alignnone" width="690"]HUAC dies blacklist Actor Fredric March and wife Florence Eldridge with HUAC head Martin Dies in Los Angeles, 1940.[/caption]

During this same period, a number of influential newspaper columnists covering the entertainment industry, including Walter Winchell, Hedda Hopper, Victor Riesel, Jack O'Brian, and George Sokolsky offered up names suggesting they should be blacklisted.

Actor John Ireland received an out-of-court settlement to end a 1954 lawsuit against the Young & Rubicam advertising agency, which had ordered him dropped from the lead role in a television series it sponsored.

Variety described it as 'the first industry admission of what has for some time been an open secret — that the threat of being labeled a political nonconformist… has been used against show business personalities.'

Actor Larry Parks said, when called before the panel, 'Don't present me with the choice of either being in contempt of this committee and going to jail or forcing me to really crawl through the mud to be an informer… I don't think this is American. I don't think this is American justice.' He was later blacklisted.

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4. Hollywood’s output changes to fit the anti-Communist agenda

How did Hollywood ultimately respond to this fervour of pro-capitalist/anti-Communist sentiment? By making a quick buck of course. Films like I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), My Son John (1952) and Big Jim McClain (1952) starring John Wayne all contained anti-Communist themes.

Representing the other end of the political spectrum, Bette Davis starred in Storm Center (1956) as a heroic small town librarian who refused to pull a Communist book from her shelves, with serious repercussions.

The perennial Marlon Brando classic On the Waterfront (1954) is also seen as one of Hollywood’s “HUAC pictures”. The story of Brando’s heroic dockworker who chooses to inform on his corrupt union bosses has been interpreted as a metaphorical defence for its director Elia Kazan’s decision to ‘name names’ to the HUAC Committee.

So much so that the design of their most famous vessel – the longship – was adopted by many other cultures and influenced shipbuilding for centuries.

13. Some Vikings were known as “berserkers”

The berserkers were champion warriors who are reported to have fought in a trance-like fury – a state that was likely to have been at least partly induced by alcohol or drugs. These warriors gave their name to the English word “berserk”.

14. The Vikings wrote down stories known as sagas

Based on oral traditions, these tales – which were mostly written in Iceland – were usually realistic and based on true events and figures. They were, however, sometimes romanticised or fantastical and the accuracy of the stories is often hotly disputed.

15. They left their stamp on English place names

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If a village, town or city has a name ending in “-by”, “-thorpe” or “-ay” then it was likely settled by the Vikings.

16. A sword was the most prized Viking possession

The craftsmanship involved in making them meant that swords were extremely expensive and therefore likely to be the most valuable item that a Viking owned – if, that is, they could afford one at all (most couldn’t).

17. The Vikings kept slaves

Known as thralls, they carried out household chores and provided the labour for large-scale construction projects. New thralls were captured abroad by the Vikings during their raids and either taken back to Scandinavia or to Viking settlements, or traded for silver.

18. They were very into physical activity

Sports that involved weapons training and training for combat were particularly popular, as was swimming.

19. The last great Viking king was killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge

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Harald Hardrada had come to England to challenge the then king, Harold Godwinson, for the English throne. He was defeated and killed by Harold’s men at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

20. Harald’s death marked the end of the Viking Age

1066, the year in which Harald was killed, is often given as the year in which the Viking Age came to an end. By that point, the spread of Christianity had dramatically changed Scandinavian society and the military ambitions of the Norse people were no longer the same.

With the taking of Christian slaves banned, the Vikings lost much of the economic incentive for their raids and began to focus instead on religion-inspired military campaigns.

Laura Mackenzie