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
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
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
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
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
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
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.