10 Myths About the Viking Age | History Hit

10 Myths About the Viking Age

The Viking Age has many misconceptions - here we examine some of the most common.

James Carson

13 Oct 2023
Skibladner ship on Unst
Image Credit: Unstphoto, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Few periods of history create as much excitement as the Viking Age. Yet beyond the stereotypical (and frankly, legitimate) image of bloodthirsty warriors and raiders, Viking history is actually much richer and more complex than that. The Vikings were also skilled explorers and craftsmen, who often settled peacefully, and established trade routes from the Baltic Sea to Byzantium, influencing European economies and political development.

Here we challenge 10 of some of the most common misconceptions about the Vikings.

1. They wore horned helmets

Contrary to popular belief, Vikings did not wear horned helmets. The horned helmet was a 19th century invention, popularised in German composer Richard Wagner’s ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ opera cycle – in the 1870s. The costume designer basically thought that horned and winged helmets looked cool, and had the Viking roles wear them, leading to one of the biggest myths in history. 

Archaeological evidence on Viking helmets is scarce, but there has never been a Viking helmet uncovered with horns on it. Depictions of Vikings from the period show them to be wearing simple iron or leather helmets. 

Horned helmets appeared in different cultures in the Bronze Age, but not in the Viking age, and would have been completely impractical in battle.

2. It began at Lindisfarne

The Viking Age, beginning in the late 8th century, saw migrations from Scandinavia (countries we now call Denmark, Sweden and Norway). It’s not fully understood why the Vikings ventured from Scandinavia so frequently, but factors may have included overpopulation, a lack of women to marry, and the allure of rumours of the wealth of Christian kingdoms. Scandinavia’s inhospitable conditions fuelled a constant struggle for resources, further prompting Vikings to engage in raids and expeditions.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, initiated in the late 9th century, details the Viking invasions. Although one year stands out as the pivotal year marking the start of the Viking Age: 793, marked by the Viking attack on Lindisfarne – the Holy seat of the Kingdom of Northumbria in northeast England – this wasn’t the first Viking raid on the British Isles, or indeed Europe (that had taken place in 787).

The Lindisfarne attack was seen as so significant as pagan invaders had desecrated the Northumbrian seat of Christianity. The Chronicle’s accounts of the event are likely to be biased as they were written by those being invaded, and could have served as propaganda against the Vikings. Nevertheless, shockwaves from this event reverberated across Europe, reaching the court of the Emperor Charlemagne.

Viking raids on England escalated after Lindisfarne, and became more organised by the second half of the 9th century. But in reality, Scandinavian trade and exploration had occurred earlier than this date. The first recorded Viking raid on England was in Portland, Wessex, in 789. It’s very likely that there were

3. Ragnar Lothbrok was a real person

Ragnar Lothbrok  is the legendary lead character in the HBO series Vikings and a figure in the Viking Sagas.

However, much of what is thought to be known about Lothbrok is shrouded in ambiguity. Information about Lothbrok primarily comes from Icelandic Viking Sagas, yet these were written in the 13th century, two centuries after the end of the Viking Age, leading to debates and doubts over their historical accuracy. Furthermore, the most famous sagas were written in Iceland – far away from where much Viking activity took place.

The sagas, although based on real people and events, were passed down generations through oral traditions and storytelling, making them susceptible to changes, embellishments, and partial fabrication. Many view Lothbrok’s adventures as mythical – potentially a combination of various historical figures into one heroic persona, leveraging Ragnar’s established reputation.

Theses sagas, while considered historical accounts, may also have served as entertainment. For example, the Tale of Ragnar Lothbrok mentions him slaying giant snakes (sometimes depicted as a dragon) and strangling a bear, reflecting the blend of history and imaginative storytelling.

Ragnar receives Kráka (Aslaug), as imagined by August Malmström

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / August Malmström / Public domain

4. Leif Erikson reached America

The Icelandic explorer Lief Erikson is credited with reaching the North American continent around 1,000 AD. According to the Saga of Erik the Red, Erikson was on a mission to Greenland, but was blown off course and reached ‘Vinland’ (named due to the growth of wild grapes in the region). However, as this information comes from an Icelandic Viking Saga, it is therefore probably not totally accurate, more a suggestion of how the event occurred.

A further story, from Icelandic saga ‘the Groenlendinga saga’ (or ‘Saga of the Greenlanders’) is that Erikson learned about Vinland from Icelandic trader Bjarni Herjulfsson, who had sighted the North American coast from his ship 14 years before Erikson’s voyage, but had not stopped there. Again, questions arise over the accuracy of material from such Viking Sagas.

Nevertheless, in the 1960s, a Viking settlement known as  L’Anse aux Meadows was discovered by Norwegian explorers in Newfoundland, the most easterly province of Canada. It has been suggested this site was where Erikson landed.

5. Beserkers took magic mushrooms

There’s also the claim the Vikings had Berserkers – a kind of special forces that would be overcome with bloodlust and fought in a trance-like fury.

Claims that these ‘beserkers’ consumed magic mushrooms before battles to make them go ‘beserk’ lack evidence, and experts state there is absolutely no evidence of this.

To go berserk, meaning out of control with anger or excitement: the phrase originates from stories of the Berserkers, but what do we really know about them? Dangerous to friend or foe, the Berserkers are said to have fought feuds in the nude or even to have taken magic mushrooms in battle, but how much of this is true? Joined by Dr. Roderick Dale, a specialist in Old Norse and Viking Studies, we debunk the myths and legends, deciphering the facts from fiction.
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6. There was one Viking Kingdom

The Vikings were never one unified kingdom, but rather comprised distinct groups from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.

Norway’s rugged terrain, long coastline and fjords gave rise to a seafaring culture, leading Norwegians to explore and colonised the North Atlantic islands, including the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and even voyaging to North America. 

Sweden, with a more temperate and flatter landscape along its south and eastern coasts, supported better agriculture and access to natural resources. The Swedes, also known as the ‘Rus,’ settled in present-day Ukraine and Russia, engaging with cultures from the Volga and Caspian Sea regions, as well as the Byzantine Empire. The Baltic Sea facilitated easy travel to and from eastern Europe, using vast rivers for trade.

Denmark’s relatively flat and fertile soil made it ideal for farming. The Danes established their monarchy in the 8th century, and consequently enjoyed political stability. Due to its location, Danish Vikings were often more involved in expeditions and settlements in Western Europe and the British Isles. 

During the Viking Age, the borders we recognise today didn’t exist, which fostered fluid interactions between these groups. Throughout Scandinavia, alliances, conflicts, trade, marriages, and shared religious and cultural practices all contributed to a complex interweaving of peoples.

The North Sea Empire of Cnut the Great, c.1030. (The Norwegian lands of Jemtland, Herjedalen, Idre and Særna are not included in this map)

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Hel-hama / CC BY-SA 3.0

The closest the Vikings got to having one Viking Kingdom was their North Sea Empire, under Cnut the Great (also known as Canute). The North Sea Empire, also known as the Anglo-Scandinavian Empire, was the personal union of the kingdoms of England, Denmark and Norway for the majority of the period between 1013 and 1042 towards the end of the Viking Age. This short-lived Norse-ruled empire’s components were only connected by and dependent upon the sea.

Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark since 986 and of Norway since 1000, had been the first king to unite all three kingdoms when he conquered England in 1013. Yet after his death just 5 weeks later in February 1014, the realm was divided once more. Forkbeard’s younger son Cnut acquired England in 1016, Denmark in 1018 and Norway in 1028. 

At the height of his power, when Cnut ruled all three kingdoms (1028–1035), he was the most powerful ruler in western Europe after the Holy Roman Emperor. However this empire collapsed immediately after Cnut’s death in 1035.

7. Vikings were all warriors and raiders

The Vikings, though often portrayed as warriors and raiders, had a multifaceted society with a significant emphasis on trade and craftsmanship.

Operating without a coinage system, they traded based on metal weight and the purity of metals, particularly silver, creating a ‘bullion economy.’ Despite their trading prowess, a darker aspect of Viking commerce was the reliance on slavery. Captives from raids were often taken back to Scandinavia, with the slave trade extending to Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Scandinavia had few towns; most people would have lived on farmsteads and small villages. The early Viking Age was politically unstable and often lawless, with power localised around chieftains and tribal communities – life for the average farmhand would have often been harsh and short. Institutionalised systems of law and government emerged in the late 10th century, establishing the national kingdoms of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, along with limited-scale urbanisation.

Hedeby Viking Museum, Germany.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

The Rigstula, likely written in the 10th or 11th century, outlined three social classes in Viking society. Jarls, the aristocracy, held the highest position, often as chieftains and commissioning expeditions. In the middle were karls or freemen, the majority of the population, engaged in farming, fishing, and craftsmanship. Thralls, or slaves, occupied the bottom tier, typically captured during raids but could potentially earn freedom.

Unlike many societies of the era, Viking women, excluding thralls, may have had rights and social freedom. Viking sagas depict women as strong and intelligent, with the majority working as farm-based housewives. Notably, women could request divorces, citing reasons such as sudden poverty, marital violence, or abandonment. Some women accompanied men on longer expeditions with the intention of settling.

8. Woman Warriors were commonplace

Whilst Viking poetry and sagas often depict strong and intelligent women who commanded the respect of the community, the term ‘Viking’ specifically referred to men. 

In reality, the majority of free women would have been farm-based housewives, yet there is also evidence from burials and the sagas that some women were involved in fighting. These Viking ‘warrior women’ are referred to as shield maidens, or the mythical Valkyries. However, just because the remains of women were found with weapons alongside them does not make them warriors.

For now we can probably assume that over 300 years of history, some women probably were involved in raids, but it was not commonplace. 

9. It all happened in Western Europe

Archaeological evidence reveals more Viking activity to the east of Scandinavia than in the west, challenging the common narrative that focuses on Viking invasions of BritainThe Swedes conducted voyages across the Baltic Sea into what we now call Russia, establishing the state of Kievan Rus’ in 882. The term ‘Rus‘ comes from the Old Norse word ‘Roa,’ meaning ‘to row’, and is connected to the modern country of Russia, where many Vikings settled. These expeditions primarily focused on trade, creating a vast network from the Black Sea to Finland.

The Vikings played a crucial role in rebuilding the European economy after the fall of the Roman Empire by establishing extensive trade networks. They set up settlements and trading posts in various European locations, including Spain, Sicily, and North Africa. Viking traders also navigated rivers in eastern Europe, connecting to the Black Sea, Constantinople, and the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate. This allowed them to access the Silk Road and trade diverse goods like amber, wool, fur, leather, fish and walrus ivory.  

Archaeological evidence, including a silver coin hoard that included Islamic coins found in England in 2011, illustrates the extensive reach of the Viking trading network.

10. They called themselves Vikings

Early Medieval Scandinavians would not have identified as Vikings, and there was no distinct Viking ethnic group. The term ‘Viking’ referred to a person going on expeditions, often abroad, with a broader meaning than just raiding. The term’s negative connotation emerged later in sagas, associating Vikings with pirates and predators. 

As kingdoms like Norway, Sweden, and Denmark developed, national identifiers became more common, but it is doubtful that individuals in the 11th century would identify as “Norwegian” or “Viking.” Instead, they likely referred to family names or local areas.

James Carson