10 things you don’t know about Vikings

Horned helmets? That’s old hat, if you will forgive the pun! Everyone now knows Vikings didn’t wear them. But while I was researching The Last Berserker (Fire Born 1) I did come across some surprising things about the cultures of northern Europe, many of which you probably won’t know. Here are ten of the most fascinating . . .

1 Ragnarok was real

In Norse mythology, Ragnarok is the end of time: a great battle will be fought in which all the gods and resurrected heroes die, which is followed by the destruction of the whole world. But the idea of Ragnarok may be based on real historical events. Arctic ice-core samples and dendroclimatology indicate that during the years AD 536 to 540 (two hundred years before the start of the Viking Age) there were several volcanic eruption near the equator of almost unprecedented magnitude. Clouds of ash and debris darkened the skies for months, which altered the climate in Europe with catastrophic effects. “The impact was not unlike that of a nuclear winter,” writes Professor Neil Price in his superb Viking history The Children of Ash and Elm (p76). Trees withered, crops would not grow, animals died; it often snowed in the summer months. Many brutal wars were fought over diminishing resources and much of Scandinavia was made uninhabitable for a time. This disaster became a folk memory, which may have found expression as the cataclysm of Ragnarok (below). 

2 Viking travels truly spanned the globe

Most people know that it was not Columbus who discovered North America, but Norse adventurers in the late 10th century. Remains of Viking buildings found at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland in the 1960s confirm this. But not many people know that a Swedish Viking (Ingvar the Far-Travelled) went as far east as Central Asia and deep into the Middle East. Historian Cat Jarman writes in her fascinating book River Kings (p276): “The consensus seems to be that Ingvar’s journey took him to Persia . . . [and] somewhere between the Black Sea and the Caspian – a stepping stone on a journey towards Baghdad.”

3 The Viking economy was based on slavery

At the beginning of the Viking Age (late 8th century onwards) there were very few coins in Scandinavia and the Norse had what was called a bullion economy, based on quantities of “hack-silver” – precious metal objects such as drinking vessels or jewellery that were cut up into smaller pieces so that they could be used in barter. Later as Vikings began to explore the rivers of the east, large quantities of Arabic coins (dirhams) found their way back to Scandinavia, to be discovered later by archaeologists. However, the way to get rich was by capturing slaves during a raiding expedition and exchanging them for valuable goods. Thousands of slaves were captured in Eastern Europe during this period (the ethnic group Slav gave us the English word “slave”) and traded to Middle East for vast profits.

4 Viking shipbuilding and navigation was second to none

Living in a region like Norway in which it was easier to travel by water (cf the Highlands and Islands of Scotland) and which possessed endless pine forests for timber (Sweden) encouraged sophisticated shipbuilding among the local people. The Norse were building ocean-going ships before anyone else in Europe. They were skilled navigators, too, able to steer by the stars, the sun and the currents but also with an extensive knowledge of the world’s waterways. A description exists of the sea route west to Greenland via the Orkneys, the Faeroe Islands and Iceland.

5 Vikings invented the medieval chivalric order

In the 10th and 11th centuries a military organisation called the Jomsvikings was based on the Baltic shores of Poland. This can be seen an early version of the chivalric orders of knighthood of the later medieval period, such as the Templars, the Hospitallers and the Teutonic Knights. Although the Jomsvikings devoutly worshipped the old Norse gods, they would fight as mercenaries for anyone who could pay, including Christians. They had a strict code of honour: they swore loyalty to the organisation and to their brother warriors, whom they swore to avenge if killed. They were not allowed to show fear in battle, nor be absent from the company for more than three days. No women or children were allowed in the fortress, although it is unclear whether they were celibate or not. They had a fleet of perhaps as many as 300 long ships in their harbour – a very powerful military force.

6 The Norse were well groomed

The image of Vikings as hairy, unwashed barbarians is very far from the truth. Archeological evidence suggests that they were, in fact, rather fastidious about their hygiene and appearance. Numerous combs have been discovered in Viking graves, along with tweezers for hair plucking and tiny ear-wax spoons. The Vikings also probably used make-up. A merchant from Muslim Spain called Ibrahim ibn Yaqub visited the town of Hedeby, in south Denmark, in AD 965 and described the inhabitants, both men and women, as using kohl (a black paste) to enhance the beauty of their eyes. They may also have worn makeup to make them look more ferocious in battle (like American Indians).

7 Some Viking warriors were women

In 1889, a 10th-century Viking skeleton was discovered in a grave in Birka, near Stockholm, Sweden. The individual was found buried with several items of military equipment including, a sword, an axe, a spear, arrows, a battle knife and two shields. For more than a century scholars believed this was a male warrior but, in 2017, DNA analysis revealed that this was in fact a woman of about thirty years old; and not just a female warrior but, since she was found with symbolic gaming pieces, someone with strategic responsibilities, an officer, perhaps a general. 

Professor Price writes The Children of Ash and Elm: “Taking a clear-eyed look at the archeological data, it seems that there really were female warriors in the Viking Age, including at least one of command rank.”

8 Berserkers may have suffered from a rare bone disease

The famous berserker, Egill Skallagrimsson, a 10th-century Icelandic warrior-poet, fought for the English King Athelstan at the Battle of Brunanburh in AD937. His tendency to go berserk – enter a blood-crazed battle frenzy – one researcher has suggested, may have been caused by a rare bone condition called Paget’s disease, which causes severe pain, giving rise sudden rages. The disease also thickens the bones by up to four times their normal size and gives the sufferer the appearance of being impervious to blows. After Egill’s death, his remains were exhumed and an enemy tried to drive an axe into his grossly enlarged skull. The blade bounced right off the bone.

9 Norse religion was similar to Christianity in some respects

After Ragnarok, the world will be submerged in water, and all gods, heroes and folk will die, according to Norse mythology – apart from two people. A woman and a man called Lif and Lifthrasir – the Norse equivalent to Adam and Eve, who live in a wood (not a garden) called Hoddmimis Holt – will survive the global catastrophe and repopulate the earth. This wood, some researchers say is actually the World Tree, Yggdrasil – which is reminiscent of the Tree of Life, in the Garden of Eden in the Bible – and which has an evil serpent coiled around its roots. In further parallels to Christianity and the Crucifixion, Odin, Father of the Gods, sacrifices his own life and is hung up on the World Tree to die. He comes back to life after nine days (not three).

10 Vikings wore “spectacles” in battle

The famous image of a Viking with a horned or sometimes winged helmet was an invention of the Victorians. Norse usually wore plain, conical steel caps, often with nasal guards, in combat and sometimes with “spectacles”, a pair of flat iron rings attached to the front of the helmet to protect the eyes (see helmet below). However, in The Saxon Wolf, my next Viking adventure, I have playfully included a ridiculously ostentatious winged helmet for one of the main characters Widukind of Westphalia to wear, which I took from a 19th century statue of the Saxon hero.  

If you haven’t yet read The Last Berserker (Fire Born 1), you can grab the paperback or eBook here. Next in the series, The Saxon Wolf (Fire Born 2) will be out in January 2022 and can be pre-ordered here

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