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Viking History: Fascinating Facts
From the 8th to 11th centuries, Vikings left their horrific imprint on those parts of the world they dared conquer in their quest for land and glory. From lands we now know as Sweden, Denmark and Norway, Vikings set forth in their seaworthy longboats to raid the wary settlements of the British Isles and coastal Europe.
The Vikings had been living in these Scandinavian lands for more than a thousand years as farmers and shipbuilders. However, as the population increased, workable farmland grew scarce and the culture searched for new ways to not only prosper, but to survive. Consequently, by the end of the 8th century the Vikings began to raid along the northern European coast for land, treasure and slaves. For years, much of what was known about the Vikings came from written accounts of those who witnessed or survived these raids; the described horror has attributed legendary status to these violent sea raiders who, in truth, were such, but also more as this subsequent article will detail.
Called barbarians of the north, Vikings were also excellent navigators, shipbuilders, craftsmen and traders. Their culture included an elaborate society as well as a mythology as splendid as any in terms of the richness of its stories and myths. Vikings not only plundered, they explored discovering such places as Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland. While they initially left their mark on the places they conquered, they were adept at assimilation and often were heavily influenced by the regions they occupied.
In their hereditary lands, Viking society had three levels — nobles, freemen and slaves. The noble class was comprised of local chieftains who ruled over small areas of land. Over time, chieftains became kings of larger regions as smaller areas combined or were conquered until eventually Sweden, Norway and Denmark each had their own king by c.1050 A.D. Freemen were comprised of landowners, farmers, craftsmen, warriors and traders. The slave class consisted primarily of foreign captives.
A Viking home is often referred to as a longhouse because of its shape. The main building might be one hundred feet in length but other buildings were usually added to the central structure. Because Scandinavia is heavily forested, the houses were mostly made from wood, although there is evidence that in some areas they were built on a stone foundation with walls of turf and roofs of thatch. Archaeologists have found that Viking homes had one large room dominated by a central hearth. Often, several generations of family lived in one longhouse where members shared household responsibilities.
Viking women were greatly respected in their culture. They were skilled at running households and farms while men were away. They could choose their own husbands and divorce if they wanted to. Most spent part of their day spinning wool or flax for clothing. Viking children did not attend school, but helped in the fields or at home. Many boys accompanied their fathers on raids to aid them in the aftermath by setting up settlements.
The Viking diet was a balanced one. They had meat from their livestock like cattle, sheep and pigs but also the meat of wild animals like boar and deer. Their bread was made mainly from barley and they grew vegetables. They also foraged for berries and plants like raspberries, strawberries, and hazelnuts. Vikings drank a lot of milk or buttermilk as well as wine, or mead made from honey. Naturally, hares, game birds and other small animals were trapped. As one would expect of sea raiders, fish was often on the Viking menu as well.
The Vikings, like the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, had a pantheon of gods and goddesses with distinct, even human-like personalities. Odin was the god of kings and warriors and so was consequently the most important. Other chief gods included Thor and Frey. Viking warriors believed they would have a new life in Valhalla if they died in battle. Other gods and goddesses were associated with fertility and agriculture or other aspects of Viking life.
Like ancient Egyptians, Vikings were buried with items they would need in the afterworld. Wealthy men and women were buried in ships with all their items and set ablaze. Others might be buried in underground chambers. Viking religion could certainly fill volumes with the richness of its rituals, stories and myths. For now, suffice to know, that religion played a dominant role in the lives and deaths of Viking men and women.
Nevertheless, Vikings are known best for their sea prowess — as both explorers and warriors. They were expert sailors and their ships were built to withstand rough seas but with flat bottoms, they were able to navigate rivers for in-land attacks on villages. They relied on the sun, stars, seabirds, fish and wave patterns to find their way over the sea. While Vikings built many types of vessels, their warships were longest and quickest of all. Both oarsmen and sails propelled these ships that would carry at least fifty warriors. Several ships might be needed to band together for attacks on large settlements.
A typical Viking warrior would carry a spear, shield, battle-axe, and sword. They also carried a small knife called a scramasax for hand-to-hand combat. These weapons were made of iron and often decorated with inlaid silver and gems. The first recorded Viking raid took place at the monastery of Lindisfarne, a small island off the north English coast, in 793 A.D. After that, Vikings roamed the English Channel and North Sea, plundering seaside settlements. As they grew more brazen, they rowed up major rivers like the Rhine and Seine to attack further in-land. They also sailed East and raided into Russia and there is evidence they reached the Black and Caspian Seas.
Yet, even though they plagued unsuspecting territories, who, after all, had done nothing to warrant such manner of attacks, they fought one another just as fiercely as any enemy for land or status. Most often though, Vikings would sail from home in the Spring, loot and pillage throughout the summer and finally sail home to enjoy their conquests for the winter. Many areas quickly learned to pay the Vikings tribute in advance to avoid their ghastly raids which were brutal even by ancient standards.
Of course, the Vikings didn’t always steal to get what they wanted. They were excellent traders and had many resources of their own to trade with as the north was rich with timber and animal furs and skins. They traded in all the areas they previously raided often setting up market towns. Of course, battle brought more than riches for warriors — acts of bravery during battle contributed to a Viking’s sense of honor and was a symbol of his worthiness.
Yet, all this travel, trade and raiding allowed the Vikings to hone their navigating skills and emboldened them to go further and seek out new sources of land and treasure. Vikings settled both Iceland and Greenland and Leif Eriksson, son of Eric the Red, is considered to be the first European to set foot in the Americas at the tip of present-day Newfoundland in Canada.
Other noteworthy Vikings include Ragnar who conquered Paris in 845 and Ivar the Boneless who conquered East Anglia and murdered its king. Eric Bloodaxe became the last Viking ruler of Northumbria in England. King Sven Forkbeard plagued London in 994 until King Ethelred II paid him enough to leave. William the Conqueror was descended directly from Vikings who had settled northwestern France during the tenth century.
Copyright: J. A. Young
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