Norse people, farmers, merchants, explorers, raiders and pirates
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The Vikings were Scandinavian people from Northern Europe who were known as great seamen and warriors. From the 8th to the 11th centuries they travelled to Europe in their long ships. They attacked and later settled in areas that are now modern Great Britain, Germany, France, Spain, and Italy.[1]

Viking towns in Scandinavia
Vikings ready to attack



The people of the far north, later called Vikings, were first noticed by the Romans around the year 100 BC.[a][6] This is when the Cimbri and the Teutons moved into southern Gaul.[6] The Romans believed these war-like tribes came from Jutland. But the Romans suspected they were only a part of a greater threat located further north.[6] The Roman historians Jordanes described the destructive Ostrogoths and Visigoths as having come from Gotland.[6]

The Frankish Empire that came after them in Gaul became more and more aware of the northern threat.[6] As the later Carolingian Empire expanded into northern Germany they came into contact with the Danish people. This is when the Vikings appear in written history.[6] The first recorded raid in Britain was at Lindisfarne in 793.[7] Why the Vikings began raiding is not clear. A popular theory is the populations had grown to the point there was not enough food to feed everyone.[8] The earliest raiders did not seem to want to move out of Scandinavia. They turned to looting, then returning home. These raids were possible because the Vikings were master boat builders. They made flat bottomed boats ideal for journeys up rivers. Many monasteries were on the rivers and were raided. [9] Raiding was easy. It became more and more popular among the Vikings.[8]

Three different groups of Vikings took different, sometimes overlapping, routes.[8]

Vikings in Europe

A helmet that the Vikings wore

Europeans were scared of the Vikings because of their strong weapons, swift attacks, and cruel fighting tactics. They were known for their bad treatment of women, children and monks in the places where they fought. When the Vikings came to England, the English kings paid them to leave the country. The Vikings took their money and sometimes fought them anyway. These payments were called Danegeld. From the 9th century to 1066, when the Duke of Normandy, who became King William I of England, conquered it, Danish and Norwegian Vikings ruled large parts of England.

Because of their longships, which could float in 4 feet (1.3m) of water, the Vikings were able to make their way up rivers and land deep inside a country. They sailed up the River Shannon in Ireland and built a harbour 60 miles (100 km) from the coast.

There was a difference in who led Viking raids. In the 9th century, Viking Age raids were led by men who may have been exiles in their own countries.[10] The later Viking raids in the late 10th century and early 11th century and were led by Kings.[10] Some of the early leaders tried to become kings with the riches they plundered from Europe and Russia. Some were successful but most were not.[10]

In Russia and the Mediterranean


The Vikings were called Rus' by the peoples east of the Baltic Sea.[11] The Vikings who settled in Kiev formed the first Russian state.[11] The Vikings (Rus') who served the Byzantine Emperors were called Varangians. They became the personal bodyguards to the Emperor and were called the Varangian Guard.[12]



The Vikings travelled through Russia, the Mediterranean Sea, southern Europe, northern Africa and south-western Asia. Some Vikings sailed across the Atlantic Ocean via Iceland and Greenland and may have explored places in North America. The ruins of a Viking settlement have been found at L'Anse-aux-Meadows, Newfoundland.[13][14]

Archaeologists used radiocarbon dating to find out how old the settlement was. Their tests gave them a range of dates from about AD 700 to about AD 1000.[15]



Some English words, and many place names, come from the Scandinavian and Viking language (Norse). For example, the words skirt and shirt came from the word skyrta, meaning a tunic. As English changed, the semantics altered to give us the separate words 'skirt' and 'shirt' we know today. Skin came from the Norse word skinn (which meant to strip the meat off something). Some place-names in the areas the Vikings conquered are still in use.[16] For example, in Yorkshire places ending with thwaite meant a clearing[17] and dale meant a valley. The word thorpe meant new village, such as Scunthorpe.[18]


Odin (also called Woden) the god of war and death. The day Wednesday is named for him

The Anglo-Saxons called the Vikings pagans. They worshiped many gods. Viking gods belonged to two groups of gods in Norse mythology, the Aesir and the Vanir.[19]

The pagan Vikings were exposed to Christianity from the beginning of the Viking Age.[20] They were surrounded by Christian countries. Early Christian missionaries were either enslaved or put to death.[21] The Vikings came into contact with Christianity when they raided other areas around them.[20] Viking raids produced many Christian slaves who were brought back to Scandinavia. They called Christians "Cross-men" because of the cross in their worship.[22] Many Vikings used Thors hammer as their religious symbol. When Vikings settled in Christian areas they converted to Christianity. There are still headstones in England with both a cross and a hammer. Perhaps they thought it was better to be safe than sorry.[20] That, or the more gods the better. As some Vikings turned from raiding to trading they found a nominal (in name only) profession of Christianity to be helpful.[23] Scandinavia, their homeland, was slower to change to the Christian religion. By the mid-11th century most of Norway and Denmark had converted. Sweden was converted by the mid-12th century.[20]

The Viking's religion affected Christianity as well. The pagan celebration of Yuletide became Christmas.[22] Priests blessing the fields took the place of pagan fertility rites of spring held to make sure there was a good harvest.[22] Norse kept their "farm gods" well after Christianity just to make sure they were protected. Santa Claus owes much of his legend to the Norse god Odin. With his snow-white beard he traveled the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir visiting his people with gifts. He became Father Christmas. Blended with the Christian Saint Nicholas he became Santa Claus. [22]

In fiction and theater


In the late 19th century Richard Wagner and other artists in the Romantic period made operas and other artwork about ancient Germanic culture. They liked the Vikings because they were not Greeks or Romans. They came up with the idea of Vikings wearing fur clothes and helmets with wings or horns on them and drinking out of hollowed-out animal horns. Some ancient Germans wore helmets with horns on them, but real Vikings did not. Wagner and his partners dressed the actors in the opera Ring des Nibelungen so they would look like ancient Germans and so the audience would feel like modern Germans came from medieval Vikings.[24][25]

  1. The Romans of the time believed the Baltic sea was a part of the ocean and lands north of the Baltic were islands.[2] Early writers mentioned an island called Thule.[3] It lay beyond the known world of the time but it is thought now to be Norway.[4] They did not come into contact with Germanic tribes north of the Danube until the 1st century AD. About 98 AD, Tacitus wrote Germania which was an account of the German peoples.[5].


  1. Colin Hynson, How People Lived in Viking Times (New York: Rosen Group Publishing, Inc., 2009), p. 6
  2. James Oliver Thomson, History of Ancient Geography (New York: Bilbo & Tannen, 1965), p. 241
  3. Barry Cunliffe, The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek: The Man Who Discovered Britain (New York: Walker & Company, 2002), p. 126
  4. "Thule". Oxford Dictionaries. Archived from the original on 9 October 2015. Retrieved 8 December 2015.
  5. Graeme Davis, Thor: The Viking God of Thunder (Long Island City, NY: Osprey Publishing, 2013), p. 60
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 René Chartrand; et al., The Vikings: Voyagers of Discovery and Plunder (Oxford: Osprey, 2006), pp. 10–11
  7. Bonnie G Smith; Richard Von Glahn; Kris E Lane; et al, Crossroads and Cultures, Volume B: 500-1750 (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2012), p. 298
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Jill N. Claster, The Medieval Experience, 300-1400 (New York: New York University Press, 1982), pp. 138–140
  9. Sawyer, P.H. (1997) (1997). The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Oxford University Press. Oxford, New York. ISBN 978-0-19-820526-5.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 P.H. Sawyer, Kings and Vikings: Scandinavia and Europe AD 700–1100 (London; New York: Methuen, 1982), p. 145
  11. 11.0 11.1 Martina Sprague, Sweden: An Illustrated History (New York: Hippocrene Books, 2005), p. 37
  12. William L. Urban, Medieval Mercenaries: The Business of War (London: Greenhill Books, 2006), pp. 23–24
  13. F. Donald Logan, The Vikings in History (Oxford; New York: Routledge, 2006), pp. 82–84
  14. Craig Cippola (October 18, 2017). "Vikings in Canada". Royal Ontario Museum. Retrieved January 4, 2020.
  15. F. Donald Logan, The Vikings in History (Oxford; New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 86
  16. "Place-names in The Danelaw". 2004. Retrieved 26 June 2011.
  17. "Thwaite Meaning and Definition". 2011. Retrieved 26 June 2011.[permanent dead link]
  18. "BBC - History - Legacy of the Vikings". 2011. Retrieved 26 June 2011.
  19. Yves Bonnefoy, American, African, and Old European Mythologies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 237
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 Gareth Williams (17 Feb 2011). "Viking Religion". BBC. Retrieved 23 June 2015.
  21. Tracey Ann Schofield, Vikings (Carthage, IL: Teaching & Learning Co, 2002), p. 26
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 "The Vikings meet Christianity". The Viking Network. Retrieved 23 June 2015.
  23. Raymond Ian Page, 'Chronicles of the Vikings: Records, Memorials, and Myths (Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1995), p. 222
  24. Phil Edwards; Christophe Haubersin (April 29, 2016). "Vikings never wore horned helmets. Here's why people thought they did". Vox. Retrieved January 4, 2020.
  25. Roberta Frank. "The Invention of the Viking Horned Helmet". Retrieved January 4, 2020.

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