30 Unbelievable Facts About Legendary Viking Culture
When you think about Vikings, you probably don't think about skiing, good hygiene and gender equality. Instead, you probably imagine long beards, lots of physical brutality and barrels of alcohol. In short, all these things played a role in Viking society at one time.
As a culture, Vikings were actually much more complex than most people realize. In fact, much of their society paved the way for society today. You might be surprised to learn some of the lesser-known truths about how Vikings lived. Check out these 30 rare facts about the legendary Viking culture.
The Days of the Week Come from Viking Gods
Apart from Saturday, Sunday and Monday, the days of the week are named after Norse gods — the gods of the Vikings. The inspiration behind Tuesday, the Norse god Tyris is a god of war and the heavens (comparable to the Greek god Ares). Wednesday is named after Woden, supreme father of the Norse gods (also called Odin in some cultures).
They Weren't Always Vikings
Historically, "viking" meant "pirate raid" in Old Norse. When Scandinavians went on their brutal raids, it was referred to as "going viking." Throughout history, they went viking frequently and enjoyed substantial success. Eventually, Viking became a name used to refer to the Scandinavian warriors themselves.
Fact or Fiction: Horned Helmets
You probably imagine Vikings as burly men carrying heavy shields, big swords and axes and wearing impressive looking horned helmets. Get ready to be shocked: There is no evidence to prove Vikings wore the iconic horned helmets you see on TV.
Sipping from the Skulls of Their Enemies
Vikings certainly weren't afraid to pillage and kill, but there's no historical proof they used the skulls of their victims as cups. The first evidence of a culture that drank from human bones actually came from a Greek historian, Herodotus, who wrote about Eurasian nomads who drank from skulls. Vikings can't take credit for that gruesome bit of history.
A Honey-Based Drink of Choice
Vikings didn't drink from skulls, but they did like to drink. They didn’t have grapes to make wine, but they had honey, and they used it to make mead, a favorite fermented beverage of the time. It was a sweet, versatile drink that could be customized with spices like cloves, rosemary, ginger and thyme.
No Need to Hold Your Nose
With all the raiding and the drinking, you might think Vikings would have smelled like death. Wrong. They had significantly higher hygiene standards than most other European societies at the time. The artifacts they left behind, including tweezers, combs, razors and even ear cleaners, serve as proof.
Blondes Had More Fun
You may think of Vikings as big, brawny blondes, and this nugget of information has some connection to the truth. They did covet blonde hair and find blondes most attractive, probably because the most common hair colors were brown, red and black, and blondes were rare. If you were born blonde, you had instant admiration.
The Teeth Tell the Tale
Teeth carving, notching and ornamentation were status symbols in plenty of cultures throughout history. The Vikings apparently engaged in some of these practices, but archaeologists and anthropologists have had a hard time figuring out just what it meant. Skeletons were discovered with teeth notching that displayed a horizontal even filing, usually only seen in societies around the U.S. Great Lakes.
Masters of the Water
On land, the Vikings were powerful, but in the water, they were virtually invincible. They had ships that were strong and resilient, and they knew how to navigate. Even when faced with thick fog, storms or poor visibility, the Vikings could still manage to reach their destinations.
Waging War with Women
Although it wasn't a common practice, evidence exists that female warriors sometimes fought alongside men. One historian called these female warriors "shieldmaidens," and confirmed they dressed as men and trained as men in swordplay and battle. This information mostly comes from Viking texts and accounts from surrounding communities.
Dublin: The Viking Foundation
The Vikings actually founded the Irish city of Dublin. They had established settlements in Canada and Iceland, and they raided sites on the way to these settlements, including locations in Great Britain. Because of the frequent traveling back and forth, the Vikings decided to set up posts.
A History of Human Trafficking
The Vikings referred to their slave labor as "thralls," and they were forced to do farm and housework. Thralls were generally captured in Viking raids. As with the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, the Vikings participated in human trafficking to find workers and as a profitable venture.
Sick Children Were Given the Boot
It's true that Vikings valued physical strength above all else. A lot of things in their society depended on it, including raids, farming and sailing. Good health was necessary for a Viking to survive, and it was something they took seriously.
Expanding the Boundaries for Trade
The Viking society depended on trading, and they were pioneers in the field. Many trade routes and connections were established because of the Vikings and wouldn’t have developed without them. They are even believed to be the first Europeans to arrive in North America.
A Justice System That May Seem Familiar
If you think of Vikings as brutal, you might be surprised to learn they handled justice in a similar way to the modern world. Their culture established government and laws, and free men gathered to create laws and decide cases. These gatherings were called tings, and they included a jury, a defendant and a plaintiff.
Women Actually Had Some Rights
Beyond the women allowed on the battlefield, what was life like for the women who stayed at home? Surprisingly, it was better than in most societies at the time. Scandinavian Viking women had the right to ask for a divorce and reclaim dowries in poor marriages, and they could own property in their own name.
They Beat Columbus to the Punch
It’s believed that the true "discoverer" of North America was Leif Erikson, a Viking. If you’ve heard of Erik the Red, Leif Erikson was his son, and he supposedly stopped in North America while trying to travel to Greenland. He called the place he docked Vineland, which later became the area known as Newfoundland.
The Soup That Decided a Warrior's Fate
The Vikings had an interesting method for treating wounded warriors. Sometimes the women caring for them didn’t know if they would survive. In these cases, they had a trick for determining if a wound was fatal.
Going Berserk on Purpose
It's no secret that the Vikings weren't afraid of a little bloodshed, but some were deliberately more brutal than others. These men were called berserkers, and they were meant to be feared. They seemed to feel no pain and would even bite on their shields. Their status as berserkers meant they wore bearskins and were blessed by the god of war and the heavens.
Dial Back the Buff
Movies and television promote the idea that Vikings were all broad-shouldered, thick-muscled, burly men who were larger than life. That fantasy isn’t based on truth. Sure, the best raiders were probably very strong, but the majority of the Norse were a mere 5-feet 7 inches to 5 feet 9 inches in height and built of lean muscle.
Not Every Warrior Was Set on Fire
The popular concept of a Viking burial consists of strapping the body to a boat, launching it out onto the water and shooting a flaming arrow to set it on fire. The Vikings didn’t actually practice this form of burial, at least not to a significant degree. Instead, they buried their dead with ships — if they had a high enough social ranking.
Marriage or Negotiation?
In the time of the Vikings, marriage was more of a negotiation than an act of love. It was seen as a contract between two people that connected them for life, and Viking women didn’t want to get stuck with someone who wouldn't do well economically.
Mixing Things Up
Given all the traveling, raiding and trading the Vikings did, it's not surprising that the men often mingled with the local people they encountered. Viking men got around and may have even taken women from faraway lands home with them. National Geographic indicates DNA findings imply a Native American woman hitched a ride to Europe with Vikings. And this was all 500 years before Christopher Columbus.
They Weren't a United Nation
The Vikings didn’t always present a united front as a people. Yes, there were tight-knit communities and circles of Vikings who were unified, but it was a patchwork of societies for the most part. Scandinavia was large, and there was never one country or one central ruler.
Farming as a Way of Life
Even though many Vikings lived for the thrill of pillaging, many more lived calmer lives on farms. They were more preoccupied with planting wheat, oats and barley than searching for new villages to plunder. Based solely on the numbers, the Norse were actually people of the land.
They Played with Fire in Creative Ways
If you have ever tried to start your own fire, you know it's not easy, even with modern inventions like a lighter or a firestarter to get you going. The Vikings didn't have cheats and had to get creative when it came to igniting a spark. Their instrument of choice was a type of mushroom (touchwood) that they let boil for a few days in urine.
Skiing as a Favorite Pastime
When the Vikings wanted to do something fun, they took to the hills for some skiing. It’s hard to Imagine a Viking on skis, but it was a common occurrence and didn’t look strange to the locals. They also used skis to get around in the snow. Trivia: The Viking god of skiing is named Ullr.
Sharing Rodents with the Rest of the World
Vikings aren't solely responsible for spreading house mice around the world, but they certainly played a key part. DNA research reported by National Geographic found a sequence that only belongs to mice that originated in Norway, the main region of the Vikings. Scientists connected the dots and determined Vikings helped deliver the critters to faraway lands on their ships.
The Valkyries Determined Their Fate
Female warriors on the battlefield were sometimes called Valkyries, but the word also relates to an entire mythology. Norse mythology says that Valkyries were Odin's soldiers, and they are often depicted wearing chainmail and shields and covered in swan feathers.
They Navigated Using Rocks
The way Vikings managed to navigate so well — even in low visibility — has always been somewhat of a mystery to historians. The Viking sun stone was first mentioned in The Saga of King Olaf, but no one knew what it meant. In 1967, Danish archaeologist Thorhild Ramskou hypothesized that the sun stones could be naturally occurring crystals in Scandinavia.