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).
Thursday is based on Thor, the god of thunder, and Friday comes from Freya, the goddess of love and beauty. It’s an interesting twist to have most of the English days of the week derive from Viking culture.
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.
If you had met Vikings in the past, you would have called them Norsemen, Norse or Danes, but never Vikings. Today, of course, the name is common, and most people would probably mistakenly think you were talking about Danish people if you referred to Danes.
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.
It’s believed the false interpretation originated with 19th-century paintings that depicted Vikings based on ancient descriptions from northern Europeans. Ancient Greeks and Romans often described Vikings in derogatory ways, and these inaccurate references likely seeped into art created by professional painters. Centuries later, people took these artistic renditions as truth.
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.
Vikings did drink from horns (like the one pictured). With their many cattle, they always had an ample supply of horns to use as goblets. This may be the practice that started the skull-sipping rumor.
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.
Vikings were crazy for mead — and not just because it got them drunk. It also had a handful of health benefits, like improving digestion, immunization and cleaning the blood — all thanks to the antibiotic components in honey.
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.
There is also evidence that Vikings washed once a week and engaged in frequent hot spring sessions. Compared to other ancient cultures, that qualifies them as downright clean freaks! It certainly creates an understanding of what they valued.
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.
If Vikings didn’t win the hair color lottery, they sometimes used harsh soap with lye to lighten their hair, and it worked to a certain degree. It also helped kill head lice, which further contributed to their good hygiene.
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.
What did the notching mean for the Vikings? Some theories are that it represented an achievement or served as a fashion choice. Whatever the purpose, it was an interesting archaeological find.
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.
They always used the sun and stars to guide them, but it’s also believed they used compasses. When these options weren’t available, historians believe they used a sun-shadow board. Thanks to their prowess on the seas, Vikings were able to travel to faraway lands and trade with distant civilizations.
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.
Some writings also refer to women who accompanied men on raids that were called Valkyries. (The term is also used for mythical warriors who helped the souls of dead soldiers enter Valhalla.) This sharing of the battlefield indicates Vikings practiced a certain amount of gender-equality — particularly when compared to other societies.
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.
In the early ninth century, they invaded Ireland and created a post called Dyflin. It became a hot spot for trading and a stronghold in Ireland, eventually transforming into the city of Dublin throughout the years. The Vikings ruled the city for 300 years.
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.
Thralls were usually women and boys kidnapped from their homes in Northern Europe during raids. The Celtic, Slavic and Anglo-Saxon people were all popular targets for raids, but any village Viking gangs came across was fair game. A lot of Vikings got rich buying and selling laborers during this time.
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.
If children were born with defects or became ill, the Vikings would abandon them. Any condition that meant physical dependence on others was seen as unacceptable. This certainly wasn’t a positive aspect about the Viking way of life, and it’s a prime example of why they are seen as a cruel and ruthless civilization.
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.
Viking burial sites have included items from incredible distances away, including Arab coins dated between 750 and 950 AD, silks from China and jewelry from Persia. The variety of objects acquired by the Vikings reveals how complex their trading system must have been and how highly they valued it.
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.
These groups of men likely came from powerful families, and guilty individuals were either fined or outlawed. If outlawed, their belongings were forfeited to the community, and they were banished forever without aid. In Viking times, banishment often meant death.
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.
If a woman’s husband died, she was expected to take over his duties to support the family. This allowed her access to certain parts of society that women in other cultures would never have experienced and gave her economic opportunities that were unheard of for women.
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.
Legend has it that the land was beautiful and fertile, with grapes growing in abundance. Leif was more interested in raiding and trading, however, so he hopped right back on the boat and headed for home.
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.
The women cooked a soup of onions, leeks and other pungent herbs and fed it to injured warriors. Once the warriors ate the soup, the women checked the wounds to see if they could smell the soup through the wounds. No smell meant the warrior would survive. If the scent of onions and herbs seeped out of the wound, however, it meant the warrior wouldn’t make it.
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.
Their battle frenzy was believed to ignite supernatural powers and help them in battle. Historians today have theorized that the men snacked on hallucinogenic mushrooms to work themselves into a hypnotic, murderous state.
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 all Vikings engaged in raiding. Instead, most of them were humble farmers who spent their time in the fields. That means you need to think of the average Viking as average size instead of as a hulky warrior.
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.
Of course, not just anyone got that privilege. Not surprisingly for a seafaring culture, they placed a high value on their ships. They also believed the ships helped the dead reach the afterlife.
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.
If two families agreed on a marriage between their children, the man delivered a bride price for the woman (who was usually between 12 and 15 years of age). The father of the bride paid the groom a dowry, and families would often negotiate — like a prenup! — what would happen should the couple divorce.
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.
It’s hard to know how many foreign women traveled to Europe with Vikings, but historians do know that Vikings intermarried with Celtic women in Ireland. After all, the sea must get lonely at times.
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.
Instead, Vikings belonged to different tribes that were led by their own chief. Sometimes tribes encountered one another, and it often resulted in conflict and fighting. They were a pillaging society, so they didn’t generally take well to outsiders. If they weren’t raiding overseas, they were getting into scuffles with their neighbors.
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.
Norse farmers grew crops of cabbages, beans and onions and kept animals like chickens, pigs, geese, goats and sheep. This style of life wasn’t as prone to drama and excitement as the seafaring life, which is probably why it doesn’t get much attention in the movies.
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.
Yep, the Vikings used urine to improve their flames. The dried, urine-soaked mushrooms could be used to prolong the life of a fire, as the flames smoldered instead of burned.
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.
The Vikings still weren’t the first people to enjoy skiing. That credit goes to Russians, who are known to have used objects resembling skis as far back as 6,000 BC. Next time you’re on the slopes, think about a Viking sharing your hobby.
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.
Evidence also suggests mice weren’t the only animals on board. Cats were popular ship companions, which could explain how Norwegian cats spread to other areas. They were also important figures in the home, as they kept those pesky mice under control.
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.
These women were the ones who cared for fallen warriors on the battlefield and decided their fates after death. Would the man make it to Valhalla, or would he be sent to Freya’s (the goddess of love and war) Folkvang field? Only the Valkyries were allowed to decide, and only the fiercest and bravest men made it to Valhalla.
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.
The hypothesis was tested in 2011 by using the Iceland spar crystal in navigation. Researchers discovered that when the crystal was held in the sky and rotated, the way it “polarized and depolarized the light” formed a pattern that could indicate the location of the sun.