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These Unbelievable Facts About Vikings Will Stun You

Mar 1, 2019

Image: Viking long boats -

If you think Vikings are just hairy, dirty, horned helmet-wearing pillagers, think again. These Viking facts debunk several myths about these Norsemen (and women) according to

Vikings didn’t actually call themselves Vikings. The word (a verb) refers to an Old Norse term for “pirate raiding,” because Vikings routinely pillaged nearby lands. But they weren’t just pillagers, either. They traded peacefully with other societies when they weren’t raiding them. But during the Viking Age, which lasted from 800 AD to 1066, these Norsemen were one of the toughest, most advanced civilizations in Europe.

1. Gods of the Vikings

The Vikings had their own complex mythology. You probably know the warrior Thor, god of thunder, and the trickster Loki. But there’s also Odin, the most enigmatic of Norse Gods, who embodies wisdom. Then there’s Frigg, the goddess of the sky. But before them came Ymir, the entity before all other gods, who was born before all other Earthly life.

2. The Vikings’ Horns

When you picture your typical Viking, you probably see horned helmets. But this image is actually a myth, spread in the 19th century by various painters who likely got the idea from ancient Greek historians. Actual Viking helmets were simple, round, and made of iron, with a nose guard protruding from above.

3. The Viking Tribes

Many Viking tribes across Scandinavia didn’t have much contact with one another. They merely existed as separate chieftain-led tribes. And when they weren’t busy fighting each other, they traveled to foreign lands to settle down (or conquer). They reached as far as England, Ireland, and even America, long before Christopher Columbus.

4. Berserkers

Ever wonder where the English word “berserk” came from? Some Viking warriors were known as Berserkers for their intense, trace-like fighting abilities. They didn’t need much armor — just bear skins. Some historians think they ate hallucinogenic mushrooms and drank obscene amounts of alcohol, turning them into war machines who ripped their foes apart.

5. Ivar the Boneless

There were many conquerors during the Viking Age, but Ivar the Boneless is notable not only for his name, but for his invasion of England in 865. It is not known why he was given this name. Some historians think he was impotent, while others think his bones were deformed. Despite this, his wisdom and tactical cunning led to a successful raid of England.

6. Viking Ships

One of the most iconic pieces of Viking culture is the Longship, built for long voyages across seas. They were typically manned by several rowers, and the ships were equipped with sails for extra speed. Back in the Viking Age, nothing was as agile or powerful as the Longship.

7. Viking Burials

Boats weren’t just used for travel by the Vikings. Norse funerals often involved laying the dead in a boat, with all their belongings, and either burning the boat with the dead or burning the dead and then putting them on a boat. This would ensure that they’d end up in Valhalla with all their belongings. In some cases, thralls — or slaves — were burned along with their masters for the afterlife.

In addition to real boats, stones were arranged to resemble boats to mark graves on land.

8. Valhalla

Valhalla was the mythical hall in the world of Asgard, where the god Odin ruled. Whenever a glorious warrior died, he’d be transported by valkyries to this majestic hall — if he was lucky. Only half of the warriors ended up in Valhalla, according to myths. The other half went to Fólkvangr, a meadow where the goddess Freyja ruled.

9. Female Vikings' Rights

Viking women, unlike most others before the Middle Ages, enjoyed some rights. They could request divorces, inherit property, and reclaim dowries. However, these were the Dark Ages, after all, and women could be sacrificed if their husbands died. Also, they were often married off when they were as young as 12. They could have also been enslaved, in which case they had no rights.

10. Vikings and Slavery

Thralls, or slaves, were commonly bought and sold by Vikings, who captured them from many of the lands they raided. Celtic, Slavic, and Anglo-Saxon slaves were transported all across Europe by the Vikings. The word “enthrall” (“capture the fascinated attention of”) actually originates from this Viking word for slave.

11. The Vikings Loved to Farm

While there were many mean Viking pirates, most Vikings were farmers. They sowed barley, rye, cabbage, and oats, and raised cattle, pigs, goats, and sheep. Men who left for raids and fishing trips left their women in charge of the farms, which gave them more power than women from other lands.

12. The Vikings Find America

Before Christopher Columbus accidentally found his way to North America, a Viking named Leif Erikson set foot there around 1000 AD. He was blown off course on his way to Greenland, when he found wheat fields in what is now Newfoundland.

There, he rescued two castaways, the first known Europeans to settle in North America (or as the Vikings called it, “Vinland”).

Erikson was actually preceded by a merchant who saw Vinland, but didn’t sail there. Erikson was the first to build a settlement there, earning him the credit for discovering America.

13. Days of the Week

Many of our days of the week, in English, come from Viking words. For example, Thursday is named after Thor, god of storms. (Thursday sounds a lot like Thor’s Day, doesn’t it?) In fact, the only day that doesn’t, Saturday, comes from Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and father of Jupiter.

14. The Vikings’ Hygiene

We may imagine Vikings as dirty, long-haired pirates, but they were actually very hygienic. They bathed once a week, which was far more often than other peoples of the day. Excavations have found tweezers, combs, and razors made from animal bones, which were undoubtedly common items used by everyone from farmers to chieftains.

15. The Vikings’ Fires

The Vikings had a very interesting way of starting and maintaining fires. They collected a wild mushroom known as tinder fungus, which they then boiled in their urine. Apparently, thanks to the sodium nitrate found in urine, these mushrooms would stay ignited without burning, sometimes for many days. This made it easy for them to make fires without having to worry about starting them again and again.

16. The Vikings Loved to Ski

Scandinavians had skis around 6,000 years ago, long before the Viking Age. They even had a god of skiing, Ullr. This ancient sport didn’t gain traction until the 19th century. The Vikings skied as a means of transportation or for hunting, and only sometimes for recreation.

17. Vikings Preferred Blondes

Viking men commonly dyed their hair blonde to adhere to the beauty ideals of the time. While many Scandinavian people were blonde, the brunettes and redheads put lye in their hair to bleach it. They even bleached their beards. Lye was useful not only for fashion, but for exterminating another common problem: head lice.

18. Viking Sagas

Viking epics were known as sagas. They typically described the adventures, battles, and voyages of heroic Norsemen. Much like epics, these tales were told in prose stanzas as a way to preserve the society’s history. Some tales were larger than life, involving kings, saints, and bishops.

19. Name Origins

Many places in England that still exist today originally came from Viking names. Because they repeatedly raided England and Ireland, these names stuck. Many suffixes, such as “-garth” (enclosure), “-thorpe” (settlement), and “-wick” (harbor) originate from Old Norse. The first Viking settlements’ names usually ended in “-by,” such as Whitby. Yorkshire contains most of these former Viking settlements.

20. The End of the Vikings

The Viking Age, which had begun around 800 AD, came to an end in 1066, when the last major Viking invasion failed. The Norwegian king Haraldr was killed in the Battle of Stamford Bridge when attempting to reclaim a portion of England for his people.

After this, the Vikings stopped raiding because they found it less profitable and therefore less desirable. Gradually, their cultures branched out, turning them into the Icelandic, Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian people we know today.

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