The Life of a Viking
The Vikings of old started as raiders and traders and later became explorers, conquerors, lawmakers, and founders of nations. Yet above all, they were seafarers. These Norse sailors, carried in longboats, traveled further north and west than any previous European peoples, establishing a colony on the west coast of Greenland and beating Christopher Columbus to America by almost 500 years.
The term “Viking” actually started as a vocation, not a group name. To “go Viking” meant to go raiding. However, as the years passed, the two terms became synonymous, and the Vikings entered the minds of Europeans everywhere as merciless raiders. Despite having a complex society, Vikings share many common aspects, including religion and language. Vikings came from similar societies, divided broadly among three classes: a warrior nobility; a wide category of freeman, including in it is ranks merchants, craftsmen, and especially the bondi, or landowning farmers; and thralls, or slaves.
The vast majority of Norsemen belonged to the middle class, the karls. These people were freemen and land owners. They were the farmers, the smiths, and the just plain folks. Families of karls usually lived in clusters of two or more buildings, typically longhouses supplemented by barns and workshops. Above them were the jarls, the noble class.
Below both of these classes were the ?r?ll. These included the slaves (usually booty from a raid) and bondsmen. If a Norseman of any class could not pay his debts, he was obliged to become a bondsman and to work for another man until the debt was paid. Although women were much more respected in Viking society than in Europe, women were still restricted by rules that favored a male dominated society. Women were not allowed in positions of power.
They could not carry weapons. Dressing in male clothing or cutting their hair short was prohibited. Fathers and husbands ruled over women, ensuring they stayed in their designated roles as domestic housewives. However, even though women’s rights were clearly limited, they were allowed certain freedoms as well. Women were in charge of money and running the farms when their husbands were away. Even though they weren’t allowed to participate in raids, evidence has been found supporting the fact that women participated in sea voyages.
The main role of women in Viking society was to be in charge of household tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children. When it came to domiciles, longhouses were the choices of norm. Longhouses were typically 5-7 meters wide and anywhere from 15 to75 meters long. The size of a longhouse would depend on the wealth and social status of the owner. Despite usually being made out of wood, turf was often substituted, especially in regions lacking in lumber resources. Inside the longhouse, rooms for slumber were separated, with a massive space for dining in the middle.
Fireplaces were prevalent in longhouses, providing warmth during the harsh winters. Longhouses were an important aspect of Viking culture, housing most of the Scandinavians who stayed home during raiding season. The primary language for the Vikings was Old Norse, a North Germanic language used in Scandinavia and its overseas colonies until the late 14th century. Old Norse was developed from Proto- Norse in the eighth century. Old Norse was divided into three dialects: Old West Norse, Old East Norse, and Old Gutnish. Despite their names, there was no geographical between between Old East Norse and Old West Norse.
Written in Runic, the Old Norse alphabet, Old Norse eventually became the modern North Germanic languages, such as Icelandic, Danish, and Swedish towards the late 14th century. Raiding and plundering were the most well-known out of all the Viking occupations. Vikings who set off to seek their fortunes overseas were driven by the same motives that have always inspired adventurers: the desire for land, wealth, and fame. The Vikings were feared by the Europeans for their ferocity in battle and mercilessness. The Europeans called the ships of Vikings “black ships,” and the first thing that came to mind when thinking of Vikings was death. The typical Viking raider was a younger son, stout and well-nourished on the high protein mean and dairy diet of the North, eager to find himself an inheritance to match the family estate that would be his elder brother’s by birthright.
In general, raiding was exciting, providing opportunities for wealth and glory. The success of Viking raids was only possible thanks to the superior craftsmanship of Viking longboats. Although they were an important part of raiding, they were also used in voyages for trade, exploration, and settlement. The design of longships evolved over the years, until finally a standard design was settled on in the early 13th century. Longships were usually light, narrow, ships with a shallow hull that emphasized speed.
The hull allowed navigation in shallow waters and beach landings, perfect for raids. The lightness of longships allowed the boat to be carried. Longships were double ended, making it easy to reverse direction without physically turning the ship. This feature was especially useful when navigating the ice filled seas of the North. Massive oars were wielded by burly Scandinavians to guide the ships through the rough water. However, single masted rectangular sails were soon added in order to lessen the workload for the sailors, especially on longer journeys.
The average speed of Viking longboats ranged from 5-10 knots, which is equivalent to 5-15 mph. The Viking method of raiding was greatly facilitated by their choice of weapons and armor. According to modern literature, the most common weapon used by Viking warriors was the battle axe, a piece of sharpened iron that could easily tear through helmets and flesh. The battle axe was similar to the axe used for chopping wood, explaining its commonness among Viking raiders. The weapon that was actually the most commonly used was the spear. Because the only metal required was near the tip, it greatly lessened the cost and made the spear affordable to many.
Also, the spear was extremely versatile on the battlefield, able to be thrusted or thrown at the enemy. More advanced warriors, whether in skill or in rank, usually wielded a two handed broadsword. These swords eventually became a symbol for status and power, used only by the mightiest fighters. Anywhere from 70 to 80 centimeters long, these swords had decorated hilts and could easily cleave a man in half. A fuller, or groove would run down the length of the blade, decreasing the weight without affecting its strength and allowed for greater flexibility.
Contrary to popular belief, Viking helms did not sport massive horns. Instead, Viking helms were relatively simple, usually a simple cup shaped dome designed for the purpose of protecting the head against attacks from above. Other helmets were slightly more complicated, possessing a mask that protected the eyes and nose. Flaps protected the neck to a certain degree, usually meant for defending against arrows. Warriors who used one handed weapons also carried a round wooden shield.
These shields were covered with leather and included an iron band around the edge for extra strength. With an average diameter of 1 meter, they provided protection from the shoulder to the thigh. Armor options included chain mail for the extremely wealthy and leather armor for the moderately well off, and nothing for the average Viking. Chain mail defended well against cuts and slashes, but offered little defense against impacts from blunter weapons such as clubs. Leather was worth far more in ancient times, which meant leather armor was rarely affordable for the general raider population.
Even though leather was pricey, it offered poor protection on the battlefield. For Vikings who couldn’t afford armor, it was common to charge into battle with only a helmet and a shield for protection. Viking mythology paints a surprisingly clear picture both of how the world began and how it will end. The vision of the beginning was likely influenced by conditions in Iceland, for it features a very Icelandic combination of ice and fire. As the legends go, the world grew out of a giant chasm named “Ginnungagap.” Eventually, as time passed, the clay within the pit grew into the first life forms known as “Ymir,” the primeval frost giant, and “Audhumbla,” a mighty cow which provided sustenance for Ymir.
Audhumbla licked giant salt blocks, and from her drool came Buri, the grandfather of the Aesir, gods who ruled over mankind. Odin, the grandson of Buri, slew Ymir, creating the seas and rivers from Ymir’s blood. Ymir’s skull became the sky, his bones became mountains, his flesh became the earth, and his hair became the trees. Finally, two people, a man and a woman, came from the corpse of Ymir and became the first humans to walk the newly made earth. The mythological universe consists of nine worlds, which make up three realms.
The first realm is Asgard, the kingdom of the Gods. Next is Midgard, or Middle Earth, where the humans roam. Finally, Nifheim encompasses all that is evil in the Norse universe, filled with souls of the wicked. In Asgard, the Gods watch over mankind. The king of the Gods, Odin, is a fearless ruler, having sacrificed his right eye for the knowledge of the ages.
He wields Gungnir, his spear of death. Thor is the son of Odin and is the god of thunder, lightning, and fire. He uses his hammer, Mjolnir, to massacre giants with terrifying speed. Despite being the most powerful god, he is not the smartest, often being tricked by giants. The last of the three great gods is Loki, a shape shifter who exchanged blood with Odin. After mating with a giantess, three horrible offspring came into the world: Fenrir, Hel, and the Midgard Serpent.
Loki was dark at heart and was banished to Hel for eternity for causing the death of Baldur. A wide variety of monsters exist in Norse mythology, including frost giants, fire giants, mountain giants, trolls, krakens, and night elves. However, the most fearsome monster by far was Nidhogg, the dragon imprisoned in the roots of Yggdrisal, the World Tree. The Norse afterlife contains many possibilities. For those who lived good lives, such as honest farmers, would be rewarded with eternity in Freya’s realm, Folkvang: a place similar to earth, where people farm and live common lives.
However, no sickness or famine could ever plague one in Folkvang, where all is peaceful and joyous. For sailors who drowned, the underwater palace of Ran awaited. An ancient sea goddess, Ran would be especially welcome if one brought a gift of gold, which explained the custom of passing out gold during storms while at sea. Cowards, thralls, and traitors are all destined for Helheim, a frozen wasteland where hope is nothing but a memory. Ruled by Hel, one of Loki’s three children, Helheim is guarded by Garm, the immortal guardian of misery. The ultimate afterlife was Valhalla, meant only for the bravest of warriors.
Only those who die nobly in battle would be chosen by the Valkyrie to join Valhalla’s ranks. During the day, warriors would battle, competing against the greatest warriors gathered since the beginning of time. In the evening, all who perished rose again, to feed on a never-ending supply of roast boar and mead. The account given of the end of the world in Norse mythology is unique; no other tradition, except perhaps that of the biblical book Revelation, has such a detailed version of how the final catastrophe will occur. The story of Ragnarok, the Doom of the Gods, had a profound effect on the Norse worldview, contributing greatly to its view of fatalism. Ragnarok, the doom of the Gods, will begin when the earth is plunged into darkness.
At that time, the giants will rally together, and march to battle against the Gods. The gods will retaliate by calling forth the warriors of Valhalla, filling the skies with legions of heroes. The fiercest monsters will clash against the Aesir, and the nine worlds will burn. Yet in the end, life will endure. Two humans will survive, and eventually the gods will be reborn into a new world where no evil exists, and all is peaceful. Even though Vikings eventually stopped the practice of raiding, Viking life continues to this day, especially in places like Scandinavia, Iceland, and Greenland.