Pirates of the Past: The Vikings

Vikings have long fascinated modern people. Just the word alone conjures vivid images of bloodthirsty plunderers raiding without warning or mercy. In truth, there was actually a lot more to Vikings than popular culture leads us to believe. They were an organized civilization with their own forms of lifestyle, customs, codes, and more. In this article, we’ll take a complete look at this old civilization to learn about how they lived and how the stereotypes began.

Who Were the Vikings?

Vikings hailed from the Scandinavian region, living in what is now known as Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland. They existed from approximately the mid-700s well into the end of 11th century. Vikings did not actually form one unified culture. Rather, they were loose groups of tribes, each with their own varied cultures and lifestyles.



Viking Lifestyle

Although Vikings are best known for their fearsome raids, the bland truth of their existence is that most of them were actually farmers or craftsmen. They also practiced art, literature, and politics. However, a good number of Vikings were also explorers. Their main motive for setting out on raids was essentially a form of getting rich quick and then returning home with their bounty. The cold, northern regions, that they lived in, made life quite difficult in terms of agriculture. Raiding provided an alternative to make up for the hard conditions back home.



Viking Culture

Vikings had a strict code of customs and law. Religion played a major role in their society. Some of their deities are still quite well known today, such as Odin and Thor. In fact, several customs practiced today, such as hanging up mistletoe or decorating a Christmas tree, stem from ancient Viking pagan traditions. Although it may sound contradictory, the Vikings lived for honor and principle. Among their people, they were generous and extremely hospitable.



Viking Appearance and Dress

Vikings made all of their own clothing from natural materials that were readily available to them: linens, furs, wool, and leather. Their clothing was typically designed to protect them from the harsh winter climates and outdoor life. Tunics were worn by both sexes. Wealthier people had the luxury of embellishing themselves with jewelry or better woven clothes. Viking weapons, like axes, spears, daggers, and swords, along with their shields, were all handmade from wood and metal.



Viking Food and Drink

Since it was somewhat difficult to farm in the Scandinavian regions, most Viking vegetables included plants that were indigenous to the area. Some examples are carrots, cabbage, parsnips, and celery. Since the Vikings lived so close to the sea, fish made up a major part of their diet. They would salt and dry the fish during the summer and fall to create a store for winter. When they had access to meat, it included deer, goat, and sometimes also beef or pork. Since fresh water was not always safe to drink, Vikings often drank wine or ale, although in moderation.



What Are Vikings Famous For?

The Vikings first became feared and infamous with their sudden attacks on the Isle of Lindisfarne on the north-east coast of England. It was an easy mission for them, since Lindisfarne lies directly across the waters from Denmark. However, it was a monastery that they raided, and their savagery became quickly known throughout the land. In the next couple of centuries, the Vikings attacked several more areas of England and became locked in a fierce power struggle for the land there.



Why did the Viking Period End?

Many Vikings who invaded areas of England eventually conquered land and stayed there. Over time they amalgamated themselves with the locals. We can still find evidence of this by observing the numerous Viking place names and family names that exist there today. Climate change was another major factor in the decline of the Viking era in the north.



Learning More About Vikings

There are a vast number of museums around the world that are entirely dedicated to teaching the public about Vikings and their lifestyles. In the U.S., the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History are excellent places to explore this fascinating civilization. The BBC and several Scandinavian websites also offer additional resources and details on archeological finds.