Forget everything you think you know of vikings. They were nothing like tv or books lead you to believe.
The name Viking is thought to derive from vikingr, a word for 'pirate' in the early Scandinavian languages. It accurately describes the Norsemen who for two centuries raid the coasts of Britain and of northwest France. But in many places the Scandinavians also settle - in the islands of the north Atlantic, in the British Isles, in Normandy, in Sicily and in the very heart of Russia.
It is impossible to assign the various Viking groups at all precisely to places of origin. But broadly speaking, adventurers from the coast of Norway raid the north of England and continue round the Scottish coast to Ireland. Vikings from the same region later settle in the Scottish islands, Iceland and parts of Ireland.
The Vikings invading eastern Britain and northwest France, and eventually settling in both regions, come mainly from Denmark. The Swedes raid across the Baltic and penetrate deep into Russia as traders.
In order to understand Viking houses, buildings, and other structures, it is important to first understand something about the Viking culture. As a culture, the Vikings were predominant in the Scandinavian regions from about 794 AD into the mid-11th century. While many people consider the Vikings to be nomads and plunders of small villages (both true, by the way), they were also known for setting up colonies in those areas that they defeated through battle or ambush attacks. This is a key point to remember when considering the types of homes that they built. Another key element to keep in mind is the climate in which they lived.
All ancient peoples had to build homes and other structures that would withstand their local weather patterns. These structures, for the Vikings, had to also protect them from the severe cold that was a routine part of their annual life. To do this, the Vikings often used building techniques that they found in being used by those that they conquered. This is why Viking buildings and houses vary from one region to the next. They basically took what was being used by the locals and enhanced it to shape their own art forms and culture without destroying the underlying benefits of the structure in question.
Over time, the normal Viking house began to resemble a Viking ship in many ways. These homes often had oval sides and could house as many as 40 people at one time. There were, of course, much smaller houses, but one should not forget that Vikings often lived in large houses where the extended family all resided under one roof. These larger Viking houses also were home to any slaves the clan had captured as well as domestic animals that needed shelter from extreme weather elements.
When most people think about the Viking culture and history, they do not think of Viking art. Many people are of the opinion that the Vikings were brutes, murderers and not the sort of peoples that were interested in art. This is not true. Viking art actually has a long and refined history and includes art venues such as paintings, sculptures, and pottery.
To begin, Viking art, or Norse art, is a rather broad term that refers to Scandinavian peoples who lived during the Germanic Iron Age. Viking art can also transcend into the Nordic Bronze Age and this form of art is somewhat similar to what one finds in Eurasian, Celtic and Romanesque art forms.
In addition to their exquisite ships, the Vikings were also known for their expertise in crafting brooches, buckles, and knives. Much of their jewelry contains elements of Celtic art as well as elements from earlier Roman art pieces. The level of expertise that is seen in these ornamental pieces has surprised more than one person and expresses a deep knowledge of both metal working and creative design skills.
The Vikings were also known for their high level of skill when it came to pottery. Many artifacts have been discovered showing that the Norse peoples understood not only the basics of pottery making but also understood advanced techniques for pottery design and art forms. The same is true for their skill in sculpture, although sculpture does not appear to have been as popular as the other art forms practiced by the Vikings.
In terms of sculpture, however, it should be stressed that the Vikings ability to craft artfully in wood cannot be disputed. Their skill at woodworking is evident in both the ships that they built as well as in later pieces, especially those associated with the time during the 11th century when many of these people were converted to Christians. Much of this religious woodworking form is abstract in nature, composed mainly of animal forms and plant forms, often intertwined in complex patterns and often seen in ancient churches and other buildings that hosted religious ceremonies.
Forget almost every Viking warrior costume you’ve ever seen. Sure, the pugnacious Norsemen probably sported headgear, but that whole horn-festooned helmet look? Depictions dating from the Viking age don’t show it, and the only authentic Viking helmet ever discovered is decidedly horn-free. Painters seem to have fabricated the trend during the 19th century, perhaps inspired by descriptions of northern Europeans by ancient Greek and Roman chroniclers. Long before the Vikings’ time, Norse and Germanic priests did indeed wear horned helmets for ceremonial purposes.
Between rowing boats and decapitating enemies, Viking men must have stunk to high Valhalla, right? Quite the opposite. Excavations of Viking sites have turned up tweezers, razors, combs and ear cleaners made from animal bones and antlers. Vikings also bathed at least once a week—much more frequently than other Europeans of their day—and enjoyed dips in natural hot springs.
Clean freaks though they were, the Vikings had no qualms about harnessing the power of one human waste product. They would collect a fungus called touchwood from tree bark and boil it for several days in urine before pounding it into something akin to felt. The sodium nitrate found in urine would allow the material to smolder rather than burn, so Vikings could take fire with them on the go.
There’s no denying Vikings loved their boats—so much that it was a great honor to be interred in one. In the Norse religion, valiant warriors entered festive and glorious realms after death, and it was thought that the vessels that served them well in life would help them reach their final destinations. Distinguished raiders and prominent women were often laid to rest in ships, surrounded by weapons, valuable goods and sometimes even sacrificed slaves.
Many Vikings got rich off human trafficking. They would capture and enslave women and young men while pillaging Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Slavic settlements. These “thralls,” as they were known, were then sold in giant slave markets across Europe and the Middle East.
Viking girls got hitched as young as 12 and had to mind the household while their husbands sailed off on adventures. Still, they had more freedom than other women of their era. As long as they weren’t thralls, Viking women could inherit property, request a divorce and reclaim their dowries if their marriages ended.
This may come as a disappointment, but most Viking men brandished scythes, not swords. True, some were callous pirates who only stepped off their boats to burn villages, but the vast majority peacefully sowed barley, rye and oats—at least for part of the year. They also raised cattle, goats, pigs and sheep on their small farms, which typically yielded just enough food to support a family.
Scandinavians developed primitive skis at least 6,000 years ago, though ancient Russians may have invented them even earlier. By the Viking Age, Norsemen regarded skiing as an efficient way to get around and a popular form of recreation. They even worshipped a god of skiing, Ullr.
To conform to their culture’s beauty ideals, brunette Vikings—usually men—would use a strong soap with a high lye content to bleach their hair. In some regions, beards were lightened as well. It’s likely these treatments also helped Vikings with a problem far more prickly and rampant than mousy manes: head lice.
Vikings didn’t recognize fellow Vikings. In fact, they probably didn’t even call themselves Vikings: The term simply referred to all Scandinavians who took part in overseas expeditions. During the Viking Age, the land that now makes up Denmark, Norway and Sweden was a patchwork of chieftain-led tribes that often fought against each other—when they weren’t busy wreaking havoc on foreign shores, that is.