The very word "Viking" conjures up images of fierce, uncivilized warriors and pirates who attacked and wrought havoc on the Christian countries of Europe from the 8th to the 11th century. However, they are a much-misunderstood people and it is not easy to unravel the truth from legend. To begin, they were not peoples from one land, but from three: Denmark, Norway and Sweden, coming from an area of northern Europe known as Scandinavia. However, there was no unity, and wars among these three Viking nations were common. The word "Viking" is a general term (possibly derived from the word "vig" which means "fighting") to describe all Scandinavians of this time.
Another more accurate term is Norseman (meaning men from the North). Although they did lead piratical raids against the Christian countries of Europe, the Vikings were not uncivilized barbarians. They were excellent navigators, great traders, and were skilled in the arts of metalwork and carpentry. As told by legend, raiding cities, towns and monasteries may have been a quick and sometimes easy way to get rich; it was not the only means by which Vikings supported themselves.
For a majority of Vikings, the resources they needed to survive came not from pillaging, but from the seas, the fields, and the forests around them. Based on archaeological finds such as sickles, picks, hoes and ploughshares and the preserved remains of animals and plants, we now know the Vikings were very skilled craftsmen and highly successful farmers. As seafarers, they felled the trees of Scandinavian's forests to build their famous cargo ships to trade these goods with each other and with others across Europe and parts of East Asia. They also shaped the iron commonly found in the bogs of Europe into tools and weapons, and also turned traded and ill-gotten gold and silver into stunning jewelry. Relying on local materials, they built homes of wood, stone and sod to create large and well-organized communities in the areas of Europe they conquered and settled.
They even contributed to the language of the areas they eventually colonized. The Vikings were also explorers. Their ships, which resembled open canoes, were able to navigate the shallowest rivers and cross the widest oceans even in very poor weather conditions. From Sweden, Vikings rowed and sailed the rivers of Eastern Europe that lead to the Black Sea and ultimately the Middle East. The exploits of Norwegian Vikings lead them west to settle Iceland in 860 and still further west to colonize Greenland about a hundred years later. By the end of the first millennium they had even reached and set up at least one camp in North America, some five hundred years before Christopher Columbus's arrival in 1492.
In 982, a Norwegian Viking, Eric the Red, sailed to a little explored, un colonized island west of Iceland. He named the island Greenland, and in 986 he led 25 ships full of settlers across the Atlantic Ocean. Only 14 ships arrived in Greenland, but enough people survived to establish a colony. About 18 years later, a sailor named Bjarni, who was on his way to Greenland, was blown off course and sighted land even farther west. Leif the Lucky, the son of Eric the Red, retraced Bjarni's course. In about 1000 AD, Leif landed somewhere on the coast of what we now call Canada.
He named this new territory Vinland. Although the Vikings did settle in parts of Britain, France, Iceland, and Russia on a permanent basis, they were not seeking to conquer these lands. They were opportunist pirates who took advantage of the chaos following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in Europe. They were certainly warlike, but they were not barbarians, as often is as depicted. They lived, for the most part, in an ordered and civilized society. Viking warriors, however, were feared throughout Europe for their ferocity.
Viking warriors had no fear of death. If they died on the battlefield, it was considered to be an honorable death. To surrender or be taken prisoner would have brought shame and dishonor to their families. The Vikings did not have military uniforms.
Unless a Viking warrior was chosen to fight in the king's army, he was responsible for making his own fighting clothes and weapons. Hence, like ordinary Viking dress, the type and style of a warrior's clothes varied from place to place across Scandinavia. Despite this, there were some similarities. One similarity was practicality. A warrior's clothes were designed to allow him to fight without anything getting in the way.
His clothes had special features to protect him from the blows of enemy swords, arrows and spears. The clothes also kept him warm while traveling to the next raid. The average Viking warrior wore a one-piece outer jacket usually made of leather. The jacket was both tough and warm.
Beneath it, he wore a linen or woolen tunic. This tunic often hung lower in the sleeves and around the waist hem than the jacket. The tunic was usually colorful and nicely decorated. Wool socks and goatskin or calfskin shoes were worn on the feet.
A silver Thor's hammer, a good-luck charm, hung from a chain or leather strap around the neck. Some Viking warriors had an extra piece of protection, which was a wire mesh covering called a bernie or chain mail. However, it was heavy, very time-consuming to make, and expensive to buy. Consequently, only the King's warriors wore it. A Viking warrior's headdress was a helmet made either of leather or metal that fitted snugly on the head. The last thing a warrior would want was a loose helmet blocking his vision.
Metal helmets were conical in shape and were mainly worn by the king's warriors. Some leather and metal helmet designs often included a reinforcing strip of metal along the center seam. This piece extended down over the nose for additional protection. Some designs included a goggle-like protection around the eyes too. Whether it was made of metal or leather, Viking helmets did not have horns as often pictured in movies, cartoons, or fictional books. Horned helmets would have been extremely cumbersome in battle.
The Vikings practically invented the blitzkrieg or surprise attack. There would be no warning before they struck. They sailed quickly into a port and then robbed, and killed everyone in their path until their raid was finished. Then, as quickly as they arrived, they departed. The battle was often over before the enemy had a chance to react. If the Vikings faced an enemy waiting on shore for their attack, the first battle tactic used was fear.
Their dragon-headed ships, blood red striped sails, and berserker warriors probably frightened even the bravest enemy. This tactic proved so successful, the government of Paris paid the Vikings in silver coins not to attack and gave them part of France, now called Normandy, as their own land. The Vikings had a reputation of being fearless fighters. When not outnumbered, they fought hand-to-hand combat. When in trouble, they often formed a tight circle and defended themselves to the end. Nothing is as symbolic of the Vikings as the longship or drakkar.
Also called a dragon ship by its enemies, the drakkar was really a warship designed to carry fearless Viking warriors on their raids across Europe over a millennium ago. The average length of a longship was 28 meters. The largest ever excavated was seventy meters long. Its sixty oarsmen could swiftly deliver as many as four hundred warriors to a battlefield along the coast or well inland via a river. Like most large drakkar, it was owned by a powerful king. He was the only one who could afford to build it.
In the last days of the Viking Age, three hundred of these longship were in the Viking fleet. The average longship owned by an earl or nobleman carried a crew of twenty to thirty oarsmen. They rowed the ship when the winds were slight or calm. Other crewmembers included a helmsman who steered the ship, a lookout that watched for rocks in shallow waters, and a few spare men who took the place of tired oarsmen or replaced one lost overboard during a storm.
The remaining men onboard were warriors, eager to do battle or to raid a community and rob it of its riches. The longship was very sturdy, and yet flexible enough to withstand the waves of stormy seas and light enough to be dragged overland between two lakes or rivers. The prow, or bow, was sometimes tipped with a very ornate carving of a snake or dragonhead, thus earning it the nickname "dragon ship". The prow ornament was removed while the ship was at sea. Replacing such a finely carved piece would be expensive, and losing it might be a bad omen.
Red dye was added to give the sail a vivid crosshatched pattern. Sometimes the whole sail was dyed a solid red color. The choice of red, the color of blood, was meant to strike fear into the hearts of the Vikings' enemies. The sail was hoisted and held in place on the center mast with ropes likely made from walrus hide. Once it caught a steady breeze, the sail could move the ship a very swift twelve knots. If the winds were calm, twenty to thirty oarsmen could move the ships briskly through the water at about five knots; the same speed as a quick walking pace.
In conclusion, the Vikings were a proud, honorable, law-abiding people who valued warfare and personal reputation (they called it 'word fame') above almost anything else. They brought the seafaring ship to Europe and, by their constant depredations, spread its use far and wide. In only 250 years, they set their mark on the law and language of many countries and made many European communities see themselves in the light of a nation state for the first time. In terms of human history, if you blinked, you would have missed them! But the image the Vikings promoted of the brave, hardy individualist, unafraid of the world in all its forms, remains with us all as an example of how a man should conduct himself in adversity. 'Wealth dies, kinsmen die.
Cattle die and the wheat, too. But this thing never dies: word-fame! Word-fame never dies for he that achieves it well. '.