Ancient Vikings Civilization

For two hundred and fifty years, the inhabitants of ancient European towns from Dublin to Kiev had their already difficult lives disturbed by the violent historical eruption of a people whose many names were fearfully whispered around medieval campfires. The Slavs called them Rus’; to the Anglo-Saxons they were Danes; to the Irish, Gaill or Lochlannaigh; to the Andalusians, al-Majus; and to the Franks, Normanni. These were the Vikings.

Ancient vikings civilization
Ancient vikings civilization

Their many names match their vague origin, over in the icy north of the continent. In fact, Normanni and Lochlannaigh mean the same thing: men from the north, Northerners or Nordic peoples. For the other Europeans, they were giants who carried swords and enormous axes with which a single cut could split a man in two; pagan barbarians who plundered and burned sacred – and very rich – monasteries as they laughed at the image of Christ on the cross; ferocious and savage individuals who raided coastal cities by stealing, raping, and killing without mercy.

Ancient Vikings Civilization

Origins of the Vikings

The image of the Vikings we’ve been given is one of savagery. This is the image that the chroniclers and historians of the age have given us, but it may not be entirely accurate. The words of these authors – almost always monks or priests – are burdened by the notable Viking preference of attacking the monasteries in which they wrote. Undoubtedly, these men from the north were fearsome and much of the great savagery attributed to them was very real, but it is also true that their much-proclaimed cruelty was nowhere near that of the Magyars in Saxony, that of the Tunisians in Italy and Provence, or that of Charlemagne himself, who delighted in the decapitation of 5,000 of his Saxon enemies.

It all began at the end of the 8th century when a series of fevered migratory movements caused by overpopulation and politics began to take place in Scandinavia. In Nordic royal houses, struggles for power often ended with the voluntary exile of the defeated faction. To put it simply, the losers did not agree with the situation and left. This peculiar political mechanism, which is associated with the mobility that gave these peoples knowledge of shipbuilding, birthed several nations of maritime migrants. In Norway, after the changes introduced by Harald Fairhair in 872, part of the population turned to the ports to leave the country. They did not set off for the calm south, but rather even further north to Iceland and Greenland. By doing so, they renounced conquests in favor of claiming the virgin lands in the Great North that their explorers had described to them. They gathered in Iceland, where by 930 around 30,000 Norwegians lived, trading and pirating in the British Isles and the continent.

Viking territories
Viking territories

Viking Expeditions to Greenland and possibly even America

Their expeditions led them to discover Greenland, where the Viking leader Erik the Red founded a colony in 985. If we accept what today seems certain – though it’s never been well demonstrated – it would have been from this colony where Erik’s son, Leif, sailed from years later to arrive on American shores for the first time; on the Labrador Peninsula (Canada), which they called Vinland.

Meanwhile, the Swedes chose the southern path. The island of Helgö, on Lake Mälaren, is just 20 kilometers from Stockholm. Surprising archaeological findings have appeared in the soil there, ranging from beautiful Irish crosses to Indian shells and a small image of the Buddha. Along with the large amounts of coins minted in Samarkand during the 9th and 10th centuries that have been found in Sweden, they are proof of an extraordinary expansive venture that remains full of mysteries to this day: the epic of the Varangians, the founders of the kingdom of Russia.

The Swedish dominance of the Baltic happened early-on. They advanced into present-day Russia from colonies established in Latvian and Lithuanian lands. They too were sailors, although more in rivers rather than on seas, and used the great drainage basin of the Dnieper River to reach the Black Sea, seeking trade with Byzantium and the Silk Road. To do this, they used light boats that they could carry on their shoulders to jump from one basin to another.

Rough mercenaries with promiscuous customs

Their movement through the lands of what is today Belarus and Ukraine was half commercial and half warlike. They traded, and to defend their storehouses they built fortresses – gorod – equipped with good warriors. Their basic trading commodities were skins and slaves, and Muslim travelers described their establishments as diseased hovels where they constantly drank and fornicated for all to see. Local feudal lords often solicited aid from these gorod men, which turned them into arbitrators. In the end, they came to dominate all these territories and settled in Kiev, the present capital of Ukraine, where the Kievan Rus’ was born in 882. In fact, although the origin of the term ‘Russian’ is still hotly debated, it seems that it was the word used by Finns of the time to refer to their Swedish neighbors.

The Vikings attack Western Europe

Over time, these primitive Swedes became Slavicized and, after the fall of Byzantium, took on their extensive Greek-based cultural heritage as their own. This is why it’s been said that the Russians are in fact culturally Hellenic Swedes.

Ancient viking civilization
Ancient viking civilization

However, in the West most of the Viking incursions were led by the Norsemen, i.e. men from the north, originating from Denmark. At first, their ships sporadically came to British and French shores; the looters rapidly took everything they found and returned to the seas where they were invincible. They then habitually appeared in the spring, carrying out long campaigns that lasted until fall, and returned to their lands for the winter. These were the Vikings that were spoken of with horror in Western European chronicles. Nothing was sacred to them and they knew no fear, meaning their expeditions became evermore daring.

In the middle of the 9th century, they reached the coasts of the Iberian Peninsula where they sacked places including Oviedo, Santiago de Compostela, and Lisbon. They then sailed up the Guadalquivir River to Andalusian Seville, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar, and disembarked on the Balearic Islands, southern France, and Italy. On the journey back, as an end to the celebration, they seized the East of England, where they imposed the worship of their god Odin. These were dark times for the island, in whose mists only the ancient myth of King Arthur shone.

Meanwhile, on the continent, a group of Norsemen invaded the mouth of the River Seine with the aim of settling at the end of the 9th century. Fifteen years later, the Frankish king Charles the Simple gave up on attempts to expel them and signed a treaty that allowed them to remain as another duchy of the kingdom. Thus, the noble Duchy of Normandy was born, which soon launched its conquest of England. There, their forces fought against the Saxon Christians who had arrived first, and against their Danish brothers who had occupied the east. After the Battle of Hastings, they dominated the whole country. Not even these descendants of the Vikings stayed still; they seized Sicily and Taranto, fought against the Muslims of Spain and North Africa, and played a determining role in both the organization and the development of the Crusades.

The Culture of the Vikings

Viking gods
Viking gods

The word ‘Viking’ comes from vikingr, a medieval Scandinavian term that can be translated as ‘pirate’, although it also refers to the simple act of sailing. It is worth remembering that only some of the medieval Scandinavians went to sea. Most remained in their lands, developing the culture and social life that they had inherited from their ancestors. They were, for the most part, independent farmers who herded animals, hunted, fished, and cultivated fields aided by the slaves they bought from their Viking compatriots.

The Viking religion: A link between the Norse and Greek gods

Like Christianity or Hinduism, a trinity presided over the Scandinavian religion. Thor, comparable to the Greek Zeus, was the Great and Mighty Lord, the protector of the law and crops, master of the storms, lightning, and thunder, which occurred whenever his huge hammer struck the clouds. The figure of Thor’s hammer was the Nordic symbolic equivalent to the Christian cross, and many wore it around their necks. Along with the majestic Thor, Odin, or Wotan, was worshiped, a very peculiar god whose main attributes – summarizing a lot of Scandinavian theology – were fits of madness. The warriors who ran head on towards the enemy were devoted to Odin, but so too were the seers in their trances, or the poets overrun with inspiration. Odin is like Hermes in many ways. Finally, Freya was the goddess of love, the Aphrodite of the North. She was inextricably connected with her brother and husband Frey, and between them, they looked after human happiness and prosperity.

The obvious similarity between Scandinavian and Greek gods (two widely separated cultures) is an argument in favor of the existence of an Indo-European common origin, which would also include Hinduism. The names of the Norse gods remain in the English calendar and are still used today, while in Spanish they reflect the Greco-Roman gods: Thursday (Thor’s day), is jueves in Spanish, meaning ‘Jove’s day’ (from Jupiter or Zeus); Wednesday (Wotan’s day) is miércoles, meaning ‘Mercury’s day’ (or Hermes’); and Friday (Freya’s day) is viernes, meaning ‘Venus’ day’ (or Aphrodite’s).

Social Organization of the Vikings

Considering the Christian monks’ accounts of the cruelty of the Norsemen, it’s shocking what the Scandinavian accounts themselves reveal about a certain Erling’s treatment of his slaves: “When I bought them, I assigned them a task that they could do in a couple of years, at most in three. I gave them free time after their daily tasks and allowed them to work for themselves, providing them with land and plows. Then, when they had bought their freedom, I taught them crafts and fishing techniques, assigned them free lands in which to establish themselves, and thus led them to prosperity.” With this attitude, Erling was laying the groundwork for becoming a feudal lord, which was what ended up happening throughout Scandinavia.

In the early days, however, life on the farms was governed only by natural order, and the months from April to October carried the names of the corresponding tasks: shearing month, cutting grain month, egg month, hay month, herding livestock month. In reality, the weather prevented working outside from October, so many of the tasks took place in the farming estate’s interior: long, arched buildings covered with warm peat. The complex included everything from a stable, to warehouses, toilets, a smithy and a steam bath that worked by heating stones on a fire. In addition, Iceland enjoyed volcanic hot springs.

What made the Vikings different from other threats to the medieval Christian kingdoms, such as the Magyars or the Muslims, was undoubtedly their great power at sea. Centuries of experience of voyages on the harsh northern seas made them some of the best sailors and shipbuilders in the world at the time.

Viking naval engineering

Viking ship

Over time, the designs of their boats became lengthened and stylized; the Vikings strengthened their keels and perfected the steering system with their customary lateral side rudders on the right-hand side. This is where the word starboard – steer board – comes from, while portside refers to the side facing the port or the mooring side, opposite the rudder to prevent it from being damaged by knocking against the dock. Historians know how these ships were in detail because of the habit of great Norwegian lords of being buried with their ships, allowing for some to be recovered in very good condition. The one found in Gokstad (Norway), for example, measures about 26 meters in length, and its combination of lightness and robustness still excites experts. Such mastery in naval design did not make their enemies especially happy. In a Latin text written by a witness to the arrival of the Norse fleet commanded by Cnut the Great on the English coast, after describing the prows adorned with gold, the gleaming shields on the railing, and the long pennants flying in the wind, they stated that: “So impressive was the fleet that, if its owner had wanted to conquer any country, it would have sufficed to send those ships ahead to terrorize the enemy, without the soldiers they carried needing to land.”

Viking Weapons

The Viking men-at-arms were just as strong and fearsome as their ships. They probably wouldn’t stand out on the streets today, but at that time they were seen by their contemporaries as real giants. The sources often underline their great size and strength. If you see the weapons that they once wielded in a museum, they still make one’s hair stand on end. Their weapons range from enormous swords that are hard to raise off the ground with both hands, and cruel battle axes, to sharp, fine spears, which they wielded masterfully. All of these are very elaborate because of the Viking love of ornaments.

Viking weapons
Viking weapons

The famous Nordic design is not something that they just came up with overnight, as is clear when one sees the designs of Viking ships, their goldsmithing, or their intricate sketches on rune stones. Perhaps they were as brutal as the Christian chronicles portray them to be, or as dirty as the Muslims describe them, but if you look back from the present, there’s something fascinating about those brave and free people whose audacity knew no limits, from the Black Sea to the Labrador Peninsula, and from Greenland to Sicily.

Viking Art and Poetry

The ancient Scandinavians loved poetry. Their endless winters, surrounded by darkness and ice, needed the charm offered by literary fantasy. Imagination was not a luxury for them, but a medicine against the insufferable monotony of the obliged sojourn within the estate’s interior. A new literary genre was born in these communities where poets provided an absolutely necessary commodity: the Icelandic Sagas. These were a large amount of long and complex stories written around the 13th century that contained all the elements of what we would call ‘novels’ many centuries later. The sagas are anonymous; they touch upon a multitude of subjects, cater to all tastes and carry a very distinct literary importance. Some are real soap-operas; others, such as Njáls saga, have the beauty of universal masterpieces. In regards to their content, for the time their most interesting and novel aspect is that above all other values, above heroic courage and romantic adventures, sagas place the triumph of justice as being the most important value of all.

In the summer, farmers gathered in assemblies, called ‘things’, where they discussed common problems and formulated laws. Family was the basis of everything, even individual conduct, as the whole family was held responsible for the improper behavior of any one member. This especially strengthened the role of women, whose relative independence and social significance was the envy of those from the rest of the continent. They had no votes in general and inherited nothing if they had brothers, but they kept their property if they were divorced, and if they were widowed, they freely handled their affairs and could refuse a second marriage if they didn’t like the suitor.

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