Sunday, November 10, 2013

10 Things You May Not Know About Vikings

So…you think you know all about the Vikings?  Those seafaring Scandinavians who raided and settled coastal sites in the British Isles and beyond between the 9th and 11th centuries?  You've watched the movies and television shows, have been exposed to the caricatures and stereotypes.  But I'll bet there's a lot about the Vikings that you don't know.

1)  Vikings Didn't Wear Horned Helmets
Forget all those Viking warrior costumes you've seen in those movies, television shows, and pictures seen with the characters wearing those elaborate horned helmets (as in the image above).  Descriptions from the Viking age don't mention it and the only authentic Viking helmet ever discovered is horn-free.  This concept seems to have originated with painters in the 19th century, possibly inspired by ancient Norse and Germanic priests who wore horned helmets for ceremonial purposes long before the Viking Age.

2)  Vikings Were Known For Their Excellent Hygiene
What with all that boat rowing and decapitating their enemies, the logical assumption would be that Viking men must have stunk.  However, excavations of Viking sites have revealed tweezers, razors, combs and ear cleaners made from animal bones and antlers.  Vikings also bathed at least once a week, much more often than other Europeans of that time period.

3)  Vikings Used A Unique Liquid To Start Fires
The Vikings collected a fungus called touchwood from tree bark and boil it for several days in urine then pound it into a substance similar to felt.  The sodium nitrate in urine allowed the material to smolder instead of burn.  This gave the Vikings the availability of taking the fire with them on the go.

4)  Vikings Buried Their Dead In Boats
The Vikings boats were very important to them so it was a great honor to be buried in one.  It was believed that the vessels that served them well in life would see them safely to their final destination.

5)  Vikings Were Active In The Slave Trade
Many Vikings became rich through human trafficking.  They captured and enslaved women and young men while rampaging through Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Slavic settlements then sold them in giant slave markets in Europe and the Middle East.

6)  Viking Women Enjoyed Some Basic Rights
Viking girls married at age 12 and took care of the household while their husbands sailed off on adventures.  However, they had more freedom than other women of their era.  They could inherit property, request a divorce and reclaim their dowries if their marriage ended.

7)  Viking Men Spent Most Of Their Time Farming
Most Viking men swung scythes rather than swords.  True, some were callous pirates who only left their boats long enough to burn villages but most planted crops and raised cattle, goats, pigs and sheep on their small farms.

8)  Vikings Skied For Fun
Scandinavians developed primitive skis approximately 6000 years ago.  By the Viking age, Norsemen regarded skiing as an efficient way to get around and a popular recreation activity.  They even worshiped Ullr, the god of skiing.

9)  Viking Men Preferred Being Blond
Brunette Vikings, usually men, used strong soap with a high lye content to bleach their hair and in some regions also their beards.  These treatments also helped with a health and hygiene problem—head lice.

10)  Vikings Were Never Part Of A Unified Group
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 is now Denmark, Norway and Sweden was a patchwork of tribes that often fought against each other…when they weren't busy creating havoc on foreign shores.

I still erroneously visualize the Vikings with those horned helmets, as depicted in the cartoon image above.  It's an image that I grew up with and can't seem to shake.  :)


Ashantay said...

This is so cool! I've learned nine new things today! (I already knew about the burials.) Thanks for an unique blog post. I won't look at Vikings the same from now on. Promise. Though yes, the horned hat thing...may be a problem.

Samantha Gentry said...

Ashantay: Yes, that Viking funeral on the boat as the send off to Valhalla has been used in lots of Viking movies, etc. It's going to be difficult for me to dismiss that horned helmet image, it's so ingrained.

Thanks for your comment.

Toni V.S. said...

I'd read somewhere that vikings never used horned helmets because that would give the enemy something to grasp and hold the wearer immobile while he finished him off (similar to the way the Greeks grabbed beards and that's why Alexander the Great made his men be clean-shaven). Also that "viking" came from an old Norse word "vinkingr" word meaning "pirate." I remember reading a romance one time where the Northmen said they were going "a-viking" using it to mean plundering. This is an informative blog. Thanks.

Tony-Paul said...

A really interesting blog. I learned a few things. I'm surprised you didn't mention those armbands they they're always shown wearing (along with the horned helmets). I read in a Smithsonian article that those were called "arm silver" because when they went to trade, if they didn't have enough of an item, they'd simply hack off a piece of the armband and add it to the scales to make it weigh properly. Imagine how much those things weighed, being made of silver and wrapped around the upper arm!

Samantha Gentry said...

Toni: I didn't know that reason regarding the helmets, but it certainly makes perfect sense.

Thanks for the info and your comment.

Samantha Gentry said...

Tony-Paul: I didn't know that about the arm silver. Very interesting.

Thanks for the info and your comment.