In medieval Scandinavian language, a viking is a pirate, a free roaming warrior who seeks wealth either by ship-borne raids on foreign coasts or by waylaying more peaceful seafarers in home waters. When people think of the Vikings, they think of Viking contact with other cultures, as a result of their violent conquests. This presents us with one of the dilemmas of history: inter-cultural contact, which is thought to be beneficial, is often brought about through violent conquest. The period of Scandinavian expansion from 800 A.D. to 1050 A.D. was a time of expansion for the Scandinavians all over the world: in the west, expansion took the form of straightforward colonization, whereas in the east, a network of trade routes and colonies was developed, responsible for the exchange of products from the Islamic empire of southwestern Asia to the Baltic area.
The Viking Conquest
While people generally imagine that the Vikings were representative of Scandinavian society as a whole, they actually represented only a minority of the population. Most Scandinavians were actually farmers, coming into contact with new societies only at the intersection of different trade routes. The rising population provoked conquests for new territory, from the islands north of Britain, Orkney, Shetlands, and the Hebrides, to the Frankish kingdom on the English channel, including Quentowic, in France, and Dorestead, at the mouth of the Rhine. The Vikings had a greater impact on history than the peaceful Scandinavians, thus bringing about their fame as seafaring warriors.
Moreover, the Vikings were not just warlords; their kings were engaged in complicated international politics, their engineers built fortresses and bridges and complex ships, and their merchants traded over vast distances.
By about 820 A.D., the Vikings began to attack the coasts of Ireland, bringing them into contact with a culturally prosperous area. As a result, Celtic art had a great influence over Germanic ornamentation in Scandinavia. The Vikings in Ireland formed a warrior aristocracy, and only a few of them supported themselves peacefully by farming.
The Viking empire reached the Iberian peninsula, capturing various cities of Italy, Spain, and Portugal. The Vikings were even responsible for the plunder of Paris. They traded from Denmark to Sweden, Russia, and Iceland. They were explorers who colonized previously uninhabited lands in the North Atlantic, such as the Faroes, Iceland, and Greenland, and the Vikings were the first Europeans to reach America, around 1,000 A.D. Large groups of Vikings settled in the areas they had conquered, cultivated the land, and became integrated with the native population. In some areas, such as Dublin, they established trading colonies, and in some areas, such as certain parts of Russia, they became an economic and political elite. The Viking culture developed as an assimilation and transformation of the different cultures with which they had contact. Their high level of technical and organizational achievement, combined with this blend of cultures, has helped historians more fully understand other cultures through study of the Viking culture.
The Success of the Conquest
The Vikings enjoyed great success in their conquests for two main reasons: their attack strategy, the use of surprise, and the political situation in the surrounding areas. The Vikings took advantage of the political instability of the Frankish kingdom and in Britain, by use of the notion of divide and conquer. Since both areas were preoccupied with internal struggles for power, and fighting among the many small states, the Vikings had a major strategical advantage. Much like the conquest of the New World, in which the explorers were able to take advantage of the fighting between the various indigenous groups, the Vikings caught Europe off guard. A unified resistance, even against foreign invaders, was impossible. As with the tribes of the Americas, history is full of examples of local rulers aligning themselves with the Vikings for their own political ends, demonstrating another phenomenon of history: conquest is often possible because of simple human greed.
Another tactic used by the Vikings to compliment the exploitation of political disharmony was the element of surprise. The Vikings developed highly advanced ships, strong for the attack because of their construction of overlapping boards, which allowed them to carry out rapid surprise attacks on horse-back along coasts and rivers. The boats could be pulled out of the sea onto any beach under the cover of morning fog, which meant that the Viking arrival could never be anticipated.
Quite appropriately, the main Viking god, Thor, was a warrior. From the English adaptations of the Viking myths, we can learn of Thor's encounters. Thor was the most long-lasting and widespread Viking god, and the Vikings brought his story to all of the lands that they conquered. His cult grew stronger, so when the ninth and tenth centuries proceeded, it was Thor who appeared the chief rival and opponent of Christ. Thor was a storm god, a type of sky god, the guardian of law and justice in the community. He also played a part in the vital ceremonies of family life and individual protection: his symbol, the hammer, was used to bless a bride, a new born child, or a funeral pyre, and small hammers were often used as amulets. Thor was the god whose power was used to protect humans from evil.
Another warrior god was Odin, who carried a spear and was surrounded by ravens, wolves, and eagles. His role was more complex than Thor; he was a great warrior, a seer in a trance, and a poet. He inspired frenzy in the Viking warriors, inspiring them to fight like wild beasts. Odin was also the god of death, of death by violence. Odin was also the god of wisdom, of spells and magic. It was believed that Odin could rise the dead from their graves in order to compel them to reveal the future. There was also a myth that humans could achieve his magic wisdom, at the price of self-sacrifice, such as by the loss of an eye, or by hanging for nine days like a human sacrifice.
The Viking gods were not only warrior gods: Frey, another major god, was representative of peace and plenty, and the fertility of men, animals, and crops. Njord, the god of wealth and seafaring, was his father, and Freyja, the goddess of love, was sometimes said to be his twin sister, and sometimes said to be his wife, as well. The pair is symbolized by two figures embracing, to represent love, marriage, and fertility.
The Vikings practiced their religion in the open fields and swamps, where they set out their offerings. They also used temples, though little is know of their appearance. Many of the temples were destroyed, and covered by Christian churches after the demise of the Vikings.
Since the Vikings populated such a wide variety of territory, their way of life varied greatly. In some areas they were fishermen, while in other areas they were hunters and gatherers. In winter, they hunted on skis, and they used falcons to help with the hunt. The Vikings had farms, including a complex of barns, stables, and dwelling houses, which expanded as the number of settlers multiplied. They used wooden tools and domestic supplies, which were bought with silver coins. Supplies could be renewed easily by purchase or further raiding.
The work was done by all members of society, including slaves. The first settlers brought many slaves, mostly captives from Scotland, Ireland, and the Isles; sources show that slavery lasted in Iceland until the early eleventh century. There were also free men and women working as farmhands, receiving room and board, and sometimes wages, though it is not clear how developed the wage system was during the age of the Vikings.
The success of the Vikings is intimately linked with their emergence as masters of the sea, enabling them to engage in long voyages, piracy, and coastal raids. Their ships were the culmination of several centuries of development, the history of which can be studies from ancient rock carving, pre-Viking ships, and drawings on stones in Gotland. By the late eighth century, Viking vessels were capable of direct crossings of the North Sea, thus allowing them to take the West by surprise. The Vikings were so advanced in their naval capabilities that their ships carried one or more small boats as dinghies, as well as tents and beds. The ships were even decorated, with shields, painting, and gilding. One ship, the Oseberg, even had a burial chamber.
It was not until 1066 at the Battle of Hastings, after hundreds of years of conquest, that the Vikings were finally defeated. The Normans, under authority of William the Conqueror, defeated the English army to become the dominating power in western Europe. The resulting establishment of effective naval forces, which could avert attacks on the open sea, and fortifications along exposed coasts, put an end to Viking supremacy.
The Vikings are portrayed as a barbaric, violent force of destruction, yet they were responsible for a great deal of contact between civilizations, setting the trend for the interrelationship of civilizations that formed the modern division of territories. They had their own gods, and their own ideas of heroism, all part of a distinct warrior society. Their conquests throughout the world brought them into contact with various cultures, which is an important part of history. Like many other historical forces, they made their name by conquest of new land, using the advantage of internal strife to divide and conquer. The Vikings were simply one of many cultures which rose and fell, and which used force to gain new land for its population.
Burenhult, Goran, general editor. Old World Civilizations: The Rise of Cities and States. San Francisco, CA; HarperCollins Publishers, 1994
Roesdahl, Else. The Vikings, Second Edition. New York, NY; Penguin Books, 1998
Simpson, Jacqueline. Everyday Life in the Viking Age. New York, NY; G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1967