The History of the Vikings

 

The history of the Vikings dates back to 750 C.E. in Scandinavia – Sweden, Norway, and Denmark – finally succumbing to Western Civilization around 1100 C.E.  These people were known as the Danes originally, but over time it is suggested that this change of identity was because of the possibility of the people coming from the region of Viken, modern day Oslo Fjord in Norway.

Over their 350 years of major history, they were notorious raiders of countries all over the world. These Norseman throughout this period raided, traded, and founded settlements throughout Europe, Britain, Iceland, Greenland, North America, Constantinople, Russia, Asia Persia and Arabia.

Throughout history, the Viking civilization, which is an ethnic term that has been misused, have had stories told about how they were an unkempt, murderous people, that were of the lowest class of people; far be it from the truth.  The great warriors were actually quite meticulous about their appearance and were of the upper class of citizens.  Even more ironic, was that not all Scandinavians were Vikings and for most of them they preferred to stay at home and farm their land.

Women were not allowed to be Vikings, or vikingar.  This was an exclusivity that belonged to men.  They could however, and did, play a part in settlements.  Before the Vikings came to Iceland, it was uninhabited; therefore, in order to populate this settlement, they needed to be taken with the men on their voyages to this region.  The daily life of a woman depended on her status.  There were three types of classes for these women; the slave-class, the yeoman, or the farming middling social class, and aristocratic class.

Food was a vital need for the Vikings.  It takes a lot of energy to pillage a village or monastery.  The man of the homestead usually would help himself to some of yesterday’s stew made from beans, turnips, carrots, lamb bones, and peas, along with a piece of last weeks, now stale, bread.  The children would have a breakfast of bread and buttermilk.  At midday, the men would share some cottage cheese and if they were very lucky to have it, some fruit.  This would also be accompanied by a little bit of butter with more stale bread.  To quench their thirst, either fresh water from a stream nearby, the left over buttermilk from that morning, or even some weak ale.  Occasionally their evening meal will be a fairly large one because of one of the three Viking feast nights.  This meal would include, horsemeat that had been spitted and roasted rather like a kabob, this was due in part to the sacrifice given to the gods, (unless they were of the Christian faith, then they would have roast lamb), salted fish and pork, goat and plenty of fresh bread.  For desert they enjoyed fresh fruit with a drizzle of honey.  The beverage of choice was mead, a fermented alcoholic beverage made from honey, water, and yeast.  This was usually drunk from drinking horns made from various animal horns.

The religious practices of the Vikings were mostly pagan, until they started their various invasions of Europe, when Christianity was introduced into their society.  One of these practices was divination through runic stones.  These stones, or sometimes pieces of wood, were carved with the Elder Futhark.  These were the ancient Runic letters. (See additional papers given.)  This is similar to the tarot card readings of today.  And like the tarot, there were many types of rune castings; one rune quickie, the norns (three-rune quickie), Roman method, and nine-rune cast.  This was a common practice of the Norse Vikings of the Dark Ages and of the modern day Viking religion, Asatru.

The Religion of the Vikings

 

The Vikings idea of worship is not like the Christians.  They had a high respect for their gods, and just as modern day Vikings, called Asatru, they believed that each one of these various gods had powers beyond what mortal men could or would ever have.  They were and are known still to this day as heathens and were very proud of their beliefs.  Their beliefs are pretty much the same as they were during the European Dark Ages.

Each of these gods and goddesses, like the Roman and Greek gods and goddesses, had their place in the Viking belief.  The head god of all the gods is Odin.  He is called the Allfather, who is wise, just, and understanding.  He is also the creator of the universe.  This includes, Asgard, the home and citadel of the gods, similar to Mt. Olympus, Midgard, or the middle world where men dwell; Bifrost, the rainbow bridge which connected Asgard and Midgard that the god’s could walk to and fro Yggdrasill, the giant ash-tree that holds all the worlds, and Niflheim, the land of the dead, and Valhall, the great hall of the fallen warriors, which has a total of 540 doors and each allows 800 of these great warriors to walk.  In German, Odin is known as Woden or Wotan; the name Wednesday is derived from Woden’s day

The next of these gods was Odin’s wife and queen, Frigg.  She is cited as being foremost amongst the goddesses, as would be proper for being Odin’s wife.  She presides over human marriages.  In the times of the Vikings, there was Frigg’s day, in modern day it is known as Friday.

Before the universe was created, there were two sets of gods; the Æsir and the Vanir.  The Æsir were the main set of gods, and the word itself being derived from various languages, means “goddess,” “breath,” “god or deity,” and “demigods.”  The Vanir is a subgroup of the gods, and in Scandinavian, vanir means “friend.”  Ultimately these two groups of gods became entangled in a war at the beginning of time known as the “Æsir-Vanir War.”  This eventually brought all the gods together into a single unified group of gods.  In the writing, Völuspá, the first poem in Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda, it is in stanza 24 that both of these are mentioned:

24. That was yet the battle of armies, the first one in the world.

Odin let fly and shot into the army,

The shield wall of the æsir was broken,

The battle-wise vanir knew how to tread the field (Lindow; 2001).

 

The Æsir were the gods who cared for men and consisted of Odin and Frigg, along with Hönir, Odin’s brother, the shining god; Thor, Odin’s son, the god of thunder and whom Thor’s day is now known as Thursday; Tyr, the god of war; Balder and Höd, the twin sons of Odin and Frigg, Balder being the god of daylight, and was the most beautiful of the gods, who died at the hands of his twin due to the guiding hands of Loki, and Höd being the god of darkness, because he was blind, and who was tricked by Loki to kill his brother; Hermod, Odin’s messenger; and Heimdall, the divine watchman who kept guard over Bifrost.”

The Vanir were the gods of nature.  These were, Niord, the god of the shore and shallow summer sea; Frey and Freyia, Niord’s son and daughter, Frey ruled over the elves of light and Freyia was the goddess of beauty and love; Aegir, the lord of the deep and stormy seas, along with his wife, Ran, who would catch sailors in her net and drowned them.

Finally, there was Loki.  This was the god of the fire that burns on the hearth, and was also quick to change his shape and laugh, was neither of the Æsir or the Vanir, but was on good terms with them and had sworn an oath of brotherhood to Odin.  When Loki had helped guide Höd’s mistletoe dart through the heart of Balder, it was decided by the other gods that his punishment should be to spend all eternity tied to a rock in a cavern below Midgard, where he would remain until all time had ended. 

Viking Warriors and Historical Figures

Throughout the history of the Vikings, there have been many warriors and historical figures associated with either the expansion of the Norseman, or North-man, tribes.  Some of those who discovered or colonized lands, include; Leif Ericsson, the discoverer of Vinland; Erik the Red, the colonizer of Greenland; Ingólfur Arnarson, who is credited with colonizing Iceland; Rollo of Normandy, the founder of Normandy; and Oleg of Kiev, who led the offense against Constantinople.  Harald Hardrada and William the Conqueror, both fought to conquer England in 1066 C.E.  The former of the two, who was a king of Norway and fought along side his men, was unsuccessful and died at Stamford Bridge.  William however was a ruler of Normandy and became the victor at the Battle of Hastings.  {Olaf Tryggvason. King of Norway from 995 to 1000 A.D. Forced thousands to convert to Christianity. Once burned London Bridge down out of anger of people disobeying his orders (conjectured to be the origin of the children’s rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down“).}

The Valkyries were servant women who waited on Odin and they chose the most heroic warriors to place in Valhall.  Most of the Valkyries names are difficult to pronounce, but if you would like a list of them, you can type in “Valkyries Names” in your search engine to find some list of many of these great servants.

Writing also plays a large role in the viking history.  Many authors works are still around today because of aral and written preservation.  A few of these composers are; Snorri Sturluson, Eyvind Finnsson, and Haukr Erlendsson.  Unfortunately, many of the writings from this period have no author listed.  A few of the more popular works are; “Codex Regius,” or The King’s Book, which includes “Poetic Edda,” a collection of Old Norse poetry, which is the single most important source of Norse Mythology; and finally “Prose Edda” written by Snorri Sturluson.

And in closing, I call out a traditional Asatru Viking blessing:

Hail Odin!

Hail Thor!

Hail Frigga!

Hail the gods and goddesses of the Æsir and the Vanir!

Hail the kinfolk!

Hail our honored Ancestors!

 

Bibliography:

Lindow, J., (2001).  Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs.: New York, NY, Oxford University Press

Picard, B.L.; (1961).  Tales of the Norse Gods and Heroes.:London, Great Britain, Oxford University Press

Lovgren, S.; (2004).  National Geographic: Vikings’ Barbaric Bad Rap Beginning to Fade.,Retrieved May 22, 2008, from web site: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/02/0217_040217_vikings.html

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