Who were the Vikings?
With the Abbey Museum of Art and Archaeology’s Viking Family Fun Week fast approaching, I started thinking about which costume ideas my kids would find most appealing. Of course, me being a stickler for period accuracy, I decided to head to the internet to find out more about the Vikings and how they lived..
For over three centuries, the shout of ‘Vikings!’ struck fear in the hearts of men, women and children. But the seafaring Norsemen (who we call Vikings) were so much more than just raiders and savages. They were excellent farmers and through using their sailing skills they established elaborate trade routes and settled in many of the lands they plundered.
True or False?
1. Vikings Spent all their time Raiding
False! It seems a bit crazy, but while the Vikings did raid (it was an excellent source of income) most of the Vikings were farmers! They herded cattle, goats, sheep and pigs, and planted barley, rye, oats and other plants. Their wives maintained the family farms while the men were at seas or raiding (which wasn’t all the time – they had a raiding-season) and when the men returned, they resumed their farming duties. For the Vikings who settled in places such as Iceland and Greenland, they became international merchants of their time; they peacefully traded with almost every county of the then-known world.
‘The Vikings probably enjoyed the reputation they had; people were so scared of them that they often fled from their cities instead of defending them when they saw a Viking ship coming near making settling nearly a breeze!‘
2. Vikings were one huge Army
False! Not only did Vikings not recognise the rulings of other Vikings (making raid co-ordination extremely difficult) the geographic locations of the Viking people were very spread out to conserve farmland. They probably didn’t even call themselves Vikings!
‘The term “Viking” was used for all Norsemen that ventured in overseas expeditions. The land that is today Denmark, Norway and Sweden, was a huge area ruled by chieftains of many tribes that were in a constant war with each other.’
3. Vikings had terrible hygiene
False! Of course we see in the movies (and in a particularly cool TV Show with a majorly handsome main character), that Vikings were always filthy, greasy, muddy, covered in blood and gore – whole shebang of unpleasantness. However, When Vikings weren’t out on the seas, working their farms, raiding (the messiest!), they used to spend lot of time making themselves look good!
‘Archaeologists have found evidence of combs, razors, tweezers, ear cleaners and other grooming utensils made from animal bones and antlers. It is suggested that the Vikings bathed at least once a week (which is far more then some other Europeans did at the time) and they also enjoyed the natural hot springs often.’
4. Vikings loved blonde hair
True! The Viking culture was fascinated with blonde hair – it was seen as ideal in the Viking culture and many Nordic men bleached their hair with a special soap.
‘The Vikings weren’t all native to the Nordic region. People who had been kidnapped as slaves often eventually became part of the Viking population in time. In Viking groups you would probably find Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, French, and Russians — a very diverse group built around a core of Vikings from a particular region’
This is why you didn’t see many Vikings with black hair. The soap that the men used had a high potash concentration that helped bleach their hair. Some Vikings bleached their beards too! Besides being used as a cosmetic product, the soap helped the get rid of head lice too – they really were hygienic!
5. Vikings wore horned helmets
False! Although Vikings definitely wore helmets, they didn’t wear horned ones! Vikings usually were bareheaded or wore simple leather or metal-frame helmets with the occasional face guard.
‘All depictions of Viking helmets dating to the Viking age, show helmets with no horns and the only authentic Viking helmet that has ever been found does not have them either.’
An explanation for the horns myth could be that Christians in Europe added them to make the Vikings look even more barbarian and pagan – with horns like Satan’s on their heads. Also the Norse god Thor wore a helmet with wings on it – which do look somewhat similar to horns.
6. The Vikings carried fire over water
True! The Vikings used to collect decaying wood (known as touchwood) and boil it in urine for several days. Once the wood was boiled, they would pound it up into something similar to felt. This allowed them to carry fire with them for later use – even to keep warmer on the sea!
7. The Vikings buried their dead in boats
True! For Norsemen, boats were a huge part of the Viking Culture and defined them as people.
So there you have it – A few little known facts about the Vikings!
Armed with my newfound knowledge, I realize my kids probably wouldn’t believe me that Vikings weren’t all raiding and plundering; they will want to get really dirty (aka-resist their nighttime baths – “But the Vikings never had to!”), wear their horned helmets and run around the house screaming and pretending to hack off each other’s limbs.. So much for hoping they’d go and ‘farm’ outside and pull some weeds out of the garden for me.. I think it’s time to book them into the Viking Family Fun Week.. Maybe they’ll change their minds!