A viking boat

Vikings – common myths and misconceptions!

What do we know about Vikings?

For over three centuries, the word ‘Viking!’ struck fear in the hearts of men, women and children, who usually associated then with destruction and death. And quite rightly so!
But the seafaring Norsemen (who we call Vikings) were also 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.

1. What did they do…..apart from raiding?

Vikings probably enjoyed the reputation they had; people were so frightened by the stories about Vikings that they often fled from their cities and homes, instead of defending them when a Viking ship was approaching.  And it may seem unlikely, but although Vikings did raid (it was an excellent source of income!) most were farmers! They herded cattle, goats, sheep and pigs, and planted barley, rye, oats and other plants. The women, who sometimes accompanied them on raids, also maintained the family farms during the raiding-season, and when the men returned, they resumed their farming duties. Vikings who settled in places such as Iceland and Greenland, became international merchants of their time; they peacefully traded with almost every country of the then-known world.

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.  So, 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 diverse.

2. Vikings and their personal grooming customs

We see in movies that Vikings were  generally filthy and muddy, covered in blood and gore. However, when Vikings weren’t at sea or working their farms,  they spent time on personal grooming! 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 common in Nordic countries.

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. The soap which was commonly was used had a high potash concentration that helped bleach hair. Some Vikings bleached their beards too and in addition to this soap being used as a cosmetic product, it also helped the get rid of head lice – indicating that they were quite hygienic!

Blong Viking warrior

3. The famous Viking helmets

Although Vikings definitely wore helmets, they didn’t wear horned ones! Vikings usually were bare-headed or wore simple leather or metal-frame helmets with the occasional face guard.

All depictions of  helmets dating to the Viking age, show them with no horns and the only authentic Viking helmet that has ever been found does not have horns.

An explanation for the horns myth could be that Christians in Europe added them to make the Vikings look even more barbarian and pagan, associating them to having horns like Satan. Also the Norse god Thor wore a helmet with wings on it – which may look similar to horns.


5. Vikings carried fire over water

Vikings collected decaying wood (known as touchwood) and boiled 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, and even to keep warm while at sea. The Vikings realized that the sodium nitrate found in urine, caused the tinder to smolder and not to burn.

For Norsemen, boats were a huge part of the Viking Culture and defined them as people, Vikings buried their dead in boats. It was considered a great honour to be buried on your boat and be taken in the afterlife on it. The idea behind this tradition was that the boat that served the Viking well in his life, would also serve him one last time, in death. The Vikings were sent to the afterlife surrounded by their weapons, valuable goods, and sometimes even with sacrificed slaves.

  Join us for some authentic hands-on Viking family activities, by booking tickets to the Abbey Museum’s Kids Dig it! Viking family fun week.