Cat lovers, farmers, and ski enthusiasts? Lesser-known facts about the Vikings
When you think about Vikings, we tend to gravitate toward the image of hulking, grizzly, and vicious barbarians who ruthlessly plundered, invaded, and enslaved nations across Europe. This is a partial truth. Sure, they burned down churches and pillaged villages; but they were also explorers, navigators, and settlers who founded cities and traded goods across the globe. But they were also a fairly gender-equal society who were just as much suckers for the big round eyes of a little kitty as the internet. In many ways, they laid some of the groundwork that civilization up the world as we know it. Read on to find out some lesser-known facts about the Vikings…
1. Our days of the week are named after their gods
Well, most of them are. Aside from Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, the rest of the days of the week are named after Norse gods, Tiu (Twia) is the English/Germanic god of war and the heavens. He’s identified with the Norse god Tyr, a Norse equivalent to the Greek god, Ares.
The other three days, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday are named after Woden, father supreme of the Norse gods; Thor, Norse god of thunder, and Freya is the goddess of love, fertility, beauty, and marriage. So the next time you are having some serious TGIF vibes, you can give thanks to the Vikings.
2. They did not call themselves Vikings
Unless you are a fan of the Minnesota Vikings, you would not call Vikings, well, Vikings. The name was a verb in Old Norse that meant “a pirate raid” and Scandinavians referred people who went on raids as those “going viking.” Over time, the Scandinavians gained an affinity for “going viking” and the word changed into the noun as we know today.
So, if you went back in time and called the Norse “Vikings” you’d look like a ding-bat. The Vikings weren’t an easy-going bunch either. If you want to impress a Viking, blend into the crowd and call them either Norse, Norseman, or Danes.
3. No horned helmets
Were the Vikings grizzly looking characters who wore bear pelts on their shoulders, handled large shields, swords, and most importantly, donned horned helmets? Because let’s face it, a Viking isn’t a Viking without his horned helmet! We hate to be the one to burst your bubble, but the horned helmets weren’t as common as Hollywood would have us think.
Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets. In fact, there are no records of Vikings ever wearing horned helmets (sorry to disappoint). The trend might have started when 19th-century painters portrayed our sea-faring friends with the horned cap based on derogatory descriptions from northern Europeans such as the ancient Greeks and Roman chroniclers.
4. Vikings did not drink from skulls
Vikings may have been raiders, invaders, and traders, but they weren’t skull cap drinkers. In fact, the earliest recording of any civilization drinking out of human remains was written by the Greek historian, Herodotus, in his book Histories where he named Scythians, a group of Eurasian nomads, as the real cranium sippers.
There hasn’t been archaeological evidence proving his claim, but there’s nothing written in the books that the Vikings participated in this formidable and cringe-worthy tradition. They did like to drink out of bones though: they drank out of the horns of cattle, which may be where the rumor originated from.
5. Mead was made from fermented honey
Since we’re debunking myths here, we can confidently say Vikings didn’t drink the blood of their enemies. Instead, the Norseman’s thirst was quenched by the golden nectar of the gods: Mead. Also called metheglin, this delicious brew is made from fermented honey, water, and sometimes yeast. Other ingredients included spices and herbs such as cloves, ginger, rosemary, hyssop, and thyme and can be light, rich, sweet, dry, or bubbly.
Our Viking pals would drink an abundance of mead, not just out of the usual pleasure of getting smashed. It also held medicinal properties too. Unlike our Greek friends in the Mediterranean, our Viking pals didn’t have the vines to create wine. They had honey, and honey is an antibiotic that not only tasted great, but helped in blood-purifying, digestion, and stimulated immunization.
6. Good hygiene
You’d think that rowing massive ships, sailing across the seas, and farming, would rack up a nice and potent stench under the arms of our humble Viking friends, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, compared to other Europeans of their time, Vikings were generally a clean bunch.
Artifacts excavated from Viking sites revealed tweezers, razors, combs and ear cleaners made from animal bones and antlers. According to History.com, Vikings even bathed once a week and enjoyed dips in local hot springs. Plus, how could a Norse rack up musk in colder climates like Iceland or Scandinavia?
7. Better to be blonde
Okay, out of all the things you heard about Vikings, this one is most likely the most accurate depiction of Viking culture. Still, it’s not quite what you think. The most common natural hair colors a Viking man or woman were brunette, red, or black. Blondes were actually pretty rare.
Those born with blonde hair were considered attractive and more desirable. Both men and women used soap with high quantities of lye to strip pigments from their hair to appear more blonde. It has even been documented that lightening their hair helped manage head lice, a nice bonus of this cosmetic trend.
8. Notched teeth
In some cultures, ornamented teeth represented status or regarded as a fashion statement. Vikings were different. Anthropologists can’t seem to riddle out the notched teeth belonging to the Norse. Filed evenly, and notched with noticeable lines on the tooth’s face, 24 male skulls were excavated with delicate line work.
National Geographic reports the practice could have been adopted after encountering West Africans who filed their teeth during their voyages to Spain and the Mediterranean. However, they filed their teeth into points, not evenly. The only other place in the world that has a similar horizontal filing was in the Great Lakes of America. It’s assumed the trend could represent an achievement or ornamentation.
9. They could navigate with zero visibility
Vikings kicked some serious butt both in an out of the water. Not only were their ships impeccably crafted and some of the most reliable ships in the world at the time, but they were also serious ocean navigators. They could navigate through thick fog, even with low or zero visibility.
When they didn’t have the sun or the stars to guide them (though it was highly unlikely they didn’t use a compass) it’s believed that Vikings used an instrument called a sun-shadow to help them navigate. With their brilliant navigation skills, the Norse were able to find their way along the rivers of Russia, Germany, and were able to trade with Arab and Eastern countries.
10. Women were warriors
There is evidence of women taking on the role of the warrior. Though rare, Byzantine-era historian Johannes Skylitzes recorded on History.com that women fought alongside a group of Vikings in a battle against the Bulgarians in 971 AD. A 12th-century Danish historian described female Vikings as “communities of warrior women as shieldmaidens who dressed as men and devoted themselves to learning swordplay and other warlike skills.”
Most of the information we know about the Viking warriors come from the literature or various and nearby communities. There are several accounts of female warriors rolling around on the Viking raids, who are known as Valkyries. In myth, Valkyries are fierce warriors who raise the souls of fallen warriors to Valhalla.
11. Vikings founded Dublin
Dublin was established by the Vikings themselves, though the way they went about it was pretty brutal. The Vikings created settlements in Iceland, Greenland, Normandy and Newfoundland, Canada, and raided nearby neighbors like Great Britain along the way. Because they were making their way through the area a lot, they started setting up posts.
They invaded Ireland in the early 9th century where they established a kingdom called Dyflin, which later became modern-day Dublin. It was a major trading post and traded anything from precious metals, fabrics, weaponry, and horses. Dyflin was also a stronghold in Ireland, and the Vikings ruled Dublin for 300 years and meld with the Celtic people.
12. Active in the slave trade
It’s hard work maintaining farmland or a household on your own. For Vikings, it was an impossible feat without slave labor or “thralls” as they called them. Like the slaves of ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, human trafficking was one of the Vikings’ major economic trades. In fact, it was a lucrative trade that encouraged raids.
Many Vikings got rich by abducting people from various settlements around Northern Europe. The usual choices were women and young boys and many of the raiding Norseman would pillage any village they came across including Anglo-Saxons, Celtic, and Slavic establishments. Laborers were high in demand.
13. Abandoned sick children
Not their proudest moment on this list, but according to History.com, Vikings valued physical strength above all else. They relied on their good health for survival, whether that meant tending their land or racing into battle. That affinity for the physically strong was handed down from generation to generation, And not just by societal pressures either.
Their lifestyle very much depended on being self-sufficient, and the Viking lifestyle, whether at home or abroad, was often physically demanding. For this reason, if a child was born with defects or sickly, particularly if the child’s condition meant a lifetime of dependence on others, the Vikings would abandon them.
14. Trading and raiding
Trading was essential for the Vikings. They blazed the trail for many of the critical trade routes and had more mobility than most other groups of the day thanks to their superb ship building skills. They are widely believed to be the first Europeans to reach North America. But their motivation for sailing into the unknown was trade.
They would traverse as far as Africa for precious goods. Excavated burial sites revealed dirhams — thin silver coins of the Arab world — dating between 750 to 950 AD. Other excavations revealed Persian jewelry and Chinese silks, which suggested an intricate network of barter trade. They traded furs, amber, ivory, and slaves.
15. Justice systems were (almost) like ours
The Norse had an oral culture that helped establish both law and government without so much as having a written text. All free men gathered in their communities to make laws and decided cases in meetings called a Ting. Each community had its own Ting. Like our legal systems, there was a plaintiff and defendant, and a jury.
They were most likely made up of a local, powerful family, or sometimes multiple families. Malefactors who are tried and found guilty are either fined, declared semi-outlaw, or fully outlawed. To be an outlaw was complete banishment; his property would be confiscated and he would receive no help from the community.
16. Women had rights
Viking Age Scandinavian women enjoyed a tremendous degree of freedom when compared to the Viking women settlers of Iceland and Greenland. Unlike the Viking settlers who depended on gender roles (dividing keeping the land vs keeping family), Scandinavian women were able to own property, request a divorce and reclaim their dowries if their marriages started to take a turn for the worse.
And if their husbands died, women were expected to permanently take over their husband’s roles as the providers of their households. As such, they were able to obtain economic opportunities that were rarely offered to contemporary women in other parts of Europe. Some women were even traders, warriors, and farmers.
17. They discovered America (probably)
Columbus discovered diddly-squat compared to the Vikings. You can thank Leif Erikson for stumbling across the North American continent. The son of Erik the Red and legendary explorer, Leif was said to have been the first European to discover North America while accidentally trying to make his way toward Greenland.
He instead landed in the shores he called Vineland or today’s Newfoundland. It was rumored to have an abundance of grapes and a lush landscape, but Leif wasn’t interested in the scenery. He took one look at the new land and decided to turn back and set sail for home. Leif returned to Greenland, dragging his men back to his settlement.
18. Viking soup
Being a Viking equates to a life of bloodshed. When warriors return home to camp, women were accustomed to seeing some gruesome gashes and scrapes. To prove whether a wound was fatal, women would create a strong-smelling soup made from onions, leeks, and herbs. They would force-feed the wounded warriors, making sure they swallowed every bite.
Once finished, the women would lean over and smell the open wound. A wive’s tale and remedy: If the women could smell the aromatic soup in the wound, it meant that the wound was fatal. If she didn’t smell anything, the women would proceed to aid the warrior to recovery.
19. They went berserk
Vikings were known to be savage on the battlefield. So savage that warriors hellbent on bloodshed were known as berserkers. The name suggests that the berserkers wore bearskins and were a special class of warriors who was blessed by the god Odin, the supreme god of the heavens and god of war.
The chosen warriors would work themselves into a state of frenzy and “supernatural power” so intense that they bit on the edge of their shield and could ignore the pain of their wounds. Some hypothesize it could be one or two things: The first is natural adrenaline, the second, shrooms. That’s right. It’s been rumored that before battle Vikings would consume “magic mushrooms” to help them blitz for battle.
20. They were short and lean
If you think Vikings were nothing but rippling muscles covered in leather, furs and resembled Conan the Barbarian you’d be bitterly disappointed. The Vikings didn’t look like body-builders. In fact, the majority of Norsemen were lean and would reach anywhere between 5′ 7″ – 5′ 9″ in height and dedicated their time in one field: the wheat fields.
In fact, most Norse were farmers, held a scythe, and maintained a balanced diet of protein, grains, and greens. Sure, some pillaged, but as you recall, in the Viking age, “Viking” was a form of action and not a title. For those who didn’t partake in Viking, they spent their humble lives as farmers. That’ll do pig, that’ll do.
21. Buried not burned
There is nothing nobler than setting a corpse on fire in open waters, watching as red flames turn a beloved and honorable warrior or dear neighbor into charcoal, then become food for the fish. As honorable as it sounds, the Vikings actually buried their dead in boats rather than burn them.
Only the most honorable and noble of Viking persons were buried with ships. Vikings loved their boats, which were a fortress on the sea, so to be buried in one was a great honor. Like ancient Egyptians, Vikings saw the ship to help serve the dead to reach their final destinations. It wasn’t just men who reserved the honor, but women too, and sometimes sacrificed slaves.
22. Marriage was bargained
No matter how you look at it, marriage is a ritual. Even if that ritual includes a bride-price and a dowry, a marriage is a binding contract that confirms the unity of two individuals into one household. It was no exceptions for Vikings. Women were expected to marry between the ages of 12 to 15, and their marriages were arranged even sooner than that.
In the marriage agreement between the two families, the groom’s family paid a bride price to the bride’s family once the happy couple was married. The bride’s father paid a dowry, and there was even an agreement between the two families should the couple divorce. Norsewomen had certain privileges, and one of them was the power to divorce.
23. They blended with other cultures
Vikings had invaded multiple countries within the three-hundred years they were in power, so it’s only rational that Viking men would mingle with a diverse crowd of women and establish settlements. According to National Geographic, five hundred years before Columbus sailed to America, a Native American woman may have voyaged to Europe with Vikings, according to a new DNA study.
Analyzing the DNA passed from mother to child, scientists found more than 80 living Icelanders with a genetic sequence that is found in Native Americans. Scientists are still trying to identify if the exact cause for the blending. What is known, however, it is confirmed that Norsemen did inter-marry with Celtic women when journeying to Ireland.
24. Not all of them pillaged together
Think of Vikings as a biker gang. they really were a gang that rolled around together and took what they wanted. The Viking people did not belong to anyone colony or one country and did not recognize fellow Vikings. It was during the Viking age that many countries contained a “patchwork” of chieftain-led tribes.
When they weren’t wreaking havoc on foreign shores, they were getting into squabbles with their neighbors. An aggressive bunch, the Vikings expanded solely to find newer and finer resources. during the times that they weren’t pillaging and invading (Viking downtime, if you will), they were settling in new grounds and making their mark wherever they could latch.
25. Spent most of their time farming
Vikings weren’t always war and bloodshed, most Norse populations had a simple farming life. As stated before, Vikings were too busy moving around, establishing settlements and fighting to survive. Norsemen grew oats, barley, and wheat, and ground the grain to make flour, porridge, and ale (because you’re not a Viking without ale, come on).
They grew vegetables such as onions, beans, and cabbage, and raised livestock such as pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, geese, and chickens. It was a much more domestic lifestyle that many Norsemen chose over a life of plundering. Not quite as exciting as the seafaring, village plundering counterparts, which is why their TV deal has been harder to push through.
26. Used fungus and human waste to start fires
In the boy and girl scouts, they are taught multiple ways to start a fire. One of them is the useful invention of a Firestarter, one scrape of the stone and voila, fire! In the 10th century, however, there wasn’t the modern convenience such as a Firestarter or even a flashlight. Instead, Vikings used a fungus called touchwood, a plate-shaped mushroom that grows along tree bark, and boiled it for several days in urine.
That’s right — using a combination of tree fungus and human waste, the Norse would take the urine-boiled fungus and pound it until its texture resembled felt. The sodium nitrate in the urine would allow the material to smolder so Vikings could take the fire with them anywhere (porta-potty has a whole new meaning).
27. Skied for fun
Skiing has been a favorite Viking past time for the last 6,000 years. However, there are some speculations that the Russians may have invented the sport ever earlier. According to BBC, fragments of ski-like objects were discovered in 1960. Turns out, they dated back to 6000 BC in Northern Russia.
However, the Vikings mostly used skis for recreational purposes and competitive sport. It was also an efficient way to get around. It became so popular that they worshiped a god of skiing called Ullr. He was also a great archer, hunter, and skater. Just a really outdoorsy kind of God.
28. Responsible for spreading house mice
The Vikings were one of the many civilizations responsible for spreading house mice worldwide. National Geographic reported DNA research that showed a genetic pattern found only in mice originating from Norway. That kinda pointed the finger at the Vikings, because as you may recall, Norway was the Vikings’ home base.
Research also shows that cats were taken on board with their human companions, both on boats (which is probably how the Norwegian variety spread to other geographic areas) and on the homestead to help curtail the mouse population. No word on whether or not the kitties wore horned helmets, but one can hope.
29. Warriors believed Valkyries would take them into Valhalla when they died
We seldom hear about women in mythology. Unless it’s Greek then there’s a fat chance you won’t find much about women in mythology, especially any that hold any power in the mortal realm. But there is one female presence that strikes fear even in the hearts of men: Valkyries. Powerful beings adorned with swan feathers, shields, and chainmail, they are Odin’s prized warriors.
It was the Valkyries who chose the fate of fallen warriors. Only the fierce and brave were allowed to enter Valhalla and meet the powerful sky god Odin, while the benign are sent to Freya’s field, Folkvang, the adobe of the goddess of love, fertility, and sometimes war.
30. They used stones to navigate on a cloudy day
Once a myth, now a plausible explanation. The Viking sun stones have been stumping experts since they discovered it was first mentioned in The Saga of King Olaf. Smithsonian reports it wasn’t until 1967 that Danish archaeologist Thorhild Ramskou came up with the idea that chunks of crystals found naturally in Scandinavia could have been used to help Vikings navigate on grey and cloudy days out at sea.
In 2011, experts put the hypothesis to the test and used a common crystal called Iceland spar, a type of calcite, that could have been used by Norse sailors. When holding the transparent crystal to the sky and rotated, “the crystal polarized and depolarized light in a certain pattern which could reveal the position of the sun.”
31. They were cat lovers
They are the perfect lap warmers in a harsh Greenland winter. Dogs are great and all, but for the Vikings, cats were a big deal. So much of a big deal that their fertility goddess, Freya, had a chariot pulled by two blue-grey colored cats. Not only did they get rid vermin, but they were kept as companions.
Which made sense, because who else is going to understand a Viking better than a cat? BBC recorded how Thor, the god of thunder, tried to prove his strength by lifting a mythical, giant cat, but could only lift a single paw. Even the mighty Vikings were no match for Fluffy.
32. They painted their shields to hide the grain
So we know about their swords, but what about their shields? You’d think Viking warriors would paint their shields as a form of loyalty, painting the very things that protected their bodies as a symbol to those they are protecting. Well, you would be wrong. You see, it didn’t really matter what color they painted their shields as long as it hides the wood grain.
If their enemy could see the weakest place to strike, you better believe they would strike there first. What also made the shield so special was its shield boss or sköldbucklawas. It was a metal center created not only to ward off enemy blows but to also bash against their attacker.
33. Their houses only had one room
The Viking home was rectangular in shape and only had one room (sorry kids, no one gets their own bedroom). This one open space would revolve around a central hearth where most of the cooking and spinning is done. Women mostly stayed indoors and often take on the responsibility of keeping up the house and tending to the cattle.
Not only did they spin for their children and the elderly, but they were also responsible for the dairy. The rectangular houses have been found in Sweden, Newfoundland, York, and Dublin. Their homes were usually constructed out of wood, stone, and turf.
34. Their meals were decent
We know about the Viking’s onion soup, but what else did the Norsemen consume other than stew? Not much else. But, they do mirror some diet choices we make on the daily. For instance, while working in the fields, most of the Norse would enjoy some cottage cheese with a crust of bread.
If they’re lucky, have a bit of dried fruit such as a plum or crabapple. Breakfast is usually leftover dinner, which was prepared in a cauldron made up of boiled lamb bones, grains, beans, peas, carrots, and turnips. If they had a feast, various meats, cheeses, fish and dried fruits drizzled in honey would be presented. By no means was the average Norsemen starving.
35. Vikings wore makeup
If you’re a fan of the History Channel show, “Vikings” then you often saw some of the characters, men, and women donning on some interesting face paint. What is up with that? Well, it’s true for one. Vikings did indeed wear some liner, which was made out of dark-colored powered made of crushed antimony, burnt almonds, lead, oxidized copper, ash, and soft semi-precious stones.
Sure they looked fierce, but it wasn’t all for looks. The liner was used to protect their vision from the sun’s glare. Imagine running into battle or working in the field with having to constantly squint away the sun? This is a perfect example of how good eye-makeup can literally save lives.
36. Their ships were built like tanks
If you know anything about maritime vessels than you would know that none was more progressive in history than the Viking longship. Able to hold 25 to 60 men the largest ships were said to hold up to 100. The raiding crew sat in the top deck while sailing at 10 to 11 knots.
They had iron-clad bows and sterns with mastheads intricately carved as fierce dragons. The draconic face would strike fear into their enemies and intimidate civilians they planned to raid on the shorelines. Their propped shields on either side of the ship were also used as an intimidation tactic.
37. They used legendary swords ahead of their time
The Vikings were ruthless in battle. A hardy bunch, they’re capable of withstanding just about anything at the hands of their enemies. With the right tools, or in this case weapons, who could blame them? No other weapon was more terrifying than their swords. Though many carried weapons, none was more legendary than the Ufberht.
It’s said to be made out of a metal so pure that its existence baffles archaeologists today. Used between 800 to 1,000 A.D. the swords would have been forged under 3,000-degree heat, an impossible temperature to reach until the Industrial Revolution 800 years after. Only the most elite and skillful Vikings carried a Ufberht.