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Origins of the Vikings

Viking ships in a 12th century manuscript

Were the Vikings the worst plunderers of churches? Were they the axe-wielding murderers of innocent monks? Along with all that, they are remembered for their extortion, abductions and battles in the annals, that is in annals written by several monasteries of frightened monks. But that is only one side of the story. The Vikings were well-organised traders who ventured to all part of the ‘known’ world from Iceland and Greenland to Kievan Russia and Byzantium. Some became mercenaries and formed part of the imperial guard in Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, while others traded with the Arab Caliphate in Baghdad. 

The Viking Age is usually considered the period from about AD 800 until 1100. The first Viking raid on record took place in 787 and the Norman Conquest of England traditionally ends the age. Haraldr Hardradi, the last great Viking, was killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge shortly before the Battle of Hastings in 1066. 

That Word ‘Viking’

‘Vikings’ does not refer to an ethnicity, it was an occupation, so to speak. They were men and sometimes women who left Scandinavia to make their fortune raiding and trading.  The meaning of the word is uncertain. It might have originated in the verb víkja (to move swiftly) or in the noun vík (bay). In the case of vík, it might have referred to the bay where Oslo, Norway is situated. It might have developed from an Anglo-Saxon word wic or Latin vicus, a place of trade. 

By the end of the Viking Age, it referred to someone who fights at sea (víkingr), or warfare at sea (víking). A given band of Vikings could be from several different regions so the words Danes and Norse are used interchangeably in the annals. 

Note: Pronunciation of Norse as in the name Haraldr Hárfagri (Harold Fair hair/Fine hair): the g is prounounced like y and the final r as uh. So the man’s name was pronounced something like Haralduh har-faree. English Harald Fairhair is not too far from the Norse. 

In Other Words

The people on whom they preyed called the Vikings different names. In the Gaelic annals they are often called gentiles, a word used in the Bible for non-Jews, and by extension, non-Christian. The Gaels also called them Goill (sing. gall) meaning ‘foreigners’. The English called them ‘Danes’; they were called Normanni (Northmen) in Latin and Italian. The Franks called them Normands. Other Germanic peoples called them Ascomanni, Ash-men, because of the wood often used for their ships. In Finnish the foreigners were called Rus, possibly from Ruotsi, a word which meant rower. In Byzantium they were called Vaerangs or Varangians, pledgers who swore an oath of allegiance to the empire. In the Arab Caliphate (capital Baghdad) they were known as Waranke or ar-Rus. and in Moorish Spain as Majus (heathen wizards). And that’s probably enough!

Scandinavia

Scandinavia is a vast part of Europe. From the south of the Jutland peninsula in modern Denmark to the northern tip of Norway is 1200 miles as the crow flies. It is 1200 miles from the south of Denmark to Rome, and about 1000 miles from Seattle to Denver, just to give you an idea of distance. The area was almost unknown to the Romans and less influenced by classical civilisation than other northern peoples. 

Norway is mountainous, while Denmark and much of Sweden has low-lying areas, suitable for cultivation. The name Norway comes from Norse Northvegr or ‘North Way’, the route traders took along the Norwegian coast. 

Map showing mountains and modern countries superimposed

Map: Northern Europe which shows the extent of Viking voyages. Wow!

Viking Kingdoms

The Norse got around…and conquered little kingdoms for themselves. The Vikings ruled the Gaels of the Hebrides of Scotland for over three hundred years. Place names in the Western Isles and the north of Scotland indicate a lengthy Viking presence. Bost is Norse for residence as in Siabost, a village in Lewis, and -ster in Lybster, Caithness means farm or homestead. Ketil Flatnose, a powerful chieftain from Norway, became king of the Hebrides and the Isle of Man according to one saga. In Ireland they founded the city of Dublin where they had a slave market—slaves were the most valuable plunder they sought. They also established several coastal towns such as Waterford, Wexford and Limerick. 

The Last of the Heroes

The Norse were the last people whose leaders made a living and supported their followers from raiding, plundering and trading. That way of life for the nobles of various European peoples existed from approximately 1000 BC to 1100 AD. Theirs was a heroic society which celebrated the warlike exploits of a small group of warriors, often supported and rewarded in the households of their leaders. Storytellers have preserved the heroic ethic in many Norse sagas. 

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