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A Few Things About the Vikings That You Might Want to Know

Harry has been an online writer for many years. His articles examine New World history and its resulting traditions.

A 12th century illustration of the Vikings invading England

A 12th century illustration of the Vikings invading England

Who Were the Vikings?

Most historians agree that the Vikings began their raiding back around the late 8th century A.D. Primarily from the modern-day nations of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, the Vikings were excellent sailors, who swept across Europe and ventured all the way west to Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland. In the day, their longboats were unsurpassed in construction, as they could navigate the open waters of the North Atlantic, as well as the shallow rivers of Europe.

The Viking Age ended sharply during the latter years of the eleventh century. Major causes can be contributed to the conversion to Christianity, along with the increase of military prowess among European Christians. Following are a dozen things about these seafarers that you might find interesting.

Site of the first Christian Church in Iceland

Site of the first Christian Church in Iceland

Many Were Christians

Many of the Vikings converted to Christianity. Perhaps not at first, but towards the end of their reign, numerous Norsemen gave up their pagan ways and converted to the Roman faith. Most notable, was the conversion of Leif Eriksson, who sometime around 1000 A.D. began adhering to the Christian faith. It is believed that later in life Leif returned to his family estate in Greenland and constructed a rustic church there.

In Iceland, the first church was built at Skalholt in the southern part of country. Unlike the Christian outpost in Greenland, this place of worship was attended to by ordained clergy from mainland Europe. Even though it was thousands of miles away, the church became part of the diocese of Bremen (in Germany).

Origin of the Word, "Viking"

The word, Viking, is derived from the first three letters, not the last four. Vik is the Old Norse word for "bay" or "inlet", so the Vikings were simply the people of the bays. This definition goes hand-in-hand with our modern understanding that the Vikings were excellent boat builders, who lived on protected bodies of water with access to the major bodies of water, including both the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.

Even so, to many scholars, the word "Viking" eventually became synonymous with one who travels by boat to plunder. Nonetheless, these pirates most often lived in protected bays or harbors that could easily be defended against foreign invaders.

This longboat is from the Viking museum at Schleswig, which is located near the ancient settlement of Haithabu

This longboat is from the Viking museum at Schleswig, which is located near the ancient settlement of Haithabu

An Unusual Discovery

One of the largest Viking ships ever found was unearthed in the vicinity of Kiel, which is located in the modern-day Schleswig state of Germany, near the Danish border. Nearby to Kiel, there exists the site of an old Viking trading center and settlement named Haithabu. Though part of Germany today, this place on the Baltic was definitely ruled by Viking chieftains during its earlier heyday. Furthermore, the strategic location of Haithabu, near the Baltic Sea, fits to a "T", the definition of Vikings as being someone that dwells on the bay by the sea.

Old Norse Is Similar to Modern-day Icelandic

Most of the old Vikings came from what is now called Norway, Sweden and Denmark. In the day, they all spoke a similar language called Old Norse. While the modern languages of these three countries have evolved and changed, the language of Iceland, which was settled by the Vikings, has remained close to its Old Norse roots.

And then there are the Faroe Islands, which are located halfway between Iceland and Norway. Nowadays, the Viking descendants, living on these islands, speak a separate language that still shows some similarities to the Icelandic tongue.

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A Blue-eyed Icelandic horse

A Blue-eyed Icelandic horse

The Vikings Carried Livestock

Before the Vikings arrived in the Faroe Islands and Iceland, the islands were unsettled. As it became clear that the new territory was prime for occupation, the Vikings started bringing supplies from places on the European mainland. Probably, the first live arrival was the chicken, as it was the smallest domestic animal and thus able to make the oceanic voyage with the least difficulty. Eventually, the new settlers brought goats, sheep, sheepdogs, horses and cattle. The last to arrive would have been the dairy cow, for it is believed that they arrived in Iceland about a 1,000 years ago.

Most of the domestic animals brought to Iceland are now recognized as separate breeds with Norway or Scotland being the most likely genetic reservoir. However, there is one exception and that is the Icelandic Horse, a small showy animal about the size of a pony. Genetic research shows that the bloodline for this undersized hearty animal may have originated in Mongolia.

Crystals like this could have guided Viking ships through the fog

Crystals like this could have guided Viking ships through the fog

They Were Great Navigators

The Vikings had a novel way of navigating their boats through a thick fog or a heavy snowstorm. This feat was accomplished by using a crystal, commonly referred to as a sunstone. Information on this phenomena is still in the research stage, but recent results point to the increased likelihood that several naturally occurring crystals, such as cordierite or Icelandic spar, can effectively determine the sun's position, even in the densest fog or snowstorm. Further evidence can be found in the Sagas, which frequently mention the use of a sunstone to guide the Viking ships.

Pictured here is Grettir, the main character of one of the Icelandic Sagas

Pictured here is Grettir, the main character of one of the Icelandic Sagas

The Written Accounts

The Vikings recorded their adventures in a series of written accounts, called sagas. The meaning of the word, saga is fairly straightforward. In Icelandic, the word is synonymous with story, while in Swedish, the term implies a fairy tale.

Even today, the accuracy of the sagas is often questioned, as many scholars believe that the tales of the Viking adventures were not written down till several centuries later.

Basically, there are two schools of thought here. One is that the sagas were based solely on oral histories that were several hundred years old, when they were finally recorded. The other possibility suggests that there was some written material from the actual time period, when the sagas occurred. Currently, the second school of thought is gaining favor among historians.

Erik the Red got banished from Iceland for killing three men

Erik the Red got banished from Iceland for killing three men

Naming the Islands

Iceland and Greenland were the first of the North Atlantic islands to receive names. Floki Vilgeroarson, a Norwegian adventurer, named Iceland after having experienced a miserably winter on the colder part of the island. In the spring, he went back to Norway and put the popular handle on the North Atlantic island that is still used today.

On the other hand, Greenland was first settled by a colorful character, Erik the Red, who was banished from Iceland for three years for killing three men. In that time period, he chanced upon a huge island to the north of Iceland that really was quite wintry. So in a PR effort to get Icelanders to relocate, he called this land of the Inuit, Greenland.

Heading west, we know that the Norse visited three places, they named Vinland (grape land), Markland (forest land) and Helluland (land of flat stones). Even today scholars of the era are not even close to agreeing what exact parts of North America, the Vikings were talking about. The general consensus is that may have been possibly talking about Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Labrador and/or Baffin Island. Take your pick.

The Icelandic Horse

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