Were you scared of the dark as a child? Afraid to look under the bed? Did you stay away from that creepy-looking forest near your home? Humans seem to have a propensity to fear the unknown; we tend to demonize things that we are unfamiliar with, don’t understand, or feel may harm us.
The world was very different 1500 years ago. Sans social networking, the internet, phones, cars… well, not to belabor the point, but, human interaction was not as extensive as it is today. Further, before Civil Rights, proletariat revolutions, modern democracy, the Enlightenment, the Magna Carta, et caetera, mankind’s view of other humans was very caste-oriented and rather tribal. Xenophobia and ethnocentrism tended to be the norms, not the exceptions. Perhaps it’s little wonder, then, that the Greeks coined (a pun for you history buffs) the term “barbarian” – later adopted and extensively used by the Romans – a pejorative onomatopoeia that literally mocks speech unfamiliar to the listener’s ears, as though all that was heard was ‘bar bar bar’. The ancient Roman view of non-Romans was eloquently expressed by one historian thusly,
“Barbarians are driven by evil spirits; they are possessed by demons who force them to commit the most terrible acts. Barbarians simply resemble animals more than they do human beings,… [Romans wondered] whether barbarians shared in human nature at all.”1
Although not unique to Europe’s grand civilizations of classical antiquity, for northeast Asian civilizations developed similar habits, this article focuses on a particular European “barbarian” culture that the oh-so-civilized Romans (and the later post-Roman states) had an especially difficult time assimilating into their own culture.
Rome’s first documented exposure to the peoples of Northern Europe occurred towards the end of the second century B.C.E.2 The migrations of the Cimbri and Teutones, tribes from the area that is today known as Denmark, resulted in a clash that lasted for over a decade and left Rome crippled. The Cimbri and the Teutones were obliterated in the conflict, but they opened Rome’s eyes to a world more vicious and savage than that of the Gauls on the western side of the Rhine – Germania. Around 98 C.E., Roman historian Tacitus released an accurate account of Germania and its peoples that, uncannily (as it was largely based on empirical evidence and inductive reasoning), has stood the test of time. Notice some of his conclusions and observations:
- Physically (or, in modern parlance, “genetically”), they are distinct from the Gallic tribes, being more closely related to each other than to either the Gauls or the Romans
- Certain traits are common among their populations (or, today, certain “haplotypes” exist in greater frequency within their gene pools): blue/gray/green eyes, yellow or golden-reddish hair, and larger bodies
- Their social organization was primarily meritocratic and highly egalitarian
- They were unusually tolerant of hunger and of cold, but had little tolerance for heat
- They were inclined toward monogamy (which the Romans were impressed with, as they also espoused monogamy)
- Women were highly respected, with many holding an equal or even (in a few instances) a superior role to men in their societies
Modern archaeological, genetic, and linguistic studies indicate that the populations of Northern Europe descend from hunter-gatherer tribes who migrated into the region from central Europe around 12,000 years ago. Until about 750 BCE, Northern European populations were all fairly homogeneous.
"The Germans Themselves I Should Regard As Aboriginal..."
"...and not mixed at all with other races through immigration or intercourse," said Tacitus.
Yes, the term "aboriginal" is relative, and, just like the American Indians or the natives of Australia, Germanic peoples, too, were at one time considered aboriginal - having an isolated heritage within a single locale that could be traced back for many generations, resulting in distinct physical and cultural traits.
H. sapiens sapiens first arrived in Europe approximately 43,000 years before the present (BP)3. The last glacial maximum 30,000 years ago pushed humans into Europe's southerly regions, creating a bit of a genetic bottleneck. Haplogroup I1, Europe's only endemic haplogroup4, first emerged around 30,000 years ago, and so appears to coincide with this glaciation event. This haplogroup, which includes the single-nucleotide polymorphisms related to blue eyes and may bear some association to human height5, is found in greatest frequencies in Scandinavia (perhaps because the peninsula's peripheral location shielded it from the waves of migrations that barraged Europe - bringing an influx of genetic material - and allowed more time for recessive traits to become common within the population). By 13,000 BP, glacial recessions again allowed for northward migration, the newly uncovered plains and the fauna that inhabited them beckoning to the hunter-gatherers to exploit the open niches. It is around this time that the earliest known cultures became established in the higher latitudes of central Europe, spreading from the northern tips of France to the southern ends of the Scandinavian peninsula. By 12,000 BP, humans had come to perennially inhabit what are now Norway and Sweden6. Although light eye, hair, and skin pigments did not spread across the central and southern European continent until around 5,000 years ago, analyses of several hunter-gatherers from southern Sweden indicate that these traits were already present in the north at least 3,000 years earlier7. Germanic tribes began to expand out of the Scandinavian region circa 750 B.C.E., joining the rest of Europe in the Iron Age. It is also around this time that the Germanic tongue evolved into a language family distinct from the rest of the Indo-European language groups8.
Germanic barbarians were often taken as slaves during Roman times. Although a person could be enslaved irregardless of ethnicity, ethnicity was considered when determing what tasks the slave would be assigned. While Greeks were often given pedagogical or domestic roles, the strength and endurance of the Germanic peoples made them a desired choice for physical, labor intensive work9. In fact, many Romans preferred to enlist them in military service rather than send them to the fields or mines. Germanic girls were valued by their mistresses for their golden hair, which Roman women reportedly shaved in order to make wigs for themselves!10
Centuries later, the Persian emissary Ibn Fadlan described the Vikings as "paragons of physical perfection", writing that they were 'tall as date trees', blond, and ruddy11. (It should be noted that average human height was markedly lower at this point in history than it is today. That being the case, there are still several accounts referring to Vikings as being taller than average. From what can be seen in Viking skeletal remains, the average Norse male was around 5'9" (176 cm), which was indeed very tall during this time period (the average Nordic female was apparently around 5'3" (160 cm) which is only marginally taller than average European female height during the Viking Age))12,13. Although apparently not the most proprietous people, they always carried clean clothes and were known to overwhelm foreigners with hospitality. This latter quality seems to have been deeply embedded in Germanic culture, for it was limned by Tacitus in the first century C.E. and, almost a thousand years into the future, it was again described by the Persian explorer Ahmad ibn Rustah14.
The physical prowess of the Vikings became renowned across the rest of the then-known world. Emperor Basil II of Byzantium (the former Eastern Roman Empire) formed a group of elite personal bodyguards known as the Varangian Guard composed solely of Northmen for this reason ("Varangian" being the Byzantine term for the Vikings, derived from the Norse words vár ("pledge") and gengi ("companion"), a nod to the Viking warriors' habit of pledging service to a respected leader often till death). These "axe-wielding barbarians", as Eastern nobles and scholars of the day usually called them, served Byzantium faithfully for over four-hundred years15.
Food for Thought
During the Middle Ages, England was considered a part of Scandinavia. Why is that no longer the case?
Rome’s internal instability – its difficulty managing a vast empire, needing to accommodate very different and disparate groups of people, coupled with political and administrative corruption and a moral breakdown in society (which was somewhat ameliorated by the wide-scale adoption of Christianity) – was a major contributor to its collapse. However, external factors played a significant role as well, with the constant onslaught of barbarian attackers (particularly the Germanic tribes) exhausting its funds and human capital, and destroying its infrastructure. Yet, its cultural influence lived on. While most of Europe had Christianized by the 8th century C.E., the Norse were still unequivocally pagan – and, therefore, “uncivilized”. As a slight digression, it should be noted that many of the Germanic tribes – such as the Anglo-Saxons, the Franks, and the Goths – had converted to Christianity by the Early Middle Ages. Focusing on Scandinavia in particular, though, the region's peripheral location, uninviting climate, and petulant natives made the diffusion of Roman culture difficult. But, the land was not forgotten.
Between missionary determination, desire for political advantage, or just an honest respect for the Christian religion, the Norse eventually came around – although they often vacillated from Christian devotion to outright paganism in the early years of conversion. (It’s interesting to note that syncretism was not the least bit common in Scandinavia’s adoption of Christianity. Perhaps they valued sincerity and felt that their allegiance should only be shown one way or the other (sort of a spiritual monogamy, an integrity of character). Perhaps they keenly understood the incompatibility of Christian beliefs with Norse traditions, and rejected syncretism on logical grounds. Although the missionaries did attempt to adapt their message to their pagan audiences, using terms or illustrations that the listeners would have better grasped (for example, using the Norse “Hel” – a synonym for the Greek terms “Gehenna” and “Hades” and the Hebrew “Sheol” – to represent death and eternal condemnation from God, or using the saints as models of conduct rather than the Norse’ pantheon of gods and demigods (not to be forgotten, of course, also that Christmas was an intuitive swap for Yuletide)), sources indicating that the Norse themselves attempted to create hybridized Christian-Norse religious systems are incredibly scant indeed.) But, how did these barbarians, who purportedly massacred Christian priests, burned churches to the ground, or, in later years, brought their battle axes, swords, and shields with them to church services after coming home from their Viking expeditions17, come to embrace a culture that was so drastically different from their own? Was it simply by the graces of God? Perhaps. Or, perhaps these heated heathens weren’t as wild and uncivilized as their southern neighbors made them out to be.
Combed and washed every thoughtful man should be and fed in the morning for one cannot foresee where one will be by evening; it is bad to rush headlong before one's fate. - Reginsmál 25
A Glimpse of Northern Society
Viking men combed their hair every day.
With disgust, English cleric John of Wallingford described the Viking habits of ‘combing their hair every day, bathing every Saturday and regularly changing their clothes’. (If these were considered abnormal, one can only shudder to think of what was viewed as “proper” hygiene among the English). In reference to the use of lye soap, Pliny the Elder (a first-century Roman historian) noted that “Many among the Germans [the generic term for all non-Gallic northern Europeans] use it, the men more than the women”18. So clean were these ballistic brutes that they were able to “undermine the virtue of married [English] women and even seduce the daughters of nobles to be their mistresses.” The concept of weekly bathing was deeply embedded in Norse culture; their word for Saturday, Lørdag, literally means “washing day”. These warriors would have been tickled pink by modern showers and hygienic products.
Diametrically opposed to the northern "savages" on the matter of personal cleanliness stood the rest of Europe. By the age of the Vikings, the daily bathing habits of the Romans were as dead as the Roman Empire itself. Bath houses, which had previously been publicly provided and owned by the commons, were now viewed as immoral. With the rise of serfdom, only the wealthy could afford personal baths. Further, the science of the day taught that because warm water opened the pores, it could allow polluted air into the body (and the average European city or town was very foul); thus, the prudent individual should not bathe too often19.
Because the body was considered inherently sinful (and therefore disgusting), and bathing was considered sexual misconduct (think, "Bath-Sheba"), cleanliness was judged more so by what was on the body rather than by the body itself. A person wearing untarnished clothing or aromatic perfumes was considered "clean" even if she herself smelled like a wild animal. The average person would have been able to count the number of baths he had taken in his lifetime on one hand (and would even have a few fingers to spare). At best, one could be expected to wash their hands or rinse their mouth every few weeks.
It's easy to see how a person living our contemporary age would be flabbergasted by Europe's disapproval of Norse bathing habits. Talk about 'removing the beam from your own eye first'!
Hair grooming was apparently a display of affection between a woman and her special male friend (as the woman was the one who actually groomed the man’s hair). Rather romantically, a man would promise to allow no one else but his lover to manage his hair as long as he lived.
Feared by most societies in times past, witchcraft was a most severe crime in ancient Nordic society; practitioners were declared "outlaws" - literally outside of the law, not worthy of being held up to the same standards that a decent human being would be judged by20. Outlaws could be dealt with as desired and killed with impunity.
De jure, witches were viewed as little more than animals. De facto, they were not only despised, but, paradoxically, respected. Witchcraft was generally associated with women, as surreptitious scheming and wily manipulation were considered antithetical to typical male behavior. Unfortunately, preserved sources indicate that most users of the arcane arts were indeed women21.
Not unlike other cultures in times past, the Scandinavian woman’s role was typically a domestic one, with gender expectations being very explicit. Women were forbidden to cut their hair short, engage in politics or have a say in legal proceedings, and they were prohibited from carrying weapons or going on Viking expeditions. While references to women picking up shield and sword on occasion do exist, they are scant, and female warriors are generally found only in mythology. This is not to say that women were oppressed; far from it, actually. Just as today, the Scandinavian lands of the Middle Ages led the world in providing rights for their female citizens. Widowed women could become powerful landowners, some of whom amassed great sums of wealth. The wife was left in charge of managing the family’s finances – both when the husband was away and with his presence. Women, just as men, had the right to seek a divorce – and there was a wide variety of grounds on which this could be done. Further, the Norse woman was guarded against receiving unwanted attention from lascivious males22.
At this point in history, it was commonly accepted that men and women were fundamentally different and that women were better fit for work around the house than outside of it – but in no way was this considered demeaning; it was just the way things were. Within her domain, the woman had the chance to excel and create a name for her husband, her children, her estate, her father’s family, even herself. Many Nordic women proved themselves to be skilled managers indeed. While there may not have been a large number of historical Artemis/Diana-type Scandinavian women, those that did exist would have made Martha Jefferson, Abigail Adams, perhaps even Queen Victoria, proud.
“If a man forces a woman down or gets into bed beside her intent upon having intercourse with her, then the penalty for that is full outlawry.”
- Grágás section K, subsection 155
Negotiating a marriage in the ancient Norse world was much like negotiating any other kind of legal agreement, as marriage was valued more for its utilitarian benefits (ie, political connections, economic stability, domestic aid) than for its psychological or personal benefits; the concept of marrying for love was foreign to the Nordic psyche.
“Almost alone among barbarians they are content with one wife,” wrote Roman historian Tacitus. In stark contrast to most other cultures of the day, it was the grooms who ennobled their prospective wives with a dowry, items which would remain in her exclusive possession even after the wedding day. The groom did not furnish his fiancée with a finery of flowers and fragrances; rather, he provided gifts of practical value: oxen, tools, even weapons. Such items would impress upon both bride and groom the dignity of the wedding day; it was the beginning of their life together, not simply as lovers, but as a team, working in unison to survive and prosper. The wife would pass any nonperishable gifts down to her own children, who, in turn, would cherish them as symbols of success and of family heritage.
Skald-ingly Poignant Insights
Ancient Norse writing can be classified into two main forms: eddic poetry and skaldic poetry. While the simpler eddic poetry covered more generic themes related to metaphysics and morality, the more complex skaldic poetry tended to focus on important events or on some notable individual's exploits. Skaldic poetry was eponymously named after its authors, the skalds ("poets"), who were praised for their keen intuition and quality of writing. These sharp-minded writers earned themselves a reputation for using biting witticisms to lampoon their targets; it is from this tendency that the English word "scold" is derived23.
Prior to the 9th century, records of Norse history were passed down orally. Although an alphabet and a written language (the Futhark, written with runic letters) had existed in Northern Europe for at least seven hundred years preceding this, no runic documents akin to skaldic writings have yet been discovered. Many of these oral traditions were eventually compiled into the Eddas, from which we gain the adjective eddic.
Three Norse proverbs are reproduced below:
"The unwise man is awake all night, and ponders everything over; when morning comes he is weary in mind and all is burden as ever." - Hávamál 23
"Better is a handful with rest, than both hands full with labour, and vexation of mind." - Ecclesiastes 4:6 (Douay)
"Too many unstable words are spoken by him who ne'er holds his peace; the hasty tongue sings its own mishap if it be not bridled in." - Hávamál 29
"But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly posion." - James 3:8 (KJV)
"A guest must depart again on his way, nor stay in the same place ever; if he bide too long on another's bench the loved one soon becomes loathed." - Hávamál 35
"Seldom set foot in your neighbor's house - too much of you, and they will hate you." - Proverbs 25:17 (NIV)
Did You Know?
The English word "North" is derived from the Germanic word nord, which literally meant "north". Nords were also referred to as "Northmen" within Latin civilization.
Some may contend that any individual stanza of this ancient Nordic writing could have been penned after Christianity had diffused into northern Europe. It is worth noting, however, that certain verses of Hávamál are direct quotations from other Nordic writings that date to well before the time Christianity had taken root (for example Hávamál 75, 76, which contain word-for-word allusions to Hákonarmál, a poem written in Norway in the mid-900s; the masses of Norway did not convert to Christianity until the first few decades of the following century)24. Regardless of when penmanship occurred, the fact that the ancient Nordic peoples had a highly refined collective moral consciousness is unequivocal.
Perhaps Christians should have been glad to have such an honest people among their ranks!
Even their slaves had a higher standard of living than the average slave in times past. Slaves were permitted to own a house, have a family, and farm their own land. All that was mainly required of the slave was to give a percentage of his earnings to his owner, sort of a quasi-fiefdom25. Although Norse slavery became more complex as the centuries went on, evolving into thralldom, social mobility remained unparalleled. The slave could buy his own freedom, be freed at any point by the master, or even absolved from servitude by a benevolent third party willing to pay his debt. Slavery had disappeared in the Christian world by this point (not to return until the creation of the Atlantic Slave Trade), but still existed in the realm of Islam, where slaves were considered innately inferior, the permanent property and possession of the master's family26.
Ironically, Scandinavia avoided the European descent into feudalism (perhaps because of the region’s late entry into the Western European world and thus its evasion of the effects of the dissolution of Western Europe’s various empires). Instead, the Scandinavian nations formed their own union under a common monarch who would rule out of a region in Denmark, an institution that in some ways bears semblance to the modern EU. For example, although nominally possessing a single leader, the constituent nations retained their independence27. While this institution was not problem-free, it did help to pave the way for further diplomatic developments in the area, namely the Nordic Council and Schengen Treaty.
How Far the "Barbarians" Have Come
A lot has changed in northern Europe since the first century B.C.E. From the indistinct Mother Earth deity that the tribes Tacitus encountered worshipped, to the exciting pantheons that still entertain millions today, to the high-society sophistications of Christianity, and, finally, to the modern secular-humanist environment, the spiritual and religious zeitgeist of Scandinavia has been far from stagnant over the last two millennia. Economically, the region has progressed from being a land of agricultural semi-seasonal raiders to achieving – rather rapidly – the highest standards of human development on earth. If the Romans that first encountered the northern Germanic tribes were alive to see the descendants of those tribes today, it’s safe to say that they would have a hard time describing them as ‘little more than animals’.
If an individual or a group of people feels that their particular viewpoint or way of doing things works fairly well, it can be easy to think that ‘any rational and intelligent person or culture would see matters this way as well’. But, perhaps that is not always true. Perhaps what may work well for some may not work as well for others. The Vikings were very individualistic (and northern Europe still is). Perhaps these "barbarians" just weren't meant to carry the imperial yoke. Perhaps they understood that the relative lack of centralization in their societies was actually beneficial for them; it was what they had adapted to.
Maybe, to an extent, being “civilized” all depends on one’s point-of-view.
So, how did you do on the assessment? Would the Vikings consider you civilized?
A Further Look: 'Christian Ghosts'
Fearful of the odyssey that lay before him, the young hero Svipdagr entreats his mother to sing him sweet protective spells on his quest to rescue the maiden Menglod. What does she pray of him? For her eighth request, she sings:
"If night o'ertake thee,
Wandering on a misty way
None the more may ghosts of Christian women
Have power to work thy woe." - Gróugaldr 13
Ghosts of Christian women?
Christianity was initially regarded as an esoteric bed of occultism and black magic by the Norse - not drastically different from the Christians' own impression of the Norse themselves.
Know anything else about the Vikings? Feel free to share below!
Seafarers and Globetrotters
For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.
- Viking influence CANNOT be found in which of the following modern-day nations?
- The United Kingdom
- Viking civilization had an impact on all of these nations.
- The Vikings did not affect any of these modern-day societies.
- Viking civilization had an impact on all of these nations.
Interpreting Your Score
If you got 0 correct answers: Vikings had settled in Newfoundland by 1000, founded the Norman dynasty, established Russia, left a legacy and a lineage in Constantinople (Istanbul), assimilated into Anglo-Saxon culture, and colonized and set up a slave trade in Ireland.
If you got 1 correct answer: Vikings had settled in Newfoundland by 1000, founded the Norman dynasty, established Russia, left a legacy and a lineage in Constantinople (Istanbul), assimilated into Anglo-Saxon culture, and colonized and set up a slave trade in Ireland.
- Joshua J. Mark. “The Goths,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified October 12, 2014. <http://www.ancient.eu/Goths/>.
- Waldman, Carl; Mason, Catherine (2006). "Teutons". Encyclopedia of European Peoples. Infobase Publishing. pp. 797–798. ISBN 1438129181.
- Benazzi, S., et al. (2011). "Early dispersal of modern humans in Europe and implications for Neanderthal behaviour." Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science 479(7374): 525-528.
- Rootsi, S., et al. "Phylogeography of Y-Chromosome Haplogroup I Reveals Distinct Domains of Prehistoric Gene Flow in Europe." The American Journal of Human Genetics 75(1): 128-137.
- Pineau, JC, Delamarche, P,Bozinovic, S. (2005). Average height of adolescents in the dinaric alps. COMPTES RENDUS BIOLOGIES, 328(9), 841-846. doi:10.1016/j.crvi.2005.07.004
- Bailey, G. and P. Spikins (2008). Mesolithic Europe, Cambridge University Press. p. 24-25
- Gibbons, Ann. "How Europeans Evolved White Skin." Science (2015) Science / American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2 Apr. 2015. doi:10.1126/science.aab2435. <http://news.sciencemag.org/archaeology/2015/04/how-europeans-evolved-white-skin>.
- Kinder, Hermann. Penguin Atlas of World History. First ed. Vol. 1. London: Penguin, 1988. 108. Print.
- "Roman Slavery." UNRV History. United Nations of Roma Victrix, n.d. Web. <http://www.unrv.com/culture/roman-slavery.php>.
- Sherrow, V. (2006). Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History, Greenwood Press. p. 336
- Logan, F. Donald. The Vikings in History. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2005. 180. Print.
- “Health, Grooming, and Medicine in the Viking Age.” Hurstwic, LLC, n.d. Web.<http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/daily_living/text/health_and_medicine.htm>
- "Human Height." Our World in Data. Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School | Nuffield Foundation, n.d. Web. <http://ourworldindata.org/data/food-agriculture/human-height/>.
- Ibn Rustah, Encyclopaedia Iranica, C.E. Boswort, New York 2003.
- Blondal, Sigfus. Varangians of Byzantium: An Aspect of Byzantine Military History. Trans. by Benedikt S. Benedikz, Cambridge: 1978. ISBN 0-521-21745-8.
- pagan. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary.
- Gwyn Jones. A History of the Vikings. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1968. P. 164-65, 177.
- Pliny the Elder Historia Naturalis Book 28, 191
- "The Stench of Medieval Europe Still Echoes Today." Pravda. N.p., 22 Jan. 2008. Web. <http://english.pravda.ru/science/earth/22-01-2008/103574-stench-0/>.
- "Social Classes in Viking Society." Hurstwic, LLC, n.d. Web. <http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/society/text/social_classes.htm>.
- Paxson, Diana L. "The Return of the Völva: Recovering the Practice of Seiðr." The Return of the Völva: Recovering the Practice of Seiðr. Seeing for the People: High Seat Seið and the Core Oracular Method, 1993. Web. <http://www.seidh.org/articles/seidh/>.
- “The Role of Women in Viking Society.” Hurstwic, LLC, n.d. Web.<http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/society/text/women.htm>.
- scold. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary.
- "Olav Haraldsson - Olav the Stout - Olav the Saint." The Viking Network. Royal Norwegian Ministry of Education, Research and Church Affairs, 14 Aug. 2004. Web. <http://www.viking.no/e/people/st.olav/index.html>.
- Tacitus, Publius Cornelius. (98) "De Origine Et Situ Germanorum." Rome.
- Quran 16:71, 30:28
- "The Middle Ages: Three Kingdoms and a Union (approx. 1050–1500)." Facts About the Nordic Region. Norden, n.d. Web. <http://www.norden.org/en/fakta-om-norden-1/history-of-the-nordic-region/the-middle-ages-three-kingdoms-and-a-union-approx.-105020131500>.
Genevieve Halkett from Dayton, Ohio on December 06, 2015:
Really in-depth and well-researched. Very interesting.