Viking origins: fact and myth
Through popular cartoons, movies and books, the word Viking conjures up an image of a ruthless, dirty savage. Many people recognise Viking warships and identify them with violent acts, invading villages to claim land and treasures. As technology improves, however, historians are able to rely on archaeological evidence to create a more accurate picture of who the Vikings were.
Origins of the word
There are a number of different suggestions as to where the word 'Viking' comes from. Some historians believe it is a combination of the Old Norse word 'vik' which meant 'bay' or 'inlet' and 'ing' meaning 'belonging to.' There are also suggestions that it is derived from the Old English word 'wic,' which meant 'trading city.'
The majority of historians believe that 'Viking' is an Old Norse word for 'pirate' and referred to the way that the seafarers raided and traded. Despite arguments over the origins of the word, it is generally agreed that Viking was originally a reference to a vocation (occupation).
Viking raiders were Norsemen, the ancient name for the people of the Scandinavian peninsula. During the Viking Age, Scandinavia was the area comprising modern Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The term Viking has also evolved to have a wider meaning and is often used to refer to Scandinavian society as a whole. Refer Image 1
Origins of the Vikings
The Norse people existed between the end of the eighth century and the twelfth century. They shared the common language of Old Norse and also the same religion, which was based on the cycles of nature. The Scandinavian Vikings were particularly renowned for their remarkable but fearsome-looking ships of the sea. The most famous Viking ship was the longship, which was designed primarily for warfare. The longship was also used for exploration. Since the Vikings were not only raiders, but explorers and traders, they also built fishing boats and cargo vessels. Refer Image 2
The Vikings are remembered for their raids on the British Isles and across parts of Europe. No one is certain why the Viking activity began. According to many historians, the most likely motivation was the need to colonise new land at a time when Scandinavia faced population pressures and a shortage of land. A growing population was a particular problem in Norway, where people were forced to settle in arctic areas. The Arctic is so barren that it is almost inhospitable.
Other historians believe that very few of the Vikings colonised land out of necessity. Population pressures were not significant and a gradual climatic warming had made winter conditions less formidable. Instead, it is suggested that the Vikings were in search of wealth. By colonising new land, the Vikings could own more land than they would ever have been able to in Scandinavia.
Dispelling the myths
There are a number of myths about the Vikings which have evolved over time. It was mistakenly believed that all Norse were Vikings.
Since the term Viking has had negative connotations for over 1000 years, this reputation has spread to encompass the entire of the Norse people.
The Vikings are often portrayed as violent and barbaric men, who attacked monasteries and raided villages. While the Vikings had a violent history, many believe today that the Vikings were no more cruel than any other army of the time. Historical sources also often only depict the fanatical Viking raiders who were known as berserkers. These men worked themselves into a frenzied state before running wildly into battle, usually with little more than a shield.
The Vikings believed they were honourable fighters since they did not attack farmers, traders or women. While most Viking raiders were professional soldiers, it is believed that most early Vikings were farmers themselves who went raiding after they had harvested their crops. Not all Vikings even engaged in combat. Some were explorers, craftsmen and traders. Through exploration, Vikings traded with merchants in Europe and parts of Asia. Viking cargo ships carried goods such as timber and fur. In exchange, the Vikings received iron which was used to make tools. They also crafted stolen gold and silver into unique jewellery.
Despite these alternative peaceful occupations, the barbaric image of the Viking prevails. This wild image has been heightened with the depiction of Vikings as tall, aggressive and unkempt men who wore horned helmets. Analyses of Viking remains, however, suggest that they were no taller than the average adult male today, if not shorter. The numerous comb-like artefacts uncovered indicate that they were not unclean savages, but took pride in their personal hygiene. It has also become accepted that the Vikings did not wear horned helmets which would have been cumbersome and impractical to wear in battle. Refer Image 3 and animation