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Introduction

There are a number of beliefs surrounding the Viking warriors of the eight to the twelfth century. Most people know the images of Vikings as savages through popular books and films, and immediately associate them with a barbaric, seafaring savage. Vikings are often pictured brandishing swords and shouting ferociously as their ship charges towards an unsuspecting village or monastery. But who were they really? This chapter draws a more complete picture of the Viking warriors.

Viking warriors

The stereotypical image generally applies to a specialised group of fanatical Viking warriors. Known as berserkers, their purpose was to protect their king and lead the warriors into battle. Berserkers often worked themselves into a frenzy before a battle and wore bearskins in the belief that the animal's spirit would give them strength. Some historians believe that the berserkers consumed alcohol and hallucinogenic mushrooms before raids. Refer Image 1

While the berserkers provide the most popular image of a Viking warrior, many historians believe that the early Viking warriors were farmers. The men were thought to have only gone on Viking raids, led by local chiefs, once their crops had been sown and harvested. Later, during the Viking Age, some men were hired as professional soldiers or were called up by the king to fight in his army.

Viking weapons and ships

Even for those Viking warriors who were soldiers in the king's army, they had to make their own armour and weapons. Swords, axes, helmets, arrows and spears from the Viking Age have all been excavated. During battle, the raiders also carried a wooden shield, but the sword was the Viking's main source of pride. Often adorned with gold and silver, a sword was usually passed from father to son. Most warriors wore a leather cap, but the wealthier raiders wore an iron helmet which had a guard to protect the nose. Only wealthy Vikings could afford to wear protective clothing such as a coat of chainmail. Refer Image 2

The Vikings' weapons were no more advanced than their opponents, but their ships were high technology for their time. The Viking longship was primarily used for warfare. The longship was cleverly designed with a shallow draught which enabled them to sail in the shallowest of waters. The Vikings were able to sail through rivers and pull up onto a beach to stage surprise attacks on their enemies.

The Viking beliefs

Despite being known for their raiding, killing and pillaging, the Vikings believed in being men of honour. Vikings did not attack women or men involved in trade or farming. Ideas of honour meant the Vikings believed it was more respectable to kill a man and take his treasure than to behave like a thief by stealing it. Warrior kings and chiefs who courageously led their men into battle were seen as honourable, and attracted many followers.

Status was also of great importance to the Viking warriors. Stolen treasures from raids were divided amongst the warriors according to their rank. Warrior kings and nobles had their heroic stories told by court poets at great feasts. These stories of bravery were orally handed down through the generations until around 1200, when the stories were written down. These stories are now known as sagas. Refer Image 3

Viking warriors were devoted to Odin, the god of death and war, among other things. Norse sagas suggest that Viking warriors took part in a ritual called the blood-eagle. The blood-eagle involved pulling the lungs out of the back of a defeated victim as an offering to Odin. Many historians believe that this ritual, however, did not exist and is a misinterpretation.

The Vikings also believed that warriors killed in battle would go to the world of the gods where they would be invited by Odin to take their place in Valholl (the Hall of the Warriors). They believed that the slain Vikings fought every day and were resurrected to attend a great feast in Valholl each night.

The initial Viking raids

One of the first documented Viking raids was recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It was the AD 793 Viking raid on the Christian monastery on Lindisfarne, an island off the coast of England. The monks' attempts to hide their silver chalices, holy books which were often encrusted with jewels and shrines adorned in gold and silver, were to no avail. The Vikings ransacked the monastery, stole anything of value, killed several monks and burned down their buildings.

After this first violent attack, the raids increased and spread to places such as Ireland, Russia and France. Monasteries and coastal settlements were particularly at risk of being raided. The Vikings stole cattle and church bells with the intention of melting them down. The Vikings took women and other inhabitants to use or sell as slaves. It did not take long before the Vikings became synonymous with pillaging and killing. The Viking longships embellished with carved dragon-heads evoked fear amongst the people who saw them coming.


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