Here’s a small bit on the vikings. To tell their whole story would require much more time and space than I have available. With this, I’m simply hoping to shed a little light on who they were.
To many people, the vikings were a barbarous group who spent the majority of their time murdering and pillaging and all the things associated with both. While this did often occur, I would not call it the bulk of their daily activities. Their culture was different than those they came into contact with: far more aggressive and yet surprisingly rich. Viking beliefs and technologies spread across the world, from the concept of a wergild to the design and construction of their ships.
Every person in a viking society was worth something. This is the concept of wergild. The king of the land was worth more than the peasant who mucked out the pigs’ stalls, but both were worth something. If the king murdered that peasant, he was bound by his society to pay the peasant’s family compensation. In the instance of theft, fingers were usually removed as a physical sign of the thief’s actions in addition to any monetary compensation. Wergild was incorporated into the Laws of King Alfred the Great in the late ninth century. King Alfred was the king of Wessex (in the west of England) and was the first English monarch to envision a unified England.
The construction of the viking ships was unique at that time as well. Above is an example of the general shape and structure. Not all were built to this size (this particular one was probably used for transporting trade goods; the width was necessary to store large quantities without over-balancing) but many were indeed large. Look at the structure, how the wood bends and forms the prow. Unsophisticated barbarians would have had a difficult time mastering the technique needed to create these ships.
Another interesting trait for many of the viking “longboats” was the entire steering apparatus. While virtually all other seafaring vessels had fixed rudders, the rudders on many viking longboats could actually be raised or lowered or even removed entirely. This allowed them unprecedented range. By being able to raise the rudder, the ships could sail into rivers and streams.
There are records of vikings sailing along the Euphrates River, serving as mercenaries to a warlord in modern day Turkey, and even trading with the Inuit peoples of North America. When reading the Sagas of the Icelanders, it’s interesting to note how one of the stories talks about a viking ship being blown far off course to the south, to warm region with tall trees and “strange” people. The leader of the voyage was described as red-haired, tall, and with a large beard. An account by the Aztec people of a “god,” red-haired and tall, arriving to their land in a strange boat coincides with this story.
One last little tidbit about the vikings. They did not create maps. They traveled and traded all across the world, from Europe to Africa to Greenland, and still managed to find their way. They traveled, as all ancient explorers did, by the stars and memory. If you knew the route and the dangers it entailed, why create a map so your rival could find it? Or your enemy find your home?
All in all, the vikings were a very complex society, with their own beliefs and practices that set them apart from other cultures. As I said in the beginning, there is simply too much to the vikings to adequately describe them here. If you are interested in reading more, I highly recommend Vikings: A History by Robert Ferguson. Also, my honors thesis on the vikings is published online if you want to look: http://www.carroll.edu/library/thesisArchive/KaiserB_2012%20final.PDF
I’ll leave you with one final thought. This is not a viking: