views updated May 14 2018


The precise origin of the word "Viking" remains a mystery. The terms "Viking" and "Viking Age" are associated with a period of almost three hundred years, from the late eighth century to the eleventh century, the last period of the Scandinavian Iron Age. Although we use the term "Viking" to describe the land and people of Scandinavia during that time period, the Northmen or Norse never used that word to describe themselves, and neither did neighboring countries. Some scholars think that the word "Viking" derives from the word vik, the Scandinavian word for "inlet" or "creek," but this interpretation is not universally accepted. Whatever its origin, the word "Viking" signifies the Scandinavian fishing-and-farming people who also undertook predatory expeditions to fuel their chiefly economy as well as expand their settlement into new lands. According to Peter Sawyer in his Kings and Vikings, "The age of the Vikings began when Scandinavians first attacked western Europe and it ended when those attacks ceased."

raids and expansion

The Vikings conducted raids to exact tribute. During the Dark Ages, it was commonplace within Scandinavia as well as western Europe and Russia to plunder neighbors, to exact a tribute from them, and to secure their submission—to a large extent interchangeable notions. However, it was a new experience, and to many a shocking one, when the Scandinavians began to extend their sphere of activity so far beyond their own borders. The superior skills in boat making and navigation made this expansion possible. The topography of the Scandinavian countries prohibited travel by land; therefore, the waterways were their highways. This aided in the development of a seafaring culture with extremely accomplished sailors whose nautical expertise was their greatest asset in exploiting new lands. The Vikings settled the previously uninhabited island of Iceland; they developed two settlements in Greenland, which survived for three hundred years before mysteriously disappearing; and they arrived in the New World before Columbus, as seen by archaeological evidence of their presence in the site of L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. They helped found many cities in Russia, such as Novgorod, Kiev, and Staraya Ladoga, and artifactual evidence points to trading with a plethora of places as diverse as Ireland and Byzantium. Their voyages were diverse in nature; the need for productive farmland along with the quest for wealth made the Vikings a mosaic of settlers composed of fighters, traders, and raiders.

daily life

The reputation of these Nordic people as fierce warriors and raiders has obscured the more complex aspects of their everyday life for centuries. The Vikings in their homelands adapted uniquely to an arctic culture and exploited an extensive array of available resources. They were fisher-farmers because the warming effects of the Gulf Stream enabled farming much farther north than recorded previously. They fished the rich waters of the North Atlantic for the fish of the cod family, halibut, and wolfish, as well as the local lakes and rivers for freshwater fish such as salmon, trout, and char. They harvested bird colonies for meat (puffins, guillemots, and ptarmigan), eggs (duck, seagull, and cormorant), and eider duck down. They also hunted and scavenged large marine mammals, such as whales (for meat and oil, and for bone to use for structural material and for the creation of gaming pieces, fish net needles, and other implements), and walrus (primarily for their ivory). Their success as traders gave rise to a number of trading towns, such as: Gotland and Birka in Sweden, Hedeby in Schleswig-Holstein, and Kaupang in Norway. These towns became the foci of intense commercial activity and industry, and the goods traded were as diverse as the people who visited. The artifactual evidence (coins, tools, and ornaments) from excavations in these locations point to connections with Russia, Europe and North Africa, and shed light on the transition of Viking life from the farm to the town, and the beginnings of urbanization and city formation.

Archaeology has contributed greatly to the understanding of Viking lifeways. Viking houses were built with timber, stone, and turf. In this class-stratified society, large chiefly estates with good pastureland and large boathouses were the homes for local earls. Inside the houses were central fireplaces for warmth and cooking. Remains of cauldrons and steatite vessels, together with other artifacts such as whetstones for sharpening knives and loom weights from the upstanding looms that women used to weave fine woolen clothing, offer glimpses of domestic life. Implements for farming, hunting, and fishing along with animal bones from middens provide information on activities involving subsistence as well as those involving economy and trade. Charcoal pits, molds, slag, and recovered implements point to highly skilled craftsmanship in metalwork while the Viking ships and their surviving wood ornaments are a stellar example of woodworking. At Oseberg and Gokstad in southeastern Norway, excavations of sunken Viking ships undertaken in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century revealed beautifully crafted sledges and wagons. Fine gold jewelry and inlaid silverwork from finds throughout the Viking world also show a high degree of craftsmanship. Chess games, horse fights, and wrestling were all part of Viking daily life, and finds such as the Lewis chessmen—beautifully carved figurines of walrus ivory—show the Vikings applying their talent as artisans to their entertainment as well as their livelihood.

Military settlements such as Trelleborg in Zealand, Nonnebakken at Odense in Fune, Fyrkat near Hobro, and Agersborg near Limfjorden were all situated to command important waterways that served as lines of communication. The layouts of these camps reflect influences of symmetry and precision of the Roman castra. The Vikings were organized in bands called liı, a kind of military household familiar in western Europe. A chieftain might go abroad with just his own men in a couple of ships, but more commonly he would join forces with greater chieftains. These were often members of royal or noble families, styling themselves as kings or earls, and they frequently seem to have been exiles—for example, unsuccessful rivals for the throne—who were forced to seek their fortune abroad. Such men were often willing to stay abroad to serve Frankish or Byzantine rulers as mercenaries, to accept fiefs from them, and to become their vassals. They thereby became a factor in European politics. Vikings were frequently employed by one European prince against another or against other Vikings.

A voting assembly of freemen called thing was a governing institution widely used by the ancient Germanic peoples—it served as a forum to settle conflict and to cast decisions on questions relating to fencing, construction of bridges, clearance, pasture rights, worship, and even defense. At the beginning of the Viking Age, there were many thing assemblies throughout Scandinavia, and Norse settlers frequently established things abroad. The Icelandic Althing was unusual, however, in that it united all regions of an entire country under a common legal and judicial system, without depending upon the executive power of a monarch or regional rulers. The Althing was established around a.d. 930. Little is known about its specific organization during the earliest decades, because the only description of this exists in writing in Grågås and the sagas. These were not contemporary sources but were compiled by Christian scholars three hundred years after the end of the Viking Age and therefore generally portray the assembly as it was after the constitutional reforms of the mid-960s.

The social stratification of early Viking communities was based on wealth and property. Earls, peasants, and thralls supported the socioeconomic ladder. Women quite often achieved higher status, as evidenced through burial mounds in many parts of Norway. Vikings were intolerant of weakness and it is postulated from later literature that the elderly and infirm were regarded as a burden.

The Vikings, who were probably inspired through their contact with Europe and exposure to the Latin writing system, developed their own alphabet called futhark or otherwise known as a runic alphabet. Runes were carved primarily on stone but some have been found in wood and bone. The runes carried a multitude of meanings from the mystical to the mundane. The earliest written sources that provide information about the Vikings (sagas and eddas), were created by Icelandic scribes three centuries after the end of the Viking Age. These sources, along with direct data from environmental and archaeological investigations, help to elucidate the complex and often misrepresented Nordic people.

See alsoViking Harbors and Trading Sites ; Viking Ships ; Viking Settlements in Iceland and Greenland ; Hofstaðir ; Viking Settlements in Orkney and Shetland ; Viking Dublin ; Viking York ; Pre-Viking and Viking Age Norway ; Pre-Viking and Viking Age Sweden ; Pre-Viking and Viking Age Denmark (all vol. 2, part 7).


Almgren, Bertil, et al., eds. The Viking. Gothenburg, Sweden: A. B. Nordbok, 1975.

Batey, Colleen E., Judith Jesch, and Christopher D. Morris, eds. The Viking Age in Caithness, Orkney, and the North Atlantic. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995.

Morris, Chris. "Viking Orkney: A Survey." In The Prehistory of Orkney. Edited by Colin Renfrew. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1985.

Myhre, Bjorn. "The Royal Cemetery at Borre, Vestfold: A Norwegian Centre in a European Periphery." In The Age of Sutton Hoo: The Seventh Century in North-Western Europe. Edited by Martin Carver, pp. 301–313. Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell, 1992.

——. "Chieftains' Graves and Chiefdom Territories in South Norway in the Migration Period." Studien zur Sachsenforschung 6 (1987): 169–187.

Nordisk Ministerråd og forfatterne. Viking og Hvidekrist:Norden og Europa 800–1200. Copenhagen: Nordisk Ministerråd, 1992.

Sawyer, Peter. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

——. Kings and Vikings: Scandinavia and Europe,a.d.700–1100. London: Methuen, 1982.

Sophia Perdikaris


views updated May 21 2018


From the 750s to the 1050s, the Vikings were warriors, pirates, and traders from Scandinavia who employed the most sophisticated naval technology of the time in Northern Europe to launch extensive raiding and trading expeditions stretching west to Canadian Labrador and east to the Caspian Sea.

Vikings (called Rus in the Arabic and Varangians in the Greek sources), primarily from Sweden and the Isle of Gotland, first entered European Russia in small groups in search of trade and tribute in the second half of the eighth century. By the ninth century, the Rus had established a complex commercial network stretching from the Baltic to the Islamic Caliphate. By the tenth century, the Rus extended this network southward to the Byzantine Empire via Kiev, continuing the eastern trade through intermediaries on the middle Volga in Volga Bulgaria. Also by the tenth century, the Vikings traveling through Russia had entered the service of the Byzantine Emperor (tenth through twelfth centuries) and helped found the first East Slavic kingdom, Kievan Rus.

The Russian Primary Chronicle relates that in 862 the Viking Rurik and his kin were invited by Slavic and Finnic tribes to come and rule over them, after which they developed a system of tribute that encompassed northwestern Russia, Kiev, and its neighboring tribes. The Chronicle' s account is substantiated by finds of Scandinavian-style artifacts (tortoise shell brooches, Thor's hammer pendants, wooden idols, armaments), and in some cases graves, found at Staraya Ladoga, Ryurikovo Gorodishche, Syaskoe Gorodishche, Timerevo, and Gnezdovo. These sites were tribal and commercial centers and riverside waystations, typical of those found along trade routes used by the Rus, most notably that of the Volga Route to the Islamic Caliphate and the Route to the Greeks along the Dnieper.

In contrast to Viking activity in the West, which is characterized primarily by raiding and large-scale colonization, the Rus town network and subsequent tribal and political organization was designed for trade. Subject tribes living along river systems supplied the Rus with the furs, wax, honey, and slaves that they would further exchange for Islamic silver (especially dirhams), glass beads, silks, and spices in southern markets. The Rus expansion into Byzantine markets began in earnest in the early tenth century, with Rus attacks on Constantinople in 907, 911, and 944, which resulted in trade agreements. By the end of the century, in 988989, Vladimir I (ruled 9801015), a quarter Viking through his father Svyatoslav, had married into the Byzantine royal family and converted to Byzantine Christianity, thereby laying the foundation for the Eastern Slavic relationship with the Greek world.

The tenth century marks the high point of Viking involvement in the East. Much of the Scandinavian-style jewelry found in European Russia and a majority of the Scandinavian-style graves date to the second and third quarters of the tenth century. Vladimir I and his son Yaroslav the Wise (ruled 10191054) enlisted Viking mercenary armies in internecine dynastic wars. In the eleventh century, however, the Viking foot soldier armies had become obsolete as the Rus princes were forced to adapt to another enemy in the south, the Turkic nomads who fought on horseback. The defeat of Yaroslav's Viking mercenaries by a nomadic army at the Battle of Listven (1024) is indicative of this trend.

See also: gnezdovo; kievan rus; normanist controversy; primary chronicle; route to greeks; vladimir, st.; yaroslav vladimirovich


Franklin, Simon, and Shepard, Jonathan. (1996). The Emergence of Rus, 7501200. London: Longman.

Noonan, Thomas S. (1997). "Scandinavians in European Russia." In The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, ed. Peter Sawyer. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pritsak, Omeljan. (1981). The Origin of Rus'. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.

Stalsberg, Anne. (1988). "The Scandinavian Viking Age Finds in Rus: Overview and Analysis." In Bericht der Römisch-Germanischen Kommission 69. Mainz am Rhein, Germany: Philipp Von Zabern.

Heidi M. Sherman


views updated May 29 2018

Vikings Scandinavian seaborne marauders, traders and settlers, who spread throughout much of Europe and the North Atlantic region in the 9th to 11th centuries. The Viking expansion seems to have been caused by rapid population growth, and consequent scarcity of good farming land, as well as the desire for new sources of wealth. It was made possible by their advanced maritime technology, which enabled them to cross n European waters in a period when other sailors feared to venture out of sight of land. They were in many respects more advanced than other European peoples, notably in metalwork. Although they first appeared in their ‘longships’ as raiders on the coasts of nw Europe, later groups came to settle. Swedes, known as Varangians, founded the first Russian state at Novgorod, and traded via the River Volga in Byzantium and Persia. Danes conquered much of n and e England. Norwegians created kingdoms in n Britain and Ireland, founding Dublin (c.840) and other cities; they also colonized Iceland and established settlements in Greenland. A short-lived settlement, Vinland, was established in North America by Leif Ericsson in c.1003. In the early 10th century, the Vikings settled in Normandy. Anarchic conditions in 10th-century Scandinavia resulted in the formation of larger, more powerful kingdoms, and Viking expansion declined. It renewed in a different form with the conquest of England by King Sweyn of Denmark in 1013 and the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Viking ornament

views updated May 23 2018

Viking ornament. Style of ornament produced in Scandinavia and in Scandinavian colonies from C8 to C12, consisting of interlacing elements linked to zoömorphic forms in continuous complex designs. For architectural purposes there are three main styles: that featuring S-shaped intertwined animals, with bodies of even, ribbon-like form (Jelling(e) style —mid-C10); that employing semi-naturalistic animals and birds as well as dragon-like forms, with influences from Anglo-Saxon and Ottonian decoration (Ringerike style—C11); and that with extremely stylized animals, ribbon-shaped animals, and snakes, any animal-heads or -feet being reduced to elongated terminals, forming figure of eight and intertwining multiloop lacertine designs of great complexity (Urnes style—later C11). The Urnes style influenced Celtic, Hiberno-Romanesque, and Anglo-Saxon designs. A good example of Ringerike Norse or Viking ornament of the Ringerike type is the carving on the south doorway of the Church of Sts Mary and David, Kilpeck, Herefs. (c.1140–5). Mingled with Celtic motifs, Viking ornament recurred in Art Nouveau design.


Glazier (1926);
O. Jones (1868);
Lewis & and Darley (1986);
Jane Turner (1996);
Tschudi-Madsen (1967)

About this article


All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About content Print Topic