Vikings: How do we know what we know?

By Thyra Dane

Background

Did you know that the Vikings would wonder what you meant if you called them Viking? They used the word viking as something you did—you went viking when you traveled out to fight, conquer and raid—not as something you were.

When did the Vikings live?

Today we use the word Viking to describe all Scandinavians who lived between 793 (the attack on Lindisfarne) and 1066 (the battle of Stamford Bridge). Some use rounder dates and say from the year 800 to the end of the 11th century. Beware of these dates. Any Viking romances that take place in the 1400s are technically not Viking romances.

The more modern use of the word Viking started around 1840 when the Scandinavian countries felt the need to have national symbols and something to be proud of. There was a wave of nationalism in all of Europe which also swept over Scandinavia. On top of that, the Scandinavian countries had lost land and power and felt the need to worship a time where Scandinavians and their descendants ruled large parts of Northern Europe.

Vikings as a treasured national symbol, from the mid-1800s and up until after World War II, is the basis of many of the myths and misunderstandings we have even today. Some of the Viking symbols and myths were used, distorted and misused by the Nazis and even by neo-Nazis of today.

The Vikings were a fascinating people, but it’s not advisable to use them to build national (or personal) pride. Absolutely nothing good can come of that. And I say that as a Scandinavian who’s very fascinated by Vikings.

Facts – what are our sources?

It may come as a surprise, but we actually know very little about the Vikings compared to, for instance, the ancient Romans.

The Vikings themselves were an oral people. That means all their stories, their tales, their religion and their communication was by mouth. They wrote very little down—at least very little that has survived until today.

Runes

What they did write down were runes. You may know them as these odd symbols that look vaguely like our letters but are almost impossible to read. The runes were seen as magical and something one made for very special occasions. We have runes that show the birth of Denmark as a nation, we have runes that celebrate people and achievements, runes from thralls who became free men, and runes we just don’t know the meaning of.

What we don’t have are Viking texts of any length that tell us anything about their lives, their history or their religion.

They haven’t found many runes from the Vikings, but this one is one of the most important ones. It’s one of the two Jelling Stones, which are basically Denmark’s birth certificate. Gorm the Old and Thyra Danebod were proclaimed the first king and queen of a united Denmark and Harald Bluetooth their son.
(And yes, I named myself after the first queen of Denmark, and yes, the Bluetooth technology is named after Harald Bluetooth. Check out the Bluetooth logo – it’s a rune for Harald Bluetooth)

Sagas

We do have the Sagas, the 29 Icelandic Sagas, the king Sagas, the religious Sagas and all the other Sagas. They were long and detailed and incredibly interesting tales about the Vikings. Saga means “what is said,” so they are supposed to be a written version of all the oral tales.

The problem with the Sagas we have today is when they were written. The oldest Saga was written in 1120 and most of them were written between 1200 and 1400. That’s quite a lot of years after the Vikings roamed the oceans. The Sagas were written by Christians, but the Vikings only took the new religion fairly late, and a large part of the Vikings believed in the Norse gods.

And even though we have quite a lot of Sagas, historians assume we’ve lost about 90% of them. Many were lost during the Protestant book burnings. We may have lost vital Sagas that could contradict or give light to the Sagas we do have.

Saxo Grammaticus

We also have another historical source from Scandinavia: Saxo Grammaticus started writing his enormous History of the Danes in 1185 and the Viking age played a central part.

I find Saxo’s stories incredibly interesting, but you must take them with a grain (or a Viking ship) of salt. Some are based on myths, some on oral tales, but they’re all colored by Saxo’s main purpose, which was to write a “heroic tale about the history of the Danes.”

Foreign monks and Arab travelers

There are quite a few contemporary written sources, but none of them were from the Vikings themselves. There are accounts of the doings and sayings of Vikings written by monks and priests from what’s now Great Britain, by Arab travelers who visited Viking settlements, and by people the Vikings were at war with.

Most of these contemporary sources aren’t very flattering to the Vikings. If you have Vikings breathing down your door, threatening death and destruction, you’re hardly going to write an essay to lament on the beauty and strength of the Northern brutes.

The same goes for the Arab travelers. They may not have been enemies of the Vikings, but they did find Viking customs odd and different from their own. That certainly shows in their writings.

Graves and other archeological findings

Our last, but certainly not least, source is everything the archeologists find from the Vikings age. They’ve found graves, ships, remains of houses and cities, clothes, jewelry, and thousands of everyday items that show us a lot about how the Vikings lived.

The problems with all these archeological findings are the lack of information. It’s not as if a body in a grave will stand up and say,

“Hello, I’m Olaf the Handsome, and I was the Jarl of Kaupang. I have pots and pans in my grave because I made a mean porridge when I was alive. My grave also contains my favorite horse because I’m going to need it in Valhalla.”

The graves don’t have gravestones and we often don’t even know if the bodies are men or women.

The archeological findings tell us that Vikings were very busy grooming themselves—they’ve found SO many combs, tweezers, and even instruments to rid their ears of earwax—but they tell us little about who was who and what relation they had to one another.

You can visit Viking ships in museums in both Denmark and Norway. Some of the Viking ships have been found in graves and others, like the ones in the picture, have been found in the sea. These ships were sunk on purpose to stop a Norwegian army from entering the Roskilde fjord in Denmark.
I took this picture at the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum last summer.

The archeological findings may tell us tales of the people who lived over a 1000 years ago, but the tales need to be interpreted, and those interpretations are often based on the life and prejudices of the interpreter, namely archeologists and historians.

Archeologists have found quite a lot from the Viking age, but what about everything that hasn’t been found? Can we deduct that what hasn’t been found, doesn’t exist? Of course not.

No pants

I was told by a Viking teacher here in Norway (yes, we have teachers who can teach you how to become a Viking) that they’ve never found Viking age pants. They’ve found an older grave—from before the year 793—with a man wearing pants, but they’ve never found any pants in Scandinavia that can be dated from the Viking age. Does that mean Vikings ran around bare-assed? Probably not (I do have a vivid imagination, though, and could imagine it very well!). It’s just that pants have never been found.

Viking reenactors *with* pants. There are Viking reenacting camps all over Scandinavia every summer. I can recommend a visit if you’re interested in Vikings.
This picture is from Ribe Viking Center in Denmark.

That same teacher told me something fascinating: Men did not remove their upper body clothing when they were hot. They removed whatever they were wearing on their legs. So, all these romance covers with naked male chests should probably have naked butts instead.

Hands up, everyone who agrees!

I will be sharing more about Vikings later.

Do you want to read Viking romance? Check out my short story in the anthology Kissing and Other Scandalous Pastimes.

Read more about Vikings on my blog.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. This is a fascinating article. I do have a question, though. I now know there isn’t much written down from their history and graves have been found, but is it true that when some Vikings died, they put their body on a boat, set it on fire, and sent it out to sea? Or is that just a myth?

  2. Fascinating article! Quite hilarious to think about bare-butted romance covers instead of bare-chested. I also adored your story in Kissing and Other Scandalous Pastimes.

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