After a long journey, the weary European explorers catch a glimpse of land, far on the horizon. The men grow restless, as their ships slowly sail toward the coast. Images of rich lands and adventure race through their minds. Finally they disembark and set foot on America’s pristine land for the first time in history. Two continents have made contact. Yet these are not Spaniards, commanded by an Italian sailor named Christopher Columbus. These are Vikings, guided by Leif Eriksson, arriving at American shores almost five hundred years before Columbus’ momentous “discovery.”
This is the story of the first Europeans who bridged the gap dividing two continents. These explorers, known as Vikings, were part of a rich and complex culture. There is much to be learned behind the facade of pirates and barbarians that has commonly been attached to them. More interesting is to learn about their way of life, their prowess at sea and exploration, and the way they, in the long run, enriched European history.
The Vikings were native to the land that today is Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. The populations living in these three territories were very independent from each other. Each country was a society composed of a King, a noble class — known as Jarls or Earls — and commoners. The country was divided into districts, each holding a yearly assembly — known as a Thing — in which Vikings discussed matters of common interest. All men were equal in the Thing; any man had the right to demand the settling of a dispute or whatever problem afflicted him.
Each country had its own sphere of influence. Vikings from Norway, known by many as Normands, would travel to northern England, Scotland, Ireland, and the archipelagos farther to the Northwest. Vikings from Denmark, known as Danes, journeyed through southern England, the European mainland, its coasts, and the Mediterranean. Vikings from Sweden, known as Rus by Slavs, roamed parts of eastern Europe, even venturing as far away as the Caspian Sea.
Putting aside the image of murdering barbarians, we now know that they were skilled farmers, traders, navigators, explorers, and settlers. They were very good storytellers, too. History was passed on from generation to generation by way of Sagas. These stories were memorized and told to others. Elders, through them, narrated the adventures of kings, heroes, and prominent families. Many of these Sagas were written down by Icelanders in the fourteenth century, in an effort to preserve the Viking’s history, which would otherwise have been forgotten. Thanks to these Sagas we know many things about them, as well as their voyages. But other cultures who came in contact with Vikings also documented their way of life.
In 921 the Arab chronicler Ibn Fadlan met Rus traders of Swedish origin, near the Middle Volga. Impressed by their appearance he described them as “perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blonde and ruddy.”
Of their women he wrote that “each one wears on either breast a box of iron, silver, copper or gold; the value of the box indicates the wealth of the husband. Each box has a ring from which depends a knife. The women wear neck rings of gold and silver, one for each 10,000 dirhems which her husband is worth; some women have many.”
It is interesting to note that Viking women had an important role in society, compared to other cultures at the time. A woman had complete authority over the farm when the husband was off on a raid or trading trip. She could own land and had the right to demand divorce if she no longer wanted to be by her husband’s side.
Ibn Fadlan was appalled by their apparent lack of hygiene as well as their uninhibited sexual practices. “They are the filthiest of God’s creatures. They have no modesty in defecation and urination, nor do they wash after pollution from orgasm, nor do they wash their hands after eating. With them are pretty slave girls destined for sale to merchants: a man will have sexual intercourse with his slave girl while his companion looks on. Sometimes whole groups will come together in this fashion, each in the presence of others. A merchant who arrives to buy a slave girl from them may have to wait and look on while a Rus completes the act of intercourse with a slave girl,” he added.
He also took note of how the Vikings honored and bid their dead farewell. According to both Ibn Fadlan and the Sagas, when a wealthy Viking died, he was buried along with his ship. Ibn Fadlan witnessed one of these burials and narrated in great detail the specifics of the event. According to him, the deceased’s ship was dragged out of the water and taken to where the burial would take place. It was propped up on four wooden stakes inside a pit that had previously been dug. A tent was then constructed in the middle of the ship and more wood was set underneath it. The corpse, dressed in fine clothes, was put inside the tent along with different objects he would need in the afterlife.
First they deposited fruit, intoxicating drinks, and fragrant plants beside him. Then bread, meat, and onions were placed before him. After that a dog was brought, cut into two pieces and placed inside the ship. His weapons were then placed by his side. Two horses were dismembered and also put inside the ship. Both a rooster and hen were also sacrificed and placed inside.
In the end, a female slave who had volunteered to join her master in death, was killed and deposited in the ship. The vessel was then set on fire and the remains covered with a mound of soil. Finally on top of this mound the Vikings placed a wooden post; on it they wrote the man’s name and the name of his king, and then they departed. This was typical of a wealthy man’s burial. In the case of a poor man, a small boat was constructed. He was placed inside, set on fire, and then buried.
Viking life revolved around farming and trade, yet every single man was proficient in the use of weapons. The basic battle gear of a Viking was a long sword, an axe, and a small knife. A wealthy man could also have a pike and a bow and arrows. For protection he carried a round shield and a coat of chain mail, as well as a metal helmet. This brings us to another misconception, the image of a Viking wearing a horned helmet. There is no evidence that Vikings ever wore this type of headgear. Actually, a conical metal helmet with a simple rectangular nose guard was commonly used in battle.
There was a small group of elite warriors though, known as Berserks, whose only purpose in life was to fight. It is thought that they engaged in rites honoring Odin, the god of war. The Sagas portray Berserks as fierce warriors, possessors of superhuman strength, and literally invincible. According to many accounts they would go into battle in some sort of trance, striking down everything that moved, even while they were severely wounded. They would carry on in this manner for many hours until the effects of the trance wore off. After this they would fall into a deep stupor, needing days to recover.
This leads us to believe that they consumed some sort of hallucinogenic drug or herb before going into battle, which produced the effect of a seemingly endless supply of energy and immunity to pain, and finally caused the symptoms of withdrawal. Given that they were difficult to control — frequently attacking even their comrades in arms — they were outlawed before the end of the Viking era.
Being native to lands with an abundance of fjords, rivers, and lakes, it was easier for Vikings to travel by ship than by land. The design of their ships was remarkable, thanks to knowledge acquired and passed on for many generations. At sea this afforded them a clear advantage over other cultures. Their ships had many variations, but there were two main types: warships and transports.
Their warship was known as the Drakkar, and it was perfectly suited for incursions, being fast and easy to steer. It was commonly between 17 and 27 meters long and 2.5 to 5 meters wide at the midship. Space was at a premium onboard, so each Viking carried only a chest where he kept his possessions. This also meant there wasn’t any type of cover, even in foul weather, which says a lot about the Vikings’ ability to withstand less than comfortable living conditions. A dismountable mast and rectangular sail were used whenever possible. When wind was lacking, or when navigating near a coast or traveling up a river, the travelers took turns rowing. Depending on the Drakkar’s size, it needed anywhere from 20 to 50 oarsmen. Fully loaded, the Drakkar would draw less than one meter of water, which gave the Vikings the ability to strike practically any coast, without the requirement of a port. And it was even light enough to be dragged over land in order to circumvent a blockaded river or to navigate across to a different one.
The Knöörr was a bigger ship, suitable for transporting goods and even entire families on colonizing voyages. It had a central platform where animals, wood, or other necessities could be transported.
One interesting characteristic shared by all Viking ships was an identical bow and stern. This meant that if they needed to turn back, they simply rowed in the other direction.
From the Sagas, we conclude that only wealthy Vikings had sufficient capital for the construction of Drakkars and Knöörrs. Thus, ship owners usually were nobles, or commoners who had amassed great fortunes through trading or raids. The size, quality, and quantity of ships depended on the Viking’s level of wealth. Accordingly, Vikings of less stature could only afford smaller ships suitable for fishing or short voyages.
The Viking Era Begins
The year 793 saw the first documented pillage by Scandinavian warriors. The monastery of Lindisfarne, on the eastern coast of England, was ransacked by Vikings sailing out of Norway. Setting the tone for many incursions to come, the Vikings rowed their ships onto the beach, taking the area by surprise. The monastery was overrun; anyone standing in their way was promptly slaughtered. Others were taken prisoners to be sold as slaves. The attackers took anything of value they could find and quickly rowed away.
This incident is commonly regarded as the beginning of the Viking era, as historians refer to the time period ranging from 793 to 1100. During this time the Viking culture expanded into areas surrounding the Scandinavian states, even making contact with regions as far away as the Caspian Sea in the east and the coasts of North America in the west.
Raids, such as the one that took place at Lindisfarne, were organized during assemblies. One Viking usually organized the whole affair, brought together the ships necessary for the raid, and recruited the right number of men. These raids usually took place during the summer, when the weather was more favorable for navigation. Before sailing every Viking was required to swear loyalty and complete obedience to the leader of the raid. Upon returning, the loot was divided, half for the organizer, half for the crew.
Thus, raids and exploration voyages could be organized in this manner by any Viking, provided he could bring together enough ships, supplies, and men. But there were also many cases in which noblemen, acting on their king’s orders, mounted enormous raids. One was in 968, when Jarl Gundraed, in command of 8000 men and 100 ships, led a Danish expedition into Spain. Obviously, the number of casualties left behind and booty taken were many times larger than those of the typical small, hit and run operations.
In the years following the Lindisfarne incident, Norwegian Vikings dominated parts of northern England, Scotland and Ireland, while the southern English coasts were harassed by Vikings based in Denmark. Dublin and York became important Viking trade centers.
It was only natural that after settling in the British Isles these explorers would travel to other areas, always in search of new lands. Thus, sailing to the northwest, Vikings discovered, and permanently settled, Iceland.
Around the year 980 Erik Thorvaldsson, better known as Erik the Red, having been temporarily exiled from Iceland for the murder of two fellow Vikings, sailed west along with his family. He searched for an unexplored island someone had seen in the past. He found it, named it Greenland, and promptly built a farm in an area he called Bratthalid, near present day Julianehab. He remained there for three seasons and upon returning to Iceland told his fellow Vikings about the discovery. He described endless rolling green pastures, perfect for raising cattle, as well as an abundance of fish, whales and seals. Hundreds of fellow Vikings went back with him and settled there.
In the year 1000, a Viking traveling from Iceland to Greenland was thrown off course by a storm. He ended up in the vicinity of an unknown land farther west. When he finally arrived in Greenland he narrated his ordeal and described the territory he had seen. Leif Eriksson, son of Erik the Red, decided to explore this new land. He took a ship and a crew of 35 men and sailed west. Following the directions previously given to him, he found this new land and traveled down along the coast. He named three areas according to their predominant elements: Helluland (Rocky land), Markland (Land of forests) and Vinland (Land of grapes). He disembarked in this last area and settled there temporarily. A large house and a few other structures were built by Leif and his men. According to the Sagas this land was fertile, had good weather and plenty of wildlife. Its rivers and lakes were teeming with salmon and other species of fish.
Shortly Leif and his men returned home, with their ship loaded with wood, which was scarce in Greenland. A year later his father, Erik the Red, died. Leif took over the administration of the farm, and was never able to return to Vinland. Two years later his brother, Thorvald, organized a second expedition to the newly discovered land. He and his men spent two years exploring the coasts of the surrounding area. They also constructed more dwellings. On one occasion they stumbled upon a group of natives, which the Vikings named skraeling, and a skirmish ensued. Thorvald was mortally wounded and became the first European to be buried in America. His men shortly returned to Greenland carrying a full load of wood and grapes.
A third expedition was later organized by another of Erik the Red’s sons, Thorstein. Sadly, their ship was thrown off course by a storm and all on board, except for a woman, perished.
A fourth expedition was organized by another Viking by the name of Thorfinn Karlsefni. Traveling in two ships, this group stayed for three years in the same dwellings Leif Eriksson and his crew had built. In one occasion they were approached by natives who attempted to exchange furs for Viking swords. Apparently the Vikings refused and had some problems as a result, although not as severe as in Thorvald’s case. During their stay in Vinland, Snorri, son of Thorfinn and his wife Grudrid, was born. This is the first documented birth of a European in America. Later, Thorfinn and his group returned to Greenland, again with their respective cargo of wood.
The fifth and last documented voyage to Vinland was organized by Freydis, Leif’s sister. They traveled in two ships, one carrying Vikings from Greenland, the other from Iceland. Their one-year stay was not disturbed by the visit of natives, although it was far from uneventful. Apparently Freydis created a hostile climate between Greenlanders and Icelanders. Quarrels over unimportant issues between the two groups were common. In the end she convinced her husband and crew to get rid of the Greenlanders. According to the Sagas she single-handedly took care of the opposing group’s women, chopping them to pieces with an axe. They then took both ships, with their complement of wood, and returned to Greenland.
Apparently, the Vikings never returned to America after the fifth voyage. The era of Viking expansionism was at an end. Their pillaging incursions became less frequent; the fact that Christianity and its ideals quickly enveloped the Viking culture may be an important factor in this change of attitude. Trading centers in England and Ireland were abandoned, along with the settlements in Greenland. Many of the early invaders settled in parts of France, Finland, and Russia, mixing with the local population. Most of their pagan culture and language were forgotten in time. Only in Iceland, where the Sagas are still read without requiring translation, does the original Nordic language survive.
The Archaeological Discoveries
Through archaeology we are still learning many things about the Viking culture. Evidence of settlements has been discovered in their homelands, as well as England, Ireland, Iceland, and Greenland. Remains of dwellings and everyday objects have been found in numerous sites. But the most exciting discoveries are the remains of buried ships.
In 1867 the remains of a twenty-meter long ship were unearthed in Tune, Norway. According to recent analysis it was built around 890. In 1880 the remains of another ship were found in Gokstad, Norway. It was also built in 890 and measured twenty-four meters in length. The year 1906 saw the discovery of another ship in Oseberg, Norway. It measured 22 meters in length, was built around the year 820 and apparently buried in 834. Coins, weapons and other valuable objects were found inside the ships, confirming the tales of Viking funerals.
In 1960 a group of Norwegian archaeologists discovered the remains of eight long houses on the Canadian island of L’anse aux Meadows. They were proven to be of Nordic design. Other typical Viking objects were also found, such as pins, stone lamps, and some carved wooden pieces believed to be ship fittings.
Further excavations — from 1973 to 1976 — uncovered even more utensils and about 2000 pieces of worked wood. It was mostly debris from smoothing and trimming logs, as the Vikings prepared wood to be taken back to Greenland. The Canadian Government reconstructed three of the Viking buildings, and the locale was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.
To this day it is still unclear just why the Viking culture literally spilled over into neighboring countries from the eighth century onwards. Some scholars believe a growing population demanded the search for new territories. Others think that a divided and unstable Europe proved fertile ground for Viking raids. Yet there are those who believe that the superiority of Viking maritime technology and tactics gave them a distinct advantage over other cultures, prompting such raids. We may never know for sure.
Arturo Rubio is a freelance writer from Tijuana, Mexico. He enjoys writing about history, international affairs and computers. Currently, he is working on a series of articles about the Middle East.