(Warning: possible Vikings TV show spoilers!)
To celebrate the start of season 4 of Vikings, and the release of The Northern Queen on Kindle, here are 10 interesting facts about the Vikings.
1. Vikings were prolific traders.
Not only did the Vikings travel to England and Ireland, they also journeyed east. Grave goods found in Viking burials in Sweden included coins from as far as North Africa and weights that conformed to those used by the Persians.
(Image: Bayeux Tapestry Museum)
2. And they really travelled.
The Vikings made it as far as North America 500 years before Columbus. The story is told in two sagas: The Saga of the Greenlanders, The Saga of Eirik the Red and The Vinland Saga, and these stories aided in the discovery of the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada.
(Image: Parks Canada)
3. We can be thankful to the Vikings for many of our everyday words.
There are still many words used today that came from the Vikings, including the word ‘viking’ itself. The word comes from the Old Norse word ‘vīkingr’. The expression ‘fara i viking’ means to go on an expedition.
A few other words:
Thursday – Thor’s day
Window – means wind-eye from the Old Norse ‘vindauga’, ‘vind’ meaning wind and ‘auga’ meaning eye
Knife – from the Old Norse knīfr
Husband – from ‘hūsbōndi’, ‘hūs’ is house and ‘bōndi’ is holder. Only males were able to be householders!
4. They were known for their hygiene.
Rather than the popular image of unkempt dirty hairy warriors, Vikings were actually very clean, bathing regularly and grooming daily. Grave goods included tweezers, razors, combs and ear cleaners.
5. Women had more rights than you might think.
Women DID marry early (as early as 12 however 15 was more usual) but they had rights. They could inherit property, claim and inherit land, divorce their husband (and keep the dowry) and accompany men on raids.
6. The name Russia is a Viking word.
The Rus, a group of Swedish Vikings, were known for their use of waterways to travel around Europe. They travelled far into Eastern lands, including the area we now know as Russia. ‘Rus’ means men who row.
7. Ragnar, from the show Vikings, may or may not have existed. Rollo, however, was a real person.
It’s been difficult determining who the historical Ragnar is; while scholars agree that Ragnar’s sons existed there is no consensus on Ragnar himself, and most of what we know of Ragnar is from the Norse stories told in The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok. Rollo, however, did exist.
Rollo was a great warrior and leader in his own right. His descendants live in most of the royal courts across Europe, even today. Rollo commanded his own successful army and eventually became the first ruler of the northern region of France, known as Normandy (roughly ‘land of the northmen’). Given to him by the King of the Franks, the land was an exchange for protection against further attacks by Norse raiding parties.
8. Viking dentistry was…interesting.
The 2009 discovery of a mass Viking grave in England revealed skulls with deep horizontal markings on the teeth of many of the dead. It’s believed the Vikings coloured the grooves with pigment to make them stand out, and in fact be where Harald Bluetooth, descendant of Ragar Lothbrok, got the moniker Bluetooth.
(Fun fact: The Bluetooth symbol used in today’s technology is based not only on Harald’s last name but the symbol is made up the rune for H and B – Harald Bluetooth).
9. Viking axes were lethal.
When brought down overhead at maximum velocity, a Viking axe was capable of cutting a skull through an iron helmet, splitting the head down to the teeth.
(Image: Museum of London)
10. The Vikings swore.
Hardly surprising. But it’s interesting to actually see a few of the words they might have used.
One of the most offensive things you could call a Viking was a rassragr. The shortest meaning is a man who is demonstrably sodomized. Implying this about a man was so horrendous that the insulted man could kill the insulter without punishment or retribution.
Calling a man a “mare,” or a “woman,” or worse, argr (its polite meaning is “cowardly”; its sexual meaning is “emasculated, unmanned, womanish”) could also call down the weight of fullrettirsorð, (the full weight of the law). In the Lokasenna (“The Insolence of Loki”), the term argr is bandied about openly.
Hrafnasueltir means raven starver. Seemingly inoffensive until you remember how important ravens are to Norse mythology; anyone who starved ravens would be considered a coward and a fool. The dead on the battlefield were fodder for hungry ravens, and anyone who couldn’t provide this feast i.e. not fight, was a coward.
So if you’re having a bad day but rude language is banned in your office, try a few Norse curses. Use lombungr for the morons or idiots in your life. And keep bacraut in your pocket for when someone is really bothering you. It means asshole.
Have your own interesting Viking facts? Send them using the comments below!
Read more about this period in my novel The Northern Queen.