More Than Raiders


At the end of the 8th century Scandinavian raiders began to pillage settlements in England and Western Europe. The attacks were brutal and abrupt, performed by grizzled men who came from the sea in long-ships, to plunder the wealthy monasteries and colonies of their European neighbors. Horrific accounts spread of the strength and frenzy the North men inflicted upon their victims. These raiders became known as Vikings and the era in which they embarked on their campaigns (A.D. 793-1066) has become known as the Viking Age.

Originating in what is now Norway, Denmark and Sweden, Viking influences and settlements reached west to Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland, down south to northern Africa and the Middle East and deep into Russia. They are remembered as ferocious warriors, afflicting victims with great misery. However, as skilled as they were in battle and plunder, they were equally accomplished navigators, tradesmen, and craftsmen. Due to biased chronicles from their victims and popular culture’s caricature, Vikings and their lifestyle have been incompletely portrayed. The raid of the island monastery of Lindisfarne, off the Northumbrian coast, in A.D. 793 marks the beginning of the Viking Age (1). The attack is mentioned by Alcuin, the eminent Northrumbian cleric, who in a letter wrote:             


“it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such a terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought an inroad from the sea could be made” (2).  



      These first raiders were Norwegians, as made clear in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a work compiled on the orders of King Alfred the Great, approximately A.D. 890, and subsequently maintained and added to by generations of anonymous scribes until the middle of the 12th Century) that the raiders came from Hörthaland, a district of western Norway(3). The main series of Danish raids began in 834 with an attack on Dorestad, a trading place situated on the Rhine and Lek rivers of modern day Netherlands, which occurred again the following year along with the first Danish raid on England (1). While the Norwegians and Danes pillaged Western Europe, Swedish Vikings penetrated east into what is now Russia and south to northern Africa and the Middle East. The remarkable riches of the Baltic encouraged and sustained organized piracy in northern Europe. Archaeologists have uncovered remnants from Viking settlements and trading ports throughout the Baltic coastline. Some of the most important discoveries have been made on the island of Rügen at the capital of Rugieris where remains of a great trading center, a fortress and one of the largest pagan temples in Scandinavia have been found (4). Rügen Island and other similar trading centers held great significance to Swedish Vikings because they were located at the mouths of the Danube, Oder, Vistula and other rivers that provided access to the Black Sea and wealth of the Byzantium Empire.

         As the 8th century ended and the 9th began raiders started wintering in temporary bases on such islands as Noirmoutier, off the coast of western France. From these bases raiders could campaign in successive seasons and by the end of the century permanent settlements were established in such areas as the Danelaw, central England and Normandy, northern France (1). From these settlements plundering continued, but the settlers began to assimilate into the native populations. Scandinavian raiders were not as prominent in the 10th century until after 980 when the British Isles and Germany were subjected to fresh and vigorous assaults. Olaf Tryggvason, later king of Norway, Svein, king of Denmark and his son, Cnut, thoroughly disorganized the English in the early 10th century (1). On several occasions the English paid massive tributes to be rid of their tormentors, only for brief moments. By 1016 the English accepted Cnut as their king because of these attacks (1). He ruled until 1042 when Edward the Confessor of the Old West Saxon royal family regained the throne. However, it was not until the death and defeat of Harald Hardradi, king of Norway, at the battle of Stamford Bridge and the withdrawal of Svein, King of Denmark, and his son from England in 1070, that the Scandinavian threat to England was removed (1). Although, Vikings and Norwegian kings were active in the remote areas of the northern British Isles for over another century, the Viking Age had come to an end. During this time Scandinavian Vikings stole, enslaved, murdered and raped with great terror and effectiveness. However, they also discovered and settled parts of Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland, established trade routes with the Byzantium Empire and Middle East, and engineered remarkable nautical vehicles that traveled vast distances. However, the chronicles discovered from this time period are mainly authored by the victims of the Vikings and are partial to their suffering. An obvious bias towards Vikings is present in the accounts, describing the Scandinavians incompletely. And because most of the authors had little interaction with Vikings, other than fleeing for their life, they weren't aware or interested with the other aspects of the Viking lifestyle. Ansgar “Apostle of the North” made two journeys from his monastery in north Germany to try and convert the “barbarians” of the north, but such escapades were rare and mainly a Christian-focused effort. The Vikings had no motive or desire to refute such descriptions; in turn the inaccurate concept of Vikings began.

So, the Scandinavian raiders were comprised of Norwegians, Danes and Swedes. Yet, such distinctions were not often or accurately made by either by the Vikings or their victims. Their victims had trouble distinguishing between the different Vikings because they spoke a common language, had common stock names, came by sea in long ships and showed a common disrespect for the Church because of their pagan beliefs. Often the raiders were a mixture of Scandinavians, further complicating distinction. The Vikings themselves were relatively unconcerned with such mundane differences as they considered family and chieftain more important than their geographic origins. Since distinguishing between the different Scandinavian marauders was difficult, it became easy for scribes to vilify the entire Norse lot. In our present day and the prior century, these sentiments towards Vikings would become romanticized in popular culture.

          Vikings are seen in many forms of pop-culture; movies, music, literature and sports. Often these depictions are exaggerated to have a profound effect on their audience. However, Vikings lived many centuries previous to our own; therefore are not solely responsible for influencing the conventional conception of them. So, where does the influence come from? Historical accounts, written primarily by monastic scribes, are the culprits. Essentially, the victims of the Viking raids are responsible for the common perception of Vikings. Through archaeological evidence we know the location of some of their settlements, the weapons and tools they used and we can trace their conquests and trade routes. But written evidence, mainly produced by monks, created the incomplete notion of Vikings. Although these chronicles are not numerous, they have had a significant effect on the modern idea of what a Viking was. earliest mention of Vikings was recorded in A.D. 787, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (3) and reads:  



“In this year [. . .] came first three ships of Norwegians from Hörthaland and then the reeve rode thither and tried to compel them to go to the royal manor, for he did not know what they were: and then they slew him. These were the first ships of the Danes to come to England” (Garmonsway, 55). 


                This event was quite unexpected as the reeve (an administrative officer of a town or district) thought the Norsemen were peaceful traders. Although it is not for certain, it is believed that the Norsemen killed the reeve as a result of a misunderstanding rather than premeditated violence (this is why 787 is not marked as the beginning of the Viking Age). Also, note the lack of distinction as the author states that the first the ships contained “Norwegians”, but finishes by saying they were “the first ships of the Danes to arrive.” From the earliest mention of Vikings the descriptions are vague and somewhat contradictory. Unclear references to Vikings are common throughout historic chronicles. Evidently, the subjects of the Viking raids didn’t take any time to ask their antagonists where they came from or who they were in detail. The next mention came in A.D. 793 when Norse raiders attacked a northern English monastery with similar results (most scholars mark this as the beginning of the Viking age). Here is the passage from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle(3): 


          “In this year terrible portents appeared over Northumbria, and miserably frightened the inhabitants: these were exceptional flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine soon followed these signs; and a little after that in the same year on 8 [June] the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God's church in Lindisfarne by rapine and slaughter” (Garmonsway, 55, 57).


            The first and ensuing encounters with Vikings were chaotic episodes filled with violence, leaving the English is fear and anguish. To such a degree that descriptions, like the two above, are either overly exaggerated or ambiguous or both. Nonetheless these poor reports became the common idea associated with Vikings. As raids continued, in similar fashion, the extensive suffering experienced by the English and their religious beliefs incited a strong bias towards the Norsemen. For well over the prior 100 years before the Viking raids began England was wholly Christian(5). These new raiders were pagans and as a result the Christian monks (Viking victims) used their non-Christian beliefs to demonize their assailants. Some regarded the Vikings as a judgment from God for the sins of the people, quoting Prophet Jeremiah predictions that, “out of the north an evil shall break forth upon all inhabitants of the land (5).”  Their writings and depictions became aggrandized. They portrayed Vikings as bands of crazed heathens, intent on destroying and plundering benevolent Christians. This, like the conventional perception of Vikings, contains some truth, but lacks an objective and complete summary of the Scandinavian marauders. Yes, the Vikings were pagans and they attacked Christian settlements maliciously, but more for the wealth located at monasteries as opposed to their religious beliefs. Further, to arrive on the shores of Western Europe and the surrounding area from Scandinavia was no easy task. The Vikings had to cross the North and Baltic Seas to accomplish their exploits. To do so they had to build sturdy ships that could handle the voyage and transport the Vikings safely. sheer ship-wrighting skill, there was nothing that surpassed the Viking long ship, like the one found in a burial mound at Gokstad, Norway dated to be 9th century (5). This type of ship was used by Vikings to cross the seas to the new lands in the west and south. These ships had to ability to sail across the North Atlantic, as well as row up river mouths to surprise inland settlements. The ships were well built and able to endure the harsh seas that surrounded their points of departure. Without their dependable ships, Viking wouldn’t have been able embark, must less succeed, on their voyages to raid or settle distant lands. They were completely reliant upon their waterborne transport. It was vital for them to become skilled sailors. Their nautical accomplishments seemed to be over looked by the Vikings victims. Obviously, they knew the Viking arrived from the seas and were astonished at that, but the capabilities of their vessels were rarely mentioned, nor were their exceptional navigating abilities. The scribes were more concerned with reporting the bloodshed and financial loss they endured, rather than the Vikings nautical prowess.

The Vikings took full advantage of their sailing abilities and for more than 200 years dominated the long-distance trade routes of northern Europe. Through trade and commerce many significant innovations and changes were introduced to Scandinavia during this period. The development of a well-organized trading system with internal routes centered on shipment and points of assembly influenced early town growth. Prior to the Viking Age Scandinavian people lived in small, primarily agricultural settlements. Establishing prosperous trading posts provided the stability to sustain permanent settlements for the Vikings. From these settlements a wide variety of goods were traded. Locally available raw materials such as furs, iron ore, schist for making weathering stones, soapstone for domestic cooking equipment, salt fish, sealskins, walrus ivory, timber and tar were in high demand in western Europe (5). Furs, honey, wax, ivory and slaves (some captured in the west) were exported to Byzantium and the east. In turn they would import silk, spices and jewelry obtained during their eastern enterprises. Wine, glass, pottery and weapons from western and central Europe were traded abroad as well. Silver was one of the most coveted metals in Scandinavia during the Viking age. One of the most magnificent silver hoards found on Gotland contains rings, brooches, beads and pendants, along with more than 1,000 Islamic, German, Bohemian, Byznatium and English coins (5). The Vikings provided an effective and diverse trading service either directly or indirectly to European and Middle East inhabitants. So, although Vikings tormented Europeans, they were also responsible for many of the commodities and exotic goods they possessed and utilized. Either the Vikings were taking the livelihood of Europeans or they were exchanging merchandise that provided for it. Quite a paradox, a real Jӧrmungandr in Norse terms (6).          The Vikings did not restrict their sailing and navigating abilities for trade purposes only. They were adventurous and applied their seafaring talents to explore remote islands like the Faeores and previously undiscovered lands such as Iceland, Greenland and North America. The significant factor about the westward movement across the North Atlantic, as opposed to the voyages south, is that the prime motivation was settlement, not raiding and looting. Some Icelandic medieval historians believe King Harald Finehair’s ruthless subjugation of Norway’s free farmers led many to seek political freedom in a new land, Iceland (5). Others argue that colonization was initiated by land shortages at home. Regardless, Vikings set out and settled these unknown territories. Accounts can be found in the Prose Edda by the famous Icelander Snorri Sturluson.

The first great land discovery was Iceland and is credited to the Swede, Gardar Svavarson and the Norwegians, Naddodd and Floki (7). It is said that Floki is attributed for naming Iceland, possibly as a result of the harsh first winter he spent there combined with the drift ice he observed from the north. According to the Book of Settlements by Ari Thorgilsson the settlement of Iceland was completed in sixty years between the years A.D. 870-930 (8). It was here in Iceland that one of the most significant aspects of Viking settlement occurred, one that is frequently overlooked and/or disregarded by pop culture and historical accounts. The establishment of a general judicial assembly, called the Althing, was formed (5). It was an open-air meeting of all the island’s free men, held every summer for two weeks , presided over by the law speaker (elected by local chieftains) that provided a forum for making laws and resolving disputes. The first meeting was supposed to have taken place in A.D. 930(9). Simultaneously, Viking raids were beginning in Western Europe. However, the new lands were unpopulated. So, unlike the Vikings raids on Western Europe, no contemporary Christian chronicler from the local population was present to provide an account of what occurred upon their arrival. So, while the first accounts of Vikings are that of violence and thievery, during that same time, their kin, settlers with the same origins and beliefs were participating in settling a colony with judicial democracy. A notion contrary to what monastic scribes described Vikings as capable of. During an Althing in A.D. 980 Eric the Red was outlawed from Iceland for murder (5), further expelling the view that Vikings were bloodthirsty savages unable to live in a civil society. Eric the Red’s banishment motivated him to sail further west to look for an unnamed land that had been sighted, but not explored by a man named Gunnbjorn Ulf-Krakuson roughly sixty years earlier.

Ulf-Krakuson had been blown far off course by intense storms on his voyage from Norway to Iceland, which led to sighting Greenland (6). It was this account that motivated Eric the Red to embark on the excursion. Eric was successful in his quest and returned to Iceland three years later in search of settlers to found a new colony on the land Eric dubbed Greenland. It is said that Eric recruited enough volunteers to make up an expedition of 25 ships and set sail in A.D. 985 (5). Only 14 of the ships completed the journey around Cape Farewell to reach the sheltered fjords where there was safe harborage, good fishing and land for pasturage (5). This was the Eastern Settlement, where Eric selected the most favorable sites for himself. His farm became the settlement’s political center; however, some of the settlers continued to sail westward along the coast approximately 650 kilometers until they reached the shelter of Godthåbsfjord (6). Here they established the Western Settlement which was located farther north than the Eastern Settlement with small clusters of farms lying between the two. Among the settlers who sailed with Eric’s original expedition were the parents of a man named Bjarni Herjolfsson, who later that year set out from Iceland to join them. In similar fashion to Ulf-Krakuson, his ship was blown off course. He proceeded westward until he came in sight of a flat land covered in trees, which he creatively deemed Markland (“Forestland”). However, Bjarni did not land, but turned northward up the coastline and then east to Greenland. Leif the Lucky, son of Eric the Red, would be the first Norsemen to make landing in North America some ten to fifteen years later by retracing Bjarni’s previous journey(10). After finding the forested coast Bjarni described he continued on for two further days, eventually arriving at a headland to the southwest he named Vinland (“Vineland”) because of flourishing wild grapes or berries found there. Leif and his band spent the winter before they returned to Greenland.

The following year Leif’s brother, Thorwald, lead an undertaking to Vinland, but was killed by an arrow wound received in a skirmish with a group of Native Americans. At first this did not deter the Scandinavians from attempting to establish a settlement there. Thorfinn Karlsefni is said to have briefly founded a settlement of between 60 and 160 people a few years later (5). The settlement would only last for about three years because of the continued hostility felt from the indigenous people, whom the Vikings called Skrælingr, and the lack of dependable supply routes with the home base located in Greenland. Until the 1960s it seemed as though the Vikings had left no evidence of their presence in North America and theories claiming they had discovered North America were unverifiable. The speculation would prove to be true. Norwegian Helge Ingstad and his wife, Anne Stine, an archaeologist, began to excavate a site at L’Anse-aux-Meadows, on the tip of Newfoundland’s northern promontory during the 60’s. After several digs they uncovered small stone and turf buildings with Carbon-14 dating determining the site was occupied during the Viking Age (11). Accompanied with evidence of iron smelting and blacksmith’s work, particularly done for the production of iron rivets that are essential for boat repairs, and the knowledge that Native American groups did not use metals during the time period, confirm their brief settlement in Newfoundland.  Without a doubt the Vikings influence spanned great distances, impacting several foreign populations negatively and positively. Unfortunately, they are known more for their larceny and violence than their achievements in ship-building and seafaring. Their nautical aptitude led to the discovery and settlement of unknown lands as well as established trade routes between distant cultures. The scribes mainly wrote about the relentless affliction they endured from their northern counterparts, portraying them as barbarians solely capable of perpetrating murder and theft upon innocent Christians. Rarely do they mention the settlement of Iceland, where one of the oldest parliamentary institutions was formed. Nor are they often referred to as the discoverers of North America. Pop culture uses the biased perception of Vikings created by historical accounts, combined with half-truths about their accomplishments to further romanticize the distorted image of Vikings. Films like Pathfinder and Beowulf exemplify this caricature.

            In 2007 20th Century Fox released Pathfinder (12), a movie about a Viking boy that is left behind after his clan battles a Native American tribe. He is raised within the tribe, to ultimately become their savior in a fight against the Norsemen that have returned. In this movie the Vikings are gigantic warriors, clad in horned helmets and ominous regalia. They attack an Indian village, unaware of their presence, without remorse. The Indians are massacred with extreme prejudice; those that survive are forced to duel against the Vikings, but none have the ability to prevail and are slaughtered with amusement. Eventually, Ghost, the Norse descendant, kills the Norse party with trickery, saving the remaining tribes in the area from imminent annihilation.

In this movie the Vikings are portrayed as nothing more than homicidal maniacs, intent on destroying the native populace out of pure murderous rage. Common misconceptions are observed in this film. For instance, Vikings did not wear horned helmets. Plenty of plain conical/domed helmets made mainly of leather have been discovered. Only one piece of evidence even suggests the use of horned helmets. The ninth century Oseberg tapestry has suggested a rare ceremonial use for horned helmets (the relevant figure on the tapestry may even be that of a god, rather than representative of real Vikings) (13). This misrepresentation can also be seen on the uniforms of the Minnesota Vikings, a professional football team. Horns adorn the side of their helmets and their mascot is wears a similar helmet with large horns protruding from the sides. With significance evidence supporting the use of conical helmets opposed to horned, such depictions are inaccurate and unfounded. Likewise is the representation that Viking took prisoners to kill at their leisure. Vikings raided to gain wealth in order to provide for themselves. Slave-trading was a common practice and good monetary source. So, it would be anti-productive to kill slaves when they are economic commodities. Albeit the movie is correct that Vikings did explore North America and had hostile interactions with the indigenous people, it did not explain in any detail of the Viking voyage to America. The film does not lack bloody battle scenes though. The Vikings are in a perpetual state of war mongering. Every fictional movie based on Vikings is war themed. The prevalent element is violence displayed in action packed sequences. No stories are based around the exploratory expeditions they embarked upon or trade adventures occurring in the exotic orient. Pop culture’s tendency to embroider Vikings is so pervasive they cannot produce an accurate film based on an Anglo-Saxon epic poem composed sometime around the first millennium of our era.

            Beowulf is the elegiac narrative of the adventures of Beowulf, a Scandinavian hero who saves the Danes from the seemingly invincible monster Grendel and his mother (14). After defeating the monster the hero returns home to become a prominent king. He dies an old man in a daring battle against a dragon. The author of the tale is unknown, but is not believed to be of Scandinavian descent. So, originally the story was glorified by a non-Scandinavian writer to be an entertaining tale that appealed to curious readers, who had romanticized ideas of Vikings. Epic fights with hideous monsters and a constant state of imminent doom provided ample material to make an exciting movie. Nevertheless, the story was distorted as the King of the Danes and Beowulf succumb to the lust of Grendel’s mother. Their sexual transgressions spawn the monsters that bring about their doom. The film’s storyline deviates from the poem’s the manner that neither Beowulf nor the King of the Danes mate with Grendel’s mother. The monsters are not products of sexual intercourse between Grendel’s mother and Beowulf and the King. They are the enemies that threaten the livelihood of Scandinavians. However, the director and producers found it necessary to stray from the initial plot. Like previous descriptions found in historical chronicles, popular culture productions depict Vikings in a grandiose fashion; using their flamboyant features of savage warriors to attract audiences. So, the common portrait of a Viking has digressed little over the centuries.

The Vikings most notable achievements and worthy characteristics are often the last to be credited or affiliated to them. Historical accounts of the Scandinavian marauders by their adversaries have had a significant impact on the prevalent perception of Vikings. Popular culture has facilitated this prevailing, yet incomplete image of Vikings, to an even more extravagant degree. Still, enough archaeological and cultural evidence has been discovered to form a more complete and better understanding of who the Vikings were, the various aspects of their culture and how they influenced so many different societies. As it turns out Viking were more than raiders.