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''This article is about the Viking people. For other meanings, see Viking (disambiguation)

This article is part of the
Scandinavia series
Viking Age
Kalmar Union
Monetary Union
Defense union
History of Sweden
History of Norway
History of Denmark

The vikings or Varangians were traders, settlers, and most famously, pirates (often after unsuccessful ventures) from Scandinavia who in the years between 800 and 1050 colonized, raided and traded the lengths of the coasts, rivers and islands of Europe and the northeastern shores of North America. They called themselves Norsemen (Northmen) (modern Scandinavians still refer to themselves as the people of the North, nordbor). Their ruthlessness and courage in battle is well-documented, but they also built settlements and were skilled craftsmen and traders. In Russia and the Byzantine Empire, the vikings were known as Varangians (Væringjar, meaning "sworn men"), and the Scandinavian bodyguards of the Byzantine emperors were known as the Varangian Guard. Other names include Danes, Northmen, Norseman Germanians and Normans. The modern day nations descended from the vikings are Icelanders, Norwegians, Danes, Swedes and Faroe Islanders. The vikings were also ancestors of a significant part of the populace of modern England, Scotland, eastern Ireland and northern France.

Table of contents
1 Etymology
2 Historical records
3 The Viking World
4 Sagas
5 Decline
6 Myths about vikings
7 See also:
8 External links


The etymology is somewhat unclear. One path might be from the old Norse word 'vík', meaning 'bay', 'creek' or 'inlet', and the suffix '-ing', meaning 'coming from' or 'belonging to'. Thus, "vikings" would be 'people of the creeks', especially in the area Viken. Later on, the term became synonymous with 'raider of the sea'. The word "vikingr" ("vikings") appears on several rune stones found in Scandinavia. However, it was mentioned for the very first time in the ancient Anglo-Saxon poem "Widsith" from the 6th or 7th century. Hence, the second path suggested steems from Old English wíc, i.e. "trading city", (from latin vic, "village"). Even a third path is suggested, where viking comes from avviker ("dissenter"); that is "mariners that left (avviker) from home".

According to the Swedish writer Jan Guillou, the word in its positive sense was popularized by Erik Gustaf Geijer in the poem The Viking, written at the beginning of the 19th century. Now, the word was taken to signify brave sea warriors who had very little to do with the politics shared by the actual vikings in the Catholic history. This change of meaning was however, quite political: a myth about a glorious and brave past was needed to give the Swedes the courage to retake Finland, which had been lost in 1809 during the war between Sweden and Russia. Finland had belonged to the kingdom of Sweden for about 600 years. The Geatish Society, of which Geijer was a member, popularized this myth to a great extent. Another author who had great a influence on the perception of the Vikings was Esaias Tegnér, another member of the Geatish Society who wrote a modern version of '\'Frithiofs Saga'', which became widely popular in the nordic countries, the United Kingdom and Germany.

Historical records

The viking propensity for trade is easily seen in large towns such as Hedeby; close to the border with the Franks, it was effectively a crossroads between the cultures until its eventual destruction by the Norwegians in an internecine dispute around the year 1050. York, England, was the center of a Viking kingdom of Jorvik from 866, and discoveries there show that Viking trade connections in the 10th century reached beyond Byzantium: a silk cap, a counterfeit of a coin from Samarkand and a cowry shell from the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf reveal the extent of the Varangian network.

The earliest date given for a Viking raid is 789, when according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, Portland was attacked. A more reliable report dates from 793, when the monastery at Lindisfarne on the east coast of England was pillaged by foreign seafarers. For the next 200 years, European history is filled with tales of Vikings and their plundering.

Vikings exerted influence throughout the coastal areas of Ireland and Scotland, and conquered large parts of England (see Danelaw). They travelled up the rivers of France and Spain, and gained control of areas in Russia and along the Baltic coast. Stories tell of raids in the Mediterranean and as far east as the Caspian Sea.

The Viking World

The Vikings founded cities such as Jorvik (York), Kiev and Dublin. The Danes sailed south, to Friesland, France and the southern parts of England. In the years 1013-1016, Canute the Great succeeded to the English throne. The Swedes sailed to east into Russia, where Rurik founded the first Russian state, and on the rivers south to the Black Sea, Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. The Norwegians travelled to the north-west and west, to the Faroe Islands, Shetland, Orkney, Ireland and the northern parts of England. Apart from Britain and Ireland, Norwegians mostly found largely uninhabited land and established settlements.

In about the year 1000 A.D, North America was discovered by Bjarni Herjólfsson. Leifur Eiríksson (Leif Ericsson) and Þórfinnur Karlsefni from Greenland attempted to settle the land which they dubbed Vinland. A small settlement was placed on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland, near L'Anse aux Meadows, but previous inhabitants and a cold climate brought it to an end within a few years (see Freydís Eiríksdóttir). The archaeological remains are now a UN World Heritage Site. It has now been scientifically established that at the height of the Viking expansion, the northern hemisphere entered into a period of unusual and long-lasting cold which continued for several hundred years. This miniature ice age decimated the Greenland colonies, stopped the Viking westward expansion and hampered the Viking homelands.

Besides allowing the Vikings to travel far distances, their longships gave them tactical advantages in battles. They could perform very efficient hit-and-run attacks, in which they attacked quickly and unexpectedly and left before a counter-offensive could be launched. Longships could also sail in shallow waters, allowing the Vikings to travel far inland along the rivers.

A reason for the raids is believed by some to be overpopulation caused by technological advances such as the use of iron, although another cause could well be pressure caused by the Frankish expansion to the south of Scandinavia.

For people living along the coast it seems natural to seek new land by sea. Another reason is that in that period several European countries (particularly England, Wales and Ireland) were in internal disarray and easy prey; the Franks, however, had well-defended coasts and heavily fortified ports and harbours. Pure thirst for adventure may also have been a factor. The use of the longships ended when technology changed and ships began to be constructed using saws instead of axes. This led to a lesser quality of ships and together with an increasing centralisation of government in the Scandinavian countries, the old system of Leding---a fleet mobilization system, where every Skipen (ship community) had to deliver one ship and crew---was discontinued.


Norse mythology and Old Norse literature tell us about their religion with heroic and mythological heroes; however, the transmission of this information was primarily oral and we are reliant upon the writings of (later) Christian scholars such as Snorri Sturluson and Sæmundur "fróði" ("the Wise") Sigfússon; for much of this, both whom were Icelanders and an overwhelming amount of the sagas were written in Iceland.


After decades of trade and settlement Christianity was introduced into Scandinavia by the 11th century, and the populace was mostly converted by the end of the 12th century. The influence of the Norse seeing themselves then as part of wider European civilisation as well as technical advances in warfare made the viking lifestyle less desirable and less profitable, and eventually its political structures were replaced by structures based more on continental feudalism.

Myths about vikings

There is no evidence whatsoever that the vikings on any occasion wore helmets with horns. This is a latter-day myth created by national romantic ideas in Sweden at the end of the 19th century, notably the Geatish Society, and further imprinted by cartoons like Hagar the Horrible or Asterix and numerous fictitious movies. The people living in Scandinavia during the Bronze Age did, however, wear horned helmets during ceremonies, as testified by rock carvings and actual finds. See Bohuslän.

See also:

External links