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Viking Myths: Separating Fact from Fiction

Enduring misconceptions obscure what the seafaring Norse people were really like.

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  • "Guests from Overseas" (1901) by Nicholas Roerich, depicting a Viking raid.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Famed for their fearlessness and ferocity, Vikings are one of the most popular and well-known historical warriors. Typically depicted wearing a horned helmet, the medieval Norsemen have appeared in dozens of television shows, movies, books, comics, and video games across the world. They’ve been immortalized alongside Spartans and samurai as great warriors of history, with an insatiable lust for spilling blood and pillaging. 

But while the Vikings were undoubtedly formidable raiders between the 8th and 11th centuries, they have also been skewered by pop culture for centuries thereafter. The caricature of a brutal, lifelong warrior is misleading; in reality, the majority of Vikings were actually civilized part-time explorers. From their clothing to their way of life, pervasive Viking myths cloud our contemporary understanding of the historic seafaring people.

Viking Myth #1: They wore horned helmets.

When the average person is prompted to picture a Viking, the image is clear: a tall, muscular brute, axe clenched in one hand and a drinking horn in the other, blond hair cascading down from underneath a horned helmet. One of the oldest and most pervasive misconceptions about Vikings are those helmets, which are possibly the most iconic image of the seafaring Norsemen. 

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This garb first entered the public imagination in the 19th century, when multiple operas about the Vikings had the raiders outfitted in horned or winged helmets. It’s a striking and intimidating image, making the wearer appear more beastlike. It’s also entirely impractical for melee combat, as horns are easy to grab or attack, which could lead to a broken neck or shed helmet. Very few Viking helmets have been uncovered by archaeologists, and they have yet to resemble anything remotely horned, or winged for that matter; most are minimalist and practical, with occasional noseguards.

Viking Myth #2: They were buried at sea.

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  • The Oseberg ship, a well-preserved Viking ship that was excavated in 1904.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The Viking funeral is another classic Viking image, wherein a body is placed on a ship that is subsequently shot at with fiery arrows and burned at sea. Most Vikings were interred at large burial grounds or burned on funeral pyres. Some Vikings of great wealth and importance were buried in their longships on land, with the boat acting like a coffin, but it's unlikely that even the highest-ranking Vikings were buried at sea.

Longships were vital to the Viking way of life and were expertly built. As such, burning down a perfectly good ship just to honor one fallen comrade would not be the most practical tradition.

Viking Myth #3: They ruled Scandinavia.

Vikings are often thought of as having ruled over Scandinavia, and the term is sometimes used in a more general sense to refer to the region's medieval inhabitants. These assumptions are wrong on a few levels. For one, Vikings did not represent an entire region, or even one whole nation state. While smaller Scandinavian kingdoms were consolidated into the kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, most Vikings served a clan under a more localized government. 

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For many, to be a Viking was more of a summer gig, and only a small portion of the Norse took to the seas to become Vikings. In fact, the Norse were not the only people residing in Scandinavia in medieval times. The semi-nomadic Sámi people lived in the northern reaches of Scandinavia and parts of modern-day Russia. While there was trading and intermarriage with their southern neighbors, they were a distinct culture with a reputation among the Norse for magical abilities.

Viking Myth #4: They were uncivilized brutes.

Vikings had many duties, namely exploring and establishing trade routes. In terms of distance, few people across history have surpassed the accomplishments of Viking explorers. To the west, longships reached the shores of North America some five centuries before Christopher Columbus; to the east, they reached Baghdad, the center of the Islamic Empire. Trading and exploring were just as important, if not more so, than raiding. So why are these seafaring Norsemen so associated with brutal warfare and pillaging?

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The answer lies not in how often they raided, but who and where they raided. Monasteries were a common target: they were lightly defended, laden with loot and food, and important to a rival religion; all good reasons for Vikings to strike. Religious persecution against the pagan Norsemen could also have inspired the Vikings to take revenge. 

Unfortunately for their reputation, however, monasteries were places of high literacy, so their violent exploits were documented and detailed by the victimized monks. Since monasteries and their keepers were revered by the British, whose empire would go on to colonize and/or influence much of the world, this is the perception of Vikings that stood the test of time.

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  • 19th-century portrayal of Vikings besieging Paris in 845 C.E.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Along with their reputation as ferocious, terrifying berserkers who fought in a primal frenzy, Vikings were soon depicted as savage, bloodthirsty brutes caked in snow, mud, and gore. On the contrary, Scandinavians were more sanitary than their other European counterparts. Several Viking gravesites reveal that they were buried with their precious combs, and Scandinavians tended to bathe once a week—much more frequently than other Europeans at the time.

The Vikings also had an artistic side, with Old Norse poetry surviving to this day. Their rich mythologies about Norse gods are known the world over. 

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To this day, the image of the Viking is one of a nation of savage warriors. While they were fierce and sometimes ruthless in battle, this was only one facet of their occupations. Many Vikings were simply farmers spending the summer gathering supplies for the harsh winter ahead, forging trade routes, and exploring new lands. They influenced the early governments of Scandinavia, Britain, Iceland, Greenland, and Russia; they recited poetry and weaved an intricate web of mythology that’s become as iconic as the tales of the Greeks and Romans—and they certainly did not wear horned helmets.