As well as being plundering pirates, Viking trade flourished in locations as widespread as far afield as Baghdad, Novgorod and Dublin – an impressive feat considering their means of travel. The Vikings' longboats were long and narrow, and their sleek lines must have provided little shelter from the weather at sea – although these same factors made the boats fast and easy to maneuver. The techniques used for building sea-travelling ships were also used for building the distinctive Stave churches, many of which are preserved and open to the public today. Their decor provide an interesting insight into a time of great cultural change. The recent Canadian TV series Vikings has received favorable reviews, and was renewed for a second season airing in 2014. Alongside the Avengers movies, this may start a new wave of interest in the Vikings and Norse mythology – although the Avengers' portrayal of Asgard is a long way from the mythological description of the home of the gods.
- The Viking ships
- The Vikings from Norway are coming to a small screen near you
- Arts, Crafts and Storytelling
- Release your inner Viking on a Viking Festival in Norway
- Norway in the Viking era
- Viking society and equality
Norway in the Viking Era
In the Viking Age (793 AD to 1066 AD), all the Scandinavian countries expanded their reach in terms of travel, trade and settlements as far as Newfoundland in the west and the Caspian Sea in the east, as well as raiding in northern Africa.
In Norway, Kaupang (near modern day Larvik), Tønsberg, Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim were important areas for trade and gatherings. Excavations at Kaupang started in 1867, and continue today. Most of the findings have been on display at the University of Oslo, including Arab silver coins and a gold coin from Dorestad in modern-day Netherlands.
Law and order were important issues for the Vikings. In order to prevent tribal feuds and social disorder, a complex hierarchy of tings were established. Tings were places for gatherings, where disputes were settled by an assembly of free men, assisted by a “law speaker” who had the laws of the land memorized.
Important tings in the Viking Age were Eidsivating, Haugating, Gulating, Frostating and Borgarting, having jurisdiction in different parts of the country. Eidsivating, Gulating and Frostating continue to cover the same areas today.
Famous Viking kings
Harald Fairhair (c. 850 – c. 932) is considered the first king of Norway. He inherited a few, scattered kingdoms in eastern Norway from his father Halfdan the Black, but proceeded to unite Norway under his rule. According to legend, he proposed to Gyda, who refused to accept him until he was king of all of Norway – and in turn, he vowed to not cut nor comb his hair until he had reached his goal.
Harald was succeeded by his son Eirik Bloodaxe (c. 885 – c. 954), who ruled alongside his father for three years. After Harald’s death, Eirik’s rule was challenged by his brother Haakon, and he escaped to England to become king of Northumbria.
Haakon the Good (c. 920 – c. 961) was the youngest son of Harald Fairhair, and gained favour by promising reductions in property tax. He organised meetings for law making and was the originator of the nationwide naval defence. Haakon repeatedly fought battles against the sons of his brother Eirik, and was eventually killed in battle.
Saint Olaf (995 – 1030) was King of Norway from 1015 to 1028 and is traditionally given credit for the Christianisation of Norway, but most scholars now recognize that he had little to do with the process himself, as the process of changing the country’s main religion was a lengthy one, and certainly not accomplished by one man alone. However, Olaf was canonised as saint shortly after his death, and this act united the nation in a way no foreign monarch could have achieved. According to legend, his hair and nails kept growing after his deat
Viking Ships and Shipbuilding
The Viking longboats were built for speed, with narrow lines and a shallow hull. They were easy to navigate through open seas and narrow fjords, and were lightweight enough to be carried over land when necessary. These qualities made the longboat unrivalled for centuries, and the design features spread across Europe.
Originally, the ships were made for rowing, and could be manned by anything from 12 to upwards of 60 rowers at a time. Later versions had a rectangular sail on a central mast, used to augment the rowers’ power on long journeys.
Longboats are usually categorised by the number of rowers rather than actual length. According to the 10th century Gulating Law, a ship with 13 rowing benches is the smallest suitable for military use. A general-purpose ship called Karvi could have between 6 and 16 benches, a Snekkja had at least 20 benches, and a Skeid had more than 30 benches.
The Oseberg, Gokstad, and Tune ships are exhibited at the Viking Ships Museum in Oslo. The museum holds the best-preserved 9th century wooden ships in the world, and the Tune ship was actually the first Viking ship to be excavated.
The Historical Museum in Oslo displays the only real Viking helmet ever found as part of their Norwegian Antiquity exhibition. Surprisingly, it does not feature horns.
Christianity was introduced to Norway at the end of the Viking era, by relatively violent means. Pagan beliefs continued to thrive under the surface, and folklore suggests that the new churches were built on the older sites of worship. The decorations on the Stave churches seem to support this theory, showing an interesting crossover between the older pagan beliefs and the newly introduced Christianity.
The architecture of the Stave churches is distinct, built from wood and embellished with unique carvings. In Norway, the only place in Northern Europe such buildings still exist, 28 Stave churches remain standing.
Urnes Stave Church is the oldest of the stave churches, a UNESCO Word heritage site, and situated by the Sognefjord, which is stock full of other attractions - not least the spectacular nature on display. The decorations of the church display excellent examples of the Viking era’s animal-ornamentation style.
A part of the Germanic mythology, the Norse has numerous local variations on the same myths. It was never a unified religion in the modern sense, but contained elements of both Celtic and Sami influence, and was centered on acts rather than faith.
The most well known gods today are probably Odin, the All-Father and ruler of Asgard; Thor, the god of thunder; and Freyja, simultaneously the goddess of love, beauty and war. Among the most interesting is Heimdallr, who is born from nine mothers and can hear the grass grow.
The mythological cosmos consists of nine worlds, which flank the central tree Yggdrasil. There are a number of variations on a creation myth, where the world is created from the flesh of a creature named Ymir, and the first two humans are fashioned from trees or driftwood.
The afterlife supplies a number of options. Half of those who died in battle were transported to Valhalla, while the other half went to Fólkvangr, ruled by the goddess Freyja. The differences between these two places are unclear; though some sources suggest that women who died an honourable death had a place in Freyja’s halls.
There are references to reincarnation, and time is represented as both linear and cyclical. Thus, a future is described in detail, where a great battle is fought, leaving the gods dead and the world submersed in water. Afterwards, the world will resurface, the surviving gods meet, and the world is repopulated by two surviving humans.
Arts, Crafts and Storytelling
The oral traditions in Norse culture were rich and varied, covering mythology, battle poetry and rules of living. Most of these were collected on Iceland during the 13th and 14th century, and the writings are largely unadorned and straightforward. Alliteration is common, most likely to make them easier to remember, as they were part of an oral tradition for centuries before being written down.
Epic tales wrapped in a sparse language characterize the kings’ sagas. One of the most well known collections are Heimskringla, written by poet and historian Snorri Sturluson around 1230. The collection starts with the mythological prehistory of the Norwegian royalty, and the subsequent sagas are devoted to individual rulers.
Runes are an early form of writing, spiky and angular in appearance, that were used for varied purposes: marking of ownership, magic and short memorial texts. However, some are purely graffiti, such as "Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women", to pick a polite example.
Both jewelry and practical objects have been found; often decorated with animal forms, interlace patterns and mythological depictions. Coloured glass beads were very popular, but these were often grabbed during raids.
The Saint Olav festival at Stiklestad features a medieval market where authentic handicrafts and techniques are on show. The most famous part of the festival is the Saint Olav Drama, where the Battle of Stiklestad is commemorated. Traditionally, famous actors participate in the play, alongside amateurs.
The Lofotr Viking museum transports you back in time to a longhouse inhabited by guides in appropriate Viking clothing. The museum site was excavated from 1986 to 1989, and contains the remains of the largest building from the Viking Age ever found. This chieftain’s dwelling was an impressive 20 feet long, and was originally built in the 6th century.
The Viking festival at Karmøy is a family festival, primarily focused on the Viking market. There are varied activities on offer as well, from plant dyeing to archery lessons. The festival is on a museum site with several rebuilt structures, based on archaeological finds from throughout the district. The first king of Norway, Harald Fairhair, built his throne here after emerging victorious from the battle of Hafrsfjord.
- Viking Festival at Karmøy, start of June
- Viking Market at Gudvangen, mid-July
- Saint Olav Festival at Stiklestad, end of July
- Lofotr Viking Festival, end of August
Did you know?
The Vikings enjoyed a board game called Hnefatafl; played on a checkered board with two unequal armies and possibly dice. Unfortunately, the rules for the game have not survived.
The Vikings were preoccupied with hygiene, more so than their contemporaries were. They bathed once a week, and implements such as tweezers, combs and earwax scrapers have been found in excavations. They even named a day of the week for washing: The modern name for Saturday is lørdag, deriving from laugardag, which literally means washing day.
Contrary to popular depictions, the Vikings did not drink from human skulls. This widespread misconception comes from as early as 1631, when the phrase “the curved branches of skulls”, meaning horns, was translated as “the skulls of those they had slain”.
The Vikings’ language had a great influence on English. Words like cake, glitter and skip come from Old Norse.