Close your eyes for a moment. Now imagine that you?re an English monk going about your eclectic duties, when a noise suddenly grabs your attention. You look towards the beach and you see a boat, massive in size and awe-inspiring in appearance, sitting right there on the beach where there was only sand a moment before. Then armed warriors pour off the boat, five at first, then ten, then fifteen, then twenty. To you, they?re giants, a good 4 inches in height greater than you; heavily muscled and of fair hair and complexion, running up the beach towards you, howling, brandishing large swords and axes and wooden shields more than half the size of your body. It?s easy to imagine how those monks? blood ran cold at the sight of the Norsemen. But, contrary to popular belief, this was not all there was to the Norsemen. I intend to show that these raiders, these barbarians, these Vikings, had a rich cultural heritage by illustrating their cultural achievements and atrocities, such as their advanced seafaring abilities, martial strengths, their valued system of ethics, their relentless invasions of Europe, and other cultural distinctions.
The Viking Age, as the period between AD 800- 1100 during the 11th century has come to be called, is best described as when hordes of warriors from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and parts of Finland flowed down into Europe and eastern Asia to seek their fortunes. The beginning of this age follows what is called the Vendel era and the crowning of Charlemange as king of the Franks. In 810, a coastal area known as Frisian reported the first attack by northern raiders. That was just the beginning. Attacks like these would continue unhampered for the next 290 years. No one was able to stand up to the northern onslaught for long. Whole regions were given to them as tribute, or as bribes in attempt to turn their attentions to other, more appealing places. However, it seldom lasted long. A few years later, their nightmares had returned in search of treasure and slaves.
But where did a marauding Norsemen take his horde of treasure and band of slaves? Why, to the home he left behind. To the wife and children he left to tend the farm and livestock. To the Viking, farmable land and grazing fields were just as important as was acquiring bounty from foreign shores. You?re average Scandinavian from this time was not a Viking. He was a farmer. He grew rye, oats, wheat, and barley, grain, and hay for winter fodder and food and bedding for the animals. He also hunted and fished, and gathered wild fruits and plants to supplement his diet. But he didn?t work alone. Along his side his wife cared for the animals and mended the clothes, as well as helped to maintain the home. The typical farmstead consisted of a long house, which usually was living quarters for the family and livestock, workshops, and storerooms. For the most part, these were not isolated farmsteads. Recent archaeological excavations show that clusters of farmsteads rather than single farms predominated throughout Scandinavia. Such villages were made up of six to eight farms, which were usually encircled by a fence or a crude stone wall. In most cases the main dwelling was a long, rectangular structure of wood and/or sod, interwoven with branches and twigs covered by clay; at one end were the living quarters and at the other side the cattle stalls, a welcome source of heat in the winter. An open hearth set into the floor or slightly raised above it rested in the center of the living quarters, providing heat and light, along with seal-oil lamps. Elevated platforms set along the sidewalls were both seating for guests and sleeping beds set near the fire. The house had no chimney, only a hole in the roof to let the smoke out.
In this one long room, the farm family cooked and ate, entertained friends, worked their looms, fashioned shafts for their arrows, made love, and slept. Now, no doubt there are those who are wondering what kind of life women lead in this era. Well, believe it or not, women enjoyed more freedoms in some ways there than elsewhere during the world at that time. Women enjoyed the right to divorce, not the men. And if marriage ended in a divorce, the dowry was refundable. Also, women were allowed to own land and were very often left alone to manage it while their husbands went off to barter at markets or went overseas to trade or raid.
Social structure among the Norse wasn?t what one could call equal for all. Though class distinctions were not absolute and fixed, they did separate the masses from those most likely to succeed. Slaves, or thralls, occupied the lowest rung of the social ladder, although prisoners of war, bankrupts, and sons and daughters of slaves also inhabited this class, though they may not have started there. They performed the most manual tasks on their owners? farms and could be bought and sold like any piece of property. Depending on the master, a slave?s life was not always grim, and it was even possible for a slave to work his or her way to freedom.
Next in line were the Karls, or free peasants, who hired out their services to landowners. Also in this class were artisans, peddlers, fishermen, shipwrights, small-time merchants, and mercenary soldiers who sold their services to whichever leaders seemed the most likely to lead them to fame and fortune. The jarls, or chieftains, made up the third rung of Norse society. They owned large tracts of land that they usually parceled out to karls. The more ambitious of propertied jarls aspired to be kings. They could achieve success by acquiring stashes of silver (which along with gold, was the most valuable of metals) one way or another and by attracting bands of warriors to extend their influence. It was the members of the class of people who were the real Vikings, because to get what they wanted, they had to take risks to get it.
From very early times, property owners of all classes came together in their various localities in a public assembly known as The Thing. The purpose of The Thing was to select regional leaders and make laws regarding such matters as property, sheep stealing, and blood feuds. But the true power of Norse life wasn?t any external governing body, but instead a code of ethics. In these ethics, much depended on the drengeskapur. The term implies a gamut of characteristics demanded of the whole of society and especially of those who would be it?s heroes. Self-respect, honor, and reputation were necessary above all, and these could not exist without firm foundation of loyalty to family and comrades. Conventions ruled everything in life?conventions about hospitality and the giving of gifts, about keeping oaths and avenging wrongs, about doing good deeds for the neighborhood such as building bridges and temples. Leaders of men must demonstrate courage, fortitude, fellowship, truthfulness, eloquence, and a zest for life coupled with the ability to face death with an untroubled mind. All these requirements along with countless others, were incorporated in the Old Norse poem Havamal, literally, ?the speech of the high one,? which includes the entire Viking-age code of conduct from simple homilies to statements on the true meaning of eternal honor.
Although they had a reputation for being a rough, violent people addicted to plunder and slaughter, the Vikings also took immense pleasure and pride in a vivid but surprisingly delicate form of art. Their artisans worked for years perfecting their craft, and it is generally considered that Norse artists had become masters at carving wood and casting metal ornaments by the early 800s- at the time the first raiding parties of fierce seafaring bandits set sail in search of glory on foreign shores. Norse artists stuck to Nature oriented themes-mostly animals, like lions, snakes, and birds of prey, as well as depictions of mythical beasts.
The Vikings educated their children at home in the basic duties of the farm: fathers taught sons how to plough the fields and plant the crops, how to hunt and fish, how to forge new tools and repair old ones. The mothers taught daughters how to care for the livestock and work the loom, how to cook and maintain the home.
To the Vikings, family was of paramount importance. It helped to define their place in the world and provided a link with the past great deeds of ancestors. Families were of such importance to the Norsemen that blood feuds were a common occurrence. Quarrels between individuals almost always brought in the entire family. An insult to one member of the family was considered an insult to the whole family. This brought one full-scale feuds marked by maimings and killings and endless rounds of retaliation. It was possible to stop the feud two different ways. The first was for one or both families paying compensation to the other. This payment of atonement, called bot, was then divided among the members of the wronged family.
The second way was to bring the matter before The Thing. They and other litigants would then face a group of judges consisting of all the assembly’s members or perhaps a smaller panel chosen by The Thing. A defendant, in addition to calling witnesses to testify, could attempt to bolster his case by submitting to trial by ordeal. For example: he might volunteer to hold red-hot metal strips in his hand for a few moments. The wound was bandaged and a jury would than look at the burns four days later. If the jury members found the wound clean, he would be pronounced innocent. If the wounds were festering, he would be found guilty. Punishments could range anywhere from paying a fine to hanging or beheading.
The runic form of writing that the Norse used is believed to have evolved among Germanic tribes, starting around the 1st century AD or slightly before. They are known as futharks for their first six letters. Several alphabets are known to exist. The Norse contend that the god Odin, while hanging from the Yggdrasil, the World Tree, he gave up one eye two learn the secrets of the runes. Thus the Norse say Odin acquired the runes and then gave it to them. Runic carvings have been found anywhere Vikings have ever been. Over 5,000 stones in Sweden have been found with runic carvings on them. Not only kings and chieftains used runes. Archaeologists have found many small pieces of wood and bone causally marked with mundane runic messages, including ?Kiss me.? Runic inscriptions cover the shoulder of a lion statue that once stood at the gates of the Athenian port city of Piraeus (the statue was taken the Venice as booty in 1687). The sculptures? graffiti, which is now illegible due to wear, offers proof of the Viking presence in the Mediterranean. Also, in the Hagia Sophia basilica in Istanbul, runic carvings scratched into a parapet spell out the Viking name ?Halfdan.? Runes were probably taught from parents to children.
The mythology of the Norsemen is as harsh as their environment. They believed in an underworld called Hel, an icy realm where those who died of age or sickness went, ruled by a half-rotting goddess with the same name. Wrapping itself around the world was a gigantic serpent named Jormungundr who at Ragnarok, the final battle between good and evil where evil will win, will rise up and kill and be killed by Thor. Also, there is Feninr, the wolf that tried to devoir the sun, but who the gods chained and imprisoned. When Ragnarok occurs, his chains will break and he will devoir the sun and Odin himself as well.
On the other side of the coin, in Asgard, where the other Norse gods live, is Valhalla-the Hall of the Slain- where slain Viking warriors go after death. In Valhalla, these warriors fight and feast all day. And at the end of each day, the slain warriors will be resurrected and they will all spend the night in cheerful pleasure until the next day, where they will repeat the cycle again. When Ragnarok comes, say they legends, these warriors will fight along side the gods against the forces of evil. The chief gods in the Norse mythology are Odin (sometimes-pronounced Wotan or Wodan), who is the god of wisdom, battle, poetry, and magic. Tales say he sacrificed an eye for divine wisdom. His son, Thor, is a champion for mankind. He is the god of weather and a warrior against evil, using his hammer, Mjollnir. Next come Frey and Freya, the god of fertility and the goddess of love, respectively. But, according to their myths, the world does not end with Ragarok. After the war, the world tree Yggdrasil is left standing and hiding in its branches are a man and a women, who will then repopulate the world. Also in Norse tales, are magical creatures called Dwarves and Elves, dragons and sea serpents.
At this point I ask that you close your eyes again. I want you to imagine that you are standing on the bow of a great Viking ship, feeling the wind blow a light ocean spray onto your face. Think of the things you heard in this report, and then turn and look at the Vikings manning the boat behind you. Think of the cold plains and dense forests of their home, the snow and the ice, the harsh and cold seas, and judge again these people of the frozen north.