How the Vikings Worked


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey, Candace.

Candace Gibson: I think that Vikings are some of the coolest people in all of history.

Jane McGrath: They really are. They're like pirates times ten. They're so awesome.

Candace Gibson: And I think one of the best things about Vikings is their religion. They were pagan, so they had a pantheon of gods. And so their foes in the universe were evil giants, dwarves, and dark elves. And it's like a storybook come to life. I think it's so fascinating.

Jane McGrath: Their religion is very fascinating. I guess everybody's heard of Thor.

Candace Gibson: God of thunder.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, the god of thunder with the hammer. He was actually very strong, but was also known as being kind of stupid. But what I found interesting is that he wasn't their ultimate god. They had a different ultimate god. Zeus, so to speak, was named Odin and he was the main god. And they had this whole drawn-out mythology about the giants and this battle that happened - I think it's called Ragnarok. They had this whole idea that this battle would happen between their gods and the enemy giants, and that the world would be consumed in this fire. And there would be enough members of both races to just barely survive a new world after that. And they had this all mapped out for the future.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, and it was strange in the context that it was a very self-defeatist religion because they thought evil would triumph over good. So Vikings and warriors would continue to fight alongside Odin, even in their afterlives. But evil would ultimately overcome the good and the universe would be plunged into darkness and chaos.

Jane McGrath: Who wants to make up a story like that?

Candace Gibson: Well, it got me thinking, Jane. Because we know that Vikings have this reputation of being pillagers and raiders. And I thought, "Maybe they were living for the here and now. Steal from all the good people and enjoy the money and resources while you have them."

Jane McGrath: That's true. That's an interesting insight.

Candace Gibson: But we may be getting a little bit ahead of ourselves, so let's start back at square one. Viking itself is a term that the origins of which are pretty nebulous. It's sort of lost in the annals of history. And Viking history itself is also pretty nebulous because most of the written records about Vikings come from Christians because they were literate at the time. And when Vikings came, monasteries and churches were hot spots for them to raid because there were so many riches contained within. So of course, the monks and other religious authorities there wouldn't have written very complimentary things about the Vikings. So that's why they have such a predominantly negative reputation. On the other hand, the Viking side of the story has been handed down through epic poems and sagas. It's all oral history. And you know very well that oral history changes as it goes through the years. So we don't know a lot about them.

Jane McGrath: And it's interesting comparing it to stories like Beowulf and stuff like that. Those were also stories told in similar time periods by these poets. For Vikings, the Scandinavian peoples at least, were told by these people named scalds. And they would recite these very intricate detailed stories, some of which were eventually written down after the people were assimilated with the Europeans. But a lot of them have been lost to history.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. So we don't know what the term Viking itself means, but we have some guesses. And those guesses range from pirate to port and even body of water. And the raids that Vikings would go on were known as i Viking - sort of like iPod, but two different words.

Jane McGrath: Right. It's interesting because our article on our site makes a good point in that we should differentiate between Vikings as an occupation - t hey were really just pirates - and they were part of these peoples from Scandinavia like Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and these areas north of Europe. And so we should differentiate when we talk about them.

Candace Gibson: Definitely. And Vikings were such courageous people, and I think that's a fact that gets lost in the more glamorous aspect of the Viking legend, which again is the raping, pillaging, and plundering - that's the sort of juicy stuff we like to hear about. But other scholars point out that they were also incredibly well organized and very sturdy men. And another important point - all Vikings were men. Women didn't have a place in that particular part of the culture. And we know that they founded Dublin, they conquered Normandy, they ruled half of England, they sailed to North America, they traded with the Middle East and North Africa. We even have some archeological evidence that points to the fact that they traded with Turkey and Russia. And we did an earlier podcast about a month or so ago about Easter Island. And we talked about how the Easter Islanders left their home and sailed in these sturdy but rather makeshift boats to who knows where they were going. And the Vikings were kind of like that, too. They had these clinker-built ships which were made of overlapping planks of wood. And some scholars wonder if Vikings knew exactly where they were going, or if like the Easter Islanders, they were setting out sail hoping to find land somewhere. So you have to think that these people who were on these ships, these crews, were up against high winds and stormy seas. There was very little opportunity to sleep. Sometimes they have just landed to get some rest.

Jane McGrath: That's right, it is. Regardless of what motivated them or whether they knew where they were going, it is amazing how far they went. If you look at a map of where they went, it's just interesting. You never think of them going down into the Mediterranean, but they did. And their ships were an amazing feat of technology at the time, too. They had square sails, but they also had oars. So it was both sail and oar. And they were between 45-75 feet long. And they were double ended, many of them, so that they could basically go either way without turning around. And historians speculate that it was actually motivated by the nature of their land - where they came form - being very inhospitable. It's mountainous and cold.

Candace Gibson: And what's more, when you think of Scandinavia, you also think of lots of islands and peninsulas and smaller parcels of land. So the Vikings, expanding their empire, they needed more land or they needed to go to places that had resources that they couldn't support on their soil and bring it back. And you were referring to this population boom in the Scandinavians, and some historians think there was a warming trend and that contributed to the ability to grow more food, which led to a bigger population. And eventually, the clans that existed within the Vikings - the Scandinavians encompassed the Swedes and the Danes and other groups of Scandinavian tribes - they were fighting each other so much that they had to go out and strike new territory.

Jane McGrath: And what also contributed to this is that they were surrounded by water. So that was a great source of food for them, to go fishing. And they were lucky enough to have plenty of trees around, so they quickly developed good ships as we mentioned. And this all came together and they would go raiding.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. And another factor was that, whether you were Norwegian, Swedish, or Danish it was very much a matter of tradition to be a Viking. Maybe your father was - or your father's father or your father's father's father - and it was considered very manly and virile to be a part of this culture. And some of these men were so virile that they were called berserkers and they would fight with the intensity of beasts, even drape animal pelts on themselves. And they acted as if they were immune to pain. Sort of wild, but again part of this tradition. And other historians speculate that Viking raids could've been carried out by exiled Scandinavians. They would've put convicted criminals on ships and just told them to sail away, get out of dodge. And if you were a hard-up criminal on a ship in the middle of nowhere, you would probably be tempted to steal from the first parcel of land that you saw. You would take the resources.

Jane McGrath: Sure. And that theory does make sense if you think about the story of how some Vikings founded Greenland. You might know that the Vikings had settled Iceland pretty early on. And there was this one Viking named Erik the Red, who actually committed murder. So the Vikings exiled him. And so he had heard stories, "Oh, there's land to the west." And so he took his boat and headed out there with his men. So he founded Greenland after that. And his son, apply named Leif Ericson, actually went west further after him and founded land on North America.

Candace Gibson: And it's interesting to look at the type of government that Vikings had in Scandinavia, because we've said before they were extremely well organized. And while they may have been somewhat bloodthirsty, there was a method to the madness. And we know that they had a primitive democracy. They had assemblies called things and they met pretty regularly. So it was very much a controlled procedure whenever they went out. And the raiding parties that settled at different ports in different countries, eventually evolved into armies. And so they would sometimes stay behind, not all of them, but some of them, in the lands that they raided. And they would either assimilate among the people or they would strike deals with the leaders to get part of the land. And one of the most interesting stories about that is how they came to acquire Normandy. And one of the Viking rulers struck a deal with the Frankish King Charles the Simple, and it was a pretty simple deal. "If you convert to Christianity, Viking leader, then I will give you Normandy." And thus Vikings got Normandy and France was appeased. And it was similar to a way of paying tribute. And that was something that Vikings would demand of other lands. And we've discussed tribute on another podcast before, but basically the p remise of having someone pay you money so you don't bully them. Sort of like the bully taking your lunch money and agreeing not to beat you up as an exchange.

Jane McGrath: Sure. And a similar story actually happened in England. You were talking about Normandy - England has this famous Alfred the Great. He was the only English king who was given the Great title. But he is mostly famous for holding off the Vikings. And he did at one point make an agreement like that one, in that the Viking leader - this one was called Guthrum - he promised to convert to Christianity. And Alfred actually ended up being his godfather.

Candace Gibson: How about that?

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And this was in exchange. He said, "You convert to Christianity and you can have some of this land." And he also made deals like you said of paying them to stop fighting. And it worked for a while.

Candace Gibson: So we've been mentioning that Vikings weren't just raiders, but traders. And you may be asking, "Well, where's the evidence for that?" And if you look at some of the sites that archeologists have uncovered, it reads like a veritable map of where the Vikings had been. And we see that some Vikings buried in Sweden are buried in Chinese silk, garments made of Chinese silk. And other Vikings who were buried in burial ships are painted blue. And whether it's Indian indigo or it's lapis from the Middle East, we're not sure. But it's definitely evidence that they were trading with these people. And we know for sure it was a trade and not a raid, because there were these thin silver coins called durums and they were manufactured in Baghdad. But it would've been a way of bartering, trading, giving commission for these goods, and paying back instead of just taking.

Jane McGrath: That's true. And it's interesting. We believe now that they set up trading posts in the places where they did raid. And it's interesting going back to how their raidings worked. When they ended up raiding the coasts of Europe and such, they would use very advanced technological weapons. And they were so swift about it, that people could hardly muster their defenses when the Vikings came storming in. And what they particularly used, they used long swords and javelins, but especially the battleaxe. They're known for using the battleaxe and throwing it - but also bows and arrows and stuff like that. And for protection, they used padded leather and often a breastplate of iron. And like the very rich could use a mail shirt. It was expensive and it took awhile to make, but they had that technology. And their helmets were made of iron. What's interesting about their helmets - you may have an image in your mind of a Viking helmet that has a metal piece down the middle for the nose to protect the face. But in your mind, you might also be picturing the famous horns on a helmet. You see this in Capital One commercials - Vikings with horns on their helmets. And this is actually not true, or at least archeologists believe now that they wouldn't have worn these in battle. It would've added extra weight and would've been awkward. And it's true that archeologists have found some evidence that these existed, but they believe it predated the Viking age.

Candace Gibson: And if you're wondering what the other Scandinavians who were not Vikings were doing, well we have an answer for you. They were farmers, they were fishermen, merchants - and we know for sure that these professions existed because there were different types of ships dating from around the Viking era. And they're all different sizes and are built in different ways for different functions. And we know that there are separate ones that exist for carrying cargo, for conducting war raids, and for fishing. So if you weren't a Viking, you could still be involved in Scandinavia. All hope is not lost. And there's so much more for you to learn about Vikings and Scandinavia and that particular time period. So be sure to check out our articles on howstuffworks.com.

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