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10 myths about the vikings

The viking image has changed dramatically over the centuries. Romanticized in the 18th and 19th centuries, they are now alternatively portrayed as savage and violent heathens or adventurous explorers. Stereotypes and cliches run rampant in popular culture. Vikings and their influence appear in various forms, from Wagner’s Ring Cycle to the comic Hägar the Horrible, from History channel’s popular series Vikings to the Danish comic-book series Valhalla, and from J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to Marvel’s Thor. But what is actually true? Eleanor Barraclough sheds light on and dispels ten common viking myths.

1. They wore horned helmets.

Let’s get this one out of the way first. Nope. The first illustration of a viking wearing a horned helmet was a popular edition of Frithiof’s saga, produced in 1825. But in terms of enduring popularity we can probably blame Wagner, or at least his costume designer Carl Emil Doepler, who was responsible for the outfits of the first performance of the Ring cycle at the Bayreuth Festival in 1876 and decided to stick a few jaunty horns onto the helmets. And no, they didn’t wear winged helmets either. Blame the 19th century for that one too. Mysteriously, Viking-Age helmets are almost as rare as hen’s teeth: one was found in Ringerike in Norway, looking rather like a Batman mask but without the pointy ears. But, crucially, no horns.

2. Everyone in the medieval Nordic world was a viking.

Again, we can dispatch this one swiftly. No they weren’t. To the Norse, ‘viking’ was both a verb and a noun: a raid (víking) and a raider (víkingr). The Anglo-Saxons had a very similar word (wicing), which originally just mean ‘pirate’ but in time came to refer to Norse marauders. In any case, most vikings were young men off on their equivalent of a gap year, trying to get rich quick and have a few adventures before they settled down. In the Icelandic sagas, older men still going on summer raids are often presented as disruptive, antisocial elements within the community, who have never quite settled down or made much of their lives (like that single 40-something friend who still wants to stay up all night drinking and playing loud music when everyone else is ready to turn in for the night and the kids are asleep upstairs).

Viking burial, is depicted in the imagination of 19th century artist. Johann Gehrts. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
A viking burial, as depicted via the imagination of 19th century artist, Johann Gehrts. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

3. They ‘blood eagled’ their enemies.

That horrible thing the vikings were said to do to their victims, when they cut their ribs away from their spine and pulled out their lungs backwards like a bloody pair of eagle’s wings? Probably never happened. Or at least, it’s highly debatable. There are a few obscure references in Norse poetry to eagles being carved on people’s backs, but since such verses are notoriously cryptic and convoluted, the original meaning may well have been less literal than how it was interpreted in later texts. In any case, the details get nastier, bloodier, and more fantastical with every passing century, like a gory game of Chinese Whispers.

4. They burned their dead in ships.

Hardly ever, as far as we know. In the pre-Christian period, the dead could be cremated or buried, often with grave goods such as weapons, jewelry, and tools. If they were burned it was on a pyre, after which a mound might be built over the top. If you were extremely wealthy and important you might be buried in a ship, such as the famous 9th century ship burial from Oseberg in Norway, which contained the remains of two high-status women and countless grave goods. But nothing had been burnt. Our main evidence for the Norse burning their dead on ships is an account by the 10th century Arab diplomat Ibn Fadlan, who witnessed the funeral of a ‘Rus’ chieftain out in Russia. Ibn Fadlan includes details such as the sacrifice of a slave girl to join her master in the afterlife, and a naked man setting fire to the ship whilst covering his anus (for reasons that probably made sense at the time). But even here, we are on shaky ground, because the ethnic identity of the ‘Rus’ is disputed: originally they came from East Scandinavia, but in a few generations had been assimilated into the local Slavic population.

5. They were the only inhabitants of medieval Scandinavia.

Not true. Particularly at northern latitudes, Scandinavia was also inhabited by the ancestors of the people now known as Sámi, a semi-nomadic people who traditionally lived in the far north of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and parts of Russia. To the Norse, these people were known as Finnar, and there was plenty of interaction between the two groups, including high-status marriages and trading. But as far as the Norse were concerned, the Finnar were notorious for uncanny magical talents such as telling the future, out-of-body journeys and shape-shifting. In the Icelandic sagas, you cross the Finnar at your peril…

6. They drank from the skulls of their enemies.

Definitely not, despite what you might see in Asterix and the Normans. This time we can blame Ole Worm, not a geriatric invertebrate but a 17th century Danish antiquarian who in 1636 published a book called Runir seu Danica literatura antiquissmia… eller literatura runica (‘Runes or the Most Ancient Danish Literature’). In it, he quoted lines from a Norse poem in which the hero says that in Valhalla he will drink ale ‘from the curved branches of skulls’, a poetic way of describing a drinking horn. But Ole Worm misunderstood the phrase, and translated it into Latin so that the hero was now drinking ale ‘from the skulls of the slain’. A number of other tribes were said to drink from the skulls of their enemies, including the Lombards of Italy and the Penchengs of the Russian steppes. But it was the poor old vikings who got the bad press yet again.

Runestone Sm 10 in Växjö, Sweden, by Berig. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Runestone Sm 10 in Växjö, Sweden, by Berig. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

7. They sailed in dragonhead ships.

Yes and no, but not as often as you might think. As far as the archaeological record is concerned, the evidence is patchy. The only surviving ship with a dragonhead was found at Ladby in Denmark, where it had been buried as part of a high-status funeral. The dragonhead itself doesn’t survive, but the stem is decorated with a ‘dragon’s mane’ of iron curls, and there is room for a dragon’s head to be slotted into the top. There are also smaller pieces of evidence such as Norse graffiti scratched onto the walls of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, depicting a little fleet of ships with snouty dragonheads. But most references to dragonhead vessels come from later written sources from Iceland, such as the 13th century Book of Settlements, which describes how sailors were required to remove the dragon-heads from their ships when they approached Iceland, so as not to frighten the land spirits.

8. They were lawless, wild, blood-feuders.

Actually, the legal systems throughout the medieval Nordic world were sophisticated and complex, and several law codes contain the phrase ‘with law shall the land be built’. Even today, this is the motto of the Icelandic police force. In fact, the Althingi, Iceland’s national parliament, is one of the world’s oldest parliamentary institutions, having been established in AD 930 at Thingvellir (‘Assembly Plains’). Each year at the Althingi, everyone would gather at the Law Rock and the appointed Lawspeaker would recite the laws off by heart. When literacy reached the country, the laws were the first thing to be written down, in a chieftain’s farmhouse over the winter of 1117-18. (Although yes, there were quite a few blood feuds too.)

9. They wrote in runes.

Sort of, depending on why, when, and what they were writing. Runic inscriptions were brief: carved onto runestones commemorating the dead, or engraved onto smaller objects such as personal items, stone, or pieces of wood. Often the inscriptions were little memos, love tokens, or the name of the item’s owner: the equivalent of a few words scrawled on a post-it note. Occasionally these inscriptions are very rude, such as a piece of graffiti scratched onto the walls of the Neolithic chambered cairn of Maeshowe in Orkney, which reads: ‘Thorni f**ked, Helgi carved’. But the vast majority of Norse manuscripts were written down in Iceland in the later medieval period, and almost all use Latin script just like we do today.

10. Ragnar Hairy-Breeches had hairy breeches, Ivar the Boneless was boneless, and so on…

It’s true that there were some impressively badass/comical/unflattering nicknames knocking around the viking world, including beauties such as Ketil Flat-Nose, Eysteinn Foul-Fart, Thorbjorg Ship-Boobs, and Kolbeinn Butter-Knob. But some of the best-known Norse nicknames only start to appear many centuries later, and not necessarily for the reasons you might think. Typos, misunderstandings, and mis-translations are often to blame. For instance, there have been lots of theories as to why Ivar—leader of the Great Heathen Army that attacked England in AD 865—ended up with the nickname ‘boneless’: impotence, brittle bone disease, lameness, and extreme warrior prowess have all been suggested. But more recently, Elizabeth Ashman Rowe has argued that the word was a misreading of the Latin word exosus (‘detestable’) as exos (‘boneless’). As explanations go, this one is more convincing, but not quite as exciting.

Featured Image Credit: ‘Norsemen Landing in Iceland’. Frontispiece from Guerber, H. A. (Hélène Adeline). Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas. London : Harrap, 1909. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Philip Mead

    A very enjoyable and illuminating article (I like the humour too). As a fan of The History Channel hit series ‘Vikings’ Ms. Barraclough has disabused me of quite a few ‘myths’ that I’ve internalized, wrongly, for a long time! And based on the short bio, what a fascinating life she leads as an historian following her passionate interest in the Vikings!

  2. Timmy

    How about the claim that they knew no fear until they were introduced to a certain village in Gaul?

  3. Gerard Kevin McBride

    Good morning,

    Just enjoyed your article.

    Coming from from the western isles of Scotland ethinicly I am Gaelic Norse. Some people think I am bit of a Viking too. As I like seafaring and don’t mind the weather.

    To us the Vikings were as much farmers in boats as much as anything. They were known in our islands before they became famous. Some adopted our ways, some Scots copied their ways. Wasn’t raiding the done thing by everyone in those days?

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