The term Viking is derived from the Icelandic vik, bay or inlet, with the ending -ing. While it was perhaps primarily applied to one who lived in a bay area, the name was used by the Northmen themselves in the sense of "one who fares by the sea to his adventures of commerce and of war".
Being a viking was considered highly honorable; this is attested by the fact that numerous runic inscriptions in the Scandinavian countries commemorate such exploits.
At the earliest stage of the Viking society the land was the property of the clan or group, and the individual could claim his share only by riving on the land and taking part in its cultivation. At the time usually called the Viking age, individual holdings had become the rule, however, and landowning jarls were numerous. Their land and their retainers were inherited only by their sons. The aggressive freemen and the younger members of the clan began to yearn for the freedom of the open sea and for adventures beyond the fjords of their homeland.
Being excellent shipbuilders and expert seamen, the Scandinavian Vikings were able to navigate the open sea by the aid of the sun, moon, and stars. Bands of freemen and venturesome youth would go forth on expeditions of trading or on excursions simply for the sake of satisfying their lust for daring adventures. These seafaring projects soon developed into piratical incursions and savage plundering forays. Inspired by heroic tales of old, and fired by religious devotion to their courage-imparting war gods, Odin and Thor, they became the scourge of Europe for several generations. Year after year great hordes of bloodthirsty warriors were seized each season with an irresistible desire to leave their homes to go out to conquer, to bum, to pillage, and to kill; and in an almost insane rage they devastated cities and coastal towns. Monasteries and cathedrals with their rich stores of gold and silver and sacred objects were the favorite scenes of bawdy raids by the Northern marauders.
But the Vikings were not only thieves and destroyers of life and property. Even from the earliest times they were intent also upon securing dominions for themselves and establishing homes in other lands. Thus during the Viking age there was an important colonizing movement: westward to the Faeroes, Iceland, Greenland, the Orkneys, Shetlands, and Hebrides, to England and Ireland; southward to France, Normandy, and the Frisian coast; and eastward to the Baltic lands and the Dnieper Basin, where they founded the Russian state.
Economy and Society of the Vikings
The Vikings made their living chiefly by farming. They were also skilled seamen, and they supplemented their livelihood by fishing, overseas trading, and raiding. The Vikings ate two meals a day, chiefly of boiled meat or fish and porridge or bread. They drank milk, ale, and mead, made of fermented honey. Men wore woolen and linen tunics and trousers and bound their legs with cloth below the knee. Woolen caps, mittens, cloaks, and leather shoes completed their costume. Women wore bodices and long skirts bound by a girdle hung with scissors and keys. Unmarried girls left their hair flowing, while married women pinned it up under a white linen coif.
Viking buildings were generally made of mud and branches or of wood. Ordinary farmers lived in one-room dwellings, which often sheltered the cattle as well. Richer men had many buildings for kitchens, stables, and storerooms, all centering about the great hall where everyone ate and slept. The hall was often decorated with carved pillars and tapestries, but it was dark and smoky, with few windows and no chimney for the open firepit in the middle of the floor.
Viking society was loosely organized into clans headed by chieftains who were either nobles, called jarls (earls), or petty kings. The chieftains held large amounts of land, led war bands, and judged disputes at community assemblies called "things." Their power was limited by freemen, landowners who made up the assemblies and war bands. Each person, chieftain or freeman, was expected to rely on his own efforts and to strive for military fame. Each man supervised or worked his own land, although chieftains hired laborers and thralls, or slaves. Women could hold property, refuse to marry, and get divorces.
Religion, Literature, and Art of the Vikings
The Vikings believed in the same nature gods as other Germanic tribes. Odin was the wise and warlike leader of the gods. Warriors longed to die in battle and be called by Odin to dwell with other heroes in his heavenly hall, Valhalla. Other important gods were Thor, god of strength, thunder, and the common man, and Balder, god of light and joy. Priests made animal sacrifices to the gods in temples and forest groves. Opposing the gods were evil giants, led by Loki. Trolls, elves, watersprites, and other supernatural beings also inhabited the Viking world. The Vikings believed that gods and men would eventually be destroyed in a mighty battle against the giants but that from this cataclysm a new, peaceful world would emerge.
Viking writings were chiefly epitaphs for rulers and were inscribed in runic characters on stone. Viking literature was mostly oral. The only written records of their literature known to exist were made in the 12th and 13th centuries in Iceland. Both poetry and prose reflect the Viking religion and their love of war. The Poetic Edda, or Elder Edda, is a collection of poems about the gods and such ancient heroes as Sigurd (Siegfried). Skalds, or court poets, composed complicated verses celebrating royal victories. Instructions for writing skaldic poetry are contained in the Prose Edda, or Younger Edda, along with tales about the gods. Other famous works of Viking prose are the sagas, which include fictionalized tales of heroes and more factual accounts of nobles and Norwegian kings. The Viking visual arts included weaving, wood carving, and the making of gold and silver jewelry, all decorated with animal designs.
The Vikings particularly valued military prowess and were greedy for the spoils of war. They made swift sea raids, both in Scandinavia and abroad. The raids started from bays and inlets along the Scandinavian coast. They were carried out in long raiding ships, sturdy enough to survive ocean storms but narrow and shallow enough to maneuver easily in coastal or river water. The ships were made of overlapping wood planks waterproofed with tar. Each ship was fitted with a removable mast and colored square sail and at least 13 pairs of oars, and most had a carved and brightly painted dragon's head for a prow. The early ships held 90 warriors each. Later ships held several hundred. Viking warriors wore chain mail and leather or metal helmets often decorated with a pair of horns. They carried bows, swords, spears, and battle-axes. Their round or long pointed shields hung over the sides of the ship until needed.
Thus equipped, the Vikings would sail into a bay or river at night without warning and kill or enslave the inhabitants of a settlement before they had time to organize a defense. The warriors carried off all the gold and silver and other valuables and burned the empty houses and churches. All Viking warriors were brave and cruel, but especially ferocious were the berserkers, or warriors in bearskins, some of whom chewed drugs to induce madness in battle. A widespread prayer of the times, "From the fury of the North men deliver us, Lord," reflects the terror inspired by the Viking warriors.
As the Vikings increased in number and organizational skill, they established permanent military camps on islands in river mouths. From there they penetrated far inland. Soon they gained control of whole regions and settled down on the land as farmers. Gradually they intermarried with, and adopted the ways of, their more civilized subjects.