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Hell or Hel? the Unsung Influences of the Vikings

Updated on May 16, 2018
Amy Sumida profile image

Amy Sumida is the Internationally Acclaimed, Best-Selling author of the Godhunter, Twilight Court, and Spellsinger Series.

Viking Influences on our Modern World

The Vikings, AKA the Norse, were tribes of Scandinavian people who dominated the seas for over 300 years; from the 8th to the 11th century. They sailed their dragon ships all over the world; from Europe to the Eastern coast of North America. Today, they are remembered for their savagery and their thieving ways, but there were much more to the Norsemen than their tradition of going a viking (on adventure). A lot of them settled peacefully in the lands they reached, and they influenced the cultures they came into contact with. You may have heard of a few things we can attribute to the Vikings, but there are several "unsung" influences that you may not have heard of. Just to get you started, here are seven.

Words


One of the biggest unsung heroes of Viking influence are their words. Back in the day ( a Thor's day in Spring) the Angles and the Saxons were speaking Old English; a language nearly unidentifiable to us as today's English. Old English was modified in several ways. Most people know about the French influence on it, but few know about the Old Norse. There are 139 English (Angle-ish) words that can be traced back to Old Norse. One of the ones that makes me giggle the most is Hel; which became Hell. Hel was the Norse Goddess of the Underworld. And by the way, no offense to Marvel lovers, but they got it wrong. Hel (or Helle as they called her) was Loki's daughter, not Odin's. Odin was the father of a lot of gods (thus his title of Allfather) but Hel was not one of them. Now, on to more words that we owe to the Vikings. I'm not going to list all 139 of them, but here are a few to whet your appetite:


English words from Old Norse

English
Old Norse
Meaning
 
beserk
berserker
bear skin
 
hell
Hel
Goddess of the Underworld
 
ransack
rannsaka
to search a house
 
scathe
skada
to injure
 
slaughter
slatra
to butcher
 
club
klubba
a weapon
 
gun
gunn
war or battle
 
sale
sala
to sell
 
steak
steik
to fry
 
call
kalla
to cry loudly
 
rotten
rotinn
decayed
 

Bluetooth

You can see it right in the symbol, which is a combination of Viking Runes. The runes are the symbols for the letters "H" and "B" and they are the initials of the great Viking King Harald Blatand (translation: Bluetooth). King Harald was praised as a peacekeeper and a great communicator. I think he'd be tickled pink to know that we have his runes on all of our smart devices.


Bluetooth Runes

International Trade

Yeah, you probably know this one. The Vikings got around. You probably even know that they landed in North America at one point. But did you know that they founded several cities in Ireland; including Dublin (Dubh Linn means "Black Pool" which is the name of the lake they moored in), Wexford, Waterford, Cork, and Limerick?

They left their mark on France by way of Normandy, which means "the land of the Northmen." And... drum roll please... Russia was named after them. The Rus was a Swedish Viking tribe who settled in Russia; giving their name—which means "men who row"—to the land. They also became the ancestors of the modern Russian people and other related Slavic people. Now, here's something that blew my mind; the Vikings made it to the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Emperor had a Viking guard (as in a group of guards, not just one man). Finally, evidence was found of a Viking settlement in Canada; they were in North America before any other explorer made it there.

Not only did they make settlements in these places, they established trade routes; most of which are still in use today. They were the first international merchants.


Viking Outpost found in Canada

Holidays

The Vikings started a few of our modern holidays. There's Easter, which most people think is one of the most Christian holidays around. Not true. In fact, it's in the very name. Eostre (pronounced Easter) is the Norse Goddess of Fertlity. Ever wonder why rabbits and eggs are associated with Easter? It's because they are Eostre's symbols.

There's also Halloween, which most people know is also called Samhain. But did you know that the Vikings also had a Day of the Dead called Alfablot "Sacrifice of the Elves". There are two types of Elves in the Norse Religion: Dark and Light. The Light Elves live in Alfheim and the Dark Elves live in Svartalfheim; which is an underground world. The Dark Elves (Dokkalfar) are most powerful during the winter months and were sacrificed to and communed so that they would protect the Norse people during Winter.

Finally, there's Yule (Christmas). Caroling and decorating with evergreens are both Viking traditions. And, of course, there's Odin/Santa. Oh, yes; Odin is Santa. Which brings me to our next fact.

Odin is Santa

5. Santa

You may know that Santa was not always the fat, red-suited, jolly man we love today. But did you know that he was Odin, the main god of the Vikings? Odin was the leader of a Wild Hunt (I say "a Wild Hunt" because there are a few from different cultures) and during Yule he would ride his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, through the villages. The children would fill their boots with hay for Sleipnir and leave them by the hearth. After his horse had eaten, Odin would fill the boot with candies and toys. Sound familiar? Also, there's the horse itself. Originally, Santa rode a horse, but then came that famous story; "Twas the Night Before Christmas" and artistic license was used to add eight reindeer and a sleigh. Eight... as in the number of legs that Sleipnir has.

Odin comes from a cold place; just like Santa, he has a big beard; just like Santa, and he even has elves. Both light and dark elves live in the Viking Worlds (there are nine worlds in the Norse myths). And finally, the fact that convinced me: Odin has an elevated seat called Hildskjalf, where he can see the entire world! He sees you when you're sleeping. He knows when you're awake. And by the way, who else finds that song totally creepy?


Wodan's Wilde Jagd

Odin's Wild Hunt
Odin's Wild Hunt | Source

Skis

Skis may not have been invented by the Vikings but the Norse made them popular. The Vikings used skis for both recreation and for travel, and they took them with them to other lands. The word "ski" is from the Old Norse "skio." Also, the Goddess Skadi and the God Ullr were often depicted on skis or snowshoes.


Skadi and Njord

Look at her feet.
Look at her feet.

Hygiene

You must think I'm nuts for suggesting that Vikings gave us good hygiene. Wasn't that the Greeks? Doesn't the word "hygiene" come from the Greek Goddess Hygeia? Well, yes; it does. But Vikings weren't the unkempt barbarians everyone believes them to be. First of all, they bathed—something unheard of in the Western world at that time. Sure, it may have only been once a week, but these were cold-weather folks and they liked their hot springs. So, they were nice, hot baths. Very sanitary. In addition to bathing, the Vikings have been credited (not by everyone but by a few scholars) with the creation of combs. Combs made of antlers are often found in Viking burial mounds, along with tweezers, razors, and ear spoons. Vikings were cleaner than English kings.

I hope this has helped you look at the Norsemen in a new way. I think credit should be given where it's due, and the Vikings should be remembered as more than a bunch of pirates with cool ships.


Viking Comb

This comb, found in a Viking grave, is inscribed with the runes for "comb."
This comb, found in a Viking grave, is inscribed with the runes for "comb."

Amy Sumida

Amy Sumida is an Award-Winning, Best-Selling, Internationally Acclaimed author of several series including the most beloved Godhunter Series and the musically-oriented Spellsinger Series. Born and raised in Hawaii, she's recently made the treacherous journey across the sea with her feline family in her arms, to a new, promising land; Oregon. She enjoys painting, bellydancing, and gilding everything within sight. But most of her time is spent writing; creating imaginary worlds that she prefers to the real one. She spent years researching religions for her first series, and takes great pleasure in being true to the myths as she weaves them into her own versions.

© 2018 Amy Sumida

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    • Peopleofthebook profile image

      B A Johnson 

      2 years ago

      I love studying the origin of words, thank you for the article!

      But i would like to make a clarification: The Anglicized name "Easter" has its etymology from Eostre, but long before that name was adopted, Christians celebrated the same Holiday as "the Paschal Feast," after the Greek term for Jewish Passover "Pascha," (as it was during Passover that Christ was crucified and resurrected.)

      Other languages reflect this original etymology, such as French "Paques" and Spanish "Pascua"

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