Vikings! Fury from the North, Pt.1
NOTE: This historical essay was written in 2001, as an attempt to give some flesh to the bones of Viking history, especially as it pertains to the British Isles and Western Europe. Sadly after 3-4 chapters, the project had to be adandoned due to other jobs and time constraints. However, what is completed, might be a great value to those seeking information about the Vikings, their influence, technology, beliefs and their overwhelming influence in most European countries. Perhaps someday, I'll be able to complete the work. In the meantime, the information could still be of interest to some interested in this era.

®The Vikings! Fury from the North, Part One.

© By Robert MacLeod Gunn, MA

A History of the Vikings from the initial raids to the end of the Viking Age, especially in Britain.

Introduction and Preface

The Vikings were the last of the barbarian tribes called Germans by the Romans to terrorize Europe. Spreading out from their homelands in Scandinavia, they struck suddenly across the seas from their dragon boats (called such because of the dragon heads carved on the bow and stern). They began by raiding, pillaging, and withdrawing before any serious armed resistance could be mounted, but they gradually grew bolder. Eventually they occupied and settled significant parts of Europe.

[Viking pic]
The first we hear of the people who would later be known as the Vikings was from Pytheas. Pytheas, circa 300 BC, described a land that seems to be Norway. His revelations, although second hand, were met with derision and skepticism from the scientists of the early Mediterranean. Pytheas called the land 'Thule'. He wrote that the inhabitants, for lack of crops and cattle, existed on wild berries and millet and brewed a strong drink from bee's honey - mead. Later, the Romans came into direct contact with them when a fleet of Roman ships reconnoitered 'Skaw', or northern Jutland, in modern Denmark. They were considered to be of Germanic stock by the classical historians, although later they would be classified, probably erroneously, as Teutonic.

Roman historian, Tacitus, even mentions their sea vessels saying:

"The shape of their ships differs from the normal in having a prow at both ends, they do not rig sails or fasten their oars in banks at the side."

[Viking ship1] Through archaeology, we know the peoples of Scandinavia had an active trade with other countries including Rome and other Mediterranean cultures. In the early period, before the Age of the Viking, the people who we know as the Scandinavians, were widespread in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Northern Germany. As the power of the local Germanic tribes increased towards the 5th century, the Scandinavians retreated north and west. Germany lost her Scandinavian culture, probably before the Viking age. Although Finland is considered a Scandinavian country, it played only a small part in Viking history. Incoming Scandinavians displaced native Laplanders, but the country was embroiled in its own transitions during the Viking Age.

The Romans never attempted a conquest of Scandinavia, and this was in part due to their defeat by the Teutons in AD 9. Never after that did the Romans go in search of conquest of that distant land.

For the greater, part people of the Scandinavian lands disappear from written history after the fall of the western Roman Empire. It isn't until they dramatically burst upon the scene, as Viking raiders, in the late 8th century that we first hear of the North men. The age of the Vikings is generally agreed to have opened with a lightening raid on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in 793 AD, Although they had been at least one smaller raid before that. In 789, a Viking ship landed in England and killed the king's representative before leaving. But traditional Viking history begins with the raid in 793. One year later, the Vikings sacked Iona in Scotland carrying off treasures from the Island where Saint Columba had based his Christian conversion of Scotland. Why did the come so suddenly? What were the reasons for the ferocious raids and eventual settlement?

The first misconception to dispel is that the Vikings came out of thin air. They were trading far and wide from the 5th century onwards, but never were they a threat to the much larger European states. As early as the sixth millennium BC, the ancestors of the Vikings plowed the seas in every direction.

A Germanic people, the Scandinavians distinguished themselves from the many Germanic tribes by forming their own language, which was quite different from the older Germanic languages. They became unique, very different from the developing Germans in central Europe.

The Viking homelands were Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. They and their descendants controlled, at least temporarily, most of the Baltic Coast, much of inland Russia, Normandy in France, England, the Scottish Isles, parts of Ireland, Sicily, southern Italy, and parts of Palestine. They discovered Iceland in 825 (Irish monks were there already) and settled there in 875. They colonized Greenland in 985. Most scholars think that the Vikings reached Newfoundland and explored part of North America 500 years before the voyage of Columbus.

Map of the countries where the Northmen originated.
[Viking map1] In 790 AD, the Norse had established themselves on the Shetlands, north of mainland Scotland. This island served as a jumping off point or base for the Viking raids that were soon to come. But how did the name "Viking" come to be? There are two popular theories, each having their own merit. One theory is that 'Vik' is an old Norse word for 'bay.' Some historians have concluded that since most Viking ships landed or operated in bays or coves the term came to be their name. The second theory is that it is from the old Norse word ‘vikingr’, meaning ‘to raid’. In that vein, they went ‘i viking’ (a Viking), that is, plundering. Most Scandinavians at the time were, in fact, peaceful farmers, merchants, and craftsmen who stayed at home. Obviously, not all stayed at home.

Being pagan (non-Christian or Jewish), they did not hesitate to kill churchmen and loot church holdings, and they were feared for their ruthlessness and ferocity - sometimes unfairly portrayed as heartless murderers. At the same time, they were remarkable craftsmen, sailors, explorers, and traders.

Conjectures about population explosions and climate changes have been given the blame for the sudden Viking raids all too often. But these do not hold up to scrutiny all of the time. While there is no denying there was a climate warming around the late 8th century, it alone cannot account for the sudden appearance of Viking raiders, who quickly were terrorizing most of Europe. And while populations in Scandinavia did increase, they did so in all of Western and Northern Europe, too. None of the other countries went ‘i viking’. But there are other considerations. The more plausible reason is simple expansionism, and lowered defenses (if they existed) of European coastlines. Also, most of Europe by this time was of the Christian faith. The Vikings were not. The remoteness of the region had slowed missionaries from converting them. The religion, if one could call it such, of the northman was unforgiving and bleak. Nothing in them could comprehend the idea that monasteries were violence-free, sacrosanct places of worship. This meant nothing to the Viking. He was unaware and unimpressed. So it is only logical that the earliest targets of the Viking raids were monastic islands: isolated, undefended, and containing great wealth. It was clear these would be easy target for plunder. In June of 793 AD, the Vikings are first recorded as having plundered the tiny island of Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England. This marks the real beginning of the Viking Age.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, a series of small entries in journal form kept by monks and priests of England record the event:

“In this year, frightening signs appear in Northumbria and terrify the people. These were great lightening flashes, terrible dragons in the air and there followed a great hunger and God’s church in Lindisfarne was laid low by violence and slaughter at the hands of the heathen.”

Soon another prayer was being written in Chronicles all over Europe, and it demonstrates the absolute fear that Viking raids evoked: “A furore normannorum libera nos, domine” – ‘O Lord, deliver us from the fury of the Norsemen’. It was over 250 years before that prayer was answered.

Part 1 – Viking Origins and Religion

Standard early Viking weapons
[Viking weapons] It was the Norwegians who began the raids, but the Danes and Swedes soon followed suit. The Norse are recorded as having attacked Portland, England in 789 AD, then followed the monasteries of Lindisfarne and the Isle of Iona in Scotland, and Morganwg on the south coast of Wales in 795. In that same year, Ireland was first raided. The coastal defense of Francia (France) was under the rule of the powerful Frankish King, Charlemagne, which kept the northmen at bay – for a while. Raids on mainland Northern Europe did not really begin until 799 AD.

In 797, the Isle of Man was plundered, and in 800, again at a monastery to the south of Jarrow, which had been raided seven years before. The raids were usually daylight raids, carried out in midsummer.

Clearly, a pattern was developing, and it was noted with alarm throughout Europe. No one had been able to stop them. They Vikings even down sailed rivers of large European cities at will.

Confusion in Identification

Further confusing any study of early Viking raids, are the quirks and inconsistencies of early European chroniclers. Scandinavia, on the brink of the Viking Age, is generally agreed to include three countries: Norway, Denmark and Sweden. This is a medieval interpretation, and demarcation lines were not so easily drawn. The major divisions of the Viking homelands were one of linguistic differences of the western Vikings, and the east. They had different dialects of a similar language. It is more than likely that some eastern Danes were with the Swedes and some western Swedes may have been with the Norwegians. In addition, the early emergence of a centralized monarchy in Denmark gives the impression that the Danes were all one, under one king. This was so until later on, despite the existent monarchy.

When king Godfred of Denmark submitted to the Frankish kingdom, the chroniclers assumed he was speaking for all Danes. The Frankish Royal Annals note that Godfred’s kingdom included the area of the Vestfold. Although the chronicler placed this overseas province in Britain, it was in fact part of Norway. When the Vikings killed King Beorhtric’s reeve (agent of the king), in 789 AD, for example, the chronicler confidently asserts, “Those were the first ships of Danish men which came to the land of the English.” In reality, they were Norwegians from the district of Hjordaland.

This clearly represents one of the problems throughout the entire Viking age in England. The English called all Vikings, despite nationality, ‘Danes’. Therefore, ‘Danes’ should be viewed as a generic term for ‘Viking’ when reading early English history.

Even though the Danes, the most ‘advanced’ of the Scandinavians, had a central monarchy, the relationship of basic units of society to the elite class was very different from that of northwest Europe. The absence of a unified Church, or even a state religion, weakened the possibility of a single monarchy ruling all of the Viking subjects. The lack of a central authority meant that the use of violence by the individual, tribe or clan, was institutionalized and accepted as a way of life. There was little which could be done to prevent violence in Old Norse culture without centralized law or church. The Viking could not comprehend the ideals of Christianity, the respect of property or life in return for your eternal soul; it was not part of their early culture. Therefore, what you got was a culture based on warfare with no consternation given to Christian ideals, such as plundering holy relics. To them, it was a foreign and incomprehensible morality. The Vikings, therefore, had no fear of dying in battle with the blood on their hands, for their concept of an ‘afterlife’ was bleak and forbidding, ending in battle. They had no fear of recrimination of a god and Christian morality meant nothing to them, not because they were unfeeling brutes, but because they had never experienced such concepts. So, what was the Viking’s religion?

Viking Beliefs and Religion

The Vikings had no organized 'religion' as such. Although there were temples and holy places, religion among the Norsemen seems to have been very much a personal matter, with each man honoring the gods in the manner which best suited him. This 'honor' would usually take the form of a sacrifice or votive offering, to one of the many Norse gods, in return for his favor in battle, or its help with a feat of arms, or for one of the myriad daily trials of life. One of the Norse gods, Thor, son of Odin, is depicted right.

[Thor, GHod of thunder] The world of Norse mythology is a strange and dark world. Asgaard, the home of the gods is unlike any other heaven men have dreamed of. There is no radiancy or joy in it; no assurance of everlasting triumph, peace of bliss. Over Asgaard hangs the threat of inevitable doom. The gods who reside there know that the day will come when they will be destroyed. And although they will struggle manfully, ultimately the forces of evil, the giants, will overcome them. The chief god is Odin (also of the Anglo-Saxons in the Wodan guise). He presides over the feasts of the gods in his golden palace, Gladsheim. Odin eats nothing, but gives the food set before him, to two wolves at his feet. On his shoulders are perched two ravens, who fly through the world and bring back news of all that men do. One is called 'Thought' and the other 'memory', and while the other gods feast, Odin considers all that 'thought' and 'memory' have told him. The Valkyries were maiden attendants of Odin. They not only waited on the feast tables in Asgaard, filling drinking horns with mead, they also went to battlefields to escort one-half of the worthy warriors, those that had fought and died bravely, to Odin's long house, Valhalla (Hall of the slain). The other principle gods are equally stern and forbidding. Thor, the god of thunder was one of the most popular aside from Odin himself, Heimdale, the guardian of the rainbow bridge to Asgaard, Freyer who cares for all the fruits of the earth, Freya, a goddess of love and beauty and fertility, and of course, Tyr, the god of war. Balder, one of the most beloved gods was already dead, having been the first victim of the coming "Ragnarok", the battle of doom. He was tricked and destroyed by Loki, the half-bastard son of their enemy - the giants. Curiously, Freya, the goddess of love and beauty, also got to claim half of the worthy dead for herself as the Norse saw no conflict in 'love' being on the battlefield - it was instead an idea promoted.

Their mortal enemies are the Giants, who dwell at Jotenheim. They also believed in dwarfs, and elves, for which we owe the origins of the inspired modern tales of fantasy. All Vikings know that final victory had been ordained to the evil forces, that the gods will continue to resist to the last - and this idea is where the Viking idealization of bravery in the face of certain defeat comes from. A lot of Norse mythology draws from the 'Elder Edda', a collection of wise sayings and legends (the Viking bible, if you will) that somehow survived from Iceland's pagan past. The specter of the final triumph of evil (the giants) is omnipotent, and the saga records bleakly, "the gods are doomed and the end is death." This day of doom was known, as Ragnarok, where heaven and earth would be destroyed, and the tree that supports heaven and earth, would be gnawed from the roots, by a serpent at its feet. On the day of Ragnarok, they (the giants and their allies) would succeed in killing the tree and the universe of man and gods would come crashing down forever.

[Asgaard - Viking aftelife] Thus, if the gods were doomed to die, the same was true of humanity. Within this bleak framework of beliefs, the Vikings knew they could not save themselves by great deeds of endurance. Even so, they would not willingly yield to the forces of evil. For them, a brave deed, especially in the face of ultimate doom, would entitle them to a seat in Valhalla, one of the great halls of Asgaard. There they would feast with the gods, frolic with the valkyries and engage in feats of strength and war. Nevertheless, even there, they could only look forward to final defeat and destruction. In the last battle between good and evil, the Vikings would fight on the side of the doomed gods, and die with them.

This surely was stern stuff for humanity to live by, and it was the antithesis of a Christian gospel with its promise of everlasting life and happiness. The Viking knew nothing of these ideals and understood them even less. The only sustaining, spiritual support the Norse legends gave was in the quest for the attainment of heroism. The power of good was seen at its purest in continuing to resist evil while faced with certain defeat. They saw victory in a heroic death because they believed that courage alone was never defeated. Thus, for the Viking, fear in battle was a foreign concept and this made them dauntless, dangerous, and a sometimes ruthless enemy, whose disregard for their own mortality frightened the Christians of Europe as much as their fighting skills.

Valhalla, Hall of the gods
[Valhalla] Once again, it is important to underscore this belief system and how it affected the Vikings. Their belief in courage and valor (which comes from the Elder Edda - their 'bible') was once again in direct contrast and opposition to the Christian doctrine of forgiveness and tolerance. They had no belief in an everlasting life after death, certainly not one with peace and happiness. War, bravery, and courage: these were the only things important to a Viking warrior. It is best summed up by a line from the Elder Edda:

"A coward thinks he will live forever, if only he can shun warfare. A brave man can live anywhere. But a coward dreads all things." This fierce creed made the Vikings implacable enemies who would fight furiously, long after hope was gone. And contemporary accounts of Norsemen at war bear this out. You have therefore, a thriving religion, though it was a pagan one, which could inspire a warrior culture.

The specter of Viking warriors and their prowess in battle has actually haunted them in terms of history. They were depicted, up until late last century, as heathen, merciless, wantonly cruel, rapists. That is an extreme oversimplification. The Northman was actually no more barbaric that his contemporaries of the day: the Franks, Saxons and even some of the older Celtic societies. For example, Charlemagne, considered one of Europe’s early ‘hero-kings’, once had thousands of Saxons slaughtered simply to take their land and put it under his rule. The seven petty kingdoms of England were constantly at war with each other, the Scots, Picts and the Welsh. Great slaughter occurred in these ‘civilized kingdoms’ long before the Vikings ever came there.

In the next part, we shall look at more early Viking raids; where they attacked and what the countries they attacked were like in the early Viking Age.

Go to Part 2, "Vikings Invade! & Longships "

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