Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Who were the Vikings? (Part 2)

Norsemen Landing in Iceland by Oscar Wergeland
The Vikings proved themselves as ruthless and raiders and pirates. But beyond their pillaging, they also showed their skills as explorers. 

Vikings as Colonizers and Explorers

Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland

Vikings, however, not only made themselves notorious as raiders and pirates, they also showed themselves as great explorers and colonizers.

One of their greatest exploits in exploration and colonization was in the North Atlantic. In 874 Ingolfur Arnarson moved out of Norway due to political instability and centralization of power and sailed west. He found an island to settle on and called it Iceland. He built his farm in modern day Reykjavik, the capital of modern day Iceland. The news of Iceland spread among Norwegian Vikings and many followed.

Erik the Red from
Arngrímur Jónsson's Gronlandia
A hundred years later, Iceland became the home of another great Viking explorer, Erik the Red, this brutal outlaw set out from Iceland and further west, reaching and discovering Greenland. The naming of the land Greenland aimed to attract settlers and to hide the fact that life there was as harsh as Norway or Iceland, if not worst. Nevertheless, even with hardship, Erik the Red lived in Greenland and raised there his son, Leif Erickson, who grew up to be a great explorer as his father.

When Leif Erickson commanded his own ship, he set to find a lush green land that he heard existed in the southwest. With the use of stars and experience as guide, he and his crew set out in the journey. In 1000, 400 years before Colombus, Leif Erickson landed in the lands of North America, calling the site as Vinland. Today, it is settled that Vinland was located in Newfoundland. Leif Erickson then returned to Vinland bringing settlers to stay. But the settlement lasted only a decade before being abandoned said to be because of Native Americans.

The Invitation of the Varangians by Viktor Vasnetsov
While the Norwegian Vikings explored the North Atlantic, the Swedish Vikings on the other hand spread their reach into Slavic land and into the Black Sea. The Vikings sailed to the major rivers of Russia, like the Don, Dnieper, and Danube, to reach Constantinople, the richest city in Europe. They sometimes raid and kidnapped unsuspecting individuals to be sold as slaves in the Byzantine capital. The Greeks called the Vikings as Varangian and knew their ferocity in battle and their violence over plunder.

In the 9th century, the Slavs of modern day Russia invited the Vikings to rule them and lead them to fight their enemy, the Khazars. Eventually, the Slavs and Vikings established centers such as Novgorod and Kiev. And from Vikings, they transformed into Rus, coming from either the combination of Ruotsi (Sweden in Finish Language) and Rhos (meaning rower in runic alphabet) or simply the word given by Slavs meaning rowers in Viking ships. The city of Kiev later on developed as a city of commerce and power as it grew to become the kingdom of Kievan Rus.

In 988, Emperor Basil II of the Byzantine Empire and the Viking descent Prince Vladimir struck a deal. Vladimir received from Basil a Byzantine princess for a wife in exchange for his conversion to Christianity and handing over several hundreds of Viking warriors, to serve as first of the highly regarded Varangian Guards.


Vikings preyed very much to the unprotected lands of Northern France. In 911, Rollo, a Viking leader, disputed whether Norwegian or Danish, landed in Northern France. Upon his arrival, he received an offer from the French King Charles the Simple. It offered the lands of Northern France, along the mouth of the Seine River, in exchange for fealty, for defend it from Viking raids and for his conversion to Christianity. Rollo accepted the offer and the lands they settled became known as Normandy, coming from the word Northmen. The Vikings of Normandy later developed administrative skills that led Normandy to be one of the most powerful and influential regions in France. 

What made the Vikings so dreaded and successful?

The Vikings proved themselves as great warriors with unquestionable ruthlessness and ferocity. But they showed their skills as exceptional explorers. One of the elements to their success was their ships.

Viking ships were marvels of the medieval world, born out of centuries of shipbuilding experience in the seas of Scandinavia. There longboats were light and fast in sea. It had a shallow drift which gives it its speed and balance. It allowed them to sail in waters as shallow as 4 feet. It can be moved by rowing or with mast or both. Its mast on the other can be taken down and up quickly, allowing it to travel in rivers and pass under bridges. Its bow and stern can be decorated with curves or animal heads, most famously dragons. These ships brought Vikings into the rivers of Europe and to the rough and strong waters of Northern Atlantic. It made them successful as raiders as well as explorers.

As warriors, they armed themselves with weapons that Europe also was familiar. Vikings used broadswords and round shields against their enemies and victims. But Vikings had a unique weapon that Europe feared – the dane axe. A dane axe given to huge strong Vikings toughen by the climate of Scandinavia and years of experience in cutting lumber for fire, housing and ships was a force to be reckon with. The Vikings, however, usually wore no armor only helmets. And the helmets did not have horns which later used to depict Vikings. The myth of horn helmets only began in the operas of Richard Wagner.
1872 Woodcut Image of a Berserker
Vikings already made a reputation as great warriors, but even greater were there special band of drug-induced warriors called Berserkers. Bigger than usual Viking, these men who wore animal skin underneath their bare bodies, drank drugs, and screamed with ferocity struck fear and struck hard in battlefields. They continued to fight even wounded and became models of bravery in battle.

The Vikings had set their tactics, attacking easy targets, which were villages and farms. Their lack of siege weapons led them to avoid walled cities and castles, which Europe used to their advantages. They use brutality to demoralize their enemies, using torture and grotesque execution means, such as the notorious blood eagle.

Another reason for the unstoppable raids of the Vikings was the lack of central leadership. The lack of bigger and central leadership allowed different community heads to lead expeditions independently from each other, resulting to large numbers of attacks in Western Europe. The absence of a King to kill or deal with and a central head to cut made stopping the Vikings harder. 

With their superb ships, intimidating looks, expertise with their weapons, combined with good tactics and leadership, the Vikings propelled themselves out of the snow covered lands of Scandinavia and into world history, striking fear to the kings and princes of Europe and colonizing new lands that later contributed to Europe’s development.But how did their era came to an end suddenly?

See also:

Backman, Clifford. The Worlds of Medieval Europe. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

"VIkings." In Encyclopedia of European Peoples. Edited by Carl Waldman et. al. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2006.

"Vikings." In Encyclopedia of World History. Edited by Marsha Ackermann et. al. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2008.

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