8 min read
The Viking Age is a fascinating period of history that has captured the imagination of people around the world. However, as with any historical period, there are many misconceptions and myths surrounding the Vikings. In this guest blog post written by none other than the fantastic Elin Pirso (also known as Mooselady), we will explore the Viking Age and who the Vikings really were. We will discuss their society, culture, and way of life, as well as their impact on history. By the end of this post, you will have a better understanding of the Vikings and their place in history.
Please note that this is part 2 of a guest blog article series from Elin Pirso. Part 1 about The Runes and the Vikings can be found here.
Introduction from the author
Hello everyone! I am happy to have been invited by the lovely folks at Lufolk, and have the honour to write an article for them! A little about me; my name is Elin Pirso, and I am a graduate (now during spring 2023) within cultural heritage studies and archaeology. The reason why I’ve taken a degree within these subjects is my fascination and obsession with history, culture and archaeology. On my social media platforms I take the opportunity to use the knowledge I have and spread that to other history-nerds and anyone else who would like to learn. I am very into the Scandinavian Bronze age and Iron Age, Estonian history and ancient rock carvings. Now after this introduction and some further ways to find me, have a great read!
Where you can find me
Thoughts about objectivity and history
History is not objective, it is in constant change together with our contemporary society and the developments within technology. When talking about a long gone society from ancient times, one must also keep in mind who is telling its story and when someone is telling it. History scientist Sven Sodring Jensen says during his research of the teachings of history during the 1900’s, that there are usually 4 main models of how history has been taught out. The first of these models have been designed to evoke the sense of duty, patriotism and the upholding of the current norms (often times with religious undertones). This model often speak of certain important people of a countries elite like kings, jarls, local chieftains and often they tell of important wars. The second model has been the objective history telling, where politics and religion has been left out of the historical retelling. This second model seems more random and chaotic because it doesn’t focus on certain elites or wars, but maybe rock arts or how to make butter (however this is under all criticism because no human is purely objective and a selection is always made by someone). The third model is where history is being used as a way to navigate in the contemporary society, and where one can use different parts of history to be used in a modern sense. The fourth one is all of these three combined, so the fourth one is trying to get over the flaws in the earlier three models. Maybe you could even recognise one or several models from your own history classes in school.
The big question you might have now is why I am suddenly bringing up these very complex and abstract lines of thoughts and models of history teaching? I can promise you it is not to be a pain in your butt, or anywhere else on your body and spirit. It is just important when talking about the Vikings, to make sure that everyone is on board with that there is a huge norm and bias in how the tales of these people have been moulded and sculptured during the 1800’s and 1900’s up until today. These norms also existed in their own time during the Iron Age, and the stories later told by archaeologists and historians through the centuries afterwards.
Many have claimed that the famous Viking Age started with the raid of Lindisfarne during 793 AD, which is somewhat interesting, since archaeological evidence shows that wouldn’t be the only time Scandinavians have been out raiding with ships of this sort. There is for example the famous ship burials found in Salme, Estonia, dated to the end of 600 AD and the start of 700 AD. As well together with the countless petroglyphs from Scandinavian Bronze Age depicting boat travels, together with proof of how the bronze found in Scandinavia from the Bronze Age does not originate from there, it comes from far away countries such as Spain. The question is however how much of these travels have been peaceful in contrast to the ones that was not. And when does the Scandinavian raids become of “Viking character” instead of anything else? Is time and its modern chronical category the only factor perhaps?
The Lindisfarne raid is however of significance, since that was the start of events that would eventually lead to the famous Danelaw and permanent changes to the course of history on the British Isles. And if we were to guess, the people who lived on the British Isles might not have found the Scandinavians coming there to raid and cause chaos, to be that empathic during these times. Which gives us the description of the Vikings to be barbaric and cruel. But other evidence suggests that besides this chaos and raiding, there has been many trips made to the British Isles that has been peaceful merchant trips. The traveling Viking is therefore a complex character to describe, and it completely depends on which Scandinavian travellers during which circumstance we put emphasis on.
Okay, let’s get on with the Vikings already!
Let us now talk about the people in Scandinavia during the Viking Age. It is important to remember that the Viking Age is a terminology, and the people living during this period will be referred to as Vikings in this article, not only the ones raiding or travelling. Just as not everyone had access to Bronze during the Bronze Age, they will still be referred to as Bronze Age people. It just makes it easier for everyone to understand which geographical area and during which time period I am referring to as an author. Thanks for your understanding.
The Viking Age lasted from around the years 800 to 1050 AD (both a bit before and a bit after), and with all the archaeological finds originating from this period, it could be seen as an exciting and dynamical time of Scandinavian history. Farming and fishing seems to have been the main basis of the economy of this time, this may have been what financed the blooming merchandise and travels of the Viking Age. There seems to have been a positive development in farming which led to both better fed people and a healthy economy. There was also more of a centralised way to build villages, that provided more protection than earlier, and might have made it easier for jarls and local chieftains to bargain with the farmers in exchange for protection. There is definitely an elite in this society, and humans with different roles. Farmers, crafters and other people with tamer occupations are more common than the famous raiding Viking. The lowest class of this society would be the thralls and ambats, the slaves of Viking Age Scandinavia. There is mention of a farmer having as many as 30 thralls doing chores on his farm during the beginning of 1000 AD. There is also a runestone from Denmark, telling the story of a blacksmith being let free by his master, during a travel (this stone has the id DR 58).
Viking women of the elite could also have respect, status, could own land and inherit riches. They could also remarry and continue on with new families. There is no sign of the women having lower status than the men of their time. It seems to matter more with which class you were than which gender you had. Something we can see through the example of the famous Warrior Grave Bj 581, where a woman has been laid to rest with a whole weaponry and 2 horses. Women of the Viking Age has also been given a magical role through the historical storytelling. This in the form of the female shamans, the Völvor, which have been found buried together with their magical staves of iron. Many finds and sagas also displays how Viking women have used weaving as both an occupation but also a tool to perform rituals. Many women from the Viking Age has also been buried with scales, which might point to them being merchants during their life.
Diggings made on Gotland and Öland, Sweden, shows that houses usually held 3 generations of the same family. And many places like the Viking town of Birka, the big farmstead of Varnhem and the island Helgö shows us that the Vikings were well connected with the outside world. Exchanging of culture and trading was blooming. The Viking Age and its people was a very dynamic and complex period in time, and the big majority of the Scandinavian population did not travel and raid, some however made their riches through that kind of activity, and many runestones tells the tales of young men dying in that fashion.
With all of the modern interpretations of the Vikings through movies, games and TV-series, let’s also talk fashion for a bit. It is told that the Vikings washed at least once a week and were very concerned with looks and cleanliness, which can also be seen through how many Viking Age combs has been found. Even to this day the name of Saturday is Lördag (with variations throughout Scandinavian languages), which comes from the act to “löga” or “laugō”, simply put it means to wash oneself. A common theme I’ve seen through the creations of modern media is the usage of black leather clothes on Vikings, which wouldn’t have been the case at all during the Viking Age. Black was a very hard colour to produce and maintain during these times, so most of the Vikings clothes were brightly coloured. Wool and linen were the most commonly used materials, together with woven details on dresses and tops. What was made in leather and skin was mainly shoes, hats and belts. Together with media and modern interpretations from a monotheistic religious point of view; there is also this common thought of that Odin was the main god of worship. From archaeological finds in form of Mjölnir pendants and runestones it seems like Thor has been the main god of worship during the Viking Age.
The Vikings were not more or less real than you and me, they were also just people trying to get by and maintain purpose. The stereotypical, mystical, long bearded man, swinging an axe to defeat his enemies is just as real as the countless mothers holding their children in their laps, while the fathers take a big bite out of their first meal for that day, while the sun is slowly rising to the east. People are not 2-dimensional, and they have never been. And most of us are just that, people.
Last words from the author
This article was written in 2023, which means that all the information in this article might change. Questions we are one archaeological find away from getting answers to; can be just around the corner.
I will publish all the sources used for writing this article, some of which are in Swedish and not English. The goal with this article is to give a fair and informed image of what the runes are, how they have been used and who the people during the Viking Age in Scandinavia were. I have been transparent with what is known and what is impossible for us to know. All speculations and theories are explained as such, and it should be taken in consideration that these theories might not be the true facts.
I would like to thank all of you who have made it this far – Skål and thank you for your time.
Best wishes – Elin aka MooseLady
Personal visit to Lödöse Museum
Nordisk runläsebok, Rask, Lars, 1996
Runor, Mästarens handbok, Enoksen ,Lars Magnar, 2015
Vikingarnas egna ord, Enoksen, Lars Magnar, 2003
On the Origin and Early History of the Runic Script, Typology and Graphic Variation in the Older Futhark, Odenstedt, Bengt, 1990
Viking Art, Graham-Campbell, 2013
Vikingaliv, Harrisson, Dick, Ekero Eriksson, Kristina, 2007
En svensk historia från vikingatid till nutid, Berggren, Lars, Greiff, Mats, 2013
Arkeologi i Norden 1, Burenhult, Göran, 1999