Viking Age history is filled with tales of exploration, conquest, and a deep connection to the natural world. One lesser-known aspect of their culture is the use of herbs, their medicine. In this blog post, you will learn more about herbal practices during the Viking age and uncover the role of herbs in their daily lives. From skilled healers to the use of medicinal plants in rituals, the Vikings showcased their resourcefulness and deep knowledge of the natural world.
Viking Age Herbal Practices: How Vikings Used Herbs for Healing
Vikings were resourceful people who harnessed herbs' power, which was the medicine at that time. It seems like there were people who specialized in medicine/healers. Surgical instruments have also been found in archeological excavations. It´s difficult to tell exactly which herbs and how they were used. We can get some clues in the names of the herbs and some traditional Norse herbal treatments could include: Yarrow, greater plantain, and onion
These Viking herbal remedies for common ailments highlight their deep knowledge of the natural world and their resourcefulness in using herbs for healing.
The Role of Herbs in Viking Culture: Medicine and Beyond
Here is a list of a couple of plants and how they were used:
Cherry gourd (Aegopodium podagraria)
This resilient plant was highly valued for its aromatic leaves, which could be stewed like spinach or eaten raw in salads. Known as an effective remedy for gout, the crushed plant was applied to sore feet.
Marsh mallow (Althea officinalis)
Originating from the Caspian Sea region, marsh mallow was a known expectorant and soothing cough remedy during Viking times. The roots, which can be boiled and eaten as a vegetable, are rich in starch, sugar, and mucilage. Hildegard of Bingen advocated the use of marsh mallow for fever and headaches.
Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger)
Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) holds a unique place in history as one of the oldest poisonous and medicinal plants known to mankind. The entire plant is highly toxic, containing potent substances like hyoscyamine and scopolamine that impact the central nervous system. These toxins can induce hallucinations and other adverse effects when absorbed through the skin or ingested. Despite its dangers, henbane has been utilized for its narcotic and anesthetic properties since ancient times. Serving as a powerful sleeping aid and anesthetic, the plant was also used as an arrow poison. Interestingly, henbane was known to cause intense thirst, double vision, convulsions, unrestrained rage, and insanity.
It is possible that Völvas, the female seers, turned to henbane to enter a trance and achieve an ecstatic state. This practice is linked to the mythical oracle of Delphi, who, after consuming henbane, would enter a hysterical state and utter the renowned prophecies.
Could be that the Viking warriors, berserkers, achieved their transformation through the use of henbane.
The spread of henbane is attributed primarily to wandering folk groups and monks, who carried the plant's seeds along their journeys.
One peculiar use of henbane involved putting chickens to sleep to prevent their cackling from exposing thieves during chicken heists.
Garden angelica (Angelica archangelica)
A Nordic beach and mountain plant, garden angelica is the only medicinal herb that has entered the world market from the Nordics. Rich in vitamin C, it served as a nutritional supplement during Viking times. The boiled roots, which are unusually aromatic, can be used in autumn as a sweetener in tart fruit dishes.
Celery (Apium graveolens)
With origins in eastern Asia, celery was cultivated and used as food and medicine. During the Viking Age, the root and fruit were used as elmwood remedies and, according to Hildegard of Bingen, for treating gout, watery eyes, and blood purification.
Herbs were not only used for medicine but also had spiritual and ritualistic significance, as mentioned:
- Berserkers: These legendary Viking warriors may have used henbane to induce a transformative state before entering battle. Another theory is that they used a drink made of labrador tea and bog bilberry. Later sources say that this drink will make you mad and that Scandinavians used to drink it. The myth that they used fly agaric is not true.
- Völvas: Female seers in Norse society might have used henbane during their rituals, inhaling its smoke to enter a trance-like state. Henbane seeds have been found in some graves of Völvas.
Uncovering the Rich History of Viking Medicinal Plants
Recent archaeological findings have shed new light on the variety of cultivated plants in Nordics during the Viking Age. Contrary to popular belief, it seems the Vikings brought home foreign seeds, cuttings, and grafts from their extensive contact with Europe. This resulted in a more diverse array of plants than previously assumed, such as opium poppy, mullein, and medicinal mallow.
Cultural Exchange and the Spread of Knowledge
The Vikings' cultural exchange with other regions is evident by importing fruits and seeds like pine, peach, and grapes. This ongoing interaction with other cultures allowed them to expand their knowledge of herbs and their uses, contributing to the history of Viking age herbal practices.
During the Viking Age, the Norse people were brave explorers and great learners. They knew how to use the natural world around them to heal and spiritually connect with their surroundings. The use of herbs was one of their many practices, and as we uncover more about their medicinal plants, we learn about their resourcefulness and deep connection to nature. This is a testament to the significance of preserving and learning from ancient practices and wisdom, not only to enrich our understanding of the Viking Age but also to keep these practices alive for future generations.