Guest Post: Six Misunderstandings About the Vikings by Grace Tierney

Today it is a pleasure to welcome author Grace Tierney to the blog, with a fascinating article on what we know – and what we get wrong – about the Vikings. Over to Grace:

Horned helmet

The Vikings were the people of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden and from 750-1100 they changed everywhere they landed in their longships. They settled from America to Russia and travelled from the Arctic to Africa, not bad for a bunch of lawless raiders. By 1000 A.D. Old Norse (or the Danish tongue as it was called) was the most widely spoken language in Europe and modern English retains many of their words – several of which you use in almost every sentence. We have Vikings to thank for them, they, thing, get, take, time and sky, for example.

1. Vikings Word Horned Helmets, or Did They?

Every Viking you’ve ever seen in a cartoon had horns on his helmet but this stereotype is simply not true. Also, many of those warriors were female.

No horned helmets have been discovered in Viking digs. They wore simple skullcap helmets. How did this misconception arise?

In 1874, Richard Wagner composed “The Ring Cycle”. It’s a group of four operas which he loosely based on the Norse sagas and they’re still popular. The costume designer for the original production, Carl Emil Doepler, designed horned helmets for the Viking characters. His designs have influenced artists, filmmakers, and cartoonists ever since.

Vikings loved horns though. They were astute traders who sold spiral narwhal tusks as unicorn horns. Traders from the rest of Europe hadn’t seen the horned whale themselves as only the Vikings had reached the Arctic at that point. Medieval Europeans believed such a horn had magical properties, especially against poisons and melancholy. “Unicorn horns” were literally worth their weight in gold and the Vikings, who originally bought them from the Inuit and later hunted for them, were happy to bolster the stories.

In the 1500s, Queen Elizabeth I of England received a carved and jewel-encrusted narwhal tusk as a gift which would be worth about £5 million sterling today. It was claimed as being from a sea unicorn and was named the Horn of Windsor.

2. Columbus Discovered North America in 1492

Recent discoveries show the Vikings got there first.

The Viking Sagas tell us that a famous Viking explorer called Leif Erickson sailed to a land west of Greenland (settled by the Vikings) and created a colony called Vinland around the year 1000, almost five centuries before Columbus reached the New World. Historians believe Vinland was in modern-day Canada in the Newfoundland, Gulf of St. Lawrence, and New Brunswick areas. It wasn’t a single location, but a series of settlements along the same coast, many of which had wild grapevines, hence the name.

In 1960 this idea moved from historical theory to reality with the excavation of L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland. The area didn’t have vines, but definitely showed the idea of a Vinland Viking colony was feasible and gave us clear proof that Vikings landed in North America.

The site was explored during the 1960s and 1970s and carbon-dating of timbers confirmed the date (990-1050) of what appears to be a Norse base probably used for timber gathering (wood was in very short supply in Greenland despite the name) and ship repair. Some items founds in the camp came from other areas of North America and show the Vikings had landed there too. Significant levels of Viking artefacts have also been found on Baffin Island and Labrador, Canada.

3. Vikings Traded on the Silk Roads

Vikings were skilled traders. Their trade network, including centres at Hedeby, Birka, and Kiev, helped the European economy recover after the demise of the Roman Empire. They traded Arab coins, Chinese silks, and Indian gems. They used silver, and sometimes gold, as a weighed trading currency. Viking coins, for example, are a common find in digs in Dublin and elsewhere. At a time when trade via bartering was common, the Vikings introduced the idea of coins for use as payment to Northern Europe.

The Viking settlements around the Baltic Sea used that waterway for trade but they also traded along the Rivers Volga and Dnieper in Russia to connect with Constantinople, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and the Caspian Sea. Even the name Russia comes from Old Norse. The waterways linked them to the Silk Roads (a selection of trade routes connecting Europe to Asian silk supplies, only named silk roads quite recently).

4. Vikings Didn’t Leave a Lasting Legacy

This one can be disputed on many levels but I dare you to mention it to a Dane. King Gorm the Old was a Viking who ruled Denmark from 936 to his death in 958. Before King Gorm’s reign, according to the sagas, the land was ruled by the Norse Gods and semi-legendary figures like Ragnar Lothbrok and Ivarr the Boneless (whose stories are told in the TV series “Vikings”). Ragnar did exist, but the sagas about him may refer to more than one person.

Gorm is perhaps best known for fathering three sons – Toke, Knut, and Harald. His son Harald, who ruled after him as King Harald Bluetooth, moved Vikings toward Christianity.

Harald Bluetooth Gormsson was King of Denmark and parts of Norway from 958 until 987 when he was murdered on the orders of his son. He is most famous for bringing together various Danish tribes into a united nation with Norwegian neighbours. It was this ability to bring people together that inspired the naming of bluetooth technology in his honour when it was developed by the Swedish company Ericsson in 1994. The bluetooth symbol is a monogram of the two runes of King Harald’s initials.

Historians are not certain how King Harald got his nickname but most guess he had a prominent blackened tooth. The word used in the old texts to describe his tooth as blue has over-tones of black as well as blue.

King Gorm is officially claimed as an ancestor to the current Danish royal family. The Danish monarchy is one of the oldest in the world and the current queen can trace her line back more than a thousand years, so technically Denmark is still ruled by Vikings.

5. Romans Ruled Britain, the Vikings Just Raided

The Scottish will point at Hadrian’s Wall and proudly explain the Romans never subdued them. The Irish (part of Britain in Roman times) will explain the Romans didn’t bother to invade. It’s more accurate to say the Romans conquered part of Britain (England and Wales) and ruled there for nearly four centuries from 43 to 410 A.D.

Viking ship prow, Wexford

The Vikings settled larger swathes of the British Isles (during the Dane Law years) than the Romans, as they also settled Ireland and Scotland. They didn’t create roads and villas, but as discussed in my book “Words the Vikings Gave Us” they helped form the English language.

Perhaps the most startling example of prolonged Viking rule in the British Isles comes from the Scottish islands of Orkney and Shetland.

The Orkney islands, held a central position in the Viking world for centuries. 60% of modern Orkney islanders are genetically linked to Norway but that’s not surprising as Vikings ruled Orkney and Shetland for nearly 700 years – three centuries longer than Roman Britain.

Vikings settled Orkney in the late 700s as a base to raid into Scotland, England, and Ireland. The islands were finally returned to Scotland in 1468 when they formed part of the dowry of the daughter of King Christian I of Denmark upon her marriage to King James III of Scotland.

The first written accounts of the Shetlands are in the Norse sagas. They were conquered by the Vikings around 800. Again being traded away for a princess’s dowry many centuries later. On Norwegian National Day the island is draped in Norwegian flags despite being an oil-rich part of Great Britain. If you visit on the last Tuesday of January to celebrate Up Helly Aa, watch them burn a longship in costume, led by a Jarl, and wonder if the Vikings ever left Britain.

6. Vikings were Lawless

Despite having a reputation for being lawless raiders, Vikings gave the English language words like bylaw, ombudsman, and law. In fact they also gave us parliaments. Iceland’s national assembly is called the Althing. Its the oldest parliament in the world, having been founded in 930, and it originally met in the Thing Fields outside Reykjavik. This is where the English language gets the word thing. The first English representative parliament was established in 1265, in case you’re wondering.

Give the Vikings a second look, they might surprise you. Just don’t wear a horned helmet.

Many thanks to Grace for such a wonderful post. Words the Vikings Gave Us is available now in ebook and paperback.

About the author:

Grace Tierney is a columnist, author, and blogger writing on Ireland’s coast. Since 2009, she explores unusual English words every Monday at http://wordfoolery.wordpress.com, and on Irish radio. Her latest book, “Words the Vikings Gave Us”, launches this month and is a light-hearted look at the horde of words the English dictionary stole from the Vikings. From akimbo to yule Old Norse merged with Anglo-Saxon to form the start of the English language. The book unearths the history of words like kiss, ombudsman, bluetooth, frisbee, thing, and hustings. More than 300 words and phrases are featured – drawn from ship life, Viking food, farming, Norse romance, myths, politics, modern Vikings, anatomy, place names, daily life, and of course how to fight like a Viking.

Her earlier books about words include “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” (the extraordinary lives of those who gave their names as eponyms to English) and “Words The Sea Gave Us” (nautical nouns and phrases from fishermen, pirates, and explorers).

Her favourite Viking words are hug (so unexpected from a gang of plunderers) and attercop because it’s from her favourite childhood book.

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