The Vikings are best known for the long voyages they undertook in their ingeniously designed ships, which carried them to four continents. Along the coasts and rivers of western Europe they journeyed to the Mediterranean, and they visited North African shores. By way of the Russian rivers they reached the Black Sea and Constantinople (now Istanbul), the Caspian Sea and beyond to Baghdad in Asia. They founded settlements in Shetland and Orkney, and crossed the Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland and Canada, perhaps penetrating even further south along the American coast. We do not know for sure how the word Viking originated, nor what it meant. Many different interpretations of the word are possible, and they are all more or less controversial. Perhaps it was originally only intended to designate people coming from Viken, that is to say the region around the inner Skagerrak (the coasts of today's Oslo Fjord and northern Bohus county). A rune-stone on Gotland tells of Vikings heading west. Those heading east were called Rus, perhaps after the Roslagen region in eastern Sweden, or Varjagi (Varangians)—a Slav term for non-Slav peoples in the Baltic region. Perhaps the word Viking was originally synonymous with "pirate", as many contemporary people saw the Vikings as nothing other than barbaric plunderers. In modern usage, the term Viking is used to designate anybody living in the Viking heartlands, that is the three Scandinavian kingdoms of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, during the Viking Age. The Viking Age was contemporaneous with the end of Nordic prehistory and lasted some 250 years, from the time of the first known Viking attacks on the east coast of England in the late eighth century to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when William the Conqueror (the great great grandson of the Viking war leader Rollo, also known as Rolf the Ganger) seized England. By this time most people in the Nordic lands had been converted to Christianity, and the Middle Ages are generally considered to have started here by around 1050. The Vikings pursued a relatively independent way of life on the edges of Christian Europe, which was headed by the Pope in Rome. In the early ninth century, Charlemagne was the predominant ruler in Europe. His empire was divided into three when he died in 814, and thereby significantly weakened. In the south-east there was the Byzantine Empire with its capital in Constantinople, and in the south-west the Muslim Empire, the Caliphate, which was ruled from Baghdad and expanded into Spain by way of Gibraltar. Feudalism was beginning to develop in Europe. And just at this time, the Vikings began to make their presence felt more forcefully outside the Nordic area.
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For several hundred years before the Viking era, Scandinavian boat-builders had been developing a type of ship that proved to be superior to most previous designs. And the art of sailing had finally been mastered. It is probable that sail was not used in the Nordic area before the seventh century AD.
The Viking ships were 48-96 feet (15-30 m) in length. They were built with a shell technique, that is a strong keel was laid down first, preferably as a single piece that would increase the stability of the ship. A large oak block was placed on the keel, with a hole for the mast. The boards, usually of oak but occasionally of deal, were clinker-built, that is the board planks were partially overlapping and were joined with iron rivets. The boards were caulked with tardrenched ropes of cattle-hair or textile rags. In one of the uppermost boards there would be holes for the oars. From the inside the holes could be covered with small wooden plugs as a protection against taking in water unnecessarily. Flexible ribbing added when the boards were already in place made for elastic ships. Once the design had been perfected, the shallow-draught ships were fast, capacious and seaworthy. A fully-laden ship drew only approximately one metre for a load of some twenty to thirty tons. In the stern, to starboard, the great rudder or steering oar was located. It was fastened with straps to the inside of the boarding. There was also a rope at the bottom of the boat to raise the rudder when the ship came into shallow waters. The sails were of wool, or perhaps linen, the sheets of hemp. On the basis of theoretical calculations and practical experiments, a maximum speed of 12-14 knots has been verified, but normally some 8 knots could be attained with full sail and a fair wind.
We know little of Viking navigational techniques, but in all probability they kept to the coasts as far as they possibly could. There, natural formations provided a wealth of landmarks. In sailing the open sea, such signs as the direction of the waves, the flight of the birds and perhaps even the height and location of the stars above the horizon. In the Icelandic book Hauk's saga, the story of a voyage between Greenland and Norway is told. There it is narrated how you should sail due east and north of Shetland, which is just visible to the south of the Faeroes, etc. South of Iceland you will encounter birds and whales, the saga continues.
The possibility of Vikings using a primitive bearing plate has been discussed. At a Viking settlement in Greenland, half a round, graduated, wooden disc has been found, which might possibly have served as a bearing plate. It has been dated to around AD noo.
The tools that were used to build the ships were so well designed that they have been in use more or less unchanged until the present day.
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As early as the eighth century, the Scandinavians were in firm control of the trading stations on the waterways through what is now Russia to the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, such as Aldeigjuborg (Staraya Ladoga) and Konuborg (Kiev). These towns became the principal cities of Gardariki, the principalities founded by the Vikings in 862. These principalities were rich in the slaves, furs and skins that made the fortunes of many merchants. According to Nestor's Chronicle, also known as the Russian Primary Chronicle, written down shortly after 1100, the Kievan Rus, which sources consider to be the same as the Suiones or the early Swedes, were to choose a ruler for the Slavs. The Rus appear as early as 839 in Frankish annals. They are also mentioned in the tenth century by the Arabian diplomat Ibn Fadlan. He describes them as tall, blond and ruddy. The eastern country most frequently mentioned in runic inscriptions is Greece, which was synonymous with Byzantium. Its capital was Constantinople, which the Vikings knew as Miklagard, or Great Stronghold. Just before 1000, the so-called Varangian Guard was set up there to be the Byzantine Emperor's bodyguard. The Varangians were renowned for their stature and their blond hair. On a rune-stone at Ed Church in the province of Uppland, a winding runic ribbon states the following: "Ragnvald had these runes carved. He was in Greece, he led the warrior host." Many Vikings chose to use the Russian waterways to reach Serkland or the Land of Silk—the Abbasid Caliphate south of the Caspian Sea, whose capital was Baghdad. Ingvar the Far Travelled led a great Viking expedition against Serkland in 1040. The story is told in his saga, written down in Iceland in the thirteenth century. Ingvar and most of his men succumbed, and only a few of those who started out ever returned home. Some thirty rune-stones in Uppland tell of this failed expedition
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Norwegian Colonists were early settlers in the uninhabited islands north of Scotland. Initially, the settlements took place fairly peacefully. Shetland, Orkney, the Hebrides and the Isle of Man were occupied by peasants who had left their home tracts to make a precarious living by hunting, fishing and raising cattle in a new and harsh environment. None the less, there are also tales of raids and pillage in the years preceding 800. From about 800, Danes or Norwegians held sway in Dublin in Ireland, one of the towns founded by the Vikings. An early written testimonial of more warlike activities tells of the attack on the Lindisfarne monastery off the north-eastern coast of England in 793. An English monk of the twelfth century does not mince words as he tells of the heathen Vikings plundering, digging up the altar and killing monks. In 875, Northumbria was conquered by the Vikings, who made York their residence. King Alfred of Wessex, the overlord of England, made an agreement with them stipulating that they would only occupy the eastern parts of the country north of the Thames. Most of the Vikings who settled in the British Isles converted to Christianity and founded a number of towns. They lived as peaceful peasants, artisans and merchants.
During the following two centuries, no area of western Europe on a coastline or a river was safe from the Vikings. De furore Normannorum liberanos, Domine—Free us, O Lord, from the frenzy of the Northmen—was the prayer in the French cloisters.
When Charlemagne died in 814, the Vikings raided the French coast and rivers, and made several attacks on Paris. On Easter Day, 845, the fortress on lie de la Cite was plundered. The final siege of Paris took place in 885. It is claimed that 700 ships and 30,000 men took part, but these figures are probably very exaggerated. It has been calculated that in France alone, the Vikings seized about 650 pounds (300 kilos) of gold and 44,000 pounds (20,000 kilos) of silver. They also operated a Mafia-like reign of terror by demanding protection money as a tribute for refraining from pillage. When the Vikings had been raiding France for almost a century, the French king, Charles the Simple, took a step in 911 that was far from simple minded. He offered one of the most notorious trouble-makers, Rollo (Rolf the Ganger), the land around the Seine estuary as a fiefdom. In exchange for this, Rollo was to protect the hinterland from all other Vikings. His duchy was called Normandie. The Vikings who settled there became peasants and artisans, and after one or two generations they had become completely assimilated.
The Vikings in England also demanded tribute payments. These were known as Danegeld, as most of them went to Denmark. Towards the end of the tenth century, England was attacked by Danish Vikings. In 1012, according to contemporary accounts, the English were forced to pay about 48,500 pounds (22,000 kilos) of silver as well as an additional sum for the release of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop was killed when the Vikings did not receive what they demanded. The Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard conquered England in 1013. When his son, Canute the Great, conquered England in 1016 he levied a Danegeld of almost 88,200 pounds (40,000 kilos) of silver. Canute the Great did not just rule in England, but also in Denmark and Norway until his death in 1035, when his son Harthacanute succeeded him as regent in England until 1042.
During the ninth century, Norwegian Vikings made their way to Iceland where they established widely dispersed farming settlements. According to the Icelandic Landnamabok, the book of the taking of the land, written in the thirteenth century, Eric the Red set sail with an expeditionary force from Iceland in 985. Fourteen of the original 25 ships arrived safely in Greenland, and a colony was founded there. At its most flourishing it comprised around 5-6,000 souls, mainly dwelling in two areas some 186 miles (300 km) apart.
Studies of Greenland's inland ice have revealed that summer temperatures were on average i° C higher than they are today, which made the climate considerably more favourable for settlement then than it is today. So far, the remains of some 300 Viking farms, 17 churches and 2 monasteries have been found in Greenland. The Greenland colony existed for about 500 years before it withered away for unknown reasons in the fifteenth century.
According to the saga, Eric's son, Leif, sailed from Greenland in 986 and discovered a country he called Vinland. A farm was set up, and the Vikings traded with the original inhabitants, known to them as Skrselings. These soon became too much for the colonists to handle, however, as they attacked them unceasingly. The constant fighting forced the colonists to return to Greenland. The word vin in Vinland has nothing whatever to do with wine (modern Swedish vin) as it was the Viking term for a grassy plain.
The only really reliable traces we have today from the east coast of America are the foundations of some houses and the few implements that have been found in excavations at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. In the early 1960s the remains of a Viking settlement of some hundred people, both men and women, were discovered there. The settlement, which took place around the year 1000, only lasted for a few years. Subsequent archaeological excavations have unearthed the remains of eight buildings. There are no indications of agriculture, but remains testifying to the extraction of local bog-iron have been found, as well as a smithy of Scandinavian design. Few artefacts were found. The excavations turned up a typically Norse bronze pin, a soapstone spindle wheel, a bone pin and some ship's rivets.
In Labrador a few fragmentary finds have been made which probably come from the Norsemen — a piece of chain-mail, a chess piece, part of a balance and a piece of woollen cloth. A little wooden statuette was found in Ellesmere on Baffin Island. It represented a man dressed in a kind of tunic wearing a cross on his breast, in all likelihood a European. Finally, in the north-eastern state of Maine in the USA, a Norwegian coin dated to 1067-1093 has been found at a Native American settlement. It is not known how it got there.
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We have no reliable written sources telling us about the Vikings. Their history was written by foreigners, for instance contemporary Christian priests, monks and chroniclers, who had been exposed to ferocious raids. These unfortunate literate Christians wrote letters complaining to their bishops, and they narrated the violent deeds of the Vikings in monastic chronicles and other writings. It was of course in the interests ot those who had been pillaged to exaggerate the at rocities of the Norsemen in their reports. There are also a number of travellers accounts written by people who encountered Vikings abroad, such as Arabian diplo- mats and merchants. Interesting but controversial information about the world ot the Vikings is also to be found in the old myths and sagas that were committed to writing in Iceland in the 13th and 14th centuries, when the Icelanders had already been Christian for over two hundred years. The only written monuments of the Vikings themselves that are still pre- served are short runic inscriptions. In Sweden there are some 3,500 inscriptions, a few on wood or metal, but by far the greatest number on stone. The inscriptions arc relatively abundant, but usually brief and laconic and not very informative.
Archaeological excavations also contribute to our: knowledge of the world of the Vikings. Funeral goods are usually very fragmentary, as the Vikings followed the heathen practice of burning the dead. The excep- tions are a number of large, unburned ship burials that have provided us with invaluable knowledge. The houses, clothes and tools of the Viking era are for the most part long gone, or only exist as broken fragments.
THE VIKINGS AT HOME
Only a few of those living m Scandinavia actually took part in the Viking voyages. Most Vikings were peaceful peasants and artisans pursuing their trades at home. The Viking Age was a period of expansion, and the amount of arable land in cultivation increased. The average temperature was rather higher than it is today. The usual form of settlement was a small village of one or two main farms with outhouses for various purposes. The dwellings were long and rectangular. The low walls were usually made of wickerwork caulked with clay. Log houses have been found, as have other types of wooden or turf dwellings. The centre of the house was dominated by a fireplace which provided both heat and light. Wax candles do not seem to have been used to any great extent, with oil lamps or torches constituting other sources of light. Smoke holes were made in the gables or in the roof. The houses lacked windows. Along the walls there were built-in benches which served as seating during the day and beds at night. Valuables were kept in locked chests. Store-rooms and workshops were sometimes located in so-called pit-houses. A pit-house, to put it simply, was a pit in the ground over which a roof had been put.
The life of the peasant was linked to the sharply varying seasons of the Nordic year—summer, autumn, winter and spring. He grew oats, barley and rye as well as wheat, beans and peas. Around the farm onions, crab apples, damsons, nuts and other plants were collected to supplement the cultivated crops. Pastures and fields surrounding the farm were cleared for tilling. The peasants kept cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and poultry such as geese, hens and ducks. Tame animals were much smaller then than they are now. The milk obtained from cows, sheep and goats was used to make butter, cheese and buttermilk or skyr, coagulated sour milk. Alongside agriculture, fishing was practised and wild animals and birds were hunted. Malted barley was used to brew ale that was flavoured with herbs, and mead was produced with the help of honey. As drinking vessels, the horns of cattle were sometimes used, as were wooden or ceramic blows. Occasionally, imported glass was used. Everybody had their own knife, used to cut up th food. No forks were used. Food could be dried smoked or salted.
Narrow riding paths wound across the landscap over ridges and high ground where the roads wer driest. In low-lying terrain, the paths were rein forced by stones and logs. The rivers had fords, bridges and ferries to ease crossing. At the time it was considered vastly preferable to travel by wate rather than to venture into the deep forests, which were the haunt of wolves, bears and other wild animals. The lairs of outlaws and robbers could also b found in the great forests. Large-scale transportation relied on winter roads with their snow and ice. Sledges were used to transport goods to the market place. Primitive ice-skates and snowshoes were also used. Horses' hoof were equipped with iron spikes to enable them to get a better grip on ice o slippery road surfaces. The Vikings were skilled horsemen, and they use their horses as pack-horses for the transporting of goods.
In antiquity, settlements in Scandinavia typically took the form of separate farms consisting of a number of buildings for different purposes. Free-born yeoman farmers formed the bedrock of this society. Alongside farmers there were other occupations such as craftsmen of various kinds. At the top of the social pyramid there were the chieftains or local kings, and at the bottom there were probably the unfree thralls, the slaves of the Vikings.
In the Viking Age, small communities slowly began to grow around the trading stations, based on the need for specialized craft production. Such places were Birka on Bjorko island in Lake Malaren in Sweden, Ribe in southern Jutland in Denmark, Kaupang on the southern coast of Norway and Hedeby in Schleswig in present-day northern Germany.
Birka in central Sweden had a strategic location on Lake Malaren at the intersection of several important routes, not far from present-day Stockholm. In the Viking Age, the water-level was some 15 feet (5 m) higher than it is today, which made the lake approaches to Birka much more navigable then than they appear today. Traders came lu re from foreign parts, ami goods originating from all points of the compass were accumulated. Birka was also frequented by people living newty in the Lake Malaren valley, when they wanted to barter their produce f0 things they were unable to manufacture for the selves such as luxury articles like glass, certain fine woollen cloths and perhaps the occasional length of silk. Excavations at Birka have unearthed graves where the dead were buried uncremated in expensive silk costumes, and objects from distant places have been found among the funerary offerings. Birka was also one of the first places in Sweden in which Christianity was preached. One chronicle recounts several trips to Birka by the French monk Ansgar the ninth century. Ansgar later became the bishop Hamburg-Bremen, and his exploits were written down by his success Rimbert.
Late in the tenth century, Sigtuna, which was also situated on Lake Malaren in Uppland, became the most important settlement. This was probably due to the shoaling out of the approaches to Birka as a result of the elevation of the land. The oldest Swedish coins were minted in Sigtuna.
At the turn of the millenium, the Vikings were living in a society wit highly developed legal system, the most democratic in the known world. Decisions were reached by voting at open meetings, the Thing. At the Thing, all free men had the right to speak. Later on, in the Middle Ages, the la were written down, and we can see how they varied somewhat from o province to another. The laws were formulated piecemeal as new situations arose requiring new legal rules. We do not know exactly how the different provinces and other local entities were governed, but during t he eleventh century larger entities were formed and the kingdom of Sweden gradual took shape. This process is still somewhat obscure, but it is being studied many historians.COSTUME
Unfortunately, not a single costume from the Viking Age has come down to us intact. On the other hand, we do have a fairly large number of images depicting people, which give us some idea of Viking costume design. From these images and from archaeologi- cal excavations, where it is possible to see the way in which objects such as pins, beads and clasps were placed, we can form a clear picture of the way the Vikings dressed. There appears to have been a fairly uniform costume over the greater part of Viking territory, with minor local variations. Fashions did not change from year to year as they do today.
The cloths were made from flax or wool, and textiles were also manufactured from nettles and hemp. Most cloth was produced by women at home on the farm, but the finest stuffs were imported. Silk was very rare. Clasps and pins held together the costume and its constituent parts. Oval bronze double-clasps are often found in women's graves of the Viking Age. They have been found all the way from Iceland to Kiev. These oval brooches were used to hold up the halter straps of the women's outer skirts. In Gotland, a local variation of these halter clasps has been found in the shape of animal heads.
Most images of women show them in ankle-length skirts, often with a train behind. In several pictures it is possible to discern that the petticoats were pleated. Sometimes we can see a pinafore-like smock, open at both sides, at least from the waist down. Embroidery and/or borders are clearly indicated on these smocks in a number of images. A large shawl was used as an outer garment, and it was evidently worn in a number of different ways. In the biting cold of the Nordic winter, bird down could serve as a filling in quilts and perhaps even in clothes. Perhaps the Vikings even used clothes resembling our quilted down jackets! Plenty of down has come to light in the graves of Birka. Fur cloaks and fur trimmings also gave protection against the icy winds of winter. Male costume showed some variations, especially the trousers. They could resemble large, puffed-out knee-breeches in the eastern fashion of the tune,
they could look like sailors hell bottoms, they could have the appearance of long, thin drainpipes or they could resemble our Bermuda shorts. The upper part of the costume comprised a shirt of linen or wool, occasionally pleated. Sometimes a wide woollen tunic was worn, reaching down to the thighs.
Male costume too could be decorated with colourful bands of woollen cloth, occasionally even bands of silk with threads of silver or gold woven into them. To keep out the cold, a woollen cloak was worn, sometimes with handsome fur trimmings. The cloak was fastened over the right shoulder with a ring-clasp. In this way the right hand was kept free so the sword could be drawn without any clothes getting in the way. The belt was occasionally furnished with finely worked fittings. From it were hung, directly or in a leather pouch, small, useful implements such as toothpicks, a comb, a small knife and a whetstone. Pockets were not used. Viking headgear comprised a hood or cap of fur, leather or felt, and footwear consisted of shoes of calf or goatskin. The sole was sewn on separately, and could be replaced when it was worn out. Felt shoes may also have been used. The clothes were more colourful than we usually imagine, some had beautif ul embroidery or tablet-woven edging bands in bright colours. In the rich graves at Birka, elegant decorations with metal threads have also been found. The women's graves often contain objects used tor clothmakingj such as scissors, pins, needlecases and distaff wheels.
Women's hairstyles can be observed in a number of images. Hair was worn long, usually in the form of a ponytail with a knot, fastened with hairpins or colourf ul ribbons. A tenth-century Moorish diplomat who visited the Viking township of Hedeby, in present-day northern Germany, wrote that both men and women use eye makeup, thus "enhancing the beauty of both sexes".
Mens hairstyles varied. Sometimes the hair was plaited in pigtails, and sometimes a short pageboy cut was preferred. Beards could be both long and short , but t hey appear extremely well-tended in all the images we have. Well-groomed moustaches were also popular, and certain images indicate that t hey may have been waxed. According to the evidence of images and funeral remains both men and women were particular in regard to personal hygiene. Everybody had t heir own comb. We also know from the remarks of John of
Wallingford, a contemporary English writer, that both men and women combed their hair every day. He also narrates that the Vikings took a bath every Saturday and changed clothes frequently. Archaeological excava- tions reveal that the Vikings knew of sauna baths. English men envied the Vikings because their cleanli- ness made them so popular with English women. The Arab diplomat Ibn Fadlan, however, gives a completely different picture, telling us that the Vikings he met along the Volga around the year 920 were the "dirtiest creatures in God's kingdom".
WOMAN AND THEIR STATUS
The woman had a great deal of responsibility. They were independent and strong, and not a few men probably thought them abrasive and insolent. When the menfolk were hunting or at sea, whether for fishing or for trade, the farmwork and the household business were taken care of by the women and the servants. A woman had the right to choose her husband and she was also able to decide for herself in relation to divorce. The Icelandic sagas tell of many such confident and self-assured women. A number of rune-stones also tell of powerful women and women in a position to have such stones carved and erected. The chief woman on a Viking farm wore her key on her belt as a token of her status. She it was who was in charge of the food, cloth, wall-hangings and other stores.
The Viking's most important weapons was his sword. The sword blades were approximately 3 feet (90 cm) long, and had been extended by some 4 inches (10 cm) by the end of the Viking era. A heavy hilt balanced the blade. The best blades were imported from the Frankish lands. Many of them came from the forge of Ulfberth, which may have been located in the Ruhr. Back at home, the blades were equipped with exquisitely ornamented hilts and handles. Other typical weapons were arrows, bows and spears. There were bows of various designs for various purposes. Some were as much as 6 feet (2 m) in length, and their arrows had tremendous penetrating power. The bows were often made of yew. Towards the end of the Viking Age, the axe became an important weapon. For defence, round painted shields were used with central bucklers of iron. No head armour, i.e. helmets, dating from Viking times has been found. A rather fragmentary helmet was found in a Norwegian grave dated to around AD 950. It was probably already an antique when it was laid in the dead Viking's grave. The horned helmets beloved of comic strips and advertising are totally absent from the archaeological material available to us from the Viking Age.
The Viking strategy was to strike unawares, seize anything of value and disappear again just as rapidly. It was unlikely that most attacks were partic- ularly well-planned, even though some of the raids indicate well-developed organizational and military skills.
COINS AND SILVER TREASURE
The peoples of the Mediterranean and western Europe had been using coins for more than a thousand years before the Viking Age set in. When the Vikings used coins they had no face value, but were valued solely on the basis of their weight. Some coins were pierced and used as jewellery. Coins were also melted down and turned into jewellery. If "change" was needed, the coins were sliced up or cut into pieces, and the genuineness of their metal was tested by cutting a notch in it. Some of the silver treasures that have been found were probably family fortunes that had been buried near the owner's home. Some misadventure then befell those who buried the treasure, leaving the hiding place to be discovered centuries later by a farmer ploughing his fields. The occasional coin is also found in graves. The coins are able to tell us of trading links, colonization, conquests, the names and dates of the princes and lords who authorized coinage, and above all the date of the burial.
More than 1,000 silver treasures from the Viking Age have been unearthed from Swedish soil. Altogether some 235,000 ancient coins have been registered as found in the earth, most of them Arabic (about 70,000) originating m the Caliphate. Many of the coins of the ninth and tenth centuries are Islamic dirhams minted in the great cities of Tashkent or Samarkand. A few hundred of the coins found in Sweden were minted for the Byzantine emperors, and may well be the payments made by the Emperor to his tall, blond bodyguards. The Arabic coins bear no images, only a text in Arabic giving the year of minting according to the Islamic calendar (starting from the year AD 622). In the midtenth century, the flow of coins from the Caliphate Peered out, and German coins from the Germanic Roman Empire, so-called pfennige, are found in their place. Rich silver mines had been discovered the Harz mountains. The German coins can seldom be dated as exactl m the Arabic ones, but it is possible to see which lords had received minting authorization. These coins often bear images of the cross, churches and other Christian symbols. The imperial cities of Cologne, Worms, Speyer Mainz and Goslar were important minting centres.
In Sweden alone, 30,000 English coins have been found—more than in England itself ! In 973, King Edgar's coinage reform stipulated that all coins should be withdrawn from circulation at intervals of five or six years and melted down. The old coins then ceased to be valid currency in the area in which they had been minted. This, however, did not bother the Vikings, who were only concerned with the silver content and weight of the coins. By the early ninth century, coins resembling both Charlemagne's and Frisian coins of the eighth century were already being minted in the Viking settlement of Hedeby. The Hedeby coins also bear images of deer, cocks, houses and ships. Such coins have been found in graves at Birka.
The oldest Swedish coins were minted at Sigtuna by Olof Skotkonung around 995-1000, and later for his son Anund Jakob. These first Swedish coins resembled English coins, and it has been assumed that English coiners were brought to Sigtuna. The Sigtuna coins are actually the most reliable and significant evidence we have for the existence of Olof Skotkonung and his son. The design of the coins marks an official transition to Christianity and thereby also a desire to come closer to the rest of Europe.
The Vikings had a rich mythology. The gods, all with human characteristics, directed and dominated everyday life. By making sacrifices of various kinds, the Vikings attempted to win the favour of the gods. Several contemporary sources also report the occurrence of human sacrifice.
Odin was pre-eminent among the gods. He was the supreme god, the god of poetry, victory, wisdom and death. He had sacrificed an eye in the well of Mimir to obtain all the wisdom of the world and the power of prophecy. Odin rode over land and sea on Sleipner, his eight-legged horse, and held court in the great hall of Valhalla, where fallen warriors were brought to practise various sports and fight during the day, and then, healed of their wounds, to feast away the nights. Odin also had two ravens, Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory), that flew everywhere and saw everything and then reported back to their master. His magic spear, Gungnir, never missed its mark.
Thor was Odin's son and the most popular of the gods. He was loud and red-haired, biggest and strongest. He reigned over war, strength and right. Whenever Thor hurled his hammer, Mjolner, lightning flashed, and when he rode across the heavens in his goat drawn chariot, people heard thunder. Many Vikings wore amulets in the form of Thor's hammer. These were believed to impart some of Mjolner's mysterious power to their owners. Thor protected mankind against the ever-present, threatening power of the giants, and there are numerous comic tales told of his battles with them.
Frey was the god of fertility. His was the secret of the origin of life. He bestowed rain and sunshine. To get a good harvest, the farmers sacrificed to Frey, who also made sure the cattle stayed healthy and multiplied.
Freya was Frey's sister, the goddess of fertility and love. She travelled in a chariot drawn by cats. She reigned over the Valkyries, that is, the warrior maidens who conducted the warriors slain in battle to Valhalla.
Christianity was spread by missionaries from the Continent and from England. We don't know when the first missionaries came to Sweden, but it is clear that Christianization was initially a very sluggish business. It was not until the eleventh century that the process picked up speed. The churches were few and far between, and especially in the spring and at Easter it was no easy task to make your way over fords and marshy lowlands. This made it an act pleasing to God to build roads and bridges over waterways and wetlands. There are many rune-stones commemorating such builders and attesting their hope of finding grace in the eyes of the Lord.
Scandinavia is considered to have been Christianized by AD 1050. This is several hundred years later than the rest of western Europe.
DESIGN AND DECORATION
The artefacts of the Vikings have been admired for their beauty their elegance and their harmony. Thanks to the miraculously p e served carved wooden objects from the Oseberg ship, we know that wood-carving was very highly regarded. Bright colours were used in conjunction with textiles, masonry, metalwork and woodwork. Textiles were coloured using vegetable dyes, stone and wood were painted with a variety of natural pigments, and metals of different colours were used for inlay work.
The Nordic animal designs were characterized by an ornamental style composed of the contours of stylized, intertwined animal bodies, where each animal may be traced despite the wealth of curves and knots. All Germanic peoples had a predilection for animal ornamentation throughout the later Iron Age. Viking art is applied art, i.e. it found its expression in objects of everyday use and their decoration. It is complex, finding its inspiration in both western and eastern Europe. The Scandinavians borrowed motifs that they adapted to their own traditions and needs. A number of different styles have been discerned. In the ninth century, the extremely stylized "gripping beast" made its appearance. It was a fantastic blend of a bear, a lion and a dog. It had a large head, a shock of hair on its neck and large, doleful eyes. A beast full of power and mobility. It moved its paws and seized animals near it or the edges or frames of the image area. The body was extended into a thin thread. This miniature creature obviously appealed greatly to the Vikings, and it dominated a number of styles in ninth century ornamentation. Another early style is known as the Broa style, after Broa in Gotland, where twenty-two gilded bronze fittings were found in a grave, all decorated in this beautiful animal design. Each fitting is different, and some depict the gripping beast. The Borre style, after a find at Borre in Vestfold in Norway, resembles the gripping beast design, but the beast has developed large "Mickey Mouse" ears and the whole design is triangular and framed. In the early tenth century, the Jellinge style developed a ribbon-hke beast seen in profile, the name being derived from a small silver cup found mjdfaag» Denmark. In Denmark, this style developed further into the Mammen style. In Norway, the Ringerike style, taking its name from a group of rune-stone in Ringerike, was developed during the early part of the eleventh centu The Ringerike style has elements of the plant ornamentation tradition but its dominant motif is a large, ribbon-shaped animal surrounded by small hanging garlands of leaves. In western Norway, the Urnes style, which got its name from an eleventh-century wooden church, represents the apex of the art of wood-carving in the traditional animal style, with four-legged animals resembling greyhounds woven in among serpents.
The Urnes style is a development of the Ringerike style and became widespread between 1050 and 1150. In Sweden, the rune-stone style corresponded to the Urnes style. The large, elegant animal dominates the composition. The development of the different styles can also be traced in the work of the silversmiths. The final blossoming of the Viking art may be admired on the rune-stones and in the woodcarvings of the wooden Christian churches. When Christianity made Scandinavia an integral part of Europe in the eleventh century, the Romanesque style became predominant. The Nordic predilection for animal ornamentation yielded to Romanesque plant designs.
The products of silversmiths and goldsmiths are our main source of knowledge for the art of the Viking Age. We may assume that the smiths were employed by rich patrons who wished to display their wealth and status. The best preserved pieces are examples of metalwork such as costume clasps and the ornamentation of weapons. Sword hilts and spear sockets were inlaid with silver and copper in exquisite patterns. Women's graves often contain beads in sparkling colours made of opaque glass, mosaic glass, amber, cornelian, rock crystal, silver and even gold. The beads were hung between the oval brooches and were thus concentrated where they would be visible, in the front opening. Mixed with the beads you might also find coins, fittings and small metal rings. Necklaces were sometimes made entirely of beads. Other jewellery included bracelets, necklaces cunningly plaited from very thin silver rods, and various amulets and brooches decorated with filigree work influenced by the art of Carolingian and Ottonian goldsmiths. Finger-rings were relatively rare, and earrings formed no part of Scandinavian apparel, unlike the beautifully ornamented hairpins of horn or bone that have come down to us.
LANGUAGE AND WRITING
A common language was spoken in Scandinavia during the Viking Age-Primitive Norse. It belongs to the Germanic branch of the Indo European language family. Between the years 500 and 800, the language developed distinct eastern and western dialects. Norse was s'poken in Orkney and Shetland until the seventeenth century, in Greenland until the fifteenth century, in the Hebrides and the Isle of Man until the fourteenth century and in a number of towns in Ireland until the thirteenth century. It is thought that Norse was in use in Novgorod until the fourteenth century. The written characters used by the Vikings are known as runes. According to myth, the god Odin made a gift of the runes to humanity. The runes are thought to have originated with the Germanic tribes of Northern Europe around the time of the birth of Christ. The oldest preserved runic inscriptions are from the third century AD. They were probably used for magical purposes. The oldest runic alphabet had 24 characters and was well adapted to rendering the sounds of Primitive Norse. The runic alphabet is usually known as the futhark, from the sounds of the first six characters. Further south in Europe, runic finds are few and far between. Towards the end of the Viking Age, the runic alphabet entered a phase of dynamic development and was in wide use. Some 360 inscriptions have been found in the older runic characters, 60 of them on the Continent. Unfortunately, many of the oldest inscriptions consist of just a few runes whose meaning it has not been possible to decipher. Most of the older inscriptions have been found on weapons, jewellery and a few stones, but the runes were created to be carved in wood as vertical main strokes perpendicular to the grain, with diagonal secondary strokes that would not be swallowed by the grain. Runes were not used on paper or parchment as were Latin or Cyrillic letters, and neither were they used for purely literary purposes. The Swedish word for letter, bokstav, means "beech stave", and originally referred to runes carved into a tablet of beech wood. In the seventh and eighth centuries, the language changed, and the runic alphabet changed with it. Towards the end of the eighth century, the runic alphabet was reduced to 16 characters. Runes were used well into the Middle Ages parallel with the Latin alphabet. In some isolated areas of Scandinavia, runic characters were still used in the nineteenth century m certain contexts.
In Sweden, most rune-stones were erected in the eleventh century. Th stones were set up by roads and waterways, or in locations where as many people as possible would be able to see them. The relatives of dead or missing Vikings had these stones erected as monuments, and also for the legal purpose of confirming that a certain individual was dead, thus enabling inheritance to proceed. Occasionally it happened that someone wanted to tell the world of his benevolence and piety and feats of bridge-building. One man in Taby outside present-day Stockholm erected a number of stones to himself, and had carved on one of them: "Jarlabanke had this stone erected to his memory while still alive. Alone he owned the whole of Taby. God help his soul."
In Sweden, 3,500 runic inscriptions have been found, 2,500 of them carved on stones. Of these, some 1,800 may still be found out in the open, many of them still in their original locations. The province richest in rune-stones is without question Uppland, to the immediate north of Stockholm, with some 1,300 known stones. Sodermanland, south of Stockholm, follows it with a good 400 stones.
England is often mentioned on the rune-stones. The participation of Vikings from central Sweden in the expeditions to England is confirmed in a number of Swedish inscriptions. A rune-stone at Orkesta in Uppland tells of Ulf from Borresta, who took tribute from England on no less than three occasions.
It seems evident that the Vikings were highly appreciative of poetry. The unknown authors of the poems of the Edda, who were perhaps active as early as the eighth and ninth centuries, were admired for many centuries. Around 1220, a good part of these poems were written down in Iceland by a Christian chieftain and poet called Snorri Sturluson. He also edited and wrote the sagas of the Heimskringla cycle, which narrates the history of the Norwegian kings.
THE VIKING HERITAGE
Sweden's first Curator of National Antiquities, Johannes Bureus, in common with many other Swedish academics of the seventeenth centu- ry, was firmly convinced that the cradle of civilization had heen located in Old Uppsala in Uppland. Colleagues of his considered themselves able to prove the identity between Plato's fabled Atlantis and Sweden. Snorri Sturluson's Edda and the Eddaic poems were enthusiastically translated from Icelandic into Latin, the international lingua franca.
In the nineteenth century, after the fall of Napoleon, nationalism flourished in Europe, and a great impact was made on Sweden by the loss of Finland in 1809. The Geatish Association (Gotiska fbrbundet) was founded by writers and other intellectuals in 1811. Scandinavian antiquity was idealized, and solidarity between students in the different Nordic countries began to develop. At parties and celebrations, male voice choirs sang patriotic songs which often made reference to the Viking heritage. The movement known asgoti- cism ("Geatishism") developed. Viking motifs became popular in art. Later on, in the 1860s and 1870s, when neo-goticism flourished, a new wave of enthusiasm for Viking Age romanticism engulfed Swedish intellectuals and spread to wider sections of the population. Houses were built in the Viking style, and had furniture made to match. People held masquerade balls on Viking themes, and at the great international exhibitions of artistic and industrial products, the Swedes wished to draw attention to their heritage by commissioning a number of the most important artists of the day to produce porcelain and other household wares in dragon patterns. The design of many awards and trophies was inspired by Viking motifs.
Towards the end of the century, interest for the Viking Age had subsided almost completely, but it has none the less been latent ever since in the Swedish soul, and has been rekindled at various intervals. For example, Frans G. Bengtsson's humorous novel about the Viking Orm, Rode Orm (The Long Ships), was very popular when it was published in 1941. It has since been published in at least ten different languages and has found readers throughout the world. Today, the Viking heritage is most visible at sporting events, where cheering fans wearing blue and yellow horned helmets urge on their struggling countrymen. These horned Vikings are also encountered in comic strips and in the world of advertising. The best known comic strip fea- tures the Viking Hagbard with all his human (male) failings, and his wife Helga, who really rules the roost. The first strip was drawn by the American Dik Browne in 1973, and is now carried on by his son Chris. Hagbard appears regularly in almost 2,000 daily newspapers in 58 countries, and has been translated into 13 languages.
After "Swenska Institute" materials