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Dena L. Moore

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Are the Vikings that bad?
by Dena L. Moore   

Last edited: Thursday, June 06, 2002
Posted: Friday, May 31, 2002

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A longboat embellished with a fierce looking dragon head slices through choppy waves and dense fog. Men with horned helmets leap from the vessel and, yelling and snarling in unison, rush onto the shore brandishing swords and axes. Without thought or care, the men raid and ravish the villagers and pillage the local church. This is the popular view of a group of people known as the Vikings. Just how accurate is this view?

A longboat embellished with a fierce looking dragon head slices through choppy waves and dense fog. Men with horned helmets leap from the vessel and, yelling and snarling in unison, rush onto the shore brandishing swords and axes. Without thought or care, the men raid and ravish the villagers and pillage the local church. This is the popular view of a group of people known as the Vikings.

Often depicted as bold, rugged individualists who respected few rules and held little sacred, the Viking people have a reputation that may not only be undeserved, but, more importantly, a reputation that has been misconstrue d. If this scenario of the Vikings lacks credibility, why is this view so widespread and generally accepted? Perhaps the best answer lies with the Christian Chroniclers. Viking raiders sacked Lindisfarne, the island monastery of St. Cuthbert, in 793 CE and killed several monks and nuns, which naturally resulted in wild statements being issued against the Viking people. These statements, combined with the Vikings extensive plundering of the British Isles and the Frankish empire, impressed upon European minds the brutality and greed of the Vikings, a view seen only from the victim's perspective. The Vikings were interested in movable wealth. They took the monastery because of its wealth; they were not intentionally desecrating a holy place, a sanctuary of the Christian God. Once the Vikings learned of the unprotected wealth to be found in the western churches, there was no stopping them from seizing it. The Vikings prowess as warriors added to their startling image of defilers of the Christian God. Their high intelligence, naval and building skills, and adaptability made them frightening adversaries. Groups of Vikings were capable of joining to form an army and, once they reached their common goal, would disassemble back into their brotherhoods.

From the year 835 CE onwards, Viking raids were referenced yearly in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. These writings were preserved in the pages of the Chronicles and stamped a vision of the Viking people as bloodthirsty looters on European society. This is an image that still represents the Vikings today in film, in fiction, often in text books, and even in children's coloring books and bedtime stories; it is an image of double-horned monsters emerging from the sea, men born to be feared.

The Viking raiders, essentially pirates, did exist; they looted churches, burned villages, destroyed important articles, and, yes, killed monks and nuns. However, this is an inaccurate portrayal of the Vikings as a group. Indeed, many of the Vikings involved in piracy could also be described as a warrior, farmer, merchant, craftsman, settler, trader, or any combination of these. Vikings were very versatile and took on many roles in life. A Viking man could have a large farm that was maintained by his wife while he engaged in trade abroad. This same man could be involved in piracy, exploration of a foreign land with an eye to settle it, and be in service as a warrior for a chieftain or king. Vikings were very well-rounded. While it is fairly easy to see why their victims were terrified of them, the victim's view is far from complete.

The Vikings were bold. They feared little, certainly not death, and this gave them a fearless attitude, an attitude which fostered curiosity and an eagerness to test the unknown. Pre-Christian Viking religion played an important part in creating this attitude. Although there was no strict religious doctrine or method of worship, the Vikings worshipped a pantheon of gods, using a different god as needed. The main gods included Odin, often depicted as a creator-warrior god, Thor, a sky-god, and Frey, a fertility god. Worship often took place outside in holy groves, on rocks, or in swampy areas. Figurines and amulets depicting a god were often carried or worn to invoke the gods protection. Offerings made to the gods includes boats, weapons, gold and silver, animals, and even humans; the offerings were 'killed' before they were thrown into a holy bog, even 'dead' items such as coins and spears were often broken or bent.

The pre-Christian worship of Odin made the Vikings bold in battle. The greatest honor for a warrior was to die fighting. The followers of Odin who died in battle went to Valhalla and into a heroic life of feasting and fighting. Worship of another god, Thor, a storm-god, made the Vikings bold at sea. To die at the hands of Thor was no less honorable than dying in battle. The boldness of the Vikings can be in part attributed to their conceptions of the afterlife. One view was that the dead lived on in their graves and could rise at will; the evil could continue doing evil, while the good could help the living. Another popular conception was that the dead was sent on a journey to the Other world. They could enter the goddess Hel's dark realm, or Odin's Valhalla. Both of these views stress the existence of life after death, and such beliefs could help bolster fearlessness.

The Vikings were a rugged people. In some instances they were very stern in their punishment of wrongdoing and they were great instigators of revenge. The Viking idea of justice was one of vengeance. If a person killed someone, it was seen as an act against the entire family and it was the family's duty to seek payment for the death. This often involved the killing of another person in the perpetrator's family, usually the man considered to be the finest man of the family. This easily escalated into a feud involving many people and resulted in numerous deaths on both sides. If the family failed to fulfill their responsibility to the deceased, the family was disgraced. The Wergild originated to stop such personal vendettas and consisted of a monetary payment paid by the killer's family in restitution to the victim's family. The entire family was entitled to payment and an individuals amount was determined by their relation to the deceased. For example, the parents, wife, and children would receive a larger portion than that of a cousin. The Vikings also used a court system and the accusing family was responsible for providing proof of guilt while the accused was responsible for providing proof of innocence. The court used character witnesses and the court's decision was final.

One of the worst sentences was that of outlawry, for a Viking condemned as an outlaw was 'outside the law'; an outlaw forfeited his land, no one could aid or shelter him, and he could be killed on sight without penalty to the killer. Crimes that could result in outlawry were those of theft, practicing black magic, and murder, a secret killing. It was a Viking duty to publicly announce a killing so that everyone knew who was responsible. This let the victim's family know where to seek vengeance or payment of the Wergild. If this announcement does not take place, the death is one of murder--the most shameful of crimes.

The Vikings could be considered individualists in certain circumstances, but most aspects of Viking life involved the group, particularly the family. The family, however, did not curtail an individual's independence as long as the family honor was upheld. Men could make their own decisions regarding their own wealth and way of life; for example, upon adulthood a man could journey to foreign lands seeking wealth, or he could remain at home and take a wife and work a farm. The family was available to help in times of need and to provide counsel. In fact, the family was regarded as the most important tie and was very close, standing by one another through all difficulties. The ties of family were so important, a woman was expected to side with her birth family against her husband if a problem arose between the two families. The family had a strong sense of honor and any insult against an individual was taken as an insult against the entire family. Likewise, any disgrace committed by a family member disgraced the group.

Another special bond was that of friendship. Friendship was often a contractual relationship with benefits as well as obligations: gift-giving, visitations, and acts of support. The giving of gifts was more than just a politeness, it was expected as evidence of a mutual relationship. Important friendships were sometimes given the same permanent bond of that of the family by the swearing of blood-brotherhood. The act of cutting oneself and mingling the blood with the blood of another into the earth, taking an oath, and sealing it with a hand shake established ties equivalent to kinship. These blood-brotherhoods could be seen as a separate identity in their own right, as the swearing of blood-brotherhood tied the person not only to the other person's kin, but to any other sworn blood-brothers. In this way, the ties of friendship could establish a war band that supported one another as they would their own kin. These war bands were a major threat to the Viking family because the members could experience a conflict of loyalty. If a member of a man's blood-brotherhood had a problem with the man's kin, the man would have to decide which side to support. It could be a very difficult decision to make.

The bond with a chieftain or king was also one of importance. In this relationship, the Viking can be seen once again as an individual with choices. Every man who owned land held it in his own right. There were no duties paid to an overlord. However, the individual may need the backing of a chieftain or king in times of disputes with neighbors and the Viking repaid the chieftain by fighting for him in feuds or during times of war. This bond was a personal one and a man could transfer his allegiance to another chieftain if he was not satisfied with the relationship.

In the Viking world, the good of the group was more important than that of an individual and if a person behaved improperly, he could be disowned by the family. The groups importance was based on survival; without close ties, a Viking would be adrift in the world and very susceptible to harm.

While the Vikings may have appeared lawless by Christian standards, in reality the Vikings were subject to, and respected, many rules. Because some of these rules are so different from the Christian outlook, it was decidedly simple for the early European Christians to mistake the Viking way for one of lawlessness. One such difference is that of Viking vengeance. From a Christian standpoint, they were aware of the killings but could not understand the intricate rules of behavior behind the deaths. In a Christian society, a death is seen as a crime to be punished by the courts, not a crime in which a family was duty bound to enact vengeance. Yet, even these vengeance killings were subject to rules. The killer had to announce the crime publicly or face tremendous repercussions. Another aspect of Viking law that differed from the Christian perspective was political in nature. If a king betrayed a law, the people could kill the king. A Christian king was not subject to anyone but the Church. He was above the law, while his people were below it. The Vikings saw the law as being created by the gods and given to the people, not the king.

Other laws include the Wergild, laws of divorce, adoption, and adultery. A woman or a man could divorce for a number of reasons, including the wearing of improper clothing such as a man's shirt cut low enough to show his nipples or a woman wearing breeches. Divorce consisted of a public announcement and, thus, the marriage ended. Adoption was handled in much the same way. A man could adopt a child by simply announcing the adoption before witnesses. Laws against adultery were strict. A man having relations with another man's wife was punishable by death. A wife having relations with anyone could result in divorce or death on the spot. These laws are very different from Christian laws, with different consequences. Divorce was almost unheard of in Christian society, and adoption was a much more difficult process. Adultery was frowned upon in Christian society, but men were not punished by death, if they were punished at all. Women were expected to refrain from all sexual relations outside of marriage, and it was not lawful to kill an unfaithful wife even if she was caught in the act, although a wife could be physically abused.

The popular view suggests that the Vikings did not hold anything sacred and this view is likely due to the Viking plundering of monasteries and churches, stealing or destroying relics in the process. Although some Vikings had converted to Christianity early in the Viking Age, many were not Christian at this time and did not hold the Christian relics and holy places as sacred; however, the Vikings did revere their own gods and holy places. They also valued their family and other bonds, as well as their ancestors. The current generation was often named after an ancestor and they were considered to be the embodiment of past heroes.

Children, especially sons, were a source of pride and children with a bold spirit and strong will were valued above all others for their temperamental natures. Sons were valued more than daughters because they were seen as the future head of the family and could offer protection. Children were so important, men often adopted their illegitimate sons to strengthen the family. In such cases, the adopted children were given full legal equality with their legitimate brothers.

Vikings also cherished their land, and all Vikings sought ownership of land. As a landholder, a Viking had a right to speak and offer oath in court, they could serve in the army, and attend legislative assemblies. Other material possessions were highly respected, such as a Frankish sword, or anything made with iron, which were expensive items and were considered as family heirlooms. Ships were extremely important and play a major role in the Viking way of life. Trade, piracy, and the settlement of other lands depended on the Vikings mastery of the sea. Houses were built in the shape of ships, important Vikings were buried in them, and many graves are marked by stones arranged in a ship-like configuration.

Education was considered to be very important and was generally taught by the family. Vikings were educated to farm, to raid, to create poetry, and any other skill considered necessary to succeed in life. Crafts such as metalwork and leather-making were highly valued skills, and the ability to create poetry was cherished by the Vikings. Other skills particularly valued were those of building, sea-faring, and the use of weapons.

The Christian writings and Anglo-Saxon Chronicles have given the Viking people a bad reputation based on a very biased perspective. Although the Vikings were bold, rugged individualists, they also belonged to large networks of kin, friendships, and war bands. Their loyalty in their relationships ran deep, and the family's honor was to be upheld at all times. The Vikings followed their own set of rules and placed high value on many ideas, relationships, skills, and material possessions. The Vikings were not the monsters they have been made out to be. They were feared by European society not only for their piracy and raiding activities, but also because their way of life and beliefs were different. Fear often breeds contempt.


WORKS CONSULTED

Jesch, Judith. Women in the Viking Age. Woodbridge: Boydell P, 1991.

Jones, Gwyn. A History of the Vikings. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984.

Keynes, Simon. "The Vikings in England, c. 790-1016." The Oxford Illustrated History Of The Vikings. Ed. Peter Sawyer. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.

Olrik, Axel. Viking Civilization. Reprint. New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1971.

Page, R. I. Chronicles of the Vikings. Toronto: University of Toronto P, 1995.

Roesdahl, Else. The Vikings. 2nd ed. Translated by Susan M. Margeson and Kirsten Williams. London: Penguin Books, 1998.

Sawyer, P.H. Kings and Vikings. Reprint. London: Routledge, 2000.

Sorensen, Preben Meulengracht. "Religions Old and New." The Oxford Illustrated History of The Vikings. Ed. Peter Sawyer. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.

Wilson, David M. The Vikings and Their Origins. London: Thames and Hudson LTD, 1989.

Web Site: Gaea's Cauldron: Stories of Fantasy, Mysticism, and the Occult


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Reviewed by Lisa Cannons
Interesting, however it would seem you've put 1000 yrs of history into one essay, nor do you specify WHICH of the Vikings you are talking about? Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Orkney???? You do not define any period, and it is confusing.
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