Top 10 Greatest Misconceptions About The Vikings

Below you can read a top consisting of ten major misconceptions about the Vikings and the Viking Age, from the etymology of the term ‘Viking’ to the horned helmets.

Throughout the time’s passing, many myths and misconceptions have been perpetuated about the Vikings, most of them even lacking a solid basis. This article aims to shed some light on the false perception of the ‘crude’ and ‘savage’ men of the north. Thus, without further ado, here’s the top:

10. Everybody was a Viking in early medieval Scandinavia


Undoubtedly, the Vikings did represent a significant part of the Norse society, but it is utterly erroneous to ascribe them for all early medieval Scandinavians. The Norse hierarchic system was to a considerable extent complex than most people assume. For a detailed article on the etymology and correct usage of the term ‘Viking’ please check the link here.

As such, the term ‘Viking’ does not denote a people, but rather a profession. ‘To go a Viking’ meant that a Norseman could set sail on various bodies of water — from oceans or seas, to rivers and lakes – primarily in search for land to settle on and subsequently farm or to trade with different cultures and civilisations. In Viking Age Scandinavia, both men and women could have gone a Viking.

Wooden sculpture of a Norseman from Norway Pavilion at Epcot theme park, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, United States. Image source: www.pixabay.com

In a nutshell, not all Norsemen were Vikings. At the time, the vast majority of the population in Scandinavia were mainly farmers, fishermen, blacksmiths, shipwrights, etc. Thus, the correct term which should be used in order to refer to all early medieval Scandinavians is ‘Norsemen’, not ‘Vikings’.

9. All Norsemen were naturally blond


Yet another prejudice is that all Norsemen were blond. While it remains true to this day that many were, some were evidently enough not naturally blond. Some Norsemen were either red-headed or had dark hair. Many Norsemen used to dye their hair blond(er) in order to match the local ideal for beauty.

8. The Norsemen were a unified nation


During the early Middle Ages (and specifically throughout much of the Viking Age) Scandinavia was a huge land area in Northern Europe with many small polities/earldoms (as opposed to kingdoms), who often fought each other for a larger degree of supremacy. The unified kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden would only emerge at the end or after the end of the Viking Age.

7. The Norsemen were very ruthless and barbarian


Most of the negative historical information concerning the Norsemen stems greatly from the chronicles written during the early Middle Ages by the Catholic monks, in which they depict the Norsemen as heathens who did not hesitate to obliterate abbeys and loot church holdings.

During the timeline in question, it should be mentioned that most written historical sources belonged to the church, since the priests were the most entitled to become the scribes of the kings. That being said, what we nowadays call ‘artistic license’ had inevitably to be used then as well.

The accounts regarding the alleged cruelty and barbary of the Norsemen during the Viking raids in such works as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were to a certain extent exaggerated. While it is true that the Norsemen raided abbeys, they did not do this for religious reasons, but rather for the wealth. Additionally, a recent study suggested that they first traded, then plundered.

6. The Viking Age presumably started in 793 AD


The historical date often given as the start of the Viking Age is 793 AD, when a group of Norwegian Vikings attacked the Catholic abbey of Lindisfarne, located less than one mile off the north-eastern coast of England (at the time part of the Kingdom of Northumbria). For a detailed article on most competing theories on the start of the Viking Age please check this link.

However, competing theories challenged this year. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an earlier raid is depicted to have unfolded on British soil prior to the one at Lindisfarne. Furthermore, a recent study which claimed that the Viking Age actually started in Denmark highlighted the fact that it commenced some 70 years earlier than previously thought.

Nonetheless, it’s very much likely that it had actually commenced simultaneously all over Scandinavia, being most notably triggered by internal trade. Whichever the precise date for the start of the Viking Age might be, it’s safe to assume that it started earlier than mostly referred to, and perhaps not even in England. For example, the Salme ships from Estonia may be a prominent evidence on the matter.

What is known for certain about the Viking Age though, is that it ended in 1066 along with the Battle of Hastings, when William the Conqueror and the Normans conquered England.

Timeline of the Viking Age, with relevant events and personalities. Image source: www.wikipedia.org

Timeline of the Viking Age, with relevant events and personalities. Image source: www.wikipedia.org

5. The presumably inexistent culture of the Norsemen


Most people think that the Norsemen didn’t quite dispose of a proper culture, and that they were either illiterate or filthy-looking. All these statements are absolutely false. For a detailed article on the art of the Norsemen please check this link.

The Norse culture comprised several art styles which can be identified as follows: Oseberg, Borre, Jellinge, Mammen, Ringerike, and Urnes.

In addition, the Norsemen also had their own unique alphabet, referred to as ‘futhark’ in Old Norse.

Last but not least, they also maintained a higher level of hygiene compared to that of other Europeans of their time, by bathing at least once a week.

Norse shield patterns. Image source: www.pinterest.com

Norse shield patterns. Image source: www.pinterest.com

4. The Norsemen lived only in Scandinavia


While the origin of the Norsemen can be unmistakably traced to Scandinavia proper, they didn’t live solely there. For a detailed article on the voyages of the Norsemen please check this link.

During their many maritime adventures, they established permanent or temporary colonies overseas, in such places as Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the Shetlands, the Orkneys, Scotland, Isle of Man, Ireland, England, Normandy (France) and even in Vinland (i.e. Newfoundland, Canada) for a brief period of time.

Detailed map depicting the homelands, colonies, and voyages of the Norsemen during the Viking era. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

3. The Norsemen had no cultural contribution where they settled


The already stereotypical syntagm ‘rape and pillage’ is synonymous to the Norsemen. Some people believe that their bloodthirstiness was the only ‘engine’ behind their actions, and that they didn’t bring any cultural contribution where they settled.

Just to set the records straight, while linguistics are concerned, the English language incorporated as much as 5,000 words from the Old Norse. And that’s not only the thick of the iceberg as genetics play a pivotal role on the matter as well, given the fact that one in 33 men in Britain can claim Norse ancestry.

Word origins in the English language. Note that the green part of the pie chart contains a sizable amount of Old Norse words. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Word origins in the English language. Note that the green part of the pie chart contains a sizable amount of Old Norse words. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

2. The Norsemen drank from skull cups


The misconception according to which Norsemen drank from skull cups can trace its roots in the works of the 17th century Danish antiquarian Ole Worm, namely in his 1636 ‘Runir, seu, Danica literatura antiquissima’ (a compilation of several runic texts translated in Latin), where he stated that the Danish Vikings drank from ‘curved branches of skulls’ — which was, actually, a mistranslation for horns. It must be mentioned that no such thing as a skull cup has ever been excavated from a Viking Age burial mound to date.

Image source: www.pixabay.com

1. The myth of the horned/winged helmets


If interested, please see full article on the matter here.

This misconception has been considerably backed up by the artistic license of Richard Wagner’s staged opera ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’, when costume designer Carl Emil Doepler made up horned helmets for the characters, or by the Swedish artist August Malmström who often depicted the Norse raiders with unusual headgear in his paintings.

In reality, the Norsemen didn’t wear winged or horned helmets, this being nothing more but a mere misconception stemming from several 19th century Romantic artists.

The only surviving authentic Viking Age helmet was discovered in Ringerike, eastern Norway in 1943. Aside from the helmet proper, there have been discovered three additional swords, an almost intact maille, three axes, three spearheads, four bulges from shields, a riding equipment, several game pieces as well as some dices from the local Norse burial mound.

Documentation sources and external links:


3 Responses to Top 10 Greatest Misconceptions About The Vikings

  1. John Christie says:

    Fully agree on Point 9. In The Long Ships, by Frans G Bengtsson, Orm Tosteson is called Red Orm because of the colour of his hair.

  2. Keith Redfearn says:

    Does anyone have any information regarding the surname Redfearn? I know there are many in England but have also heard that there are some who originated in Normandy. I wonder of there is a Norse connection to the name.

  3. Renaissance Arms says:

    The shown shields {as a pinterest post} were actually Shields made for the film ‘Beowulf’ shot in Iceland, made by Valentine Armouries {currently in Las Vegas Nevada.

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