The typical image that we have of Vikings is that they’re hulking, unwashed, and vicious brutes who ruthlessly raided and plundered many European nations. Although Viking history is replete with violence, they also have a rich culture and a socially stratified and well-defined society. They may have burned down churches and pillaged villages, but Vikings were also explorers and navigators who founded cities and traded goods across the globe. Yes, there are also a lot of myths and misinformation about them. Read on to find out some lesser-known facts that you need to know about the Vikings.
1. They did not drink from skulls.
A Viking metal mount for a drinking horn dated 900-1000AD. Photo credit should read BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
Popular culture usually depicts Vikings as skull cap drinkers. However, there is no single piece of historical writing that mentions Vikings participating in this cringe-worthy and barbaric practice. Vikings were indeed raiders and even traders, but there is no evidence that shows that they drank from skulls. This famous image may have originated from the fact that they did like to drink out of bones – they drank out of horns of cattle.
2. They had notched teeth.
24 male Viking skulls were excavated that revealed noticeable notches on the front teeth’s face. Aside from the delicate line work, they were also filed evenly. Anthropologists can’t seem to figure out the real reason behind the jagged teeth of the Vikings. One assumption is that it may have represented an achievement. Another conjecture is that it may have been used as ornamentation. According to National Geographic, the Vikings may have adopted this practice from West Africans, who filed their teeth. However, they filed their teeth into points, not evenly.
This may come as a surprise: Viking women had rights and were treated fairly. Ironically, Vikings participated in the slave trade, selling women and children. Click on “next” to find out.
3. They were active in the slave trade.
One of the Vikings’ major economic trades is human trafficking. Many Vikings got rich by abducting people from various settlements around Northern Europe, including Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Slavic establishments. Whenever they pillage a village, they would nab women and young boys and sell them as slaves. These slaves would usually work on the farm or in the household. It would have been an impossible feat to maintain the Vikings’ property without the labor of slaves, which they called “thralls.”
4. Viking women had rights.
Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images
Viking Age women particularly of Scandinavia had the privilege of having a tremendous degree of freedom. Scandinavian women were able to own property, request for a divorce and reclaim their dowries if their marriages take a turn for the worse. Some women were traders, warriors, and farmers. If their husbands died, women were expected to take over the role of household provider permanently. Amazingly, they were able to enjoy economic opportunities that were rarely offered to contemporary women in other parts of Europe.
Click on “next” to find out the truth about the Vikings’ body shape.
5. They were short and lean.
Photo by: blueplarn
Contrary to the popular image of Vikings as very large and muscular, resembling Conan the Barbarian, they were short and lean. They didn’t look like bodybuilders. Many of them had an average height between 5’7” to 5’9”. Not all Norsemen during the Viking age pillaged other territories. Most of the men were farmers and maintained a balanced diet of protein, grains, and greens.
6. They did not recognize fellow Vikings.
Many Vikings did not belong to one colony or country, and they didn’t acknowledge their fellow Vikings. The land consisted of a patchwork of chieftain-led tribes. When these tribes weren’t wreaking havoc on foreign shores, they were getting into squabbles with their neighbors. When they weren’t pillaging or invading other lands, they were continually trying to expand their territory and making their mark in their area.
Vikings were responsible for spreading an unwanted household pest – find out “next.”
7. They were responsible for spreading house mice.
Photo by: Arterra/UIG via Getty Images
Yes, you heard it right: the Vikings were one of the civilizations responsible for spreading house mice around the world. There is DNA research that showed a genetic pattern found only in mice originating from Norway, which is the Vikings’ home base. Research also shows that cats were taken by their human companions on ships and were also kept on the homestead to help curtail the mouse population.
8. They were cat lovers.
Photo by: Arterra/UIG via Getty Images
This may not come as a surprise after reading about the mouse situation. Vikings love cats for some reasons. Aside from helping out with the mice, they were perfect lap warmers in the harsh Greenland winter. They not only got rid of vermin, but they were kept as companions. Cats were a huge deal in the Viking culture. Freya, their fertility goddess had a chariot pulled by two blue-gray cats. Even Thor, the god of thunder has a cat story. He tried to prove his strength by lifting a mythical, giant cat but he could only raise a single paw. Even the mighty god was no match for Fluffy.
Click on “next” to see what Vikings did with two of their greatest battle gear: their shields and the mighty Viking ship.
9. They painted their shields to hide the grain.
Round Viking shields with central iron umbones. Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images
Viking warriors painted their shields for a more practical reason: they wanted to hide the wood grain. The wood grain is the shield’s weakest part, and they needed to hide it so that the enemy would not be able to see the weakest place to strike. Vikings didn’t have battle colors, and it didn’t matter what color they painted their shields with – as long as it hid the shield’s weakest part. The shield also has a special part called sköldbucklawas, or the shield boss. It was a metal center that is used to ward off enemy blows and to bash against the attacker.
10. Viking ships were built like tanks.
Carved dragon head post from the ship burial at Oseberg, Norway. Viking. c 850 AD. Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
The mighty Viking longship is one of the most formidable maritime vessels ever made. It can hold about 25 to 60 men, but some of the larger ships could hold up to 100. The raiding crew sat on the top deck of the longship while it sails at 10 to 11 knots. Viking ships consisted of iron-clad bows and sterns. They also had mastheads with carved dragons that had a very detailed, fierce look. The dragons were designed to strike fear into their enemies and intimidate people that they plan to raid on the shorelines. The propped shields positioned on both sides of the ship were another intimidation tactic.
Next: Learn about Viking swords and helmets.
11. Vikings did not wear horned helmets.
Replica Viking helmet and shields. Photo credit should read ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP/Getty Images
Vikings are always shown wearing horned helmets. In popular culture, a Viking isn’t a Viking without wearing a horned helmet! Here’s a shocking fact: Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets at all. There are no records anywhere of Vikings wearing it. The image of the horned helmet may have started during the 19th century when painters of the era portrayed these sea-faring men wearing horns based on derogatory descriptions of Ancient Greek and Roman chroniclers.
12. Their swords were ahead of their time.
A Viking ‘ulfberht sword’ dated 900-1000 AD at the British Museum in London. Photo credit should read BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
Viking swords are the stuff made of legends. Known as being ruthless in battle and capable of withstanding just about anything at the hands of their enemies, the Vikings was a hardy bunch. One of the reasons why they are so confident in battle is because they had the terrifying weapon: their swords. The legendary Ufberht is made out of a metal that is so pure that its very existence baffles archaeologists today. These swords were used in between 800 A.D. to 1,000 A.D. They would have been forged under 3,000-degree heat, which was a nearly-impossible temperature to achieve until the Industrial Revolution, which wouldn’t be for another 800 years. The Ufberht was the sword of the elite. It was reserved only for the most skillful Viking.
Next: These tough warriors wore make-up.
13. They wore make-up.
Yes, you heard it right: the tough Vikings wore make-up. But this is not the kind of make-up that we now use. Vikings wore face paint and eyeliner which was made of dark-colored powder. This dark-colored powder is made from several ingredients including ash, soft, semi-precious stones, oxidized copper, crushed antimony, lead, and burnt almonds. The make-up that they wore was not merely meant to make them look fierce, though. The liner was used to protect their eyes from the sun’s glare.
14. They used chunks of crystals to navigate their ships.
For many years, this has been regarded as a myth. Viking sun stones have been stumping experts since it was first mentioned in The Saga of King Olaf. Now, there may be a plausible explanation behind it. In 1967, Danish archaeologist Thorhild Ramskou proposed that the chunks of crystals that were naturally found in Scandinavia may have been used to help Vikings navigate on gray and cloudy days. Researchers tested this hypothesis in 2011. They used a common crystal called Iceland spar, which was possibly used by Norse sailors. They held up the transparent crystal to the sky and rotated it. It polarized and depolarized light into specific patterns, which could reveal the position of the sun at certain times of the day.
Next: How did the Vikings spend most of their time? Pillaging and burning houses? Wrong.
15. They spent most of their time farming.
Many Norsemen during the Viking era weren’t always at war, pillaging and burning houses and terrorizing enemies. Many Norsemen led a simple farming life. The Norsemen cultivated grains such as oats, barley, and wheat. They ground these grains to make flour, oatmeal, and their favorite beverage, ale. They also grew vegetables like cabbage, beans, and onions. They raised livestock such as pigs, sheep, goats, cows, geese, and chickens. Surprisingly, many Norsemen chose to live a domestic life rather than spend their days plundering and seafaring.
16. They went berserk.
The Vikings that did go to war were known to be savage on the battlefield. They were so savage that a particular name: berserkers knew the warriors that were hell-bent on bloodshed. That’s where the English word “berserk,” which means wild or frenzied anger, comes from. According to legend, Berserkers donned bearskins and were an elite breed of fighters that were blessed by Odin, the god of the heavens and the god of war in Norse mythology. The berserkers would work themselves into a state of frenzy, which was regarded as a “supernatural” power. It was so intense that they would bite the edge of their shield and were able to ignore the pain of their battle wounds. There were two possible causes for this wild behavior: the first was natural adrenaline, and the second and more plausible one, is ‘shrooms. That’s right. The rumor is that they would consume “magic mushrooms” to pump them up for battle.
Next: The Vikings did not call themselves “Vikings.”
17. They did not call themselves Vikings.
The Vikings did not refer to themselves as Vikings. The word was a verb in Old Norse that meant “a pirate raid.” The Scandinavians referred to people who would go out on raids as “going Viking.” Over time, the verb “Viking” changed into the noun that we know today. Instead of Vikings, they called themselves Norse, Norsemen, or Danes.
18. They practiced good hygiene.
Viking bone comb and case at the Yorkshire Museum, York. Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images
This is again contrary to the common depiction of Vikings. They did take a bath and were generally clean. They practiced good hygiene, which probably means that they did not stink to high heavens. Artifacts excavated from Viking sites included grooming tools such as tweezers, razors, combs and ear cleaners made from animal bones. Vikings bathed once a week and enjoyed the occasional dip in hot springs.
Next: Check out evidence showing that there were Viking women warriors.
19. Viking women were warriors.
Although it was quite rare, there is evidence that women fought alongside men in Viking battles against the Bulgarians in 971 A.D. Female Vikings were described by a Danish historian as a group of women warriors who wore clothes like men and dedicated themselves to swordplay and other battle skills.
20. Trading was essential to them.
Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images
Vikings had two main occupations: trading and raiding. By far the more critical of the two was trading. These seafarers blazed the trail for many of the essential trade routes around Europe, North America, Asia, and Africa. Thanks to their superior shipbuilding skills, they had more mobility compared to other groups of the day. It is widely believed that they were the first group of Europeans to reach North America. They would traverse as far as Africa and the Middle East for precious goods. Archaeologists also found Arabic coins, Chinese silks, and Persian jewelry. These discoveries lead many types of research to believe that Vikings went to these places to trade. This also reveals that they had built up a sophisticated network of barter trade – trading furs, amber, ivory, and even slaves.
How does soup prove that a wound was fatal for the Viking? Click on next to find out.
21. Viking soup proved whether a wound was fatal.
Photo by stevepb
The life of a Viking is a life of bloodshed and constant battles. When warriors return home, women would see gruesome gashes and wounds. To prove that an injury was fatal, women would cook a strong-smelling soup made of onions, leeks, and aromatic herbs. They would feed it to the wounded warriors. Once they have eaten the soup, women would lean over and smell the open wound. If the women could smell the aromatic soup in the injury, it means that the wound is fatal.
22. A groom pays the bride’s family after they get married.
Just like in any ancient society, marriage for the Vikings was considered an important ritual. It involves a bride-price and a dowry. Women were expected to marry between the ages of 12 to 15. However, their marriages were arranged before that age. The groom’s family paid a bride price to the bride’s family once they are married. The bride’s father, in turn, pays a dowry. The families also had an agreement should the couple divorce. Norsewomen had the privilege of divorcing their husbands.
What did the Vikings use to start fires? The answer will surprise you. Click “next.”
23. They used fungus and human waste to start fires.
Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
The Vikings didn’t have the fire-starting technology that we had today. However, they did not rub two sticks together to make fire. In the 10th century, the Vikings had a surprisingly bright method of starting a fire. They used a fungus called touchwood, a type of mushroom that is shaped like a plate and can be found along a tree bark. They boiled this mushroom for several days in human urine. This combination of boiled tree fungus and urine will then be pounded until its texture resembled felt. The sodium nitrate in the urine would make it smolder which consequently starts a fire. This unique way of starting a fire means that the Vikings could take fire with them anywhere they go.
24. They ate decent meals.
Photo by Carlos Chavez/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Vikings consumed proper meals. While working on the fields, Norsemen would eat cottage cheese with a crust of bread. If they’re lucky, they will eat bread and cheese with a bit of dried fruit such as plum or crabapple. Their breakfast is often what’s left over from dinner the previous night, which was prepared in a cauldron over a fire. It’s usually a stew made up of grains, peas, boiled lamb bones, turnips, beans, carrots, and turnips. For feasts and special occasions, they ate various meats, cheeses, fish, and dried fruits drizzled with honey.
Next: Our days of the week were named after Norse gods.
25. Our days of the week were named after Norse gods.
Except for Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, the days of the week are named after Norse gods. Tyr (Tuesday) is the god of war and the heavens. Wednesday is named after Woden, the father of the supreme Norse gods. Thursday is named after Thor, the god of thunder, and Friday is named after Freya, the goddess of love, fertility, beauty, and marriage.
26. They made mead from fermented honey.
You might believe that Vikings drank the blood of their enemies, but that is a myth. They, however, drank the golden nectar of the gods: mead. This delicious brew is made from fermented honey, water, and yeast. They also added other aromatic ingredients such as hyssop, thyme, ginger, rosemary, and cloves.
Next: This is not a myth: they had blonde hair.
27. They prefer blonde hair.
Serbian-Italian actress Beba Loncar as Gerda, a Viking princess, in the film ‘The Long Ships’. Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
This fact is probably the most accurate depiction of Viking culture. However, you might be surprised to find out that the most common natural hair color of the Vikings was brunette, red, or black. Blondes were pretty rare – and if you are born with blonde hair, you are considered attractive. As a result, both men and women used soap with high quantities of lye to strip pigments from their hair and make it appear blonde.
28. They could navigate with zero visibility.
There is no doubt about it: Vikings are superior ocean navigators and shipbuilders. Viking longships were impeccably crafted and cleverly designed. They were very reliable, too. Vikings could navigate through thick fog, even under low or zero visibility conditions. When they didn’t have the sun or the stars to guide them, Vikings used an instrument called a sun-shadow. Their brilliant navigation skills brought the Vikings to the rivers of Russia and the ports of the Arabs and other Eastern countries.
Little-known fact: The Vikings founded Dublin. Click “next” to find out.
29. They founded Dublin.
Source: Royal Irish Academy
The Vikings established the port city of Dublin. Though as you might imagine, the way they founded the city was pretty brutal. When the Vikings created settlements in Normandy, they started raiding nearby neighbors like Great Britain. They invaded Ireland in the early 9th century, establishing a kingdom called Dyflin, which later became Dublin. Dublin was a major trading post and a significant stronghold in Ireland. The Vikings ruled Dublin for 300 years and melded their culture with the Celts.
30. They abandoned sick children.
Photo by DEA / C. BALOSSINI / Getty Images
This does not give Vikings a great reputation, but this is a historical fact. Vikings valued physical strength above all else, and their preference for the physically strong was handed down from generation to generation. They relied on their good health for survival. They do not want children who would be dependent on others all their lives because they pride themselves on being a self-sufficient people. Since their lifestyle was often physically demanding if a child is born sickly or with obvious physical defects, the Vikings would abandon them.
Next: The Vikings’ legal system is almost like ours.
31. They had an established legal system.
The Vikings’ legal system was almost like ours. Their oral culture established both law and government even without written text. Interestingly, all free men gathered to make laws and decided cases in meetings called a Thing. Much like the present-day legal system, there was a plaintiff, a defendant, and a jury. The jury will most likely be made up of the most powerful families of the locality. If you are found guilty, you are fined or declared an outlaw. You can be a semi-outlaw or a full outlaw. To be a full outlaw means total banishment and confiscation of property.
32. It is widely believed that they discovered America.
Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
History books tell us that Columbus discovered America. But it is widely accepted that a Viking named Leif Erikson was the first European to set foot on American soil. He stumbled across the North American continent while trying to make his way back to Greenland. Instead, he landed on the shores of what he called Vineland, or what is now present-day Newfoundland. It was rumored to be filled with grapes and had a lush landscape, but Erikson wasn’t interested in it. He decided to turn back and set sail for home.
Next: Another myth demystified: how Vikings buried their dead.
33. Buried and not burned.
It is widely believed that the Vikings honored the death of their noble warriors with a great, dramatic burial by the sea. They begin by setting their corpse on fire in open waters. They would then watch as the red flames turn the deceased into ashes, becoming food for the fish. However, the Vikings, in reality, buried their dead in boats rather than burning them. Only the most honorable Vikings were buried with ships, and they were buried with great pomp and circumstance. It wasn’t just men who were honored this way. Distinguished women were also buried with ships. On more than one occasion, slaves were also sacrificed along with the deceased.
34. Vikings blended with other cultures.
Vikings had invaded many countries with diverse cultures throughout three hundred years. It only makes sense for Viking men to intermarry with a diverse crowd of women and establish settlements in the area where these women lived. A new DNA research shows that a Native American woman may have made the journey to Europe with Vikings five hundred years before Columbus sailed to America. Scientists found more than 80 living Icelanders with a genetic sequence found in Native Americans. There is further evidence that Norsemen inter-married with Celtic women when they made the journey to Ireland.
Next: The Vikings loved to ski and more about the Valkyries, Odin’s prized women warriors.
35. They went skiing.
French Champion Adrien Coirier disguised as a Viking warrior skiing in Alps Moutains. Photo by Philippe ROYER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Skiing was a favorite pastime of the Vikings. They loved to ski and used it for recreational purposes and competitive sport. They also used skis to get around, especially in winter. Skiing was so popular that they even worshipped a god of skiing called Ullr, an outdoorsy kind of god who was a great archer, hunter, and skater.
36. Warriors believed that Valkyries would take them to Valhalla.
The Ride of the Valkyries. Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
There is one great female presence that strikes fear in the heart of men: Odin’s prized warriors, the Valkyries. These female warriors are powerful beings adorned with shields, chainmail, and swan feathers. According to legend, the Valkyries chose the fate of fallen warriors and only the fierce and brave are allowed to enter Valhalla and meet Odin, the sky god. The benign, on the other hand, are sent to Folkvang, Freya’s field. Freya is the goddess of love, fertility, and war.
37. Their houses only had one room.
Viking houses were one-room affairs which were rectangular. This open space would have a central hearth, where most of the cooking was done. Women often stayed indoors and took on the responsibility of keeping the house and tending the cattle. They also did the spinning of cloth for their children and the elderly. These rectangular Viking houses have been found in Dublin, Newfoundland, York, and Sweden. They were made out of wood, stone, and turf.