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Real Historians Answer Questions About Vikings We Wish We Asked Sooner

Updated October 28, 2020 258 votes 63 voters 6.4k views10 items

List RulesVote up the answers that shed new light on Viking history.

They are renowned as some of the fiercest warriors in history, but what do we really know about the Vikings? How many of their adventurous exploits are true, and how many are exaggerations by their enemies - or even themselves?

Given the popularity of the History Channel's Vikings series, there are no shortage of Viking questions on the AskHistorians subreddit. In that open forum, genuine experts have fielded many Viking true or false questions. Below is a selection of the most fascinating Viking history facts. Vote up the ones you never knew before!

  • 1

    Did Vikings Really Believe They Went To Valhalla If They Were Slain In Battle?

    Asked by Redditor u/winplease:

    Did the Vikings believe that their opponents in battle went to Valhalla as well? And to add onto this question, did they believe that they were doing their opponents a favor by slaying them on the battlefield?

    An excerpt from Redditor u/Steelcan909's answer:

    We don't know that the Norse actually believed that they'd go to Vahalla, much less what they thought about other people.

    I'm gonna let you in on an open secret about the early Middle Ages: We don't know anything about the beliefs of the Norse. We cannot name a single tenet, doctrine, or guideline for their religious tradition with any real certainty. This is because we count the number of contemporary descriptions of Norse religion that were written down by practitioners on no hands. They simply don't exist.

    Every single source we have on "Norse mythology" is either a later creation, written after conversion to Christianity, or was written by Christians, almost invariably with no actual first hand knowledge. Trying to base an understanding of their beliefs about the afterlife, cosmology, and so on without primary sources is a little difficult as you might imagine!

    All of the hallmarks of Norse mythology we know and love and see repeated in games, movies, books, and so on, are ultimately derived from sources that aren't actually depicting Norse beliefs. Odin as chief of the gods, valkyries carrying the glorious dead to Valhalla, Loki as a trickster and agent of Ragnarok, and so on, all of this comes from a handful of sources - most written in Iceland - centuries after conversion.

    So why should one small group of sources from one corner of the Norse world stand in for the entire culture across its history across a geographic span from America to Russia and over several centuries?

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  • 2

    How Accurate Is History Channel's 'Vikings' Series?

    Asked by Redditor u/LuisMcTweets:

    Thoughts on History Channel's Vikings?

    An excerpt from Redditor u/Gadarn's answer:

    ...With regards to its historical accuracy, there are some big problems and some little problems, but overall I think it does a decent job making an engaging and entertaining "historical" drama (and considering the History Channel's track record, it is far and away the most historical thing on the channel in years).

    Big problems include:

    The weird disbelief in the British Isles and lack of sailing skill portrayed in the show. The Vikings were excellent sailors and traders and, even if they had not been to Britain before, they regularly traded with those who had been (Saxons, Frisians, Franks). Either way, they could not only cross the open seas, but we have records showing that 'vikings' had actually been to Britain before the sack of Lindisfarne.

    Calling the Jarl "Earl Haraldsson" is just plain wrong. As EyeStache pointed out elsewhere:

    In Old Norse, you always use the proper name to refer to an individual. You can add a title before or after that name, but you never use a patronymic to address them. It would be like someone in the military referring to Major Steve, or Sergeant Alice, or Admiral Mike.

    The "Earl" has far too much power and is not held in check by the nobles and thingmen.

    That "shaman" scene is just weird. Who knows where they got that from. While I will concede that we don't know as much about the Norse religion as we would like, and it probably had elements of shamanism, this just seems out of place from what I have read.

    That all said, I like that they seem to have done at least some research. As I mentioned in a different post, it seems clear the writers were aware of ibn Fadlan's account of meeting the Rus....

    So, overall, I think the show is entertaining and worth watching, but they have made some mistakes and have watered it down for their audience and for extra drama.

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  • 3

    Did Female Vikings Fight Alongside The Men?

    Asked by a Redditor:

    Women in combat in the past. How often did that really happen? I was watching the History Channel 2 and see a new show coming called Vikings. The commercial showed a bunch of men in their Viking war clothes and a woman was with them. It got me thinking about women in combat. Since our military (US) finally has allowed this, I'm curious to know what it was like for women in war in the past. Were they allowed? Would they have wanted to? 

    An excerpt from Redditor u/ripleycat's answer:

    ...As for the Vikings, there are a few examples of women warriors. Shieldmaidens appear quite often in Scandinavian folklore. For a more historical example, in 971, when the Kievan Rus invaded Bulgaria, they were defeated by the Byzantines, who found shieldmaidens among the dead, according to John Skylitzes. [...]

    If the Saga of Eric the Red is to be believed, his daughter Freydis (half-sister of Lief Ericsson) accompanied Lief on the Viking expeditions to America. While pregnant (and apparently bare-breasted, so the natives could see full well that she was a woman), she grabbed a sword and drove off an attack by the Skraelings after the Viking men had fled.

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  • 4

    Were Vikings More Hostile Than Other Cultures Of Their Era?

    Asked by Redditor u/T5R2S:

    Were Vikings really that violent? Or is it just a myth?

    An excerpt from Redditor u/Mediaevumed's answer:

    Functionally speaking, the Vikings don't appear to be more violent than other medieval peoples. Raiding, slave taking, mutilation, massacre, were all common tools in the Medieval toolbox of political, economic, and social activity. Very little that the Vikings did actually seems abnormal when compared with the Carolingians, various English peoples etc., and so forth.

    On the other hand, the methods and types of violence do differ in some key ways. It would have been pretty abnormal, for instance, for a Christian Frank to sell Christian monks into slavery, even if it was less abnormal to seize church territory. Not so for Vikings. The breaking of oaths that Vikings are so frequently accused of is likely a result of Vikings not caring/understanding why swearing on a Christian relic mattered. And the speed with which Vikings could come and go thanks to the long-boat would certainly have been shocking.

    Conceptually, therefore, even if the Vikings weren't "more" violent they were violent in ways which often shocked out contemporary source writers. They were differently violent and this made an impression which comes through in our historical sources....

    There is a major source discrepancy since the Vikings left virtually no primary sources and we are thus dependent on either the sources of outsiders who were frequently victims or of later Scandinavians thinking about their past. [...] Academics no longer think the Vikings were hyper-violent but we do think that their violence made an impression on our authors and that has filtered down to us. And at the end of the day it is nearly impossible to root out this idea of violent Vikings because that is what we (yes, often even historians) want from our Vikings.

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