Weird History

Real Historians Answer Questions About Vikings We Wish We Asked Sooner

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Vote 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
    114 VOTES

    How Much Did Vikings Care About Personal Grooming?

    Asked by Redditor u/TheGeorg:

    How vain were the Vikings? I've been told many a time by various history shows that, "The Vikings being dirty savages was a lie spread by their enemies, for the time they were actually rather vain and a well preened beard and bathing was an important thing for Viking cultures."

    How much of it is is true? How vain by comparison to other cultures at the time?

    An excerpt from Redditor u/EyeStache's answer:

    Medieval Scandinavians were hardly vain, but they did have pride in appearance; we know from sagas that having clean hair and clothes was important, and the most common archaeological finds in Scandinavian graves at this time are combs. There's linguistic evidence, too; the Icelandic name for Saturday is Laugardagur, literally "washing-day."

    ...As far as Vikings are concerned, they were raiders and warriors, so of course appearance was important; if you're wealthy from plunder and fighting, you want to show it. Egill in his heyday is described (in the eponymous Egil's saga) as wearing all black clothing with a scarlet-lined cloak, for example. There are dozens of other descriptions in other sagas of the clothing that successful Vikings wore, and it is usually all finery.

    An excerpt from Redditor u/textandtrowel's answer:

    [Historian] Steven Ashby... shows us that everywhere the Vikings went, they took their combs with them. Many of them were even buried with their combs, clutching them in their hands or hanging them around their necks. There was even a cottage industry producing novelty-sized combs to be placed in your funerary urn if you decided to be cremated.

    Ashby's work is especially important because it lets us see what how males tended to their appearance. Archaeologists and the people who put together museums most often focus on fancy metal objects, but the metal jewelry that survives was typically feminine. Since viking is a word that translates roughly to "pirate," these feminine objects don't help us much to imagine what the Viking raiders really looked like. By showing us how Viking-Age males tended to their appearance with combs, Ashby adds another dimension to our understanding of these warriors from the north.

  • 2
    140 VOTES

    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?

  • 3
    137 VOTES

    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.

  • 4
    64 VOTES

    What Happened To The Vikings?

    Asked by Redditor u/Celebrator:

    What happened to the Vikings? Did the just evolve into what is the present-day culture in the area, or were they conquered by another power? Did religion have anything to do with the loss of the Viking culture?

    An excerpt from Redditor u/libertyh's answer:

    In a nutshell, the Vikings calmed down and went boringly mainstream. Their lands became three separate countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway), each governed by a king and accompanying royal dynasty, towns became more important, and they started trading...

    Religion did play a part in the decline of the raiding culture. The Vikings gradually became Christians, and the Medieval Church had declared that Christians should not own other Christians as slaves. This made raiding parties on nearby Christian lands much less profitable.

    An excerpt from Redditor u/ayyum's answer:

    The Normans originated as Vikings... who settled around the mouth of the Seine. Their leader Rollo was granted this territory by the king of France, who wanted to establish a buffer against further Viking raids upriver. Although Rollo became a formal vassal of the king of France, the treaty was basically an extortion of territory and de facto he and his followers became independent rulers of this region, which eventually became known as Normandy (Norman = "North man," what the Franks called the Scandinavians).