The history of the Vikings is replete with myths, misinformation, romantic notions, and pop-culture laziness. The facts about the Vikings are just as interesting as their myths, and have the added advantage of being true. Far from the violent, unwashed, horned-helmeted brutes of cultural depictions, the Vikings were explorers, farmers, traders, and colonists. They had a diverse religion, stratified society, and rich culture.
Of course, Viking history is also full of violence. From their brutal raids on England to their slave trading and drug-fueled combat, the Norse people of the Viking Age (between the 790s and 1066 AD) cut a swath through history. They also left a mark in the form of prosperous cities, archaeological ruins, and breathtaking sagas.
Burning Funeral Boats On The Open Water Wasn't Really A Thing
The image of a flaming funeral ship drifting into the sea may be powerful but it's not totally accurate. It is true that some Vikings - especially important ones - were cremated in boats. But these ships were usually buried on land as part of the funeral ritual. They likely weren't sent into open water.
- Photo: windcoast / Shutterstock.com
Vikings Were In North America In 1021, WAY Before Christopher Columbus
Before Christopher Columbus "discovered" North America, Viking/Norse explorers made inroads into what is now Newfoundland at the turn of the 11th century. They even established a small village at L'Anse aux Meadows, on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland.
The L'Anse aux Meadows site, now a National Historic Site of Canada, was first excavated in the 1960s, but researchers could only estimate when the Vikings arrived there. In 2021, scientists announced they had used advanced technology dating tree rings to pinpoint the exact date the Vikings arrived: 1021, more than 470 years before Columbus.
The Vikings didn't stay there long, however - probably only around three to 13 years.
They Had Contact With Native Americans
Because of their exploration of North America, it's likely that Viking sailors had at least some contact with Native Americans. Inuits and Vikings fought multiple times in Greenland. Moreover, scientists have discovered a genetic link between some Icelanders and Native Americans, which suggests a Native American woman might have traveled to Iceland with Vikings.
Trade likely took place as well. The Maine Penny, a Norwegian silver coin dating to the late 1000s found in a large trove of archaeological objects in Maine in 1957. Some scholars have said the coin is evidence of at least some Viking contact in the United States, with others saying it likely was brought from Newfoundland at some point, and a few simply writing it off as a hoax.
They Believed Warriors Got To Bring Their Dogs Into The Afterlife
Vikings seemingly had strong bonds with their dogs. They believed that warriors' dogs could accompany to Valhalla, the grand hall where the most worthy warriors would gather in the afterlife. But in order to enter the hallowed halls of Valhalla, the dog would have to be dead. Dogs were thus sometimes sacrificed and buried with their masters.
Viking Warriors Didn't Wear Horned Helmets
Vikings have become synonymous with horned helmets. But the ubiquitous headgear seen in operas, comics, and TV shows probably wasn't worn by Viking warriors. They would have been unwieldy for close-quarter combat and a pointless affectation.
It's likely that these helmets were first linked to Vikings in the 19th century, thanks to a costume designer. Carl Emil Doepler created the costumes for Richard Wagner's Norse-themed operas. He probably based his hat designs on Greco-Roman artwork as well as helmets that old Germanic priests wore during ceremonies.
Vikings Engaged In Rap Battles
Vikings found creative solutions to rivalries. If two people ran into conflict, they could publicly needle each other. Flyting, from the Old Norse word for "provcocation," was an opportunity for a Viking to show off his verbal prowess by poetically insulting someone else.
Flyting became a feature of courts throughout the Viking world, including England and Scotland.