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 790s and 1066 CE) cut a swath through history. They also left a mark in the form of prosperous cities, archaeological ruins, and breathtaking sagas.
Here are some things you might not have known about the Vikings - or maybe you did, and just didn't know they were true.
While it's popular to simply lump all residents of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway in the 800s through the 1100s together as Vikings, the term truly refers to the seafaring raiders who landed up and down the British Isles and European coasts. These individual peoples would never have referred to each other or themselves as Vikings, as the term only became popular near the end of the Viking Age.
By far the most infamous form of Viking punishment was the blood eagle, a ritualized execution involving the back being opened up and the ribs cracked open one by one. Then salt would be poured into the wound, and the victim was left to die. Multiple Norse kings were said to be killed this way, but debate rages on as to whether the blood eagle was an invention of saga writers, a misinterpretation of grave runes, or an actual act reserved for the most heinous of sins.
Given the fragmented nature of the Nordic people of the time, it makes sense that there wasn't one origin for the term "Viking." One possible origin is the feminine form of the the Old Norse word for small bay - vik. It also might be a term referring to people from the Viken district of Norway, or a variation on different nautical terms.
No variant of the word appears in any record of the time until the 10th century, and the actual word didn't enter popular usage until the 18th century. Incidentally, Old Norse left its mark on the English language with dozens of words, including egg, anger, blunder, glove, and rotten.
The first thing many people respond with when they hear the word "Viking" is "horned helmet." But the ubiquitous helmets seen in operas, comics, and TV weren't worn by any Viking warrior. They would have been unwieldy for close-quarters combat, and a pointless affectation. It's likely that these helmets were first linked with Vikings in the 19th century, taken from a helmet that old Germanic priests would wear during ceremonies.