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15 Things You Might Not Know About Vikings

Updated September 28, 2020 1.4m views15 items

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.

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  • 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.

    Though funeral traditions varied in the Viking world, many burials included grave goods, or items that the deceased might need in the afterlife.

  • They Had Contact With Native Americans

    400 years before Columbus "discovered" North America, Viking 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. It was likely inhabited for just a few years, however.

    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

    Viking Warriors Didn't Wear Ho is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list 15 Things You Might Not Know About Vikings
    Photo: Monro S. Orr / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    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.

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