12 Fascinating Things We Learned About Vikings In 2021

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Vote up the most captivating facts about Vikings.

The term "Viking" generally refers to someone or something associated with Scandinavian seafaring and marauding during the Middle Ages. In reality, most Norse men and women were actually farmers and laborers - not attackers and raiders - but are often called Vikings. Historical debates about the origins of the term (as well as how it's been used) complicate what "Viking" means as it relates to the people it has come to represent. As a result, it can be a loaded term. Here, it's used alongside "Scandinavian" and "Norse," as appropriate. 

And that is one of the most important things we've learned about Vikings.

We discovered a whole lot more about medieval Norse men and women, however. From how they lived, to their beliefs and practices, medieval Scandinavians are full of fascinating facts and stories. Take a look and vote up the ones that fascinate you the most. 

  • Vikings Brought Fire-Starting Fungus To Their Raids
    Photo: Peter Nicolai Arbo / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    1,285 VOTES

    Vikings Brought Fire-Starting Fungus To Their Raids

    When thinking about the types of weapons Vikings used, one's mind often turns to the traditional ax, sword, and shield that dominated medieval conflict. Among the best swords a Viking could get his hands on was an unbreakable Ulfberht sword, which was made from the ninth to 11th centuries. The carburized steel for the swords likely came from Persia or India through trade routes. So far, archaeologist have unearthed only 171 Ulfberht swords

    Researchers don't know the maker's origins, but historian Anders Winroth suggests that Ulfberht "probably refers to a workshop or a family." The word "Ulfberht," which was inscribed on the blade, became a kind of logo. As such, fake Ulfberht swords of lower quality entered the market and perhaps defrauded many an unsuspecting Viking.

    The Norse warriors are also associated with conflict hammers, intimidating helmets, and fear-inducing ships. Lesser known, however, is the use of fire - something Vikings actually brought to the battlefield. 

    They were known to take tree fungus called touchwood and soak it in urine. After a few days, they beat the fungus into something that resembled felt. The highly flammable substance was portable and could be taken on raids as an added tool with which to wreak havoc. 

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  • It's Possible The Vikings Never Intended To Stay In North America
    Photo: Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    1,265 VOTES

    It's Possible The Vikings Never Intended To Stay In North America

    Scandinavian explorers established at least one colony on the island of Newfoundland around the year 1000 CE. Called L'Anse aux Meadows, the Viking settlement is considered the oldest European settlement in North America.

    Archaeological evidence from L'Anse aux Meadows indicates the presence of buildings used as workshops and dwellings, while artifacts reveal evidence of woodworking and iron production. The settlement raises many more questions than it answers, however, especially the question of why Scandinavians didn't stay in North America. 

    Historians have several theories, including notions that the weather was too inhospitable for the Viking visitors. Some historians believe that, after decades of the Vikings enjoying plentiful resources in North America, a period of cold weather made the land less fruitful and the seas full of ice. Another potential force driving Vikings out of North America was the presence of indigenous groups - a factor the Vikings didn't need to manage when they settled Iceland and Greenland.

    Vikings' encounters with Native Americans actually appear in Scandinavian sagas. The Saga of the Greenlanders, for example, recounts how Thorvald, Leif Erikson's brother, was slain when Native Americans tried to repel the Vikings in what is believed to be Newfoundland.

    Other scholars believe the Vikings never intended to stay in North American and wanted to use L'Anse aux Meadows as a base for seasonal exploration. Even if this is the case, it's likely that both climate change and pressures from native inhabitants played a role in the abandonment of North America.

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    Medieval Scandinavian Longhouses May Have Had Toilets

    There is evidence that some Norse communities had latrines near their longhouses. Viking sagas mention latrines, often ones found away from well-traversed and populated living spaces. Viking latrines were communal, but group facilities may also have been built inside longhouses.

    One kamarr, or privy, discovered at Stöng included trenches that carried waste from the longhouse to an outdoor location. Archaeologists did find an outdoor latrine, however, and analyzed its contents. At a former Norse settlement in Denmark, researchers discovered a 1,000-year-old latrine containing parasites carried by both humans and animals.

    Scholars found roundworm, human whipworm, and liver fluke, as well as evidence that the worm infestations from the Viking Age contributed to a genetic anomaly that affects modern descendants of Vikings. Their genes adapted to counteract intestinal parasites and prevent potential diseases, a mutation that may now lead to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

    1,210 votes
  • Scandinavians Kept Dogs, Cats, And (Maybe) Bears As Pets
    Photo: British Library / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    937 VOTES

    Scandinavians Kept Dogs, Cats, And (Maybe) Bears As Pets

    Norse men and women kept animals of various kinds, some more functional and practical than others. Falcons were useful in hunting; dogs herded cattle and hunted; horses had numerous uses; and cats provided rodent control in homes and on ships alike.

    When it came to keeping pets, dogs were also companion animals, ones believed to accompany warriors when they went to Valhalla. One breed in particular, the Norsk elghund (Norse elkhound) is called the Dog of the Vikings; the people of Norway still hold it in high regard to this day

    One more animal reportedly kept by Norse peoples is the bear. Polar and brown bears could be domesticated, but if they got loose, their owners were punished for any damage they caused. Iceland even created laws to regulate polar bear ownership. According to one:

    If a man has a tame white bear, then he is to handle it in the same way as a dog and similarly pay for any damage it does. A bear has no immunity in respect of injuries done to it if it harms people.

    937 votes
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    Vikings Filed Their Teeth

    Horizontal filing marks on the teeth of Viking skulls have led to assertions by scholars that tooth-filing was likely a sign of social status. Archaeological evidence has found additional crescent-shaped markings, as well as indications that Vikings may have applied paint or dye to their teeth, too.

    The lines are, according to researcher Caroline Arcini, "skillfully made, and it is most likely that the individuals did not make the marks themselves, but that someone else must have filed them." The Vikings paid attention to hygiene and it's also possible that, in the words of the Smithsonian's William Fitzhugh, "When in-filled with pigment, these grooves would have made Viking warriors look even more terrifying to Christian monks and villagers."

    897 votes
  • Horned Helmets Weren't A Thing, And Flaming Funeral Boats Are Complicated
    Photo: Monro S. Orr / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    547 VOTES

    Horned Helmets Weren't A Thing, And Flaming Funeral Boats Are Complicated

    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 combat and a pointless affectation.

    It's likely 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 Germanic priests wore during ceremonies.

    Funerals involving burning ships did occur, but not on open water. Important Vikings, surrounded with their "grave goods," really were cremated on ships. But these ships didn't set sail. Instead, ship pyres were burned and buried on land, where archaeologists continue to find them several centuries later.

    547 votes