All About the Vikings
The Vikings were Scandinavian farmers, fishermen, herders and pirates
whose raids and invasions from Russia to North America between
roughly 800-1000 AD helped shape the medieval period of the region.
The word "viking" means something like "raid" in Old Norse; "vikingr"
means something like "one who raids"; but there is no doubt that the
word Viking came to mean the loosely-organized cultural groups in
Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and eventually Iceland who shared a
common economy: hunting, fishing, and piracy. The Viking Age is
traditionally marked with the first raid on England, in AD 793, and ends
with the death of Harald Hardrada in 1066.
Possible reasons for the Viking expansion outside of Scandinavia
include population pressure, political pressure, and personal
enrichment, or a combination of all three. It is recognized that the
Vikings could never have begun raiding or indeed settling beyond
Scandinavia if they had not first developed (about 4 centuries earlier) highly effective boat building and
navigation skills.
Trade and Exploration
The Vikings traded all over Europe, and as far east as Central Asia. They bought goods and materials such
as silver, silk, spices, wine, jewellery, glass and pottery. In return, they sold items such as honey, tin, wheat,
wool, wood, iron, fur, leather, fish and
walrus ivory. Everywhere they went the Vikings bought and sold slaves. Traders carried folding scales, for
weighing coins to make sure they got a fair deal.
Discovering new lands
The Vikings were brave sailors and explorers. Families were ready to risk their lives on long, dangerous
journeys to find new land to farm. Vikings settled in Britain, but also sailed out into the North Atlantic
Ocean and south to the Mediterranean Sea. They sailed to the Faeroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland. A
Viking ship was small – holding only about 20 tonnes compared with 100,000 tonnes or more for a big
modern cargo ship. But bold Vikings sailed their ships far across the ocean. They found their way by
looking for landmarks, such as islands and distant mountains.
From Iceland to Greenland
Vikings from Norway sailed to Iceland in the late 800s - about the same time as King Alfred was fighting
Danish Vikings in England. In 930, the Vikings living in Iceland set up what is often called the world's first
parliament, the Althing. One of the Iceland Vikings was Eric the Red, and in AD 983 he sailed off west to
Greenland. Greenland is much bigger than Iceland, and much colder too. It is not much good for farming.
Eric hoped the name 'Greenland' would attract farmers, but only a small number of Vikings went there.
Vikings in America
A Viking called Bjarni Herjolfsson 'discovered' America by accident in the year 985. He saw an unknown
land, after his ship was blown off course on the way from Iceland to Greenland. In 1001, Leif Ericsson, son
of Eric the Red, sailed west to find this new land.
Leif and his men were the first Europeans known to have landed in America. They spent the winter in a
place they named 'Vinland' (Wine-land). It was in Newfoundland, Canada. Soon afterwards, Thorfinn
Karlsefni led a small group of Viking families to settle in the new land. But after fights with the local Native
American people, the Vikings gave up their settlement.
Viking Raids
Viking raids were a characteristic of the Scandinavian early medieval pirates called the Vikings, particularly
during the first 50 years of the Viking Age (~793-850). Raiding as a lifestyle was first established in
Scandinavia by the 6th century, as illustrated in the epic English tale of Beowulf. But, as population grew,
and trading networks into Europe became established, the Vikings became aware of the wealth of their
neighbors, both in silver and in land.
The earliest serious Viking raids were small in scope. Led by the Norwegians, the raids were on monasteries
in Northumberland on the northeast coast of England, at Lindisfarne (793), Jarrow (794) and Wearmouth
(794), and in the Orkney Islands of Scotland, at Iona (795). These raids were exclusively for money—if the
Norwegians couldn't find enough money in the monastery stores, they ransomed the monks back to the
How Vikings attacked
The Vikings did not send many ships on their
first raids. They made surprise attacks on lonely
places so that they would not have to fight a big
English army. English kings were too busy
fighting one another to join forces against the
Vikings. There was no English navy to guard the
coasts, so it was easy for Vikings to land on a
beach or sail up a river. After raiding a
monastery, the ships sailed home loaded with
treasures and captives.
The 793 Raid on England
In 793, 'Northmen' (Vikings) attacked the Christian monastery at Lindisfarne in Northumbria, in north-east
England. Northumbria was an English kingdom, and its monasteries were famous for books, art and
treasures. On a January day, the longships arrived and the Vikings attacked. They burned buildings, stole
treasures, murdered monks, and terrified everyone. Some Christian Church leaders said the Vikings were
sent by God, to punish people in England for doing wrong.
Viking ships
The Vikings built fast ships for raiding and war. These ships were 'dragon-ships' or 'longships'. The Vikings
also had slower passenger and cargo ships called knorrs. They built small boats for fishing or short trips.
Viking longships could sail in shallow water. So they could travel up rivers as well as across the sea. In a
raid, a ship could be hauled up on a beach. The Vikings could jump out and start fighting, and then make a
quick getaway if they were chased.
How ships were built
A Viking ship was built beside a river or an inlet of the sea. A tall oak tree was cut to make the keel. The
builders cut long planks of wood for the sides, and shorter pieces for supporting ribs and cross-beams. They
used wooden pegs and iron rivets to fasten the wooden pieces together. Overlapping the side planks, known
as 'clinker-building',made the ship very strong. People stuffed animal wool and sticky tar from pine trees
into every join and crack, to keep out the water.
To launch the ship, the Vikings pushed it into the water. They slid it over log rollers to make the pushing
Sails and oars
A Viking ship had one big square sail made of woven wool. In some ships, the mast for the sail could be
folded down. When there was not enough wind for the sail, the men rowed with long wooden oars. To
steer the ship, one man worked a big steering oar at the back end, or stern. At the curved front end of the
ship was a carved wooden figure-head.
A dragon-ship had room for between 40 and 60 men. The men slept and ate on deck. There was some
space below deck for stores, but no cabins.
Finding the way
Vikings sailed close to the coast whenever possible, watching for landmarks. Out of sight of land, they
looked for the sun: west (towards the sunset) meant they were headed for England; east (towards the
sunrise) meant home to Denmark or Norway. The Vikings invented a kind of sun compass to help find
their way. At night they watched the stars.
Seamen knew a lot about winds and sea
currents. By watching birds or even the colour
of the water, an experienced sailor could tell
when land was close.
Ships in a museum
Two Viking ships were found by
archaeologists in Norway. The Gokstad ship
was dug up on a farm in 1880. The Oseberg
ship was found on another farm in 1904.
Both ships were buried in Viking funerals between AD 800 and 900. The Gokstad ship is 23 metres/76 ft
long. It was big enough for 32 oarsmen - 16 oars each side.
These two ships are now in a museum in Oslo in Norway. In 1893, a copy of the Gokstad ship sailed across
the Atlantic Ocean from Norway to America.
Viking weapons
The Vikings fought using long swords and axes. A
good sword was handed down from father to son, but
Vikings also buried weapons with their owner when
he died. Wood rots and metal rusts away after a
thousand years or more in the ground, but some
remains show what the weapons were like. Vikings
did not wear much armour, though some chieftains
wore mail coats. Most relied on a round wooden
shield for protection. On their heads, they wore
helmets made of leather or iron. A Viking saying was,
'Never leave your weapons behind when you go to work in the fields - you may need them'.
Viking armies
In AD 865, a 'Great Army' of hundreds of Viking ships invaded England. The army stayed in England for
14 years, fighting the English kings. In AD 866 Vikings captured York. They captured King Edmund of
East Anglia and shot him dead with arrows.
In AD 892, 300 Viking ships invaded to fight King Alfred of Wessex. No one knows how big the Viking
armies were. If there were 20 men in each ship, the army of AD 892 numbered 6,000! That was a huge
army for the time. Most Viking armies were probably smaller - perhaps 1,000 to 2,000 men.
One half of England fell to the Vikings by 870. By 959, the settler Vikings are part of the English populace;
but beginning in 980, a new wave of attacks from Norway and Denmark occurred. In 1016, King Cnut
controlled all of England, Denmark and Norway. But in 1066 England was conquered by William, Duke of
Normandy (France), the Normans led by William took over all of England. This essentially ended the
Norse (Viking) control of most land outside of Scandinavia.
Even with the end of the Viking Age, the Norse built settlements or took over existing towns in England
eventually became part of local cultures. In Scotland, Vikings went on ruling some islands for hundreds of
years. They were driven from the mainland of Scotland by 1100, but remained ‘lords of the isles’ until the
1200s. Some parts of Scotland were far more Norwegian than Scottish for many, many years.
What the Vikings left behind
Archaeologists find the remains of Viking houses, burial sites, treasure hoards, carvings on stones, and
writing carved in runes. Vikings left their mark on Britain in other ways too, such as language, Lots of
familiar English words originally came from the Vikings' Norse language. Examples are 'husband', 'egg', 'law'
and 'knife'. Place names show where Vikings once lived. A place with a name ending in -by, -thorpe or -ay
was almost certainly settled by Vikings. The Vikings also left behind many stories about real people, called
'sagas'. Scotland has its own saga from the Viking Age, called 'Orkneyinga Saga' or 'The History of the Earls
of Orkney'.
Viking Beliefs
When the Vikings came to Britain, they had their own pagan religion. They worshipped many gods. The
old stories they told about gods, giants and monsters are known as Norse myths. In one story, Thor, the god
of thunder, tries to prove his strength to the Giant King by attempting to lift a giant cat. But he could only
lift one of its paws!
Norse gods and goddesses
Odin was the ruler of the gods, and the god of magic, poetry and war. His wife was the motherly Frigg, and
their son was Balder, who was kind and gentle. Freyja was goddess of love and fertility, and wept golden
tears when she was unhappy. She had a twin brother Freyr, and their sacred animal was the boar.
Red-headed Thor ruled the skies, storms and thunder. He had iron
gloves, a magic belt and a hammer. People loved Thor but did not trust
Loki, the mischievous 'trickster god'. By a trick, Loki caused the death of
The dead and Valhalla
A dead person was buried or cremated (burned) with some of their
belongings, to take into the next world. Some Viking chiefs were given
ship-burials, with treasure, weapons, and favourite dogs and horses buried
with them.
Vikings believed that a warrior killed in battle went to Valhalla, a great hall
where dead heroes feasted at long tables. Odin sent his warror-maidens,
the Valkyries, riding through the skies to bring dead warriors to Valhalla.
Magic and monsters
Viking stories told how people lived in Midgard or Middle Earth, along with giants, elves and dwarfs. The
gods and goddesses lived in a sky world called Asgard. Linking Midgard with Asgard was a rainbow bridge.
The Vikings told many tales of monsters, such as trolls, dragons, sea serpents, and the fierce wolf Fenrir
(which the gods tried to keep chained up). Odin rode a magical horse named Sleipnir, which had eight legs.
The Vikings and Christianity
Not much is known about how the Vikings worshipped their old gods. It's thought they had 'magic trees'
and perhaps wooden temples. Some Vikings may have killed captives as human sacrifices. These old pagan
customs died out after Vikings became Christians. People in Britain had been Christians long before
Vikings settled there in the 900s. Soon most Vikings too became Christians. Viking leaders founded
churches and put up painted stone crosses. However, some Vikings continued to follow their old religion at
the same time.
The Vikings
Part I: Answer the following questions in complete sentences!!!
1. When was the period of Viking raids and invasions?
2. What does the word “Viking” literally mean? Where were the Vikings from?
3. What were 3 possible reasons for Viking expansion outside of Scandinavia?
4. What two skills allowed the Vikings to raid and settle outside of Scandinavia?
5. What were some of the things that the Vikings traded?
6. Why did Eric the Red name Greenland the way he did?
7. Why did the Vikings give up their settlement in North America (Vinland)?
8. What explanation did Christian Church leaders in England give for the Viking attack in 793?
9. What were two advantages of Viking ships compared to other ships of the time?
10. What were some of the ways that Vikings navigated while at sea?
11. What are four English words that originally came from the Vikings?
12. What type of religion did the Vikings practice when they first came to Britain?
13. What was the god of the skies, storms, and thunder in Viking mythology?
14. What religion did many Vikings convert to after they settled in Britain in the 900s?
Part II: Pretend that you were a participant in a Viking voyage. Write a one page Viking Saga
about your journey on a separate sheet of paper.