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Myth and historical acurate facts intertwined in the rise to power of Vikings

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Long ago, there was a Viking who took over Norway due to a challenge. His name was Harald Fairhair and he wanted to marry a woman named Gyda. She said that she wouldn’t marry someone “who had not a bigger kingdom to rule then some shires.” (When Longships Sailed) Then she continued on to say that she wouldn’t marry him until he took over all of Norway. Harald rose to the challenge and promised “Never shall my hair be cut or combed, till I have possessed myself of all Norway.” Harald rampaged across Norway scorching villages. He fought with whoever resisted and pledged peace to those who submitted. In the end only Gyda’s father and allies remained and Harald destroyed them in a great sea battle. After following his vow not to clean he at last took a bath and combed his hair. However by the time Harald already had 8 other wives. Eventually Harald divorced them all to marry a Danish princess. This was not the first Viking woman who drove men to bold deeds, and was not the last.

The Viking age was from 793-1264. It started with a blast when norsemen raided a monastery off the coast of Lindisfarne. By 810 the Vikings were bold enough to start attacking the coast of Charlemagne’s empire. During the period of 830-850 Norwegians started establishing themselves in Ireland; founding the town of Dublin as a military base and a trading outpost. During this time the Danes arrived and started fighting for dominance with the Norwegians. In 860 Iceland was discovered. There was a time from 865-870 where Viking chieftains such as Ivar the Boneless invaded England. One very large event happened in 885. During this time Danish Vikings were surging up the Seine River by the hundreds. They passed through and lay siege to paris to try and gain passage. Eventually they were let through, but retreated to the coastline. In 911 as a peace offer the French king offered Vikings settled along the coast present day Normandy. On of the other, more important events was 930. This event was when Icelanders convened a national assembly, the Althing, to create and administer a legal code. This was important because it was western Europe’s first Parliament. This same assembly reconvened in 1000 to adopt Christianity as the country’s official religion. But during the time between the first Althing and that one Erik the Red discovered and populated Greenland. He made the discovery in 982 and started colonizing it in 986. A man named Olaf Haraldsson returned to Norway after years to win the crown and finish the conversion to Christianity in 1015. Then, in 1261, a long time after Olaf returned to Norway Greenlanders had to surrender their autonomy to Norway in return for trade concessions due to their economy being weakened by terrible weather conditions. Eventually in 1264 internal and economic problems caused Norway to gain control of Iceland’s independent government, ending the Viking age.

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Viking warfare and weapons were brutal. Viking weapon training started when they were young by practicing hunting, sports, and raidings. They wore chainmail and iron helmets. One myth about Viking’s equipment was that they wore horned helmets. This would hinder them in combat, as an enemy could grab the horns and break their neck, so they instead wore helmets without any. They carried and used wooden shields, bows, axes, spears, and swords. Laws of the late Viking period stated that all free men were expected to own weapons. Weapons were used as symbols of wealth in addition to warfare. Spears were the most common weapons. It was used for thrusting and throwing. Swords were very expensive to make and were a sign of high status. They were usually double edged and ranged up to 90 CM. Ferocious battle-axes were sometimes favored over swords in open combat. To get to and from their battles Vikings used longships. Vikings were masters of the sea. Warheads were used as a way to show warlike intent. Actual sea battles were very rare and even when they did happen they were close to shore. Each force shot arrows and missiles at each other and tried to board and take over the other’s ship. In land warfare tactics were not the best. Vikings fought on foot and had no cavalry. One tactic used was to stand in rows and make a wall of shields. They also built ditches and put stockades above them to make mini fortresses. While usually small, raids could be thousands of warriors when chieftains rallied. The main goal of a Viking battle was to kill or capture the leader of the other force. When this happened the other force usually lost or retreated. Besides large battles they also raided coastline villages or monasteries for loot or slaves. There was a very special type of warrior, in it’s own class, like a Navy SEAL or Samurai. They were called berserks. Their name suggests that they wore bearskins, fought in groups, and believed Odin, Norse god of war, gave them protection and superhuman power so that they didn’t need to wear armor. They worked themselves into such a intense battle frenzy that they were said to have bit on the edge of their shield and ignore pain. Hallucinogenic drugs were said to have been the reason for this battle frenzy. While Vikings are best known for their warfare the other parts of their life were also interesting.

The other interesting part was daily life. Daily life was a very important part of Viking society. Upper class Vikings were called Jarls. They were the richest people in Scandinavia and owned large halls. Below them was a class of craftsmen and farmers called Karls. Craftsmen could be anyone from blacksmith to jewlers This class owned farms on which they grew barley and rye. Using these ingredients they made bread and porridge, which they ate with peas, cabbages, onions, leeks, and berries. They lived with extended family and sometimes some Thralls. Thralls were the lowest class and were basically slaves. They had no rights; they could marry but any kids they had would be slaves. They were either Vikings in debt or they were captured on raids along the coastline. The worth of one Thrall was settled on 8 cows. If a Thrall was killed in a feud this was how how much compensation was needed. Both Karls and Jarls went on raids. Some Vikings were also merchants. They imported many things such as glass, silk, spices, wool, and wine while exporting slaves, furs, beeswax, honey and walrus ivory. They traded furs, skins, and tusks with the Far East, and slaves with Russia. However not everybody lived life on the move. People lived in very uncomfortable houses. They usually were 1 roomed with a wooden frame. Since they had no chimney the room was smokey and there was no windows, only small slits. Vikings played a lot of activities however. They swam, wrestled, hunted, horse fought, and fought. They also enjoyed board games such as hnefatafl, chess, and kvatrutafl, and draughts. This was a very important of Viking culture and they would often value skill in board games. Sometimes rich Vikings held feasts in which all of these were played and Skalds sang poems praising their lords. The Vikings played harps and horns to the toon of the music. Overall, Viking life was very different than Viking warfare and possibly more interesting.

I learned a lot from this and I think that it showed a lot of important things. I was shown a ton about Viking culture and weapons, such as berserkers. I think that if I were to do another research project I might choose one focus question to be on Viking politics. While searching for relevant background I saw a lot of interesting parts of Viking politics such as Vikings taking over the throne in England, however since this wasn’t relevant to warfare or daily life I did not go in depth on it. Altogether, Viking culture was very interesting and there is much more than just the horned warriors that everyone immediately thinks about.


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