What Is A Viking?

by Kittie Bernott in


Historically speaking, the Vikings (Icelandic: víkingar) were seafaring members of the Norse people.

Vikings lived in Northern Europe, in countries that now make up modern day Scandinavia. The Viking Age was at its height between the 8th and 12th centuries, when Norse men and women sailed to many points around the globe and established Old Norse culture in a variety of countries through legitimate trade as well as war-like raiding.

Not all members of Norse society were Vikings; most Norse men and women were farmers, fishers, homesteaders, traders, or craftspeople. Boats and travel by water was an integral part of Norse culture, and so Vikings played an important role in cultural outreach to other countries. Vikings were dedicated explorers and often legitimate traders, sailing as far east as Central Asia and as far west as North America in the search for new trade and settlement opportunities.

In addition to their primary role as sailors, Vikings were also fierce warriors and historically feared for their aggressive raiding and treatment of members of other faiths, including Christians. Warfare was an integral aspect of Old Norse culture and religion; to live with honor and die in combat was the ultimate goal of any Norse warrior. If a Norse person lived with honor and died proving their bravery, they would earn a place in Valhalla or Folkvang, the halls of the god Odin and goddess Freya, where they would feast, fight, and be reunited with their fallen comrades.

After Vikings raided a new area, they would often establish a settlement and agricultural community, sometimes bringing over women and children to expand the new territory. Not every establishment was successful; the Viking colony in modern day Newfoundland, for example, was abandoned within a few years of the Vikings’ arrival in North America.

Old Norse culture, particularly the Vikings, experienced a resurgence of European interest in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of the romanticized notions about Vikings that exist today — that of the horned-helmet, skull-swilling, loincloth-wearing barbarian warrior — were artistic interpretations and are not historically accurate. Certain historical figures like Richard Wagner and Adolf Hitler borrowed or co-opted the Old Norse myths and sagas for their own purposes.

Ultimately, the most accurate depiction of the Vikings and Old Norse culture in general comes from the sagas and the diligent work of scientists, archeologists, anthropologists, and historians. Modern technology, including DNA testing and gene sequencing, is shedding new light into Old Norse culture and the men and women who lived and died as Vikings and warriors.

This Viking longboat, known as the Oseberg ship, was unearthed at a burial site in 1904 and is now on display at a museum in Oslo, Norway. Vikings would sail across open oceans in longboats, which were specifically designed to navigate both deep and shallow waters.

This Viking longboat, known as the Oseberg ship, was unearthed at a burial site in 1904 and is now on display at a museum in Oslo, Norway. Vikings would sail across open oceans in longboats, which were specifically designed to navigate both deep and shallow waters.