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We do not seek death, but we do not fear it, either.

Clive Standen as Rollo

Vikings (from Old Norse Víkingr) were seafaring northern Germanic people who raided, traded, explored, and settled in wide areas of Europe, Asia, and the North Atlantic islands from the late 8th to the mid-11th centuries.

Overview

The proper ethnic term of the people to whom the Vikings belonged, is the Norse. Individual nations of the Old Norse culture of Scandinavia included the Norwegians, the Svear (Swedes), the Danes, the Geats or Gutes of the island of Gotaland, and later the Icelanders. "Viking" was merely a label for those engaged in acts of piracy. Not all Norse people were necessarily Viking, though Vikings were mostly Northmen.

Other societies however, living close to Scandinavia, were also engaged in maritime raiding activities during the Viking Age. These were the Germanic people of the Frisians in the future Netherlands, the Slavic people of the Polabians in eastern Germany and Poland, the Baltic tribe of the Kurs or Curonians in the coastal lands of Lithuania and Latvia, and the Finno-Ugrictribe of the Oeselians of Estonia.

The Viking Period is the main focus of the show, Vikings.

The details below will reflect the Vikings' culture as displayed on the show.

Culture

Boendr, from whom kings or chief were elected. Freemen are either farmers, seafarers, or hunters. Either way, all of them are warriors and fighters for all of them are trained from childhood to wield weapons, and some Northmen who have earned their place in the battlefield even name their weapons. Also, every freemen sworn to their leader must answer the call when they are called to battle, either for war or raids.[1]

Vikings and the other free people of the community gather at The Thing with their leader present. During these assemblies, disputes are resolved, trials are held, and big decisions to be made for their Aett (clan) are discussed or announced. Boys who have just come of age can also receive their arm rings and swear their fealty to the king or earl.

In Vikings, The Thing is held at the Earl's mead hall.

In the Viking Age, the Kingdom of Denmark was the largest and most powerful of the Norse kingdoms in Scandinavia, consisting not only of Jutland and the Danish islands of Sjaelland, Funen, Lolland, Falster, Bornholm, and the Jutlandic Islands, but also of the modern regions of Bohuslan (which was called Ranrike at this time), Halland and Scania in Sweden, Viken, Ostfold and Vestfold in Norway. All were either under direct Danish rule or influence. Schleswig-Holstein north of the Eider River (where Hedeby is located) and disputed areas of Wendland in what is now northern Germany were also under Danish dominion. From Denmark came the majority of the conquerors of Anglo-Saxon England, Frisia (Netherlands and German Lower Saxony) and the future Duchy of Normandy in what was previously the northern part of the old Frankish kingdom of Neustria. The original Danish tribe is generally believed to have come from southern Sweden before achieving dominion over the islands and the Jutland Peninsula at an unknown point during the early Common Era. The Jutish and Saxon tribes living north of the Eider River would have been effectively assimilated by the Danes before the beginning of the Viking Age.

The Kingdom of the Svear or the Swedes were originally based in Svithjod (Svealand), their original homeland in what is now central Sweden. Through the course of the Medieval Era, the Swedes would rise as a regional power to rival the Danes and eventually slowly annex the Geats and Gutes through war, conquest, alliances, and deals. The Swedes were the last of the Scandinavian peoples to convert to Christianity in the 11th century. During the Viking Age, it was the Swedes who sailed through the river-systems of Russia and the Ukraine and established what would become the Norse-Slavic federation known by their contemporaries as the Varangians, otherwise known to history as the Kievan Rus (ancestors of the modern Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians). The Svear are also thought to have colonized the Aland Islands of Finland, as well as the mainland regions of Ostrobothnia and Karelia, the latter being part of the main route through Russia, although much of Finland would not officially become part of the Swedish realm until the Baltic Crusades during the 12th century. Norrland in the north of Sweden was a heavily-forested and sparsely-populated region, containing mostly nomadic Finno-Ugric tribes: the Sami and Finnish (particularly the Kvens) clans living as hunter-gatherers and herders of reindeer, a situation which has endured centuries after the Viking Age. Much of the settlement of Norrland by the Svear was concentrated in the coastal regions. Inland, a Germanic tribe known as Jamts has been living in an area known as Jámtaland (Jämtland), a loosely connected republic of farmers. Although conquered by Norwegians after the Viking Age, it was later claimed by the Swedes.

To the south of the Svear was the homeland of the Gautar, Geatas or "Geats" as they are referred to in Old English literary sources. The Geatish homeland included much as what is now known as Gotaland on the southern-central Swedish mainland as well as the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. The Geatish mainland was divided into the territories of Ostergotland (eastern Geatland) and Vestergotland (western Geatland). The Old Norse hero Beowulf was a Geat. On the island of Gotland lived the Gutes, or Gutar. They spoke their own distinct dialect of Old Norse. Their island homeland was a major center of commerce during the Viking Age, where goods, including furs from Kieavan Rus and silk and silver from the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate in the Middle East, found their way into Gutnish markets. Gotland was also a target for piracy in the Baltic Sea. Not only from fellow Norsemen, but also Polabian Slavs from Pomerania, Curonians (Lithuania and Latvia) and Oesylians (Estonia) would target the Gutes on occasion.

Norway, at the beginning of the 9th century, was originally divided into a number of smaller petty kingdoms. Some of which, like Vingulmark and Viken, were under Danish rule. Others, such as Rogaland, Halogaland, and Hordaland, were the original homelands of the majority of the people who settled in Iceland and Greenland, as well as the Norse colonies in Ireland, Scotland, the Orkneys, Shetlands, and the Faroe Islands. Erik the Red, the future chieftain of the Norse settlers of Greenland, for example, was born in Rogaland. Vestfold, the realm and birthplace of King Harald Fairfair, was where the unification of Norway had begun in the late 9th century.

The land that will eventually be Russia and eastern Europe in general was known to the Norse as Gardariki or "realm of towns" due to the Norse Varangian settlements established there from the 8th century. It was also know as Austrvegr (the eastern way) or Austrlond (the eastern lands). Cities established or settled by the Norse Varangians include Old Ladoga (Aldeigjuborg), Novgorod (Holmgardr), Kiev (Koenugardr), Polotsk (Pallteskja), Smolensk (Smaleskja), Suzdal (Sursdalar), Murom (Moramar) and Rostov (Radstofa).

Truso, though it was not a Norse colony, was an ancient trading hub located on the site of the modern Polish city of Elblag, and was frequented by Norse merchants from Denmark, Svealand, and Gautland. It is believed that the settlement of Truso was founded as early as the 1st century CE. It was known to the Romans, and was likely part of the ancient Amber Road, the commercial network through which Baltic amber was sold as far away as ancient Greece and Egypt. Slaves and furs were the main trade items along with amber. The ethnic make-up of Truso included Norse and Saxons (Germanic peoples), Prussians (Baltic tribes), Franks (Latinized people), Slavs, and Radhanite Jews.

Viskiautal (Lthuanian name) was the settlement known by Swedish merchants as Kaup and was located on the site of modern day Mokhovoye (Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia) in the lands of the Curonians, near the so-named Curonian Lagoon.

The Kingdom of Dublin was called Dyflin by the Norse who founded the city, which became the centre of the hybrid Norse-Gael culture in Ireland. Other Norse settlements were Wexford (Veisafjordr), Waterford (Vedrafjordr), Cork, and Limerick (Hlymrekr).

The Norse also settled the islands of Orkney and Shetland, which they called Nordreyjar or "the northern isles," while the Hebrides, the islands of the Firth of Clyde and the Isle of Mann in the Irish Sea were collectively called Sudreyjar, "the southern isles."

Parts of mainland Scotland were settled by the Norse. The northern-most Scottish county of Sutherland (ironically meaning "southern land") was part of the dominion of the Earls of Orkney. Galloway, which derives its name from the Gall-Gaidel, meaning the "Foreign Gaels," was the Irish term for Norse settlers who adopted aspects of Gaelic culture. The Norse settlers in Scotland and Ireland initially called themselves Austmenn (east men) while their name for the Celtic inhabitants of Ireland and Britain was Vestmenn (west men).

The Welsh city of Swansea (Sweynsey or "Sweyn's Island") began as a Norse trading post in the contemporary Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth. The Welsh name for Swansea is Abertawe.

Vikings were reported to have ventured far and beyond their Scandinavian homeland. Their names for geographic regions included Blaland (Black Land/Blue Land) for North Africa, Serkland (land of robes) for the Middle East and possibly Asia in general. Miklagardr was the Norse name for Constantinople, while Grikland was what they called Greece and likely the Byzantine Empire in general. Frankland referred to the Frankish kingdoms in France and Germany. Irland may have been the Norse rendering of Eire (Ireland). Vinland and Markland were the names given to lands founded in North America by Leif Eriksson and Thorfinn Karlsefni in the early 11th century, presumably in Newfoundland and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence as far as northeastern New Brunswick. Saxland may have been Saxony in northern Germany. Langbardaland, named for the Lombard tribes, was the name for Italy. Spann may have been Spain. Finnmork was Finland. Hunaland may have referred to the lands held by the Huns and their descendants, the Avars and the Bulgars, in south-eastern Europe. Gydingaland (literally: "land of the Jews") was the Old Norse name for Palestine. And Jorsala or Jorsalaborg was the name for Jerusalem.

Scandinavia during the Viking age

Language

The Vikings speak Old Norse, a North Germanic language spoken by the inhabitants of Scandinavia. The language is divided into three mayor dialects: eastern Norse, which is the most common and spoken in Denmark, Svealand, and Götaland, western Norse which is spoken in Norway and later Iceland, and Old Gutish that was spoken in Gotland.

Athelstan knows their language as he has apparently traveled before where their language was spoken. He then teaches Ragnar his language, Old English/Anglo-Saxon, which he later uses to communicate with the natives of England.

On the show, bits of Old Norse is spoken, but translated to English for the viewers' ease. This is also true for Old English, which is spoken when the Northumbrian monks are first introduced.

Structure

Viking communities are headed by either kings or earls. The earl dictates what the warriors of his Aett (clan) are going to do, particularly where they hold their raids. Before Ragnar Lothbrok suggested traveling to the west, the most common destination of the Vikings was the eastern Baltic lands. The larger polities in Scandinavia are called Fylkir (Ryfylki in Rogaland for example), which translates as "tribe" and is etymologically linked to the word "folk." A Fylke often refers to the territory of a tribe as well as the tribe itself. Alternatively, the term Riki (Rongerike for example), or "kingdom/realm" would describe a Norse nation. Smaller tribal entities were known as Aettr (plural: clans), which were often led by Jarls in Scandinavia or Gothi in Iceland and Greenland. Jarls could reign over one or more such Aettr, while the less powerful were led by gothi who were little other than village headmen in addition to presiding over religious rites. In the Norse commonwealth established in Iceland, Gothar (plural: gothi) became the foremost leaders of the community, ranking beneath the elected lawspeakers and the Allsherjargothi (all-warring gothi).

Free women are also regarded as equals of men in their society, even letting some of them, particularly shield-maidens, fight alongside them,[2] although they treat slaves indifferently and have no problem with killing them, or even raping the slave women.

Positions and Roles

  • Kununger (kings): The most powerful Norse lords. They held the most land.
  • Jarls/Earls: Mostly autonomous tribal chieftains of princely status. Norse kings and earls would lead their fighting men in militia-based expeditionary forces called Leidangr. Each earl would lead a personal war band called a Hird. Hirdmenn were professional warriors who possessed the status of household bodyguards and companions. During peace-time Hirdmenn would function as the ruling earl's court. The closest to the earl's inner-circle were those trusted warriors known as Skutilsveinr ("the table-men").
  • Logmathr ("law speaker"): An official who presided over trials and lawsuits at The Thing meetings. In Iceland, the Logmathr became an elected political office.
  • Allsherjargothi ("all-warring gothi" or "paramount chieftain"): The ceremonial title for clan patriarchs in both Iceland and Greenland who were descended from Ingolfur Arnarsson, the first settler of Iceland, and Erik the Red, the first settler of Greenland, respectively. The allsherjargothi would sanctify the Althing at the beginning of the year.
  • Thengs: The lower nobility, who were relatives of kings and earls. They held land given to them by their ruling family members in return for rendering military service. They would govern a regional subdivision, known as the Vapnatak ("weapon-take") or a Harad ("a hundred").
  • Hersir: Wealthy land-holding warriors who were permitted to lead as much as a ship's crew.
  • Dróttinn/Drighten: A Norse warlord who independently commands a large military force and could often be either a king or a jarl.
  • Saekonungr ("sea-king"): A term in Medieval Scandinavian literature which describes a Viking warlord who had no significant landholdings, but commanded a large-enough fleet with which they could subdue a country and establish their own kingdoms.
  • Stallari: A title which is often translated as "marshal," who was the second-in-command of a Norse king's Hird. The Stallari may either have been a Thegn of the king or possibly a jarl who was allied with or oath-bound to the king.
  • Forungi: The Norse term for a military commander, either of an expeditionary force or to denote the commander of a lord's own Hird or Lid (following).
  • Merkismathr: A standard-bearer within a large war-band, carrying the banner of the jarl or the king.
  • Knarrarsmithr: Shipwright, literally meaning "boat-smiths."
  • Skutilsveinr ("table-men"): Higher-ranking members of a Hird. The officers who sit at their lord's table at feasts.
  • Huskarls/Housecarls: The personal bodyguards of a lord and part of his Hird. It literally means "house-men."
  • Rathningar: Experienced warriors who recruited and trained warriors in the service of a lord. Many may have been freelance mercenaries leading smaller bands and seeking employment where they could.
  • Gestir: The guests allowed to eat in an earl's great hall. They were hired mercenaries and spies.
  • Bryti: The overseer who would manage individual estates and holdings on behalf of a jarl or king and may be entrusted with tax-collection.
  • Stivardur: The steward who supervised the staff of an earl or king's hall.
  • Thulr: An officer at the court of a king who served in the capacity of an advisor and a "challenger of oaths," testing their veracity. They would also memorize the lore and histories of their communities.
  • Styramathr, Steorsman ("steersman"), or Hilmir ("helmsman"): Technical terms to describe the role of a ship's captain, who would often man the steering oar at the rear of the ship.
  • Thingmenn: Land-holding voters at The Thing.
  • Boendr: Freemen.
  • Thrall: Slave.

Religion and Beliefs

It is said that when the Norns came, even the gods themselves now had fates they could not escape.

Gustaf Skarsgård as Floki

Religious duties where mainly performed by two groupes of people: goðis and völvor.

Goði/Gothi

A goði was usually the cheiftain of a village and was responsible for arranging the religious festivals of the community and performing sacrifices. As seen in Sacrifice, when a king was around, he was expected to perform the duty of killing the sacrifices. The goði was not solely a religious figure, but would also lead The Thing, and assist in legal affairs and marriages. Since the Norse did not have a organized clergy, the goði was more of an administrative figure with religious duties, among others, than a priest.

Völvor

A völva ("wand-carrier") was a witch-shaman with a high status in the Norse community. A völva was a female medicine-woman who would assist in spiritual affairs. Their patron goddess was Freyja, the ur-völva, and they practiced a form of magic called seid/seiðr. Through seiðr the völva could see the future, the intentions of the gods, and even alter the web of fate. Exorcisms and the burial of the dead were lead by a völva. They would usually be helped by a group of younger women who were training to be völvor when they where older. Some völvor lived in the villages, and others traveled around wherever their services where sought after. The Angel of Death is a völva. Male völvas where called seidman/seiðmenn, like the Seer. Those were rare since it was considered unmanly to perform seiðr.

Norse Pantheon

The Vikings believe in the Aesir and Vanir, the two main families of the Norse gods, who reside in Asgard and Vanaheim above the land, Midgard, from where they watch over humans and live among them in nature, with Odin as their chief god. They believe that the world tree, Yggdrasil, binds the Nine Worlds together.

Although Vikings pay tribute to Odin in battle, they seek strength from Thor, god of thunder and lightning and son of Odin. Viking warriors who die in battle are sent to Valhalla, where they dine with their other fellow heroes and the gods, and to someday fight with them when Ragnarök comes. A man who dies at home will instead reside in Hel. For justice and courage, they seek the war god Týr.

The Viking women look up to the goddesses Frigg and Freyja. It is Freyja who leads the Valkyries and takes half of the fallen warriors to Valhalla, and the other half to Freyja's hall Sessrumnir. Any woman who dies in battle belongs to Freyja. Freyja is also the goddess of sexuality, instilling lust in both men, gods, dwarfs, and giants. Frigg sees the future and she alone knows what is to come.

The hunters venerate Ullr, stepson of Thor and god of hunting. Sailors give their praise to Njord, father of Freyr and Freyja, asking for luck and protection at sea. The sea is both giving and cruel. Here rules the sea giant Ägir and his wife, the goddess Ran, the mother of the waves. She drags men to the bottom of the sea after capturing them in her net.

To the Vikings, the end of the world is Ragnarök. Ragnarök will be brought by Loki, the trickster god who can take many shapes, and his children, Jörmungandr and Fenrir. Loki will pit the giants against the gods of Asgard. Odin will fall to the great wolf Fenrir, and Thor will fall to the world serpent Jörmungandr. Evil prevails until the world ends to start anew.[3]

Vikings also believe that their fate is predetermined by the mystical Norns, the female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men who together weave the strands of destiny.[4] Thus, they often go to the Seer to heed their advice.

References

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