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For other uses of Viking, see Viking (disambiguation).

Vikings, or Norsemen, were a North Germanic group unified by a common ethnicity and language of the Early Middle Ages. The Vikings were seafaring pirates who from the late 8th century to the late 11th century raided, pirated, traded, and settled throughout parts of Europe. They also voyaged as far as the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East, and North America. Today they are now generally referred to as “Scandinavians” rather than "Norsemen."


Scandinavian Vikings were similar in appearance to modern-day Scandinavians. Their skin was fair, and their hair color varied between blond, dark, and reddish. Genetic studies suggest that people were mostly blond in what is now eastern Sweden, while red hair was mostly found in western Scandinavia.

Most men had should-length hair and bears, and thralls were usually the only men with short hair. Women had long hair, with girls often wearing it loose or braided and married women often wearing it in a bun. The average height is estimated to have been 67 inches (5’5”) for men and 62 inches (5’1”) for women.

A person’s social-economic class was easily recognizable by their appearance. Men and women of the Jarls were well groomed with neat hairstyles and expressed their wealth and status by wearing expensive, often silk, clothes and well-crafted jewelry like brooches, belt buckles, necklaces, and arm rings. Most Karls expressed similar tastes and hygiene, but in a more relaxed and inexpensive way.


The Vikings established and engaged in extensive trading networks throughout the known world and had a profound influence on the economic development of Europe and Scandinavia. Except for the major trading centers, the Viking world was unfamiliar with the use of coinage and was based on so called bullion economy, meaning the weight of precious metals. Silver was the most common metal in the economy, although gold was also used to some extent. Traders carried small scales, enabling them to measure weight very accurately, so it was possible to have a very precise system of trade and exchange, even without regular coinage. Imports includes spices, glass, silk, and wine. Exports included amber, fur, cloth, wool, down, slaves/thralls, walrus ivory, wax, salt, cod, and weapons.


The Vikings spoke Old Norse, a North Germanic language that was spoken until about 1300 AD. It was also spoken in the lands the Vikings settled in. Modern Icelandic is the modern languages that is the closest to Old Norse when written. Other languages that come from Old Norse are Swedish, Danish, Faroese, and Norwegian.

Old Norse is divided into three dialects: Old West Norse, Old East Norse, and Old Guntish. Old West Norse, also called Old Norse, is by far the best attested variety of Old Norse. Most speakers of Old West Norse lived in Norway and later, in Iceland. Old East Norse has no clear geographical boundary between Old West Norse. Most speakers spoke Old East Norse in what is present-day Denmark and Sweden. Old Gutnish is derived from Old East Norse. Speakers of Old Gutnish were from Götaland.

Social Structure[]

Viking Society was generally divided into three socio-economic classes: Thralls, Karls, and Jarls. This is described vividly inn the Eddic Poem Rígsþula, which also explains that it was the god Heimdall, under the name Rig, who created the three classes.

Positions and Roles:[]


Konungr was the title of a sovereign. A king originally had three main functions: to serve as judge during the popular assemblies, to serve as a priest during the sacrifices, and to serve as a military leader during wars. The office was received hereditarily, but a new king required the consent of the people before assuming the throne. All sons of the king had the right to claim the throne, which often led to co-rulership.


The Jarls, also known as Earls, were the aristocracy of Viking Society. They were wealthy and owned large estates with huge longhouses, horses, and many thralls. Jarls did administration, politics, hunting, sports, visited other Jarls, or went abroad on expeditions and raids. When a Jarl was buried, his household thralls were sometimes sacrificially killed and buried next to him. The title means "chieftain," particularly a chieftains set to rule a territory in a king's stead. However, it could also mean a sovereign prince. For example, many of the petty kingdoms of Norway had the title of Jarl and in many cases, they had no less power than their neighbors who had the title of king.


Housecarls were the bodyguards or manservants of a rich Viking's household. They were well-trained and paid as full-time soldiers.


Karls were free peasants. They owned farms, land, and cattle. They used thralls to make ends meet. Another name for karls was "bonde" or "freemen." They were the lowest rank of freemen.


Thralls (Old Norse: þræll) were the lowest ranking class and were slaves. They comprised as much as a quarter of the population. Slavery was of vital importance to Viking Society, for everyday chores, large scale construction, trade, and the economy. They would be the servants and workers in the farms and larger households of the Karls and Jarls. Thralls were still given a wergeld, or a man’s price, meaning there was a monetary penalty for unlawfully killing a slave. Thralls could experience a level of social fluidity. They could be freed by their masters at any time, or buy their own freedom. Then they became a leysingi. This intermediary group between slaves and freemen still owed allegiance to their former master and had to vote according to the former master's wishes. It took at least two generations for leysingi to lose the allegiance to their former masters and become full freemen.

Other Positions[]

There were many intermediate positions in the overall social structure. And it is believed that there must have been some social mobility. Details are unclear, but titles and positions like hauldr, thegn, and landmand show mobility between the Karls and the Jarls.

Status of Women[]

Like elsewhere in medieval Europe, most women in Viking society were subordinate to their husband and fathers and had little political power. However, the written sources portray free Viking women as having independence and rights. They generally appear to have had more freedom than women elsewhere. Most free Viking women were housewives, and their standing in society was linked to that of her husband. The title of the lady of the house was húsfreyja. Norse laws assert the housewife’s authority over the “indoor household.” She had the important roles of managing the farm’s resources, conducting business, and child-rearing.

At the age of twenty, an unmarried woman, referred to as maer and mey, reached legal majority, had the right to decide her place of residence, and was regarded as her own person before the law. An exception to her independence was the right to choose a husband, as marriages were normally arranged by the family. A married woman could divorce her husband and remarry. She also had the right to inherit part of her husband’s property upon his death. The paternal aunt, niece, and granddaughter also had the right to inherit property from a deceased man. If there were no sons or male relatives, the widow could not only inherit the deceased man’s property, but also the position as head of the family when the father or brother died. Such a woman was referred to as a Baugrygr, and she exercised all the rights afforded to the head of a family. Women had religious authority, were active within the arts, and were merchants and medicine women. There may also have been female entrepreneurs who worked in textile production. Women may also have been active within military office. The liberties of the Viking women gradually disappeared after the introduction of Christianity, and from the late 13th century they are no longer mentioned.

Religious Beliefs[]

The religious beliefs of the Vikings are known as Norse Paganism. Norse Paganism is a branch of Germanic religion. Old Norse religion was polytheistic, entailing a belief in various gods and goddesses. Old Norse religion was transmitted through oral culture rather than through codified texts. It focused heavily on ritual practice. The biggest component is Norse mythology. Old Norse religion was fully integrated with other aspects of Norse life, including subsistence, warfare, and social interactions. The practitioners of this belief system themselves had no term meaning "religion," which was only introduced with Christianity. There is no evidence of a professional priesthood among the Norse, and rather cultic activities were carried out by members of the community who also had other social functions and positions.


Blót is the primary religious ritual. It is the term for "blood sacrifice." A blót could be dedicated to any of the Norse gods, the spirits of the land, and to ancestors. The sacrifice involved aspects of a sacramental meal or feast.


Seiðr is a type of magic believed to be related to both the telling and shaping of the future. While there were practitioners of both sexes, it was considered a feminine trait, and men who practiced it brought about a social taboo called ergi on themselves. Female sorceresses were known as vǫlur and male sorcerers were known as seiðmenn.


Galdr is a spell incantation. They were usually performed in combination with certain rites. It was mastered by both men and women.

Norse Pantheon[]

Central to accounts of Norse mythology are the plights of the gods and their interactions with various other beings, who may be friends, lovers, foes, or family members of the gods. The gods of the principal pantheon were the Æsir. They include Odin, Frigg, Hodr, Thor, Baldr, and Týr. The second Norse pantheon is the Vanir. They include Njord, Freyr, and Freyja. The two pantheons wage war against each other, resulting in a unified pantheon.