The Viking Mindset: What Caused It?
Welcome to the course!
I’m Tom Shippey. I’ve been teaching and writing about the early history and literature of the North for many years. I’m also the author of Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings, a book exploring Vikings’ fascination with scenes of heroic death.This course aims to explore Viking history, get behind the public image of Vikings (big axes, bearded faces, horned helmets), and above all, understand their mindset.
For centuries, Vikings terrorized everywhere their ships could reach. The people they raided weren’t mere pacifists—they were all military societies, ruled by kings and nobles whose main business was war. But the Vikings raised the bar on violence. One has to ask, what gave them their edge?
Who? And What?
There are easy questions to deal with first. Who were they?
Vikings were Scandinavians from what are now Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, as well as from the settlements they made everywhere else, from Iceland to Ukraine. They all spoke dialects of the same language, Old Norse.
What were they? In their own language, vikingr meant simply, “pirate, marauder,” or just plain “robber.” So, when people ask, as they often do, “Weren’t Vikings more than marauders, weren’t they also peaceful traders?”, the short answer is “no.” If they weren’t robbing and marauding, they weren’t Vikings any more.
Liberal historians, however, like to “airbrush” this with titles like, “the Viking Achievement,” about traders and explorers and urban developers. But they weren’t Vikings, they were just Scandinavians.
Nearly all Vikings were Scandinavians in origin. But most Scandinavians were never Vikings. Most importantly, “Viking” is not an ethnic label, it’s a job description.
Where? When? And What Was Before the Viking Age?
Vikings raided everywhere, from Ireland to the Caspian Sea, from north Scotland to north Africa. The Viking Age lasted from June 8, 793 to September 25, 1066, give or take.
Sea-borne raiding was endemic in the old northern world before the Viking Age. The Hjortspring boat was found on the island of Als, off the south-east coast of Denmark. It is more than 2,000 years old and doesn’t look like a Viking boat at all. It is a large war-canoe—not sailed, not rowed, but paddled. With it was found a large assortment of weapons. The excavators reckon they are looking at the gear of a hundred men, three or four crews. Raiders who were cut off and wiped out. Ordinary warriors carried a heavy and a light spear; nobles had mailcoats and a sword and heavy lance apiece.
At Nydam, on the mainland close to Hjortspring (the south of present Denmark), was the same thing. One boat here, sunk in the bog around the year 360, is well preserved and has rowlocks. Again, though, many weapons, deliberately smashed, were left lying on the surface of the bog, without being salvaged. Another unlucky set of raiders. But why discard their weapons?
Roman historian Orosius noted the custom. After a tribe called the Cimbri—probably from Himmerland in north Jutland (the peninsula that contains the mainland regions of Denmark)—had captured two Roman camps about 100 BCE, they also destroyed everything: gold, silver, armor, and weapons. They hanged their prisoners and drowned their horses. Weird, thought Orosius. Not just cruel, but also wasteful.
At Illerup in Denmark, archaeologists have found the relics of a thousand-man expedition made by Norwegians about the year 300. At several other sites in Denmark were large weapon-dumps, smashed and left. Sagas written far later confirm the habit as sacrifice to a war-god, usually Odin, which means in Old Norse, “the Mad One.”
For centuries before the Viking Age, then, Scandinavia was the scene of warfare, especially sea-borne raiding, of an exceptionally bloody kind. So, what triggered the Viking Age? Or maybe the question should be, what kept them quiet for a while?
We will look at the causes of that in the next lesson. And, as in every lesson, we will consider the exceptionally aggressive mindset: the fascination with death-scenes, death-songs, last stands, and last words.
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