Few historical groups bring both fear and wonder to our minds quite like the Vikings. The fierce, axe-wielding warriors, with their longship raids and legendary Norse gods, once took the world by storm, with people today still captivated by their brave and bold ways. Unfortunately, centuries of tall tales have buried many Viking truths under bits of myth and fiction.
Discover which detail from Norse mythology the Marvel movies got wrong, and why we have the Vikings to thank for many useful words such as glitter. That’s right. Glitter. Also, a Viking funeral isn’t nearly as extravagant as what we’ve all thought, so let’s take a look at what Viking life was actually like.
Viking brides were given kittens by their grooms
According to some sources, as an old Viking wedding custom, Viking brides may have received a kitten as one of their wedding gifts. Practically speaking, the cat would keep a couple’s new home mice-free. In addition, gifting kittens honored the Viking’s goddess of love, Freyja, who rode in a cat-pulled chariot (since they’re mythic felines, we’re guessing they were either very large and/or super-strong!).
Some sources state the groom would gift the bride the cat, while others claim a family member or other wedding guests would gift the feline friend. Either way, what a cute and cuddly present!
Some Vikings bleached their hair
Back in the day, one of the ideal beauty standards for Vikings and northern Europeans was having blonde hair. Though many Vikings already sported naturally blonde locks, those with darker hair would often bleach it blonde using a strong lye soap. Viking men were also known for dying their beards blonde as well.
Vikings were extremely hygienic for their time, and usually very well groomed
While history has led us to believe the Vikings were bloody, unkempt barbarians, they actually had some of the best hygiene practices of their time. Vikings bathed at least once a week, regularly changed their clothes, and combed their hair and beards daily. At Viking burial sites, combs, tweezers, and even ear picks have been found. Who knew?
Vikings were very well-traveled
As raiders, colonizers, and conquerers, Vikings would often sail their longships along the coasts of Northern Europe, in addition to Spain, Morocco, and parts of the Meditteranean, including Istanbul and Athens.
One of the most well-traveled Vikings, Leif Erikson, also known as Leif the Lucky, sailed from Iceland to Greenland and then to parts of North America, including Baffin Island and present-day Newfoundland (dubbed Vinland by the Vikings).
Vikings were good at skiing
Given the snowy, mountainous terrain of the Viking homelands, it makes sense that one way or another, Vikings would have found a more efficient way of traveling across the snowy ground. Though skis had been invented a few thousand years prior, the Vikings popularized the mode of transport. They would ride on wooden skies (usually made of pine or birch) when hunting or traveling long distances.
Can you imagine a hulking Viking warrior skiing toward you full-speed down a mountainside? To us, it’s a terrifying image!
Vikings rarely used swords
Vikings were known for using a variety of weapons when raiding, from swords, axes, and spears to bows and arrows. However, swords were much rarer than other weapons, mainly because they required the skills of an expert blacksmith. This meant blades were very expensive, and only a few Vikings possessed them, as opposed to more affordable options such as axes.
A special, stinky soup could predict if a wounded Viking was dying
If a Viking had been injured in the stomach during battle, they were fed a strong, onion-based soup. Those tending the injured would then smell the warrior’s wounds, and if the scent of onions were detected, it meant there was internal bleeding.
Knowing that the warrior wouldn’t survive their injuries due to the lack of medical knowledge at that time, healers could focus their attention on other patients who had a higher chance of survival.
Originally, they weren’t called Vikings
Well, that’s awkward! Let’s go ahead and clarify this then: The Vikings were never called Vikings originally, by themselves or anyone else. During Viking times, Vikings were actually referred to as Danes, Norse, Norsemen, or Northmen, since they hailed from parts of northern Europe (present-day Norway, Sweden, and Denmark).
It wasn’t until the 1700s or so that people started referring to the Norse as Vikings, derived from the old Norse word víkingr, meaning a seaborn raider or adventurer.
Vikings might have used mushrooms and tea to hallucinate
Some Viking warriors, known as berserkers, were known for their ability to enter a highly aggressive, trance-like state before rushing into battle. It is believed that in order to achieve the berserker state, warriors would either eat fly agaric, a hallucinogenic mushroom, or drink an herbal tea made with henbane, a plant that can trigger inhibition loss and maniac episodes. Either way, the effects were dangerous and deadly. A Viking in the berserker state was said to feel no pain, and could kill their best friend if they accidentally got in the way during a rampage.
The Viking Age was roughly 793-1066 AD
When talking about Vikings throughout world history, it’s important to note that the Viking age is generally regarded as 793-1066 AD, or the 8th to 11th centuries. These dates were chosen to represent the heyday of the Vikings, from one of the earliest recorded Viking raids, to the height of their explorations, and finally, Norse King Harald Hardrada’s defeat by the English. After the defeat (known as the Battle of Stamford Bridge), and coupled with the spread of Christianity, Vikings gradually stopped raiding and expanding their territory.
Viking berserkers were very real, and very deadly
Though most tales surrounding the legendary Viking warriors are less fact than fiction, berserkers did exist. Known for “biting their shields” and being “strong as bears and mad as wolves,” it is believed that before battle, berserkers entered a highly aggressive, trance-like state, either by ingesting hallucinogens or performing spiritual rituals to reach a self-induced hysteria. Fearless, red-faced, and clothed in animal skins, their manic behavior in battle secured many Viking victories.
The average Viking longship was over 60 feet long
No wonder they’re called longships. They’re huge! (For comparison, an average school bus is only 35 feet long.)
Viking longships were built using the clicker method, where planks of wood (usually oak) were overlapped and nailed together, then tarred to keep watertight. Longship hulls were shallow enough for Vikings to make beach landings (perfect for their many raids along coastlines and rivers), and could reach speeds of 17 knots, or almost 20 miles an hour.
Some days of the week are named after the Norse gods
Borrowing a practice from the Greeks and Romans, the Vikings named the days of the week after their gods. Over the years, the Norse names of those days evolved into the English ones we use today. Thursday is named for Thor, the god of thunder, while Friday is named for Frigg, the goddess of marriage. Wednesday is Woden’s day, as “Woden” is another name for Odin, the main Norse god and the god of wisdom.
You can say “skol” to toast like a Viking
Minnesota Vikings fans might already know this from their team’s fight song, but to say cheers like a Viking, say “skol” (pronounced “skall”). “Skol” is the Danish-Norwegian-Swedish word for cheers, and the perfect word when giving a toast or saluting a friend or fellow soldier. Whether for a formal feast or simple occasion, many a Viking was known to raise a drinking horn, shout “skol!” and drink up.
Viking explorer Leif Erikson discovered North America first, and has a holiday to celebrate
Roughly five hundred years before Christopher Columbus set foot on the shores of the Bahamas, Viking explorer Leif Erikson and his crew landed in North America around 1000 AD. Erikson and company were believed to have briefly settled in Newfoundland, Canada. However, after a few years and repeated conflicts with the island natives, the Vikings left the new world and returned home. Gradually, the Vikings’ knowledge of North America faded into memory. Then, a Norse settlement was unearthed in the 1960s, with evidence pointing toward the site being Erikson’s old camp. Soon after, October 9th was officially dubbed Leif Erikson Day to commemorate the Vikings’ discovery of North America.
Vikings ate two meals a day
Whether they were busy ransacking and raiding, or tending their fields and flocks at home, Vikings kept their strength and stamina with the help of two large meals per day. The dagmall, or day meal, was a hardy breakfast, while the nattmall, or night meal, was a large dinner. Typical foods included flatbreads, stews, and fish and other meats.
Vikings drank mead
Though they also brewed beer, the Vikings’ preferred drink of choice was probably mead, a type of wine-like drink made from honey. As most Viking drinking horns weren’t designed to be easily set down, a horn of mead was often drained rather quickly, if not shared with others. Mead was also considered the drink of the gods.
Viking kids didn’t go to school
Like many cultures of their time, Viking children didn’t have set school buildings where they could attend class and learn various subjects. Instead, children were taught practical skills by their parents and other community members. For boys, this often meant learning to hunt or possibly learning a trade such as smithing, while girls were taught cooking, various crafts, and how to maintain a household.
Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets
As fun and fierce as the classic horned Viking helmet is, it’s actually a lie. Historically accurate Viking helmets, like the one pictured above, were more of a simple, rounded cap, occasionally with a piece extending down over the bridge of the nose and/or forming a mask around the eyes. The origin of the horned helmet design is attributed to artists in the 1800s, who romanticized the Vikings with horned-topped helmets. Opera singers soon followed suit, and an inaccurate (although fabulous) fashion trend was born.
Viking weddings were usually on Fridays
To honor the Norse goddess of marriage, Frigg, most Viking weddings were held on Friday, also known as Frigg’s day. Wedding festivities often lasted a week, and were held during the summer so snowy weather wouldn’t deter guests. Before the ceremony, brides and grooms performed various rituals to prepare themselves for marriage. After the ceremony, the Vikings held a large feast with plenty of mead.
Viking drinking horns were mostly made from cattle horns
Though Vikings did have other forms of drinkware, they are perhaps most known for their drinking horns. Often fashioned from cattle horns, drinking horns were the preferred beverage vessel for beer and mead, and excellent motivators for drinking games (after all, the pointed bottom doesn’t allow the user to set the cup down). While it’s unclear if horns were used primarily for special occasions or in everyday life, they were passed down from generation to generation.
Vikings could be pretty terrible parents
Even if a baby Viking survived the dangers of childbirth, their survival was still in question for some time. Like several other cultures at the time with little medical knowledge, if a Viking child was born and deemed too sickly or disabled, the child would often be taken out to the woods or left on the side of a mountain for nature to claim.
Known as infant exposure, this unfortunate yet very real act was also practiced by Greeks, Romans, and other groups throughout ancient Europe and Asia. Regrettably, the practice was often seen as a mercy, as parents reasoned that with such little medical knowledge, any unhealthy infant allowed to lead a longer life would ultimately lead a painful one.
The Viking monument Sverd I fjell is probably the coolest monument in the world
Ok, so maybe this one’s more of an opinion than a fact, but still, just look at that thing! Sverd I fjell (meaning “swords in rock”) is a commemorative monument located in southern Norway. The thirty-foot-tall swords honor the 872 Battle of Hafrsfjord, which united all of Norway under King Harald Fairhair. The event is seen as a critical moment in Viking history, and one that’s appropriately honored by way of these grand, immense swords.
Vikings boiled a lot of their food
While Vikings did roast much of their meats over fires, it was a hot and messy progress. A common and more-controlled cooking method was boiling, with Vikings often combining bits of meat and vegetables in a bubbling cauldron to make a stew, served with bread. Cauldrons were often hung on tripods, or long chains tied to beams in the home’s roof.
The Vikings had old-fashioned rap battles
As it turns out, Vikings weren’t just warriors with weapons, but also with words. In a pastime known as flyting, Vikings would engage in a verbal contest of insults aimed at their opponents. Talented flyters were praised for their quick wits and clever wordplay, and the winner of this stylized insult exchange was usually the most poetic yet ruthless speaker. As Vikings traveled, flyting began spreading to other parts of Europe, inspiring authors and poets to craft insulting writings of their own.
Viking sheild-maidens are most likely a myth
While Viking legends are full of tales of brave shield-maidens (fierce female Viking warriors), unfortunately, little historical evidence has been found to support the real-life existence of these brave, badass women. Viking women did have exceptional rights in their society compared with other women of their time, but the fighting was by and large still reserved for the men.
Leif Erikson Day doesn’t just celebrate the Viking explorer
Leif Erikson Day doesn’t just commemorate how Erikson and the Vikings discovered North America. The holiday was specifically placed on October 9th to mark the anniversary of October 9, 1825, when the first large migration of Scandinavian (specifically, Norwegian) immigrants arrived in America.
Most “Viking funerals” didn’t involve boat burnings
While stories and films have made for some truly epic-sounding Viking funerals at sea, in reality, boat burnings were probably a thing of myth. Many Vikings were cremated, but since longships were large and expensive, the dead were placed on funeral pyres instead of boats. During the burial, grave goods were often placed with the deceased, including weapons, tools, and jewelry.
In case you were wondering, any attempt of an at-sea Viking funeral is illegal in most places today (not to mention extremely expensive). A more affordable, less criminal option is to get cremated, and then have one’s ashes sent out to sea in a tiny boat burned under close supervision.
We get a lot of English words from old Viking ones
What do words like happy, knife, sky, and husband all have in common? They’re all derived from old Norse words. Thanks to the Vikings’ many travels, their language spread throughout Europe and helped to shape the modern English language we have today.
We think it’s pretty amazing that we have the Vikings to thank for the English word glitter, which comes from the old Norse verb glitra, meaning “to shine.” Vikings and glitter have never belonged together so much until now, and we feel like bedazzling a Vikings’ jersey to celebrate.
Marvel took one pretty big liberty with Norse mythology
Any fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have probably seen at least one of the Thor films, which are loosely centered around the Vikings’ Norse gods. In the film Thor: Ragnarok, the main antagonist, Hela, is said to be the daughter of Odin and goddess of death. However, according to Norse mythology, Hela was actually the daughter of Loki, not Odin. Marvel probably made this change to give the film more conflict (two brothers vs. their evil sister, instead of a father and an uncle vs. their evil daughter/niece). However, the Vikings would probably not have been pleased with this change of details, waving their axes at the movie screen in protest.