The Vikings, natives of present day Denmark, Norway and Sweden, burst onto the world stage and into history between the 8th and the 11th centuries. January 8th, 793 marks the first recorded account of the Vikings when they raided and destroyed the Christian monastery on the small island of Lindisfarne, Northumbria, England.
According to the ninth century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; this bloody attack on Lindisfarne was presaged by such terrible omens as “whirlwinds, fiery dragons and flashes of lightning”. The pagan Vikings descended from the cold and hostile north of Europe in long, low black ships with tall, curving prows (often decorated with fearsome dragon heads),powered by red and white sails and carrying bands of huge, shaggy men howling like animals and waving swords and battle axes.
Vikings came from a primitive society in which they lived by hunting, fishing and farming. Denmark’s 500+ islands, Norway’s innumerable fjords and Sweden’s network of lakes and rivers early enabled Vikings to become familiar with the sea. They became expert sailors, navigators and ship builders.
Vikings were a very warlike people. In addition to daily activities such as farming, fishing and ship building; time was spent to improve their warrior martial arts.
Vikings mastered the art of sword and battle axe fighting. They became experts in strategic warfare by using innovative tactical battle maneuvers such as very fast “hit and run” attacks, amphibious attacks and using diplomatic feints to set up an unsuspecting attack.
Much of their religion had emphasis on war. Vikings believed that if one died in battle, warrior-maids called Valkyries would carry him to Valhalla, the Viking’sversion of heaven. In Valhalla, Vikings celebrated in banquets devouring mead and pork until the day when the gods themselves fell in battle before the power of darkness. Viking gods have passed down their names to us in the names of our days of the week. Tuesday is named after Tiw, god of law, Wednesday is named after Woden, god of gods, Thursday is named after Thor, god of war and Friday is named after Fria,god of love.
Norwegian and Danish Vikings
Norwegian and Danish Vikings sailed west to raid and trade in unknown lands. They raided throughout present day England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. They completely overran these lands and usurped virtually all of the existing ruling kingdoms. In addition to bringing war, Vikings settled into towns such as Dublin, engaging in significant trade and establishing themselves as the new rulers of the British Isles.
Western Vikings also invaded France in 835, sailing up the Loire and Seine rivers sacking Nantes and Paris. They massacred people and laid waste to Bordeaux, Toulouse, Tours, Orleans, Rouen and more. A band of Vikings under the leadership of Hrolf or Rollo, ravaged the remaining Seine valley. In 911, the Frankish king, Charles the Simple, ceded all the Frankish lands occupied by the Vikings. The Franks called the Viking invaders, Nordmanni, for the Northman. This territory ceded to Vikingsbecame known as Normandy.
In 859 a Viking fleet of 62 war ships invaded the Iberian (Spanish) coast and sacked Muslim Moorish Algeciras near Gibraltar. Viking dragon ships then sailed the Mediterranean, pillaging North African coasts where they captured black Africans, whom they never saw before and called “blue men”. Vikings invaded Pisa in Italy and according to an Arab source, they reached Alexandria, Egypt.
Vikings as Explorers
Western Vikings also sailed further west and discovered lands unknown to Europe. Vikings discovered and settled Iceland, Greenland and even reached North America. Leif Ericson explored the New World around 1000 and a settlement was founded in the area of present day L’Anse aux Meadows, in Newfoundland, Canada. Delighted in the rich pastures and abundant fruit and wild grapes, the new land was called Vinland.
Viking settlers came to live in this new land but found themselves in constant battle by more numerous native Eskimos or Native Americans, whom the Vikings called “Skraelings”. Eventually Vinland was abandoned and the New World was left to be permanently settled by Europeans after Columbus landed in 1492.
As Norwegian and Danish Vikings invaded and settled in Western Europe and reached the new far west lands of Greenland, Iceland and North America; Swedish Vikings sailed east across the Baltic Sea into the vast area of present day Russia, Belarus, Poland and Ukraine. Viking ships plowed the Dnieper and Volga rivers further and further south towards the fabulous and wondrous cities and markets of Christian Byzantium and Muslim Bagdad.
As the Swedish Vikings advanced they founded cities such as Smolensk and Chernigov. The aggressive Swedes swiftly conquered and gained supremacy over the native Slavic people and expanded their presence and dominance over an ever larger area. In present day Novgorod, called by the Vikings Holmgard, their leaders ruled the vast Russian lands. It is believed they also founded the city now known as Kiev.
Contemporary writings refer to these new Viking warriors and traders as the Rus. This term may have come from the Finnish word for Sweden, Ruotsi, or Rowing Way. Alternatively, many believe the Vikings, ruled by their leader Rurik, were called the Rus by local Slavs. Eventually, the Vikings gave their name to the country that became known as Russia.
Russian Vikings continued to invade further south. They came into combat with the most powerful empire in Europe, the Byzantine Empire. Vikings attacked the richest city in the world, Constantinople the capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire, several times but were turned back. Over time, the Russian Vikings mingled and traded further with the local Byzantine populace and eventually became allies and even subjects of the Empire. Many converted to Christianity.
The Varangian Guard
As Vikings were respected and prized for their ferocity in battle, the Byzantine Emperor hired Vikings as his personal body guards and personal army. These Vikings became known as the Varangian Guard. Over time and numerous battles against the many enemies of the Empire, the Varangian Guard proved to be the most ferocious and famous warriors of the era.
The legacy of the Vikings is as impressive as their many famous and infamous achievements. Over time, Vikings adopted the culture of the lands that they conquered. Converting to Christianity, Vikings eventually became culturally distinct peoples. Denmark, Norway and Sweden became more civilized Christian kingdoms. Vikings in England, Scotland and Ireland became part of new Christian kingdoms that eventually became present day United Kingdom and Ireland. Swedish Vikings evolved into various Christian Russian kingdoms.
Normans, descendents of Viking Normandy in France, continued the adventuresome and warlike manners of their Vikings ancestors. They dramatically expanded their power in France, invaded the Byzantine Empire, invaded and removed Muslim Arabs from Sicily and Rhodes, invaded mainland Italy and founded the Kingdom of Sicily and conquered England in 1066. Moreover, Norman pirates and armies were a constant threat throughout the Mediterranean Sea; invading and harassing Muslim North Africa, the Byzantine Empire’s remote territories and various Christian kingdoms.