EXHAUSTIVE OVERVIEW: who were the ancient Scandinavian origin Vikings and when was the time of the Vikings?

EXHAUSTIVE OVERVIEW: who were the ancient Scandinavian origin Vikings and when was the time of the Vikings?

NordenBladet – The Vikings were ancient Scandinavian origin seafarers whose characteristic culture flourished around the 8th until the 11th century (the so called Viking Era). The name “Viking” apparently stems from ancient Nordic word vik that stands for gulf; viking therefore is someone from the gulf, a seafarer. Although the vikings have given their name to an entire era, these warrior-seafarers made up a relatively small proportion of the population of those times, the majority of the people were peaceful farmers. According to yet another theory the name viking comes from old English word wic that stands for a merchandising settlement. Besides the conquering missions the vikings were also engaged in handicraft and trade.

The Vikings were skilled boat builders; their dragon longboats’ board and square sail guaranteed a safe journey on the sea during those times. The trips took them to Iceland, Greenland and North-American shores. Before the dawn of great discoveries the Vikings had a significant role to play in exploring novel lands, however, the word about their travels weren’t widely spread, since they didn’t complete surveys nor create any maps based on measurements.

The Vikings that set sail for Eastern lands were also known as the Varangians. Their activity spread as far as the Byzantine and they played an important political role in the development of the Kyiv-Russian state. On the coast of France the Varangians were known as the Normans.

The Viking trips were also conveyed (especially during the 11th-12th centuries) by Estonians, especially folks from Saaremaa.

Due to weak political arrangements, the spread of Christianity and the development of warfare the Vikings remained in the shadow in 12th century Europe. They founded their settlements here and there and blended in with the local people.

Interest for the activities of Vikings was kindled once more in the Romanticism period when they were depicted as non-historically idealised madly courageous great warriors. Based on influence of recent popculture (movies, comic strips, etc) a rather incorrect image of Viking activities, outlook and lifestyle was spread. Nowadays the followers of ancient Viking Era copy the material and intellectual heritage in their daily life, in Viking camps, festivals, in open air museums and theme parks.

The Norse race being depicted in a mythical and untrue manner gave way to national socialist ideology. A section of the admirers of Vikings have summoned under odinism, asatra, wotanism and other neopaganist religious sects. Extremist ideology and seeking confrontation has lead to serial burning of churches in Norway by the fan of vikings Varg Vikernese.

In the period of 300 years, roughly from 800 – 1050 A.D., central Europe was held under terror by wild men from the Nordics – the Viking warriors. The ambition to collect more silver and gold, slaves and new territioris drove the Vikings to set sail and depart from their homes in current Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Their unexpected and cruel bursts of robberies were legendary; Christian monks described with great horror the looting raids and destruction that befell the wealthy monasteries and towns.

But the Vikings did more than destroy. They were also smart traders, experienced sailors, skilled handicraftsmen and ship builders. They lived in the world of poets and sagas, in daily life matters their society was significantly open and democratic in the context of those times.

Most of us have stumbled upon romantic images of Vikings as ancient Nordic heroes. Unfortunately the majority of these depictions are flawed. The best example would be the wide spread idea of tall males wearing helmets with horns and sitting in dragon-headed ships. As a matter of fact the Vikings never wore helmets with horns, their males were 165 cm tall and females 154 cm tall. The majority of the Vikings were peaceful farmers, just a small portion were active in seafaring, trading and raids. The Scandinavian Viking Era and the corresponding time period in the Baltics – younger Iron Age – have been less available to the wider audience due to limitations set by the Soviet Rule regarding depictions of prehistory.

The unfamiliar articles found from Estonia, especially Saaremaa, the ports and fortresses one finds there are a sign of a society that was same level with the organised neighbouring countries and where seafaring and trade – obviously also piracy – played an important role. There is no depiction of Scandinavian journeys to the East without paying any attention to ancient inhabitants of Saaremaa, Courland and other east coast Baltic Sea inhabitants. Using the notion “Viking” in the broader sense we can with great certainty speak also about Estonian Vikings.

Viking raids
The Vikings traveled, traded and raided all over Europe, reaching in the East to Baghdad and in the West even to America. Iceland was discovered in the year 870 and Greenland in the year 985. The Viking Leif Eriksson was probably the first European to set his foot on American soil in Newfoundland, today’s Canadian territory, and did that already back in the year 1001.

The conditional start time of the Viking Era is taken to be 793 when the warriors, unexpectedly arriving from the North, raided Lidisfarne monastery on an island on the north-eastern coast of England. Such wickedness was a shock to the entire Christian world. Still the raids organised by northern pagans remained not the last, instead for a few centuries these activities became a horrible reality in Western Europe.

The Vikings navigated the long European rivers Rhine, Seine and Loire – as far as Paris. On Easter 845 Paris was raided; the unwelcome guests would leave after king Charles of France paid the Vikings 3150 kg of silver. On top of that the Viking leader Ragnar took as a souvenir a piece of the town gate. Probably to the comfort of the citizens – Ragnar as well as most of his men died of unexpected circumstances on their way back home.

The Vikings started to spend the winter in places they raided and the conquerings would thus extend to many years sometimes. Still a few more years and the Vikings that had stayed in Normandy and Northern England, blended in with the local people and took over the local language.

Vikings on the Eastern roads
The Eastern Vikings, also known as the Varangians, sailed over the Baltic Sea as well as along the long Russian rivers towards southern lands. The destination of many of the journeys of those times were the richest countries of the world they lived in – the Byzantine Empire’s capital city Constantinople (current Istanbul) and the Arab Caliphate’s capital city Baghdad, yet the Vikings also reached Jerusalem and even further. The Byzantine emperor’s security team was made up of Vikings, still it has to be emphasized that among the names of those men that have survived until our times there are also many Finno-Ugric and Baltic names.

According to preserved tradition and the Russian Letopis Chronicles the Varangians mainly stemming from today’s Sweden founded in the year 862 the Old Russian Empire. In North-Western Russia their main centre was Novgorod, Old Ladoga and Izborsk. The existence of the Viking upper class in these settlements as well as around Kyiv is supported by the many Scandinavian style burials.

Apparently the trade channels leading to the Orient were administered by Baltc Finns and the Baltic nations. This was the so-called East Road, Austervegr, though which the Eastern spices and silver poured in to Europe, and back to the Eastern countries the European fur, wax and slaves.

Three routes sprang from the Baltics, that through the Russian rivers connected the East and West. The first of them reached from central Sweden to the Aland Islands, from there along the coast to today’s Helsinki and went on along the Finnish coast to Ladoga. The second route sprang from Saaremaa, went up along Pänu River and River Emajõgi, through smaller water bodies until Lake Peipsi and from there to on Russia. The rich findings of treasures and oldest towns of Estonia on this road speak of its highest importance among the three routes. The third route went along Väina River to Russia.

Estonia in the Viking times
Although the Vikings founded their colony settlements to the territories of today’s Russia and Finland’s west and east coast, they weren’t successful in settling in the Baltics. Nevertheless the majority of important trade routes ran along the coast and rivers here. Probably the reason for this is that in the Scandinavian chronicles describe the activity of the men on the eastern route that never let the Swedish Vikings settle in with their trade centres here. The seafarers in Saaremaa and Courland turned out dangerous for the little countries that emerged in Scandinavia in the 11th and 12th centuries, often romantically referred to as the Estonian (resp Latvian) Viking Era.

The clearest evidence about the treasures pouring through Estonia is the silver buried in the ground, the abundance of which is comparable only to Gotland in the Baltic Sea region. All of the archaelogical findings here refers to strong connection to Swedish Vikings as well as Russian Varangians.

Evidence of ancient Estonians as full feathered members of the Viking world are traced from plenty of burial findings. Of course, with jewellery and weapons only the richest members of the society were buried, as well as the leaders of regions and villages and their families. The weapons and jewellery that were burnt together with the deceased, were sometimes of Scandinavian origin or prepared on the spot after the patterns from there. Most international have been the weapons, which is understandable, since in war one would need to remain on the same level as the neighbour. Also men’s accessories and probably also clothing were in Estonia quite similar to those in the Nordics. This refers to the shared world view – an understanding about what is suitable for a wealthy warrior regarding weapons and accessories was similar on the eastern as well as the western coast of the Baltic Sea.

Vikings – the rulers of the world
The Vikings were skilled and brave seafarers. With their long wooden ships they also sailed across the stormy ocean. On sea the Viking boat mainly moved with the help of a big rectangular sail, close to the shore and also on rivers the mast was lowered and men started rowing. Whenever possible, the Vikings sailed close to the shore in seeing distance and in daylight. When crossing the ocean they used the Sun and stars for navigation. To find the right direction, they carefully paid attention to the wind, seabirds, and the character of the waves.

The best preserved Viking boats have been found in the rich Viking captains burials, the best known to name a few are Oseberg and Gokstad ships in Norway. Although the wood has decayed in these cases as well, the boat structure can be restored based on the preserved iron parts. A lot of pictures depicting drakar ships have preserved.

Nowadays enthusiasts from Scandinavian countries have rebuilt many Viking boats and have even traveled with these on the original Viking raid routes.

When will the Estonian own Viking boat be discovered?
This is the question that has excited everbody around here that has done research on ancient times. It is known to archaeologists that during the Viking Era the dead were burnt sometimes in the boat, as in Scandinavia, but non-burnt ships have not been found from Estonian burials. Who knows, maybe there is a shipwrecked Viking boat waiting to be found by someone near the shore or perhaps today already on the mainland. The ground has risen during the last couple thousand years so significantly that in several Viking Era harbors people today cultivate the field.

The chronicle writer Henry of Latvia has mentioned that Estonians used to have two types of boats – piratica and liburna. The first of these was a war boat, the other was mostly a trade boat. The war boat accommodated ca 30 men, it had a tall bow, probably dragon or snake shaped, and a rectangular sail. The boats of Estonian Vikings were thus similar to the Scandinavian ones, there were however obviously some differences in the building details.

The oldest wrecked ships found from Estonian waters originate from the 13th and 14th centuries and these have been discovered in Pärnu and in Saaremaa Mailinn town. From Riga a wrecked ship from the 12th or 13th century has been discovered, and according to the Latvian experts it might have been built in Courland or Saaremaa.

In Estonia, the underwater archaeologist Vello Mäss has done research on boats and shipping, lately he has authored and published a book on that topic. Illustrations and details from that book have been used in the current overview as well.

Vikings as warriors
Individual courage was a feature most valued by the Vikings. The warriors had to be ready to follow their captain or king to battle, raid or trade journey at any time. It was only in war that one could gain eternal glory and it was everybody’s dream to fall in battle, armed. The warriors that died in that manner were expected to proceed to Valhalla, where they could for ever do the things most pleasant for them: eat, drink, celebrate and fight in battle.

Estonian Vikings in Scandinavian sagas
Estonians as well as Estonian seafarers have been mentioned in the Scandinavian sagas as well as other written sources several times. Oftentimes it is the vague “Eastern route men”, that included also Estonians, mostly men from Saaremaa, and Courland men. Estonia or its various parts have been mentioned on many runestones, announcing the stay or the local death of a memorable person.

According to a Snorri Sturlusoni saga the King of Sweden Erik had organized in the years 850-860 many raids to the Eastern shores of the Baltics, including Estonia, conquering these territories.

In the year 967 the then 3-year-old King of Norway Olav Trygvesson traveled with his mother Estrid together with merchants to Novgorod to Estrid’s brother Sigurd, when they were attacked by pirates. Olav ended up being separated from his mother and was sold together with two mates, Torulfi and Torgils, to a cruel Estonian named Klerkon, who put Torulfi to death because of him being weak. Olav and Torgils in turn were traded for a good goat.

The new owner of the boys Klerk sold them again to a family of generous Estonians, to master Reas and mistress Rekon. Olav grew up in Estonia and was set free six years later when his uncle noticed him by chance at the market and bought him and Torgils back. Mother Estrid was set free still some years later.

Njalli saga songs mention a sea battle between Icelandic Vikings and Estonians somewhere near Saaremaa in the year 972. The writer referred to Estonians as the Estonian Vikings and their boats as warboats.

The Varangian Ulf (Uleb) coming from Novgorod was destroyed according to Novgorodian chronicles apparently at a sea battle near today’s Tallinn near the Iron Gate.

According to the chronicler Saxo Grammaticus the Courland men and Saaremaa men raided the Danish territory in 1170. Estonian pirates were probably among the “Eastern route men” that destroyed Central Sweden’s capital Sigtuna. Henry of Latvia repeatedly described raids to Scandinavia led by men from Saaremaa in the beginning of the 13th century, as well as the sea battles with men from Saaremaa on the Eastern shore of the Baltic Sea.

When comparing the anciend cultural landscape of the Eastern and Western coast of the Baltic Sea, it strikes us that there is an abundance of fortresses on the Eastern coast. This tendency can be observed already back in the Bronze Age, yet only in the Viking Era the number of fortresses becomes especially outstanding. In the Viking Era the parishes emerged that in later times were functioning as administrative and ecclesiastical territorial units. In the parish centres, later near the church, the fortresses can be found. The fortresses were the centres for centralised power and served as the residence of the local well-off nobleman.

The fortresses became especially strong in the 11th century when some of the earlier fortresses were abandoned and new fortresses were built near them. Just like some other phenomena, this was a feature that indicated important socio-political changes in Estonia in those days; probably greater segregation and the centralization of power.

During archaeological excavations it has become clear that the fortresses were constantly in use. In one of Estonia’s largest fortresses, Varbola, the remains of more than 70 buildings have been found. The houses were built from cross beams, in the corner was the stove. The houses of noblemen have not been distinguished from among other buildings since the fortresses have been only partly examined.

Clothing in the Viking Era
The clothes of Estonian men during the Viking times strongly resembles the Scandinavian clothing of those times, there is especially significant similarity with Gotland’s and Central Sweden’s Vikings. The complete outfit included woollen pants, long linen or woollen shirt and cloak extending to the knees. The collar and the edges of the cloak or the coat were often decorated with bronze spirals.

Belts, as well as sword belts were decorated with bronze nails. The belt always included a bronze lining sheath with the knife.

Different from the Scandinavian Vikings the Estonian men used to wear rather many rings on their fingers, also bracelets. While the Baltic warriors had special war bracelets then Estonian men mostly wore the same type of bracelets as women (only the spiral bracelets and the Saaremaa type bracelets never occur in male burials).

In the earlier times of the Viking Era men used to fasten their cloaks with ring head jewellery needles. In the 10th century the brooches became only a male type jewellery and men began to fasten their coats and shirts with horse shoe shaped pins.

There is little information about male headgear. In the Livonian burials there are sometimes hats with leather and cloth decorations with bronze spirals.

Armory of the Vikings
Most of the Viking Era arms that have been found in Estonia represent an international variety of weapons. Still it is possible to bring out some characteristic features. Fully preserved swords have rarely been found in Estonian burials, mostly they are fragments of the sword handle. All the swords though that have been found represent the type mostly common in Scandinavia.

Most frequently spear heads can be found in the burials, the types of which greatly vary from the very luxurious imported articles to plain local production. Oftentimes the throwing spear and stabbing spear heads are found together. An abundance of throwing spear heads have been found from Estonia. In some burials hatchets have been found.

Henry of Latvia speaks of marching troops armed with spears and mentions throwing spears that came with special equipment for throwing them. From many burials archaeologists have found equipment of cavalry. It is obvious that the noblemen fought in battle on horseback with swords and infantry used throwing and stabbing spears.

The findings from burials can mostly vaguely be connected to the common usage of weapons. Often spear heads are found near the burials, sometimes also remains of shield cups, these have probably been cast there during some kind of a ritual held within the funeral procedure or after it. Apparently the addition of the shield in the burial wasn’t common. Arrow heads are rare, but in Livonian burials there are often remains of shields as well as arrow sheaths.

Arms, especially the sword, are glorified in many Scandinavian sagas, the best of them were even named. Good arms, like damask covered sword blades and spear heads were very expensive. The most luxurious arms were decorated with silver wire or thin layer of silver or gold, with complex engraved ornaments.

Women’s clothes
Like in the neighbouring countries the clothing of women in Estonia included linen shirt (woollen in winter), covered by woollen tunic without sleeves. In Southern Estonia were the influence of Latgales was greater, instead on the tunic dress-coat a rug shirt was common.

For festive occasions and during colder periods women used to wear manyfold woollen rugs that were decorated on the edges with woven horsehair and sewn-in bronze spirals and colourful ribbons. The rugs were wrapped around the shoulders and held together with horse shoe shaped brooches.

The abundance of bronze spirals in the Viking Era female burials is significant. The spirals were decorating the shirts, the rugs, the headscarfs. The embroidery has not preserved.

A leather or woven belt was worn around the waist. Leather belts were decorated with bronze pins and a keychain along with a knife sheath was attached to the belt, decorated with a bronze layer. The belt had historically been among the most important components also in a magical context. It was believed that the belt had magic powers that safeguarded the owner; older verse describes maidens weaving belts (a motive symbolizing the thread of life). The belt was frequently worn also during the night, even expecting girls had to wear a belt (it kept them safe from the evil eye).

Headgear decorated with bronze spirals and scarfs with bronze patterns were common all around Estonia. It was required that wed wives not left the house with their heads uncovered, this was already common in the Viking Era (there was a similar tradition in Scandinavia). This requirement has been associated with the necessity to distinguish the woman with a symbol of marital status as well as with the belief widely spread in pre-industial society, that the hair of women sexually related to a male possessed power and that these powers were to be controlled (i.e. the hair was to be cut or hidden).

The most significant adornment that women in the 11th century Estonia wore, was certainly the bosom decoration that was composed of chains, pins and the holders.The lenght and number of the chest jewellery depended on the wealth of the owner, but most of the Viking Era female burials include at least some fragments of the chest jewellery. In the early Viking times the pins were rather modest; from the 10th century on the pins bacame bigger and the chains longer and heavier. Pendants and bells were often attached to the chains.

Wealthier women had many neckrings simultaneously as well as up to ten bracelets. The Viking time Estonia was rich in several types of bracelets, just the spiral bracelet was common all over the country. Rings were also of many types, worn by women as well as men. The typology of brooches is also versatile; brooches were used for holding together the rug and shirt neck.

Women’s adornments can roughly be divided in two: Saaremaa and Läänemaa regions as opposed to Eastern Estonian adornments. In Saaremaa and Läänemaa in the Western part there were various trianguar chest pins and a certain type of bracelets and neck rings. In Eastern Estonia chest jewellery was not used at all in earlier Viking times, therefore it can be concluded that instead of the tunic held by brooches the Eastern women wore rug skirts. Eastern Estonian type of adornments (with cross-head) became wide spread only in the 11th century. The variety of bracelets and neck rings is larger in Eastern Estonia than in Läänemaa.

Women and children of Vikings
In the Middle Ages the Viking women had more autonomy than their sisters in Europe. The woman ran the household and directed the domestic arrangements, especially when men were away for the long journeys. The female type and male type responsibilities were strictly separated in those times and the border was well established. Although in the Scandinavian legends one can find the valkyries, the female warriors, no trace of actual data about the existence of female warriors has been confirmed.

Differently from the Scandinavian tradition, on the Eastern coast of the Baltic Sea there are occasionally female burials with arms, either as tools or symbols of their status. The knife in the sheath with plenty of bronze decorations intimately belonged to the festive gown of Estonian women.

Every Viking woman spent the day spinning with the spindle. It was enormous effort to produce thread from the wool or cotton, that thereafter was woven to cloth on vertical looms. On images that have been preserved until our times, the women of the Viking Era are oftentimes holding a spindle.

Equally many female and male burials are known from the Viking times. At first glance there seem to be more of the wealthy female burials, but this is because women wore more adornments.

It is generally believed that the burial traditions reflect the beliefs and the worldview of the society. Rich contributions in burials in the Viking times in female burials refer to the important role of women in their society, the status was a sum of the woman’s as well as the husband’s position in the society.

Bone material that has poorly preserved due to burning won’t allow determining the age of the deceased and thus it is difficult to say whether it was the maidens or the wed wives with the most contributions (in other words: if it was the parents or the husband more important in the society). In later period of younger Iron Age the maiden’s burials are more modest as compared to those of wives.

From some of the female burials in Saaremaa weights have been found. Similar burials are also in Scandinavia. Some scientist interpret this as the reference to women’s inclusion in trade, some only relate these to status. Probably women had more roles tp play than just running the household, since men were most of the time away from home in battle and trading.

The Arab traveller, visiting Hedeby town in Southern Scandinavia around 950 A.D., wrote of women there that loved to accentuate the beauty of their eyes with dark shades defining the eye. The same was observed in many Viking men. Also adornments were worn by men and women equally.

The Viking people had many children, but more than half of the children died in early age. It has been estimated that just three out of ten babies lived to their first birthday.
Also the mean age of women was less than in men, since many of the young women died while giving birth.

The Viking kids grew at home, where they learned to work by observing their parents and fellows. In Scandinavia, but perhaps also in Estonia it was common to give sons of elders to be a foster child in another elder’s family for some time.

At an early age boys began learning how to use arms, in the beginning these were wooden arms and later actual arms. From burials of young boys miniature copies of actual arms have been found.

When the Vikings stayed in foreign land for a longer period, they brought their wives and children along. This was how the Scandinavian colonies were formed, the members of these blended with the local people after a few generations.

Read also:
Stockholm´s museums: The Viking Museum – tourist info, guides, pictures
NordenBladet – For those, who are interested in Norse mythology and wish to experience the Viking age, I recommend to visit The Viking Museum in Djurgårdsvägen 48, 115 21 Stockholm. In the exhibition, several guided tours are held daily in Swedish and English. Audioguide and adventure ride is available in English, Russian, Finnish, Italian, French, Spanish German, Chinese and Swedish.

Viking is ‘forefather to British royals’? Norwegian-French investigation hopes to reveal that Norwegian Viking noble Ganger Hrólf was the same person as Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy
NordenBladet – A joint Norwegian-French investigation hopes to reveal that Norwegian Viking noble Ganger Hrólf was the same person as Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy – and the forefather of the British royal family.


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