Well, it all started back in 793AD. An isolated monastery, St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, woke up to a normal morning of prayer and devotion, only to have their rituals brashly interrupted by a never-before seen raid of..yes…you guessed it: Vikings. These raiders, then referred to as “Danes”, made off with treasures, religious icons and a haul of captive slaves, leaving a bloody massacre of people in their wake. This day marked the first officially documented raid from whom we now call “Vikings”.
From this day forward, Vikings, a term that was not coined until 11th century, became the leading force within North-Western Europe. Their reputations were fierce. Warriors of the highest caliber. Sailors of the oceans and rivers. Yet, these sea-faring people originated as poor farmers and fishermen, hailing from their homelands of what we now call Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Their homelands, devastatingly poor, was largely rural, with limited space for all to tend the land and live off its resources.
During the 7th and 8th century, mass innovation and technology for the time brought these Scandinavian people new opportunity: to build long- ships. These shallow vessels could not only handle wild distances in the open ocean, but also navigate coastal and inland waters. These sailors now had the ultimate upper hand of reaching not only coastline communities, but also inland villages near river systems or inland oceans.
The Vikings moved quickly. Tenacious, ferocious, and driven to find a better life for themselves and their people, they soon struck Scotland, Ireland and France within just a couple of years: from 794-799AD.
After decades of small-scale raids, Vikings stepped up their game in the 850s as they developed “Longphorts” – Fortified Ports – in which they could spend the winter abroad in their conquered areas. They established Dublin, overwintered in southern England and Seine, France. By 865AD, the “Great Viking Army”, led by brothers Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless, (yes, those were their names) began picking off English kingdoms one by one. It wasn’t until 878, after 13 years of war, that King Alfred, ruler of Wessex, defeated the Viking army lead by Chief Guthrum against all odds and forced the Viking leader to surrender and be baptized. This shocked everyone, as King Alfred, youngest of 4 deceased brothers, was known for being sickly and bookish-not a warrior or general by any means. Yet, Wessex prevailed! For 80 years England was divided under Viking rule and the maintained English forces of Wessex. Finally, in 954, Erik the Bloodaxe was killed, and England was reunited.
During this massive battle to take over England, the Vikings were still hard at work elsewhere. In 885AD, the Vikings pushed hard into France, besieging and almost taking Paris. They extended into the Mediterranean, Estonia, Sicily, North Africa, Russia, Ukraine and the Middle East, just to name a few.
So, that’s their journeys and conquering’s of the lands they knew about. What about the rest of the world? Vikings took over Scotland, and the Faroe islands. There are theories that these islands were the starting point to turn their boats to the West. What was out there? New lands? By the 9th century, Ingolf Arnarson lead a group of voyagers West, stumbling upon Iceland. By 872 colonists settled into the island, vowing no formal allegiance with the Kings from home. Here, they created their own republic: The Althing. This was a gathering of chiefs upon a large stone table on a hillside, which met each summer to discuss their people. This is largely agreed to be the example of the world’s oldest parliament! Here, the iconic Saga’s of Iceland were created, Shakespearean dramas between leading families, literature, story-telling, rituals and tradition passed down through generations. It is, to this day, some of the most important pieces of writing to survive the middle ages.
Religion became a large and conflicting presence within Viking society. Odin and Thor, our pagan religious gods? Or Jesus Christ, and Christianity? Christianity had already taken over mainland Scandinavia by year 960. The question quickly divided Iceland into hostile and separate states. Although resolutely Pagan, Iceland officially became Christian in order to avoid civil war.
As the Faroe Islands were the starting point for the jump to Iceland, Iceland then became the launching pad for further explorations West. In 982, Eirik the Red, who had already been exiled from Norway for homicide, was exiled from Iceland too. Yes, you guessed it, for another murder. Taking with him a group of companions, Eirik the Red sailed West, seeking new lands that were just rumored to exist… can you guess what he found? Only 300 kilometers away….Greenland. With this fascinating discovery of steep fjords and lush pastures, Eirik the Red returned to Iceland convincing 25 ships full of settlers to join him in a new Viking Colony in Greenland.
With this new life for Eirik the Red and his settlers, Eirik had a son: Leif Erikson. If you know your history, you know where this story is going. Leif Erikson, with the Viking blood for adventure, glory and curiosity, took off in year 1002AD West. Where did they land? The East coast of Canada- named Vinland by the Vikings, now called Newfoundland. Leif Erikson, centuries before Christopher Columbus set out across the ocean, had landed in North America. There is speculation as to why this party did not settle on the North American lands. Were the native tribes too hostile? Did they encounter other barriers? The cause of their departure is unknown. The very idea that Leif Erikson even landed in North America was speculative, the journey’s truth solely recorded in a series of Icelandic Sagas. That is, until the 1960’s. Now, due to archeological evidence discovered by Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine, the astonishing accomplishment is now confirmed in history. Ancient Viking housing, nails from Viking ships and worked iron pieces were found in Newfoundland Canada, right where the Viking Sagas claimed they landed 1,000 years ago.
These historic feats of exploration, conquering, and colonization go down in history as some of the most incredible developments in sailing technology and navigational skills, and the trade routes and expansion of a relatively small group of people carry significant historical value. These Danes dominated vast expanses of the Western world, developed ports, trade routes, culture, populated vastly uninhabited places and waged war throughout their legacy. Although today modern constructions of the Viking people are largely romanticized (noble savages, barbarians, horned warriors-there is no evidence they had horned helmets-, merciless fighters), there is truth behind the exaggerated stereotype of a Viking warrior. Yet these historical figures were not only fighters, but also story-tellers, poets, explorers, traders, craftsmen and women and mercenaries. The Viking Age changed much in European history, and to this day, the Vikings of modern times still hold within their veins: exploration, grit and pride.
When visiting Norway, we recommend taking some time to visit some of Oslo's most famous museums. This includes the Viking Museum where you can learn more about these past historical figures, and, see a Viking ship for yourself.