5 Things About Vikings That We Get All Wrong
Vikings are undeniably hot right now, thanks to TV shows The Vikings, movies Thor and Robert Eggers' The Northman, and the raw, throbbing, untamed sexuality of Kirk Cousins, quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings. Unfortunately, thanks to centuries of misinformation in scholarly histories ("When the legend becomes fact, print the legend" – generations of Viking historians) and in popular culture, most people suffer from a variety of misconceptions about the Vikings, from who they were to when they were active to what, exactly, they did.
"Viking" Was a Job Description, Not an Ethnicity
Most people think of the Vikings as warriors and pirates who traveled around Northern Europe pillaging and plundering. They did that, but they did a lot more besides. "Viking" comes from the Old Norse "vikingr," meaning "trader" or "raider." For the Scandinavians of the Viking Age, a Viking was someone who left home on one of a variety of locally built ships and traveled various distances, often quite long, to trade goods (usually raw material in exchange for processed goods unavailable in Scandinavia) or to raid rich locations.
The rate at which Vikings traded overseas was roughly equal to the rate at which they raided. Trade was essential for the Scandinavians to survive; Sweden wasn't great for farming, and most Norse led lives of food precarity thanks to a lack of arable land. Importing food and animals, not to mention luxury goods, was a necessity for the Norse and Swedes, neither of whom could do without burial goods like the Pope John VIII (With Real Assassination Action!) Action Figure.
Fortunately, Scandinavia was part of an international trading network that stretched from Spain to Japan and from the western coast of Africa to the Arctic Circle. Viking traders went as far south as the coast of North Africa and as far east as modern-day Iran and the Caucasus Mountains. (There are tales of individual Vikings, like Ottar of Hålogaland, having reached India, but these remain unsubstantiated, like any good "friend of a friend" story). Thousands of silver dirhams from the Abbasid Caliphate (the Islamic lands from Spain and North Africa to Central Asia) have been found in Scandinavia and in the lands of the Viking colony in England, and a 6th-century statue of the Buddha made in the Swat Valley in northern Pakistan was found in a lake next to a major Viking trading outpost in Sweden.
There was no one Viking ethnicity. Historically the Vikings have been described as Danish because the best surviving written record about the early centuries of the Viking Age in England is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a kind of Reader's Digest version of early English history, and the Chronicle refers to the Vikings as "Danes." The population of Denmark during the Viking Age was roughly twice that of Norway and 133% that of Sweden. Yet all the archaeological, bioarchaeological, and genetic research done on Viking graves and Viking skeletons over the past century has repeatedly shown that any Viking warband or ship's crew could have contained anyone from modern-day Scandinavia, Europe, Russia, and North Africa.
One mass grave found in 2008 included men from a single Viking warband who were born in locations all across Northern Europe and Scandinavia, from the Southern Baltics and Russia to north of the Arctic Circle. A genomic study of 442 separate human remains from Scandinavia similarly demonstrated the breadth of ethnic origins of Vikings. There was no one Viking ethnicity—the Vikings were a banchan of ethnicities.
The Vikings Weren't Super-Racist, Unlike Some Modern Groups We Could Name
The worship of the Norse gods (the "Æsir") has made a comeback since the 1970s. Unfortunately, modern Æsir-worshipers are split into two camps: racist and non-racist. The racists, who label themselves "Odinist," "Wotanist," or "Wodenist," believe that heathenry/modern paganism is the indigenous religion of the biologically distinct white, Nordic, Aryan "race." Married to this belief are a set of ideas about the inferiority of non-Aryans and the threat posed to the "white race" by Jews. Basically, somewhere between 30-50% of the modern heathen population are virulent racists, antisemites, white supremacists, and white nationalists. The racists claim that they are carrying on the racist ("ethno-nationalist") traditions of the original Vikings. Unfortunately, this claim is only 99% bs rather than being complete garbage.
The "original Vikings" were multicultural and multiethnic. Their primary interest was in surviving to adulthood, getting rich, worshipping the gods, and, most of all, attaining glory. The Vikings did not care what the skin tones or ethnicities of the men in their warband were, just that they were good shield mates.
There was no such thing as a "Viking homeland." Before Norway, Sweden, and Denmark became permanently unified kingdoms in the 10th and 11th centuries, they were made up of petty fiefdoms, small-scale "kingdoms" ruled over by jarls (earls) or kings. The idea of a single "Viking homeland" or "Norse homeland" would have struck the Vikings as a ludicrous idea, like a sequel to Mortdecai or the idea of favoring disputatio over predicatio.
The Vikings did have their prejudices. They thought prejudicially about the indigenous Americans (who they called "Skrælings," or "wretched shouting savages") they encountered while trying to establish a North American colony in Greenland and Canada. The Vikings were biased against the Finnar (the indigenous Finns) and the Sámi, an indigenous people who lived and who currently live in the northern sections of modern-day Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the lands inside the Arctic Circle. In the Skrælings, the Finnar, and the Sámi the Vikings saw a specific set of flaws—a lack of "civilization," an oppositional intent toward the Vikings, and an innate and powerful ability to work magic—which offended them.
The Vikings were also biased against the blámaðr ("black man"); the Vikings associated anyone with dark black skin with the land of Muspellzheimr (i.e., Africa), the home of Surtr, the fire giant destined to burn down the universe. While the blámaðr were evil supernatural beings rather than humans, the association between dark black skin and the blámaðr was present in the minds of Scandinavians, and those of African descent who visited or lived in the Viking petty kingdoms experienced some prejudice because of it. (Not as badly as 1940s Mississippi, but better than 2020s America).
But the cause of these prejudices was not skin color or a different ethnic identity or different region or nation of origin, as with modern racists, but instead the newness and visual differences of the Skrælings, the Finnar, the Sámi, and the blámaðr; to quote one scholar, "the important factor is unfamiliarity, not nationality." The Viking warbands contained a rainbow of ethnicities—they were essentially 9th and 10th-century Benetton ads—and genomic studies of Viking grave sites outside of Scandinavia have shown that Viking settlers were often born outside of Scandinavia. Acceptance of ethnic Others was not a long-term problem for the Vikings; in other words, it simply took time and familiarity.
Ring-Maidens, Trans Gods, and Flexible Genders
To the popular mind the Vikings' attitudes toward gender were retrogressive and sexist. But much more than contemporary or later cultures, the Vikings were quite comfortable with gender boundaries being transgressed, both by the gods and by real people.
From what we can tell today, the laws that the Vikings lived under were full of simple, binary representations of gender and statements like Iceland's "if in order to be different a woman dresses in men's clothes or cuts her hair short or carries weapons, the penalty for that is lesser outlawry...the same is prescribed for men if they dress in women's clothing." (Bear in mind these same laws dictated the proper treatment of tame polar bears, full outlawry for fathers who baptized their sons, and full outlawry for men who wrote women unwelcome love poems).
But the lived experiences of the Vikings were quite different from what the laws prescribed. Gender was something to be ignored when one was in the mood. Even the laws themselves offered options for men and women who wished to change their gender: for example, if a woman was the only child of a dead man, and she owed or was owed wergild (the blood debt incurred by the murder of a man, usually paid by or to a man), then she became a baugrýgr (ring-lady), a surrogate son to her late father. The baugrýgr paid or collected wergild like a man, handled inheritance matters with all the rights men had carried out blood feuds like a man, and in all ways was classified as a man, acted like a man, had all the legal rights of a man, and was treated as a man. (Being a trans man situationally was a common enough experience among the Vikings that its limits needed to be encoded into law).
More broadly, gender wasn't as simple as penis = male, vagina = female. For the Vikings, to be male meant you were bold, active, vigorous, and hard, while to be female meant you were soft, weak, passive, and yielding. But since these aren't permanent things, maleness and femaleness were judged on a sliding scale rather than a binary and were based on life stages or actions: cowardice versus bravery in battle, youth versus old age, health versus infirmity, freedom versus slavery; one was more male than female, or vice-versa, rather than purely male/female. Gender was also expressed through a range of markers, from physical (strong calves, beards) to cultural (expressed through clothing and worn objects). As one scholar put it, "under this construction, the range of potential gender expressions might not be limited to male or female, but could include numerous variants of each, including non-human possibilities." (So a Viking who said "I identify as an Elk-Woman" would not be the subject of mockery, as in modern-day America, but would be accepted into Viking society).
And then there were the Norse gods. They seemed to be hypermasculine and hyperfeminine, but their genders were actually "various" or "none of the above." Take Odin, the "All-Father," the manliest of men. Odin is also the master of magic, which for the Vikings was strictly women's work. A man who used magic or took part in magic rituals was ragr or ergi, slurs meaning both "a woman" and "a passive partner in a sexual relationship with a man." So the Vikings must have viewed Odin contradictorily, as both the manliest of men and as the most infamous ergi. Odin was also a shapeshifter who changed his body into the bodies of animals and, occasionally, women. He sometimes dressed as a woman to further his plans. He even castrated himself to gain knowledge of the runes, gaining the title "Geldnir" ("the Eunuch" or "the Gelding") along with the secrets of the magic runes. Ultimately Odin was neither male nor female; they were a third gender, just like Fonzie and like the Sámi shamans whose magic practices Odin imitated.
Loki, meanwhile, was many things. His name is related to knots, loops, tangles, webs, spinning, and weaving—all things associated with women. Loki was a shapeshifter and became a woman and even a mare at various times. He let himself be castrated by a goat for the lolz. He lured a stallion into impregnating him with what would grow up to be Odin's horse Sleipnir. Loki got knocked up by a giantess and gave birth to Hel, the goddess of death, the Fenrir Wolf, and Jǫrmungandr, the world-encircling Midgard Serpent. Loki ignores all boundaries, including those of gender, and is essentially the god of subversion. Loki is all genders and none. (He's the anti-Ken doll).
Lastly, there's the case of Thor, the most hypermasculine of the gods. In the poem "Þrymskviða" ("The Lay of Þrym"), the giant Þrym has stolen Mjǫlnir, Thor's hammer, and as ransom for it demands the hand of the goddess Freyja in marriage. She furiously refuses, so Loki suggests that Thor dress as Freyja, wearing jewelry, a bride's clothing, and a bridal veil, and present himself to Þrym as Freyja, and in that way steal Mjǫlnir back. Thor doesn't refuse Loki's suggestion, exactly; he just doesn't want to wear bridal clothing because he's afraid the other gods will mock him. (Viking masculinity could be exactly that fragile). Loki persuades Thor that dressing as a woman is the only way to get Mjǫlnir back, and Thor goes along with it. He even gets into it; he makes no objection when the jewelry that is put on him emphasizes the size of his breasts. In other words, Thor doesn't object to taking on the cultural and physical aspects of a woman—bridal clothing, a veil, large breasts—but he doesn't want to be teased about it.
Viking Sexuality, or, Whatever Gets You Through the Long Night of Ragnarǫk
In myths and legends, the Æsir are a horny bunch, but several of them do not limit themselves to members of the opposite sex. In real life, Viking Age Scandinavians were not nearly as homophobic as their contemporaries were or as the Scandinavians would later become after they were Christianized.
The queerest of the gods was Frey. In Norway, Frey was viewed as a lesser god who bore a tainted reputation, but in Sweden, Frey was seen a major god and possibly even the god, the one above all others. Worship of Frey was centered on the great temple at Uppsala in Sweden, which was widely known as the site of extremely lascivious fertility rites. Young men and women from around Scandinavia and Northern Europe would travel to Uppsala just for the ritual orgies. (Viking Age sex tourism was a thing). Frey's reputation became that of someone who'd happily have sex with anything, which for the comparatively prudish Norse was a bad thing.
Loki was pansexual. Loki doesn't seem to have a divine function or a portfolio of responsibilities the way Odin (war, magic, royalty), Thor (thunder, farmers, peasants), Freyja (magic), Frey (fertility), and the rest of the Æsir do. But this only appears to be the case. The truth is that A) Loki, despite or because of his pansexuality, gender fluidity, and constant transgression of gender and sexual boundaries, is accepted by the Æsir as one of them; B) the worshipers of the Æsir, in all likelihood, accepted and tolerated Loki's personality traits the way the Æsir themselves did; and C) Loki, therefore, must have essentially served as the Norse god of queerness, with the Scandinavians probably accepting real-life queer behavior as being modeled on Loki and therefore divinely justified. This being so, queer Vikings would have been not just tolerated but welcomed as devout worshipers of Loki, just like the berserkers who plucked one eye out in imitation of Odin were. (The story of the Viking colony on Fire Island has yet to be told).
There's evidence that there were openly queer Vikings. A traditional piece of jewelry placed in Scandinavian graves during burial was a "gullgubber," a gold foil pendant on which was stamped an image. Often the image was of a god or animal, but equally often, the images were of the person holding hands with their loved one or spouse. Most of the couples shown in this way are heterosexual, but a few gullgubber have been found showing lesbian and gay couples.
The Vikings Weren't Super-Violent—They Were Worse
Viking hyperviolence has been the basic assumption of scholars and historians since the first Viking raid on a Western European target (the monastery on the English island of Lindisfarne) in 793 AD and has been the stuff of modern popular culture for almost two hundred years.
But this stereotype needs qualifying. Vikings were notably non-violent with each other. A 2021 bioarchaeological study of 2,379 skeletons from Viking graves showed that the rate of interpersonal violence among the Vikings was remarkably low compared to other contemporary European societies, with the rates of lethal cranial trauma and weapon wounds (prime indicators of violent deaths) being far lower than the rates of disease and death from old age.
The Vikings were as violent as their reputation says while on a raid, but most Viking raids were launched not to slaughter but to plunder wealthy locations and bring the captured riches home to be sold. Unfortunately, the primary type of plunder the Vikings sought during raids was slaves, and it's there, with their slaves, that the Vikings were truly the monsters that centuries of storytellers and historians have made them out to be.
Slavery was a basic component of Viking society. All but the poorest of families had one or two slaves; wealthy families had far more. The Viking approach to slavery, however, was far worse than that of other contemporary (or later) slave-holding societies; the Vikings were infamous for the brutality with which they treated their slaves. Slaves of the Vikings were mercilessly worked to death, raped, abused, or killed on a whim; to the Vikings, slaves were objects rather than people. The survival rates of slaves under the Vikings can be measured in months rather than years. Viking slavery was, all things considered, much more violent, much more sexually abusive, and much more sociopathic even than American slavery.
To Sum It Up
The Vikings weren't simple-minded people; they were capable of simultaneously holding contradictory thoughts in their minds: "must obey misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic laws" and "accept women and gays and trans folk into warbands or as war leaders;" "some anal sex between men is gay" and "some anal sex between men isn't gay;" "rape is a slave owner's prerogative" and "rape is evil." Viking culture was, in some ways, quite complex when it came to morality and ethics. That the Vikings have been reduced to simple-minded barbarians for popular entertainment says a lot about the power of historians and storytellers to bowdlerize reality and turn it cartoonish and one-dimensional. Good thing no one's ever done that to American history.