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HISTORY CORNER: The Vikings

by SYD ALBRIGHT
| January 10, 2021 1:00 AM

Hollywood, video games, books and comics love to portray Vikings as vicious raiders and plunderers brandishing broadswords and axes, while thundering into battle wearing horned or winged helmets. Many indeed were raiders — the very word “Viking” meaning raider or pirate — but they didn’t wear horned helmets into battle, because they’d be a hindrance.

Vikings usually fought bare-headed or wore simple leather or iron helmets.

Nobody in the real world then wore them, though some claim Teutonic Knight crusaders did.

The Viking Age began in AD 793 with an attack on an English island monastery, and ended in 1066 with the Battle of Hastings when William the Conqueror defeated King Harold and became the King of England.

That first raid by Scandinavian marauders was on Lindisfarne monastery established in AD 635 on a small island off the Northumbrian coast of England.

Monks were slaughtered, thrown into the sea or taken as slaves, the library and priceless illuminated manuscripts burned, silver and gold chalices and other valuable church artifacts stolen — and the whole monastery burned to the ground.

The stone ruins remain to this day as a registered historical site.

Much of Viking history was written centuries after the actual events, and handed down in the oral tradition from one generation to the next.

The Lindisfarne raid would brand the Vikings for centuries as savage warriors with no respect for life, religion or appreciation for learning.

Monasteries were easy victims, having little ability to defend themselves in those violent times.

The Vikings, according to Britannica, were landowning clan chieftains and their followers who were mostly farmers who craved adventure, hoping to become rich with the booty from part-time plundering.

There is a difference between Norsemen and Vikings. Both refer to the same Germanic people who settled in Scandinavia during the Viking Age and spoke Old Norse. The Norsemen were full-time traders, and Vikings were mostly plunderers.

They key to Viking raider success was the open long boat up to 75 feet long and 17 feet wide, powered by oarsmen and a single square-rigged sail — usually with vertical red and white stripes, the fabric made of woven wool.

The crew was around 35 and they could carry a 10-ton load of cargo.

Long boats were also used by Dutch, French, English and German merchants and warriors.

The hull was made of a single long oak keel, supporting a “klinker” hull of overlapping planks, curling upwards at each end. Often the bow would have a carved wooden dragon head to ward off evil spirits.

On the open seas, these ships were powered mostly by sail, while oars propelled them near the coastline and in inland waterways. Their shallow draft made them swift and maneuverable, with a top speed of about 17 knots — perfect for hit-and-run attacks. Initially, their main targets were cities and towns along the coast of Europe, Britain and Ireland where defenses were weak.

But not all Vikings were plunderers. They were also brave explorers and successful traders — traveling as far west as the St. Lawrence River, and as far east as Baghdad — a span of 9,000 miles.

Apart from the hope of achieving wealth from plundering, the Vikings sought a better life elsewhere than in Scandinavia where in those times resources were scarce.

Some researchers suggest that the Vikings may have originated their wanderlust due to a need to seek out women from foreign lands.

As Europe was growing into nations, their kings were building armies that could stand up to Viking raids. Many built fortifications, and sea-facing stone walls to protect harbors, while vulnerable settlements and monasteries were moved inland away from the terrorizing long boats.

Also, organizing raids was expensive business and was becoming unprofitable, so the Vikings began shifting to colonizing faraway lands and started exploring islands in the North Atlantic that included Iceland, Greenland, Baffin Island, Labrador, Newfoundland and other possible settlement locations.

The Greenland settlements they started lasted for 450 to 500 years before being abandoned for a variety of reasons, including increasingly harsh weather during the Little Ice Age (ending c.19th century).

Today, Greenland is an autonomous Danish dependent territory with limited self-government and its own parliament. Iceland is a prosperous independent nation.

By the 11th century, the Vikings had utilized inland waterways, including the Seine, Volga and Danube rivers, to create a vast trading network from the Baltic Sea to the Middle East, with many Vikings settling in those areas.

Many of the settlers became founding fathers of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine — establishing its present capital of Kiev.

During the Soviet Union days, Russians were proud to call themselves Slavic, and were irritated that their nation was factually founded by Swedish Norsemen.

Another surprise is that the Vikings also sailed up the Seine River in France and founded Paris.

Those are achievements that today’s descendants from Denmark, Norway and Sweden can be proud of.

The early Vikings had their superstars that among many, included Eric the Red, his son Leif Erikson, and King Olaf I of Norway who brought Christianity to the Vikings.

Born Erik Thorvaldsson in Norway, Erik the Red is said to have earned his nickname because of his red hair, or perhaps bad temper.

Erik’s father was banished from Norway for killing several men and moved with his family to Iceland for three years. There, Erik himself was accused of manslaughter, and the family moved again — that time to Greenland and started several Viking colonies.

Those colonies lasted for hundreds of years before being abandoned in the 14th and 15th centuries due to declining trade and cooling temperatures brought on by the Little Ice Age.

Erik the Red died in Greenland about AD 1003 of an epidemic that killed many of the colonists shortly after his son Leif Erikson sailed away to Newfoundland.

Leif Erikson is believed to have been born in Iceland around AD 970 and probably raised in the Greenland Viking settlement.

About the year 1000, Erikson went exploring for a land reported years earlier by Icelander Bjarni Herjolfsson who was blown off course while sailing to Greenland.

Erikson’s search took him to Baffin Island, Labrador and finally Newfoundland. He called it “Vinland” because of grapes growing there.

History says that he thus became the first European to set foot in North America — not Columbus who arrived nearly 500 years later. Some however dispute that Erikson was first.

He returned to Greenland from Vinland with a cargo of lumber and never returned.

He was converted to Christianity by King Olaf I of Norway and may have been the first to preach Christianity in the New World.

There are no known accounts of his death.

King Olaf I of Norway, also known as Olaf Tryggvason, was a plundering Viking who earned his place in Norse history because he brought Christianity to the Vikings.

Early historical sources say he was born of royal lineage in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland and spent years of his youth in Russia, where he learned martial skills, that served him well during his time as a Viking pirate.

While in England, he met a seer who prophesized his future. “Olaf Tryggvason's acceptance of Christianity most likely occurred in the year 994,” one report said naming the source as the great medieval Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson.

Sturluson attributed Olaf’s conversion to Christianity to a legendary hermit who correctly predicted Olaf's future from information he said came directly from “the Christian God.”

His predictions came true and Olaf was so impressed with their accuracy that he and his men rejected their Norse pagan gods and were baptized as Christians.

With his new faith, Olaf returned to Norway and was made king after the unpopular king Hakon the Great was murdered. Then he began converting the entire nation.

But it was not a benign effort.

When Olaf faced resistance to the new faith, he often resorted to torture, mutilation and execution. Despite his draconian methods, Norway turned Christian, a cultural change already taking place all across Europe.

Olaf was not unchallenged and in a sea battle against some enemies, he jumped overboard to avoid capture.

What happened to him after that is a story for another time.

But with or without horned helmets, the Vikings played a major role in the history of Western civilization.

• • •

Contact Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

• • •

The Lindisfarne raid…

We know about Lindisfarne from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle created late in the 9th century during the reign of Alfred the Great:

“In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook,” the Chronicle said. “There were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th ides of January, the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.”

Viking Raven flag…

The Raven Banner was a flag depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry and flown by various Viking chieftains and other Scandinavian rulers during the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries. The raven was a powerful symbol of war and to the Vikings was the eyes and ears of the Viking god, Odin.

Ravens for navigation…

Vikings sometimes carried ravens aboard their longboats to use for navigation on voyages. The birds would be released at sea and if they didn’t return, that meant that land was nearby.

Leif Erikson’s brother…

After Leif Erikson returned to Greenland from Newfoundland (Vinland), his brother Thorvald led another expedition back there to further explore possible settlement. The idea was abandoned after violent clashes with local Indians and Thorvald was killed.

Viking witness for Christ…

After his exploration in Vinland, Leif Erikson returned to Greenland never to return to North America. He failed to convert his father Erik the Red to Christianity but he did succeed in bringing his mother Thjodhild to the faith.

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RUSS HEINL/GETTY IMAGES

Reconstruction of Viking longhouse and smaller buildings at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, site of the first European settlement in North America nearly 500 years before Columbus.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

The Lingsberg 11th century runestone 15 miles north of Stockholm, Sweden, showing Viking writing.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

The Vikings traveled as far west as the St. Lawrence River and east to Baghdad.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The Gokstad Ship in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, a preserved Viking longship showing the clinker style hull made of overlapping planks built over a stem-to-stern oak keel invented by the Vikings, providing more stability and speed (up to 17 knots).

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The 78-foot long Gokstad Viking ship was discovered buried on a farm near Oslo in 1880, apparently a funerary ship, with remains of a middle-aged man in the hull, surrounded by remains of two peacocks, two goshawks, eight dogs and 12 horses (photo c.1880).

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PHOTO COURTESY/P. STRAW

Andrew Woods and David Nordin working on the interior construction of a replica Viking longboat that didn’t have benches for the oarsmen, who instead used their own individual chests containing personal possessions to save space.

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GETWALLPAPERS.COM

Sea-going Viking longboats, often with a carved dragon head on the bow to ward off evil spirits, could also maneuver in shallow waters and rivers, often attacking cities far inland such as Hamburg and Paris.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Erik the Red (“Father of the Vikings”) who lived c.AD 950 to c.1003 was not a plunderer, instead explored the northwest Atlantic while serving a three-year exile sentence for killing several men, and discovered Greenland, which he colonized.

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WIKIPEDIA

Painting by Hans Dahl (1849-1937) of Leif Erikson, son of Erik the Red, who is believed to have landed either in Newfoundland or Labrador, which he called Vinland and is considered the first European to land in North America, nearly 500 years before Columbus.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Viking warriors would have looked more like this going into battle than as depicted by fiction and Hollywood wearing horned helmets.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

The wooden Borgund Stave Church (now a museum) 150 miles north of Oslo, Norway, was built in 12th century, the interior featuring “a curious mix of Christian and Norse décor,” including carved dragon heads used on bows of Viking ships.

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VIKING SHIP MUSEUM

Vikings were excellent craftsmen in metalworks and wood as shown in this 9th century Viking sled in Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

The Vikings trading with Russian villagers.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

The Viking Age is said to have begun in AD 793, with the Viking plundering of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumberland, England, just south of the Scottish border, with this painting depicting an attack of the monastery at Clonmacnoise, Ireland, raided often by Vikings, Normans and Irish.

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HISTORY CHANNEL

Pagan Vikings settling in Christian lands quickly adopted Christianity, as depicted in this scene from History Channel’s Viking series.