Lecture Overheads:

History of the Vikings
(SCAND 370 / HSTAM 370)


Several overheads are shown in class in connection with the lectures for the History of the Vikings course. Because of the large number of students in the class and the occasional difficulty in seeing the screen, the information from the overheads is given below to supplement student's class notes only.


A Viking by Any Other Name...(Names by which the Vikings were called)


Origin of the term "Viking:"

Several explanations for the etomology of Viking have been suggested. The four below are the most commonly cited:

Some Major Written Sources:

Non-Scandinavian Sources

Scandinavian Sources


Cultural Changes in Scandinavia - approx. 200 CE - approx. 700 CE


Causes of Vikings Expansion

Vikings activity was motivated by several factors. Different factors undoubtedly influenced activity at different times.

Farm Names - Norway

Farm names in Norway have a conservative tradition and some date back to the migration period and the Viking age itself. A study done in conjunction with the University of Oslo in the 1960s looked at a district in eastern Norway (Vang) where new land continued to be taken under the plough throughout the Viking age and beyond, from approx. 200 CE to approx 1350 CE. Evidence shows a growing population in the district, while areas in the west were being emptied.


Viking Warfare

The 13th century manuscript (mss.) Hirdskra, a law code in Norway from approx. AD 1270 claims: "Weapons in war are trust and protection, in peace, honor and distinction, and they represent good capital investments available for whatever needs may arise in any emergency."

The personal weapons of a Viking were importan and large sums of money could be spent on them. In addition, craftsmen clearly expended enormous energy and ingenuity on the decoration of weapons. Principal weapons included:

  1. sword
  2. axe
  3. spear
  4. iron hat (helmet)
  5. bow and arrow
  6. shield
  7. chaim mail - used occasionally, but very expensive;
    most soldiers probably substituted reindeer hides or sheepskin.

Viking Society - The Rigsthula (Lay of Rig)

Rigsthula is a poem which describes the origin of the class system. The structure, as described in the poem, is rigid and seems to be based on an agricultural model. The account attributes the origin to the divine intervention of the god Heimdal as the father of the first of the male line in each of the three classes. The poem is probably from the 10th century, but the oldest manuscript dates from the mid-14th century.

Viking Relgion/Mythology

Writing in 13th century Iceland, Snorre Sturlasson (1178-1241) preserved for all time the accounts of the gods and mythical heroes of the Viking age. His dramatic Heimskringla is the story of the Norse kings to the coming of King Sverre in 1177 and the Edda presents the religious ideology and mythical literature with a remarkable versification of old Norse poetry.

Before there were men and gods there was the great void, Ginnungagap. North of this void was Niflheim, dark and misty. South of the void was Muspell, fiery and hot. From their cataclysmic union was born the giant Ymir, nourished by the "great cosmic cow," Audumbla emerging from the melting frost, licking the salty ice blocks and fashioning a human form, Buri. Buri had a son Bor who had three sons, Vili, Ve, Odin. Killing Ymir, they formed the world and from driftwood along the shor, created the first man and woman.

The earth was a round disk(?) surrounded by the ocean. The world of men was Midtgård, the world of the giants was Jotunheimen, the world of the gods was Åsgård. Here was the Hall of the Slain, Valhalla. Central to the world was the great ash tree, Yggdrasil, the branches of which reached to the shy and covered the earth.

Among the principal gods, Adam of Bremen tells us that a trinity of sorts were worshipped at the great temple of Uppsala. Odin, Thor and Frey.

Two families of gods, the Aesir and the Vanir.

The Aesir, militaristic dieties headed by Odin, had overcome the Vanir in some prehistoric confrontation that may well have been a mere cultural reminder of the displacement of an earlier culture by the Germanic tribes during the migration period of the late Iron Age. In the Prose Edda, Snorre gives us numerous stories explaining the roles of the gods, giants and numerous other spirits and beings.

Catalysts for evil and destruction emerges gradually in the person of Loki and his three offspring, the Fenris Wolf, the World Snake and Hel, the guardian of the underworld. Odin's search for wisdom and knowledge preoccupies his time and efforts as he tries vainly, it turns out, to save his perfect som, Baldur, whose death is prophysied as the beginning episode of the final days leading to the great battle between the forces of good and evil, Ragnarok.

Questions to consider: Has Ragnarok happened? If not, why? How is the heroic portrayed in the conflicts represented in the mythology? How does it differ from the portrayal of the heroic in the Sagas? Does it? What is a hero in Norse culture?

Odin: Gungnir - Spear; Draupnir - Ring; Sleipnir - Horse; Hugin & Munin - Odin's Ravens
Thor/Tor: Mjolnir - Hammer; Girdle of Might/Strength=Giving Belt; Iron Gauntlet; Two Goats
Baldur: Odin's perfect son whose death brings about Ragnarok
Tyr: early warrior god, Tacitus said he was equivalent of Mars, sword god
Heimdal: Guardian of the Rainbow Bridge(Bifrost)
Frey: also known as Yngvi-Frey: gog of fertility; Skidbladnir (ship); Gullinborsti (boar)
Freya: female fertility diety; Brisingarmen (shining neclace thought to represent the rising sun).
Njord: god of fertility. Father of Frey and Freya. Associated with earlier fertility dieties such as Nerthus. Njord rules over wind and sea and is god of seafarers and fishermen. Njord name appears in coastal area place names in Norway and Iceland, inland in Sweden(near lakes). Loki: the catalyst of chaos and trouble. Originally a practical joker, trickster and troublemaker who gradually becomes more evil. Closest god to a "devil" in Norse religioh. He is nemisis of gods but also their friend and helper. Plays many roles. Responsible for the death of Baldur and coming of Ragnarok.
Loki has three offspring: The World Snake (Jormungand); The Fenris Wolf; and Hel (Female guardian of the Underworld).



After the Mid-Term



Vikings in England

A great deal has been written about Vikings in England. The documentary record, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is extensive as is the archeological record. Viking activity in England begins with the attack on Lindisfarne on June 8, 793, and ends with the battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25, 1066. In between there are three distinct periods:

Vikings in France

Coastal raids in the western Carolingian empire include raids of numerous towns, monastaries and churches. In AD 845, Vikings sail up the Seine river for the first time, all the way to Paris, which is sacked on Easter Sunday. Leader supposedly was Ragnar. West Frankish king, Charles the Bald, paid a "danegeld" (ransom) and Vikings left. Another raid on Paris occured in AD 858. The largest raid on Paris, according to documentary sources was the "massive" attack in AD 885-86. Paris was defended by 200 men led by Bishop Gozlin and Count Odo. Reportedly, 40,000 Northmen came up the Seine river and beseiged Paris for 11 months when King Charles the Fat paid a Danegeld to get them to depart.

In AD 896, Rollo enters the documentary record with a brief mention, but it is in AD 911 that he signs a treaty with King Charles the Simple and becomes the first Duke of Normandy. Giving the Vikings/Northmen/Normans the land at the mounth of the Seine River, this transfer of land to Rollo and his men (who were in possession of it anyway) established the Duchy of Normandy and served to protect Paris from future Viking raids. One hundred and fifty-five years later, Rollo's direct descendent, William of Normandy, will lead an invasion of England in 1066.


The North Atlantic

Iceland was discovered and explored by several individuals before settlement began in the middle of the 9th century with Ingolfr Arnarsson. By AD 930, the population had reached a point where land was scarce and conflict frequent. A decision to develop a national assembly led to the appointment of a national lawspeaker, Ulfljot, who had studied the law of the Gulating in Norway before returning to Iceland to the establishment of the Althing at Thingvellir. A natural volcanic amphitheater, Thingvellir became the site of the annual assembly for Iceland.

Condemned to outlawry in the latter part of the 10th century, Erik the Red left Iceland and explored Greenland for three years before returning to market the property and encourage settlement. A new daughter colony from Iceland was established at two sites, the Eastern Settlement and the Western Settlement, along the west coast of Greenland. Erik the Red make his home at Brattahlid. From here, around the year AD 1000, the son of Erik the Red, Leif Eriksson, sailed west and established an new settlement at a place called Vinland. Like Iceland and Greenland before it, Vinland was probably a region. Explorer/writer Helge Ingstad of Norway discovered a Viking settlement site in northern Newfoundland in the late 1950s which was probably a part of Vinland. Anne Stine Ingstad led the excavatioon of the site at L'Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, finding a spindle whorl of Soapstone, a pin, and evidence of two castings of bog iron. Eight house sites and a smitty were subsequently identified over the years of excavation.

The Vinland site probably lasted no more than a generation. Conflicts with the native people, called "Skraelings," pressured the Vikings and the westenmost site was subsequently abandoned. Greenland lived on until the late 15th century when it too, probably due to the changes in weather, succumbed. Iceland remained the most successful and lasting of the most western Viking settlements, but the memory of the others remained and the archeology has also confirmed the saga records. It might even be that a sailor in the 1470s visiting Iceland on an English ship from Bristol heard stories of land to the west. That sailor, seeking to make a name and fortune for himself, called himself Christoph Colon, but is known to history as Christopher Columbus.


The End of the Viking Age


Copyright © 2013 Department of Scandinavian Studies, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195-3420