The Vikings were a brutal people, renowned over a thousand years later for their skill and fearlessness in battle. Whilst many subsequent depictions have descended into unfounded conjecture, in particular the common belief in horned helms, and accounts of their deeds avoidably have become exaggerated across the centuries, it is undeniable that life during the Viking Age was, to borrow the words of Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short”.
Here are 16 facts about brutal Viking life you should know about:
16. The Vikings murdered so many infant girls they induced an imbalance in the gender ratios
The raids during the Viking Age, in which European women were abducted back to Scandinavia, are legendary. But recent historical inquiry has indicated that these were not mindless acts of savagery, rather a coordinated response to a self-inflicted lack of Viking women.
According to James Barrett of Cambridge University, “selective female infanticide was recorded as part of pagan Scandinavian practice in later medieval sources, such as the Icelandic sagas”, and resulted in a substantial decline in the ratio between men and women. This theory is supported by Soren Sindbaek, explaining the “social motivation behind the fact that a large number of young men chose to set out on extremely risky voyages” and “the wish of disadvantaged young men to acquire resources necessary to set up a family” is a plausible solution to this age-old question of why.
15. Viking medicine was immensely rudimentary, including the tasting of blood from a wound to determine the severity of the injury
The Vikings were legendary for their brutality and fearlessness in battle, but were nonetheless human and, thus, suffered injuries of varying degrees of significance in combat. After the fighting was over, these temporary treatments were replaced by Viking battlefield medicine. These practices were of dubious efficacy, typically carried out by women, with little scientific foundation to many of the more commonly applied treatments. One such method of determining a warrior’s prognosis was to feed the wounded soldier a broth made from leeks, onions, and herbs, before smelling the wound. If the healer could detect the broth’s odor emanating from within, the wound was fatal. In the aforementioned story of Thormod, he refused the broth when offered and instead commanded the attending woman to cut into his wound and locate the arrowhead within, using pincers. Thormod himself pulled the arrowhead from his chest and joked “see how well the king keeps his men. There is fat by my heart”.
Another similarly brutal medical practice was the use of blood from a wound to determine the nature of an injury. In the Eyrbyggja saga, Snorri goÃ°i, in pursuit of a wounded BergÃ¾Ã³r, tastes the bloody snow marked by his prey. Identifying the blood was from a severe and fatal internal wound, Snorri forgoes the unnecessary hunt. Magic was also used to unscientifically heal wounds sustained in the course of a duel. The KormÃ¡ks saga details the sacrifice of a bull atop a hill and the offering of its butchered meat for elves who supposedly lived in the hills as a tribute in return for the healing of ÃorvarÃ°r.
14. Homosexual rape was commonplace in Viking culture, with defeated enemies typically becoming victims of sexual assault in a show of domination and humiliation
Unlike early Christianity, Viking culture did not regard homosexuality as innately evil or perverted. However, this does not mean that the Vikings did not attach certain stigmas to homosexual conduct, in particular, to those who received rather than gave. Symbolically seen as a surrendering of one’s independence in violation of the Viking ethic of self-reliance, a man who subjected himself to another sexually was perceived as likely to do so in other areas and thus untrustworthy and unmanly. Being used in a homosexual nature by another man was equally connected to the trait of cowardice, an immensely shameful description in Viking society, due to the historic custom of sexual violence against a defeated enemy. This was recorded in the Sturlunga saga, GuÃ°mundr captures a man and a wife and intends to rape both as a form of domination over his new property.
This use of rape to solidify authority over an individual, not unique to the Vikings but rather a recurrent feature of many hyper-masculine early civilizations, was reinforced by the frequent practice of castration for defeated opponents. Whilst the klÃ¡mhogg (“shame-stroke”) on the buttocks was ranked alongside penetrative wounds: a clear symbolic reference to forced anal sex. Due to this cultural connection of homosexual conduct with submission, dominance, and defeat, the engagement of same-sex consensual relations with a close friend was regarded as an immensely offensive and shameful deed. The act was viewed as a humiliation of the vanquished; to participate in intercourse with a friend was not seen as a loving gesture but instead to betray that friend and shame him.
13. The Holmgang was a ritualistic method of Viking dueling, which had to be outlawed after too many warriors used it as a means to legally kill and rob people
The Holmgang (“hÃ³lmganga” in Old Norse) was a formal duel used as a system to settle disputes in early medieval Scandinavia. Unlike later European institutions of dueling, in which social class played a particular and important role, any member of society regardless of their standing could challenge another to holmgang if they so chose. The reasons behind said challenge could be wide-ranging, including a legal disagreement, the payment of a debt, property disputes, or as a matter of questioned honor.
A holmgang was typically fought within 3-7 days after the challenge was issued. Should the challenged party fail to attend, they were considered to have forfeited and the justness of the claim proved. Should the challenger fail to attend, they were branded “NiÃ°ingr” – a derogatory term identifying the loss of honor – and could be sentenced to banishment or even death. Usually, the combatants were the two individuals involved in the challenge; however, on rare occasions, particularly if there was a considerable age or physical disadvantage, proxy champions might be used in their stead to ensure a fair contest. Due to the nature of the holmgang, the system was invariably abused as a form of legalized robbery, with berserkers in particular recorded as using it as a means to claim rights of land, property, or women from less proficient warriors. As a result of this abuse, the practice was outlawed in 1006 CE in Iceland and 1014 CE in Norway.
12. Likely adopted from the indigenous people of North America in the 10th century, Viking warriors would painfully file and dye their teeth
Recent archaeological discoveries have unearthed evidence of an immensely painful and bizarre cultural practice among Viking men: teeth filing. Discovered in Sweden, Denmark, and England, the modification of teeth appears to have been adopted around the 10th century CE. Achieved by the filing of horizontal parallel lines in the front two teeth, although some Vikings also modified their lateral incisors and canines, and subsequently dyed, often in red, to accentuate the carvings, the precise purpose of the excruciating procedure remains unknown. The origins of dental filing in Viking culture is uncertain, but the most common centers of similar practices were West Africa and the Americas, both places known to have been explored by early Vikings. Given that “African teeth modification was of a different sort, with teeth filed into points”, Fitzhugh has strongly asserted that it was likely adopted from “the area of the Great Lakes in America and the present states of Illinois, Arizona, and Georgia” and transposed back to Europe by the earliest Viking explorers of North America.
One theory behind these horrendously painful dental alterations is that they were for cosmetic purposes. Unearthed remains in England indicate that the front teeth of Viking remains were carefully filed in neat horizontal lines, strongly suggesting the procedure was committed by a skilled craftsman rather than the individual themselves. David Score has asserted that although “the purpose of filed teeth remains unclear” it may have been “to show their status as a great fighter”. An alternative suggestion is that, given the aggressive and warlike culture of the Vikings, that they served the purpose of striking fear into an enemy, making the “warriors look even more terrifying to Christian monks and villagers”.
11. Viking slaves, although capable of earning or buying their freedom, most commonly ended up being sacrificed in honor of their deceased masters
Viking society was divided into three primary classes of status: the nobleman (“jarl” or “eorl“), the freeman (“karl“, “ceorl“) and the thrall (“Ã¾rÃ¦ll”). The thrall was a slave or serf within the Viking hierarchy, existing as property belonging to their master. A hereditary condition, meaning that those born to enslaved parents were themselves automatically thralls from birth, others entered bondage through capture in war or the inability to repay debts; the trade of captured slaves formed a central component of the Viking economy, with an estimated 10 percent of the population of Viking Scandinavia believed to have been slaves and most households retained at least a couple of slaves, some as many as thirty.
The treatment of slaves naturally varied between masters, but general conditions were uniformly poor. In addition to being assigned the hardest of labors and facing daily sexual exploitation, research by Anna KjellstrÃ¶m of the graves of slaves in Scandinavia strongly indicates that most thralls did not die peacefully. In fact, many thralls were, willingly or otherwise, buried along with their deceased masters as a human sacrifice; one contemporary account of this ritual has survived from Arab explorer Ibn FadlÄn, who detailed that “six men entered the pavilion and all had intercourse with the slavegirl. They laid her down beside her master and two of them took hold of her feet, two her hands. The crone called the âAngel of Death’ placed arope around her neck (â¦) She advanced with a broad-bladed dagger and began to thrust it in and out between her ribs (â¦) while the two men throttled her with the rope until she died.”
10. The Varangian Guard was an elite bodyguard for the Byzantine Emperors composed of Viking mercenaries
Although one commonly imagines the Vikings as solely inhabiting Scandinavia, they were among the most adventurous and far-reaching peoples in medieval history. Due to this fascination with travel, it is perhaps unsurprising that the warrior race appears in the background of history in several distant lands; of particular note, the Norsemen served as the primary members of the Varangian Guard: the elite personal bodyguard to the Byzantine Emperors.
Formed as early as 874 CE, the Varangian Guard was formally instituted in 988 under Emperor Basil II; sent 6,000 Varangian warriors from Vladimir of Kiev, the Byzantine Emperor employed them due to his distrust of native guardsmen and the famed loyalty of the foreign warriors, who were bound by blood oath in allegiance to their employers. Of special note, the legendary Viking ruler Harald Sigurdsson III of Norway, commonly known as Harald Hardrada, was a member of the Varangian Guard between 1035 and 1043; according to the Haralds saga SigurÃ°arsonar, Hardrada fought in as many as eighteen battles against the Arabs in modern-day Turkey, Jerusalem, and Sicily, as well as in Bulgaria and southern Italy. Hardrada’s grandson, Sigurd I of Norway, would later follow in his grandfather’s footsteps in the Norwegian Crusade, in the course of which the majority of his force elected to enter the Varangian Guard rather than return home to Scandinavia in 1110.
9. The Vikings butchered animals and humans as part of sacrifices to their pagan gods, painting themselves and their buildings with the blood of their offerings
There were four fixed blÃ³t sacrifices each year, coinciding with the winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice, and autumn equinox; the Arabic traveler al-Tartuchi recorded the occurrence of a blÃ³t during the winter solstice, noting that “they celebrate a festival, at which all come to worship the god and to eat and drink. The one who slaughters a sacrificial animal erects stakes at the entrance to his farmyard and puts the sacrificial animal on them. This is so that people know that he is sacrificing in honor of his god.” Whilst some offerings merely took the form of physical possessions or money, some deities, particular Odin, Lord of Valhalla, commonly required a living sacrifice befitting his status among the gods; at Onshold, a shortening of Odin’s Holt, meaning “Odin’s Wood”, there is considerable archaeological evidence that both animals and humans were hung and bled for the purposes of religious sacrifice.
The specifics of a large-scale blÃ³t sacrifice was detailed extensively in the Saga of Haakon the Good, son of Harald Fairhair, written during the early 13th century. A gathering would be called at a nearby temple, where several different animals would be sacrificed but especially horses; the blood of these offerings would be collected in bowls, to be dashed on the walls of the temple and on those in attendance. The meat would be butchered and blessed, whereupon it would be consumed with great vigor along with multiple toasts to the respective deities, starting with Odin. A similar process was described in the Hervarar saga, in which a horse was dismembered and its blood used to paint a sacred tree in Uppsala – a known center of Norse religious worship.
8. Infections were commonplace in the Viking Age, with battlefield wounds often resulting in death by microbes
Scandinavia, due to its geographical location and relative isolation, was typically spared the worst of humanity’s ailments during the early medieval period. The first recorded smallpox epidemic in Iceland only arrived in 1241 CE, being transmitted from mainland Denmark, and is believed to have been introduced to Scandinavia by Viking crusaders returning home from Eastern Europe and Asia. Similarly, leprosy is believed to have spread to Scandinavia during the Viking Age via the slave trade. Leprosy is known to have been present in Ireland at least as early as the 7th century, growing to widespread prevalence by the 10th, and as a result of the abduction and transportation of Irish slaves back to Scandinavia they inadvertently brought the infectious disease back to their homeland; this issue became sufficiently problematic that both the GulaÃ¾ing Law and BorgarÃ¾ing Law stated that “a promise of marriage is not binding if one of the partners was found to be leprous”.
Among perhaps the most bizarre instances of infection-related deaths is the story of Sigurd Eysteinsson, also known as Sigurd the Mighty, the second Earl of Orkney between 875 and 892 CE. In or around the last year of his reign, Sigurd challenged a rival native rule, MÃ¡el Brigte the Bucktoothed, to a 40 versus 40 man battle; in an act of great dishonor and deceit, Sigurd secretly brought 80 men and thus easily won the fight, beheading his defeated opponent. Strapping the head of MÃ¡el Brigte to his saddle as a trophy, at some point during his ride home the famed buck tooth scratched Sigurd’s leg. The resultant wound became infected as a result of close contact with the necrotic tissue, with Sigurd, ironically, dying soon after from the contracted illness.
7. Being captured as a slave during a Viking raid, especially if you were a literate male monk, likely resulted in your castration
As mentioned, the slave trade formed a significant component of the Viking culture and economy; contemporary historical investigation has suggested that, at least in part, the cruel trade was motivated less by internal than external economic factors. During the Viking Age, both the Byzantine Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate equally partook in the barbaric practice of slavery but maintained a unique preference for their male slaves being eunuchs; whether this was in a misguided belief that it made the slaves more submissive, for some religious inclination, or most commonly the “massive need for trustworthy guards” of the expanding harems, these eunuchs were so highly prized by these civilizations.
During the Early Middle Ages, among the foremost goods traded from Western Europe into Asia Minor and the Middle East was human slaves. A recent study by Mary Valente of Appalachian State University proposes that one of the primary motivations behind the increasing Viking raids on monasteries in northwestern Europe was to “capture literate young males who could be turned into eunuchs and sold off into the east”. Those captured would be transported to economic hubs like Venice, whereupon they would be castrated and shipped off for sale in the east. The 10th-century biography of St. Nian records the capture of 200 churchmen by the Vikings, with Valente’s investigation revealing that these “slaves may have been taken for precisely that purpose – feeding the eastern markets for young, educated castrates” and that “the expanding uses for slaves during the time of the early Abbasids, including the need for large numbers of enslaved eunuchs, drove much of the slave trade around the Mediterranean basin. The Viking raids, which began barely a generation after the Abbasid dynasty seized the Caliphate, met part of that need.”
6. Berserkers were fearsome warriors who entered the battle in a great state of rage and without armor, but were unable to identify friend from foe in their bestial fury
Berserkers, or berserks, were legendary Viking warriors who are believed to have often entered battle without armor, protected by merely their rage and fury. The word “berserk” is derived from the Old Norse words “ber” and “serkr”; the former means either “bear” or “bare”, with interpretations differing, whilst the latter translated at “shirt”, rendering an ultimately clear meaning: an individual who does not wear traditional armor into battle. This fury, “called berserkergang” and thusly described, “occurred not only in the heat of battle but also during laborious work. Men who were thus seized performed things which otherwise seemed impossible for human power. This condition is said to have begun with shivering, chattering of the teeth, and chill in the body, and then the face swelled and changed its color. With this was connected a great hot-headedness, which at last gave over into a great rage, under which they howled as wild animals, bit the edge of their shields, and cut down everything they met without discriminating between friend or foe. When this condition ceased, a great dulling of the mind and feebleness followed, which could last for one or several days.”
Several theories have been proposed concerning the precise cause of the berserk rage these warriors entered into, with many early academics suggesting the voluntary consumption of hallucinogenic mushrooms, in particular Amanita muscaria, to induce a state of rage. Recent investigations have queried this conclusion, instead proposing that henbane petals were rubbed on the skin to provide a numbing effect and a mild hallucinatory sensation. Other less popular theories include factors ranging from mental illness, to epilepsy, but little evidence exists to support these hypotheses.
5. Vikings, via poor hygiene and the consumption of raw meat, were infested with a range of parasitic worms
Viking society was immensely filthy, lacking even the basic requirements of hygiene, with the absence of disinfectants creating the ideal breeding ground for parasite; concurrently, the frequent Viking consumption of raw and contaminated meat, especially the eating of organs such as the lungs and liver in an uncooked form, helped proliferate the prevalence of these parasites. The modern examination of preserved fecal matter by archaeologists, notably by researchers at the University of Copenhagen, has uncovered the existence of parasite eggs throughout Viking feces.
Among the uncomfortable parasites that almost every Viking invariably was forced to coexist with were the roundworm – residing in the intestines and growing to lengths of 30 cm – the whipworm – living in the intestinal wall and growing to only 5 cm – and the liver fluke – which, as the name suggests, inhabits the liver. These collectively tenants caused myriad health problems for their human hosts, ranging from weakening their immune systems, liver damage, and anemia. Unfortunately, the biological development of modified forms of alpha-1-antitrypsin (A1AT) to fight the endemic intestinal worms in Viking society, whilst serving a genuine purpose a thousand years ago, is today causing significant health problems among modern descendants; A1AT acts as a genetic risk factor for major debilitating and fatal conditions, with “these deviant forms of A1AT that once protected people from parasites are now at liberty to cause emphysema and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)”.
4. A HestavÃg was a ritualized and brutal competition wherein horses were forced to fight to the death in front of cheering spectators
A HestavÃg was an important cultural event that occurred in Scandinavia during the Viking Age, particularly within the Icelandic Commonwealth between 930 and 1262 CE, consisting of a brutal fight between two stallions; believed to have originated in Norway, the cultural practice was subsequently exported to neighboring Viking regions. The HestavÃg served several important cultural and societal functions for the Vikings. Firstly, the fighting simply served to demonstrate the strength of the horses and identify the ideal specimens for the breeding of future stock; horse fighting does occur naturally in the wild over prospective mates, and as such one can interpret the HestavÃg as a benign if artificial recreation of this natural competition.
Traditionally taking place within a ringed area, designed to prevent a stallion from retreating from the confrontation as would occur in nature, two stallions would be introduced to a mare in heat. The fertile mare would then be tethered in the center of the enclosure, or sometimes outside but still within scent range, as a deliberate inducement for the horses fight over her; if the horses chose not to fight for whatever reason, they would be compelled to do so via whipping or startling. The HestavÃg was recorded as lasting between fifteen minutes and more than three hours in some cases, with rounds introduced to separate the constant animal violence, and typically concluded with the debilitating injury or death of one of the two combatants.
3. Dying to a Viking was not the end of the misery for an individual, as your corpse would be posthumously mutilated as a display of victory in an attempt to gain the attention of the Norse pagan deities
Believing that the time of their deaths was predetermined, it was beholden upon a Norseman to seek to acquire as much fame and glory in the time that they had to best impress their deities in Valhalla; consequently, each Viking sought to surpass another in their displays of violence to garner greater attention from the gods and earn their place in the legendary afterlife. This ever-intensifying competition in brutality in the name of glory culminating in the cultural practice of humiliating best opponents; it was insufficient to merely defeat an enemy, one had to shame them and actively promote your triumph to the world. An archaeological investigation of Viking Age graves by Niel Price from Uppsala University has produced substantial evidence, corroborated by subsequent studies, that, although each inherently unique, these remains and the composition of the graves bear consistent characteristics, in particular bodily mutilations.
As detailed by Elise Naumann, “there are lots of macabre treatments of the bodies. Some have chopped off limbs, such as in the Viking graves at Kaupang“, and a routine feature of those buried in traditional Viking manner was that the deceased “seem to have suffered a brutal death”; as mentioned, important individuals were often accompanied by their slaves into the afterlife, with the remains of these presumed thralls equally mutilated and brutalized. Naumann has hypothesized that “the fact that the graves are so disparate might mean that they are part of a burial ritual that recreates important incidences in the deceased person’s life. This would explain why each grave is unique,”.
2. Viking sports and competitions were, unsurprisingly, incredibly violent and dangerous, with the likelihood of injury of death extremely high
Sports have been a fundamental aspect of human civilizations throughout history, with the Vikings no exception to this cultural pastime. One such known game took place in water, and can be best described as a “drowning competition”. The goal of this sport was to hold the opponent underwater for as long as possible; the LaxdÃ¦la saga details a drowning contest between Kjartan Ãlafsson and King Ãlafur Tryggvason, as well as between King Eysteinn and King Sigurd. Another, known as toga hÃ¶nk or “tug-of-war”, involved two men facing each other and pulling on a length of rope; it is likely this competition, using similar movements and muscles to rowing, served as test of capability and strength for prospective crew. Ball games were also played by the early Vikings, of particular note Knattleikr. Described in the GÃsla saga SÃºrssonar, Knattleikr was played every autumn at MiÃ°fjarÃ°arvatn and involved two teams of evenly matched players fairly ordered by strength; these teams engaged one another in full-contact, attempting to gain possession of the ball for an unknown purpose.
Even wrestling, a recurrent contest of strength in many early civilizations, was more brutal in Viking society. The sport of “GlÃma” was fought in a wrestling field which contained a “fanghella“: a flat stone upon which one could break opponents back; the Kjalnesinga saga details a match between King BÃºi and an unknown opponent, wherein BÃºi wore a special jacket – fangastakkur – which protected him from having his spine shattered on the rock and allowed him to win. Similarly, the aftermath of eating a meal was, inexplicably, turned into a violent sport: hnÃºtukast. In hnÃºtukast participants threw bones from the meal at each other with the goal of causing injury; the BÃ¡rÃ°ar saga SnÃ¦fellsÃ¡ss details a game of hnÃºtukast in which Gestur threw a bone at GlÃ¡mur, hitting him in the eye and causing it to fall out of the socket onto his cheek.
1. The Vikings possessed imaginative brutality, devising perhaps the most unpleasant method of execution in human history – the blood eagle
Given the immensely brutal conditions of existence within Viking culture, it is perhaps unsurprising that they are held responsible for the creation of the one of, if not the most vicious and painful mode of execution ever devised by humanity: the blood eagle. The blood eagle was a ritualistic and sacrificial method of execution, whereupon the victim was lain before his killer and who severed his ribs from his spine; through the opening created by this painful brutalization, the victims’ lungs were then pulled out and draped over their shoulders to create an illusion of wings. Accounts of the blood eagle appear just twice in surviving Norse accounts, although is alluded to in other sources, with both named victims of royal status and killed by a son in vengeance for the murder of their father, suggesting the reservation of the method of execution only for those of special significance and specific purpose.
The execution of the first victim, Halfdan Haaleg, also known as “Halfdan Long-leg”, is provided by the Orkneyinga saga, detailing the sacrifice of the son of Harald Fairhair to Odin at the hands of Torf-Einarr: “Einarr made them carve an eagle on his back with a sword, and cut the ribs all from the backbone, and draw the lungs there out, and gave him to Odin for the victory he had won. The second known victim, Ãlla of Northumbria, described in the “Tale of Ragnar’s sons”, was executed by Ivar the Boneless in 867 CE in retribution for the murder of his father, the legendary Viking ruler Ragnar LoÃ°brÃ³k. Captured after a battle at York, the saga recounts that “they caused the bloody eagle to be carved on the back of Ãlla, and they cut away all of the ribs from the spine, and then they ripped out his lungs.”