16 Facts About the Brutality of Viking Life
16 Facts About the Brutality of Viking Life

16 Facts About the Brutality of Viking Life

Steve - November 29, 2018

16 Facts About the Brutality of Viking Life
‘Domesday stone’, found at Lindisfarne: the site of one of the earliest Viking raids on Anglo-Saxon England (c. 9th-century).

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.”

16 Facts About the Brutality of Viking Life
Wood carvings of bronze cast reliefs depicting a one-eyed weapon dancer followed by a berserker (6th-8th Century CE). Wikimedia Commons.

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.

16 Facts About the Brutality of Viking Life
An adult roundworm. National Health Service.

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)”.

16 Facts About the Brutality of Viking Life
A modern depiction of the Hestavíg, by Andreas Bloch (c. 1898). Wikimedia Commons.

4. A Hestavíg was a ritualized and brutal competition wherein horses were forced to fight to the death in front of cheering spectators

A Hestavíg 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 Hestavíg 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 Hestavíg 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 Hestavíg 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.

16 Facts About the Brutality of Viking Life
This double grave from Grimsta in south-eastern Sweden contains the skeletons of two persons who had been decapitated. Swedish National Heritage Board/ Wikimedia Commons.

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,”.

16 Facts About the Brutality of Viking Life
A modern depiction of a Viking drowning contest; author unknown.

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 Laxdæla saga details a drowning contest between Kjartan Ólafsson and King Ólafur Tryggvason, as well as between King Eysteinn and King Sigurd. Another, known as toga hönk 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 Gísla saga Súrssonar, Knattleikr was played every autumn at Miðfjarðarvatn 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 “Glíma” 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 Búi and an unknown opponent, wherein Búi 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: hnútukast. In hnútukast participants threw bones from the meal at each other with the goal of causing injury; the Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss details a game of hnútukast in which Gestur threw a bone at Glámur, hitting him in the eye and causing it to fall out of the socket onto his cheek.

16 Facts About the Brutality of Viking Life
Detail from Stora Hammars I, depicting a man believed to being subjected to the blood eagle. Wikimedia Commons.

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, Ælla 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 Loðbrók. Captured after a battle at York, the saga recounts that “they caused the bloody eagle to be carved on the back of Ælla, and they cut away all of the ribs from the spine, and then they ripped out his lungs.”

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Viking Answer Lady – Hólmgang and Einvigi: Scandinavian Forms of the Duel

New York Time Magazine – Viking Age Smallpox Complicates Story of Viral Evolution

Listverse – 10 Interesting Viking Rituals

History Extra – The Truth About Viking Berserkers

Medievalists – The Vikings, Their Worms, And The Diseases They Got

History Channel – What We Know About Vikings and Slaves

“Magical Medicine in Viking Scandinavia”, D. Robertson, Journal of Medical History (1976)

“The Vikings and Homosexuality”, Gunnora Hallakarva, Fordham University

“The Unmanly Man: Concepts of Sexual Defamation in Early Northern Society”, Preben Sorenson, Odense University Press (1983)

“Hólmganga and Einvigi: Scandinavian Forms of the Duel”, Olav Bo, Medical Scandinavia (1969)

“The Old Icelandic Duel”, Marlene Ciklamini, Scandinavian Studies (1963)

“Some Characteristics of the Icelandic ‘Holmganga'”, Gwyn Jones, Journal of English and Germanic Philology (1933)

“Tooth filing was a worldwide craze among Viking men”, Maev Kennedy, The Guardian (July 11, 2011)

“Fang-tastic! Viking remains reveal warriors filed their teeth to appear more ferocious to enemies”, The Daily Mail (July 7, 2011)

“Incisor raiding: Viking marauders had patterns filed into their teeth”, Maev Kennedy, The Guardian (July 4, 2011)

“The Historical Encylopedia of World Slavery: Volume 1, A-K”, Junius Rodriguez, ABC-CLIO (1997)

“How the Barbarian Invasions Shaped the Modern World”, Thomas Craughwell, Fair Winds Press.

“The Sagas of the Icelanders”, Jane Smiley, Penguin Classics (2001)

“Northern Antiquities: or An Historical Account of the Manners, Customs, and Laws, Maritime Expeditions and Discoveries, Languages and Literature, of the Ancient Scandinavians”, Percy Thomas, George Woodfall & Son (1847)

“Icelandic Sagas, Vol III: The Orkneyingers’ Saga”, George Dasent (1894)

“On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry”, Howard Fabing, Scientific Monthly (1956)

“The Berserker: His Origin and Development in Old Norse Literature”, Benjamin Blaney, University of Colorado (1972)

“Sports and Games in Icelandic Saga Literature”, John Martin, Scandinavian Studies (2003)

“Icelanders in the Viking Age: The People of the Sagas”, William Short, McFarland and Company (2010)

“Viking atrocity and Skaldic verse: The Rite of the Blood-Eagle”, Roberta Frank, English Historical Review (1984)

“The Vengeance of Ivarr the Boneless”, Mike Dash, Smithsonian Magazine (March 13, 2013)

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