The Vikings were a ruthless people, remembered even a millennium later for their exceptional combat skills and fearlessness. While some subsequent portrayals have devolved into unfounded speculation, especially the popular misconception of horned helmets, and accounts of their deeds have become exaggerated over the centuries, it is undeniable that life during the Viking Age was, to quote Thomas Hobbes, "nasty, brutish, and short."
Here are 16 facts about the harshness of Viking life that you should be aware of: 16 Brutal Facts About Viking Life.
The Vikings killed so many infant girls that they upset the gender balance
During Viking raids, in which European women were abducted and taken back to Scandinavia, there was a specific reason behind these actions. Recent historical research suggests that these were not random acts of brutality but rather a coordinated response to a self-imposed shortage of Viking women. Selective female infanticide was recorded as part of pagan Scandinavian practice in later medieval sources, such as the Icelandic sagas. This led to a significant gender imbalance, pushing many young men to undertake risky voyages in the hope of acquiring resources to start a family.
Viking medicine was primitive, with bizarre methods for diagnosing wounds
Vikings were known for their brutality in battle, but their medical practices were far from advanced. Treatments for wounds were often dubious and had little scientific basis. For example, to determine the prognosis of a wounded warrior, healers would feed them a broth made from leeks, onions, and herbs and then smell the wound. If they detected the odor of the broth coming from the wound, it was considered fatal. Alternatively, warriors like Thormod would refuse the broth and have the attending women cut into their wounds to locate and remove arrowheads.
Another brutal medical practice involved tasting the blood from a wound to determine the severity of the injury. Magic was also used unscientifically to heal wounds, with sacrifices made to elves believed to reside in the hills.
Homosexual rape was common in Viking culture, particularly against defeated enemies
Viking culture did not consider homosexuality inherently evil, but certain stigmas were attached, especially to those who received rather than gave. Such acts were seen as a betrayal of one's independence, contrary to the Viking ethic of self-reliance. Homosexual rape was used as a form of domination and humiliation, particularly against defeated enemies. The act was linked to the concept of submission and dominance, leading to a recurring practice of castration for those defeated in this manner.
The Holmgang was a ritualistic method of Viking dueling, later outlawed due to abuse
The Holmgang, a formal duel used to settle disputes in medieval Scandinavia, allowed any member of society to challenge another for various reasons, including legal disputes, debt, property, or honor. These duels usually took place within 3-7 days of the challenge. If the challenged party didn't show up, they were considered to have forfeited the claim. However, it was often abused for legalized robbery by those using it to claim land, property, or women. Consequently, it was outlawed in Iceland in 1006 CE and in Norway in 1014 CE.
Viking warriors adopted painful teeth filing and dyeing, possibly influenced by other cultures
Around the 10th century CE, Viking men adopted the practice of filing their teeth, especially the front two teeth, and sometimes the lateral incisors and canines. They would also dye their teeth, often in red, to emphasize the carvings. The purpose of this painful procedure remains unclear, but it's believed to have been for cosmetic or intimidation purposes. Some argue that it made them look more fearsome to their opponents, while others suggest it was a status symbol among fighters.
Viking slaves, though capable of earning their freedom, were often sacrificed in honor of their deceased masters
Viking society had three primary classes: noblemen (jarls), freemen (karls), and thralls (slaves). Thralls were slaves who were born into slavery, captured in war, or couldn't repay debts. The trade of captured slaves was a significant part of the Viking economy. Slaves faced harsh conditions and were often subjected to daily labor and sexual exploitation. Many of them ended up being sacrificed upon their masters' deaths. In some cases, they were sacrificed alongside their deceased masters as a form of tribute or to serve them in the afterlife.
The Varangian Guard, composed of Viking mercenaries, served as the Byzantine Emperor's elite bodyguard
The Varangian Guard, established as early as 874 CE, became an elite personal bodyguard for the Byzantine Emperors, formally instituted in 988 under Emperor Basil II. It consisted of Viking warriors, often from places like Kiev. The Byzantine Emperors trusted the Varangians due to their loyalty, as they had sworn a blood oath to serve their employers. Vikings like Harald Hardrada and Sigurd I of Norway served in the Varangian Guard and participated in battles against various opponents in different regions.
Vikings made brutal sacrifices to their pagan gods, involving the butchering of animals and humans
Vikings conducted four fixed blót sacrifices each year, coinciding with the solstices and equinoxes. These rituals involved sacrificing animals, especially horses, to honor the gods. Odin, the Lord of Valhalla, often required living sacrifices to demonstrate his status among the gods. The blood of these offerings was used to paint sacred trees and temple walls, and the blessed meat was consumed with toasts to the deities. Some of these rituals, as recorded in sagas, involved the violent slaughter of both animals and humans.
Infections were common in Viking society due to poor hygiene, resulting in deaths from microbes
Vikings lived in unsanitary conditions, making them susceptible to various diseases and infections. Smallpox and leprosy, for example, were introduced to Scandinavia through contact with other regions. Viking societies were not equipped to handle these diseases, which resulted in death and suffering.
Being captured as a slave during a Viking raid, especially if you were a literate male monk, often led to castration
Vikings engaged in slave trading, capturing individuals for various purposes, including the slave trade. The Byzantine Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate preferred their male slaves to be eunuchs. Recent research suggests that Vikings, including those captured from monasteries, were targeted for castration, possibly to fulfill the demand for castrates in the East. These captives would be transported to major trading hubs like Venice, where they were castrated and sold to fulfill the demand for trustworthy eunuch slaves in the East.
Berserkers were fierce warriors who fought in a state of rage without armor but struggled to differentiate friend from foe
Berserkers, or berserks, were legendary Viking warriors who entered battle without traditional armor, relying on their fury. The term "berserk" derives from "ber" (meaning "bear" or "bare") and "serkr" (meaning "shirt"), signifying their bare-chested and fearless appearance. These warriors experienced a state called "berserkergang," in which they exhibited extreme physical and emotional changes. They would howl like wild animals, bite their shields, and attack without distinguishing between friends and foes.
Vikings suffered from a range of parasitic worm infestations due to poor sanitation
Vikings did not have modern sanitation systems, which made them susceptible to various parasitic infections. The lack of access to clean water and the disposal of waste in close proximity to living quarters contributed to the spread of parasitic worms like roundworms and tapeworms. These infections often caused abdominal pain, diarrhea, and other debilitating symptoms. Additionally, Viking society's consumption of raw and undercooked meat increased their risk of contracting parasitic infections from infected animals.
The Viking chieftain's burial often included the ritualistic killing of his retainers and slaves
Viking chieftains were given elaborate burials, reflecting their high status. These burials often involved human sacrifice. Depending on the chieftain's wealth and influence, slaves, retainers, and even family members were sacrificed to accompany the chieftain in the afterlife. The deceased would be buried in a ship or a burial mound along with the sacrificed individuals, accompanied by valuable possessions, food, and other items believed to be necessary in the next life.
The Viking practice of "blood eagle" involved gruesome ritualized execution
The so-called "blood eagle" was a grisly form of execution and torture. While its historical accuracy is debated, it is described in Viking sagas as a method of killing prominent individuals, often as an act of revenge or punishment. According to these accounts, the victim's back would be carved open, and their ribs would be broken to resemble wings. This was done while the person was alive, creating an agonizing death. While it remains uncertain whether this practice was widespread, it was undoubtedly a brutal and chilling aspect of Viking life.
Vikings raided monasteries and churches, causing widespread fear throughout Europe
Viking raids on monasteries and churches during the 8th to 11th centuries are well-documented in historical records. These attacks were particularly notorious, as monasteries were known for their wealth and relative vulnerability. The Viking raiders pillaged religious institutions and took captives, spreading fear throughout Europe. Their merciless reputation made them a symbol of terror, and the raids inspired prayers for protection from these "heathen men."
Viking combat was brutal, with skilled warriors wielding deadly weapons
The Vikings were known for their exceptional combat skills and the use of formidable weapons like the sword, axe, and spear. Viking battles were intense and brutal, with skilled warriors displaying incredible ferocity on the battlefield. They often fought without armor, relying on their agility and their shields for protection. While the popular image of horned helmets is a myth, their actual combat prowess and tactics made them formidable opponents.
In summary, the Viking way of life was characterized by brutality and harshness in many aspects. While the Viking Age has been romanticized in modern popular culture, it's essential to remember that these were real people living in a challenging and often brutal world. The Vikings left a lasting impact on history through their exploration, trading, and the establishment of settlements, but their legacy is also tinged with the harsh realities of their time.