Facts vs. fiction: How the real Vikings compared to the brutal warriors of lore

DNA testing and archeological finds are offering new insights into the real lives of the Vikings.

Tall, blonde, with merciless blue eyes. Barbarians crowned with terrifying horned helmets, indulging in pillaging and bloody rituals. Were these accurate portrayals of the people whose expansion shaped Europe’s northern reaches and beyond—or hyperbole?  

Myths and misconceptions shroud the Vikings. Legends were born after their first incursions in the British Isles in the late eighth century, and they’ve captivated our imagination ever since, inspiring operas, movies, novels, comics, even video games, which makes untangling fact from fiction a daunting task. Researchers are still at work today unearthing artifacts and probing their origins. 

Recent finds credit the Vikings as the first Europeans to set foot in the Americas, at least 400 years before Columbus, and the first DNA studies of their remains suggest they were a diverse group. Excavations turn up buried treasure, such as a jewelry trove discovered outside Stockholm this year, continuing to feed our fascination for the ancient raiders. As archaeologists fill in the details, we look at some of the enduring myths the Vikings have inspired.  

Myth 1: The Vikings were a single group  

The Vikings are often thought of as a single nation, but they were more accurately small groups ruled by elected chieftains. Some of these tribes—who lived in what is now Scandinavia—cooperated with each other in organizing raids on foreign countries.  

“Viking” does not refer to a people but rather to an activity. In the two centuries spanning the Viking age, most inhabitants of northern Europe were engaged in fishing, farming, trade, and crafts. “To ‘go viking’ was something a man might do in his youth to accrue honor and the spoils of war, but it was rare for any man to take part in foreign raids continuously throughout his life,” wrote Oxford Brookes University scholar Brian McMahon in The Viking: Myth and Misconceptions.

(How reenactors bring Viking history to life.)

The origin of the name “viking” itself is all but certain. The Old Norse word usually meant “pirate” or “raider.” For McMahon, the term refers to those “who adventured overseas to raid and plunder,” he says. “’Vik’ means ‘bay’ or ‘creek’—as in Reykjavik in Iceland, where Scandinavian emigrants first settled around the year 870 A.D.”  

Swedish historian Fritz Askeberg offers another take. The verb vikja means to break, twist, or deviate, and the Vikings, explains Askeberg in his book on ancient Nordic culture, were people who broke away from typical societal norms, abandoning their homes for the sea in search of fame and spoils.

Myth 2: The Vikings were unusually cruel  

"Never before has there been a terror in Britain as it is now by the heathen race … These barbarians poured the blood of saints around the altar and trampled the bodies of the saints in the temple of God like dung in the streets.”

The horror-struck description of an attack on the Lindisfarne Priory, on an island off the coast of northeast England, was penned in 793 A.D. by the scholar Alcuin of York—an event that marked the beginning of the Viking age in Europe, which lasted for more than 250 years.

(Melting ice reveals lost Viking ‘highway’.)

Though the Vikings indeed instilled fear, experts say violence was endemic. “Viking cruelty does not differ from what was happening in those times,” said Joanne Shortt Butler from the University of Cambridge. “They were no more brutal than the representatives of other nations or tribes. Murders, arson, and looting was the order of the day.”

“Look at the actions of Charlemagne, King of the Franks during the Viking age,” she writes. “The patron of the revival of ancient culture ordered the beheading of 4,500 Saxons in Verden.”  

Myth 3: They drank from skulls

Tales of the cruelty of the Scandinavian raiders made it plausible to credit the Vikings with some despicable habits—like a penchant for drinking from the skulls of their enemies. The popular misconception originated with an inaccurate translation.  

Ole Worm, court physician to the king of Denmark in the 17th century, was also a linguist with a passion for runestones, boulders inscribed with runes (the Germanic and Norse alphabet). In 1636, Worm published research on runes, citing a Nordic poem whose protagonist claims he will drink ale in Valhalla—heaven to the mythic slain Norse warriors— from the curved branches of skulls.  

The poet was referring to the branches growing out of the skulls of animals—that is, the horns. But the court doctor translated the phrase into Latin as ex craniis eorum quos ceciderunt—from the skulls of those they killed. It added another notch in the Vikings’ bad reputation. That said, other ethnic groups have reportedly drunk from the skulls of their enemies, but it tends to be  associated with the Vikings.  

Myth 4: They tortured their victims in a “blood eagle” ritual  

The Nordic raiders are credited with another deplorable habit: leaving the mark of the “blood eagle” on living victims. In the ritual, the ribs were exposed and cut from the spine, then outstretched. The lungs were extracted and placed in a way that resembled wings, some believe so that the body could fly to Odin, the main god in Norse mythology. Since the first reference was in a skaldic verse, it could be another case of poetic license that was interpreted by others too literally, explains Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, a medieval history professor at Durham University, in Beyond the Northlands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas.

Yale University’s Roberta Frank has long questioned the ritual’s veracity, believing that it likely originated with early Christian Scandinavian writers who sought to stigmatize their pagan ancestors. “The blood eagle procedure varies from text to text, becoming more lurid, pagan, and time-consuming with each passing century,” she wrote in the English Historical Review.  

Recently, scientists from the University of Iceland and England’s Keele University analyzed whether performing a “bloody eagle” on a live victim was even possible. In a paper published in Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies, they concluded that while it was anatomically possible to perform this practice with the tools available at the time, the victim would have died from blood loss or asphyxiation in the early stages of the torture. A complete execution of a bloody eagle could only be performed on a corpse. Until archaeologists find a corpse bearing clear evidence this ever happened, we’ll likely never know.  

Myth 5: They wore horned helmets

Some myths can be chalked up to lore, including the lauded horned helmet. The only Viking age helmet ever found, the Gjermundbu helmet unearthed in Ringerike, Norway, bears a resemblance to a Batman mask—sans pointed ears. Also, no horns, points out Barraclough.  

In Viking-era representations, warriors appear either bareheaded or dressed in simple helmets possibly made of iron or leather. Although some horned characters do make an appearance in Nordic art, such as in the Oseberg tapestry, they usually represent gods or monsters rather than mortal warriors, writes McMahon.  

One originating source for the horned helmets has been pegged: they were used by Carl Emil Doepler, the costume designer for the premiere of Wagner’s opera Ring of the Nibelung at the Bayreuth Festival in 1876. Another 19th-century propagator was Swedish painter Johan August Malmström, who used them in his illustrations for the Nordic sagas.  

Doepler, Malmström, and others may have been inspired by the contemporary discoveries of ancient helmets with horns, which—as it later turned out—were dated earlier than the Viking age. Perhaps artists were inspired by the distant echoes of ancient Greek and Roman historians, who had described northern Europeans as wearing helmets decorated with horns. The headdress was not only out of fashion at least a century before the advent of the Vikings, but was also probably worn only for ceremonial purposes by Norse and Germanic priests. 

Myth 6: They were tall and blonde

“Viking” conjures an image of a strapping, fair-haired, blue-eyed man. In other words, Chris Hemsworth in the Thor saga. But Lise Lock Harvig of the University of Copenhagen concluded from DNA studies of skeletons in medieval tombs that the era would’ve seen a healthy mix of blondes, redheads, and brunettes, just like today. Viking society was not exclusively of Scandinavian descent. “We were already dealing with a cultural and ethnic mix,” says Harvig. As with hair color, irises were also diverse.

(DNA gives new insight to Viking roots.)

Even the idea of the Vikings’ unusual height is a myth, according to McMahon. The average male from those northern reaches was then about 1.73 meters (about 5 feet 6 inches) tall, the same as the average European man. Nutrition may have been a factor; short summers and harsh winters in Scandinavia meant limited food resources, so raids could have been a vehicle for nourishment.  

Their towering reputation is likely the result of the nationalism that arose rising in the 19th and 20th century, which promoted Vikings as the Nordic and Aryan archetype.  

Even the idea that Vikings were poorly-washed men seems debunked by archaeological evidence: their graves and other excavated sites are full of combs, tweezers, and razors lying next to both male and female remains. They also could have used soap with a high lye content for deterring lice, which also had the side effect of bleaching their hair.

This article originally appeared in the Polish edition of National Geographic.

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