The Viking religion, or the Norse Mythology, is similar to most of the ancient polytheistic religions. Odin is the main god, there is also a creator, who is separate, yet the same god as Odin, a similar concept is in some of the Mesopotamian religions and in Christianity, with Christ being God's son and God. Another similarity to Christianity is Ragnarok, or The Gods' Damnation, or the Apocalypse.
The Norse ethics are extremely different from Christian values. Polygamy was practiced among the upper class; there are myths about Freya, who is not the goddess of fertility, but the goddess of sex, having orgies involving bestiality; and sometimes when a rich man died they would kill his wife to be buried with him. All the myths about the gods involve violence and alcohol in excess.
The gods were not the peoples motivation or serious devotion. As one Northsman puts it, "I believe in my own strength." This captures the essence of the individualist spirit of the Vikings. This is the spirit that took them on small boats through the most dangerous waters to explore unknown lands.
Their Myths tell of heroes, such as Sigmund, Thorsten, and Völund, who are role models for the individualist warrior mentality. Another thing that encourages this, is their system of Heaven, or Valhalla. To go to Valhalla you must have died in battle. This encourages brave fighting, because if you get stabbed then you go to Valhalla, where there's enough mead and women for everyone.
History and Origins
During the middle of the first two hundred years of the first millennium the Scandinavian population had not increased very much. This was because there had been a number of migrations from Scandinavia into modern day Germany and Poland, such as the Goths, groups of Saxons, and most of the other Germanic tribes. However, after the migrations, population began to slowly increase. The only inhabitable land in Scandinavia, especially in Norway and Sweden, was the land near the coast. Because most of the economy at the time was based on agriculture, this meant that there was not enough land to support all of the population. Therefore, the Scandinavians had to find new sources of revenue and new land. Also, Scandinavians practiced primogeniture, so there were many sons left without inherited land and no new available land. Combining these problems with the Viking culture and religion, which emphasized war and the individual, the obvious choice was to leave home in search of riches. So, in 789 AD the first recorded Viking invasion comes to us from an Anglo-Saxon writing: "
first three ships of the Northmen came from the Land of Robbers."
The Vikings were most famous for their violent raids and pillages, but that was not the only thing they set off to do. The Vikings also were excellent in trading, and they colonized many lands. Also, most Vikings were not confined to any one of these areas, although most of them did no colonization.
At first the Vikings only traded and raided. They would set off after the crops were planted, and hurry back before the winter frosts. Gradually as their trips got longer, some decided to stay in the foreign land for the winter, instead of trying to make it back in time. Over time they ventured further and further inland their colonies became cities such as Novgorod, Reykjavik, Dublin, and Kiev.
We group the Scandinavia into three areas: Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. We try to fit the Vikings into these same groups but it is hard, because each Viking tribe or city was separate from every other. So, you have to understand that while we say that the Norwegians conquered to the west, the Danes to the south, and the Swedes to the east, that those are generalizations. In reality some of each group went everywhere, and while they were trading and pillaging the rest of Europe, they were also doing these things somewhat within their own lands.
The main focus of the Swedish Vikings was trade. They sailed to the east, and traded with modern day Russia and Estonia. They traded animal skins, slaves, honey, and weapons. Gradually they went deeper and deeper into Eastern Europe and set up trade centers that grew into prosperous cities. They became a major presence in Eastern Europe.
The kingdoms that they set up in what we now think of as western Russia and the Ukraine were troubled by famines and fighting. The wars that regularly raged throughout the area sent them into ruin. Eventually, as the orthodox monks write, in 862 AD the people ask the Rus, one of the Swedish tribes that had founded many colonies in the area, to set up rule and government to end the chaos of the time. The Vikings accepted, named the Kingdom Russia, and Split it into three parts: Novgorod, governed by Rurik; Beloozerg governed by Sineus, and Izborsk, governed by Truvor.
In 864 AD Sineus and Truvor died, and Rurik controlled all of Russia. Then, he went south and conquered Kiev, which his successor, Oleg made the capital. This Russian dynasty lasted for 700 years to come.
The Swedes did not stop at Russia, there were Swedish trade routes that went along the Caspian Sea and extended all the way to Baghdad. Coins with Arabic Inscriptions have even been found as far North as Norway.
They also went from Kiev, along the Dnieper, through the Black Sea, to as they called it, Miklagard, the Great City. Which was known at the time as Constantinople. Its riches so amazed the Swedes, that the first thing they could do was pillage it. In 860 AD the Swedes became one of the few people who successfully raided Constantinople. From then on, the Great City had to pay off the Vikings from plundering its riches again. The Byzantine Empire was in search of troops at the time, so many of the Vikings became mercenaries for the rich empire. In 980 AD Basil II, emperor of Constantinople, received a gift of mercenaries from Russia and with them established the Varangian Guard. They were the Empire's elite troops, they were the most skilled, and therefore the highest paid. This tradition lasted for over 300 years.
The Vikings of Norway started sailing west in the late 8th century AD. Their first landing sites were the Shetlands and Orkneys. They colonized the mostly uninhabited Shetlands. In the Orkneys we are not sure if they settled or raided, but we know they soon dominated the islands. The ones in Shetland went on to colonize the Faeroe Islands and from there they went on to Iceland. In Iceland they founded cities, the most important being Reykjavik, and established a government.
In Iceland each settlement had small parliaments which gradually led to the establishment of the Althing, a national parliament, in 930 AD. Iceland's economy started off mainly based on fishing, but soon sheep farming became a major industry. The population kept growing and reached about 80,000 people in 1097, and did not exceed that number until the 20th century. Though, the government has changed throughout the years, Iceland still uses the Althing, making it the oldest parliamentary system in Europe.
The Norwegians also went to Greenland (named to attract colonists) and eventually North America around 1000 AD. They set up colonies in both places, but neither area was successful; in North America the Skraelings (Native Americans), meaning "screechers", drove them out; and in Greenland the colonies worked for a while, but eventually the weather took a turn for the worse and the Vikings were forced to leave.
The other path the Norwegians took was a bit more violent. Ireland had been Christianized fairly early and its civilization had grown around the church and monasteries. This made them an excellent target for the Vikings, because their wealth was portable form and centered in specific targets: the monasteries. The Vikings demolished all Irish Civilization. They wiped cities off the map and founded new ones for themselves such as Dublin, Limerick, and Waterford. After the Vikings left around 1014, the once rich Irish church would never be the same.
The Norwegians also invaded England and, for a while, controlled Scotland. The most notable Norwegian Invasions of England were under Harald Hardrada, a former leader of the Varangian Guard. When Harald was leader of the Varangian Guard, he wanted to take the empress's niece, Maria back to Norway with him, but Empress Zoe would not let him. So he kidnapped Maria and got into his ship with his men. They started to sail out of the harbor, but the Empress already had the defensive chain up. Harald's Viking spirit was undeterred, so he ordered all of his men who were not rowing to the back of the ship and all the men who were rowing to row as hard as they could. This made the front of the ship stick up into the air over the chain. Then, he made everyone go to the front, and the ship slid over the chain. He proceeded to sail to Kiev, send Maria back to Constantinople, and move back to Norway, where he became king.
In 1066 He conquered York, but foolishly went on to the battle of Stamford Bridge, where he was caught off guard and defeated. However, this did make it much easier for William the Bastard to win the Battle of Hastings three weeks later.
The Danes were the most violent of the Vikings. Their raids were almost unstoppable, and the only defense against their wrath was money.
The Danes had stood up against the Frankish Kingdom of Charlemagne, and when he died, the Kingdom began to divide and crumble, leaving it a prime target for Danish invasion. In 843 AD the Treaty of Verdun left the empire broken up into three weak kingdoms, and so the invasions began. The division of the empire left Monarchs struggling for power between each other, which led to weaker states, which led to more divisions and more Danish Invasions, which made it even weaker. This cycle kept going around and the Viking invasions kept growing. They invaded so deep into Germany and France, group of monks in Burgundy had to flee all the way to Switzerland to escape the Danish river raids.
They sacked great cities like Cologne, Aachen, Paris, Chartes, Tours (six arial in fifty years), and Rheims. -----!!!!!----Rollo the Viking colonized a province in northern France, and made a deal with the Frankish king for it to become a legitimate province. They called it Normandy.------!!!!!!!-----*THIS IS WRONG, ROLLO WAS NOT A DANE, BUT A NORWEGIAN. I WILL FIX THIS SOON.!!!
The Danes made it to Spain, where they sacked Seville and Cádiz. From Spain they went to Italy, pillaging Pisa, and Luna. According to legend, they mistook Luna for Rome, and claimed that their chieftain was dead and had converted to Christianity, so they wanted to give him a Christian burial. When they got in the city for the burial, they drew their hidden weapons, the chieftain leaped out of the coffin, and the sacked the city.
Another major area of Danish conquest was England, where the vestiges of a failed heptarchy left it weak and vulnerable.
The raids started around 830 AD and kept increasing in size parallel to the raids on the mainland Europe. The people were constantly in such fear that they added to the lords prayer, "From the wrath of the Northmen, O lord, deliver us!"
Like in Normandy, the raids on England extended in length and size, until they stayed over the winter and made colonies in the river valleys.
The English Kings started to pay "Danegeld" (Dane-Money) to the Danes to keep them from invading. The Vikings kept coming back for more money until it became a regular practice. Eventually the Danes had conquered a large area of eastern England called the "Danelaw."
Alfred the Great united the rest of England in the late 9th century, and even made peace with some of them that controlled the Danelaw, but it was not enough to rid England of the Vikings.
England was completely conquered by the Vikings when William the Bastard, the "rightful" heir to the English throne, was denied the crown, so in 1066 he invaded England and his name was changed to "the Conqueror."
The End of the Viking Age
In the late 10th century Scandinavia began to have a shortage of manpower again, so its raids became weaker. In the 11th century the Scandinavian Kingdoms became truly united and they converted to Christianity. The Viking individualist spirit was crushed. No longer did the Viking Chieftains set off on their own raids; all battles had to be fought for the country, and Scandinavia began to make the transition from the warrior to the soldier. The Vikings were no more.
Bellingham, David; Grant, John; Whittaker, Clio (1992), Myths and Legends: Viking, Oriental, and Greek, Wellfeet Press.
Hale, John R. (1999), "http://www.sciam.com/1998/0298issue/0298hale.html"
Holmes, George (1988), The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe, Oxford University Press.
Mills, Dorothy (1935), The Middle Ages, Van Rees Press.
Simons, Gerald (1973), Barbarian Europe, Time Inc.
The Viking Network, "http://viking.no".
Note: I wrote this when I was about 14 years old, and I wrote it almost entirely in one night. Please /msg me with comments and suggestions so I can edit and fix problems or errors that this w/u may contain.