A History of Vikings: Where They Come From, Infamy and Our Ancestors
Vikings. Sea wolves. Danes. Hearing these words struck fear into the hearts of people across the British Isles, Ireland, and the coastline of continental Europe. Vikings were more than just raiding, pillaging barbarians. They were more than just pagan savages. To many of us, they were our seafaring ancestors who crossed treacherous waters and settled in places through England, Scotland, Ireland, and Normandy (to name a few). Here we detail a history of Vikings, plus teach you how to honor your Viking ancestors in your pagan practice.
What is a Viking and Where Do Vikings Come From?
A Viking is specifically a seafaring man or woman from what is today modern Scandinavia, Denmark, as well as Iceland. The key word here is seafaring. And more specifically, Vikings lived during the Middle Ages, and most prominently during the Viking Age: 800 to 1150 AD. We see some misconceptions when people see Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, in their heritage/DNA and automatically say they’re ancestors were Vikings. This could have been true, but technically they were only Vikings if they were seafaring and left their native countries of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, etc.
The Viking Age was a period in time when the Vikings from Norway, Denmark and even Sweden crossed the seas and raided, pillaged, and also settled in the British Isles, along the coastline of Northern Europe in places like Normandy, France (which is named for the Normans – Norse Men). Most people don’t realize the Vikings went as far as Turkey and places in Eastern Europe: namely Belarus, Ukraine and parts of Russia (their principalities united under the name the kievan rus which collapsed in the 13th century due to the Mongolian invasion).
A Note on Viking Violence…
A couple things about Vikings: one – they were indeed violent when they felt it was necessary (and often when it wasn’t). Two – for a long period in time they were not Christian, they were pagan/heathen. And so they didn’t have any specific respect or believe in the sanctity of the church nor monks. It wasn’t in their belief system, until they adapted and converted later on. They were to be feared. They were also very smart and strong. When reading through a history of Vikings, consider their perspective too…they were trying to survive and thrive just like the rest of us!
A History of Vikings: Invasions, Raids and Settlements
The Viking Age was roughly between 800 and 1150 AD and is called such because the Vikings were really the rulers of the seas. Also known as sea wolves. Everyone was scared of them. The Viking Age commenced in 793 when Vikings sacked Northumbria, a kingdom that connected England with Scotland. More specifically, the Vikings targeted the church at Lindisfarne – many of the monks were either killed or fled. Scholars agree this even is what officially started the entire Viking Age.
What driving force pushed Vikings to go to sea? The true reasons were complex but most agree it was due to an increase in population, but also could have been for marital purposes. At that time in the Northern European lands, the sexes were imbalanced. There were more men than women. So the men went a’viking (sailing) to look for wives. And of course there were reasons driven by politics, power, prosperity, and land. But it must also have been for adventure – the Vikings, and seafarers in general, had an insatiable sense of wanderlust. They wanted to explore and to see what was out there. And so they did.
A History of Vikings Invasions of England, Scotland, Ireland
Danish Vikings invaded England first in 789 AD at the Isle of Portland. Then a band of Norse Vikings initiate the Viking Age in 793 AD by attacking a church in Northumbria, England. At the beginning, the Vikings were specifically targeting monasteries. Because of their brutality against the church and its “holy men”, they became highly feared in the British Isles. According to a local scholar named Alcuin (at the time of the Northumbrian Lindisfarne attack): “The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets…behold the church spattered with the blood of the priests of god.”
The Viking Influence on Scotland
From the Viking Museum of Denmark’s website, we learn: “The Vikings were probably one of the most important influences in Scotland. Sailing west across the open waters from Norway, their initial aim was to pillage and plunder and their first point of contact would have been the Shetland and Orkney in the Northern Isles. As the Viking homeland became over-populated, migration soon followed and the first more peaceful settlers arrived. They had come to set up homes in a land very similar to their countries of origin. It was not long before Viking culture, language and community became established; particularly in the Scottish islands. There they established many settlements, but they also continued their attacks on other areas of Scotland.”
Vikings in Dublin, Paris and More
In addition, Vikings settled Dublin, Ireland, raided and settled along the European coastline including France and Germany. In 885 AD, a group of particularly brazen Vikings conducted a siege of Paris, France. But were ultimately stopped by the fierce Count Odo who had his men pour hot wax and pitch down the city walls to stop the Vikings from scaling and attacking. The battle lasted 6 months, but Odo bought Sigfrid the Viking off with a smaller amount of silver than Sigrid initially intended. Count Odo rose to the Parisian throne afterward.
Our history of Vikings should also include the men’s reach as far as Eastern Europe and Western Russia where they became the Kievan Rus (Rus being where the word Russia originates). They traveled all the way to Iceland, Greenland, and even to North America.
Listen to our Podcast on History of Vikings and Viking Ancestors here:
Famous and Infamous Vikings
Maybe you were taught a little about Vikings in school, the likes of Leif Erikson or Erik the Red. Maybe you’ve watched a TV series in which Rollo and Ragnar were the featured characters. Here you’ll meet some of the most famous and infamous Vikings in the pages of history.
1. Ragnar Lodbrok
Probably the most famous in the history of Vikings, Ragar Lodbrok was a seafarer but also a Danish and Swedish King. His name means Ragnar Hairy Breeches, due to the hair-covered pants he was known to wear. Ragnar’s father was the legendary King Sigurd Ring of the Swedes. Ragnar Lodbrok lived approximately in the early to mid 800s AD. He has risen to legendary status over the centuries, but likely was a real man. Legend has it he led a Viking siege of Paris in 845 AD, invaded the city, and was bought off with silver. Legend also has it that Ragnar hung 111 French prisoners in full view of the French king in honor of the war god Odin.
Another of Ragnar’s great feats was a legendary battle with a giant serpent. He undertook this venture to win the hand of a foreign, beautiful Princess named Aslaug. The Vikings TV show paints a much different picture of her than the actual legends – Aslaug actually refused to copulate with Ragnar until they were married. They wed and had at least 5 children, including the famous Vikings: Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, and Marco.
In a few of the sagas, Ragnar continues his raids on England and is eventually killed by King Aella of Northumbria. The king reportedly throws Ragnar into a pit of snakes. But then brought down the revenge of Ragnar’s sons who invaded England in 866 AD with a great, powerful “Heathen Army”.
2. Erik the Red
Another infamous Viking who settled in Greenland. His father was a murderer and so this reputation basically meant exile for his descendants, including Erik the Red. And unfortunately Erik was also a man-slaughterer and accused of such in 982 AD. He had no choice but to flee Iceland and so he went to settle in Greenland. Erik the Red named Greenland as such to tempt people into moving there. Which apparently worked. Erik’s son was Leif Erikson. And interestingly, Erik declined going to America with his son and died shortly after. Famously, Erik had issues with his wife, as she was a Christian and he wasn’t. They slept and lived in separate huts…he even said her religion “annoyed him greatly”.
3. Cnut the Great
Cnut (pronounced Cah-noot) was the son of Denmark’s King Sweyn Forkbeard. This Viking famously conquered England in 1013 AD with his father, only to see the people elevate an exiled Anglo-Saxon King Aethelred the Unready to the throne. King Aethelred died two years later, allowing his son Edmund Ironside to take the English throne. At this point, Cnut the Great decided to sweep in and take the throne for himself. He defeated Edmund Ironside and took his wife as his own. Cnut also became King of Denmark and Norway in 1028AD, as well as ruler of a part of Sweden. Fun fact: he was known to love the ladies which pissed off the church to no end.
4. Rollo: Viking and Ruler of Normandy
Rollo was the first ruler of the French land of the Norse called Normandy. This famous Viking was given the land by King Charles the Simple after the king realized he couldn’t hold the Vikings off for long. The land was offered as a treaty. But this treaty guaranteed Rollo his kingdom only if Rollo and his men converted to Christianity. Apparently the conversion didn’t go as planned, there was a lot of pushback and supposedly the king was kicked onto his butt during the baptism. Eventually Rollo considered the pact null and void when Charles was captured and lost the throne, so they went back to pillaging and raiding. His famed descendant: William the Conqueror.
5. Freydis Eriksdottir
Freydis Eriksdottir was a great warrior-princess of the New World. She was the daughter of Erik the Red who followed her brother Leif to America. While in the New World, the Vikings were attacked by the indigenous people time and time again. During one attack, the men retreated. And legend has it that Freydis was 8 months pregnant and shouted, “why run you away, stout men that ye are, when as seems to me likely you might slaughter them like so many cattle? Give me a weapon! I could fight better than you!” She took up a sword, stripped away her garments, and scared the enemy away. Freydis was incredibly strong-willed and a worthy match for any man.
Viking Culture: Misconceptions
There’s quite a few things popular culture gets wrong about Vikings. Here are some misconceptions about Viking culture that we’d like to clear up:
- There were no horned helmets.
- They weren’t all barbarians. Remember the historical accounts of them were written and focused on their most terrible exploits/attacks. Many were looking for a new place to settle and adapted their new peoples’ way of life.
- Upon death, not all Vikings were set on a floating pyre, set out to sea, and lit up with a fiery arrow. Often they were buried, put in mounds, or burnt.
- They were dirty or had poor hygiene: untrue. We’ve found archaeological evidence of combs, beard brushes, toothpicks, ear cleaners, etc. to indicate they were actually well-groomed individuals that even bathed once a week (which was unheard of then!)
- Vikings were only men – there were women too
- They didn’t just pillage and raid – they traded and were well known for it. They established ports and trade routes all over. In fact, scholars say their raiding and trading stimulated the economy of Western Europe at the time.
A History of Viking Religion
Viking religion is actually somewhat hard to define. The Vikings didn’t follow a holy book or a set of dogmatic rules. They based their beliefs off of nature all around them, and off of the gods they were raised alongside of. Vikings didn’t see their gods as something to bow down and pray to, but rather live in harmony with. Everything in nature was alive to the Vikings – the trees, rocks, sea. And the world was filled with spirits that sought to help or harm including a bevy of dwarves, elves, elementals and ancestors. All of which dwelled and hailed from the Norse World Tree called Yggdrasil and the 9 Realms.
The Sea Wolves’ main deities were Odin, Thor and Frey. But we know lesser deities like Loki, Freya, and Heimdall were part of their daily lives. We can look to the Sagas and the Eddas written by Snorri Sturluson for a more in-depth look at the Norse and Germanic gods. Beliefs were more likely regional or even tribe or family-based. So while one Viking might see Thor as his patron deity, the next might carry a fondness for Freyr. Eventually, the Vikings were converted to Christianity. If you’d like to learn about the magical tradition of Vikings known as Seidr, listen to our podcast here.
Do You Have Viking Ancestors?
If you’d like to learn if you have Viking ancestors, here’s how to figure it out. First, build yourself a family tree. This isn’t a quick process. It will take you a long time, but the time and effort is totally worth it. The key to finding Viking ancestors is if you can find royalty in your family tree from England, Denmark, or Germany, you may find a link to Viking kings the further back you take it.
Keep in mind too, if you have English ancestry, Scottish ancestry (specifically islands to the North of Scotland and the west coast of Scotland), and parts of Ireland i.e. Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick, parts of Ukraine/Belarus/parts of Russia, Norman ancestors from Normandy, or Icelandic ancestors, you likely have Viking grandfathers and grandmothers.
Besides building a family tree, you can test your DNA through ancestry or 23andme. These results won’t tell you if you have Viking blood; however, once you have your raw DNA results, upload them into MyTrueAncestry.com. This is a site that compares your DNA to archaeological samples and will tell you if you have Viking ancestors!
Ways to Honor Your Viking Ancestors
Everyone’s spiritual practice will be unique unto them. Yours will be unique to you. But if you’d like to learn how to honor your Viking ancestors, we have a few ideas:
- Study the Vikings’ history, way of life, religion, how they changed history, trade, etc.
- Set up an altar or include them on your ancestor altar
- Research archaeological finds that have influenced us today like the Kingmoor Rune Ring
- Work with the Runes and Germanic symbols like Helm of Awe and the Viking Compass
- Go on seafaring adventures like boating, fishing, kayaking, etc.
- Work with calcite crystals (Viking “sun stones”)
- Consider learning a form of weaponry: sword, battle axe, etc.
- Incorporate Norse gods and beliefs into your own (Norse paganism, heathenry, etc.)
- Work with the energy of wolves, bears, boars, horses, and other Norse sacred animals
- Study and connect with the Ulfhednar and Berserkir warriors (wolf and bear cults)
- Watch shows featuring Vikings: Vikings, The Last Kingdom, Norsemen (parody)
More Resources on the History of Vikings:
- Sea Wolves: A History of Vikings by Lars Brownworth
- The Sagas and Eddas
- Ivory Vikings by Nancy Brown
- Ohthere’s Voyages
- A Modern Guide to Heathenry by Galina Krasskova
- Odin by Morgan Daimler