Photo: Marta B. Haga/MFA Norway

The Vikings

Who were the Vikings? Were they just fierce and ruthless pirates and raiders?

No, they were farmers, poets, lawmakers and artists – and also brilliant sailors whose wooden longships could sail inshore as well as across the open sea. These lightweight, fast ships could carry up to 80 warriors and travel quickly across oceans to trade and to carry out raids in other countries.

The Vikings were the masters of the sea a thousand years ago, when the Anglo-Saxons lived in Britain. The Vikings lived in Scandinavia, which is made up of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Their love of the sea took them to many different countries. Abroad, the Vikings were known as brutal invaders, but at home they lived peacefully as law-abiding farmers, fishermen, artists and craftsmen. From here they built smaller ships called knorrs to send goods across the sea to the lands they traded with.

Ships were the basis of all Viking activity. Many Vikings sailed abroad to raid goods to take back home again, but others became honest traders, with many settling in the new lands. Britain was close to home, and the North Sea currents helped to bring the Viking ships in this direction. Britain also had many churches and monasteries full of treasures that they could raid. Thanks to its rich farmland, many Vikings settled and became part of British society and took on the Christian beliefs of their new land.

The Vikings were excellent producers of handicrafts and art. They created weapons as well as wood carvings, jewellery and poetry. A good blacksmith and a good poet were equally admired in Viking society.

Learn more about Vikings from the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo and from the BBC Schools programme.


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Did You Know?

The Vikings believed in supernatural beings such as trolls, monsters and goblins. They also worshipped many gods including those of the Norse myths such as Thor (the god of thunder) and Odin (ruler of the gods and himself god of magic, war and poetry). Vikings believed that a warrior killed in battle went to Valhalla, a great hall where dead heroes feasted at long tables.

The first European to land in North America was a Viking. Leiv Eiriksson travelled from Greenland to America 500 years before Columbus!

Many days of the week are still named after Viking gods:  Wednesday = Odin's day, Thursday = Thor's day, Friday = Freya's day.