Ten Things You Thought You Knew

[Excerpted from GURPS Vikings.]

“They wore horned helmets.”

No, they didn’t. Ever. Gauls, yes; Vikings, no. Blame 19th-century artists and 20th-century movie-makers. Deities are sometimes pictured in Norse art dating from the Bronze Age to the Viking period wearing horned helmets, but there is no evidence at all that mortals ever did. Not a single horned Viking helmet has ever been found.

“They were professional pirates and raiders, like seaborne medieval biker gangs.”

No, they weren’t. The vast majority of their wealth came from trading—peacefully—with people from Scotland to Turkey. Raiding just made the chronicles more often because it was news. At some times, and in some places, it has to be admitted, Scandinavians were regarded with the same mixture of fear and distrust that some people today reserve for bikers. And with about the same amount of justification.

“They were hugely muscled, thought with their swords, and were halting of speech.”

Hardly. They might have spoken haltingly in Frankish, Latin, or Anglo-Saxon, but how many people did they meet who had bothered to learn Old Norse? Judging by the remains found in excavated Viking-age burials, they were pretty much the same size and build as other rural Europeans. And their craftsmanship, strategy, and political dealings were every bit as skilled, well-designed, and intricate as those of any contemporary nation you care to name.

“They dressed in furs and chainmail at all times.”

Furs were good at keeping out the cold of the Scandinavian winter, but it was a rare and wealthy man who could afford chainmail. A mail coat could be worth as much as a working farm, depending on time and location; and no one walked about in armor unless he was expecting trouble—or inviting it. Many 20th-century Americans own guns—-a greater proportion than the number of Vikings who owned mail coats, in fact—but only a few carry them all the time.

“When they weren’t killing people, they held huge and riotous feasts, roasting whole oxen and drinking mead and wine by the barrel.”

Well, there is a fair amount of feasting and drinking in the sagas, so maybe that is how the Norsemen would have liked to have spent their time. Everyone likes to party once in a while. But most Scandinavians spent far more time growing food than consuming it. The literary evidence suggests, too, that they preferred their meat stewed rather than roasted—no ox-sized spits and fire irons have yet been found.

“They were very fierce and insanely brave, and would never retreat whatever the circumstance.”

They were very practical, and although no one liked a coward, only a fool fought on if death was certain and nothing would be gained by it. They would retreat from overwhelming odds and withdraw from impossible situations, and even the heroes of the sagas were allowed to run away from supernatural foes sometimes. And they could be very sneaky—downright underhanded at times—in finding ways to narrow the odds. Cleverness was a valued element of Viking Personality and Beliefs.

“Their women were almost as strong as the men, and could fight alongside them.”

Romantic nonsense. Ever since the Romans encountered the Nordic peoples of northern Germany in the first couple of centuries AD, the “civilized” world has been obsessed with the idea of women warriors—counting the Amazons, the obsession goes back four or five more centuries. What would Freud have made of it? There were no women warriors in medieval Scandinavian society, ever. Women stayed at home, ran the household, and bore and raised the children. Sexist? Well, these are the Dark Ages. Socially, though, Scandinavian women were a lot freer and a lot more respected than their Christian counterparts. For instance, they were never considered to be their husbands’ property, and could divorce themselves from their husbands at will. One of the things that seems to have sparked the idea of Norse shield-maidens is the mythological band of minor goddesses, the Valkyries. 19th- and 20th-century artists have always portrayed these beings as clean-limbed, nubile armored maidens, whereas to the Vikings they were death-goddessses, and had no erotic connotations at all. Wagner has a lot to answer for, as well—he was very free with the plot of the Volsung Saga when he set it to music as the Ring Cycle.

“All their ships had dragon-heads on the stern-posts.”

Some did. Not very many, actually. Only a handful of ships have been found with dragon-heads, and at least one of these—the Oseberg ship from Norway—was the lavishly-decorated royal barge of a princess, and not a warship at all. Even in pictures of the time, less than one ship in ten had a carved stern-post.

“They loved big, brutal weapons, like huge axes and warhammers.”

Given the choice, the average Viking would have preferred a sword—it’s just that a good-quality sword could cost as much as a house. Two-handed axes were rare, since the Vikings liked to have a shield in the left hand, but one-handed axes—which might have doubled as farm tools—were a very common weapon. There is no evidence that Vikings used maces or warhammers—although if there was no other weapon handy, a Viking would probably fight with a sledgehammer quite cheerfully.

“The only law they knew was ‘might is right.’”

The Viking system of Law and Punishment was sophisticated and reasonably just, even if enforcement was sometimes a problem. It was the Vikings of the Danelaw who introduced the idea of adversarial trial and trial by jury into English law, and thus into the legal systems of most of the English-speaking world.

Ten Things You Thought You Knew

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