- See also: European history
The Nordic countries are remembered for the Viking Age, a period during the 9th and 10th centuries, when the Norsemen sailed the seas and rivers of Europe, reaching as far as Canada, North Africa, and Central Asia. Before the Viking Age, Northern Europe also has an interesting prehistory, going back to the end of the Ice Age, around 10,000 BC.
|Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden
Vikings and the Old Norse • History • Sami culture • Winter • Right to access • Boating • Hiking • Cuisine • Music • Nordic Noir
Many English-speakers who visit the Nordic countries ask where they can see real Vikings. However, no tribe or nation has ever been called Viking; it is simply the word for "sailor" or "pirate" in Old Norse, a language spoken in Denmark, Norway and Sweden before AD 1000. While some Norsemen travelled overseas for settlement, fishing and commerce, and a few pursued a career as bandits or mercenaries (the true Vikings), most remained in Scandinavia, and were, by definition, not Vikings.
When it comes to the other two Nordic countries, Iceland was settled by Norsemen in the 9th century. Finland, as well as northernmost Sweden and Norway, have been populated by the Finns and the Sami people since prehistory. They belong to the Finno-Ugric peoples, with a culture completely different from the Norse, until they were annexed by Sweden and Norway during the 13th and 14th centuries.
Though Norsemen had cruised the Baltic Sea for centuries before, historians consider the Viking Age to begin with the raid at Lindisfarne in AD 793, and ending with the Christianization and unification of the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden around AD 1000, maybe extending to the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Old Norse prehistory
During the last Ice Age, almost all of Scandinavia was covered with glaciers most of the time, but around 10,000 BC as the temperatures increased, a general retreat of the solid ice cover began. The Norse creation myth, in line with reality, describes the Norsemen's homeland as created from ice; the later story about the world being built by the slain body of Ymir, the Giant. Relieved from the heavy ice cover, the Scandinavian peninsula has been steadily rising since the end of the Ice Age, at some places as much as 1 meter every 100 years (see Nordic countries#Understand). Therefore, the sceneries and coastlines have been changing, and many fairways of the Vikings are dry land today.
In Norse mythology, the god Thor visited the giant Loki (not to be confused by the mean-spirited god of the same name), who wagered that Thor could not empty his drinking horn in three sips. While Thor took effort to drink it up, he failed. Later, Loki revealed that he put the spike of the horn into the sea, making it impossible to drink it empty. Thor saw that the sea level had dropped since before his visit to Loki.
Remains from Stone Age hunters temporarily visiting Scandinavia during short warm epochs in the last Ice Age have been uncovered, but the cave in Karijoki is the only known pre-glacial human settlement in all of Scandinavia.
The first settlers followed the melting ice. Farming and metalworking spread from southern Europe to Scandinavia; however, there are plenty of archaeological sites, with remnants of pottery and rock carvings. The three-age system (stone, bronze and iron age) is actually based on Nordic archaeology, and might be deficient to describe the prehistory of most places except northern Europe.
The inhabitants of Scandinavia comprised many different tribes such as the Swedes, Geats, Gutes (perhaps related to the Goths), Augandzi, Ranii, Halogi, Herules, Jutes and later the Danes, but all shared a somewhat similar Norse culture – except the nomadic and shamanistic Sami – heralding the Norse Gods, speaking the Old Norse language and using a common runic alphabet. The Norse were Germanic people who were culturally linked to the many other Germanic tribes in the rest Europe, but when mainland Europe and the British Isles were Christianized during the early Middle Ages, the Germanic pagan culture and mythology continued to prevail in Scandinavia.
The Norse never isolated themselves from the world, already early trading with their neighbours and indirectly with far away cultures. They maintained important trade links with both the European Celtic and Slavic tribes and the Roman Empire, exchanging priced goods like wool, furs, walrus ivory and amber (see Amber Road) for wine, glass and precious metals and they had long been sought after as mercenaries and guards for the Romans.
During the Migration Period from the 4th to 8th centuries, some tribes migrated south from northern Europe, towards the Mediterranean. Due to lack of reliable sources, the line between fact and fiction is hard to draw. The legendary Goths, who invaded Rome during the 5th century, are believed to have partial descented from southern Scandinavia; either Götaland or Gotland.
The "Vendel period"
The early 6th century was a very disruptive period in Nordic history. Due to a combination of factors, including the final days of the migration era, the Justinian plague, and some global extreme weather events in 535–536 which caused a minor ice-age, a lot of old Nordic settlements where abandoned while new one's where established. During this era many traits which became characteristic for the Viking-era first developed, such as the clink-built boats and the popular animal ornamentation art style. The new culture which evolved in the 6th century is called the "Vendel-era" in Swedish historiography after a rich 7th century boat burial field in Northern Uppsala County. In the Anglican world it might be best known as the era of Beowulf, an Old English epic poem set in 6th century Denmark.
During this period Uppsala becomes the political and religious centre of (what would eventually become) Sweden, with a renowned pagan temple and a political assembly called "The thing of all Swedes". The kings of the Swedes where buried by the temple in monumental burial mounds which can still be seen today. The era is also known for its many boat graves, such as those in Vendel and in Valsgärde near Uppsala. They are similar to the famous contemporary boat grave in Sutton Hoo in Eastern England, indicating that the Vendel-era Norsemen still had some contacts with their Anglo-Saxon cousins! Many of these Vendel-era graves are even richer and more lavish than those of the later Vikings!
In the 8th century the Vendel-era develops into the Viking-era, as the Norsemen take a much more active stance on the international stage.
|“||A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine.
"From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord."
—Prayer allegedly said by English monks
Most Swedish, Norwegian and Danish people relied on local farming, fishing, hunting and some crafts and commerce in the Nordic Iron Age, but with the onset of the Viking Age, and for reasons that are still unclear, large, well-organised expeditions to destinations outside Scandinavia commenced, settling as far as Greenland and Canada and raiding as far as The Black Sea and Morocco. Some of the Norse expeditions in the Viking Age revolved around commerce and exploration, others were more or less pure raids, making the Norse known and feared as Vikings throughout Europe. During the Viking Age Norse people also took employment as bodyguards and mercenaries, most famously as the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Empire, and settled e.g. in the British Isles and Normandy. The Norse came to play important roles in the foundation of great nations such as the Russian Empire, France and England.
While Viking raiding pirates, who sacked monasteries and other settlements, were only one aspect of Norse culture, this was what they became known and feared for around Europe at the time, especially in France and the British Isles, leading to the stereotypical image of the Norse as nothing more than savage, bloodthirsty, barbaric heathens. The Norse of the Viking Age are still generally (incorrectly) referred to as Vikings today.
The Norse were the first people known to have crossed the Atlantic. Iceland was settled during the 9th century, with Reykjavík as its first settlement. In 930 AD the settlers founded the Alþing, the world's oldest surviving parliament.
There were Norse settlements also on Greenland and Newfoundland. Around AD 1000, an expedition led by Leif Eriksson left Greenland, crossed the Labrador Sea, and arrived at the Baffin Island and later Newfoundland, nearly 500 years before the voyages of Christopher Columbus. These settlements went extinct due to worsening climate, infighting within the communities, and conflict with natives.
The Norse people are generally understood to have been the last Europeans to be Christianised. The first Christian missionaries arrived in the 9th century, but the church got a foothold only in the 11th century, as the Nordic kings were baptized, and the Swedish, Norwegian and Danish kingdoms were consolidated. Paganism remained in some areas until the 12th–14th century, with many cultural remnants even today. The Hanseatic League came to dominate commerce on the North and Baltic Sea.
The Norse would never had made the impression they did without their outstanding ships. The warships were fast with little draught, allowing the ships to land on any beach and giving the locals little time to react on the approaching raiders. The light construction allowed ships to be portaged between rivers flowing to the Baltic Sea and those flowing to the Black Sea, and past the Dnieper Rapids. And there were ships seaworthy enough to allow crossing the Atlantic.
Replicas were built early on (one crossed the Atlantic for the world exhibition in Chicago 1893), but the research about the Norse ships has advanced enormously since the last turn of century. The Gokstad and Oseberg ships were quite complete, but they had partly collapsed, and reconstructing their form was an enormous jigsaw puzzle – and some short cuts were made. Computer models and simulations have later given quite some insight. The warships indeed had a planing or semiplaning hull, with longships believed to be capable of sailing up to 15–20 knots in ideal circumstances.
The longship replica Sea Stallion, built and operated as an experimental archaeology project by the Viking ship museum in Roskilde, sailed to Dublin and back 2007–2008. Much was learnt by trial and error, and the seaworthiness of the ship was confirmed. Although longships would prefer to (and the Stallion did) wait for good weather, it got gale force winds in adverse conditions in the North Channel and on the Celtic Sea. The voyage also confirmed that quite some skill and toughness was needed to successfully use this kind of ship.
Although the longships are the most famous ones – and versatile – the Norse had many types of vessel: smaller ones for coastal navigation and fishing, the higher and wider knarr and probably light ships for the rivers. The Viking ships were capable of beating, at least with the right sails (woollen sails tend to stretch out), but rowing or waiting for better winds was often preferred.
It must have been very tough to portage a ship capable of crossing seas and carrying significant numbers of men and cargo. Several journeys on the Russian rivers have been made with replicas, some where the feat has proved tough indeed, others where the ship was found surprisingly easy to portage. As no ship known to have been used on these routes has been found, the projects had to choose model (and adjust it) based on own reasoning.
The knarr was seaworthy, sometimes decked, and mostly sailed (while the longships were often operated by oars on shorter passages). It was built for overseas trade, and the type used on most of the transatlantic voyages. One replica of a knarr, Saga Siglar, circumnavigated the globe 1984–1986 also visiting Greenland.
It is not quite understood how the Norse were able to navigate the open sea. They had a good understanding of currents and winds, they used sightings of whales and birds, and they had some tools, such as sundials that seem to have allowed them to follow a latitude, and some sailors seem to have had "sunstones", which told the direction to the sun also when the sky was overcast (perhaps using polarization of the light).
Old Norse heritage
With Christianity and monarchy came stone churches, castles, and the first substantial written records, marking the beginning of historical time in Scandinavia, and the Middle Ages. The pagan Norsemen themselves left behind a rather meager literary legacy, such as rune-stones with short messages (in a writing style similar to instant messages of the 21st century) and inscriptions on weaponry and everyday utensils. Most of what we think we know about them and their world comes from 12th-13th century recordings of the famous Viking sagas, the Eddas and scaldic poetry that previously was taught by word-of-mouth. They also left behind an archaeological legacy of buildings, castles, crafts, burial mounds and ships that has been increasingly studied.
Most Old Norse literature, such as the Edda, an epic poem which contains much of the Norse mythology, as well as the sagas which describe the history of Iceland, were handed down by oral tradition, until written down in the 12th to 15th centuries by writers such as Snorri Sturluson, when Old Norse religion and Viking lifestyle had been replaced by Christianity and more organized kingdoms. Knowledge gaps have to a large extent been filled by European scholars' knowledge of Greco-Roman polytheism. This however is problematic to an extent as the Romans tried to reconcile several different pantheons (starting with their own and the Greek) by giving them a interpretatio romana and thus (sometimes falsely) equating gods to their Roman ones. Therefore the earliest written records about Germanic tribes, which were written by the Romans still color our interpretation of their gods and while there are undoubtedly similarities, they may have become overemphasized first by the Romans and then by classically trained scholars.
Most records about Vikings in their own age were written by their enemies or Christian missionaries, and might describe them as more brutal than they actually were. The silent majority of sedentary Norse farmers were forgotten in the context.
The Old Norse heritage, especially the Viking identity, was revived through a wave of nationalism in the 19th century, though not very true to reality. For instance, real Vikings did not have horned helmets. If you think about it a horned helmet would be an immense disadvantage in a combat situation as your opponent could simply grab the horns to throw away your helmet. Or a weapon that would otherwise be deflected could get caught in the horns, causing significantly more damage.
Since the late 20th century, there are neo-Pagan societies around the Nordic countries and Asatru (Beleif in the Æsir) is now a recognised religion. Their practices do not necessarily resemble the true old Norse paganism, and are not taken too seriously. The Norse religion is very much what you make of it. The Viking Age is also a popular theme for reenactment and LARP. Many elements of the old Germanic Pagan mythology also continue to survive in the form of folklore and legends, albeit with some of the religious elements either removed or Christianised, and many modern fantasy works, perhaps the most famous being J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, continue to be influenced by Norse mythology to this day.
All of the "Viking" villages which can be visited today, are modern reconstructions.
- See Nordic history for the Nordic countries past AD 1000.
Pre-Viking Age sites
- 1 Ales Stenar (Ale's Stones), Kåseberga (15 km east of Ystad). Nicknamed "the Stonehenge of Sweden", a 67 metre long stone ship formed by 59 large boulders of sandstone, a megalithic monument from the Nordic Iron Age, around 600 AD. You can reach the site by car or by bus from Ystad. There are lots of information signs at the parking lot. Walk the 700 metres up the hill from the parking lot and you will reach the stones. There is no entrance fee to the Stones but a guided tour will cost you 40 SEK per person, free for children younger than 17..
- 2 Alta Rock Carvings. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 3 Rock Carvings in Tanum. A UNESCO World Heritage Site. Carvings have been made during the Swedish Bronze Age.
- 4 Ale Vikingagård (North of Göteborg). Open every Sunday. A Viking farm. Events throughout the year including feasts and markets in the spring (early May), autumn after harvest time in late October to early November and around Jul, a Norse pagan celebration at Christmas time.
- 5 Birka (Ekerö, Stockholm County). UNESCO World Heritage site near Stockholm. Birka was established in the 8th century and was an important trading center in the Viking Age. There is a museum on the island of Björkö, including a reconstructed Viking village. Roleplays, guided tours, craftsmen and events throughout the year.
- 6 Foteviken Museum (South of Malmö). An open-air Viking museum centered around a large Viking settlement reconstruction. The area is an important archaeological site of the Viking Age and the naval Battle of Fotevik was fought around here in 1134. Experimental archaeology, roleplays and season program and engaging activities for the whole family.
- 7 Gamla Uppsala (5 km north of Uppsala). Gamla Uppsala is a former settlement outside the modern day city of Uppsala, and was the political and religious centre of Viking-era Sweden. It was once the site of a legendary Norse pagan temple, which brought visitors from all around Scandinavia. The temple was however lost; no-one knows what it looked like, or where it stood exactly. The site also hostes some impressive burial mounds and a large museum.
- Gamla Uppsala museum (Old Uppsala Museum), Disavägen, ☎ . Jan–Mar & Oct–Dec: M W Sa Su 12:00–16:00. Apr, May, Sep: daily 11:00–17:00. Jun–Aug: daily 10:00–16:00. Houses many of the Viking era archeological findings from Old Uppsala. 80SEK.
- 8 Gotlands Museum, Strandgatan 14 (Visby, Gotland). Open 10:00–18:00. Though Gotland's Golden Age was during the Hanseatic League years from the 13th century, the island was a commercial center long before, possibly the home of the legendary Goths. Entrance: 80–100 SEK.
- 9 Gunnes gård, Ryttargatan 270 (Upplands Väsby). A reconstructed Viking Age farm, mostly open during summer.
- 10 Gustavianum, Akademigatan 3 (Uppsala), ☎ . Sep–May: Tu–Su 11:00–16:00, Jun–Aug: Tu–Su 10:00–16:00. Is the university museum of Uppsala University, and among other things they exhibits findings from Vendel- and Viking-era boat burial field in neaby "Valsgärde". 50SEK for adults, 40SEK for seniors and students and free entry for children under 19.
- 12 Medeltidsveckan (Medieval Week) (Visby, Gotland). While conversion to Christianity in the 11th century marked a divide between the Viking Age and the Middle Ages, Gotland remained a decentralized land of peaceful mariners and merchants (farmaðr, farmän), until Sweden annexed the island in the 17th century. While the people of Gotland were not true Vikings (pirates or mercenaries), this festival week creates a Viking-like atmosphere.
- 13 Rök Runestone (Near Ödeshög, Östergötland). The world's largest runestone, and the oldest known written record in Sweden. The name of the village Rök has the same roots as rock (named for the stone), which means that Rök Stone is a tautology.
- 14 Stallarholmen Viking Festival (near Strängnäs). Annually the first weekend of July, in a village with plenty of runestones and other Viking-age artifacts.
- 15 Storholmen (North of Norrtälje). A reconstructed Viking village situated on the shore of lake Erken. A small nature reserve of Norr Malma to the south, including a large graveyard from the Iron Age. The whole region - known as Roslagen - is steeped in history. In the Viking Age there was important trade with the East. There is a nice 18th-century inn and restaurant nearby and a child-friendly lakeside beach.
- 16 Swedish History Museum (Historiska Museet), Narvavägen 13-17 (Stockholm/Östermalm). Open daily 10:00–17:00 May–Sep, Tu–Su 11:00–17:00 and Th 11:00–20:00 Oct–Apr. If you're interested in older Scandinavian history, from the Stone Age to the Vikings, you will want to visit the Swedish History Museum. In the Gold Room, you'll find gold treasures from the Bronze Age to the 16th century.
- 17 Trelleborgen (In the modern port town of Trelleborg in Scania, close to Foteviken Museum or a 20 minute drive from Malmö). April to October. One of only seven known Viking Ring Castles from the 980s. "Trelleborg" is the name of the town, the castle and a general term for Viking Ring Castles. It is 143 metres in diametre and was largely reconstructed with palisades and houses in 1995. Activities for all ages with museum building, store and café. Watch role plays and re-enactments or engage in the Viking market, changing events or Viking board games. Stories from Norse mythology are occasionally dramatised here, but only in Swedish. SEK 40, free for people under 20.
- 18 Uppåkra Arkeologiska Center (Uppåkra Archaeological Centre), Stora Uppåkravägen 101 (4 km South of Lund), ☎ . Jun-Aug W-Su 10-14. Sep Tu-Sa 12-15. A historical museum by and about the Viking-era archaeological site Uppåkra. This area was supposedly a cultural and religious centre in Scania with a pagan temple, but was abandoned in favor of modern day Lund around year 990.
- 19 Vikingaliv, Djurgårdsvägen 48. A Viking museum opened in 2017. Does not exhibit any archaeological findings, but rather showcases information about the era and a Viking themed-train ride.
- 20 Vikingatider, Ådalsvägen 18, SE-246 35 Löddeköpinge (At the village of Löddeköpinge near Lund, some 20 km north of Malmö by E6). May to September. An archaeological Viking-themed open-air museum and landscape with Viking houses and farms. Engage in everyday activities of the Vikings at the farm or in the workshops. Guided tours (in English) of the settlement and surrounding landscape and special events throughout the year, including re-enactments, craftshops and markets.
- 21 Årsjögård (At the lakeside village of Årsunda, south of Sandviken). An open-air museum centered around a reconstructed Viking farm in the midst of a historic region known as Järnriket (The Iron Realm). Experimental archaeology and occasional role plays, re-enactments, feasts, music and crafts. Learn more about the cultural history of this area, in particular the Viking Age. The Sörby gravefields with 90 burial mounds and stone settings are nearby, as are the popular lakeside bathing site of Strandbaden at the lake of Storsjön, locally known as "Gästriklands riviera". At Strandbaden you will find a camping site and restaurant.
- 22 Reykjavik City Museum: The Settlement Exhibition Reykjavík 871±2 (Minjasafn Reykjavíkur) (Reykjavik).
- 23 Lofotr Viking Museum (Lofotr Vikingmuseum), Prestegårdsveien 59, NO-8360 Bøstad (Go to the island of Vestvågøya). May - September. Located on the island of Vestvågøya in the Lofoten archipelago, is a huge reconstructed Viking Chieftains hall situated in a dramatic landscape. The hall holds exhibitions and there are walking paths in the surrounding landscape. Seasonal events and programs with roleplays, Viking feasts, Viking Festival and more. Animals and a smithy. In the summer it is possible to sail with a Viking ship replica nearby.
- 24 The Viking Ship Museum (Vikingskipshuset), Frederiks gate 2, Oslo (Go to the island of Bygdøy). All year. The main attractions here are the Gokstad, Oseberg and Tune Viking ships, all originals. The Viking Ship Museum is part of Museum of Cultural History, itself a department of University of Oslo (UiO). Museum of Cultural History also houses Historical Museum with a permanent exhibition themed around the Norse and Vikings in particular. Tickets include admission to both museums within 48 hours. The Bygdøy island can be reached by road or ferry (in the summer).
- 25 Bork Vikingehavn (In the village of Bork near Skjern and Ringkøbing, at the bottom of a large lagoon). April - October. Viking village and harbour area with Viking ship replicas and a town market. Re-enactments and roleplays that varies throughout the year. Great with kids.
- 26 Fyrkat (West of Hobro). Viking Ring Castle and re-constructed Viking houses. Sometimes roleplays and craftsmen. No entry fees.
- 27 Jelling Monuments (In Jelling). UNESCO World Heritage Site in Jelling, a Viking Royal residence. Enormous stone ship monument, burial mounds, runestones and 10th century church. Newly built exploratorium bringing the site's rich history to life. Good for all ages. Free.
- 28 Lindholm Høje (North of Aalborg). Pagan Iron Age and Viking Age burial grounds with hundreds of stone-set grave sites. Museum building.
- 29 Ribe Vikingecenter (At Ribe). Late April to October. Large Viking Center and open-air town museum reconstructed at the former site of a large Viking town. Re-enactments, craftsmen, roleplays and experimental archeology of varying themes throughout the year. Ride Icelandic horses, help the farmers, watch the falconry displays, shoot with bows or learn to fight like the Vikings; there are many activities here suited for all ages and interests.
- 30 Sagnlandet Lejre (South of Roskilde). March - December. Large open-air Viking and pre-historic center with themes reaching back to the Stone Age as it unfolded in Scandinavia. Located in Lejre, a former royal homeland in the Nordic Iron Age and early Viking Age. Engaging activities for all ages.
- 31 Trelleborg Castle (East of Slagelse). A Viking Ring Castle, one of only seven known of its kind. Small museum and some reconstructed Viking buildings. DKK 100.
- 32 Viking Ship Museum, Vindeboder 12 in Roskilde (follow the signs from the cathedral), ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. 10AM-5PM. A museum with several original viking ships, a viking research center, a harbour with copies of viking ships, and a shipyard making new ships. Study the originals, watch how archaeologists preserve them and engage on a small sea-voyage with replica ships in the summer months. 80-115 Kr, students 70-100 Kr, children free.
- 33 Haithabu (Hedeby) (Just south of Schleswig). Located at the southern end of the Jutland peninsula, Haithabu was once the site of the largest Viking town in Scandinavia. Now an open-air town museum with reconstructed Viking houses. Experimental archeology, craftsmen and engaging roleplays and reenactments of the former life in the Viking Age town.
- 34 Norse settlements in Greenland. Vikings settled parts of Southern Greenland, starting with Erik the Red, who gave the landmass its name to make it sound appealing to travellers. Remains and reconstructions of the Norse settlements can still be visited, some of them forming a world heritage site.
- 35 L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site (Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula, Canada.). Reconstructed Viking camp at this UNESCO World Heritage site of a former Viking settlement. Guides and special events.
- 36 Grobiņa Viking Settlement, Skābaržkalns, Grobiņa, close to Liepāja. West coast of Latvia has Viking heritage, where they had settlement named Seeburg (now in Grobiņa city).
- 37 Jorvik Viking Centre (York, England), ☎ . Daily 10AM-4PM (winter), 10AM-5PM (summer). The world famous Jorvik Viking Centre is a must-see for visitors to the city of York and is one of the most popular visitor attractions in the UK outside London. Welcoming over 16 million visitors since 1984, Jorvik Viking Centre invites visitors to journey through the reconstruction of Viking-Age streets as they would have looked 1000 years ago. £6.25 and upwards.
- 38 Lindisfarne, England. An early Christian monastery at the Northsea rocky shore. The Norse raid at Lindisfarne in AD 793 usually marks the beginning of the Viking Age.
- 39 Up Helly Aa (Shetland Islands). Europe's largest and most famous fire festival. It takes place on the last Tuesday in January. Over the year the 'Guizer Jarl' or Viking Chief and his squad prepare costumes, weapons and a replica heraldic style Viking Galley and torches. There is a torchlight procession of over 800 participants and then the Galley is ceremoniously burned. Tickets to the halls are by invitation only, but public tickets are available for the Town Hall from the committee. Although the Lerwick festival is the largest and most famous, eleven other fire festivals are held across the islands.