Friday, March 29, 2013

Fun Friday Facts #70: Easter Vikings

Hey everybody, and Happy Good Friday! Wait, I don’t think you’re supposed to be happy, cause Jesus is being crucified, and stuff. But on the other hand, some of you get a three-day weekend (not me, but somebody out there is getting one), so there’s that. Also, it was warm enough today that I could open the window, thereby distracting the cat from chewing on my feet while I write this.

I decided to blog about Vikings this year because I already blogged about Easter and Easter bunnies last year. Besides, if you read that post, you’ll already know that Easter is named after the Norse or old Germanic goddess Eostre or Ostara, so that Vikings are a completely normal and natural thing to associate with Easter.

Something like that.

The word “Viking” did not originally belong to any particular ethnic group and was not used to describe a distinct culture. In Old Norse, the word “viking” was originally a feminine noun and meant “an overseas expedition.” The masculine noun “vikingr” was used to refer to the expeditioners themselves, and was also used as a personal name, so there you go, parents who want to be unique and creative – name the rugmonkey Vikingr and see if he still speaks to you when he grows up.

Later, the word “Viking” would take on connotations of piracy and raiding, but would remain largely neutral in its connotations throughout the Viking Age. The Vikings were known by many names in the lands that they raided – Lochlanach by the Irish, Ascomanni by the Germans, Dene by the Anglo-Saxons, and Rus by the Arabs, Slavs and Byzantines, probably after Roslagen, the area of Sweden where most of the Vikings who raided these lands came from. Vikings would form settlements in Belarus and Russia, lending their name to those nations.

The Viking Age is the period of early Medieval history which lasted from about 790 until 1066, when the Normans conquered England. During this period, Vikings traveled as far east as the Volga River in Russia, as far west as Newfoundland (with stops in Iceland and Greenland), and as far south as what is now Morocco.

The Vikings established settlements in the Orkney, Faroe and Shetland Islands, as well as on Iceland and Greenland; the latter were the subject of a thoroughly depressing novel I once read, The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley, in which everyone starved at the end, that is, if they didn’t get murdered or burned at the stake or otherwise brutally executed first. It was rough, is what I’m saying.

The Vikings managed to establish at least one colony in the New World, L’Anse aux Meadows, on the northernmost coast of Newfoundland.


It was probably established around the year 1000 AD, and may have been just one of many Norse settlements in the region; at the very least, it was probably a base camp for expeditioners wishing to head south and check out the rest of northeastern Canada. While the area surrounding the L’Anse aux Meadows today consists of, you guessed it, meadows, 1,000 years ago it consisted of dark, scary forests which the Viking settlers would have used to build boats and houses. Eight sod and wood homes and workshops were uncovered in archeological digs that occurred throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The largest building in L’Anse aux Meadows was 94.5 ft by 51 ft (28.8 m by 15.6 m) and contained multiple rooms. The community enjoyed a smithy, a carpentry workshop, and a dock for repairing boats. The discovery of artifacts like needles and spindles suggests that women lived alongside men in the settlement, because some badass bearded Viking dude wasn’t going to darn his own socks, I guess.

Contrary to popular belief, the Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets, as this would have been really inconvenient in battle, where your opponent could easily pull your helmet off by the horns and then cave your stupid skull in. This idea was promulgated in the 19th century by members of the Gothic League, a Swedish group of authors and poets and not, it should be noted, historians. Bronze Age horned helmets have been uncovered in archeological digs, but their use was probably ceremonial.

Nor were Vikings particularly barbarous; they didn’t learn to write using the Roman alphabet until they became Christians, so much of what we know about their conquests comes from records written by the people they harried and raided, and these accounts are, ahem, biased. Their Anglo-Saxon neighbors in what is now called England considered them excessively clean, due to their habit of washing themselves every Saturday and coming their hair regularly. Persian explorer Ibn Rustah records the Vikings’ habit of frequently changing their clothes, and his contemporary Ibn Fadlan records the Vikings’ habit of washing their faces and blowing their noses each morning.