Admit it: when someone says the word “Vikings,” the picture that pops into your head is of a group of huge men, with blond or red hair and mustaches, covered with armor, waving double-edged axes and swords and screaming at the tops of their lungs as they rush forward to kill, burn, pillage and loot. Either that, or you've watched the recent History Channel series on the Vikings and that's what they look like to you.
Our modern impressions of who and what the Vikings were contain a lot of myths and misconceptions. Let's look at the most obvious:
No fighting man in that age of violent hand-to-hand battle would ever wear a helmet that an enemy could grab and twist his head around or pull off his helmet. Viking Age excavations of burials have revealed simple metal helmets, some with a nose-piece to protect the face. Vikings also wore simple leather helmets. Well-born and rich Vikings could afford the iron or metal helmets that better protected their heads. The horned helmet myth probably comes from A Victorian staging of Richard Wagner's operas about Norse mythology. An imaginative costume designer no doubt thought horned helmets a good, strong image.
One of the Vikings' favorite targets for a raid were churches and monasteries; their main victims were monks and priests. Unfortunately for the Vikings' reputations, surviving monks and priests wrote the stories of the raids and in their descriptions, the Vikings were described as savage beasts, filthy and violent, killers one and all. This description is, of course, party true. Vikings were very violent when they went raiding. Those were violent times.
Vikings were not filthy. To the contrary, they were some of the cleanest people in all of Europe at the time. They bathed weekly in contrast to other Europeans who bathed once a year. The most common items found in Viking graves are combs, tweezers and other grooming utensils.
Actually, only a small portion of the populations of Scandinavia went a-viking, or raiding. The impact of the raids made a great impression on their victims, however, and that is how most Scandinavians were viewed from then on. Most Vikings, as you have learned, were farmers and only some went raiding and that on a part-time basis.
Again, contrary to our modern conception, Vikings raided when the opportunity presented itself, on unprotected churches, monasteries and towns. Soon after the Viking Age began, however, these places either moved inland to safer locations or they were fortified with walls, towers and protected harbors. Vikings interested in quick loot didn't attack fortified towns for the most part-they went for easy prey, not the tough takings.
Vikings were more interested in establishing trade and in settling new lands. By the end of the Viking Age, Viking trade reached from the far north to as far south as Jerusalem and touched all points in between. During this same time, Scandinavians settled in many European countries, took over Normandy in France, major cities in Ireland and England, Kiev in Russia and founded Iceland and Greenland.
This article is part of our larger selection of posts about Vikings history. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to Vikings history