Many things have been said about the Vikings throughout history. In fact, what has come down to us today is that they are tall, robust, warrior men and women with a completely wild behavior. The cinema of recent years and the appearance of series on the main platforms have reinforced this idea of a barbaric and cruel civilization. It was not so. There were few Vikings who dedicated themselves exclusively to fighting, they had already implemented divorce and a large part of them dedicated themselves to poetry in their heyday.
In conversation with Historia y Vida, the expert in Viking and Nordic culture Irene García Losquiño explains the origin of the word vikingo, coming from fara and viking, which means “to travel in a vikingueada. Or what is the same: an action characterized by vikinguar”. But what exactly does this "viking" mean?
One of the main perceptions of a good part of humanity is that the Vikings were fundamentally dedicated to stealing and killing. In reality, the Viking, an expert navigator and merchant by nature, only acted as a warrior when he expressly went to carry out this act of colonizing. That is, when he was "Vikinguada". And he wasn't for everyone.
Most of the Vikings were dedicated to the field. Agriculture and livestock were two of their main occupations. It was a basically agrarian society that had trade as another of its most important pillars of progress. In fact, according to García Losquiño, this ferocious vision of the Vikings can be explained in “how the history of medieval England has been explained”.
The Scandinavian history and culture expert attributes this vision to the strong impact of the first Viking raids on the British Isles. “The first contact with Europe was during the invasion of a large ecclesiastical center on the island of Lindisfarne –in the northwest of England–. That phenomenon was recorded with horror by the English chroniclers, who saw how a foreign culture took its most important center of worship by force and without delay in the year 793.
The end of the Viking Age as it is known in Europe is dated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, in the year 1066. In other words, a little less than four centuries is the period of maximum Viking expansion. Yes, they were great navigators and fighters, but no more ferocious or bloodthirsty than their contemporaries, among whom can be mentioned the Saxons, the Franks or the Arabs. Of course, they were enviable sailors. "The enormous difficulties they had to move around in northern Europe made them capable of developing highly advanced navigation techniques for the time," says García Losquiño.
Divorce, moreover, was a legal possibility practiced by all people living in Scandinavia or in the Viking diaspora. Furthermore, this breaking of the marriage covenant could be initiated by the woman.
Among the most common situations that allowed for divorce were having suffered gender violence, your spouse's family falling into extreme poverty or your husband or wife being involved in a performance that caused social shame and diminished status, which was extremely important in your world. Lastly, if the husband was on an expedition for more than three years and did not return, his wife could divorce and, in addition, recover her dowry.
One of the most enduring myths about the Vikings in recent history is the one that gives them horned helmets. You have to go back to the 19th century to discover its origin, specifically to the opera The Ring of the Nibelung, by Richard Wagner.
Composed in 1857 and enormously successful, the musical representation dressed the Vikings in completely romanticized costumes and with horns on their helmets. The work was so popular that it is still difficult to think of the Vikings without this clothing. “Romanticism has been one of the great shapers of our Viking imagination. Gold armor, endless robes, wild animal horns on the head… None of this has to do with reality”, García Losquiño points out.
Beer was part of their diet, as in many other agrarian cultures, but they didn't always drink it either. Depending on the importance of the occasion, these men and women resorted to one alcoholic drink or another. In festive celebrations they used to drink mead –which is obtained from the fermentation of a mixture of water and honey– or preparations based on fermented milk and wine. In fact, the latter was reserved for grand occasions, since it was basically imported and a sign of high status.
Their representation as blonde, tall and strong people has also been called into question. We are talking about a civilization that originally originated in Scandinavia, but which came to cover practically the entire northern hemisphere. Some experts affirm that there were settlements in the Iberian Peninsula (the Leonese town of Lordemanos owed its name to them), in parts of present-day Ukraine and even in the village of Bashi, in the kingdom of Georgia, where they could even have established a permanent settlement. in the year 1036.
In conclusion: the features of the Vikings differed greatly depending on the territory where they were, since they used to mix without great problems with the locals wherever they settled, so not all of them were blond, tall and with a Nordic appearance.
Contrary to what so many of us learned at school age, Christopher Columbus was not the first European to set foot on American soil. There is good evidence that the Vikings already reached lands beyond Greenland in the year 1000. In fact, the first expedition arrived at the end of the 10th century.
“It was the time of maximum expansion towards the West, in which they conquered Iceland and Greenland. One of the ships, by mistake, deviated from the route and docked on land that would now belong to Canada. That was the first contact of a European with the American continent”, emphasizes Irene García Losquiño.
Leif Erikson, also known as "the Lucky One", was the explorer who was in charge of officially traveling to American soil once the news of the chance encounter broke. Thereafter several raids took place and provisional camps were established.
The Newfoundland area was one of the first to be discovered. There you can see L'Anse Aux Meadows, an archaeological site – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – that corresponds to the remains of an ancient Norse settlement. “Despite its discovery, America is abandoned after a few years. The main reason was that it was not profitable for them to exploit the resources that were there and move them to Europe. It was too expensive”, says the specialist.
Another reason for their abandonment could be their relationship with the natives, whom they referred to as skrælingjar. Although not much is known about them, it is believed that in the case of Greenland the majority belonged to the Thule Eskimo people, ancestors of the Inuit. In the case of Newfoundland, some Viking sagas mention them as the Beothuk peoples, of which very little information is available.
A widespread misconception today is that all fighters who died on the battlefield went directly to Valhalla. Once there, these warriors and warriors dedicated themselves to training eternally during the day (they prepared to help Odin in the battle of Ragnarök: the end of the world) and drinking at night. The reality is that only half of them went to Odin's great hall: the other half went to Fólkvangr, the place of residence of the goddess Freyja. Of course, they did the same as in Valhalla: train and drink without pause.
And who determined the fate of each? Some beings so diversely represented throughout history as still unknown: the Valkyries. “What we know so far is that they were figures, surely female, in charge of choosing where the deceased went on the battlefield. The representation of them as warrior and armed women has been rather a romantic idealization of the mythological figure”, concludes Irene García Losquiño.