What does come up to your mind when someone mentions the ancient Vikings? Surely you could think about terrible warriors, rude and low acculturated people. Was it actually true or was there something more? Let’s find out more about their history, religion and society!
The Vikings were a population coming from the northern side of Europe, specifically from the Scandinavian Peninsula and Denmark, places from which they brought with themselves a huge cultural baggage, full of traditions, religious and mythological elements. First of all, we have to talk about the provenience and lifestyle of this people, in order to understand better their culture. Because of the main fact that Vikings moved from their original territories , they had to develop their navigation skills by using sophisticated boats, which were long and thin, and so perfect to go through the seas and small rivers. During the years, they became really good at coastal incursions, in which they used to steal any kind of goods, and then go to another territory, until they managed to occupy parts of England, around the seventh century BC. During their invasions the Vikings have always kept their cults, also transmitting them to the defeated populations and adding new traditions to theirs. A very important element of their cultural life was absolutely the religion, that came directly from the Norse mythology. According to this, the Vikings believed in the existence of nine different realms, all filled with different creatures, such as light and dark elves (that were human-looking, glowing and really beautiful), dwarves (that, even though their small appearance, were strong and able to practice magic), giants (uncivilized and rude beings), and surely gods.
The last ones were originally divided in two different classes, but then, after a cruel war, they established peace and reunited all together. The most important and famous one among the gods was surely Thor, the god of thunder, that used to be represented with a special hammer and was considered the protector of all divinities.
The religion was also based on a very important consideration about the death and the afterlife: it is known that Vikings used to practice two different types of funerals. The first one, used mainly for war leaders, consisted in burning a ship filled with the dead’s body, his goods and other offerings; the second one contemplated the burial of the dead person, or even his cremation (this process was used for common people, coming from lower sides of society). For Vikings, funerals were really important because they were an occasion to celebrate the transition between the earthly life and the afterlife: for this main reason, they weren’t afraid of death at all, and so they thought that dying for a good cause was an act of courage.
Another important aspect that affected particularly the Viking culture was about the social structure, as the whole population was divided into different groups: at the top of this organisation there was the royals, so the family of the king and the king himself, that could earn particular goods just by imposing taxes. Then there were the Jarls, people with a very high status, even though they were not royals, that could live a free and prosperous life. At the bottom of the social structure there was the slavery, known as Thralls, that had to work for their owners, not having the possibility to change their social status. The society, in which the whole Viking history and culture took place, is described by historical evidences as a place lived by men and women with equal rights: everyone respected each other, so there wasn’t manly predominance. Men practiced jobs such as fishermen, farmers, explorers and weapon-makers; women instead had to know how to cook, to sew clothes and to raise their children. These last ones were forced to do the same activities as their parents did, and so they had the habit to start from a very young age to learn how to do the most common jobs of that time.
We all know these aspects of the Viking culture and society because, during the thirteenth century, people started writing down all the stories from Norse mythology, even though they didn’t believe in those legends anymore (due to Christian conversion), in order to transmit them to the future generations until now. Thanks to them today we have a lot of interesting information like history, religion and social aspects about this peculiar population that, during the centuries, developed and influenced the English culture!