If you are exploring Iceland or just taking a city walk across our capital Reykjavík, it will be clear that this island was once home to the fiercest warriors that travelled in the high seas – the Vikings. Hotels and guesthouses will use a horned helmet or an axe logo and souvenir shops will sell Viking toys, costumes and everything related to this era! Even our most famous beer is named after them.
This Scandinavian period of history refers that Icelanders were not actual Vikings themselves, at least not in their behaviour. They were farmers and fisherman, the descendants of Danish and Norwegian Vikings who first arrived to the island around 870 AD.
Once the Vikings arrived here, they tended to stay, making a quick end to the practice of raiding, raping and pillaging that had once made this warrior class so feared. What did endure was the devotion to Norse Mythology. Alongside that, the language spoken in Iceland has remained relatively unchanged from this early period. Today, Icelandic it’s so close to the Old Norse that modern students can still read the original Icelandic sagas in their native language.
Given the common practice of tormenting settlements, it wasn’t long until the Viking’s impressive reputation spread to almost all corners of Europe and Mesopotamia.
The Viking Age lasted from the early 790s to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. During this period, the Vikings used the Northern and Baltic seas to frighten neighbouring kingdoms, extending their influence through combat and culture until, eventually, Vikings could no longer be just described as coastal invaders. We have the example of the two Viking kings, Sweyn Forkbeard and Cnut the Great, that ascended the English throne. Also, Leif Erikson (an early Icelander) settled small colonies in North America. Scandinavians would even serve as mercenaries for the Byzantine Empire. So, these were no mere pirates anymore.
The motivations for their expansion are subject to debate for modern historians. It’s believed that one of the reasons could be shortage of resources, forcing the Vikings to look further. Another possibility is the rule of Charlemagne and the religious persecution that went with it. With Christian influence arriving in Denmark, Sweden and Norway, the Vikings were trying to protect their pagan belief system, resist the Judeo-Christian values and even take revenge for those settlements already lost to their devotion. The introduction of Christianity would later divide Norway for almost half a century, causing bloodshed and cultural transformation.
The end of the Viking Age can be associated to a number of factors. First of all, the result of the Christianisation of Scandinavia. By the 12th Century, Denmark, Norway and Sweden were controlled by dioceses of the Catholic Church and had established themselves as separate Kingdoms. This resulted on a huge cultural shift in the priorities of Scandinavia’s leadership. The Vikings were not defeated, but made to behave in a manner that would fit the civility of their transforming homelands. For example, the medieval church made it forbidden to take Christians as slaves. Given the fact that slave-trading was the number one source of profit for the Vikings, this removed the economic incentive to travel and raid overseas.
The Vikings may have lost their power, but their brutality, bravery and strength would always be remembered by those who had once felt the sharp edge of their battle axe.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Max Taylor.