The Northmen were also known as Ascomannii by the Germans (perhaps due to their mythological ancestor Ask), Lochlanach by the Irish and Dene (Daner) by the Anglo-Saxons. The Slavs, the Arabs and the Byzantines knew them as the Rus' or Rhos (probably from various uses of roÞs-, i.e. "related to rowing", hence Russia). The Slavs and the Byzantines also called them Varangians (Væringjar, meaning "sworn men"), and the Scandinavian bodyguards of the Byzantine emperors were known as the Varangian Guard.
The modern day nations descended from the Vikings are Icelanders, Norwegians, Danes, Swedes and Faroe Islanders. The Vikings were also ancestors of a significant part of the populace of modern England, Scotland, eastern Ireland and northern France.
The Vikings built settlements and were skilled craftsmen and traders. Their ruthlessness and courage in battle is well documented by contemporary chroniclers, and they were feared along the western coast of France and in Britain. Equipped with the then superior technologies of the longship and longboat, manned by sailors who were extremely competent in the management of their craft, and who were as adept in land warfare as they were at sea, they struck at soft and accessible targets, usually with impunity. It is the effectiveness of these tactics that earned them their formidable reputation as raiders and pirates. However, the chroniclers paid little attention to the other (primary) activities of the Vikings. This is further accentuated by the absence of contemporary primary source documentation from within the Viking communities themselves, and little documentary evidence is available until later, when Christian sources begin to contribute. It is only over time, as historians and archaeologists have begun to challenge the one-sided descriptions of the chroniclers, that a more balanced picture of Viking culture has begun to become apparent.
The etymology is somewhat unclear. One path might be from the old Norse word 'vík', meaning 'bay', 'creek' or 'inlet', and the suffix '-ing', meaning 'coming from' or 'belonging to'. Thus, "vikings" would be 'people of the creeks'. Later on, the term became synonymous with 'raider of the sea'. A second etymology suggested derives from Old English wíc, i.e. "trading city", (cognate to latin vicus, "village").
The word vikingr appears on several rune stones found in Scandinavia. In the icelandic sagas, víking refers to an overseas expedition, and víkingr to a seaman or warrior taking part in such an expedition. In Old English, the word wicing appears first in the 6th or 7th century in the Anglo-Saxon poem Widsith. The word disappeared in Middle English, and was re-introduced as viking during 19th century Romanticism.
The Viking propensity for trade is easily seen in large towns such as Hedeby; close to the border with the Franks, it was effectively a crossroads between the cultures until its eventual destruction by the Norwegians in an internecine dispute around the year 1050. York, England, was the center of a Viking kingdom of Jorvik from 866, and discoveries there show that Viking trade connections in the 10th century reached beyond Byzantium: a silk cap, a counterfeit of a coin from Samarkand and a cowry shell from the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf reveal the extent of the Varangian network.
The earliest date given for a Viking raid is 789, when according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, Portland was attacked. A more reliable report dates from June 8, 793, when the monastery at Lindisfarne on the east coast of England was pillaged by foreign seafarers. For the next 200 years, European history is filled with tales of Vikings and their plundering.
Vikings exerted influence throughout the coastal areas of Ireland and Scotland, and conquered large parts of England (see Danelaw). They travelled up the rivers of France and Spain, and gained control of areas in Russia and along the Baltic coast. Stories tell of raids in the Mediterranean and as far east as the Caspian Sea.
The Viking World
The Vikings founded cities such as Dublin. The Danes sailed south, to Friesland, France and the southern parts of England. In the years 1013-1016, Canute the Great succeeded to the English throne. The Swedes sailed to east into Russia, where Rurik founded the first Russian state, and on the rivers south to the Black Sea, Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. The Norwegians travelled to the north-west and west, to the Faroe Islands, Shetland, Orkney, Ireland and the northern parts of England. Apart from Britain and Ireland, Norwegians mostly found largely uninhabited land and established settlements.
In about the year 986 A.D, North America was discovered by Bjarni Herjólfsson. Leifur Eiríksson (Leif Ericsson) and Þórfinnur Karlsefni from Greenland attempted to settle the land which they dubbed Vinland about the year 1000 A.D. A small settlement was placed on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland, near L'Anse aux Meadows, but previous inhabitants and a cold climate brought it to an end within a few years (see Freydís Eiríksdóttir). The archaeological remains are now a UN World Heritage Site. It has now been scientifically established that at the height of the Viking expansion, the northern hemisphere entered into a period of unusual and long-lasting cold which continued for several hundred years. This miniature ice age decimated the Greenland colonies, stopped the Viking westward expansion and hampered the Viking homelands.
Besides allowing the Vikings to travel far distances, their longships gave them tactical advantages in battles. They could perform very efficient hit-and-run attacks, in which they attacked quickly and unexpectedly and left before a counter-offensive could be launched. Longships could also sail in shallow waters, allowing the Vikings to travel far inland along the rivers.
A reason for the raids is believed by some to be overpopulation caused by technological advances such as the use of iron, although another cause could well be pressure caused by the Frankish expansion to the south of Scandinavia.
For people living along the coast it seems natural to seek new land by sea. Another reason is that in that period several European countries (particularly England, Wales and Ireland) were in internal disarray and easy prey; the Franks, however, had well-defended coasts and heavily fortified ports and harbours. Pure thirst for adventure may also have been a factor. The use of the longships ended when technology changed and ships began to be constructed using saws instead of axes. This led to a lesser quality of ships and together with an increasing centralisation of government in the Scandinavian countries, the old system of Leidang---a fleet mobilization system, where every Skipen (ship community) had to deliver one ship and crew---was discontinued. Shipbuilding in the rest of Europe also led to the demise of the longship for military purposes. By the 11th and 12th centuries fighting ships began to be built with raised platforms fore and aft, from which archers could shoot down into the relatively low longships.
Norse mythology, Norse sagas and Old Norse literature tell us about their religion with heroic and mythological heroes; however, the transmission of this information was primarily oral and we are reliant upon the writings of (later) Christian scholars such as Snorri Sturluson and Sæmundur "fróði" ("the Wise") Sigfússon for much of this, both whom were Icelanders and an overwhelming amount of the sagas were written in Iceland.
After decades of trade and settlement Christianity was introduced into Scandinavia by the 11th century, and the populace was mostly converted by the end of the 12th century. The influence of the Norse seeing themselves then as part of wider European civilization as well as technical advances in warfare made the viking lifestyle less desirable and less profitable, and eventually its political structures were replaced by structures based more on continental feudalism.
Myths about vikings
There is no evidence whatsoever that the vikings on any occasion wore horned helmets. This is a latter-day myth created by national romantic ideas in Sweden at the end of the 19th century, notably the Geatish Society, and further imprinted by cartoons like Hagar the Horrible or Asterix and numerous fictitious movies. The people living in Scandinavia during the Bronze Age did, however, wear horned helmets during ceremonies, as testified by rock carvings and actual finds. See Bohuslän.
The use of human skulls as drinking vessels is also unhistorical. The rise of this myth can be traced back to a mis-translation of an icelandic kenning, "skull-beams" referring to drinking horns. Scandinavian skalle, skal means simply "shell" or "bowl".
The image of wild-haired, dirty savages sometimes associated with the vikings in popular culture has hardly any base in reality. The vikings used a variety of tools for personal grooming such as combs, tweezers, razors or specialised "ear spoons". In particular, combs are among the most frequent artefacts from Viking Age graves, and one can conclude that a comb was the personal equipment of every man and woman. The vikings also used soap long before it was re-introduced to Europe after the fall of the Byzantine Empire. The vikings in England even had a particular reputation of excessive cleanliness, due to their custom of bathing once a week (as opposed to the local Anglo-Saxons). As for the Rus', Ibn Rustah explicitly notes their cleanliness, while Ibn Fadlan is disgusted by their sharing the same vessel as the men wash their faces in the morning. Ibn Fadlan's disgust is thus probably motivated by ideas of personal hygiene particular to the Arab world, while the very example intended to convey the disgusting customs of the Rus' at the same time records that they do in fact wash every morning.