More Than Raiders

viking roots

Horrific accounts spread of the strength and frenzy the North men inflicted upon their victims. These raiders became known as Vikings and the era in which they embarked on their campaigns.

The first and ensuing encounters with Vikings were chaotic episodes filled with violence, leaving the English in fear and anguish. To such a degree that descriptions, like the two above, are either overly exaggerated or ambiguous or both. Nonetheless these poor reports became the common idea associated with Vikings. As raids continued, in similar fashion, the extensive suffering experienced by the English and their religious beliefs incited a strong bias towards the Norsemen. For well over the prior 100 years before the Viking raids began England was wholly Christian. These new raiders were pagans and as a result the Christian monks (Viking victims) used their non-Christian beliefs to demonize their assailants. Some regarded the Vikings as a judgment from God for the sins of the people, quoting Prophet Jeremiah predictions that, “out of the north an evil shall break forth upon all inhabitants of the land .” Their writings and depictions became aggrandized. They portrayed Vikings as bands of crazed heathens, intent on destroying and plundering benevolent Christians. This, like the conventional perception of Vikings, contains some truth, but lacks an objective and complete summary of the Scandinavian marauders. Yes, the Vikings were pagans and they attacked Christian settlements maliciously, but more for the wealth located at monasteries as opposed to their religious beliefs. Further, to arrive on the shores of Western Europe and the surrounding area from Scandinavia was no easy task. The Vikings had to cross the North and Baltic Seas to accomplish their exploits. To do so they had to build sturdy ships that could handle the voyage and transport the Vikings safely.
For sheer ship-wrighting skill, there was nothing that surpassed the Viking long ship, like the one found in a burial mound at Gokstad, Norway dated to be 9th century. This type of ship was used by Vikings to cross the seas to the new lands in the west and south. These ships had to ability to sail across the North Atlantic, as well as row up river mouths to surprise inland settlements. The ships were well built and able to endure the harsh seas that surrounded their points of departure. Without their dependable ships, Viking wouldn’t have been able embark, must less succeed, on their voyages to raid or settle distant lands. They were completely reliant upon their waterborne transport. It was vital for them to become skilled sailors. Their nautical accomplishments seemed to be over looked by the Vikings victims. Obviously, they knew the Viking arrived from the seas and were astonished at that, but the capabilities of their vessels were rarely mentioned, nor were their exceptional navigating abilities. The scribes were more concerned with reporting the bloodshed and financial loss they endured, rather than the Vikings nautical prowess.
The Vikings took full advantage of their sailing abilities and for more than 200 years dominated the long-distance trade routes of northern Europe. Through trade and commerce many significant innovations and changes were introduced to Scandinavia during this period. The development of a well-organized trading system with internal routes centered on shipment and points of assembly influenced early town growth. Prior to the Viking Age Scandinavian people lived in small, primarily agricultural settlements. Establishing prosperous trading posts provided the stability to sustain permanent settlements for the Vikings. From these settlements a wide variety of goods were traded. Locally available raw materials such as furs, iron ore, schist for making weathering stones, soapstone for domestic cooking equipment, salt fish, sealskins, walrus ivory, timber and tar were in high demand in western Europe . Furs, honey, wax, ivory and slaves (some captured in the west) were exported to Byzantium and the east. In turn they would import silk, spices and jewelry obtained during their eastern enterprises. Wine, glass, pottery and weapons from western and central Europe were traded abroad as well. Silver was one of the most coveted metals in Scandinavia during the Viking age. One of the most magnificent silver hoards found on Gotland contains rings, brooches, beads and pendants, along with more than 1,000 Islamic, German, Bohemian, Byznatium and English coins (5). The Vikings provided an effective and diverse trading service either directly or indirectly to European and Middle East inhabitants. So, although Vikings tormented Europeans, they were also responsible for many of the commodities and exotic goods they possessed and utilized. Either the Vikings were taking the livelihood of Europeans or they were exchanging merchandise that provided for it. Quite a paradox, a real Jӧrmungandr in Norse terms.

Ulf-Krakuson had been blown far off course by intense storms on his voyage from Norway to Iceland, which led to sighting Greenland. It was this account that motivated Eric the Red to embark on the excursion. Eric was successful in his quest and returned to Iceland three years later in search of settlers to found a new colony on the land Eric dubbed Greenland. It is said that Eric recruited enough volunteers to make up an expedition of 25 ships and set sail in A.D. 985. Only 14 of the ships completed the journey around Cape Farewell to reach the sheltered fjords where there was safe harborage, good fishing and land for pasturage . This was the Eastern Settlement, where Eric selected the most favorable sites for himself. His farm became the settlement’s political center; however, some of the settlers continued to sail westward along the coast approximately 650 kilometers until they reached the shelter of Godthåbsfjord . Here they established the Western Settlement which was located farther north than the Eastern Settlement with small clusters of farms lying between the two. Among the settlers who sailed with Eric’s original expedition were the parents of a man named Bjarni Herjolfsson, who later that year set out from Iceland to join them. In similar fashion to Ulf-Krakuson, his ship was blown off course. He proceeded westward until he came in sight of a flat land covered in trees, which he creatively deemed Markland (“Forestland”). However, Bjarni did not land, but turned northward up the coastline and then east to Greenland. Leif the Lucky, son of Eric the Red, would be the first Norsemen to make landing in North America some ten to fifteen years later by retracing Bjarni’s previous journey. After finding the forested coast Bjarni described he continued on for two further days, eventually arriving at a headland to the southwest he named Vinland (“Vineland”) because of flourishing wild grapes or berries found there. Leif and his band spent the winter before they returned to Greenland.

Thanks given to Viking Roots.

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One thought on “More Than Raiders

  1. Thank you for this rich summary! It reminds me of one of the interviews I heard on Red Ice Radio … perhaps the Robert Ferguson interview … that talked of several possible reasons for the Viking raids on Christianized lands (aside from the gold, etc. that was found at the monasteries). Regardless, it was a rich and complex culture with adept seafarers and ship-builders (and other artisans as well). Thanks again for the snapshot into ancestral history.

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