Who Were the Vikings?

The Viking People

The Viking people were a farming culture who originated in the Scandinavian countries in about the 4th century. Pagan and largely illiterate, they were also fishermen, farmers, carpenters and tradesmen. But it was the seafaring warriors whose raids and invasions throughout Europe between roughly 800-1000 AD who helped to shape the history of the region.

For three centuries, the Viking raiders of the North were the most feared pirates to haunt Europe's shores. At the end of the 8th century their great longboats left Scandinavia's fjords to begin what was for many a reign of terror. Thanks to their primary victims, the priests and monks of the early Christian churches, we have first-hand accounts of the pervasive fear the Viking threat may have instilled in medieval Europe. Without doubt, the Vikings were fearsome warriors but the popular image of their murderous, pillaging ways only provides part of the picture!

Being a viking was a profession for the Norsemen, a seasonal pursuit of wealth and plunder with which they could pay their taxes and feed their families. This began in the late 8th century when Norway became too crowded and resources stretched too thin. The Vikings were ingenious engineers and their shipbuilding technology unparalleled for the time. They were excellent tradesmen, who set up trade routes with the Near and Far East, with Constantinople and Italy. They explored and settled along all the coasts of Europe, gradually assimilating with these populations. They settled in Iceland, Greenland and Normandy – William the Conqueror was descended from Norse stock and in Britain and Ireland.

By the middle of the 10th century, Dublin was an international hub of trade, dealing in gold, silver, silks, weapons, horses, even people as slaves. Thanks to the Nordic settlers, Dublin would become one of the most profitable ports in all of Europe, with the largest slave markets since the fall of Rome.

Origins of the Viking Name

The term Viking, to summarise the many theories on the word’s origin, is thought to date back to Old Norse and referred to a sea journey, or viking, of alternating groups of rowers and before the use of a sail. A víkingr is thought to represent a participant on this journey which was sufficiently long to warrant groups of oarsmen. These terms were attributed to these seafarers once they had begun to dominate the waters. The word ‘Viking’ was only reintroduced to popular language during the 18th century Viking revival when it started to gather the barbaric connotations that endure today. 

Several names have been used to describe the Vikings, some contemporary and some given in retrospect. Whilst the Vikings referred to themselves as Ostmen or men from the East, they became known in Europe as Norsemen, literally Northmen. This “notoriously turbulent race” tended to be from the region that is now Norway and it was this group who first attacked Irish shores. The Vikings of Danish origin invaded and eventually settled primarily in Britain. When they did come to Ireland the evidence suggests that they also fought the Norsemen and sometimes allied with the Irish to do so.

Vikings, Norse, names

Generally these unwelcome visitors were referred to by the Irish as the lochlannach which loosely means foreigners but also implies raider, robber or marauder. References in early Irish literature, written in Middle Irish, use this term to describe “huge and ugly” pirates! This comes from the term Laithlind, a kingdom established in what is now Norway, though some sources believe this to be Viking Scotland, from whence most 9th century invasions to Ireland came. We know that it was on behalf of the King of Laithlind, Turgesius or Turgéis, that the raids in Ireland were carried out, and lasted for a dozen years in mid-9th century.The annals tells us, for instance, that he “assumed the sovereignty of all the foreigners in Ireland”, in other words the Vikings or Norse that had begun to settle here.

Lochlannach has also been translated as 'from the lakes' as they were a seafaring people whose striking longships would have populated the waterways and seas of these times. Also Celtic and pagan beleif saw the sea as the Otherworld and we know this as it was common for the Vikings to make votive offereings to the watery places such as lakes, many of which have been found. These finds are listed in Viking Finds in Ireland.  

Viking Expansion and their Legacy

Viking Expansion and their Legacy

Possible reasons for the Viking expeditions throughout Europe may have included and combined population growth, political pressure and personal gain. The Scandinavian population was growing and many were looking for lands to colonise; others wanted to profit from the new trading routes and merchant centres that had developed in Northern Europe. It is also possible that weather was an issue and the Vikings may have sought lands that provided a milder climate with copious forests....read more