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© 2001 David Koeller.  All rights reserved.

The Vikings

 

The influence of the Vikings throughout Europe from the raids on Europe in the late 700s AD to the conquest of England in 1066 AD is incredible. The Vikings have become truly legendary, and their feats, such as the discovery of North America, have amazed. Viking leaders managed to take control over many European provinces and became the originators of a few European monarchical dynasties. Indeed, it is almost impossible to find any North European country that has escaped the Viking influence.

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The Vikings themselves have not escaped the influence of their southern neighbors. Originating in Scandinavia, the Vikings were not discovered by Rome until 5 AD. The resulting contact between the two brought Scandinavia more than just trading goods. The Viking Runic alphabet bares some resemblance to Latin and Greek alphabets, although its origins have not been found with complete certainty. Scandinavian art seems to have been influenced by Roman art or by that of Germanic tribes that "were clients of Rome or lived on the borders of its empire. Their weapons, their clothes and many other aspects of their material culture, however, had nothing to do with the Roman world" (Wilson, p. 30).

The Vikings were not converted to Christianity until the 10th and 11th centuries AD. Until then, they worshipped "a pantheon of gods who have an origin in the common Indo-European tradition…The Chief gods were Odin, Thor, Njord and Frey" (Wilson, p. 40). Over time their religion has undergone a transformation from baring an agricultural emphasis to becoming more warlike.

The sea was of vital importance for the Vikings. Much of their lifestyle was dependent on it. This, combined with the religious transformation that the Vikings had undergone had great long-term implications, and it explains their sudden emergence as a terrifying threat to the European settlements.

The Viking attacks started in the end of the 8th century AD, and England was the first victim; the rest of the British Isles and Ireland soon followed. In the 840s AD the Vikings began to create permanent bases in Ireland, thus introducing towns. There is no evidence that indicates that there was a pre-Viking settlement at Dublin, and thus the Vikings appear to be its founders. The brothers Olaf and Ivar established a permanent Norse presence in Ireland in 853 AD.

As the Norwegian Vikings established themselves in Great Britain and Ireland (they dominated the two through the 11th century), they set out to explore the lands further west. On their way, they stumbled upon the Faroe Islands and Iceland some time in the middle of the 9th century. About 900 AD the Vikings discovered Greenland. However, their most intriguing discovery was that of North America in about 1000 AD. The Vikings thought of America as just another island, and they called it Vinland "because there grow wild in that country vines which produce fine wine" (Logan, p. 86).

While the Norwegians were "exploring" the west, the Danish Vikings set out for the south. "Pagan ships attacked the coast of Aquitaine in 799…The significant attacks started in 834" (Logan, p. 112). In 845 AD, the Vikings under Ragnan's leadership took Paris, and left it after receiving 7,000 pounds from Charles the Bald, the king of Franks. After attacking France numerous times, the Vikings started settling there. Eventually, they started venturing even further south. In 814 AD the Vikings attacked Spain, but were swiftly refuted. The Vikings, however, did not take their defeat lightly and came right back around Iberian Peninsula into the Mediterranean, raiding the shore settlements on their way. Thus they encountered the Moors, but after that encounter the remainder of the fleet was lucky to escape and return back to Aquitaine. The second "adventure" (859-862) was much more successful. In 885 the Viking attention was grabbed by France once again. From 885 AD to 886 AD, because of the stubbornness of the Parisians (they did not allow the Vikings pass through Paris), the famous siege of Paris took place, under Sigfrid's leadership. In 886 AD, the Frank king, Charles the Fat, had to pay the Norsemen 700 pounds to lift the siege.

The Vikings' ventures into Eastern Europe were to a great extent trade related. They established trade routes along the Great Russian rivers, such as Volga and Dnieper, and, since some of the major Russian cities were located on those rivers, they came into the direct contact with the Slavs living there. Despite the controversy on the question of the Russian origins, the sources seem to point out "that Russia had its origin in the Rus who were Scandinavians" (Logan, p. 186). It has been also conveyed by the sources that these people called themselves "Rhos, which is probably how the name "Rus" took its root. In 860-862 AD, the three Rus brothers were invited to settle in Russia. Rurik settled in Novgorod and the other two (Sineus and Truvor) settled in Beloozero and Izborsk (Roesdahl, p. 279). It is apparent that the Kievan dynasty was of a Viking origin. Oleg (Helgi), Igor (Inguar) and his wife Olga (Helga) were of Scandinavian descent. "Igor and Olga's son Sviatoslav (957-73) was the first ruler to have a Slav name. In 998 AD his son Vladimir adopted Orthodox Christianity… In the reign of his son Yaroslav the Wise (1014-54) the connection with Scandinavia was sealed by royal marriages" (Roesdahl, p. 279).

Sources:

Logan, Donald F. The Vikings in History. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble books, 1994.

Roesdahl, Else.  The Vikings.  New York, NY: Penguin, Group, 1991.

Wilson, David M.  The Vikings and Their Origins.  New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 1989.


Text copyright 1996-1999 by David W. Koeller. All rights reserved.

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