Everybody knows what a Viking is. Well … more or less. These images may vary widely in detail and accuracy, but the general idea is there. There have been many magnificent warrior cultures in history – the Scythians, the Visigoths, the Sarmatians, the Pechenegs, the Mamelukes, and on and on – but very few have attained the household name status the Vikings have.
But what does the word “Viking” actually mean? It may come as a surprise to some, but this very question has become the topic of intense debate recently. It is increasingly common to find posts with comments lighting up over “Viking” being a verb not a noun, or Vikings not really being Scandinavian, or any number of challenges to what has long been taken for granted.
Aside from proving that people will argue about anything – even 9th century grammar and the DNA of 1000 year-old mass graves – what can we learn from a closer look at some of these issues? So, how did Vikings come to be called Vikings? What did they call themselves, and what were they called by the people around them?
‘Viking’ in Old Norse
‘Viking’ in Old Norse (the language the Vikings spoke) is víkingr. The ‘r’ on the end is essentially a grammatical feature of Old Norse for denoting a masculine noun. It is often dropped in English transliteration (for example, people may write the name of the god Freyr as Frey or King Sygtryggr as King Sihtric). In Old Norse, víkingr was someone who was a seaborne raider/adventurer.
There has been a lot of discussion over the origins of this word. One of the most prevalent explanations is that it derives from the root word vík, which meant a bay (somewhere víkingr were likely to launch out of). A similar theory links it to the geographical location in southwest Norway called Vík, where many Vikings hailed from. However, Vikings were also from Sweden, Denmark, and numerous other places, so the “Vík region” theory is not especially satisfactory.
It should be noted that there are several other Old Norse aquatic terms that also contain the root vík (such as vika – a sea mile, or víkja – to travel by sea ), and so it is fair enough to say that the word víkingr arose from this general family of vík terms, without expecting much more specificity than that.
Noun or Verb
Víkingr and other forms of the word, such as víkingum or víkingar (plurals), appear as nouns describing Scandinavian seaborne raiders in the sagas, Eddic poetry, and runestones. Just a few examples of such Viking Age runestone inscriptions include:
"Tóki, Tóki the Viking, raised the stone in memory of Gunnarr, Grímr's son. May God help his soul!" (Sm 10 runestone)
"Hvatarr and Heilgeirr(?) raised the stone in memory of Helgi, their father. He traveled to the west with the Vikings." (G 370 runestone)
"Asrathr and Hildung/Hildvig/Hildulf erected this stone after Fretha, their kinsman, … he died in Sweden and was first .... of every Viking." (DR 216 runestone)
There are many other examples besides these, but here we see literally carved in stone the term “Viking” being used as a noun and to denote people. From the context, it does not seem that “Viking” referred to everybody, though, but to some type of traveling warrior.
‘Viking’ also used as a Verb in Old Norse
In English, words that end in ‘–ing’ are usually verbs in progress, such as talking, walking, writing, and so forth. However, the word ‘Viking’ is a “loan word” coming to us from another language. So, it is a mistake to attach such a meaning from this ‘–ing’ suffix, just as it is a mistake to see ‘-king’ as the suffix describing the Viking as the king (or superlative) of whatever “vi” might be. That being said, víking could also be a verb in Old Norse. This verb meant the act of seaborne raiding or adventuring. So, a víkingr would víking, or in other words, a seaborne raider would raid by sea. In many historical fiction books, this is rendered “to go viking.”
There is no evidence to suggest that the verb was more prevalent than the noun or adjective. However, it is fair to say that Vikings used their terms víkingr and víking differently than we use these terms. Let us now look to see why that is.
What Vikings Called Themselves, and What Other People Called Them
People tend to look at the past through the lens of their current cultural values, beliefs, and expectations. However, it is essential to remember that in our ancestors' times many of the ideals, concepts, and information we now take for granted had not developed yet. Today, one of the strongest ways people identify is by their nationality – we are Americans, Norwegians, Irish, and so forth. But, while many of Europe's nations began to form and organize in the Viking Age (circa 793-1066), national identity was then only in its embryonic stages.
At the dawn of the Viking Age, the Nordic peoples of Scandinavia shared a common language, culture, and faith (though with significant regional variations). However, they did not share a strong sense of common identity, as evidenced by their constant wars, raiding, and competition – even within the geographical boundaries of their homeland. They were divided into numerous tribes (such as the Jutes, the Zealanders, the Svear, the Geats, and many more). Their societies were arranged in small units (usually with strong kinship bonds), and their allegiance was to local chieftains or petty kings. The first “King of All Norway,” Harald Fairhair (who inspired the TV character of a similar name), did not consolidate power until a century into the Viking Age, and the political boundaries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden would not solidify for several centuries after that.
So, while Vikings used the term víkingr for a seaborne adventurer, early medieval Scandinavian peoples had no overarching name for themselves. They did not think that way. Instead, they identified themselves by family, clan, and tribal loyalties. During the Viking Age, these intimate groups formed larger and larger networks and affected greater and greater changes far from home.
Vikings might not have had a common term for themselves, but their enemies had many. The English and the French tended to call them all Danes. Archeology is abundantly clear, though, that the “Great Heathen Army,” the “Army of the Seine,” and these other large forces were not just Danes but mixed companies from locations wherever Vikings roamed.
English monks, writing in Latin, also adopted the word, Wiccinga/Wiccingi (the Old English form of ‘viking’ in Latinized singular and plural forms). This capitalization in the manuscripts strongly suggests the Vikings were known by that name, and that it is not just a generic descriptor. One of the few named Viking groups from the period, the Jomsvikings (Vikings of Joms), also had chosen the name for themselves.
There were other names in other places. In Ireland, the Vikings were called “the Foreigners.” In the east – Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Byzantine Empire, Bulgaria, and the Mediterranean – Vikings were called Varangians (“sworn companions”) and Rus’. To the Moors of Spain and the Arabs around the Caspian, they were called Majūs.
The Viking Diaspora
Within a few centuries of the first raids, Vikings controlled significant holdings in more than a dozen lands and had traveled through what are now more than 40 countries. In every case, the Vikings wasted no time in blending with local populations. We have accounts of Vikings being Norse-Irish and Norse-Slavic by the mid-9th century. The Vikings became an indelible part of England and even ruled it for a time. Desperate to control their Viking problem, the French gave Rollo Normandy – only for these “Normans” to spread to Italy and even the Holy Land. Vikings founded Iceland, colonized Greenland, and set up lasting residence in islands all over the North Atlantic.
This dynamic movement did not just occur in one direction. Though thousands of Vikings stayed abroad and formed new, permanent communities, many others brought their loot and military experience back home to Scandinavia. This influx of wealth and warriors created the political and martial power that gave rise to kings like Harald Fairhair, Harald Bluetooth, Gorm the Old, and Saint Olaf the Stout.
For our present discussion, though, this dramatic and dynamic movement of people introduces problems of terminology. It is cumbersome and anachronistic to refer to these people by names such as Danes, Norwegians, or Swedes when they were from many different places in the Viking world, like Dublin, the Danelaw, the Orkneys, Novgorod, the Faroes, or Iceland.
The terms ‘Norse’ and ‘Nordic’ are useful when describing the Vikings as an ethnicity or discussing their culture, but these terms are imprecise in terms of time (that is, we could be speaking of the Norse of the year 1000 or the year 1). Also, the term ‘Norse’ has traditionally been used primarily for Norway or western Scandinavia. Indeed, the term “Norsemen” taken narrowly as “Norwegians” excludes Danes, Swedes, and even women. "Northmen," too, is quite vague. In many ways, we are at the same disadvantage in labeling these people as their contemporaries were.
Were Vikings Exclusively Scandinavian?
In the fall of 2020, a news story was picked up by a large number of mainstream media outlets describing newly-published DNA research suggesting that Vikings were not exclusively “blonde” Scandinavians, but included individuals from southern Europe and beyond. This was a sensational story that got a lot of traction.
However, it is really nothing new. Vikings traveled very widely and took people with them (voluntarily and involuntarily) as they went. Their society was ultimately a meritocracy (that is, a person’s place was based on what they offered to the society), especially in diaspora. It should come as no surprise whatsoever that Viking bands were diverse, especially compared to settlements inland.
The sagas and Eddas have always described the back and forth flow of people in and out of Scandinavia. The biggest hero in the Vikings’ favorite story, Sigurd Fafnir’s Bane, was a Hun (that is, a people who were originally horsemen from the plains of Asia). Snorri Sturluson and Saxo Grammaticus (medieval writers who give us some of our oldest written Viking lore) both try to tie the Yngling Dynasty of Sweden to the survivors of Troy.
However, despite this level of integration (stated in the broadest and vaguest terms by the news stories) the Viking bands were still overwhelmingly Scandinavian, as their culture, technology, and two centuries of archeology maintain. The Viking Age was a phenomenon generated from northern seas, and it is in that context that the term ‘Viking’ makes sense. At the same time that Europe was experiencing Viking expansion, there was also raiding (by land and sea) from the Moors, Saracens, Turks, and Magyars. The Medieval Europeans did not call these other threats by the same names they called Vikings, but understood them to be different peoples. In this regard, “Vikings” and the other titles they were known by have long been an indicator of a specific people.
The Modern Coining of the Name, “Viking”
In the late 18th-early 20th centuries, the western world started to branch out from its obsession with Greece and Rome and take a fresh look at their medieval past. Fueled by the Romantic aesthetic, the rediscovery and translation of the Eddas and by amazing archeological discoveries like the sensational Oseberg ship burial, the Vikings took the popular imagination by storm. But while the historical importance of their contributions was reappraised and the value of their artistry reestablished, there was still the same uncertainty of what to call them.
It was at this time that historians and writers (including the popular Romantic novelist, Sir Walter Scott) began the wholesale application of the term ‘Vikings.’ Yes, the term used to mean a seaborne adventurer, but it was their longships and their profound ethos that had led to this unprecedented time of exploration, trade, conquest, communication, and influence. It seemed fitting that these people should be called after their own word for what made them so powerful and impactful. The term 'Viking' was never meant to replace the term 'Scandinavian' (or any other term). It was meant to specifically refer to those 8th-11th century Scandinavian adventurers who shattered their world's boundaries and catalyzed global history. But we know from archeology and the written record that these adventurers were not just ‘raiders’ on longships. Instead, they were also traders and settlers, made up of entire families of pioneers and armed migratory communities. In this way, men, women, children, and the elderly were all ‘Vikings.’
The name stuck. Today, it is the most common name by which they are known in popular culture. It is also accepted and used by most scholars, museums, universities, writers, and experts (though these same scholars fully understand the term’s limitations).
Not everyone is happy, though. A movement insists that calling Vikings "Vikings" is inappropriate because only seaborne raiders were Vikings and only when they were raiding (i.e. to be used as a verb or "vocation" only). Detractors point out that most people living in Scandinavia in the 8th-11th century were farmers and shepherds and probably never went anywhere. Thus, they attack the term Vikings for being imprecise and misapplied. Unfortunately, they can only offer alternatives that are also imprecise and misapplied
Scandinavian society of the Viking Age was divided into three classes - jarls (aristocrats), karls (free landholders) and thralls (slaves and servants). The majority of society were free landholders. This central class's rhythm of life was to tend their farms and plant their crops in the spring, then go raiding and trading (that is, “go viking”) in the summer to increase their wealth and status, and then return to their farms for harvest. They would shelter indoors for the winter, telling stories which reinforced the whole process. There were professional soldiers in Viking times, but it was these free landholders that formed the bulk of the armies. That is how the Viking assaults on Europe grew so exponentially - they had skilled manpower available that could provide for themselves. While some of the larger armies after 830 deviated from this model, it was still normative throughout the Viking Age.
Thus, many, many Scandinavian males in the Viking Age had indeed been víkingar, and this was a vital part of their personal identity. Archeology also maintains that women and families played a role in these efforts, especially in the Viking Diaspora. So, it is not unreasonable that the term ‘Viking’ could be applied to them, too.
Today, an American man or woman might spend their early twenties in the Marine Corps. Even this relatively small percentage of their life makes them a Marine forever. They will always carry the pride, identity, and skills, and you will always see the marks of those experiences in how they dress, how they talk, and how they carry themselves. It would have been the same for Vikings. We see in the sagas, people are referred to as “a great Viking,” even when they have settled down in a farm in Iceland. That kind of pride is permanent.
The Vikings have always been a mysterious and misunderstood people. They have been known by many names – Foreigners, Heathens, Varangians, Rus, Majūs, Wiccingi, Danes, Northmen, and now Vikings. What they were called was always based on how they were perceived and what aspect of their character the reaction was based on. For us today, it is their impact on the history of the world, their boldness, ethos, determination, and their ability to bend realities to their will that are their most important features. It is not their tribal identities but rather their collective achievements and common contribution that makes them special, and that is why they are called Vikings.
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- Rodgers, D. G. & Noer, K. Sons of Vikings: History, Legends, and Impact of the Viking Age. Kindle Direct Press, United States.
- Price, N. Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. Basic Books, New York, 2020.
- Brownworth, L. The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings. Crux Publishing, Ltd. The United Kingdom. 2014.
- The Russian Primary Chronicle by Nestor the Chronicler (1113). The Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/TheRussianPrimaryChronicle
- Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travelers in the Far North. (Translated by Lunde, P. & Stone, C.). Penguin. London. 2012.
- Crawford, J. The Word “Viking” (Quick Takes). March 9, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IoEaxlLCSjg&t=17s