Vikings! Who Were They – And How Did They Get That Name, Anyway?

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The definition of the word ‘Viking’ in the Oxford Dictionaries is as follows:

Any of the Scandinavian seafaring pirates who raided and settled in many parts of North West Europe in the 8th and 9th centuries.

According to many films, TV series (not documentaries) and novels, the hiss of that single word, ‘Vikings!’, stuck terror into the hearts of peoples across North West Europe – especially the inhabitants of coastal or riverine settlements. But, from what I’ve deduced from a variety of texts, the word was not generally used at the time.

The origin of the word is still open to debate, but it’s undoubtedly an ancient word, as it appears on rune stones of the Viking Age. In some cases it refers to a person who travels, or an adventurer, and it is possible that even at this time the word applied to raiders. Yet, according to David Wilson in his book, ‘The Vikings of the Isle of Man’, the term was not in general usage in the English language until the mid nineteenth century.

Referring to the Hurstwic website:

In the Norse language, vikingr means a man from vik, where vik may have the sense of a bay, or the specific bay called Vikin in the south of Norway. Perhaps the name was applied because the first Viking raiders were from Vikin, or perhaps the raiders waited in sheltered bays for their victims.

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No one can doubt that such raids took place but, at the time, the marauders, and later on, settlers, would collectively have been referred to as ‘Northmen’, or ‘Norsemen’ – men from the north.

In the ninth century, the Northmen / Norsemen who raided and eventually settled in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (which did not become known as England until the tenth century) would have come primarily from the area we now know as Denmark and from Norway. Most of the Swedes tended to head east, up river valleys into the heart of Eurasia. Like England, the names of Denmark, Norway and Sweden did not exist either, and the entire region would have been called the Norselands.

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When writing fiction, this becomes quite problematic, and it is often easier to use the names we know today – which I have done in places in my own novels, Shadow of the Raven and Pit of Vipers (the latter should be on Amazon soon).

I know I’m not alone when I say I find the Viking world fascinating. Norse mythology is both complex and colourful, the multiple gods and goddesses and their entire universe a trigger for the imagination.

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Odin, the All Father, with his two ravens, Hugin and Munin (Thought and Memory)

I realise that certain aspects of the Viking culture leave some people shouting utter condemnation – the blood sacrifices to the gods and the barbaric raids in particular. But what we have to bear in mind is that moral standards of the period were so vastly different to those of most modern-day cultures. Many such practices were based on the need for survival throughout the harsh winter months. Raids gained the Viking people silver, or goods to trade or sell in order to buy basic requirements of everyday life, including food. Today we may well see their actions as monstrous, but it’s simply how it was.

And let’s not forget, the Vikings were only one group of the many such raiders, including the Anglo-Saxons, who, by the time of the first Viking raids (as on the monastery at Lindisfarne) were well established Christians. I’m sure you could list a whole lot more.

One of my earliest encounters with Vikings was in the 1950’s film, aptly entitled, ‘The Vikings’. I’m sure even those amongst you who hadn’t even been born then, have heard of it. Well, in 1959, at the age of eleven, I loved it. I was on holiday with my family in the Isle of Man – and what wet and cheerless weather we had! So we had an afternoon at the cinema. Now, of course, the film is too dated and corny to interest real Viking fans, like me.shutterstock_123315433

*****

About milliethom

I am a reader and writer of historical fiction with a keen interest in the Earth's history and all it involves, both physically and socially. I like nothing better than to be outdoors, especially in faraway places, and baking is something I do when my eyes need respite from my computer screen.
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4 Responses to Vikings! Who Were They – And How Did They Get That Name, Anyway?

  1. Interesting stuff. I’m a little surprised the British Museum’s recent Vikings exhibition didn’t touch on the subject.

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you for your comment. I haven’t been to the Vikings exhibition yet, and should probably do so as soon as possible! As I said in an earlier post, I’m more of an expert in geology than history. Everything I know about the Vikings is down to my own research, and I’ll happily admit to any mistakes I make. I don’t think the origin of the word ‘viking’ is in question. As to It’s usage in the 9th century, I don’t believe I’m wrong, but I’m not infallible. I’ll certainly check again. So thank you again.

  2. shanechall says:

    I like the idea of an honest story set from a Viking clan’s perspective, not condemning them but fully aware and immersed in their mystical elements and daily life. I’ll be sure to give Shadow of the Raven a look.

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you for your kind words and for following my blog. We both know it’s not easy starting out as an author. As I said, I’ll certainly be catching up with your work-in-progress, and hope to be able to comment on it. Happy writing . . .

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