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

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History is all around us

There are so many wonderful sites around the world that serve as a constant reminder of our past. Such sites can also stimulate the imaginations of writers of historical fiction and, in many novels, form the backdrop against which the characters can play out their tales.

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Castlerigg Stone Circle, Cumbria

I’ve even visited a few such places myself. I’ve stood with the rest of a tour group and goggled at Egyptian and Greek temples, the Bronze Age ruins at Knossos, and the remains of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Carthage. The splendours of these places will stay with me forever: they are locked inside my head. The colours, sounds and smells, and the clamour of the local people at any one of these places can spring to life again in an instant if I should just close my eyes…

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Wayland’s Smithy: long barrow, Oxfordshire, UK

I suppose I’m lucky to live in a country where every city, town, or village can boast some structure or crumbling ruin that owes its origins to a bygone age. In Britain we have everything from prehistoric stone circles, tumuli and hill forts, to Roman walls, villas and bath-houses and medieval castles and cathedrals.

The remains of the Roman arch on Newport, Lincoln
The remains of the Roman arch on Newport, Lincoln
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Lincoln Cathedral. The first foundations of this magnificent structure were laid in 1088

And so it continues throughout the centuries, through Tudor and Stuart times to the period of the great Victorian architects and builders. And side by side with those great structures stand the simpler, quaint old cottages and farmhouses.

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The Ribblehead Viaduct carries the Settle to Carlisle railway, built 1870-74

Writers of historical fiction, or rather, good writers of historical fiction, have the knack of making those bygone times seem like now. They bring the action alive, so that we see, hear, smell, feel or even taste whatever the characters in the story are experiencing. And that is a commendable skill, one that I kept firmly in mind whilst I was writing my own first book, Shadow of the Raven.

I’ll finish off with these thought-provoking  quotes:

I think that all of us who write about the past feel a deep and haunting connection with it. Socrates said that all knowledge is possessed by the soul and it’s just a matter of remembering it. I believe that to be true.’

(Karen Essex)

The truth of it is that it is simply not possible to create an accurate portrait of the past. No one can faithfully reproduce the reality of the 1970’s, let alone the 1570’s.

(Tim Wilcox)

History never looks like history when you are living through it.’

(Samuel Butler)

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