Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Vikings in Iceland - Their History and Culture

We all have heard about Vikings. Thousands of legends and myths tell stories about the feared men from the North. From frightening stories about how vicious they were to how they were able to tame the seas while looking for new land. Many of these stories are true, but not all of them. Do you want to learn about the people that colonized Iceland? Then stick around because we are about to get historical up in here!

History teacher with books about Vikings

Where do Vikings originally come from?


Vikings came from the cold northern European region of Scandinavia. Even though nowadays we think of them as a whole, Viking tribes came from three different large territories. These were Denmark, Norway and Sweden; the Danish group being the largest one. Even though they had the same language and religion, their interests were a bit different.

The Danish tended to look for spoils in foreign lands, the Norwegians liked to find new places to live and the Swedes preferred exploring Russia and Western Europe. The word “Viking” in our modern language seems to derive from the old Scandinavian word “Vikingr,” and it described anyone who leaves their homeland in search of new lands and wealth. The verb “víking” means to travel or be a part of those adventures. To a certain extent, the word can also mean “pirate.” Modern Icelandic is something else inherited from the Vikings, but more on that later.

What did Vikings look like?


The image we have in our minds of Vikings is of tall, strong, blond people with horned helmets, long beards and menacing looks. Historians have already confirmed the horned helmet story is not true. It was a slanderous legend to depict them as demons and savage people.

Pillaging, vicious wildmen are what we associate with the Vikings

As far as looks are concerned, Vikings did have quite fair complexions, but there was some diversity. Not every Viking was blond-haired and blue-eyed. There were also Vikings with fair skin and dark hair. There were even a few redheads. Many people would be surprised to know that the average height of Vikings in the Middle Ages was 1.7 meters for men and 1.58 for women. This translates to roughly 5 foot 8 for men and 5 foot 2 for women. By today’s standards, this is not exactly tall, but back in the olden days, they were approximately 10 centimeters (4 inches) taller than their European neighbors.

What was Viking culture like?


The legacy of the Vikings continues to this day. They created an alphabet called “runes,” and they used it to described their world and their customs.

Before converting to Christianity, Vikings were pagan and had a large pantheon where the main god was Odin. They had two main groups of gods: The Vanir and the Aesir. Odin, Thor and Freyja belong to the Aesir and dwell in the Asgard, a place connected to earth. Most of the mythology and legends about gods, trolls, elves and magical creatures remains within Scandinavian countries. Vikings spoke old Norse and as they colonized other lands, new dialects were created. These dialects evolved into the modern languages we know today: Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic and Faroese. From all of these languages, Icelandic is the one that remains closest to the original old Norse. But why? Well, let’s find out!

Scandinavian runes. Icelandic descended from Old Norse.

Vikings Settlements in Iceland 


The Vikings started their settlement of Iceland around the 874 AD. They discovered the island by mistake while trying to navigate to Scotland and the Faroese Islands. The Nordic island was then a migration point for thousands of Vikings, most of whom came from Norway with their slaves from Ireland and Scotland.

As Iceland is a remote island in the North Atlantic Ocean, the settled area remained isolated for thousands of years. Old Norse evolved into Icelandic, but due to the aforementioned isolation, Icelandic does not have a heavy influence from other foreign languages and remains close to its original roots. Nowadays, even Icelandic children can read the old Nordic sagas in their original language and can understand them. Amazing, right?

So now you know. Stop wearing those horned helmets on Halloween or Mardi Gras if you want to be historically accurate. Now that you are an expert on Vikings you'll need to live up to your title.

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