What Hollywood Always Gets Wrong About The Vikings

A thousand years after their last raid, Vikings still fascinate us all. But who were these barbarian raiders, and were they anything like we picture them?
Viking Facts Fire

CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

Centuries after their heyday in the Middle Ages, the Vikings remain a topic of popular fascination. And rightly so: Bold and tough, they fanned out from their bases in Scandinavia to become the terror of European monasteries and villages all over Christendom. With a cunning mix of trading and looting, they battered down whole societies and eventually settled lands from North America to the Black Sea.

Since then, Hollywood and Victorian Romanticists have left us with pop-culture images of these seaborne adventurers, but how accurate is our collective picture of them? These surprising Viking facts hold the answers…

Viking Facts: They Weren’t Really “Vikings”

Real Vikings Torchlight Parade

ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP/Getty ImagesParticipants dressed as Vikings carry torches as they march in procession before burning their viking galley ship at the culmination of the annual Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick, Shetland Islands, on January 31, 2017.

Just about every film or TV depiction of Vikings paints them all with the same brush: Movie Vikings always arrive in a longboat, storm ashore to raid a monastery, and then vanish over the horizon with their stolen booty and captives.

Sometimes, when the fictional depiction has Vikings as the main characters, the story follows these coarse warrior people as they carouse, fight, and smash things with axes.

Vikings were — in the popular imagination, at least — dirty, unintelligible, violent, chaotic, loud, and uninhibited pagans. Even “sympathetic” treatments of Vikings still depict them as rowdy full-time warriors who live for combat and thrive on bloodshed like Medieval Klingons.

This has been a blessing for screenwriters and movie directors; nothing spices up a film like a sword fight, after all, and the antics of huge, ham-fisted savages can’t help but look great on screen.

However, that image, dramatic though it is, falls apart with just a moment’s thought.

No so-called “warrior culture” has ever supported more than a few hundred people at a time. In every large society in history, the vast majority of people have been farmers, and the Vikings were no different.

In fact, the very word “Viking” isn’t an ethnic term; it’s a job description. The Middle English word wik refers to a village or camp, which the wikmen, or wikings, set up on their voyages.

Obviously the farmers, herders, wives, children, and priests rarely made voyages to the places where terrified churchmen were writing the histories, and raiding and burning are far more exciting activities to write about than trading and negotiating treaties, so our modern record of the Norsemen is somewhat slanted toward the pirates and raiders who caused all the trouble between about 800 and 1000 AD.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
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