Prof. Christine Ekholst

They didn’t really wear helmets with horns on them, and they weren’t really much taller than other Europeans. The reality of who the Vikings were is actually more interesting than the myths in popular culture. History professor Christine Ekholst explores what we know about the lives, culture and history of Vikings in her new course for third-year U of G students.

She taught the course for the first time in the winter 2013 semester: “It was immensely popular; it filled up immediately.”

That’s not surprising. Because of movies like Thor and the History channel series Vikings, these explorers have become part of popular culture and sparked interest in learning more about them.

There’s lots to learn, says Ekholst. “The image we have of Vikings is that they are huge, red-haired, brutally violent and stupid. Is this true? Yes and no. The Vikings were definitely violent, but so were many others at that time in history. The Viking culture also emphasized intelligence in both men and women.”

She says researchers have also found that the Viking men were quite particular about their appearance – tweezers, scissors and colourful clothes have been found among their belongings.

They were skilled sailors, and the stories about a mysterious “sun stone” that helped them navigate have recently been validated. A research team led by Gabor Horvath of Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary took birefringent crystals on ships to prove that the Vikings could have used them to locate the position of the sun even when it was obscured by clouds or fog.

Whether or not they actually used the sun stone, the Vikings managed to travel great distances over water. Most people know that they reached Europe and North America, but many don’t realize that they also travelled to present-day North Africa, Russia/Ukraine and Iran, and traded with the Islamic Empire and the Byzantine Empire. During this time, they also created settlements in several places. Vikings founded the city of Dublin, for example.

Iceland was the only settlement where the Viking culture was preserved, though. Vikings were more than fierce fighters and explorers: they had a way of life that was quite different from that of their neighbours.

“One reason Vikings were so feared was because they were not Christian,” Ekholst says. “They had a very developed culture and followed the Old Norse religion of many gods: a completely different mindset and belief system. They really didn’t see a separation of good and evil; all the gods they believed in did both good and evil things.”

Adherents to this faith believed that the greatest thing a man could do would be to die in battle with his sword in his hand. “If you died that way, you’d join Odin, the king of the gods, in Valhalla,” Ekholst explains. “That’s why so many young men were rushing into danger. Death was not frightening; a death in battle could be a very good thing.” And while only men could reach Valhalla, this warrior culture also respected women who were tough and smart, she adds.

Viking women needed to be very independent, of course, because the men were often out conducting raids and could be gone for long periods of time.

Many did settle down, though. Ekholst says, “To be a Viking was to be a pirate. Young men saw it as a way to gain riches, and it really was a win-win situation. Either you would be successful in your raids and come home wealthy and able to buy land and pay a dowry for a wife and settle down, or you would die in battle and go to Valhalla.”

Honour was more valued than life, and to gain honour on the battlefield was the greatest possible accomplishment, she adds.

All that happened over a relatively short time in history: the Vikings first appear in European records in 793 when a group attacked a monastery in what is now England. The end of the Viking era is less precise. “It faded away over time, rather than having a single, more dramatic ending,” says Ekholst. “In France, you could say it was over in 911 when a Viking chief and his men were given Normandy and settled there. In England, it ends in 1066 when Viking descendants took over England, but by about 1100 most Vikings in Scandinavia were absorbed into Christianity, which led to a big change in culture, and there were no more Viking raids.”

One way Guelph students are able to gain more insights into Viking culture is by studying the various medieval sagas recording their exploits, which Ekholst describes as “violent but often funny. They are quite different from other medieval sources and much more accessible.”

She will offer the popular course again next winter.