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Who Were the Vikings?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Vikings were a group of Norse people who have become famous as seafarers, using innovative long-ships to travel across distances that would have been unfathomable to their contemporaries. From around the 8th to the 11th centuries, they dominated the coasts of Europe, developing an empire that touched parts of North America, Africa, and even Asia. Viking culture also had a tremendous influence on the cultures of many regions, especially in Scandinavia.

Many people remember the Vikings as warriors, thanks to the extremely well developed weapons and sometimes brutal methods used to acquire territory. However, they were much more than this, with a complex, lush, and very unique culture. The group produced numerous works of fine art, had a written language, told stories, composed songs, and practiced various pagan religions.

In addition to being good at taking over new coastal territory, the Vikings were also superb shipbuilders, intrepid explorers, and talented artisans and architects. Many remnants of their settlements can be seen today, testifying to the durability and strength of their work, and the discovery of scores of Viking artifacts has changed public opinion of these people quite dramatically. Far from being brutal barbarians, they contributed greatly to the cultures they interacted with, although they committed their fair share of piracy and brutality.

During what is known as the Viking Age, the Vikings established communities along many coastal regions of Europe, contributing Norse words and mythology to the regions they settled in. They also managed to establish successful colonies in harsh regions like Greenland, while discovering lands which would remain unknown to other Europeans for hundreds of years. Ultimately, they were repelled by organized groups of people native to the regions they settled.

The introduction of Christianity is also believed to have played a role in the decline of Viking society. Some converted voluntarily, while others were forced to convert by Christian fanatics, with the choice of conversion or torture and ultimate death. The spread of Christianity across the regions that these people had colonized destabilized their culture, forcing them to flee further and further North, but they left behind an indelible stamp in the form of a genetic, cultural, and linguistic legacy in many regions.

Some people are under the impression that the Vikings were universally large, blonde, hairy, and blue-eyed. In fact, they demonstrated considerable genetic diversity, and far from being a cohesive group, these people can be broken up into numerous smaller groups, each with their own unique cultural traditions. Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian Vikings were all distinctly different, leaving their own marks on the places they visited.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Proxy414 — On Jan 25, 2011

Swedish Vikings settled Russia and navigated some of the long rivers of that land using wheeled boats, capable of being pushed over land to different rivers. The expansion of Germanic peoples has been extensive since then to this day. You can find German communities even in Siberia.

By BioNerd — On Jan 24, 2011

It could be argued that Germanic maritime conquerors like the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who came to England, were early Vikings. These invaders came from Germany and Denmark in search of new lands. This was also a part of the Germanic expansion trend which began during the end of the Roman empire and ultimately caused its collapse.

By BigBloom — On Jan 21, 2011

The Vikings were also the ancestors of the Normans, who conquered Britain and were very influential throughout Europe. Many modern dynasties claim descent from Norman conquerors, including various Irish dynasties such as the FitzGeralds, and the British Royal family. The American royal family, the Kennedys, is also descended from the FitzGerald normans.

By anon91095 — On Jun 19, 2010

what legacy did they leave behind? like did they name the days of the week and how did they name them and such? please I need help!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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