Vikings: Myth, Saga, and Reality

Vikings - many myths surround this era and the people of Scandinavia who lived during this time. Were they raiders, traders, or a bit in-between? Let's look into what a Viking was and what the word meant, and who could call themselves a Viking. As we will learn, it is less clear-cut than one might believe.

I will also talk about the Viking horned helmets. Are these accurate depictions? The answer might be surprising and have a strange connection to the Scandinavian Bronze Age.

Did the Vikings have tattoos, as in the famous TV show? What do we know about their body art? Is the Vegvisir a Viking symbol? And why should you make an appointment with your dentist instead of a tattoo artist to have the Viking look?

I'll also investigate why the sheep was one of the most important animals in Scandinavia and might have been the reason for the Viking raids and slavery. At last, we will learn that the Vikings might have based their society on their looks.

In Digging up Ancient Aliens, our host Fredrik uses his background in archaeology to discover what is genuine, fake, and somewhere in between in popular media, such as Ancient Aliens, Ancient Apocalypse, and many other places.

In this episode:

When was the Viking age? 2:16

Who is a Viking? 10:48

Vikings and horned helmets 20:19

Viking Tattoos 26:11

Wool and Steel 34:19

Classy Vikings 40:22

Sources, resources and further reading suggestions

Hi, hello, and välkommen to Digging Up Ancient Aliens. This is the podcast where we examine strange claims about alternative history and ancient aliens in popular media. Do their claims hold water to an archeologist, or are there better explanations out there? 

This is episode 42, and I'm your host, Fredrik. It's still vacation time here in Sweden when this is recorded, and I don't have access to my usual library. So I decided to do an episode about a topic that is my specialty, the Vendel and Viking period in Scandinavia. If Andrew Kinkella could talk about his work on Mayan cenotes in his show "Psuedo-archaeology with Kinkella," I can spend an hour talking about Vikings and common myths, darn it. So that is what we will do.

I'll talk about the beginning of the Vendel/Viking age; then, we will discuss who would be a Viking. I'll then talk about the horned helmets, and that they are a real thing, we just put them in the wrong period. Then I'll upset some by talking about Viking tattoos and magic. We will also learn why the Vikings needed a lot of sheep. Lastly, I'll show that the Scandinavian society during this era was a constant beauty competition among men. 

Remember that you can find sources, resources, and reading suggestions on our website, There you also find contact info if you notice any mistakes or have any suggestions. And if you like the podcast, I would appreciate it if you left one of those fancy five-star reviews I've heard so much about. 

Now that we have finished our preparations let's dig into the episode.

When was the Viking Age?

So where do we start a story like this? As with any other tale, we might be interested in knowing when our account takes place. So when we speak about the Viking Age, we discuss a relatively short chapter in Scandinavian history. For the purpose of our saga, we will also include the Vendel period. An even shorter branch on our tree of time and is, I believe, relatively unknown outside of Sweden. 

When it comes to chronology, it's understandably easy to forget that there is no global Stone Age, Bronze Age, or Metal Age in general. For example, some of you might think the Iron Age would be the same across Europe and the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, that's far from the case here; for example, in the Near East, by convention, the Iron Age lasted from the Bronze Age collapse around 1200 BCE to about 500 BCE. Compare this to Central and Western Europe, where the Iron Age is defined to be between 800 BCE to 1 BCE. Add to this mess Northern Europe where the Iron Age last from 500 BCE to 800 CE. To throw some more chronology your way here in Sweden, we have split the Iron Age into sub-chronologies, starting at Pre-Roman Iron Age, Roman Iron Age, and Migration Period, and continuing through the Vendel period that is set to begin at 550 CE. So while Sweden is enjoying an excellent Vendel period, the rest of Europe has entered the middle ages already. But when does the Viking age start, then?

It was June, but Cenric still used his cloak; the air was nippy, and one could easily believe it was March. His belly grumbled; while the monastery had been spared from the worst of the famine, they were not immune. Lunch had not been too long ago, but he was already longing for supper, he thought while scurrying past the refectory for his work at the herb garden. None had just been sung, and it was time for work. The abbot had been looking worried, and who could blame him? Cenric had seen the sign himself, the sudden whirlwinds, the lightning cracking over the sky, and even worse. The dragons flying on the horizon, and one could think they moved closer each time the lightning struck. A sign of the devil if there was one. 

Cenric took up a shovel, no need to worry now. God has sent me a bit of sun, and the wind is still; all things will be well in God's hand, Cenric thought. He pushed the shovel into the earth, but suddenly the tintinnabulation from the abbey's bells boomed. It could not be, this had never happened, but in the distance, he could hear the shout of warriors. Lindisfarne was under attack.

Today we put the start of the Viking Age at the raid of the monastery of Lindisfarne in 793 CE. This monastery was located on a small island in Northumbria. At the time, it was an important place for the Catholic faith in Brittain, and many churches saw this location as their mother church. But the attack did make a number on the people of Britain, and we have details of the attack preserved in two of the surviving manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. There's also a letter from the scholar Alcuin of York to bishop Higbald in Lindisfarne. Alcuin wrote, "The distress of your suffering fills me daily with deep grief, when heathens desecrated God's sanctuaries, and poured the blood of saints within the compass of the altar, destroyed the house of our hope, trampled the bodies of saints in God's temple like animal dung in the street."

Since the attack can't have started a whole culture, the start date is a bit up for discussion. We see a lot of proto-Viking elements during the Vendel period, and we might have to ask ourselves if there's a need to have a chronological separation between these two periods.

Because some of the typical Viking elements seem to have been far spread and established lore in 700 CE, we know this due to the picture stones we have found on Gotland, for example. Gotland is an island in the Baltic Sea that, through the ages, has been an essential hub for particularly trade. However, the picture stones show us that the culture and stories we primarily associate with the Vikings were established on Gotland, far east of Denmark, Norway, and mainland Sweden most likely during 700 CE.

Ten stones were located in the small parish of Ardre on Gotland. Some were runestones, and others were picture stones, one of which has become known as the Völundastone. Scholars, however, will often refer to it as Ardre VIII. The name comes from the Poetic Edda and the Völundarkviða, a story that revolves around the smith Völund and his fate after being taken captive by Níðuðr, the lord of Njarar. Most scholars place this in the modern Swedish province of Närke today in central Sweden. On the stone, we can see Odin on Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse, and we see Völund escaping Níðuðr. We also see ships that give us a bit of insight into how the Viking age sails might have looked as.

But there are more stones, still on Gotland, we find in Lärbro perish four phallic-shaped picture stones. Two of them, referred to as Stora Hammar I and III, have become somewhat famous due to their depictions. On stone one, we have six panels depicting mythological and religious functions. The panel that's maybe the most interesting is panel three where what's usually thought of as a depiction of sacrifices. To the left, hanging from a tree, we see a man hanging; to his right, we see another man bent over and another gentleman using what seems to be a weapon on his back. Above this scene is a valknut and a raven; could it be a blood eagle depicted on this stone? While we can't be entirely sure, it can be argued that human sacrifice was most likely important in Viking society. 

On the fourth panel, we see what might be a reference to a story from, among others, Skaldarskaparmál about Hildr. In this panel, we see two groups of warriors about to go to war against each other; the left side, however, is led by a woman. We find this scene again at a different picture stone in Smiss parish on Gotland. We will have to talk about women warriors, valkyries, and the amazons of the north in another episode.

One last panel, and it's on Stora Hammar III, here we can see a depiction of Odin stealing the mead of poetry from the giants Gunnlöð and Suttungr. An interesting detail is that the eagle in the scene has a beard like Odin. But it shows that what we would refer to as Viking culture seems to have been present before the attack on Lindisfarne and that the period might need to be redefined. 

Who is a Viking

So who would be considered a Viking? If you go online today on your social media site of choice and start to read the discussions on Vikings, you will hear a lot of claims being thrown around. Some will tell you that Viking is not a culture but a job title, some will claim it's a culture, and some will, of course, spew neo-nazi junk at you.

So how is it then? Is Viking a job, a culture, or something more complex? The short answer is yes. When archaeologists or historians speak about Vikings, we don't only talk about those who went raiding. We often talk about culture. But since we have associated the start of the Viking age with raiding, it is not surprising that we named it as such. So when we speak about the Vikings, we often talk about a group living primarily in modern Scandinavia that shared language, culture, and religion. We don't know what the Vikings referred to themself as. If you had asked UlfR or Gunnhildr, they would most likely just give you the location of where they lived. 

We would have gotten different answers if we had asked the people living around and near the Vikings what they called them. The most common, however, would be pagans or gentiles. They were also called Danes in Britain. In today's France, the Vikings were referred to as Northmen or Danes. The Irish even separated between the Norwegians, who they called Finngall, translating to something like "white forigner," and the Danes, referred to as Dubgall. Translating to "black forigner."

The Swedes didn't often head west but spent more time heading east, where they got the names rus or varjag (you might have heard it as væringr). While the term rus might sound like it's more likely about Russia, the origin of the term might be from Roslagen, the coastal area north of Stockholm. We find the rus term for Sweden still today in the Finnish language, where Sweden is named Routsi. The word could also originate from ro, or rowing since the Swedish Vikings often traveled on the rivers where sailing was not always possible. 

But how about the word Viking? What does it mean? To be straight with you, there has yet to be an agreement on the word's origin. In 8th century English, we find the phrase wicing, but there are question marks if this word has the same meaning as Viking. This word also has a masculine and a feminine form, so it's víkingr and víking. It translates to sea warrior and an oversea war expedition. It can also refer to a person's name or bi name in some cases too.

If we ask the Internet experts, they will most likely tell you that the word's origin comes from these pirates hiding in bays or inlets. In Swedish, these are called "vik." It's a simple explanation but not satisfying. There are about five main theories for the word's origin; this is one. Another would be that they originate from the Norwegian hamlet "Viken." Or that it's named after the nautical term for a distance called "vika" or a week, it's one of the more unlikely. The next contender is the Baltic word "wic," originating from the Latin vicus and would be translated to harbor or market. Lastly, you could argue a connection with the world for travel or walking, "vikja."

None of the above have been proven, and all have flaws. Some more than others, but if you hear someone making a claim, you can now put this in perspective. 

Something more interesting is that Viking is most often used for people who went west. I can't say that there's a runic text giving this name to the people heading east. For example, we find the masculine version of Viking on the Runestone G370 in Hablingbo, Gotland. 

Hvatarr(?) ok Heilgeirr(?) reistu stein eptir Helga, f[ǫ]ður sinn. Hann var [v]estr farinn með víkingum.

Hvatarr(?) and Heilgeirr(?) raised the stone in memory of Helgi, their father. He traveled to the West with the Vikings.

With the masculine version, it's clear that Helgi went west with a group for war or plunder. Compare this to the feminine version where Viking seems to allude more toward an expedition or journey, not necessarily war on Vg61. 

"Tóla setti stein þ[enna ept]ir Geir, son sinn, harða góðan dreng. Sá varð dauðr á vestrvegum í víkingu."

"Tóla placed this stone in memory of Geir, her son, a very good valiant man. He was killed on the west way in Viking."

We see the same word usage in DR330, where the author talks about a courageous set of men who went west on Vikings. As I mentioned, Viking is mainly connected with the Western path, but exceptions exist. We find a stone in Scania, Dr334, that talks about the north. Note the feminine version of the term.

"Faðir lét hǫggva rúnar þessar eptir Ǫzur, bróður sinn, er norðr varð dauðr í víkingu."

"Father had these runes cut in memory of Assur, his brother, dead up north in Viking."

Then we have a strange text to add to this puzzle. It talks about Vikings and how a Swede protected the area against them. Here we see the masculine form of the word, indicating its sea warriors lead by a jarl the stone is talking about. It is from the later part of the Viking age and is written from a Christian perspective. The stone in question is U 617 and goes as follows.

"Ginnlaug, Holmgeirs dóttir, systir Sigrøðar ok þeira Gauts/Gauss, hon lét gera brú þessa ok reisa stein þenna eptir Ǫzur, bónda sinn, son Hákonar jarls. Sá var víkinga vǫrðr með Geiti(?). Guð hjalpi hans nú ǫnd ok sálu."

"Ginnlaug, Holmgeirr's daughter, Sigrøðr and Gautr's/Gauss' sister, she had this bridge made and this stone raised in memory of Assur, her husbandman, earl Hákon's son. He was the viking watch with Geitir(?). May God now help his spirit and soul."

So there is a clear connection between Viking and warrior, not necessarily pirate as some want to interpret the term. But we should note how it can also be used as a sea-based exploration term. The most exciting part, I believe, is the clear connection with going west. 

So can we settle the internet dispute about who can call oneself a Viking? If we use the Vikings' definition of the word, you need to be in the navy or do a lot of sea-based exploration to be calling you a Viking. But if we use it as scholars and researchers do, you would only need to participate in the practices and culture associated with the people living in the Viking age. I think it's important to note that words have meaning and can have vastly different meanings depending on the era it's used in. So to the Internet Vikings out there, feel free to call yourself a Viking. But please note that a person from the Viking age would most likely look at you and ask what, by Balders balls, you are doing. The exception is that if you are a nazi, then you are just a wasted bag of air.

Viking and horned helmets 

Something that's always discussed is if the Viking helmets had horns, which is a lingering idea that never seems to go away. Even if these type of helmets is slowly disappearing from the public mind, it's a glacial process. Sadly, the Vikings did not wear helmets adorned with horns into battle while letting out a blood-freezing roar. But the idea about the horned helmets is a bit more complex than you might initially believe. 

The origin of the horned Viking helmet, as we see them today on the telly or in comics, has been traced by Roberta Frank to Germany. In 1876 the preparations for the premiere of Richard Wagner's opera Der Ring des Nibelungen were in motion. This opera mixes Norse mythology with German medieval ideas, creating the long-lasting idea of German heritage being connected to the Viking world. But while the stage was being built, the singer practiced the costumes where being made. Professor Carl Emil Doepler was the costume designer of the opera, and he did something that had not been done before. He put cow horns on the helmets the Vikings would wear. 

Until 1878 there had not been a single drawing or depiction of Vikings with horns on their helmets, but this would change quickly. The image spread like a cat meme, and the horned helmet could be found in advertisements, paintings, drawings, and even dinner menus. 

While horns were new in 1870, the idea of Vikings having lavish decorations on their helmets was far from a novel idea. Previous depictions of the pagan Vikings were a man wearing a winged helmet, taking the viewer's imagination to a place where these pagans worshipped nature in a wild state with complete freedom. Horned helmets were reserved for the Gauls and Britons. 

While nobody had previously depicted Vikings with horns, maybe Doepler was basing this on a new find or discovery. The crux here is that we have never found a Viking helmet with horns. But to make things interesting, horned helmets have been a thing in Scandinavia. The issue is that these helmets are connected to the Scandinavian Bronze Age. So there are finds of helmets with horns, but they are not Viking and were found in a Danish bog in 1942. 

The find is known as the Veksø helmets, a set of nearly identical twin helmets. In 2019 birch tar was found in one of the horns allowing us to date the helmets with C14. The sample was 20 mg, and the calibrated C14 result placed the helmet around 1006–857 BCE, firmly within the Late  Nordic Bronze Age, where we find other objects with horned helmets. 

The period between 1000 to 750 BCE contains a lot of figures adorning a horned helmet. Often they are in pairs, and a case for twin heroes can be made, but we also find these in groups or as lone heroes. On what we refer to as Fogdarp yoke, we see a pair of twins with horned helmets. Grevensvænge figures were a set of bronze figurines with horned helmets, and others were in acrobatic poses similar to depictions we find in the Minoan culture. We also see these horned figures on the Vestrup razor. We find them in bronze-age petroglyphs in southern Sweden, such as Tanum. We know some motifs that repeat with this horned warrior lifting ships in the air, so this might likely be connected to some story of the time.

Helle Vandkilde and others have recently made a compelling case for this motif's origin in the Mediterranean. But I think we need a bit more evidence before being able to say anything definitely. However, this shows that the idea of the Nordic people with horned helmets isn't impossible; we just need to put it on the people living 2000 years before the Vikings. 

And before you write me a comment, there are depictions of figurines with horns on the helmet from the Viking and Vendel Ages. We see a horned helmed figure on a bronze matrix from Öland, dating to around 500 CE. Then we have three figures that might depict Odin, one found in Uppåkra in Scania, another on Levide Gotland, and a third found in Starya Ladoga, Russia. Nonetheless, these are not horns of the cow variety, and so far, we have not found an actual helmet with horns. The Viking helmets we have seen are all built to be used in battle. Helmets for rituals seem to have not been in use during these periods.

Viking Tattoos

"They are dark from the tips of their toes right up to their necks—trees, pictures, and the like." This is how Ahmad ibn Fadlan described the Rūsiyyah he met in the Volga Bulgars capital in 922 CE. Ibn Fadlan didn't spend much time talking about the Rus body art; this is the only known description of what can be assumed to be Viking tattoo art. As you note, it is not much at all, and the wording ibn Fadlan use here is a bit ambiguous and could be simple body art with paint. Or it could be some sort of scarification where some substance with color has been added to the wounds. We don't know, unfortunately.

It would have made things easier if we had any tattooing tools preserved from the Vikings or any earlier culture, for that matter. But in other cultures, tattoo tools are mostly made out of bone or other organic material that doesn't last. The exception is the ancient Egyptians, who seem to have used needles out of bronze. One argument against the Vikings having tattoo tools out of bone is that we find a lot of bone combs and other devices from the Viking age. The soil on Gotland, for example, is excellent for preserving bone due to the chalk-rich dirt. So we find a lot of human skeletons and bone tools there, but not something that could be used for tattoo art. We have other examples of body art tools from wood or other organic material, which could explain why we don't find the tools.

But something worth mentioning is that we neither find tattoo art on the mummies found in bogs around Denmark and Sweden. Something worth mentioning here is that the skin turns dark due to the natural processes in the marshes. I've not seen any IR photos of the bodies, but this could reveal any hidden tattoos on the skin. This method has been used with Scythian corpses frozen in the tundra. And we know that tattoos were around in Europe from, for example, Ötzi, who lived on the brink of the early Bronze Age.

A lack of evidence is, of course, not evidence for something not existing. As I mentioned, we have a witness talking about body art on what most likely was Scandinavian Vikings. However, we will need more evidence to be able, from a scientific perspective, to say that the Vikings had body art.

Most of the, as I call them, Instagram Vikings who decorate themselves with these "viking tattoos" do not have a Viking tattoo. At most, they have a sort of reimagined cosplay of what the Vikings might have had. But in many cases, it's not even that but later reimaginations of Viking art. Take, for example, the Vegvisir symbol; I know it's a popular Viking tattoo, and supposedly, you won't get lost if you have it. The issue is that this Vegvisir only can be found in a text by Geir Vigfusson in 1860. Vigfusson claims that he got this from an Icelandic text called Huld Manuscript.

Vigfusson seems to have lost the original manuscript at one point, or he made it up based on later Icelandic magical symbols. Historiska Museet in Stockholm has a short book of 35 pages with magic signs from Iceland in its collection. They resemble a bit some of Vigfusson's depictions, but this book was written around 1600 CE. So a bit after the Viking age. This manuscript is fascinating because magic seems to have still been practiced and survived the witch processes in Scandinavia and Iceland.

None of them are the Vegvisir, however. In my opinion, these symbols are a mishmash of later Christian thought and Viking-inspired art. I find it most likely that Geir made the Huld manuscript up later to sell his story when esoterism was on the rise.

If you like the symbol, nothing stops you from getting it tattooed on your body. A word of caution, however, most of the signs you find online often have some runes written around the symbols. Nearly all I saw on my quick perusing had the Futhark written around them. Futhark is basically the Viking ABC. While it might be better than spelling out soup, don't think this has any more profound meaning.

Then we have the Viking tattoos that are not Viking tattoos and that you should not get. The chin tattoo is maybe the first that comes to mind. We find it, for example, with the Moari, called "Ta moko," and among the indigenous people of Alaska and Canada. In Hän Gwich'in the chin tattoos are referred to as Yidįįłtoo; the Iñupiaq call these marking Tavlugun, and in the arctic regions, it's named Kakiniit. We should remember that these symbols have a deep meaning for the people in these cultures. Often, practices such as tattooing, religion, and other traditions have been forgotten in an attempt to remove them. So please don't get a chin tattoo if you don't belong to these groups. I've seen the TikTok filter that includes the chin mark, and just don't use it. 

Hän Gwich'in and Iñupiaq have the right to their culture, and it is rightfully a closed practice. There is zero evidence that the Vikings would have had these markings, and if we listen to the only account we have about Viking body art, they did not paint above the neck.

If you want to look like a Viking, the tattoo route is uncertain. What we do know is that they did file their teeth. Usually, we find horizontal grooves on the Viking teeth bringing them a bit of a unique aesthetic. So there you have it. If you want to be a Viking, you might have to do dental work.

Filing your teeth might be a bit much for you, and some might still want a tattoo. Then I recommend you look up Peter Oakmund Madsen and his Tattoo studio Northen Black. He has published some books with Viking-inspired motifs that catch the Viking art while adapting to work as awesome tattoos. 

Wool and steel

Most of you might associate the Vikings with fearsome warriors, which has been the public perception for many years. But as research and archaeology went forward, this picture started to change. While the Vikings enjoyed raiding a monastery or two, another image developed. The Vikings were tradesmen who sold goods and services for silver, gold, and other goods not found in the cold north. The truth is most likely that the Vikings were opportunistic; they raided where the raiding was good and traded where the trade would be the most beneficial. 

Was this life something that the majority of the population enjoyed? I hear, particularly online, that the Vikings were farmers, just looking to expand their farmland. While farming was most likely necessary for many to be self-sufficient, animal husbandry would likely have been more important for society. As Professor Niel Price pointed out, the Viking society depended on wool. Most clothing was made out of yarn; maybe even more important, the ship's sails were made entirely of wool. 

While the Scandinavian ship technologies were improving rapidly, the sail was the biggest key to success. It seems to have been introduced quite late up here in the north, not earlier than 700 CE. These sails were square and created out of wool strips sewn together horizontally or vertically. Making them more wind resistant was done by adding a contexture of tar, tallow, fat, and other greasy substances. 

But how much wool would they need for a sail? A large ship would need a sail containing about one-kilo wool per square meter. A medium-sized boat, however, would get away with maybe an 80 square meter sail clocking in at about 50 kilos. Add to this all the clothes the sailors need for the open sea and at land, the reserve sail, tents, and rugs. The amount of wool starts to add up. The Scandinavian sheep during this time produced about one kilo per year. So to fit a ship with all the items required and a crew of 32 sailors or more, if the vessels were larger, we would need rather big herds.

Then add the work of crafting all this fabric; there were no machines, so it required humans to do all the work. Textile archaeologists have calculated that a two-person team could create one of the medium-sized sails in about one year, working 10 hours a day. So that's a single sail; as I mentioned, you would not go out without a backup. Now we're up at two years and four people. Then add all the other stuff they would require and that some fleets during the height of the Viking age could be of over 200 ships. Calculations have been made, and the amount of cloth used for sailing in Scandinavia might have been around one million square meters. That's quite an amount of sheep required.

It's unlikely that free people did this work, and it might even explain the origin of raiding in Scandinavia. To get slaves, or thralls, to work the textile mills. Toward the later Viking Age, we see farms merging. Before, it was thought to be due to migration or war, but now it seems as if families have started to go together to get enough land for these large sheep herds. But during this time, we also find weaving huts on the premises. They are often sunken down in the ground and seem to have been harsh work environments. It's hard to see a free woman spending 10 hours every day ruining their lungs and eyesight. So, raiding became necessary to support textile production for the increasing ship production. The Scandinavians seem to have created a vicious circle for themselves. 

Classy Vikings

We have mentioned thralls here and the Scandinavian slave trade, but how did the Vikings structure their society? Can we see any classes or where they equals? Reading the materials left to us, we can disguisings three levels in Scandinavian society. At the lowest, we find the thralls or enslaved people, who most likely comprised a fourth of the population. These were people without rights and freedom and were kind of left to the whims of their masters. Then we have the free people, who could vary from prosperous merchants to two-goat cottages barely scraping by. This class made up the vast majority of the population. Lastly, we have the elite, the two percenters of society.

These classes have quite an exciting origin story within Viking mythology. If we read Rígsþula, we are offered quite the insight into the Scandinavian view on class and society. In this story, we follow the god Heimdahl, who wanders the earth in the disguise of Rígr. On his journey, he met an old couple called Great-Grandmother and Great-Grandfather. Rígr is served a heavy thick loaf of bread and meat and sleeps between the old couple. Nine months later, the Great-Grandmother gave birth to a son that they named Þræll. In the saga, this child is described as this.

"He began to grow and to thrive well;

on his hands there

was wrinkled skin,

knotted knuckles, . . .

thick fingers,

he had an ugly face,

a crooked back, long heels."

Þræll was then, well, not married since he was a slave, but coupled with Þír. She was a slave girl with dirty feets, sunburned, and a bent nose. Þræll and Þír are then connected with specific tasks and labor within the saga. 

Heimdal or Rígr continued his journey and met another couple in a hall with a cozy fire burning; the Grandfather and the Grandmother were well-kempt and in good physiques. Again Rígr was served food, a bit better this time, and slept between the couple. Nine months later, the son Karl (this name would translate to the householder) was born and was described as having lively eyes, red hair, and a healthy color on the skin. 

Karl is then associated with the free people, and we learn again that this class is supposed to do specific jobs. Lastly, Heimdal comes to the last hall, a grand construction with its ports vetting south. The couple here is even more beautiful and dressed in finer clothes than the precious couple. This time Heimdal is served roasted birds and the best cuts from the pig on silver plates and gets fine wine with the meal. Again, since even the ultra-wealthy didn't have guest rooms, Heimdal slept between the man and wife. Nine months later, surprise, the son Jarl (Earl) was born dressed in fine silk, with blond hair, bright cheeks, and piercing eyes. 

Earl grew up there on the benches;

he began to swing linden shields, fit bow strings,

bend the elm-bow, put shafts on arrows,

hurl a javelin, brandish Frankish spears,

ride horses, urge on hounds,

wield swords, practice swimming.

From this saga, we can tell there seem to have been three crucial qualities in Scandinavian society: appearance, capabilities, and influence. What is also interesting to note here is that compared to the Greek pantheon, where a child of a god would have extraordinary power, none of the children seem to have received these gifts here. 

I also find it fascinating the stark contrast between ibn Fadlan's description of Scandinavian hygiene, the archaeological record, sagas, and chroniclers like John of Wallingford. In comparison, ibn Fadlan has nothing nice to say about the Viking way of hygiene, but the archeological record indicates that they cared about their looks. A comb was a necessity in Scandinavian society; add tweezers, razors, and scissors. The statues we have found depict people with twirled mustaches, finely trimmed beards, and nicely cut hair. The chronicler, John of Wallingford, described the Scandinavians as follows.

"According to their contry's costums - in the habit of combing their hair every day, to bathe every Saturday, to change their clothes frequently and to draw attention to themsleves by means of many such frivolous whims. In this way, they besiged the married women's virtue and persuaded the daughters of even noble men to become their misresses."

So looks were important in Scandinavian society and could very well affect your status and how far you could move in society. There was mobility to some extent, especially if you could prove yourself capable and increase your wealth and influence. Mostly this mobility was reserved for the people of the free men, but it did happen that enslaved people could be released from their bondage. We even have two runestones that former or current slaves ordered. For example, on Adelsö, just outside Birka, we find one stone carved on the order by Tolir. He refers to himself as Bryti, a special class of thrall, and he could claim this stone with his wife by right. Usually, thralls could not have wives, but one could question if Tolir was now free. 

Another example in Denmark is where Tóki, the blacksmith, raised a stone in memory of his former master, who gave him freedom and gold. Even if these were free men, they would not have been equal to the born free men. In some sense, the thralls would always be a thrall in the eye of the law. It might have been even worse for the women since most of the slave trade seems to have focused on sex trafficking. If you want to wash away the picture of the brave Viking warrior, you should read ibn Fadlan's account. It is a gruesome tale, I must warn you. We will have to return to the Viking age and focus more on the women in their society. We did not get around to this now, but I see at least one full episode only on women in Scandinavian culture, and there are undoubtedly a couple of myths we can expel there too. 

Next time we will be back investigating our alien overlords in one way or another.

But till then, remember to leave a positive review anywhere you can, such as iTunes, Spotify, or to your friend at the trench. I would also recommend visiting to find more info about me and the podcast. You can also find me on most social media sites, and if you have comments, corrections, suggestions, or just want to write an email in all caps, you can find my contact info on the website.

You will find all the sources and resources used to create this podcast on our website. You will often also find further reading suggestions if you want to learn more about the subjects we bring up.

Sandra Marteleur created the intro music, and our outro is by the band called Trallskruv, who sings their song "tin foil hat." Links to both these artists will be found in the show notes.

Until next time, keep shoveling that science!

Sources, resources, and further reading suggestions

Åhlen, M. (2010). Runstenar I Uppsala Län Berrättar. Uppsala: Upplandsmuseet.

al-Sīrāfī, A.Z. and ibn Faḍlān, A. (2014). Two Arabic Travel Books. Translated by T. Mackintosh-Smith. and Translated by J. E. Montgomery . New York: New York University Press, pp.165–285.

Batey, C., Clarke, H., Page, R.I. and Price, N. (2000). Cultural Atlas Of The Viking World. New York: Facts On File.

Burenhult, G. (2010). Arkeologi i Norden 2. 2nd ed. Stockholm: Natur & Kultur.

Eriksen, M.H. (2019). Architecture, Society, and Ritual in Viking Age Scandinavia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Frank, R. (2000). The Invention of the Viking Horned Helmet. In: G. Wolfgang Weber and M. Dallapiazza, eds., International Scandinavian and medieval studies in memory of Gerd Wolfgang Weber. Trieste: Parnaso, pp.199–208.

Friðriksdóttir, J.K. (2020). VALKYRIE: the Women of the Viking World. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Gaimar, G., Ingulf, Wallingford, J., Asser, J. and Ethelwerd (1854). The Chronicle of Fabius Ethelwerd. Asser’s Annals of King Alfred. The Book of Hyde. The Chronicles of John Wallingford. The history of Ingulf. Gaimar. [online] Translated by J. Stevenson. London: Seeleys, p.p. [407]810. Available at:

Göran Burenhult (2012). Arkeologi i Norden. 2. Stockholm: Natur & Kultur.

Hedeager, L. (2011). Iron Age Myth and Materiality. Oxon: Routledge.

Källström, M. (2007). Mästare Och Minnesmärken: Studier kring vikingatida runristare och skriftmiljöer i Norden. Dissertation.

Leszek Gardela (2021). Women and Weapons in the Viking World. Oxbow Books.

Olausson , M. ed., (2008). Hem Till Jarlabanke : jord, Makt Och Evigt Liv I Östra Mälardalen under Järnålder Och Medeltid. Historiska Media.

Peterson, L. (2006). Svenskt Runordsregister. 3rd ed. [online] Uppsala: Runrön. Available at:

Peterson, L. (2007). Nordiskt Runnamnslexikon. 5th ed. [online] Uppsala: Institutet För Språk Och Folkminnen. Available at:

Price, N. (2020). Children of Ash and Elm. New York: Basic Books.

Price, N.S. (2007). The archaeology of shamanism. London: Routledge.

Price, T.D. (2015). Ancient Scandinavia. Oxford University Press.

Ringquist, P.-O. (1969). Två Vikingatida Uppländska Människofigurer I Brons. Fornvännen, 1969:1, pp.287–296.

Roslund, M. (2001). Gutar, Främlingar Och Den Förblindande vikingatiden. Om Staden Visbys Tidigaste Datering. In: A. Andrén, L. Ersgård and J. Weinberg, eds., Från Stad Till land. Festskrift Till Professor Hans Andersson. Lunds Unveristy, pp.241–251.

Sawyer, B. and Hayes Sawyer, P. (1997). Medieval Scandinavia : from Conversion to reformation, Circa 800-1500. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota.

Sawyer, P. ed., (2001). The Oxford illustrated history of the Vikings. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Sigurdsson, J.V. (2022). Scandinavia in the Age of Vikings. New York: Cornell University Press.

Vandkilde, H. (2013). Bronze Age Voyaging and Cosmologies in the Making: the Helmets from Viksø Revisited. In: S. Bergerbrant and S. Sabatini, eds., Counterpoint: Essays in Archaeology and Heritage Studies in Honour of Professor Kristian Kristiansen. [online] Oxford: Archaeopress. Available at: Counterpoint: Essays in Archaeology and Heritage Studies in Honour of Professor Kristian Kristiansen

Vandkilde, H., Matta, V., Ahlqvist, L. and Nørgaard, H.W. (2021). Anthropomorphised warlike beings with horned helmets: Bronze Age Scandinavia, Sardinia, and Iberia compared. Praehistorische Zeitschrift, 97(1), pp.130–158. doi: .


“Folie hatt” by Trallskruv

Lily of the woods by Sandra Marteleur