Mad About Science: Vikings, Norseman

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

The Vikings were a curious lot. Most of our historical information comes from documentation by people who were being attacked by them. This makes for a very one-sided portrayal, the likes of which broods inaccurate stereotypes.

The term “viking” refers to the Norse raiders that invaded several European countries during the Viking Age between 800 and 1100 AD. Viking isn’t a race, it’s a job description that meant pirate (“wicing” from Old English.)

Viking raiders were known to be merciless in their attacks, striking swiftly from the sea and pillaging and murdering everyone in their path. This is probably a historical half-truth, because we’re only getting part of the picture. Carving out a life with Iron Age technology in the frozen north was rough. It took real gusto and questionable moral ground to eke out a living in a place that you couldn’t reliably farm, so many Norse tribes took to raiding and trading to pay for food.

When Christian missionaries from Germanic lands began migrating north into Scandinavia, sparse natural resources were strained and tensions escalated. The Norsemen had their own religious mythology with its own set of morality that would seem questionable to Christians. Things like killing monks was unthinkable for devout Christians, but the monks probably just looked like regular villagers in expensive stone houses to the vikings. This understandably painted them in a very bad light with most Europeans.

The Scandinavian people wore a lot of cool hats through history, such as craftsmen, explorers and ranchers. Elaborate viking ships are world famous to this day for their sleek efficiency and dramatic craftsmanship. They were designed to house as many raiders as possible while still being light enough to hit and run with booty in tow.

Nordic longhouses are also famous for their striking appearance, though timber was rare and better put to use in things like ships. Most longhouses used a wooden frame and were covered with sod, dirt and grasses. This helped retain heat and also camouflaged settlements from afar. They were lofty and communal, allowing large extended families to live relatively comfortably together while storing supplies for long northern winters above the rafters. They served as houses, barns, workshops, warehouses and really anything else the people needed from their home.

The Norsemen did a lot of exploration and colonization, and they were exceptionally skilled at settling inhospitable places. Where it was nearly impossible to live off the land, people would often turn to the sea or their own animals, and boy, did the Nordic people have some great animals. Dogs were among the Norsemen’s most faithful companions and came in all shapes and sizes. Large dogs like the Irish wolfhound were used for taking down elk and other large game, while smaller breeds like the Swedish vallhund (which may be a direct ancestor of the Welsh corgi) were exceptionally skilled at herding cattle, sheep and goats as well as traveling with Viking raiders by boat. Viking raiders landing on the shores of Iceland are believed to have brought the stock that would develop into the Icelandic chicken landrace, a hardy number of breeds specialized at surviving exceptionally hard winters that persists to this day.

You’ve been waiting for it this whole article: The horned helmets are fantasy. The myth originates from an etymological source and not a mythical one. At some point, someone of Nordic descent was trying to tell someone speaking English or Old English about their drinking stein, which translated roughly to “branch of the skull”. You would recognize this as a drinking horn, or a branch growing out of the skull of an animal. The English speaker took this literally, figuring it meant horns were coming out of the heads or helmets of viking raiders.

Imagine being cramped on a boat with a bunch of other guys, and one of your friends has horns jutting out of his helmet. You think dudes sitting with their legs spread taking up a seat and a half on either side of the bus is annoying, imagine putting your eye out. Besides this, vikings were very frugal. They were survivors, and every bit of material was a blessing. Their weapons were designed to be effective with minimal material, like metal-tipped spears and one-sided axes that doubled as tools. Swords were a rare luxury for a rich Norse lord as they took so much metal to forge.

Before I run out of space, I’d like to present one more weird tidbit of information related to the people of the north. Anyone that owns a phone knows about Bluetooth, that magical technology that lets your phone connect to pretty much any audio device wirelessly. If you ever wondered why it was called Bluetooth, I can answer that for you. It was named after konungr (king) Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson, Danish King in the 900s that united all of Denmark under his rule. The inventors of Bluetooth wanted to create something that would unite audio devices together, similar to Harald with Denmark. The icon is even the runes used in his name united into a single symbol.

So… Why “Bluetooth”? Based on the translation of his name, it was an old way of describing a black, dead tooth that he likely damaged in battle.

You’re welcome, Idaho. You’re free to start connecting your phone to your car via dead tooth technology!

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