a look at culture and daily life
by Kimberly Walters
The Vikings were an
Who were the of travelers, raiders, and
Vikings? settling in Denmark,
Norway, and Sweden,
their population grew
rapidly and they began
to expand and colonize
around the year 800.
Their famous long ships
reached almost every
part of the known world
and even discovered
new places, particularly
in North America.
• Society was divided into three
classes, based on wealth and
land ownership: thralls, karls
and jarls. The lowest class,
the thralls, were essentially
slaves. Above the thralls
were the karls, who were
farmers and craftsmen. The
jarls were the rich, powerful
• Viking countries were ruled by
kings, supported by several
earls and cheiftans.
The Vikings believed that the
The Law law maintained the balance between good
and evil in their society, and in fact, the
english word „law‟ comes from the Viking
language. Trials were held with a jury of
twelve (or multiples of twelve if the case
was important). A panel was randomly
chosen to state their version of the truth,
and the person was found either innocent
or guilty. If he was found guilty he would
be fined or made an out-law. Out-laws
were forced to leave the town and became
free-game for their enemies to hunt. A
man could prove his innocence, however,
by passing an “ordeal.” One common
ordeal was to walk twelve paces on hot
coals. If after three days his blisters were
not infected, he was proclaimed innocent.
Disputes were commonly settled
with duels, usually using only swords and
shields. The looser was declared when
one man‟s blood touched the ground. It
was believed that gods always helped the
“right” man to win.
Viking communities were
arranged in large family groups
that lived in simple farmhouses
usually made of wattle and daub
(some were built with stones or
wood). The bases were
rectangular and each had a hole
in the roof to let out smoke.
Most had a single room, but rich
households often had a small
entrance hall, a large main
room, a kitchen, a bedroom and
a storage room. Vikings hung
their belongings from the
ceiling and slept on benches at
the sides of the main room.
• Because they had many
voyages to distant lands,
the Vikings had an
extensive trade network
around the world.
• They traded silk, spices,
slaves, fur, skins, amber,
weapons, and food.
• The Vikings used English,
German, and Arab
currency, as well as coins
minted in Scandinavia.
Food and Drink
The Vikings ate two meals a day; one in
the morning and one in the evening. The
diet was quite varied and included meat
from horses, goats, pigs, oxen, and many
types of fish, and cultivated crops such as
cabbage, peas, and onions. Vikings in the
north hunted whales, deer, moose, seals,
rabbits, walrus, polar bear, wild boar,
goose, and even seagulls.
Women made cheese and butter using
milk from their animals and bread from
corn and grains. For parties and
festivals, the vikings brewed fruit wine
and beer, which they drank from animal
horns. They used wooden dishes and
spoons and drank from cups made of
Like most other European clothing
of the time, Viking clothing was
most often made of linen, wool,
and in the winter, animal hides.
Wealthy Vikings (kings, earls, and
merchants) also used silk, which
they brought back from raids.
Bright colored dyes were extracted
from plants and berries. Men wore
tunics and pants, and women wore
long linen dresses, woolen
leggings, and shawls fastened with
large metal brooches. Married
women also wore tight fitting
scarves on their heads. Shoes for
both sexes were made of leather
Found in the Viking graves all over
Northern Europe, beads were clearly
much- appreciated objects to Viking
women. The most beads ever found in a
male Viking grave was three, but the
but amber, semi-
for a female
grave is around
silver, and other
metals were also
Beads were most
often made from commonly used.
Since making the
quartz and soda,
beads was extremely labor-intensive,
they were expensive. Glass finger rings
and metal bracelets were also popular for
both men and women, as well as elaborate
metal brooches used to fasten clothing.
Songs and dances were an
important part of parties and
religious festivals in the Viking
world. We know very little
about actual songs and tunes,
because the Vikings had no
way to write down music until
the 14th century, but we do
have evidence of the
instruments they used: lyres,
flutes, horns, and recorders, as
well as their own voices. Songs
often had a chant leader, who
would sing each stanza first,
and then everyone would repeat
it. This tradition is still
common in sea shanties and
spirituals. Viking tune written in the 14th century.
As a culture that emphasized war, the Vikings naturally
thrived on competitive sports. Physical strength, speed, and
endurance were tested in competitions of archery, javelin,
skiing, swimming, and wrestling (usually between only two
men: a champion and a challenger). The British ball game
knattleikr was also popular.
Viking society had no
formal school or
system of education.
and navigation were
taught through sagas
of the gods and great
Viking heroes, told by
Children also learned
while helping their
parents in the home.
Compared to most women in Europe, a
Viking woman had considerable power in
society. She had the right to property,
inheritance, and divorce and wore the keys
to the food chest at her waist as a visible
sign of power. “The lady of the household
had to see to it that the food lasted during
the long, dark winter. She made butter and
cheese, dried and smoked meat and fish for
storage and she was also expected to know
about herbs for making medicine and care
for the sick and wounded”* Sewing and
weaving were also important duties of a
Viking woman. Viking women could go on
raiding trips with the men, but the vast
majority chose to stay at home.
Before the arrival of Christianity, the Vikings were polytheistic worshippers of Odin,
Thor, Frey and Enevia (along with many other gods and goddesses.) The Pagans were
buried with anything they might need in the afterlife: armor, swords, horses, and
sometimes even human sacrifices that would accompany the dead man to the underworld.
Women were often buried with cooking utensils and farming tools. Wealthy viking men
were often buried in their ships, and women sometimes were buried in wagons. Some of
the more eastern communities cremated their dead and buried the remains, but almost all
Vikings marked their graves with upright stones in the shape of ships. If a Viking warrior
died in battle, he was placed with his weapons in a boat and incinerated.
• Fitzhugh, William. Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga.
Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.
• Flaherty, Thomas (Editor-in-Chief). Vikings: Raiders
from the North. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life
• http://www.earth.ox.ac.uk/~kateh/pictures/vik ing.jpg