Top 10 Greatest Misconceptions About The Vikings

Below you can read a top consisting of ten major misconceptions about the Vikings and the Viking Age, from the etymology of the term ‘Viking’ to the horned helmets.

Throughout the time’s passing, many myths and misconceptions have been perpetuated about the Vikings, most of them even lacking a solid basis. This article aims to shed some light on the false perception of the ‘crude’ and ‘savage’ men of the north. Thus, without further ado, here’s the top:

10. Everybody was a Viking in early medieval Scandinavia

Undoubtedly, the Vikings did represent a significant part of the Norse society, but it is utterly erroneous to ascribe them for all early medieval Scandinavians. The Norse hierarchic system was to a considerable extent complex than most people assume. For a detailed article on the etymology and correct usage of the term ‘Viking’ please check the link here.

As such, the term ‘Viking’ does not denote a people, but rather a profession. ‘To go a Viking’ meant that a Norseman could set sail on various bodies of water — from oceans or seas, to rivers and lakes – primarily in search for land to settle on and subsequently farm or to trade with different cultures and civilisations. In Viking Age Scandinavia, both men and women could have gone a Viking.

Wooden sculpture of a Norseman from Norway Pavilion at Epcot theme park, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, United States. Image source:

In a nutshell, not all Norsemen were Vikings. At the time, the vast majority of the population in Scandinavia were mainly farmers, fishermen, blacksmiths, shipwrights, etc. Thus, the correct term which should be used in order to refer to all early medieval Scandinavians is ‘Norsemen’, not ‘Vikings’.

9. All Norsemen were naturally blond

Yet another prejudice is that all Norsemen were blond. While it remains true to this day that many were, some were evidently enough not naturally blond. Some Norsemen were either red-headed or had dark hair. Many Norsemen used to dye their hair blond(er) in order to match the local ideal for beauty.

8. The Norsemen were a unified nation

During the early Middle Ages (and specifically throughout much of the Viking Age) Scandinavia was a huge land area in Northern Europe with many small polities/earldoms (as opposed to kingdoms), who often fought each other for a larger degree of supremacy. The unified kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden would only emerge at the end or after the end of the Viking Age.

7. The Norsemen were very ruthless and barbarian

Most of the negative historical information concerning the Norsemen stems greatly from the chronicles written during the early Middle Ages by the Catholic monks, in which they depict the Norsemen as heathens who did not hesitate to obliterate abbeys and loot church holdings.

During the timeline in question, it should be mentioned that most written historical sources belonged to the church, since the priests were the most entitled to become the scribes of the kings. That being said, what we nowadays call ‘artistic license’ had inevitably to be used then as well.

The accounts regarding the alleged cruelty and barbary of the Norsemen during the Viking raids in such works as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were to a certain extent exaggerated. While it is true that the Norsemen raided abbeys, they did not do this for religious reasons, but rather for the wealth. Additionally, a recent study suggested that they first traded, then plundered.

6. The Viking Age presumably started in 793 AD

The historical date often given as the start of the Viking Age is 793 AD, when a group of Norwegian Vikings attacked the Catholic abbey of Lindisfarne, located less than one mile off the north-eastern coast of England (at the time part of the Kingdom of Northumbria). For a detailed article on most competing theories on the start of the Viking Age please check this link.

However, competing theories challenged this year. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an earlier raid is depicted to have unfolded on British soil prior to the one at Lindisfarne. Furthermore, a recent study which claimed that the Viking Age actually started in Denmark highlighted the fact that it commenced some 70 years earlier than previously thought.

Nonetheless, it’s very much likely that it had actually commenced simultaneously all over Scandinavia, being most notably triggered by internal trade. Whichever the precise date for the start of the Viking Age might be, it’s safe to assume that it started earlier than mostly referred to, and perhaps not even in England. For example, the Salme ships from Estonia may be a prominent evidence on the matter.

What is known for certain about the Viking Age though, is that it ended in 1066 along with the Battle of Hastings, when William the Conqueror and the Normans conquered England.

Timeline of the Viking Age, with relevant events and personalities. Image source:

Timeline of the Viking Age, with relevant events and personalities. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

5. The presumably inexistent culture of the Norsemen

Most people think that the Norsemen didn’t quite dispose of a proper culture, and that they were either illiterate or filthy-looking. All these statements are absolutely false. For a detailed article on the art of the Norsemen please check this link.

The Norse culture comprised several art styles which can be identified as follows: Oseberg, Borre, Jellinge, Mammen, Ringerike, and Urnes.

In addition, the Norsemen also had their own unique alphabet, referred to as ‘futhark’ in Old Norse.

Last but not least, they also maintained a higher level of hygiene compared to that of other Europeans of their time, by bathing at least once a week.

Norse shield patterns. Image source:

Norse shield patterns. Image source:

4. The Norsemen lived only in Scandinavia

While the origin of the Norsemen can be unmistakably traced to Scandinavia proper, they didn’t live solely there. For a detailed article on the voyages of the Norsemen please check this link.

During their many maritime adventures, they established permanent or temporary colonies overseas, in such places as Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the Shetlands, the Orkneys, Scotland, Isle of Man, Ireland, England, Normandy (France) and even in Vinland (i.e. Newfoundland, Canada) for a brief period of time.

Detailed map depicting the homelands, colonies, and voyages of the Norsemen during the Viking era. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

3. The Norsemen had no cultural contribution where they settled

The already stereotypical syntagm ‘rape and pillage’ is synonymous to the Norsemen. Some people believe that their bloodthirstiness was the only ‘engine’ behind their actions, and that they didn’t bring any cultural contribution where they settled. Well, that’s utterly false and historically incorrect.

Just to set the records straight, while linguistics are concerned, the English language incorporated as much as 5,000 words from the Old Norse. And that’s not only the thick of the iceberg as genetics play a pivotal role on the matter as well, given the fact that one in 33 men in Britain can claim Norse ancestry.

Word origins in the English language. Note that the green part of the pie chart contains a sizable amount of Old Norse words. Image source:

Word origins in the English language. Note that the green part of the pie chart contains a sizeable amount of Old Norse words. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

2. The Norsemen drank from skull cups

The misconception according to which Norsemen drank from skull cups can trace its roots in the works of the 17th century Danish antiquarian Ole Worm, namely in his 1636 ‘Runir, seu, Danica literatura antiquissima’ (a compilation of several runic texts translated in Latin), where he stated that the Danish Vikings drank from ‘curved branches of skulls’ — which was, actually, a mistranslation for horns. It must be mentioned that no such thing as a skull cup has ever been excavated from a Viking Age burial mound to date.

Image source:

1. The myth of the horned/winged helmets

If interested, please see full article on the matter here.

This misconception has been considerably backed up by the artistic license of Richard Wagner’s staged opera ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’, when costume designer Carl Emil Doepler made up horned helmets for the characters, or by the Swedish artist August Malmström who often depicted the Norse raiders with unusual headgear in his paintings.

In reality, the Norsemen didn’t wear winged or horned helmets, this being nothing more but a mere misconception stemming from several 19th century Romantic artists.

The only surviving authentic Viking Age helmet was discovered in Ringerike, eastern Norway in 1943. Aside from the helmet proper, there have been discovered three additional swords, an almost intact maille, three axes, three spearheads, four bulges from shields, a riding equipment, several game pieces as well as some dices from the local Norse burial mound.

Documentation sources and external links:

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19 Responses to Top 10 Greatest Misconceptions About The Vikings

  1. John Christie says:

    Fully agree on Point 9. In The Long Ships, by Frans G Bengtsson, Orm Tosteson is called Red Orm because of the colour of his hair.

    • Victor Rouă says:

      Hello, John! First of all, thank you for your readership. Secondly, it is a book that I have in my collection and I’m willing to read very soon. Thank you for also pointing out this from the said novel. Cheers! 🙂

  2. Keith Redfearn says:

    Does anyone have any information regarding the surname Redfearn? I know there are many in England but have also heard that there are some who originated in Normandy. I wonder of there is a Norse connection to the name.

  3. Renaissance Arms says:

    The shown shields {as a pinterest post} were actually Shields made for the film ‘Beowulf’ shot in Iceland, made by Valentine Armouries {currently in Las Vegas Nevada.

    • james jensen says:

      After a thousand plus years of invasions from one group or another across Europe , everyone contributed to the amalgamation of what modern Europe is today.

      • Victor Rouă says:

        I apologise for the very long delay in replying! Thank you very much to both of you for your time, readership, and comments here on The Dockyards. James, you are absolutely right: both mainland Europe and insular Europe have been both cultural, social, and genetic meting pots over many centuries. All the best, have an excellent December, and a wonderful Christmas!

  4. Dan says:

    They were barbarians and wanted to destroy Constantinople

  5. dm10003 says:

    “And that’s not only the thick of the iceberg…”

    Well that’s a unique way to approach the phrase.

    • Victor Rouă says:

      Hehe, that’s quite right. One can put in well in context like that as well. Thank you very much for your time, readership, and comment here on The Dockyards! All the best, have an excellent December, and a wonderful Christmas!

  6. “The Norsemen had no cultural contribution where they settled.” —– What about the English Jury System? Even the word “law” is Old-Norse. Linguistic contributions: The English prenomes are Old-Norse; as are literally hundreds of common English words. Ever heard of Hiberno-Norse decoration Hiberno-Norse “culture”?

    • You got nearly wrong, I guess, the author meant structural contribution, like Roman’s aqueducts… Egyptian pyramids… In my opinion, culture is sth both very deep and wide; tools, applications, language, clothing system, food & beverages, everything related with humanity can contribute to it. The author has to start reading from the beginning. History is needed to deal with the target period’s circumstances. For example, the very first written agreement between Egyptians and Hittites “Kadesh Agreement” after the Kadesh war 1300 BC. There was no wi-fi, no television, no radio, 😀 well, I’m kidding. At least the author didn’t bother himself/herself over a topic in the history that we all like to read, comment over it. I’m grateful to contribute it.

    • Victor Rouă says:

      Thank you very much for your readership and comment, dear Magnus! You are absolutely right, I should’ve write those things as well, but I wanted this article to be as short and concise as well. Indeed, the very word law stems from Old Norse and there are many more of Old Norse origin in the English language. You are very correct with respect to place names across the United Kingdom as well, they are also of Old Norse origin, even outside the borders of the former Danelaw, to the best of my knowledge. And, yes, I am quite familiar with the dual Hiberno-Norse culture (e.g. the former Kingdom of Mann and the Isles) which existed (and still does) across Scotland, the Hebrides, and the Shetland Islands (as well as Iceland and the Faroe Islands, naturally). Thank you for your comments and for the shared knowledge! All the best and have an excellent December and a wonderful Christmas!

  7. carol forsberg says:

    Any origins of the last name Forsberg?

  8. Brendan Flynn says:

    Viking culture was based on their cult of Thor and Odin that portrayed battle, the acquisition of treasure and death in battle as the finest achievements of the warrior. Their visual culture was astonishing, their longships ranking amongst the greatest works of art made in the Western hemisphere. But they were not tree huggers or innocent traders. For those at the receiving end of Viking raids it meant dispossession, death or enslavement. In spite of its prowess in international trading and wonderful works of art in wood and metal at heart it was often a violent and rapacious culture weakened by internal blood feuds.

    • Victor Rouă says:

      Thank you for your readership, comment, and time on The Dockyards. Indeed, that is quite correct, but the Norsemen also treated their slaves (i.e. thralls) right. They also raided a lot and plundered monasteries and abbeys, not (necessarily) because they were anti-Chrsitian, but because those were very wealthy easy preys for them, being often left unguarded and vulnerable to recurrent hit-and-run attacks (as the Norsemen would often resort to across the coastlines of Northwestern Europe during the early Middle Ages).

      The Norsemen were fair traders as well, the Swedes in the East and the Norwegians in the west (as well as the Danes). But the Danes often rightfully get the credit with being the most skilled conquerors and warriors. I perceive the Norwegians instead as mostly navigators (though that does not mean they were not powerful warriors and conquerors as well) and the Swedes more spiritual.

      As for the internal blood feuds, that is very sad and absolutely correct, as they are recounted in the sagas. Iceland was particularly struck by those family feuds later on which led to the Norwegian monarch intervening, bringing about the well known Age of Sturlungs during the High Middle Ages.

      All the best, have an excellent December, and a wonderful Christmas!

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