The Myths and Legends of the Vikings: The Restless Spirit
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The Myths and Legends of the Vikings: The Restless Spirit

Vikings who set off to seek their fortunes were driven by the same motives that have always inspired adventurers: the desire for land, wealth, and fame. Land hunger was a marked feature of Scandinavian life that continued to drive emigrants abroad up to modern times.

The Myths and Legends of the Vikings: The Restless Spirit

By Mr Ghaz, December 18, 2010

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The Myths and Legends of the Vikings: The Restless Spirit

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Although it seems to have been less extensive in the Viking era than in the earlier age of migrations, when whole peoples including Goths, Vandals, Lombards, and Burgundians had headed south, land hunger remained an influential force. The typical Viking raider was a younger son, stout and well-nourished on the high-protein meat-and-dairy diet of the north, eager to find himself an inheritance to match the family estate that would be his elder brother’s by birthright.

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In the course of the Viking age, the demographic pressures were exacerbated by political developments and in particular by the rise of national monarchies. For example, in Norway, the westward expansion of colonists seeking new lands coincided with King Harald Fairhair’s successful campaign around the turn of the ninth and tenth centuries to impose royal control on the independently minded local aristocracy. Many of the original settlers of Iceland and the north Atlantic islands were Norwegians who had fled Harald’s heavy hand.

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By that stage, a century into the Viking age, the westward routes had already been well charted by earlier generations of pioneers. Yet even the first wave of explorers had been able to draw on a substantial pool of geographical knowledge. Both eastward via the Baltic and westward via the Atlantic, the age of expansion was preceded by a century or more of increasing trade contacts, which had made the Norse peoples more aware than ever before of both the wealth and the accessibility of foreign parts. Even the very first raiders-those who fell upon Holy Island in 793CE-knew where they were going and what they could expect to find. That information could presumably only have come from traveling merchants, the warriors’ non-violent precursors.

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Yet if the northern peoples-and particularly young, bold, landless males-had the knowledge and the motive to undertake foreign adventures, they also needed the means to fulfill their ambitions. This was provided by the development of fast, maneuverable ocean-going boats. The longship is rightly regarded as the symbol of the Viking age: full developed by the late eight century, it gave the Norse peoples the tool they needed to take on the world.

Longships of Valhalla

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Viking longship are among the loveliest boats ever built, yet their beauty was always strictly utilitarian in the eyes of those who sailed in them. Everything that is pleasing to the eye in their design also contributed to making them the most efficient ocean-going craft the world had yet seen.

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Longships, built for war and travel, were far from being the only boats of the Viking age. As important were the knarrs-cargo ships that were broader in the beam, with a length-to-breadth ratio averaging 4:1 in contrast to the longship’s 7:1 ; the extra width amidships provided room for a central, sunken cargo hold. Unlike the longships, knars were essentially sailing boats with fixed masts; although there were a few oar-ports on the short stretches of decking at either and of the hold, these would only have been used when the ship was becalmed or maneuvering close to shore. In contrast, the longships had masts that could easily be lowered, whether to reduce wind resistance and improve stability when the craft was being rowed or else to present a low profile for surprise attacks. Sail was the normal method of propulsion on the open sea, but on rivers and in inshore waters the boats were powered by oar.

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The combination of sail and oar was the secret of the longship’s success. It was only in the period immediately preceding Viking times that northern shipbuilders had mastered the art of providing vessels with tall masts and the concomitant strong keels. The keel was very much the backbone of Viking ships of all kinds; hull were built outward from it, employing planks of green wood cut radially in thin wedges from the tree trunk (see box, right). Much care was taken to work with the grain of the wood; the keel itself would be cut from a single straight trunk, while the ribs would be shaped from limbs and branches that naturally approximated the curve required. The goal was lightness and pliability; the strakes were shaved thin with axes for maximum flexibility, for the hulls were expected to ride the waves, not to fight against them. A good-sized warship would have required the timber of about a dozen oak trees, which was the preferred type of wood where it was available; in northerly Scandinavia oak does not grow and sturdy pine was the alternative wood of choice.

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The end result was a vessel of extraordinary strength and navigability. Experiments with modern replica builds have shows that longships could achieve speeds of more than 10 knots (11.5 miles/18.5km per hour) in good conditions, and over long distances could average 125 miles (200km) or more in 24 hours.


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Viking ships were usually built to a regular pattern. They were constructed from the keel upward through a succession of overlapping (“clinker-built”) strakes, nailed together. Fore and aft, curved stems continued the line of the keel, rising up to the prow and sternposts. The mast slotted into a heavy timber known as the keelson that was horizontally attached along the center of the vessel. A single steering oar took the place of a rudder. The oar was fixed to a wooden block as a lever is to a fulcrum, enabling one man to set a vessel’s course even in heavy seas. The combination of oar and sail made Viking ships uniquely adaptable, fitting them for raiding far down rivers while opening horizons on a wider maritime world.

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King and leading noblemen sought to cut a dash by decorating the prows or sternposts of their grandest longships. Some boats bore beautiful bronze weathervanes, elaborately adorned with writhing mythological beasts entwined in serpentine patterns. However, the ornamentation usually took the form of decorated fore-and aft-stems standing proudly at the boat’s prow and stern. “Here there were glittering men of solid gold or silver nearly comparable to live ones,” wrote one observer rhapsodical, describing an eleventh-century Danish fleet, “there, bulls with necks raised high and legs outstretched, leaping and roaring just as if they were alive. “In Iceland, the martial message of such ornaments was regarded as cause for alarm and laws prohibited vessels from approaching land” with gaping heads and yawning jaws, so that the spirits of the land grow frightened at them.”

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Comments (8)

Great stuff Mr Ghaz! Vikings were fascinating people.

Ranked #94 in History

Nice presentation! (Mr. Ghaz, I'd very much like to know your source material for this article.) Thanks.

Ranked #35 in History

another excellent article my friend

Ranked #41 in History

Another marvelous work, Mr. Ghaz. Very informative.

The Vikings had some anger issues.

Ranked #1 in History

Great work again.

Vikings are awesome people.

great stuff - stumbled it