Norwegian Language Blog

Vikings-the beginning of international relations in Scandinavia Posted by on Apr 26, 2009 in Culture, Norway and the world

In response to a comment on a recent post about Norway’s involvment in the Sri Lankan conflict, I would like to address Norway’s relationship with the rest of the world through the lens of history.  As most of you already know, the Vikings were a seafaring people who traveled great distances to loot, trade and colonize.  The Vikings conquered parts of the British Isles, Iceland, and even Canada.  They also reached as far as Russia, the Middle East, Constantinople, and North Africa.  These are surprisingly far distances to travel by sea for people from lands far in the north.  Quite impressive.  They couldn’t have done it without their sophistocated ships-the longships and the knarrs.  The longships were designed for speed and agility for use in warfare and exploration, while the knarr was primarily used to carry cargo.

There are two stereotypes about the Vikings that I would like to dispel.  The pictorial images of Vikings that we see are usually incorrect representations.  Most pictures of Vikings you see have horned helmets, right?  Well, historians have come to a consensus that perhaps Scandinavians wore helmets with horns for ritual purposes, but the helmets they wore in battle did not have horns.  As is sometimes true about historical documentation, those who write the stories are not always those who were involved.  Imagine one-on-one combat Viking-style with huge horns attached to your helmet.  This seems like it would be cumbersome.  And it would have been.  The helmets that Vikings wore were conical and made of hard leather and wood for reinforcement.  Chieftan Vikings wore helmets made of iron with a chain and a mask. 

The second stereotype about the Vikings that is untrue is a matter of hygiene.  Images of Vikings typically present them as dirty savages.  However, the discovery of personal grooming tools proves that the Vikings were concerned with their cleanliness.  Combs, tweezers, razors, and ear-cleaning tools have been discovered.  The Vikings also made soap, which they used to clean and bleach their hair.  Vikings in Britain actually are thought to have paid excessive attention to their personal hygiene as they bathed once per week.  In fact, lørdag, the word for ‘Saturday’ in Norwegian, comes from the word ‘washing day’ in old Norse (in modern day Icelandic, which comes from Old Norse, laugardagur, is still the word for Saturday).

Now that you know a little more about the Vikings, you can tell the next Minnesotan you see who is cheering for the Vikings to take off the horns.  And if the person wants to talk shop about the Vikings, you can tell him/her that the nature of the seafaring nation is probably one of the reasons why Norway is so involved internationally to this day even though it is geographically isolated from mainland Europe.


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About the Author: kari

I attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, where I majored in Norwegian and History. During college, I spent almost a year living in Oslo, Norway, where I attended the University of Oslo and completed an internship at the United States Embassy. I have worked for Concordia Language Villages as a pre-K Norwegian teacher and have taught an adult Norwegian language class. Right now, I keep up by writing this Norwegian blog for Transparent Language. Please read and share your thoughts! I will be continuing this blog from my future residence in the Norwegian arctic!


  1. Lars:

    Why is it that most scandanavians try to dismiss the Normans from their history? They were very sophisticated people.