History: About The Vikings

Vikings Update: Real Norsemen History

About the Logo | About the Name | About the Colors | About the People

About the Logo

Karl Hubenthal who was (and still may be) a sports cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times, did the original drawing of the Viking logo in 1961 for Bert Rose, then the General Manager of the Minnesota Vikings, who had contacted him. The logo itself depicts the fierce warrior from Scandinavia -- what is now Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The people of the era and who lived there referred to the warriors as Norsemen, or Northmen.

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About the Name

When Bert Rose was elected as General Manager of the Minnesota Vikings in 1961, one of the first steps he took was to recommend to the Board of Directors that the club be nicknamed the "Vikings." He said a nickname should serve a dual purpose. First, it should represent an aggressive person or animal imbued with the will to win. Second, if possible, it is desirable to have it connote the region that the particular team represents. The "Vikings" scores well on both points. Certainly, the Nordic Vikings were a fearless race. Following many years of victories in the British Isles and France, under Erik the Red, they sailed in open boats across the North Atlantic, seeking new peoples to conquer. Their entire history is punctuated with the aggressive desire to will and win. While Minnesota is populated by the descendants of settlers from many nations, the area has a rich Nordic lore, perhaps due to the mythology of Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox, perhaps due to the preponderance of the 'sons' and 'sens' in the phone book. The Vikings, too, were Nordics; hence the name represents in a large part the solid stock of people who call Minnesota their home.

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About the Colors

What exactly are the Vikings colors? Why don't the helmets match the color of the jerseys? Technically speaking, they are the same color. NFL Properties, the league's licensing arm, states " ... Pantone 269 (the official color registration number) is Viking Purple ... The gold is Pantone 1235." Even though the technical color used on the helmets and jersey's are the same, the colors don't exactly match because the material used to make the jerseys absorbs the dye color differently than the helmets. Unlike the old days when the old jerseys matched the helmets better.

If your such a diehard fan that you have to paint your car or truck Viking purple, that's a much tougher task to match the jersey color to a car paint. Don't despair though, a customer service representative at Suburban Auto Body in Little Canada (MN) found one. After searching through dozens and dozens of pages of the paint sample book, the General Motors purples looked gray. However, the Ford Bright Sapphire was a close match, and Ford's Ultraviolet was almost a perfect match. That's FA 95:GN for anyone seriously thinking of painting their mode of transportation.

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About the Original Vikings

Conquest and Settlements | Why the Vikings Were Powerful
Trade is Developed | The Norseman at Home
Education | Government | Religion | History of the Sagas

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Late in the 8th century AD, strange ships began appearing in the bays along the coasts of Europe. They were strongly built of oak, and from 40 to 60 oarsmen sat on the rowers' benches. Each ship had a single mast with a square sail that was often striped in brilliant colors. Bright shields overlapped along the gunwale. The ships were pointed at each end so that they could go forward or backward without turning around and had tall curved prows, usually carved in the shapes of dragons.

These dragon ships, as they were often called, usually appeared in a bay at about dawn. As soon as the ships reached the beach, tall blond men jumped out, shouting battle cries. Armed with swords and battle-axes, they attacked the villagers and carried all the loot that their ships could carry. Then they sailed away.

These marauders, or pirates, came from Scandinavia -- what is now Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The people who lived there were Norsemen, or Northmen. Those Norsemen who took part in these swift, cruel raids along the coast were called Vikings. Their expression for this type of warfare was to "go a-viking." Vik in Norse means "harbor" or "bay." The Vikings came to be the most feared raiders of their time and were the only Norsemen with whom most Europeans came in contact. Their name was given to the era that dated from about AD 740 to about 1050 -- the Viking Age.

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Conquests and Settlements

At first these Viking attacks were made by small bands. Later there were more men and more ships, which roamed farther and farther from their homelands. To the north and east they attacked the Lapps, Finns, and Russians. To the west they conquered and held for generations large parts of Britain and Ireland. To the south they occupied northern France. The Norsemen did not actually conquer any country south of France, but their ships sailed along the coasts of Spain and Portugal. They plundered Sicily and the northern shores of Africa and attacked Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. To the west the Vikings did not stop with the British Isles but crossed the Atlantic Ocean to take Iceland away from the Irish monks who had settled there. In 874 they began to colonize Iceland, and during the years that followed, many freedom-loving people came to Iceland as settlers. In about the year 982 Eric the Red sailed westward from Iceland. He landed on the coast of Greenland and gave the island its name. Later he founded the first colony there. His son, Leif Ericson, sometimes called Leif the Lucky, is believed by most historians to have been the first explorer to reach the North American mainland. About the year 1000 he landed at a place that he called Vinland. Vinland was identified as Newfoundland in 1963 when archaeologists uncovered the remains of a Viking settlement at the extreme northern tip of the island. While the Vikings were discovering lands and waging war, they were telling each other adventurous tales that later were known as sagas, from the Icelandic word for story. Poets also were singing the praises of Norse heroes and gods and describing the Norse way of life. In this way the Norsemen preserved major parts of the early history of the Scandinavian countries and of Russia, Germany, Britain, and Ireland.

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Why the Vikings Were Powerful

The Vikings probably were descended from blue-eyed and blond invaders from the south of Scandinavia. There they found and conquered a short, dark-haired race. Long-limbed and muscular, with flaxen or red hair hanging below their shoulders, Norsemen were trained from childhood to be strong and self-reliant. Running, jumping, and wrestling took the place of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Their other subjects were skating, skiing, snowshoeing, swimming, rowing, and riding horseback. As soon as a youngster could carry a weapon, he was taught to thrust a sword, to swing a battle-ax, and to throw a spear.

A part of their success was due to their religion, for the Norsemen's gods were warriors too. Thor the Thunderer made constant war against the ice and snow giants of the North. The chief god, Odin, presided over Valhalla, the warrior's heaven. Death in battle was considered the most honorable death. Only by that death could a Norseman enter Valhalla. So the Norsemen battled unafraid and joyful, calling upon their gods to help them.

The Norsemen were the most skilled and daring seamen of their day. Because the compass was still unknown, they navigated by sun and star. When fog hid the stars, their ships drifted until the weather cleared. Not fearing death, they took great chances. Their experiences and discoveries were therefore many.

The Norsemen dared not risk open fires aboard their wooden ships, and in those days there were no stoves. So, unless they were on a long sea voyage, they would anchor in a quiet bay each evening. Then they pitched tents on the shore, kindled fires, and cooked their food. Porridge with dried meat or fish was the usual diet. Sometimes they had bread, butter, and cheese. If they spent the night aboard ship, they unrolled their skin sleeping gear and stretched out on the rowers' benches. A successful Viking expedition might bring fortune, fame, and, perhaps, noble rank to those who took part. So by the time they were 15 or 16, Norse boys were eager to try their luck in battle.

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Trade Is Developed

The early Viking voyages were mostly raids in which Christian churches and monasteries were robbed and burned and peaceful villages were plundered. But in later times piracy was often combined with trading. A pirate expedition might stop off to do a little quiet trading, and a trading expedition might turn to a little pirating.

As time went on, trade among the Scandinavian countries and with the rest of Europe grew. Norway sent herring and salt to Sweden. Denmark received sheep from the Faeroe Islands. Greenland imported timber from Labrador and grain and iron from Europe. It paid for these in walrus and narwhal ivory, furs, live falcons, and even live polar bears. Norwegian Viking expeditions started in the spring after the seed was sown or in the autumn when crops were harvested. At home the Norsemen were mainly farmers and stockmen. They also hunted and fished. After a successful voyage or two, many retired from the sea and were often succeeded by their sons.

During wars and raids, villagers who were not killed by the Vikings were often taken as slaves. These slaves, called thralls, were usually Irish, Finns, Germans, or Slavs. A free Norseman might be enslaved for a debt or crime, but this was rare. Many slaves were voluntarily freed by their masters, especially after the introduction of Christianity, and there was much intermarriage.

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The Norsemen at Home

The houses of the Norsemen differed according to the resources of each country. In Norway houses were built of rough pine logs. The roofs were usually covered with turf or straw. In Iceland, which had few trees, houses were built of turf, rocks, and driftwood. Both in Iceland and Greenland heavy timbers needed for the frames of buildings were brought from Norway and later from North America.

A house had only one room and was built with a pitched roof. A poor man might have two or three huts. The estate of a rich man had so many buildings that it looked like a village. In later centuries, several of these buildings were often connected by passageways. The houses were plain on the outside. All the decoration was indoors, where most of the woodwork was carved, painted, and touched with gilt. On festive occasions, brightly embroidered tapestries would be hung on the walls, and long tables were set up for feasting. The Norsemen had a great variety of foods and beverages. Mutton and beef were plentiful. Until its use was forbidden, the favorite meat was horse meat. The Norsemen also used fish and cereals, eggs from wild and domestic fowl, and milk products. They had few vegetables. Honey was the only sweet, and bees were kept to supplement the wild honey. Meat and fish were often dried, smoked, or pickled. Many foods were preserved in brine or in sour whey, a preservative still in use among Scandinavians. Butter was never salted. It was eaten fresh or was fermented for use like cheese.

Norsemen liked both fresh and sour milk and buttermilk too. The favorite drink was whey. They had a food named skyr that was much like cottage cheese. Apples and berries were their only fruits. Porridge was cooked in enormous kettles over an open fire. Although boiling was favored for most foods, meat was sometimes baked in hot ashes. Bread was baked in ashes or in clay ovens.

At feasts the Norse drank quantities of ale. From honey they made a fermented drink called mead, and wealthy Norsemen imported wine from France. There were long and sometimes rowdy drinking festivals, at which sagas were told and poems were recited. All wealthy Norsemen dressed lavishly for events like weddings and funerals and for things, as the assemblies were called. Skins and furs of tame and wild animals were used, but the most common material was a woven woolen cloth, called vadmal. Dyes were expensive, so poorer people wore the cloth in its natural color. The rich wore it in bright colors, often striped and patterned. Silk and linen, which were imported and costly, were used mostly for underwear.

Since the Vikings traded with so many countries, they often brought home new ideas for dress and adornment. The native dress of both sexes in early times was similar. The main garment was a long buttonless tunic, which might be narrow or wide. If wide, it was gathered around the waist with a belt. It had an opening that was slipped over the head and tightened with a brooch. The custom was to wear a gown of one color and a cloak of another. A man's tunic was usually sleeveless, perhaps to show off his muscles and gold arm rings. Young women wore their hair long and caught around the forehead with a band, sometimes made of pure gold. Noble and wealthy men also wore their hair long with a band to keep it in place.

The young Norsemen loved games, especially those that helped to develop their bodies. They played ball games on the ground and on ice. Wrestling and fencing were popular sports. Young Norsemen used skates made of the bones of animals. According to a Norwegian historian, an unusual sport involved walking on oar blades while a boat was being rowed. In another game two or three small swords were thrown in the air and then caught; to play with three swords at once without injuring oneself required great skill. Norsemen loved music and dancing. They had a fidla, or fiddle, a horn made from a buck's horn, and also a kind of harp. The high point at a feast was the performance of a skald, or professional poet.

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There were no public schools. All education was given at home, with a parent, nurse, or visitor acting as teacher. Children were often sent to the home of a rich man, sometimes a relative, to be educated. Both girls and boys learned to sing, to recite and compose poetry, and to tell sagas. Girls were also given lessons in how to spin, weave, and dye wool; to sew, knit, and embroider; to wash and to cook; and to make butter and cheese. Some girls and most boys learned to read and cut runes, which were the letters of the ancient alphabet used by the Norsemen. Just as the English alphabet is often called the ABCs, that of the Norsemen was called futhork after the first letters. The early Norse alphabet had 24 letters. The later Norse alphabet had 16.

At first runes were used for scratching names on personal belongings or for simple memorials. Later these memorials grew more elaborate. Thousands of these memorial stones have been found on the Scandinavian peninsula and in Denmark. North of Upernivik, in Greenland, the discovery of a little rune stone was considered proof that Vikings had traveled more than 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Others carved runes on the statue of a lion in Athens, Greece.

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In the early history of the Norsemen there were no nations in the modern sense. People lived in what might be called tribal communities. These communities were independent of one another, and banded together only for some common purpose. When the title konungr (king) was given to the chief of a community, it did not carry the meaning that it has now. There were many kings. Often one would rule over a small section of land no larger than a county, and some of the kings were war chiefs who had no land.

Each community had a thing (assembly), which acted as a court and legislative body. Only those who owned land could be members. A king could hold his position only as long as the people wanted him. Before a new king could take office, he had to have the consent of the members of the assembly.

Next in rank were the jarls, nobles who often had about as much power and land as the kings. Both kings and jarls had to rule according to law. No laws were written down until around 1100. Before then the laws were really traditions and opinions of the majority of the people. The people elected lawmen who had to know these unwritten laws and explain them to the rulers.

Later in Sweden and in Denmark people began to unite under one king. In 872 Norway had a single king, known as Harald Fairhair. But Harald undid much of Norway's unity by giving each of his numerous sons the title of king. Norway therefore remained divided for some time. When Harald became king, some dissidents went to Iceland and founded a colony there. While the people of Iceland did not unite under one king at that time, Iceland was the only country to form a national assembly during the Viking Age. Called the Althing, it first met in 930 and is the oldest national assembly in the world.

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A young Viking, King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway, became a convert to the Christian religion some time before AD 1000. His passion for the new religion was backed by a military force that threatened all who refused baptism. Some Norsemen had already become Christians, mainly through Irish influence, though on the whole the Vikings were content with their own gods. Gradually Norway was Christianized, then the Faeroe Islands and Iceland, and finally Greenland. The first Christian missionaries in Greenland were brought there from Norway by Leif Ericson.

A Viking chieftain was buried with everything he might need to get to Valhalla. One third of his property might be used in this way. (Another third went to his widow and the remainder to his children.) The goods buried included money, tools, changes of clothing, weapons, horses, chariots, boats, and even ships. Women's graves contained many of the things they might need in afterlife, such as needles and thread, looms, kitchen utensils, and cooking vessels.

Sometimes a dead warrior would be placed aboard his ship, which was set afire and allowed to drift out to sea. Sometimes people were buried in boat-shaped coffins, which were covered with earth mounds. Fortunately, ships were not always burned, and a few have been preserved.

Next to the sagas, graves have been the best source of information about the Norsemen. In Scandinavian museums there are examples of almost every art known to the Viking Age. Among these are jewelry, weapons, furniture, and bronze and silver utensils. Most have survived because they were made of such durable materials as stone, metal, and hardwood. But woolen clothes in good condition have been found in parts of Greenland where they had lain in the frozen soil for centuries.

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History from the Sagas

The Norsemen, like the Greeks of Homer's time, were storytellers and poets. At all assemblies, weddings, and funerals, those skilled at storytelling and reciting verses would perform.

When Christianity came to the mainland of Scandinavia, folk poems and stories were frowned upon by the clergy. But Iceland was protected by distance from the influence of Europe. So, long after Christianity became the official religion, the Icelandic people struggled to preserve their historical and literary heritage. Their religious leaders enjoyed the storytelling and found no offense in it.

During the 12th and 13th centuries, the clergy and scholars of Iceland wrote many manuscripts. All were written as the saga tellers related them. Some were true and some were pure fiction. Among the serious historical records are sagas that tell of the kings and of Viking conquests. They tell of their discovery and colonization of Iceland and Greenland and their discovery of the American mainland.

Two significant manuscripts dealing with the religion and philosophy of the Norsemen were written in Iceland -- the Elder Edda (in poetry) and the Younger Edda (in prose). Much of what is known of early Norse mythology came from the Eddas. (See also Saga; Scandinavian Literature.)

In Iceland much of the old Norse language has been retained. In Norway, Sweden, and Denmark the languages are as different from the old Norse as modern English is from early Anglo-Saxon.

- This article on the history of the Scandinavian Vikings is used with permission from: The Learning Company, Inc., Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia 1998 Deluxe.

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Copyright © 1999 Sportz Ink, Inc.
All rights reserved, no portion of this publication may be reproduced without permission.

Copyright © 1999 The Learning Company, Inc. Norsemen article, About the Original Vikings, is excerpted from Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia 1998. Copyright © 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.

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