Marauders, or pirates, that came from Scandinavia what is now Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The people who lived there were Norsemen, or Northmen. These Norsemen took part in swift, cruel raids along the coasts of Europe. 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 740 AD to about 1050 — the Viking Age.
Late in the 8th century their strange ships began appearing in the bays along the coasts of Europe. Some of these ships were quite long for that era. 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. They 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 sleeping villagers. They killed many of them, captured some of the youths and maidens, and gathered all the loot that their ships could carry. Then they sailed away.
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.
While the Vikings were discovering lands and waging war, they were telling each other adventure 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.
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.
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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.
Contrary to popular belief, Christopher Columbus was not the first European to walk the shores of the North American continent. The Viking Leif Ericson visited North America in about 1000 A.D. and named the area Vinland. Vinland's location is believed to be present-day Newfoundland or Nova Scotia, on the northeast coast of Canada. The land may actually have been visited in about 985 by an explorer from Iceland named Bjarni Herjulfsson, whose story is told in 'Tale of the Greenlanders'. Another book, 'Saga of Eric the Red', presents Leif Ericson as the discoverer. Thorfinn Karlsfeni brought a colony to Vinland several years later, maybe as early as 1004. Warfare with the native people led the Vikings to return to Greenland. Another expedition arrived in 1013, but it was also unsuccessful. Its failure ended Viking interest in North America.
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Sources: Article is scheduled to be reviewed.
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