During the Dark Ages, the world would come to know a breed of warrior that would leave an indelible mark on both pirate and human history. For 300 years, commonly called the Viking Age, Scandinavian men from the cold depths of what is now Sweden, Norway, and Denmark would pillage and plunder the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas and Russian rivers, and even reach as far as Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland in the North American continent. A force to be reckoned with, these Vikings, or Norsemen, were known as much for their brutal warring and terror as they were for the culture, civilization, and commerce they brought to the world through the colonies they settled throughout Europe and other continents.
Vikings were pagans who for the most part were skilled traders, craftsmen, explorers, fishermen, or farmers. Harsh weather or poverty are likely what drew Norse pirates from their homeland to the sea and beyond in search of plunder or to areas they could establish as settlements. As their shipbuilding and navigational skills advanced, however, so did their piratical ambitions, and their rule-by-fear tactics would become evident to the unfortunate victims of their assaults, many of whom were killed, captured for ransom, or sold into slavery.
Did Vikings really wear horned helmets?
Vikings often suffer from the same stereotypes that traditional pirates do and they're often misunderstood. When the word Viking is mentioned, it usually conjures up images of rabid seafaring barbarians charging boats and shorelines, their horned helmets firmly in place as they ravage all who stand in their way. While the tenacity of the Norsemen cannot be denied, they didn't actually wear horned helmets.
The word Viking is likely from the Norse word vik, which designates a fjord, creek, or bay. A passionate people, they were polytheistic worshippers much like the Egyptians, meaning they worshipped more than one god. Most important to them was Odin, god of war, battle, wisdom, death, magic, prophecy, and poetry, and Thor, the god of thunder. In an odd twist of fate, the Norse introduced Christianity to Scandinavia sometime in the tenth century A.D., having brought back the religion from the countries they invaded.
The Norse Advantage
The first known Viking attack took place in England in 789 A.D. and was followed in 793 with an attack on the island of Lindisfarne. With its monastery, the island was considered to be not only a source of great wealth, but a sacred place as well. Vikings commonly attacked churches and monasteries given that they were, for the most part, left unguarded, remotely located, and possessed many items of worth including jewels and gold and silver implements or crucifixes. In most cases, they attacked and left so quickly that no defense could even be mounted. At Lindisfarne, the Norse attack was swift and particularly brutal, leaving many dead and the monastery robbed of all its riches.
Viking attacks continued over the years, in Ireland, islands off Britain (the Isle of Iona, the Isle of Man), France, Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey), and numerous coastal and inland cities. The terror these Norsemen provoked was undeniable to anyone who could see their distinctive and elegant ships nearing the shore. Hailing from a land beleaguered by fierce cold and limited resources, the Norse were natural warriors whose fighting and plundering skills would have seemed horrifically barbaric to the average coast dweller. Likewise for Norse weaponry, which included heavy double-edged swords or broad battle-axes.
The Norse are legendary for their warring skills, but perhaps even more renowned for the incredible ships they built. Vikings developed several types of double-ended clinker-style ships, which meant that their frames, or hulls, were composed of overlapping planks secured by iron nails, with tarred waterproofing wedged between the planks. Both ends of the ship would curve upward. The later designs would include the addition of a single mast and rectangular sails. Easily recognizable for their long, lean hulls and upward curvature from bow to stern, Viking craft were built for speed, durability, commerce, warfare, and even ceremonial purposes. For their era, these marvels of maritime architecture and efficiency had never before been seen by landlubbers or fellow mariners.
A hull is a crucial architectural element of all floating vessels. It is basically the frame or body of a ship and serves double duty for a vessel's flooring and walls. The hull provides a watertight surface that is designed to prevent water from leaking into a boat. The Vikings were especially adept at designing and building extraordinarily sturdy and beautiful hulls.
The knarr was primarily a merchant vessel capable of carrying heavy cargo up to 15 tons. Over 50 feet long with 15-foot beams in their hulls, knarr vessels were the only Norse craft that didn't rely on the use of oars, instead using only sails. Karve ships had 17-foot beams, ranged around 70 feet long, and accommodated up to sixteen oars. These ships were so efficient that they could negotiate waters only a few feet deep.
The most recognizable of the Norse vessels, the stylish longship, was a distinctively narrow craft designed for speed, pillage, warring, and exploration. Viking shipwrights perfected the longship's sleek, narrow design that enabled these lightweight boats to negotiate shallow waterways, travel efficiently over open seas, and be easily beached during coastal assaults. Some could even be carried by their crew across land.
The smaller longships were typically around 100 feet long, with a 20 foot beam, elegantly carved prows, and a single rudder and shallow keel. Propulsion was accomplished by the use of around fifty fitted oars along the entire length of the boat. With the capacity to transport approximately twenty tons and about 200 sailors, longships were ideal for Norse pirates intent on quick pillage and plunder.
What are Viking dragon ships?
Some of the more impressive Viking vessels were the large longships, called drakar, which means “dragon.” With more than seventy oars and a length of over 150 feet, these Norse vessels posed a formidable naval threat given that they were able to carry up to 300 Viking pirates.