Cool Vikings

Some cool facts about Vikings:

  • Investigation of mitochondrial DNA shows that about 70% of the women in modern Iceland are descended from Irish women, but few Icelandic men are descended from Irish men. The most likely explanation for this is that when the Vikings pillaged Ireland, they killed the men and took the women home with them.
  • The Vikings invented the amphibious landing vessel. Their ships could be sailed straight up on shore.
  • The Vikings didn’t have compasses, but they could tell roughly where north was. Supposedly, if you put fleas in a box, they’ll jump northward. I don’t know if this is true, and I’m not planning to make the experiment!
  • Most people have heard of the Viking torture called the “blood eagle.” This is where a captured enemy’s ribs would be severed from his spine, his lungs pulled out, and salt sprinkled on the wound. People would stand around and jeer at the victim and his fluttering lungs (the “eagle’s wings”) as he slowly expired. Alas for those who love bloodthirsty stories, this probably didn’t happen—you’d be dead from blood loss and/or shock by the time the lungs were exposed, and you can’t breathe with your lungs outside your body (you need the diaphragm to move the air in and out). This is probably a misunderstanding of poets’ saying something about fallen warriors having their backs carved by the blood eagle, meaning they were clawed by carrion birds after they died.
  • Some skeletons of Viking men show horizontal grooves filed in their teeth. The only other people known to have done this are Native Americans from the Great Lakes region. Hmmm.
  • Gudrid, the mother of the first baby of European origin known to have been born in America, was born in Iceland, traveled to Greenland with Eric the Red (her father-in-law), and then got shipwrecked attempting to go to “Vinland.” She was rescued (by her brother-in-law Leif Ericsson), and went back to Greenland. She then made a successful trip to America and stayed there a year and a half or so, during which her son Snorri was born. Then back to Greenland. She became a Christian and traveled to Rome. She went back to Greenland where she lived out her days as a nun. She was known as “Gudrid the Far-Traveler.”
  • One source says that Vikings in Canada used jasper to start fires. I can’t find out how, though.
  • The Icelanders of the Viking era didn’t have a central leader, but local chieftains. Once a year all the free males gathered for a General Assembly and voted on everything. Trials were held in smaller assemblies and decisions were made by 36 judges, who acted something like a jury.
  • There were no honey-bees on Iceland, meaning they had to import mead, the fermented honey drink that they loved.
  • Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets. But you knew this already, didn’t you?
  • Alex

    It was my understanding that although the Vikings never actually followed through with tortures such as the Blood Eagle, they readily disseminated stories of their supposed viciousness as a form of psychological warfare. It was all about keeping the Christian world terrified of them.

    • Tracy Barrett

      I think you’re right about this kind of psychological warfare that not only Vikings, but many groups throughout time waged and often still wage on their enemies, potential or actual.

  • Anthony

    I’m no geneticist, but something about the first point doesn’t seem to add up – at least by way of explanation. Aren’t Icelandic men and women a genetic mix of both parents? Or am I missing something? Thanks…

    • Chris

      Mitochondrial DNA is only inherited matrilineally. 

      • Tracy Barrett

         Thanks for replying, Chris–I wasn’t ignoring you, Anthony; I was out of the country with technological woes!

  • Lmortensen

    The term basanite has occasionally been used to refer to a variety of jasper, for example a black flinty or cherty jasper found in several New England states of the USA. 

    When struck against steel, a flint edge will produce sparks. The hard flint edge shaves off a particle of the steel that exposes iron which reacts with oxygen from the atmosphere and can ignite the proper tinder. Prior to the wide availability of steel, rocks of iron pyrite would be used along with the flint, in a similar (but more time-consuming) way.