I have often come across people who are telling me, that it is not correct to use the word Viking for all the people who lived in Scandinavia during the Viking age. Most people claim that it was only those who went on raids that were Vikings, as in ”to go Viking”. Others say they came from Viken in Norway, or from the villages named Vik. So what does the word Viking really mean? And do we have some sources to look at that can help us understand this word? This is what we are going to explore today.
If we start by taking a look at what Dr. Jacqueline Simpson said about the word Viking. Dr. Jacqueline Simpson is not just a random person, she is a respected British researcher and an expert in folklore and legends, and she has written books such as Icelandic Folktales, Scandinavian Folktales, and everyday life in the Viking age. And it is in this last book ”everyday life in the Viking age” that we will take a look at what she wrote.
What is the origin of the term Viking?
“In medieval Scandinavian languages, a Vikingr is a pirate, a freebooter who seeks wealth either by ship-borne raids on foreign coasts or by waylaying more peaceful seafarers in home waters. There is also an abstract noun Viking, meaning ‘the act of going raiding overseas’… Strictly speaking, therefore, the term should only be applied to men actually engaged in these violent pursuits, and not to every contemporary Scandinavian farmer, merchant, settler, or craftsman, nor even to warriors fighting in the dynastic wars of their lords or in their own private feuds.”
“However, it was the raiders who made the most impact on the Europe of their time, so that it has become customary to apply the term ‘Viking Age’ to the period of Scandinavian History beginning in the 790s (the time of the first recorded raids on Western Europe) and petering out somewhere around the middle of the eleventh century (by which time raids and emigrations had ceased, the settlements established abroad had become thoroughly integrated with the local populations, and social changes in the Scandinavian homelands had marked the transition to their true Middle Ages).”
“Indeed, the term is such a convenient label for the distinctive culture of this period that one now talks not only of ‘Viking ships’ and ‘Viking weapons’ but of ‘Viking art’, ‘Viking houses’, and even ‘Viking agriculture’ – expressions which would have seemed meaningless to people living at the time.” Jacqueline Simpson. Everyday Life in the Viking Age. New York: Dorset. 1967.
Let’s dig deeper into the past, and find some sources from the Viking Age, and a good place to begin would be Egils saga, which was written during the Viking age by Egil Skallagrimsson, and according to what he has written the word Viking is referred to as free-booting.
In Icelandic: ”Björn hét hersir ríkur í Sogni er bjó á Aurlandi. Hans son var Brynjólfur er arf allan tók eftir föður sinn. Synir Brynjólfs voru þeir Björn og Þórður. Þeir voru menn á ungum aldri er þetta var tíðinda. Björn var farmaður mikill, var stundum í víking en stundum í kaupferðum. Björn var hinn gervilegasti maður.”
Translated into English: ”There was in Sogn a lord named Bjorn, a rich man; he dwelt at Aurland. His son was Brynjolf, who was the sole heir to all his father’s wealth. Brynjolf’s sons were Bjorn and Thord. They were young when what has been just told happened. Bjorn was a great traveler, sometimes on free-booting, sometimes on trading voyages”
In Icelandic: ”En er vora tók þá ræddu þeir Brynjólfur og Björn einn dag um ráðagerðir sínar. Spurði Brynjólfur hvað hann ætlaðist fyrir. Björn sagði það líkast að hann mundi fara af landi á brott. „Er mér það næst skapi,“ sagði hann, „að þú fáir mér langskip og þar lið með og fari eg í víking.“
Translated into English: ”But when spring came, then Brynjolf and Bjorn were talking one day of their matters. Brynjolf asked what Bjorn meant to do. Bjorn said ‘Twas likeliest that he should go away out of the land. Most to my mind is it,’ said he, ‘that you should give me a long-ship and crew therewith, and I go a free-booting (To go Viking).” – Egils saga – Chapter 32
As you can see Egil Skallagrimsson uses the word Viking to describe an action of a group, as in, to go Viking. So by this definition, they would-be pirates, but let’s look at more sources.
In the Anglo-Saxon poem, Widsith from around the 9th century, a word similar to the word Vikings is mentioned and that is the word ”Wicings”. This word could refer to the word Vikings, however, the word does not seem to be explained.
”Hrothwulf and Hrothgar held the longest concord of kin as cousins together, after they routed the race of Wicings, laid prone the pride of the power of Ingeld, hewed down at Heorot the Heathobard line.” Anglo-Saxon poem, Widsith – Chapter 5 – 45
”to men in the mead-hall make my lay, how high-born heroes heaped me gifts. I was with Huns and with Hrethan Goths, with Swedes and with Geats and with Southern Danes, with Wenlas and with Wærnas and with the Wicings” Anglo-Saxon poem, Widsith – Chapter 5 – 55
Adam of Bremen has labeled the people from Scandinavia many times with names such as Pagans and Danes, but he has also called some of them wichingi.
In Latin: ”Aurum ibi plurimum, quod raptu congeritur piratico. Ipsi enim piratae, ‘quos illi Wichingos as appellant, nostri Ascomannos regi Danico tributum solvunt.”
Translated into English: “There is much gold here in Zealand (Sjælland), accumulated by piracy. These pirates, which are called wichingi by their own people, and Ascomanni by our own people, pay tribute to the Danish king.” – Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum (volume four) by Adam of Bremen.
Wichingi looks somewhat similar to Wicings, and similar to the Italian word for Vikings which is vichinghi, so it is probably Vikings that he talks about. A new word to pay attention to is the word ”Ascomanni” which means Norsemen in Italian.
So according to Adam of Bremen in this short text, both the word Vikings and the word Norsemen are linked to piracy. However, the word Viking is also mentioned a few times on some of the runestones in Scandinavia. This runestone is from Växjö Cathedral in Sweden, the inscription reads as follows.
Written in runes: -ᚢ[(ᚴ)]ᛁ (᛬) ᚱᚽᛁᛋᛏᛁ ᛬ ᛋᛏᚽᛁᚾ (᛬) ᚽᚡᛏᛁᚱ ᛬ ᚴᚢᚾᛅᚱ ᛬ ᛋᚢᚾ ᛬ ᚴᛁᚱᛁᛘᛋ × ᚴᚢᚦ ᚼᚽᛅᛚᛒᛁ ᛋᚽᛚ ᚼᛅᚾᛋ ᛏᚤᚴᛁ × ᚢᛁᚴᛁᚴᚱ
The inscription reads as follows: Toki ræisti stæin æftiR Gunnar, sun Grims. Guð hialpi salu hans! Toki vikingR.
Translated into English: Tóki the Viking raised the stone in memory of Gunnarr, Grímr’s son. May God help his soul.
Another example of the word Viking on a runestone is from Kårestad in Sweden, the inscription reads as follows.
Written in runes: ᛫ ᚴᛚᛅᚴᛅ × ᛋᚢᚾᛁᛦ × ᛚᚽᛏᚢ × ᚼᛅᚴᚢᛅ ᛫ ᛋᛏᚽᛁᚾ ᛫ ᚽᚡᛏᛁᛦ ᛬ -ᛅᚦᚢᚱ ᛫ ᛋᛁᚾ ᛬ ᛅᚢᚴ ᛬ ᚽᚡᛏᛁᛦ ᛬ ᚴᛅᛚᛅ ᛬ ᛅᚢᚴ ᛬ ᚢᛁᚴᛁᚴ ᛬ ᛒᚱᚤᚦᚱ ᛬ ᛋᛁᚾᛅ
Translated into English: Klakki’s sons had the stone cut in memory of their father and in memory of Kali/Kalli/Galli and Víkingr, their brothers.
Could the word Viking have been used in the early Viking Age, as someone who simply just went exploring, traveling or adventuring? or was the word Vikings always linked to piracy, or did the word Viking became more tainted as the years went by.
In the Icelandic Homily book from around the 13th century, it also uses the word Viking, in one of the parables told by Jesus.
In Icelandic: “En þá er konunginum var sagt, hvað þeir höfðu gjört, þá sendi hann her sinn og lét drepa víkinga þá og brenndi upp borgir þeirra.”
Translated into English: “And when the king was told what they had done, he sent his army and ordered them to kill the Vikings and burn their city.”
Are Vikings from Vik or Viken?
Some people believe that the Vikings came from a specific area, and I have seen people say many times that the Vikings are from Norway, and it is always the same area they refer to which is the area called Viken which is around the Oslofjord. However, while there certainly were people from this area that went on raids, there is an overwhelming amount of sources that claim they came from other areas as well.
There are also the towns and villages spread across Scandinavia with a similar name which is Vik. And again some people have theorized that the word Vik is the word that Viking derives from. Most places with the name Vik are places that have fjords or inlets, and for this reason, some people think that people waited in these fjords or inlets and when they saw a merchant ship sail by they would sail out from the fjord to attack it.
But what does the word Vik even mean? The word Vik in Old Norse means an inlet from the sea, or in other words a creek, a cove, or a bay. Bay or inlet is probably the best word for Vik, and this word is actually still used in Scandinavia today, both the Swedes and the Norwegians use the word, Vik, while the Danes has changed it to the word ”Vig”, but it has the same meaning.
Vik is not something that is just a Norwegians thing, to give you an example this is Ramsvik in Sweden and it is located in a bay and this is a place in Denmark that is named Vig, in fact, there are many places in Scandinavia that has Vik in the name. However, the word does seem to be way more common in Norway, and I could have added even more places from Norway.
Besides, villages, regions, and municipalities with the name Vik, there are also rivers and inlets with the name. You just need to look at a map of Norway and you will see the name again and again.
On the British Isles, there is a similar word which is the word ”Wick” and this word can be found plastered across the British Isles on towns and villages, and again this is just a small sample. However, according to my research, it seems that the word Wick does not have the same meaning but probably means camp or settlement and derives from the Latin word vicus.
But could there be something about this word Vik from Scandinavia that connects to the word Vikings? The simple answer is, we just do not know, but it is an interesting thought. Towns and Villages with the name Vik can also be found on Iceland, which is an island in the North Atlantic ocean that was settled by the Vikings. Here the capital is named Reykjavik, and other towns and villages have the word Vik in their name as well, for example, Breiðavík, Bolungarvik, Vik, Húsavík, Dalvik, Breiðdalsvík.
If Viking really did derive from the word Vik, and Viking means someone who is a pirate, then why are there so many areas with this name, because they can’t all be pirates? Or can they?
The word Viking seems to have been entered for the first time into the English vocabulary sometime in the early 18th century, and the definition was ”a Scandinavian”. If the word Viking was misunderstood or it was just part of the romanticism, can be argued. The fact is, this is when the word Viking got its modern meaning, which is something that happens in all languages, were words and terms gain and lose meaning all the time. For instance, the word meat has not always been used to describe animal flesh, but it was used to describe all solid food, including vegetables.
So why use the word Viking?
So why do I and so many others use the word Viking or Vikings to label all the people from Scandinavia from the Viking age? Well, to me it is quite simple, languages evolve all the time, and the term Viking is broadly accepted today by most historians. The word Viking is also the word that most people understand what is, and from where they were from.
Most people are not experts in the Viking age, and therefore broad definitions of a group of people, who had almost a similar culture are in my eyes perfectly fine. I think it is more important to teach about the history of the Vikings to as many people as possible, and then, those who want can always go into the small details, which most people won’t do.
What is the Internet?
Let me give you an example of a word modern word that many people use incorrectly today, but the word is broadly accepted by most people, and that word is the ”internet”. Many people say let’s go on the ”internet” or let’s go on the ”net”. However, you can not browse the internet, the internet is an infrastructure, made out of physical hardware that transmits data through cables and wires across the globe into a network of servers, that connects millions of computers.
What is the Web?
So, when you go online and you want to browse something, you don’t browse the internet, you browse the world wide web, or simply you browse the web. I don’t want to make it more complicated than necessary, so I am not going into the small details on the difference between the internet and the web, this was just a simplified explanation of the internet and the web. My point is, most people, like a broad definition that covers a subject, like the word Vikings.
The same goes for the different groups of people from Scandinavia, we are not certain from where each raid came from, sometimes the sources tell us, for example, it was the Danes who attacked, this or that. But many of those sources have been written by the monks, who hated the Vikings, and it could just as well have been Norwegians. Some clans were also allies and would raid together, however, we simply do not have enough information about it.
If the word Vikings would be an unacceptable label for these people, I promise you, that not only would it be a bureaucratic nightmare, it would be next to impossible. Let’s say we stopped using the word Vikings, what would we use? Danes, Norse, and Swedes? Well, there will probably be those who would say, that is also incorrect because they were not necessarily countries yet. So then we had to split them into clans, but again which clan was allied with which and how many from each clan would raid together and where?
To me, it makes more sense that we refer to them as Vikings, and when the source tell us they came from, for instance, Norway, we can call them Norwegians Vikings.
I am going to continue using the word Viking because that is what most people are familiar with. And when there are sources to back up where they came from, I will probably also mention it as well. To me, it is important to keep it as simple as possible, and that is why I will keep using the word Viking, as a broad definition of the people and then in some videos, I will dig further into the details if we have some available, and mention where exactly they were from.
The reality is that even when the word had a different meaning a thousand years ago, today it means something different. When we say the word Vikings today, we talk about everyone within Scandinavia during the Viking age. The term Viking is also used widely by both academics and by most of society today. There is simply no concrete evidence that proves without a doubt what the word Viking really meant.
However, as I see it, it was probably someone who went abroad for an expedition or went raiding, and therefore it could be linked to piracy, but there are not many sources that talk about the meaning of the word Viking, these examples were all I could dig up. But as I already said language evolves, and today we simply label all in Scandinavia during the Viking age as Vikings, regardless if they went exploring, raiding, or stayed at home. It is also impossible to point at a specific area in Scandinavia and say that is where the Vikings originate from. Society is simply too connected to each other, that we have to agree on the three countries, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden as from where the Vikings came from.