Like most societies, the Norse had a surprisingly lax social hierarchy. The Norse hierarchy was set to where there was a possibility for upward mobility. Individuals in Norse society were not doomed to live out their days in a particular social status, but were free to move from class to class. There were three set social classes in Norse society. Most Norsemen belonged to the middle class known as karls. Karls were the landowners, the farmers; the smiths (blacksmiths, locksmiths, etc. ), etc (Haywood, 2000).
The highest level in the social hierarchy was known as the jarls, or the nobility. These people lived in extravagant houses and halls and lived refined lives. The jarls used their money, wealth, followers, ships, and estates distinguish them from the rest of society. The lowest class of the social hierarchy was known as the pr? ll. This class included slaves and people who were known as bondsmen. If a person, from any class, could not pay their debts, they would become a bondsman and work for another man until his debts were repaid (Guy, 1998).
The Scandinavians, during the Viking Age, spoke Old Norse. This language was sometimes referred to as “Danish Tongue (Page, 1987). ” Icelandic, Danish, and Norwegian languages are all descended of Old Norse. There were many different dialects spoken during this time. Many scholars are able to find the differences between East Norse and West Norse. Despite these differences, the people during the Viking Age were able to communicate with each other without difficulty because the languages were so similar (Page, 1987). Many Viking cultures were also known to have used runes.
A rune is letter or character from the runic alphabet. “Most of the runic characters consist of straight lines and the alphabet was clearly designed for etching onto wood, stone, or metal with a sharp instrument such as a knife (Page, 1995). ” A different version of runes referred to as the “Younger Futhark” was established by the beginning of the Viking Age. Contrary to popular belief, Vikings did not actually wear helmets with horns on them. This depiction of Vikings warriors is a terrible misrepresentation of their culture.
What a Viking wore was determined by their place in their society. If a person was a slave, they were often poorly dressed in things that amounted to rags. Free men wore things like leather boots and clothes made out of finer materials, like wool and different furs. Men often wore either pants or tunics, while the women would wear dress like garments that would fasten at the shoulder (Roesdahl, 2001). Only the wealthiest of the Viking society ever wore jewelry, like necklaces, pendants, brooches, and rings because it signified their elevated status to others (Jesch, 1991).
Viking literature is uncommon to come by because Norse culture was typically shared through the spoken word rather than the written word. Much of the folklore about Norse culture was written later and compiled into a Edda. Edda is derives from the Old Norse term for poetry (Page, 1995). There are two different types of edda, the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. The Poetic Edda is a collection of Old Norse poems. This edda contains the most information concerning Norse mythology. The poems contained in the edda tell stories of brave hero and heroines and depict tales of different Norse legends.
The Prose Edda also contains many mythological stories. The Prose Edda, unlike the Poetic Edda, is separated into three different books;the Gylfaginning, the Skaldskaparmal, and the ? gir (Haywood, 2000). On the whole, not much is known about different pagan religious practices in the Viking Age. There is little evidence to vindicate the different pagan rituals conducted by the Vikings. Different Viking sagas were written almost 200 years ago, after the conversion to Christianity. Although there is no definitive record of pagan rituals, much is known about the many different deities worshipped by the Vikings.
The most popular and powerful god to the Norse people was Thor, god of thunder and lightning. Thor was the mighty champions of the Norse gods and the people because he was the only one strong enough on his own to slay the giants, the arch nemeses of the gods. Without Thor, the other gods would have to resort to playing clever games in order to slay the giants. Thor’s weapon of choice was his mighty hammer, Mjolnir (Dubois, 1997). Mjolnir is depicted as one of the most fearsome weapons in Norse culture, and is rumored to be capable of leveling mountains.
It was written that, “[Mjolnir] would be able to strike as firmly as he wanted, whatever his aim, and the hammer would never fail, and if he threw it at something, it would never miss and never fly so far from his hand that it would not find its way back, and when he wanted, it would be so small that it could be carried inside his tunic (Orchard, 1999). ” Odin was also one of the most popular gods in Norse culture. Odin was the father of all of the gods and men. He is a god of “magick, wisdom, with, and learning (Dubois, 1999). Odin has been said to possess the power of reanimating the dead in order to speak to them to gain any wisdom they may possess. Odin’s weapon of choice is his spear, Gungnir, which, supposedly, never misses its target. Odin is always depicted as only having one eye because he traded the other for a drink from the Well of Wisdom, where he gained an immense amount of knowledge (Page, 1995). Loki was the “trickster” of the Norse gods. It was written that he was, “handsome and fair of face, but has an evil disposition and is very changeable of mood.
He excelled all men in the art of cunning, and he always cheats. He was continually involving the Aesir in great difficulties and he often helped them out by guile (Orchard, 1997). ” Loki was the son of two giants and step-brother to Odin. Loki had the power of shape shifting and could even change his gender on command. As a woman, Loki gave birth to many of the terrible creatures, like Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. When Thor was not around to help destroy the giants, Loki was often sought out by the gods in order to deploy clever tactics to take the giants down.
The common misconception concerning Vikings and religion is that many believed they hated Christianity because they were pagan, and that was not the case. The Vikings believed in many different deities. They often targeted and plundered Christian monasteries, however, because they knew they were wealthy and were, often times, poorly defended. The Vikings had many different customs and beliefs when it came to death. They had specific rituals when it came to funerals, but had many different beliefs when it came to things like the soul and where the dead went when they were no longer part of this world.
The Vikings had two different beliefs when it came to the soul. First, the Vikings believed that the very last breath a person took before they died was their soul escaping and moving on to become one with nature. The second was that there was a different type of soul; a “dream soul” that was able to leave the body when a person was in a state of unconsciousness like sleep. This part of the soul is forever trapped inside the body unless the body is destroyed either by decay or a sacrificial burning. Only when the body was broken down would the “dream soul” be able to make its way to the realm of the dead (Page, 1995).
Vikings believed that, when a person dies, they need to be buried or burned with their belongings that will help them to succeed in their next life. People who had certain jobs, like a blacksmith, were often buried with all of their tools so that they would be able to utilize them after they had moved on to their next life. Women were often burned/buried with their jewelry and other tools for “female household activities (Orchard, 1997). ” It was common among Vikings to burn the corpses, as well as their belongings, on a funeral pyre.
These pyres were built to large scales because the Vikings believed that the smoke from the fire needed to be as massive as possible in order to assist the soul in reaching the afterlife. After the deceased had been gone for seven days, the Vikings would partake in funeral ale which served as a ritual drinking. The funeral ale was a way in which the families of the deceased could get together to celebrate the person’s life. It wasn’t until after the ale was drunk that issues like inheritances and transitioning of familial power were able to take place (Dubois, 1999).
After a person has died, the Vikings believed that their souls partook in an adventure in order to reach the afterlife. The afterlife had many different variations in the culture, like the inside of a mountain, on the other side of the sea, in the heavens, or in the underworld (Dubois, 1999). Helgafjell, or “Holy Mountain”, is one manifestation of the Norse afterlife. If a person made their way to the holy mountain, they would live out their lives in a manner that was very similar to the one they had in the physical world. Hel, however, is the complete opposite of Helgafjell.
Hel, which is ruled by a blue and black giantess named Hel, is the destination for all of those who did not die in battle, but of old age and sickness. In Hel, the gates that adorn the entrance are heavy, as to give the idea once you enter, you will never again exit. Valhalla is another destination for those who have died. About half of those that die in battle find their way to Valhalla. The halves that were allowed to enter were to remain fit for battle so that they could participate in Ragnork. Valhalla was said to be located in the heavens in Odin’s kingdom.
Valkyries, men and women who choose which soldiers die and which live, dwell in the heavens with Odin and those warriors deemed worthy to live again (Page, 1995). The other soldiers who are not chosen to live again reside in Folkvanger with the goddess Freya. The Norse raised many different kinds of domestic animals, like cattle, sheep, pigs, geese, chickens, goats, and ducks. They used their cattle, sheep, and goats in order to make dairy products like milk and cheese. They also harvested eggs from their chickens, ducks, and geese. Fish and deer were also hunted and added to the myriad of food sources the Norse could choose from.
The Norse also were accomplished farmers and were able to grow a plethora of different items, like oats, barley, flax, cabbage, leeks, horseradish, watercress, carrots, celery, peas, and a number of different herbs (Guy, 1995). The Norse were also known to keep bees and to harvest nuts. When it came to cooking their food, the Norse like their meat roasted or boiled and were particularly fond of their stews. The Vikings cured their meat, either by smoking it, bringing it, or drying it. The Vikings usually prepared flat bread for meals (like a pancake), but did produce raised bread when there was some sort of special occasion to cook for.
Their drink of choice was mead. Mead is an alcoholic beverage made from honey, but they also made different kinds of beers and ales. The Viking did not grow grapes, so they were unable to partake in wine (Roesdahl, 2001). In short, it is clear that there are many different aspects of Viking culture that makes them truly unique. It is also clear that there have been many misrepresentations of Viking culture and, because of that, many people can have skewed perceptions when it comes to their outlook concerning Vikings.