THE WORD VIKING
The word "Viking" is commonly used today by many scholars and the general population to describe the late Iron Age Scandinavians who lived in the historical period known as the Viking Age.
Language and definition changes with time, but even so, it is vital to understand the original meaning of the word.
What is a Viking? Is it a nationality? Is it a genetical bloodline? Or is it just an activity some Scandinavians participated in?
We have translated an excellent blog post published on the historical website of Birka (UNESCO World Heritage site) by Anne-Berit Lavold where she presents a portion of her research regarding the origin and historical meaning of the word "Viking". The original blog post is part of a lecture on runic findings on Birka that she held on the Day of Archaeology at the end of August in 2023.
Before we dive into the blog, we'd like to give our viewpoint on the matter.
Even with terminology changing with time, and with "Viking" having become a word that represents all the Scandinavians of the Viking Age, it is of great importance to understand history and what the word represented.
For us Scandinavians who are brought up and live in Scandinavia, our past is not something we choose. We don't have our interest sparked by popular media or a genealogy test. Our past is always there, part of us, whether we want it or not. Therefore it is vital to diffrentiate between history and today. Being inspired by history, historical cultures, characters and deeds is fine. However, trying to change history through applying modern values, views and concepts is disrespectful and dangerous. The rule of cool can only be applied on the present - not the past.
The influx of historical misrepresentation of the past years has been frightening. Historical Vikings have been made to look like fantasy barbarians mixed with mohawk native americans covered in warpaint. The amount of cliches make the horned helmets look irrelevant. People getting their information from repackaged third hand sources are challenging facts found in original, primary sources. Some even claim ownership over our past, attempting to remould it to suit their needs.
A modern sub-culture can be inspired by anything, re-shape and invent features that fit the concept. That does not include the past culture. It is what it is - set in stone.
Thank you for reading this far. Now, let's have a historical look at the word Viking and what is actually known about it.
What does the word Viking mean and how old is it?
The oldest written evidence of the word is found in an Anglo-Saxon-Latin dictionary from the late 6th century where the word viking is translated as pirate. The Anglo-Saxon word wicing corresponds to the Latin pirata (pirate). The dictionary exists in three preserved copies, the original is probably contemporary.1
Where the word comes from is still disputed by scholars. Several theories have been put forward:
- that the Vikings lay in wait in bays to wait for ships to attack there (vik = bay).2
- that the word would come from the Old English wîc meaning market town and which originally comes from the Latin vicus meaning village, meaning that many Vikings were merchants. 3
- that the first sailors who sailed west to raid came from a place called Viken, an area outside the Oslofjord and Bohuslän in Sweden. The suffix -ing means 'belonging' and can here indicate a resident name. This -ing is one of our oldest place name suffixes and was formed before the Viking Age.4
- that the word would come from when the rowers after a very long distance (about 1200 oarpulls = 8 km/5 miles) have to change rowers or sides in the boat. This was called vika, which means 'shift, exchange'. 5
- that the word comes from vikja 'to give way, deviate', i.e. someone who leaves the country or makes a trip to a foreign country.6
Is it a an activity, a term or a name?
It is actually all of the above, which is evident on Viking Age runestones here in Sweden.
Going “in Viking”- an activity
In Härlingtorp in Västergötland, a mother raised a runestone over her son. "...he died on the western roads in Viking" (...Sá varð dauðr a vestrvegum i vikingu.Vg 61). The inscription provides evidence that a man traveled in Viking, which is also shown by a stone in Skåne where a man "died north in Viking". (…er norðr várð dauðr í víkingu. DR 334).
Being a Viking – a profession and a noun
On a Gotland runestone, two brothers have erected a stone over their father who "had gone west with Vikings". (...He was [v]est farinn með vikingum. G 370). Apparently, this man was not considered a Viking, but he accompanied Vikings.
In Bro in Uppland, a woman has erected a stone over her father who "was a land defender against Vikings". (aR var vikinga vorðr. U 617) Here it is meant that Vikings were something to guard against.
Being called Viking - a person's name
Viking as a personal name is engraved on about twenty runestones.
Historical evidence of the word
An early evidence for the word viking appears in an Anglo-Saxon poem called Widsith written down in the 9th century. However, the story is considered to be older, from the 5th–6th centuries. 7
I was with Huns and with reidgoths,
with Svear and with Götar
and with Southern Danes.
With Wenlum I was and with varangians
and with vikings.
Ic wæs mid Hunumevil mid Hreðgotum,
mid Sweom ond mid Geatumevil
Mid Wenlum ic wæs ond mid Wærnumond
In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle written down during the Viking Age, the word wicinga appears several times. An example is from the year 982: 8
Here in this year came up in Dorsetthree ships with Vikings and ravaged Portland.
Her on þys geare comon up on Dorsætum.iii. scypu wicinga hergodon on Portlande.
In Snorre Sturlason's "Konungasagor" we learn the following: 9
Yngve Alreksson came one autumn from going in Viking to Uppsala
and was then very famous.
Yngvi Alreksson var þá enn eitt haust kominn or víkingu til Uppsala,
ok var þá hinn frægsti
Yngve apparently became known and admired upon his return home. It is likely that men who came back from Viking voyages, with exciting stories and perhaps with riches, were held in high esteem.
What was a Viking?
That the word viking was synonomys with pirates, regardless of origin, is confirmed by several texts. Here are some examples:
Ingvar den vittfarne – Ingvar the Far-Travelled
At the end of the 1030s, Ingvar the Far-Travelled went east with roughly thirty ships and 700 men. On the journey they were ambushed by "Vikings", probably Byzantine troops, who attacked with Greek fire, fire that was sprayed from a copper pipe. The fire came from petroleum and burned even when it ended up in water. A ship burned up. Ingvar returned the fire with burning arrows so that all the enemy ships were reduced to ashes. Here is the sentence referring to those who assaulted Ingvar: 10
And when the Vikings noticed that they were facing resistance
En er víkingar fundu, at fast var fyrir
From Landnamsboken (Icelandic story describing the population of Iceland): 11
But when he (Harald Fairhair)
turned back from the west,
he met vikings on the islands,
both Scottish and Irish,
which ravaged and robbed everywhere.
En er hann (Haraldr inn hárfagri)
slógust í eyjarnar víkingar
ok Skotar ok Írar ok
herjuðu ok ræntu víða.
From Knytlingasagan (Icelandic saga that tells about the kings of Denmark, descendants of King Knut), chapter 29: 12
While Harald hein was king of Denmark,
bad manners were lightly punished,
both for locals and Vikings,
which then ravaged Denmark,
both Kures and other Easterners.
en meðan Haraldr hein hafði verit konungr yfir Danmörk,
þá höfðu litt verit hegndir ósiðir,
bæði innanlandsmönnum ok víkingum,
er þá herjuðu í Danmörk,
bæði Kúrir ok aðrir Austrvegsmenn.
From Knyttlingagagan chapter 38: 12
King Knut says to Egil after Egil has raided the whole summer:
You act badly,
when you make yourself a viking,
in the heathen way,
That I want to forbid you
Þá tekr þú ílt ráð upp,
er þú gerir þik at víkingi;
er þat heiðinna manna háttr,
vil ek þat banna þér.
From Harald fairhair's saga: 13
Solve was then a great viking
for a long time
and often did great harm
on King Harald's kingdom.
Solvi var siðan vikingr mikill
ok gerþi optliga mikinn skaða
a riki Haralldz konvngs.
Sigurd Jorsalafari 14
At the beginning of the 12th century, the Norwegian king Sigurd Jorsalafari (Jerusalem traveler) traveled south on a crusade. Outside of Spain he fought against "Vikings" which turned out to be Muslim Moors who had conquered the Iberian Peninsula.
As a fun fact, it can be mentioned that the nickname Jerusalem traveler has been mistranslated. The people of the time "translated" the name Jerusalem as they understood it - Horse Farm, from jor 'horse' and -salir 'the farms'. Sigurd's nickname shoud thus be correctly transated to Horse Farm Traveler.
The first written evidence for the word is from the 6th century and the word was probably used long before that. We are talking centuries prior to the start of the Viking Age.
In both the Anglo-Saxon and the Scandinavian languages viking meant pirate. It had nothing to do with northerners in particular. Sure, some could choose to go off as Vikings/pirates and raid, but that was a small part of the population.
Translated with permission by Birka by Grimfrost from: https://www.birkavikingastaden.se/ordet-viking/
1 Fell, C.E. Old English Wicing: A Question of Semantics. Proceedings of the British Academy 72, 1986 s.295-316
2 Harrison, D & Svensson, K. 2007. Vikingaliv. Värnamo. s. 10
3 Harrison, D & Svensson, K. 2007. Vikingaliv. Värnamo. s. 11
3 Palm, Rune. 2010. Vikingarnas språk. 750-1100. 2. uppl. Stockholm: Norstedts. s. 16
4 Svenskt ortnamnslexikon, red. Wahlberg, M., Uppsala 2016. s 155
5 Daggfeldt, B. 1983 Vikingen roddaren. Fornvännen 78, s.92–94. http://kulturarvsdata.se/raa/fornvannen/html/1983_092
Mees, Bernard. 2012. Taking turns: linguistic economy and the name of the Vikings
6 Askeberg, F. (1944): Norden och kontinenten i gammal tid: Studier i forngermansk kulturhistoria, Almqvist & Wiksell, Uppsala.
7 Widsith. https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Widsith
8 The Anglo-Saxon chronicle volume 5 MS. C, redigerad av Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe 2001 Cambridge s.85
9 Sturluson, S. 1993. Nordiska kungasagor. D 1. Ynglingasagan. Översättning Johansson, K. G. Stockholm. S.43
10 Yngvars saga víðförla 1912:20-21 https://www.snerpa.is/net/forn/yngvar.htm kapitel 6
11 Landnámabók del 1, kap. 11
12 Knyttlingasagan kapitel 29 och 38 https://heimskringla.no/wiki/Knytl%C3%ADngasaga
13 Harald hårfagers saga https://heimskringla.no/wiki/Harald_h%C3%A5rfagres_historia Kapitel 13
14 Palm, Rune. 2010. Vikingarnas språk. 750-1100. 2. uppl. Stockholm. s. 57
15 Svenska akademiens ordböcker. www.svenska.se
The runestone texts are from Samnordisk runtextdatabas http://www.nordiska.uu.se/forskn/samnord.htm.
Visit Birka the city of Vikings!
Hear about Birka's unique and fascinating history on site. Don't miss the exciting temporary exhibition "Buried at Birka" at the museum, where you get to know three graves and explore reconstructions of their grave goods. Travel there by boat on the scenic Lake Mälaren - book your boat ticket in advance for a guaranteed place on board.