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'Vikings' T.V. Series News and Update: Top 10 Vikings Myths, and What is Historically Accurate About the Show?

First Posted: Mar 21, 2014 05:10 PM EDT

Photo : Jonathan Hession/The History Channel

By now, we are all familiar with Vikings, either thanks to the hit show on the History Channel, or through various bits of history that we have learned in school. Vikings, like many other ancient societies, have a lot of myths and misconceptions attached to their facts. Here are the top 10 myths about Vikings, and what the show Vikings shows about real Viking life.  

10. One Nation. As those of us who watch The History Channel show Vikings has figured out, Vikings aren't united by geography. There are Vikings from modern-day Scandinavia, which includes the nations of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. The only thing that really "unites" Vikings is the name "Viking"... which is actually a job description. A "Viking" is someone who went on an overseas expedition. So, technically, Ragnar and all of his traveling companions are Vikings... those who stay behind aren't.

9. Horned Helmets. The only extant Viking helmet that has been found by archaeologists is the Gjermundbu helmet, which is a warrior's helmet that, decidedly, did NOT have horns. (If a helmet had horns, it would be VERY easy to grab in battle.) 

8. Vikings were Wild and Dirty: in many scenes in Vikings, we see Ragnar and others taking ritualistic baths before battle. And while they certainly get dirty mucking about in the fields during battle (and who wouldn't), the Vikings were such a clean people that they were made fun of by the people that they conquered, including the English (who rarely bathed at all). To this day, "Saturday" in various Norse languages (including Icelandic) is literally translated to "washing day" because that was the day that Vikings would traditionally bathe. (Granted, it's not a LOT, but it's still a lot more than what was customary for antiquity.) 

7. Vikings were All Big and Blond: Certainly, Rollo Lothbrook is an example of why that's not the case. But the average Viking man was about 5-foot-7, which isn't tall by today's standards, and certainly not "giant" by the standards of antiquity. Blond hair was highly valued in Viking society, however, so many non-blondes dyed their hair with a special soap made with a type of lye. 

6. Vikings all had long, rock star-type hair: Travis Fimmel's hairstyle in the Vikings series is close, but no cigar, when it comes to depicting a Viking hairstyle accurately: the sides were usually shaved, and the front was left to grow long. In fact, the correct "Danish" hairstyle is described as having "bare necks and blind eyes."

5. Vikings had crude weaponry: we get hints that this isn't the case in Vikings -- there are many metallurgists and blacksmiths that fashion formidable weapons for Vikings in battle. Using a method called pattern welding, the Vikings could make swords that were both extremely sharp and flexible. According to Viking Sagas, one method of testing these weapons was to place the sword hilt first in a cold stream, and float a hair down to it. If it cut the hair, it was considered a good sword. 

4. Viking armies were huge: if you believe The History Channel show, Ragnar can't go anywhere without a thousand men following him. But this one's a little trickier to confirm, or deny, because sources vary wildly when it comes to Viking armies. Some say they were huge... others say that they weren't quite so big. The average Viking boat held about 50 men, which means that if Ragnar took four ships with him to England, at the absolute MOST, he took only about 200 people with him... certainly not enough to leave his town exposed to Jarl Borg, defenseless.

3. The Vikings were hated the world over: No one really likes an intruder, so it's not like everything was peace and love and hippie movements when the Vikings came to town. However, it wasn't nearly as bad as everyone made it out to be. The French King Charles the III -- known as Charles the Simple -- gave the Vikings the land they had already settled on in France (Normandy), and he even gave his daughter to the Viking chief Rollo (wonder what Siggy had to say about that!). In return, the Vikings protected France against wilder Vikings. Also, in Constantinople the Vikings were acknowledged for their strength -- so much so that the Varangian guard of the Byzantine emperors in the 11th century was made up entirely of Swedish Vikings.

2. The Vikings were bloodthirsty: Again, it was a violent time, so it wasn't all peace and love and hippie movements when the Vikings came to town. However, the question is whether Christian armies of the time acted in any substantially different manner. For instance, Charlemagne, who was Vikings' contemporary, virtually exterminated the whole people of Avars. At Verden, he ordered the beheading of 4,500 Saxons. Vikings certainly were not as bloodthirsty as many Christians of their time. But what really made the Vikings different was the fact that they seemed to take special care to destroy items of religious value (Christian monasteries and holy sites) and kill churchmen, rather than simply concentrate their efforts on armies, which earned them quite a bit of hatred in a highly religious time. The Vikings knew that this would be the end result, and they probably enjoyed the reputation they had; people were so scared of them that they often fled from their cities instead of defending them when they saw a Viking ship coming near.

1. The only way Vikings made money is by rape and pillage: Pillaging was only part of the way they made their money. But they certainly diversified their investments (if you will). It was actually only a very small percentage of the Vikings that were warriors; the majority was farmers, craftsmen and traders. For the Vikings who took to the sea, pillaging were one among many other goals of their expeditions. The Vikings settled peacefully in many places such as Iceland and Greenland, and were international merchants of their time; they peacefully traded with almost every country of the then-known world. 

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