Vikings. The name conjures up many images more steeped in myth than in truth. Nevertheless, our fascination with the Vikings or “Northmen” continues to grow. One reason is their storied fighting prowess. This is due partly to Viking weapons. These were perfect for the kind of raids they conducted which put fear into the hearts of their enemies — and ensured we’d be getting plenty of Viking shows and books.

What Were the Vikings Really Like?

They didn’t identify themselves as “Vikings” per se, that was just a name for the people who took part in the raids. Rather, they identified themselves as the residents of whatever region they were from. 

Unlike, the popular misconception that they were filthy and unkempt, Viking men and women were actually quite serious about their personal hygiene and appearance. They bathed at least once a week and washing their hair and hands daily. In digs of ancient Viking sites, many of the people were found with tweezers, razors, combs, and ear cleaners made from animal bones and antlers.

Women had many more freedoms than any of their other European neighbors at the time. Although they were expected to care for the home and children, they were allowed to own property and could divorce a husband while reclaiming their dowry. A few were actually warriors “shield maidens” who fought with the men on raids. 

Viking helmet and chainmail
Typical Viking helmet (note the absence of horns) and chain mail. (The Danish Museum)

Were the Vikings truly bigger than their foes? It would seem so since their protein-rich diet would lend itself to growing larger than the European peasants they would encounter during raids or trading trips. 

Ibn Fadlan, an Arab diplomat who traveled to the Volga (modern-day Russia) wrote about the Vikings he came across. 

“I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Volga. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blonde and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor caftans, but the men wear a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free.”

“Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife and keeps each by him at all times. The swords are broad and grooved, of Frankish sort. From fingertips to their neck, each of them has a collection of trees, figures, and the like.”