French onion soup is no question a delicious dish with its savory and rich flavor. Top it with melted cheese and croutons, and it’s chef’s kiss. The Vikings knew that too well, except you need to remove the cheese and croutons, then make the onions super pungent. They also didn’t enjoy it as an entree, but rather, they served it to warriors injured in battle as a crude diagnostic tool to determine whether a wound might be fatal. Let’s find out why the Vikings fed their wounded onion soup.

Vikings

Vikings were seafarers who originated in Scandinavia. Beginning the 8th century, they raided and pirated areas of Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East, and North America. This, of course, involved tons of combatting encounters. Whenever they had to fight, they would form a wedge with their fearsome berserkers at the front of their formation. They would rush forward with ax, spear, and sword and although it was not well-known, they also employed longbows that they would use to hit targets at sea or to deplete enemy ranks. Even though they were considered good fighters, bringing home hacked-up and wounded warriors after a battle was inevitable.

An illustration of Vikings on a boat. (John Clarke Ridpath, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Vikings Were Farmers, Too

Everyday life in the Viking Age
Everyday life in the Viking Age, as pictured on a Faroese stamp (norse-mythology.org)

Even though they had a reputation as pirates and raiders, they didn’t only terrorize ships and invade lands. Vikings were also good farmers and cooks. They had a diverse cuisine of sausages, boiled and fresh meat, meat preserved through smoking, curing, or using whey. As voyagers, they also loved seafood, dairy products, and their harvests of fruits and vegetables that they could turn to beers, meads, and in terms of medicine, herbs that they would use to cure diseases and heal their wounds.

Onion Soup For The Wounded

For the Viking wounded in the abdomen, the women would feed him onion soup. And no, it was not to make them feel better.

So they gather their crops throughout the year, but during the cold season, their supplies become scarce, and their herbs would be limited. They had to find an innovative way to conserve these supplies and make sure that none were wasted. So when their warriors bring home a wounded comrade, the medicine women had to diagnose and assess the severity of the situation to see if the person was curable or if death was imminent. In a practical sense, there was no point wasting healing plants and remedies on someone who was going to die anyway. They had to find a way to do that, and their innovation was to feed the wounded with an onion soup. Yep, you read it right.

On behalf of the Viking healers, we’ll explain it to you.

So the wounded warrior would chow down the strong onion soup that was cooked for him. The healer would then wait for a few minutes, and then they would sniff the wound to look for the distinct onion smell. If they did, then they could tell that the stomach or bowel had been perforated which would result in septic infection and painful death. Instead, they would just use it for someone who had a better chance of survival. This method, of course, only applied to those who were stabbed or wounded in the stomach area.

Once the verdict was reached, the Vikings would have a living wake for the wounded Viking who would be given mead to the point of intoxication and hopefully a less painful death.  On frequent occasions, the Viking would ask his friends to send him off to the afterlife themselves.  When Thormod The Strong of Iceland took an arrow to the chest, refused the onion soup treatment and demanded the healer open his wound wider with a pair of pincers. Thormod then wrenched the barbed arrow out with his own hand commenting on the gory appearance of the arrowhead, “see how well the king keeps his men. There is fat by my heart.” He then keeled over and died.

One wonders if Thormod arrived in Vallhalla to find a big bowl of onion soup waiting for him.

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