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From Exploring History 4 by Michael Ryan, (Dublin 1986)
Published by Gill and Macmillan Ltd., Goldenbridge, Dublin 8.
Reproduced with permission.
Lesson One.

The Vikings

Which one of these people is a Viking?

Most people would probably have guessed that the man with the horned helmet is the Viking. Indeed the very word "Viking" means "pirate". But in fact it is the picture of the other man which is more accurate.

The second picture is based on evidence collected by historians and archaeologists. They have found no evidence that Vikings always wore horned helmets or that they always carried weapons.

So why do people today think of the Vikings as wild, savage people who were always fighting and raiding?

Sources of Information.

One of our main sources of information about the Vikings is the writing of monks who lived in monasteries in Ireland, Scotland, England and France. These monasteries were often attacked and robbed by Vikings from about A.D. 750 to A.D. 1100. The monks saw the Vikings as pagans who had little respect for Christian holy places. So it is little wonder that they had a bad opinion of the Vikings.

We do however have at least two other sources of information about the Vikings:
  • The findings of archaeologists who have excavated sites where Vikings settled - camps, farms and towns.
  • The writings of the Vikings themselves. They wrote long stories called sagas about the brave deeds of great Viking heroes.
We will look in lesson two at some extracts from these tales, especially from one called Egil's Saga.

Scandinavia - the home of the Vikings.

Here is a map of Scandinavia, the land of the Vikings. Today Scandinavia comprises three countries - Norway, Sweden and Denmark. (The Vikings were often referred to as the Danes but they came from all over Scandinavia.) Let us take a closer look at one Scandinavian country - Norway.

Here is a list of important geographical facts about Norway. Using this list and the map, try to write down the reasons why Vikings usually travelled by sea.

Some facts about Norway.

  1. Norway is mostly a high, mountainous plateau.
  2. Much of the surface is bare rock.
  3. Farmland makes up only 3% of the surface of Norway.
  4. Winter temperatures inland are often well below freezing.
  5. Warm ocean currents prevent harbours from freezing.
  6. Summer temperatures seldom rise above 16 degrees C, except in the south.

Notice how the Atlantic Ocean has indented the west coast of Norway forming steep-sided bays called fjords. Find Sogne Fjord on the map. It stretches inland for 160 kilometres. Killary Harbour between Galway and Mayo is Ireland's only fjord. You can find it on a good map of Ireland.

Here is a map of the Viking world around the tenth century.

The map of the Viking world will give you an idea of how far afield the Vikings travelled. We know that the Vikings visited distant places because Viking objects have been found there by archaeologists.

Sometimes objects made in Irish monasteries have been found thousands of kilometres from Ireland. They could have been bought or stolen by Vikings and carried away.

We can see from the map that the Vikings travelled along rivers that brought them well into Russia. They went as far south as North Africa. The Vikings set up colonies in Ireland, England, Scotland, Iceland and the south of Greenland.

They even reached North America many years before Christopher Columbus did. The part of America in which they settled was called Vinland - a place we know today as Newfoundland.

Lesson Two: Viking Raids; Looking at the Sagas.
Lesson Three: Viking Longships.
Lesson Four: A Viking Settlement.
Lesson Five: The Vikings Settle in Ireland.
Lesson Plan Page.

Updated February 2001 by the Viking Network
Irish Co-ordinator Michael Farry.