Who were the Vikings? The definition
of a Viking is "one belonging to the pirate crews from among the Northmen,
who plundered the coasts of Europe in the eight, ninth, and tenth centuries."

Some historical accounts have presented an image of the Vikings as brutal,
savage, unfeeling warriors who pillaged and burned with reckless abandon.

This is not the whole story. While the Vikings were great warriors,
they did not kill for sport or burn and pillage without a motive.

They were cunning warriors who sought to make, and ultimately did make,
great changes in the lands they conquered.

The period known as the Viking Age started
in the 9th century and lasted until the 11th century. During this
time, Viking ships sailed from Scandinavia, at the center of the Viking

World, out across the Northern Hemisphere. They went out on voyages
of piracy and invasion, and journeys of exploration, commerce, and settlement.
(The Vikings-Donovan. Pg. 15). The Vikings expanded their empire
over a great distance. To the east, they traveled as far as the Black

Sea and to the west they sailed at least as far as the coast of North America.

No one knows exactly why the Vikings decided to expand. Some believe
their quest for expansion was due to the overpopulation of their homeland,
while others believe that climatic conditions and crop failure forced their
migration. (From Viking to Crusader. Rizzoli)

Before the year A.D. 1100 the Vikings were
polytheistic. They believed that the leader of the gods was Odin,
who was the god of battle, poetry, and death. He was also the father
of all of the other gods. He presided over Valhalla ("the Hall of
the Chosen"), the Viking heaven. It was believed that when a Viking
died in battle, a warrior maiden called a Valkyrie escorted him to Valhalla.

Once the warrior arrived at Valhalla, he began a new life where he fought
all-day and feasted all night. This belief in the conditions of the

Viking afterlife shows us that the Vikings held fighting and feasting in
very high regard.

The Vikings had several other very important
gods as well. The most popular god was Thor. He was the ruler
of thunder and the sky. Thor was so popular that many Vikings wore
lucky charms shaped like the hammer Thor supposedly swung to make thunder.

Another very important god was Freya, who was the goddess of love and the"provider" of large families. (The Vikings...Living History).

To honor their gods, the Vikings offered
sacrifices. A chieftain-priest called a gothi conducted these sacrifices.

They were held either inside a temple or at sacred location outside.

Vikings could offer anything of value to be sacrificed. Precious
metals, clothes, and other inanimate items were buried or thrown in a bog.

Sacrificial animals were eaten. The greatest sacrifice of all was
to give up a son. This happened on a number of occasions but one
in particular stands out. When a war between Earl Hakon (ruler of

Norway from 965-995) and a neighboring band of Vikings was going badly,

Earl promised to sacrifice his son. The battle changed immediately
and Earl’s Vikings defeated the neighboring Vikings with minimal losses.

Earl gave his son to a servant to be put to death. After the Vikings
converted to Christianity sometime between 1050-1100 AD the practice of
making sacrifices ended. (The Vikings...Living History)

In Viking society there were three classes
of people. They were the Bondis, Jarls, and Thralls. The Jarls
were military leaders and sometimes priests. The Bondis were farmers
or merchants, and the Thralls were slaves who were either born into slavery
or captured in battle. A Jarl would own a farmstead and around 30

Thralls. He could also hire poorer freemen to work for pay.

The Thralls had to cut their hair short and wear white coats. The

Thralls did most of the heavy labor on the farm. Thralls lived very
hard lives. A Jarl was allowed to beat his Thralls to death as long
as he publicly announced what he’d done on the same day. (The

Viking World...Campbell)

Although the Vikings shared many customs
(way of life, treatment of women, respect for elders), a common religion,
and a language called Old Norse, they were not a unified nation.

They did, however, have very definite codes of behavior. Their first loyalty
was to their clan (family) and secondly they were loyal to their local
community. Each year, these communities held meetings called "Things".

The purpose of these meetings was to allow freemen to vote on their leaders
and laws. Before the year 800 A.D. the Vikings were many scattered
tribes. Some time after 800 A.D.,