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Viking vs Norse vs Scandinavian

Vikings, Norsemen and Scandinavians. Are these terms interchangeable?

Not in most situations, no.


There's a lot of discourse in the Norse community about how the word "Viking" only refers to people who go on raids, and then... maybe not even to them.


So... What exactly is a Viking? And how does it differ from the other terms?

What's this all about and what are we

supposed to call these people, then? Let's break down the relevant terms.


Jump to:

 

The Viking Age

 

So... I've found that it's a very Scandinavian thing of me to refer to the era of the raiding Norsemen as "the Viking Age". It's the correct term, but if you've grown up outside of Scandinavia, you might not know that.


It's a bit like Americans referring to the civil war, as an important moment in time. Or people of the UK, referring to the Tudors, to talk about a specific time in history.


Each country defines the key moments of their history differently. For Scandinavian countries, the Vikings were a huge part of their history, and clearly differs from the earlier Iron Age and the later medieval times , which is why we have "The Viking Age".

Landisfarne castle

Officially the Viking Age spans from 793 to 1066.


Although most Scandinavian historians agree that these brackets ought to remain more flexible, as the Norse culture evolved slowly and steadily throughout the Iron Age.


Internally, within the Nordic lands, raids seem to have happened for centuries before the official start of the "Viking Age", and some evidence has also been found to indicate that raids abroad also started earlier.


It just that 793 in Lindisfarne is the first Viking attack abroad of which we have a specific description, and therefore it's the date which has been chosen as the beginning of the Viking Age.


But, Thilde... You just said that Viking might not be the right term to refer to these people, so why is the Viking Age correct but not "Vikings"?


Well... let's have a look at what Viking actually means.

 

Vikings

 

The term Vikings stems from Old Norse, specifically Vikingr, which is commonly translated to mean "a person who raids". The truth is a little more complex.


The Vik part of "Viking" likely comes from the Norse word which meant bay. Therefore the term would merely imply someone who travelled from bay to bay to go on adventures, which might, or might not, include raiding.

In the historically interested crowd there's an unwillingness to use "Vikings" because it only refers to the act of raiding, not to the hundreds of thousands of people in the Viking Age who were farmers and never left their own shores.


But what word might we use instead?


For now let's continue to refer to them as "Vikings" and dive into other options. Let's start easy and level up along the way...

 

Scandinavian

 

Despite what Google and Wikipedia might try to convince you, the word Scandinavian refers to only three countries.

Scandinavian can be used about people and things, and about the present as well as the past, yet the term often gets mis-used. There seems to be some international confusion about which countries actually are a part of Scandinavia. So let me just put all of the confusion to rest.


The Scandinavian countries are: Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.


Three countries. That's it. These three countries also happen to be the same three countries from which "Vikings" originated.


Iceland, which is also famed for having Vikings, was only settled by Scandinavians in the middle of the Viking Age. At the beginning of the Viking Age, before Scandinavians started going abroad to raid and settle, this is where they were all based. Denmark, Sweden and Norway.


As for Finland? We'll get to that, but for now, know that Finland is not a part of Scandinavia. It is however...

 

Nordic

 

Nordic includes all of the Scandinavian countries and also Iceland and Finland!

It's: Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and also includes the Faroe Islands and Åland.


Sometimes, it can include Greenland, although usually Greenland would not be included. We will talk about how to refer to Vikings living in Greenland further down.


Nordic countries does include Iceland, which was eventually fully inhabited by "vikings", but it can't be used as a substitute for Vikings since the Nordics also includes Finland, and Finland was not inhabited by "Vikings" (we'll get to it, I promise).


So when talking about "Vikings", what other terms might we use?

 

Swedes

 

Sometimes, we might use the word Swede. Swede is a word that specifically refers to people from Sweden. It is mostly used to refer to Swedish people of the past, namely of the Viking Age, but can also be used about modern day inhabitants.


That's just Sweden though and excludes Norway and Denmark. Which brings us to the next term...

 

Danes

 

You'd think that this was the equivalent of Swedes, just about Denmark. Danes are and were from Denmark. Except that historically it has come to mean something different too.


In the British Isles, raids by "Vikings" were increasingly common throughout the Viking Age. These Vikings didn't merely attack, they also often settled. Most of the new settlers on the British Isles were Danes (from Denmark) and since they were the majority, the term started being used for anyone coming from the Scandinavian countries, regardless of where they actually came from—be it Denmark, Sweden, Norway or Iceland.


So, already centuries ago, the term "Danes" had started to get muddled to no longer just refer to people from Denmark, but also people from Norway and Sweden.


Today it's still used to refer to Danish people, and is the Danish equivalent of Swede, so it also doesn't feel quite right as a plain Viking substitute.


And what about Finland? You might still be asking. Okay, okay. Third time's the charm, so let's get into it...

 

Finns

 

The people of Finland weren't "Vikings", they were Finns (and Sami) which is entirely different. There was however some cultural lap-over.


Scandinavians certainly interacted with the Nordic Finns, because the word Finn pops up in many literary sources, although often it's associated with stereotypes.


It was also a given name, which referred both to the people form Finland and to a dwarf in Norse mythology called Finn (I even have a character called Finn, in Northern Wrath).


To a Viking, a Finn was someone who lived isolated in mountains, lived in tents, used skis as transport, and didn't participate in modern life. This was the stereotype.


Mention of Finland also exists on some Runestones and King Olaf of Norway fought famed battle in southern Finland, so it certainly was not a far off place for most Vikings.


Yet, linguistically Finnish and the languages of other Nordic countries are eons apart. If you speak modern day Danish, you'd likely understand some Norwegians, Icelandic and Swedish, since they all stem from Norse. At the very least you'd be able to easily learn these languages, but none of these languages gives you even a fingertip of an advantage if you're looking to learn Finnish.


Due to a complicated history of colonisation, many Finnish people do speak some Swedish, though, so often communication between the Nordics is possible that way, without always needing to resort to English.


That being said, certain Vikings are thought to have settled on and off in the southernmost part of Finland, and in the Baltics, which brings us to the next term...

 

Rus

 

The Rus were people mostly living along rivers in eastern Europe. Here's a photo of Rus clothing. Looks strangely familiar right? Almost seems like a Viking, except for a few differences such as different dresses for the women and different hats and tunics for the men. A lot of similarities can certainly be seen.

(Rus to the left and Vikings to the right)


The Rus were not "Vikings", but the lines are quite blurred here. Often when we refer to sources about Vikings from outside Northern Europe, especially Arabic sources, these sources are actually about the Rus.


The Rus were people with a similar culture to "Vikings" who lived in the Baltic and along the rivers of Rusland.


Some historians argue that the Rus were indeed Vikings, others that they were different enough that we should not confuse the two. Most historians at least agree that they are most likely second or third generation Vikings who settled along the rivers on their way further into Europe.


The Vikings are known to have expand into eastern Europe. Jomsborg, for example, was a mythical "Viking" stronghold and that was located along the shoreline either in the Baltics or in Poland. Its exact location remains a mystery to this date, but the people from that stronghold are firmly called Vikings.


So the borders get a bit muddled around these parts, and the cultures of the Rus and Vikings seem to be quite similar.

 

Greenlanders

 

This term is and was used to refer to Vikings who settled in Greenland, however the settlement period in Greenland was short.


Erik the Red was outlawed (exiled) from Iceland. Having nowhere else to go, Erik decided to lead the party of Vikings to settle on the icy shores of Greenland. He had lured them with the promise of lush green lands (hence the name Greenland), but of the 25 ships that left with him, only 14 arrived on the shores. The rest were lost at sea and caught in the ice.

The 14 ships did however arrived on Greenland's beautiful but harsh coast in 985. Te settlement did not last long after Erik's death.


While the settlement was in effect, Vikings who lived there were referred to as Greenlanders. We even have the Saga of the Greenlanders, as proof.


Greenland's history with Scandinavia continued after the Vikings left their shores though, and today Greenland is an autonomously governed part of the Kingdom of Denmark.


Vikings were not the only inhabitants of Greenland. The indigenous population of Greenland are Inuit. Many people from Greenland today identify as much if not more by their culture, Inuit, than their geographical origin, Greenland. Most people in Greenland today are both Inuit and Greenlanders.


When talking about the Viking Age, though, we might use the terms differently, by referring to the indigenous population by the term Inuit and the Viking settlers either as "the Settlers" or as "Greenlanders".

 

Anglo-Saxons

 

Like the Finns and Rus, the Anglo-Saxons also weren't "Vikings". Yet, here too there were many similarities and possibly shared origins.


Anglo-Saxons were based on British Isles and to get a full run down on what makes them both different and similar to Vikings, have a read of this excellent blog post over on the Spells and Spaceships, which will answer all of your questions in much more detail than I could possibly attempt to do here.

 

Normans

 

There's one more term that kind of refers to VIkings and yet kind of not. That would be Normans, which refers to people of Normandy, France.


You see, during some of their many raids, the Vikings sailed up the Seine and attacked many cities, including Paris. One such summer of raids, the King of France, Charles the Simple, decided to enter negotiations with the Viking raiders. He offered them all of Normandy to settle in exchange for protection against other raiders, and the Vikings agreed.

Normans became the term used to refer to these settlers in Northern France. Mostly the term would to refer second and third generation Vikings, but could also refer to native French who hadn't left the area after the hand-over. Their culture was one that intermingled their Vikings roots with the Frankish culture and means.


And like the term Swede and Dane, it can still be used today.


So none of the above terms quite work as a complete replacement of the term Vikings... Except maybe the following one will...

 

Norsemen

 

Aha! Now you're talking!


Norse people or Norsemen refers to people who spoke Norse. This is the alternative to Viking that is preferred by many historians and many people interested in history.

The "Vikings" spoke Old Norse. This term therefore refers more to their shared culture and language than to their geographical origin.


The term would therefore include both a "Viking" from Denmark and one from Iceland. It can be said about a farmer as well as a raider. It can be used when they're abroad or when they're spinning wool at home.


It could refer to "Vikings" living abroad too, without claiming that everyone from that place were raiders. It could be used to refer to the Greenlanders too, without taking away from the existence of the Inuit people.


It seems to be the perfect term.


As I see it, there is only one problem with this term... Most people outside the community don't know it. They do however know about Vikings.

 

So, what should we call "Vikings"?

 

If they have horned helmets, we call them fictional...

But in all seriousness, that's a good question.


Does this all mean that Viking is the wrong word to use to talk about Scandinavians from the Viking Age? Technically, yes, that is what it means. Norseman would be the all encompassing correct term. However...!

Language evolves, and spoken word is not carved stone. I think that's crucial to acknowledge. Technically, even someone who we would accurately refer to as a Viking in academia today, would not have called themselves a Viking. They likely wouldn't have identified themselves as a Norseman either.


In the modern day, Viking is a term acknowledged and known across the globe. Even if it often evokes an idea of barbarians wearing horned helmets, people recognise the term. Most folk might not be as familiar with the terms Norse, Dane, Swede or Norsemen, and as a result these terms are less likely to evoke vivid imagery.


My own rule of thumb is that Vikings themselves didn't say that they were Vikings, so you won't catch me using it in my prose to refer to people. But... when talking in the present day, I have no trouble talking about Norse people using the term Viking, as that has become how most people think of them, regardless of any distinctions that experts might make.


Personally, I liberally go back and forth between Norse and Vikings, sometimes throwing in a fancy Viking Age Scandinavian, or a Dane or Swede, if I want to be really specific about their geographical origins.


I think it's up to each of us to decide how to go about it, and now you're fully informed on the options!




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THILDE KOLD HOLDT

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