"While the Vikings raided other countries, they were also artisans, farmers, fishermen who traveled beyond their own country to adventure the world beyond their own land. Why they adventured beyond, according to some historians, may have been because of a population boom that sent them looking for land. "Because of better food (and) conditions, they were actually able to have a good survivability rate among newborns," according to Gary Anderson, co-founder of the Viking Age Club and Society-Sons of Norway in Minneapolis. "They ended up with more people than were able to live off the land. It started throwing them into a situation where they had to expand outward. But in some cases it would appear that there was a search for wealth rather than land."
While the Vikings excelled in the world of commerce, their reputation as fearsome warriors is not undeserved. In the early centuries of the Viking Age, Viking raiders plundered targets in Britain, Ireland and the Carolingian empire. In the middle of the 9th century, a few Viking ships sailed into the Mediterranean and attempted raids on North Africa and Italy. However, according to "The Cultural Atlas of the Viking World," "the organized and effective resistance of the Arabs in Spain deterred other Viking expeditions from entering the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar, and after 862 A.D. most of the raids were confined to France and central Europe.
Coastal towns and monasteries were prime targets, and Viking raiders, wielding swords and battle axes, would make off with everything from religious artifacts to slaves. Often, Viking armies would demand a large payment to leave a town peacefully. In the latter part of the 9th century until the end of the Viking age in 1100, the Vikings turned their attention from piracy to colonization. In Britain, the Vikings created trading outposts in York and Dublin.
"The entirety of what we call Normandy today was a Viking settlement," said Anderson.
"When the Vikings sailed out of Sweden and into the rivers of Russia, they were so influential in setting up Kiev that (it) became a major trading center." Their adventurous spirits also led the Vikings to discover new lands, like the Faroe Islands in Greenland and eventually Vinland (America).
Until the middle of the 9th century the population in Norway were mostly pagans. They had an ethnic religion with a series of myths about a set of Gods as Odin, Thor and Freya in contrast to the universal Christianity. Religion was an important part of their daily life expressed both in art and runic inscriptions. Some of our weekdays have their names from their gods: Wednesday is Odin's day, Thursday is 'Thor day' and Friday is 'Frigg's day.'
The period of the Viking age coincides with the first consolidation of a single Norwegian kingdom. By the time of the first historical records of these events, about 700 A.D., Norway was divided into several petty kingdoms. King Harald Fairhair is the king who is credited by later tradition as having unified Norway into one kingdom. According to the sagas, he ruled Norway from approximately 872 to 930. Modern historians assume that his rule was limited to the coastal areas of southern Norway. Kings of Norway until King Olav IV, who died in 1387, claimed descent from Harald Fairhair. After Harald's death, the unity of the kingdom was not preserved, and for the next century, the kingdom was variously ruled, wholly or in part, by descendants of King Harald or by earls under the suzerainty of Denmark.
Christianity was introduced to Norway, probably mainly from the British Isles. In terms of church organization, Norway remained part of the Archdiocese of Bremen until 1152 or 1153. The first Norwegian king to have adopted Christianity was, according to the sagas, Harald Fairhair's son, King Haakon the Good (c934-961). Haakon did not force his subjects to accept the new religion. His successors, Olaf Tryggvason (995-1000), and Olaf Haraldsson (St. Olav) (1015-1028) resorted to forceful means to convert the Norwegian people. Olaf Haraldsson was probably the first King of Norway to extend his rule to the inland regions of eastern Norway, and to have ruled more or less the whole of the present-day country. His death in the battle of Stiklestad in 1030 is traditionally considered a milestone in the history of the Christianisation of the country, although religion was not one of the issues at stake in the battle. After his death, Olav was revered as a saint. He became the patron saint of Norway, and by the end of the century, Christianity was the only religion allowed in the country. In theory, later kings of Norway were said to hold the kingdom as vassals of St. Olav."
(Continued next week.)