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Fierce Fighters: 7 Secrets of Viking Seamen

Crazy facts about Vikings

Viking warriors in black and white image

Viking warriors in black and white image

For more than three centuries, a shout of "Vikings!" struck fear in the hearts of Medieval Europeans. But the ancient Norsemen were more than bloody raiders — they also established elaborate trade routes and settled in many of the lands they plundered.

From their "magic" navigational tools to their sexy fashion sense, here are seven wild facts about the Scandinavian warriors.

Skilled Seamen

An artist's impression of a Viking ship.

An artist's impression of a Viking ship.
(Image credit: Paul Moore, Dreamstime.com)

p> It's no secret that the Vikings were amazing sailors. Despite manning lightweight longships that were easily diverted by wind and sea, the Vikings managed to cross the Atlantic Ocean repeatedly to settle Greenland and Iceland. Leif Ericson even reached Greenland and Canada about 500 years before Christopher Columbus ever set foot in the Americas.

Midnight sun navigators

history, culture, Viking sunstone, calcite crystal, finding sun with polarized light, Icelandic spar as sunstone, Viking navigation, Viking sunstone compass,

The researchers, lead by Guy Ropars of the University of Rennes in France, build their own Viking sunstone compass from a calcite crystal. The two beams of light can be seen on the reflective surface inside.
(Image credit: Guy Ropars, University of Rennes)

p> While Medieval sailors in the Mediterranean mostly hugged the shoreline to keep their bearings, Viking mariners sailed thousands of miles on the open seas with no clues from land to stay their course. What's more, Viking journeys skirted the Arctic Circle, meaning they could not rely on the stars to navigate in summer, when the sun never sets. To stay oriented in the land of the midnight sun, the expert navigators used sophisticated wooden sundials to travel along the north-south latitude. And on cloudy days when the sun didn't shine, they may have used "magic crystals" called Viking sunstones that polarized daylight to orient themselves.

Drugged warriors

The Amanita muscaria mushroom, which is deep red with white flecks.

The Amanita muscaria mushroom, which is deep red with white flecks.
(Image credit: USGS)

The Norse sagas recount tales of Berserkers, furious Viking warriors who are whipped up into an uncontrollable rage during battle. While these warriors may have "gone berserk" from the bloody spectacle of battle, a 1956 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry proposed that Berserkers' crazy behavior was the result of drugs: specifically a bad trip from hallucinogenic mushroom species known as Amanita muscaria.

Trade routes

Viking ship sailing on the sea.

Viking ship sailing on the sea.
(Image credit: Paul B. Moore | Shutterstock)

With overpopulation straining resources in Scandinavian farming culture, people eventually took to looting their Southern neighbors for slaves and war booty. Result? The terrifying Viking reputation was created. Yet these bloody raids weren't the center of Viking culture — the ancient seafarers also set up elaborate trading networks, distributing walrus ivory and polar bear skins from Greenland, silks and spices from Constantinople, and amber from the Baltic throughout Europe and Asia.

Helmet heads

Viking women's clothing consisted of a single piece of fabric with a train, an opening in front, and clasps that accentuated the breasts. The apparel is on display at Museum Gustavianum, Uppsala University.

Viking women's clothing consisted of a single piece of fabric with a train, an opening in front, and clasps that accentuated the breasts. The apparel is on display at Museum Gustavianum, Uppsala University.
(Image credit: Annika Larsson)

Contrary to cartoon depictions, Viking helmets probably didn't have horns or wings. In fact, a rare complete helmet, from a 10th-century chieftain's grave in Gjermundbu, Norway, shows a simple iron covering with a peaked cap and a plain guard around the eyes to protect the wearer's nose. And the ladies didn't dress demurely either: One study found that Swedish Viking women dressed provocatively in rich, colorful robes and wore sparkly metal breastplates, with a pair of broaches placed at the top that showed off the ladies' figures.

Pagan roots

Holy Apostles medieval church under Acropolis, Athens Greece.

Holy Apostles medieval church under Acropolis, Athens Greece.
(Image credit: Dimitrios | Shutterstock)

During much of their history, Vikings were pagans who believed in a pantheon of Gods, including Odin, his hammer-wielding son Thor, and fertility goddess Freya. The gods lived in Asgard, an alternate world connected to Earth by a rainbowlike bridge called the bifrost. Norse prophecy foretold that an epic end-times battle called Ragnarök would wipe out the Gods and unleash a cataclysmic flood that destroys the Earth. During the eighth through the 11th centuries, some of Vikings' favorite targets were treasure-filled, poorly defended monasteries and medieval churches along the coast of Europe. By the 12th century, most Vikings had converted to Christianity.

Fighting Irish

Celtic cross in graveyard.

Celtic cross in graveyard.
(Image credit: StockCube | Shutterstock)

When Viking pirates invaded Ireland in the ninth century, they founded the Norse kingdom of Dublin, called Dyflin at the time, which they ruled for more than 300 years. Though the rulers ostensibly had Viking roots, they gradually melded with their Gaelic subjects, creating an amalgam culture.