The idea that the Vikings cremated people by setting fire to ships which were pushed out to sea is a myth, according to Gareth Williams, curator of the 2014 Viking exhibition at the British Museum.
Vikings did have ship burials, but on land; the only reference to a floating cremation is in a story about the god Baldur (i.e. a mythical event, not an actual funeral). Williams also claims that recreations of Viking sea burials at the Up-Helly-Ya festival in Shetland made no claim to historical accuracy:
‘It’s a celebration of 19th century romanticism - they all dress up in costumes that are post-Wagnerian - not an authentic tradition.'
Erik the Red gave Greenland its name to attract settlers. In truth the whole place was, and is, covered in ice.
‘Viking’ wasn’t used in English until the 19th century. Until then they had always been referred to as Danes or Norsemen. In the 19th century, Old Norse sagas became popular in Scandinavia. In one of these, Frithiof’s Saga (1825), a Swedish illustrator called Gustav Malmström included small horns and dragon wings on the hero’s headgear. The saga became an international hit and literally made the Vikings’ name – and their supposed ‘horned’ helmets.
‘The Viking age’ lasted 250 years from AD 800 to AD 1050. The ‘Vikings’ were not a homogenous ethnic, political or religious grouping. The word is now used as a catch-all for the inhabitants of Scandinavia and its overseas territories – which stretched from Newfoundland to the Middle East – during those centuries. Back then it had a much more specific meaning. A vikingr was a pirate, or raider, more outlaw than respectable warrior. Contemporary accounts describe heavily tattooed and pierced men, with patterns filed into their teeth, eye make-up and flamboyant clothing (think Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean). A viking was a raiding expedition - vikingr would ‘go on a viking’ (fara í viking) returning home with the spoils.
The Vikings took their personal hygiene very seriously. Archaeological excavations of Viking sites have turned up tweezers, razors, combs and ear cleaners made from animal bones and antlers.
Vikings with dark hair used a strong soap with a high lye content to bleach their hair. In some regions, beards were lightened as well. It’s likely that dyeing their hair also helped Vikings with another common problem: head lice.
Vikings bathed at least once a week - much more frequently than other contemporary Europeans. They also enjoyed bathing in natural hot springs.
The biggest desert in Europe is in Iceland. Deforestation, begun by the Vikings, has resulted in the desertification process.
The ritual of ship christenings goes back up to 4000 years. The Vikings marked it with the spilling of blood to appease the Gods.
Scandinavians invented skiing 6,000 years ago. It was a popular form of recreation for Vikings, who worshipped a god of skiing, Ullr.
Tits get their name from the Old Norse 'titlingr', which means 'little bird'.
The Corby Pole Fair is an ancient custom that's been held every 20 years since 1862 in the Northamptonshire town. The next is due in 2022.
This was originally a Viking tradition. Men who had committed minor offences were carried astride an ash pole, called a stang, through the village and had insults or missiles thrown at them. This was known as 'riding the stang', for obvious reasons.
Today there is a second pole at the fair - a greasy one with a prize ham at the top. The aim, of course, is to climb up and grab the ham.
Pubs open at 6am on Corby Pole Fair day.
The Vikings collected a tree bark fungus called touchwood, boiled it for several days in urine, and then pounded it. The sodium nitrate in the urine made the material smolder rather than burn, so they could take fire with them wherever they went.
Until 1800, Foula Islanders in the Shetland Isles spoke the same ancient Norse that the Vikings spoke.
The Viking Leif Erikson got to America about 500 years before Columbus. He landed in Canada in around AD 1000 and called it Vinland.
The name of Lundy Island (off the coast of Devon) comes from the Old Norse for 'Puffin Island' - lunde-ey. It is indeed full of puffins.