Glamorous and worldly: Things to know about Vikings
Where does their name come from? Like many things about them, the etymology of the word "viking" is uncertain. In Old Norse, an old Scandinavian language, the word appears as "vikingr" which designates a person, while "viking" designates a practice. "The Scandinavians never spoke of themselves as Vikings, as an identity for anybody Scandinavian. The word rather meant an activity, to go raiding or a person who was doing that," explains Jan Bill, a professor of Viking archaeology and curator of Oslo's Viking Ship Museum. "But today, practice is to use 'Viking' to describe anybody Scandinavian from the Viking period," he adds, referring to the period from around the mid-eighth to mid-11th centuries. Exposed to cannabis and Buddha Apart from their pillaging, the Vikings were big tradesmen who forged a vast network of contacts from the Caspian Sea to Greenland. It has been debated for years, but it is very likely that Vikings landed in America around the year 1,000, or five centuries before Christopher Columbus. Some objects recovered from ship graves—three such ships are on display in very good condition at the Oslo museum —bear witness to the rich and varied nature of their contacts. Among the numerous objects is a small leather bag containing cannabis, found on one of the two women buried with the longship dug up at Oseberg. "The seeds may have been for recreational or medicinal purposes, or to grow hemp plants whose fibres were used for textiles and rope," says Jan Bill. Other finds at various Viking sites include textiles and beads from the Orient, as well as coins from the Arab world—often broken into pieces as the Vikings didn't use them for currency but rather for their weight in silver and other precious metals. A bronze Buddha dating back to this period was also found on the Swedish island of Helgo. 'Drakkar' or not 'drakkar'? The word "drakkar" is sometimes purported to be a Viking-era word for a longship, which occasionally featured an ornamental dragon on the bow. But some historians insist that the term is as recent as the 19th century, inspired by the modern Swedish word for dragon, "drake" in singular and "drakar" in plural. That word is similar, but not exactly the same, as the word used in Old Norse.