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Vikings-explorers, raiders, traders

Ale's Stones (Ales stenar), a megalithic monument in Skåne, Sweden.

Vikings: Explorers, Raiders, Traders.

Article introducing Vikings and Outhere the explorer. Learn more on a small group educational tour for senior couples and mature solo travelers going to Iceland, Greenland, the Arctic circle or the Orkney islands. 

Explorers, Raiders, Traders 

In the last decades of the 9th century, during a time when England was mostly in the hands of the notorious Norseman, the last standing stronghold against the threat from the north was the region called Wessex. Wessex covered all the south coast of England and the lower part of the Midlands and from 871-899 was ruled by King Alfred the Great. Alfred had come to power 6 years after the Great Heathen Army (a Viking army) had invaded England in 865.

Viking history has the first record of a Viking ship landing on English soil in Norfolk in 787 AD – the earliest record that could be noted as the beginning of the Viking age and the start of the Viking attacks on the British Isles – the fearless Norse raiders in a longship had returned to England’s shores in search of riches almost every summer(sans horned helmet). The Viking raiders victims being mostly monasteries and priories, keeping in mind that these locations promised wealth, as opposed to other less gold and gemstone laden targets. The focus on these raids singling out Christian populated places earned the Viking raider the label ‘heathens’ and was certainly a historical drama for its inhabitants. The Viking world and the Viking society in their homelands of Northern Europe was very different compared to the world they encountered in the Anglo-Saxon territories. 

The Viking Society of Northern Europe

Before the Norse converted to Christianity during the Middle Ages, they had their own colourful native pagan religion that was as powerfully alluring as the Nordic landscape to which it was ultimately connected. The focus of attention of that religion was what we refer to nowadays as the Norse mythology: the set of religious stories that gave meaning to the Viking world and their lives. These myths revolved around gods and goddesses with fascinating and highly complex characters, such as Odin, Thor, Freya, and Loki. The Old Norse word saga means ‘story’, ‘tale’ or ‘history’ and most of these sagas originated in Iceland but some were written in Norway or potentially in other parts of the Scandinavian countries. Norse mythology is recorded in dialects of Old Norse, a North Germanic language, spoken during the European Middle Ages.

In the beginning of the 9th century when the Viking era was in full swing, a Viking raid was an uncoordinated and unplanned attack that would usually end in the Norse being paid to return to their homeland. That changed when a large Viking warrior force – estimated to be 1,000 to 3,000 men, accounts differ widely – landed on the Isle of Thanet in Kent England with little intention of taking a payment for returning to their home shores. This Viking army didn’t come to pillage but to conquer. The Great Heathen Army was a coalition of Viking warriors who came together under a unified order to invade the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and avenge the death of the Viking Warrior, Ragnar Lothbrok. At least that is what the Icelandic saga says. Until today there are various opinions on the life, death, or last place of residence of the famous Ragnar himself as well as the colourful affairs of his sons – debated and controversially celebrated, lovingly hailed and potentially romanticised in a way that might not be suitable for a so-called bloodthirsty heathen in Norse mythology. We might never know what really occurred with the saga heroes but the marvelling continuous.

Over the following years, the Viking army spread widely throughout Anglo-Saxon England, over-turning various kingdoms and vast swathes of the country fell to the Viking warriors. Until they came up against Alfred the Great, King of Wessex who wasn’t prepared to give up the centre stage of ruling his small but precious kingdom. The war between the English Christians and the Norse pagans raged on until in approximately 880 a treaty was signed that ended the ongoing battles and established the boundaries between Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian territories. 

Ohthere: the Viking trader from Vinland

A particular figure that appears to be worth mentioning in the narratives of King Alfred’s life was Ohthere. He was an honoured guest from Norwegian lands coming from the Viking society, who regaled the court with stories of his voyages. Those took him through Vinland which is along the coast of Norway, the very top of Scandinavia via the Arctic Ocean, as far south as Hedeby at the base of the modern-day peninsula of Denmark, deep into the Baltic sea as far as the mouth of the Vistula and crossing the White Sea heading towards the north-west corner of modern-day Russia.

He was a wealthy Viking trader from Halogaland which is located close to the borders between Norway and Finnmark. The lack of barbaric warfare in his intentions made him the odd one out amongst his kin who would rather swing axes than bear gifts in the Viking age. Ohthere was a Viking trader and not a Viking raider. He was determined to meet the King to present his Artic wares such as walrus ivory, snow-white furs and rough-hairy hides. According to his own account and that of Icelandic sagas, Ohthere lived “furthest north of all the Northmen” and had travelled further than most men had ventured even amongst his own. In his homeland, he occupied the borderlands, with the wild wastelands of Finnmark on his doorstep, to his own advantage, close to the Saami. Within Norse society he was a man of many connections and knew the tribes that belonged to his territory well. One could say that he had it all figured out and so he directed his attention away from the political dramas of his country, overly ambitious king(s) and problematic factors of that very society towards a life beyond these limitations. 

From a present-day point of view, the far-northern landscapes that Ohthere illustrated so memorably for King Alfred and his court over a millennium ago have not changed much. From Tromsø via the northern coastline of Norway all the way to the border of Russia. The horizon is dominated by mighty mountains, the coast indented by uncountable fjords that leave one dreaming of cold clear waters in summer and frozen, seemingly lifeless, darkness in winter. About half of the county is above the tree line, and large parts of the other half is covered with small Downy birch.

An endless barren wasteland that holds many secrets if one is prepared to look. Some valleys are hardly ever touched by the sun and the forest is merely a picture of black spindly branches that will withstand the next deep winter because they have already passed over into a different realm.

Staying on the road that Ohthere took centuries ago little has changed since the Viking era. The sight of reindeer might disperse the view of the empty looking wilderness that leads to Finnmark’s small coastal towns – Hammerfest, Honningsvåg, Vadsø, Vardø or Kirkenes. The spirit of Ohthere and the Viking history lives on in the form of trade, transport of natural recourses to other parts of the world and industries that are specialised in these supplies and connections. Some of Norway‘s largest sea bird colonies can be seen on the northern coast. The highest point is located on the top of the glacier Øksfjordjøkelen, which has an area of 45 square kilometres. Both Øksfjordjøkelen and the Seiland Glacier are located in the western part of Finnmark. 

Further up north, where there is nowhere to go, the Nordkapp looms over the endless ocean and stands tall to defend its place as the northernmost point of Europe. That might not be entirely true according to sources that argue whether the northernmost point of Europe can be an island or not, whether it can only be located on the mainland or where Europe really ends (hello Asia!). Whether it is the northernmost point of Europe or not, it is and has been ever since the creation of its impenetrable rock, a vital navigation aid to Ohthere in his longship and any other sailor generations after his expedition(s) finished.

Viking longship sailing on a calm sea at sunset, 3d digitally rendered illustration

Viking history Small group tours from Odyssey Traveller

For a traveller interested in a Viking history small group tour who would like to experience the wonders of the fascinating Viking history and the lively Viking heritage then Odyssey has a collection of  small group tours for the senior couple or mature single to join. For example the Arctic circle tour has a starting or finishing here will be one of the highlights of a Northern Europe expedition. Well, besides marvelling at the Northern Lights, experiencing the Nordkapp Viking Festival, visiting a Viking settlement or restored Viking village, a majestic fjord or go on a history tour and learn about Viking culture in museums in StockholmOslo or Reykjavik. Or join the Iceland tour for the Icelandic sagas.

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