The Vikings were a brutal group of conquerors and explorers who were famous for ransacking villages and riding around in ornately crafted boats. As a concept, they’ve grasped a hold of the public’s consciousness and pillaged their way into our homes via television, but it turns out that there were some brutal Viking acts that were too hot for TV. Audiences are used to seeing warlords and clans of warriors fight to the death en masse, but some of the things Vikings did go beyond being historically interesting and are vile enough to make you rethink ever opening a history book again. Bloody Viking rituals applied to everything from animals to children and especially their slaves, who were treated with as little respect as possible.
The Viking practices too graphic for TV have one major theme in common: Not knowing when to stop. From torture methods like the “blood eagle” to the filing down of their teeth to appear more frightening, there are multiple moments in Vikings history when the ancient Scandinavians could have chilled out or pulled back the reigns, but instead, they pushed forward and turned their crazy up to 200%. You may think that you know about the brutality that Vikings dished out on a daily basis after watching shows – like History Channel’s Vikings – about the ancient Norse people, but until you read about these incredibly graphic rituals, you’ll never truly know how the Vikings lived.
1. Viking Slaves Led a Terrible Life
While it may seem like the understatement of the century to say that the people who were enslaved by Vikings faced abysmal treatment, the concept of Scandinavian slavery is certainly worth diving into. Viking slaves, or thralls as they called them, were a disparate group of people made up of those who survived raids across Europe, and they were forced to do every bit of work that their Viking bosses deemed unfit for their precious hands.
Thralls were forced to construct plantations, sleep with their masters, cook, clean, and even build the magnificent ships that you think of when someone mentions Scandinavia. Thralls subsisted mostly on a diet of fish, and when their masters died, they were sacrificed – whether they were ready to die or not.
Slavery, whether it was taking place in the 18th century or the 6th century, is a brutal and dehumanizing practice that stains the pages of every culture’s history. It’s something that you likely won’t see depicted in detail in a fictionalized representation of Viking culture because it’s not sexy or cool; it’s simply horrific.
2. They Desecrated the Bodies of Those They Killed
For a group of people who are represented as putting honor above all else, the Vikings were very quick to desecrate the bodies of their victims. Whether it was someone they were facing in battle or their slaves, Vikings enjoyed dismembering the bodies of their various foes and burying them with random animal parts. The practice feels very much like an archaic “f you” to anyone who isn’t a Viking.
According to Elise Naumann, an archaeologist and postdoc at the University of Oslo, “There are lots of macabre treatments of the bodies. Some have chopped off limbs, such as in the Viking graves at Kaupang [Norway].” Some researchers believe that the desecrations are meant to offer the narrative of a person’s life, but if that’s the case, then why not write it out on a stone tablet? Vikings were as confusing as they were brutal.
3. Eunuch Monks Were Enslaved as a Lark
Do you know who never caused anyone a bit of trouble? Eunuch monks. For those of you who don’t keep up with 6th-century religious practices, eunuch monks were men of god who were castrated at a young age and made to follow different religious practices depending on where they were conceived.
Vikings loved to vandalize monasteries in Europe and either capture eunuchs or steal young boys from the monasteries, castrate them without their consent, and then sell them off to their trading partners in Asia.
4. They Had the Strangest Form of Homophobia
It would be inaccurate and dumb to suggest that the Vikings were the only race of ancient people who had strange attitudes toward h*mos3xuality. While Viking men lived in a fairly binary s3xual culture, they also partook in the Grindr of their day: forcing weaker men to have s3x with them whether they wanted to or not. The Viking leaders felt that it was well within their rights to have s3x with whomever they wanted to, especially their male subordinates.
What was then seen as a s3xual hierarchy is now known as rape, and while many modern Viking apologists push an agenda of them not being as bad as people think, this information about their very odd mix of masculinity and homophobia makes them look even worse than originally believed.
5. The Vikings Destroyed Their Own Gene Pool
You can wax philosophical all you like about Vikings being creative artists, fierce warriors, and fashionistas before that was a thing, but they weren’t the brightest bulbs in the Eastern hemisphere. James Barrett, the deputy director of Cambridge University’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, believes that the catalyst behind the Vikings striking out to rape, pillage, and plunder most of Europe was because prior to their southern travels, the Vikings took part in “selective female infanticide.”
This destruction of their own gene pool was the reason that the Vikings had to leave their homes and find new wives to keep their lineage from dying, but when you look at it through the lens of hindsight, it just seems like a very dumb idea.
6. Two Words: Horse Sacrifice
Or as it was known to the Vikings, “Blót.” Blót was a sacrifice to the Norse gods, the spirits of the land, and possibly your ancestors. Viking spirits are all mixed up in a melange of ghost stories, so the focus of your sacrifice really depended on what you were trying to accomplish. Back to the horse slaughter: horses would be killed, their meat boiled in large cooking pits, and their blood sprayed on everything.
While Blót was gruesome, it wasn’t as horrible as some of the other things that Vikings did, but regardless of that fact, you’re not going to see a horse get slaughtered on History or A&E anytime soon.
7. Vikings Battled to the Death Over Nothing in Particular
Audiences see Vikings fight giant battles on television on a regular basis, but the Holmgang was a quarrel that could last days, and it was usually over nothing more than perceived slights. The actual law around this bloody one-on-one battle to the death was as such that if someone vaguely insulted you, they could be challenged to combat in order to protect your feelings.
Because this was seen as a respectful way to handle a situation, if a Viking killed another man in Holmgang, it wasn’t considered murder and life would go back to normal until the next perceived slight.
8. Vikings Mutilated Female Slaves for Minor Infractions
If you were looking for proof that Vikings had an upside down – and somewhat ironic – sense of crime and punishment, then you’ve come to the right place. While Vikings were known for their brutal behavior on the battlefield, their treatment of the women whom they kidnapped in order to serve as concubines and laborers was even worse.
If a female slave was found guilty of committing an infraction against her owners, her hands and feet were chopped off as punishment, and sometimes they would be branded on the face. What a wonderful group of people that we’ve decided are worthy of having their own television program!
9. Vikings Were Fine with Having Intestinal Worms
Not all brutal Viking practices were perpetrated on others. Classic masochists that they were, Vikings saved the worst forms of self-harm for themselves. Because Vikings couldn’t stop eating contaminated organ meat (like the lungs and liver), they contracted multiple forms of intestinal worms. Rather than simply cook the food that they were about to ingest, Vikings saw fit to stuff themselves with raw meat and they were perfectly fine with killing themselves slowly with intestinal viruses.
This penchant for eating like a junkyard dog has actually caused the alpha-1-antitrypsin (A1AT) deficiency, which causes emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in smokers.
10. Jarl Sigurd’s Death by Infection
One could argue that every death in the dark ages of humanity was brutal, but is there any death that’s as brutal as being bitten by a severed head and dying of an infection? No. Around the 830s CE, Sigurd the Mighty, a Viking that ruled over Orkney, went into battle against Máel Brigte in Scotland, and even though Sigurd managed to cut off his foe’s head, he left the battlefield a dead man.
The story goes that after Sigurd decapitated his enemy, he tied his head to the side of his horse and Brigte’s teeth grazed his leg, which gave him a nasty infection and killed him.
11. Vikings Filed Their Teeth Down Because Who Knows Why
It was never good news to find out that Vikings were raiding your village or challenging your people to a fight, but when the Vikings actually showed up with teeth that looked like fangs, it was probably one of the most terrifying things you could ever experience. In 2009, a pit filled with Viking skeletons was found near Weymouth, England, and the teeth of these Norsemen had horizontal lines cleanly filed into them.
After the discovery Oxford archaeologist David Score told the UK Guardian: “The purpose behind filed teeth remains unclear but as we know these men were warriors, it may have been to frighten opponents in battle or to show their status as a great fighter. […] It’s difficult to say how painful the process of filing teeth may have been, but it wouldn’t have been a pleasant experience.” Someone get this man an understatement award.
12. Vikings Took Torture to a New Extreme
Have you ever wondered about the worst way to die? Leave it to the barbarous Vikings to sort that question out for you without any issues. The earliest recorded history of the “blood eagle” is from the 1799 book History of the Anglo-Saxons, and it details a gruesome death that seems unfit for even the worst criminals. First, the victim was restrained face down, then the shape of an eagle with outstretched wings would be cut into his back.
After that, his ribs would be hacked from his spine with an ax, one by one, and the bones and skin on both sides pulled outward to create a pair of “wings” from the man’s back. If everything went to plan the victim would still be alive at this point to experience the agony of having salt rubbed into his vast wound.
After that, his exposed lungs would be pulled out of his body and spread over his “wings,” offering witnesses the sight of a final bird-like “fluttering” as he died.
13. Erik the Red Loved Killing People
Maybe it had something to do with being a nutty ginger, or maybe he was just a psychopath, but Erik Thorvaldsson, better known as Erik the Red, spent most of his life killing people. The real trouble for Erik started when a group of his thralls accidentally triggered a landslide that crushed his neighbor Valthjof’s house. In retaliation, a kinsman of Valthjof, Eyiolf the Foul, killed Erik’s thralls (slaves).
Erik responded to that by killing Eydjiolf and Holmgang-Hrafn, an on-and-off “enforcer” for the clan. After that murder spree, Erik was banished from his community and he moved to the island of Oxney, in the Breioafjord of Iceland.
14. Children Were the Ultimate Sacrifice
After discovering a ring that dated back to the Viking Age in 1977, scientists began to dig up most of Denmark and discovered an unnerving amount of bones belonging to children between the ages of 4 and 7. Initially, researchers thought that they had stumbled upon a random grave, but the more sets of children’s bones that they found, the more pieces they had to put together for their theory.
Lars Jørgensen, research professor at the Danish Antiquity section of the National Museum of Denmark, says that children “constituted the ultimate sacrifice…they only did anything like that if they wanted to re-establish connections to the gods when things had gone seriously awry.”
So there you have it: if the Vikings really need to place a call to a god, they just killed a child.
15. Vikings Loved to Watch Horses Fight Each Other
Of all the things we know about Vikings, the two facts that keep popping up are that they were terrible people and they were easily amused. Hestavíg, or the brutal and bloody confrontation between two stallions, was a common form of entertainment in Iceland. That feels like too many years of enjoying horse duels.
Hestavíg was a big deal. And ancient Scandinavians used the pastime as a means to settle petty differences, strengthen friendship, and meet new people – all to the backdrop of horses fighting each other to the death.