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Vikings: Valhalla, Netflix
Scene from the Netflix series Vikings: Valhalla. The Vikings' innovative techniques as shipbuilders are still in use today.
Photo credit: Bernard Walsh/Netflix © 2021

Sweden's legendary Vikings – beyond the ruthless stereotype

Vikings have captured the imaginations of all ages for centuries – and perhaps more so now than ever via films and TV series such as The Northman and Vikings: Valhalla. Often portrayed as bloodthirsty warriors, there's a lot more to these seafaring Scandinavians who were also dedicated farmers, master shipbuilders and skilled craftspeople.

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The Northman

The Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth in the Viking movie The Northman.

Photo: Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC

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The Northman

Photo: Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC

Vikings: Valhalla, Netflix

Photo: Bernard Walsh/Netflix © 2021

The dramatic history of the Vikings – who continue to fascinate young and old – dates back to AD700 and stretches into the 11th century. So where are Vikings from and what was their agenda? Leaving their homelands in Scandinavia – Sweden, Norway and Denmark – these fearless seafarers set off in expertly engineered longships to trade and raid – and find better places to live. They traversed the coastlines of Europe, staking claims in countries such as Britain, France, Spain, Italy and modern-day Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. One well-documented raid, which has contributed to the Vikings' coldblooded reputation, played out in AD793 when the Vikings attacked a monastery at Lindisfarne in northeast England's Northumbria. Armed with axes and swords, the Vikings burned down buildings and raided monasteries for treasure.

Figuratively, the word Viking translates to ‘a pirate raid’ in Old Norse language and the Vikings were rightly feared for their ruthless raids. Nevertheless, the Vikings were a lot more nuanced than their terrifying reputation. Free-spirited, courageous and innovative, they were true explorers and travelled the world as far as north America and Asia. And while the more barbaric Viking stories – portraying an unashamed level of greed, violence and cruelty – tend to dominate popular culture today, most Vikings led peaceful, farmer-style lives close to nature with their families, with strong women at the fore. Viking Age women took charge of the farms while the men went seafaring – unless they chose to join them as shield maidens. They also had more rights than other women at the time, free to divorce their husbands, for example.

Alongside growing crops and keeping animals, Vikings were inventive and craft-focused. They were expert silversmiths and enjoyed wearing jewellery and ornaments made of silver, gold and other metals. Highly resourceful, they used every scrap of natural materials to create textiles and objects such as the Vikings’ famous ‘drinking horn’, made from the horns of their farm animals. This craft-focused, 'back to basics' attitude is reflected in Swedish society today, with sustainability and resourcefulness becoming ever more important.

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Viking life at Foteviken Viking Museum, Skåne

Learn about woodworking, coin minting, cooking and much more at Foteviken Viking Museum in Skåne.

Photo: Foteviken museum

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Viking life at Foteviken Viking Museum, Skåne

Photo: Foteviken museum

Viking axe, the Swedish History Museum, Stockholm

Photo: Björn Gustavsson SHMM

Battle re-enactment at Birka Viking village

Photo: Strömma Kanalbolaget

Storytellers with a head for business and innovation

Vikings were innovative and resourceful self-starters with a good business sense – they never missed an opportunity to trade when out exploring. Travelling all over Europe and as far as Central Asia, they traded honey, tin, wheat, wool, wood, iron, fur, leather, fish and walrus ivory in exchange for silver, silk, pottery, spices, wine, jewellery and glass. Before striking a deal, Vikings were known to pull out a set of folding scales to avoid overpaying.

Creative in spirit, Vikings had a way with wood and metal, fashioning these materials into beautiful objects. Silversmiths kept busy – Vikings of both genders loved adorning themselves with jewellery such as arm rings and amulets. But the masterpiece above all was the Viking longship – a precisely engineered vessel built to travel fast and go ashore with ease.

These Scandinavian seafarers also had a way with language and prose. Storytelling was a vital part of the Viking lifestyle and the sagas they dreamed up live on, not least via the many rune stones found in Sweden and beyond. To give but one example, the decorative 'Frösö stone' (Frösöstenen) in Jämtland – Scandinavia’s northernmost raised runestone. The text, which appears within a snake-like pattern, reads: “Austmaðr, Guðfastr's son, had this stone raised and this bridge built and Christianized Jämtland. Ásbjörn built the bridge. Trjónn and Steinn carved these runes”.

Valhalla and the Viking gods

The Vikings' Pagan beliefs fuelled the fatalistic, fearless attitudes displayed by some of these adventurers. According to Norse mythology, heroes slain in combat ended up in Valhalla – an afterlife destination in the shape of a lofty hall in Asgard, the realm of the gods. So, who are the Viking gods? Like the Vikings themselves, these are rather complex characters. Take Odin, the king of the Æsir clan, and the god of war, wisdom, poetry and death, riding his eight-footed horse ‘Sleipner’. Odin's wife Frigg is the goddess of relationships, protecting all mothers, despite frequent infidelities. Baldr – goodness personified – is the son of Odin and Frigg. Representing courage, he's killed by fellow god Loke, and forever mourned.

To continue the count, Freyr and his sister Freyja personify fertility and promote a fruitful harvest, healthy cattle and peace. Striding forth in thunder and lightning, Thor is also associated with fertility but more than anything, he has a talent for controlling chaos and keeping giants at bay – a task made easier with his beloved ‘Mjölnir’ hammer.

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Viking at Foteviken Viking Museum, Skåne

Experience what life was like for the Swedish Vikings at Foteviken in Skåne.

Photo: Foteviken Museum

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Viking at Foteviken Viking Museum, Skåne

Photo: Foteviken Museum

Birka Viking Village, Björkö

Photo: Claes Helander

Foteviken Viking Museum, Skåne

Photo: Fotevikens museum

Viking traces and influences in Sweden and beyond

The Vikings' influence can be felt far and wide to this day. Their resourceful, nature-centric way of life continues to be a source of inspiration to many and their innovative techniques as shipbuilders are still in use today.

The Viking legacy is particularly evident in modern language and names. The 'thing' or ‘ting’ assembly was an early version of today’s parliaments and courts – ‘ting’ or ‘landsting’ in modern Swedish – developed by the Norse people to solve arguments and establish new laws.

Any surname ending with 'son' can be traced back to the Vikings as they brought in the 'son of' name structure. In Ireland and Scotland, the ‘Mc’ is the equivalent. Many of Britain’s towns and place names are derived from the Old Norse language, because the Vikings settled there – especially in northern and eastern England. Towns and places ending in ‘thorpe’ (an ‘outlying farm’ or ‘torp’ in Swedish today), ‘by’ (‘farm’ in Old English and ‘village’ in modern Swedish) and 'kirk' (meaning ‘church’ or ‘assembly’) are common. From Dunthorpe in Oxfordshire to Kirkby in Liverpool, the Viking presence is everywhere in England.

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The Ansgar Monument (Ansgar Cross), Björkö

The Ansgar Monument, also called the Ansgar Cross, was erected in 1834 to the 1000th anniversary of Ansgar's arrival in Birka.

Photo: Claes Helander

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The Ansgar Monument (Ansgar Cross), Björkö

Photo: Claes Helander

Foteviken Viking Museum, Skåne

Photo: Lukasz Burda/Tourism in Skåne

Old Uppsala Museum

Photo: Kalbar/Destination Uppsala

Aifur Restaurant & Bar, Stockholm

Photo: Cheyenne Olander/Aifur

Experience Swedish Viking history first-hand – the top places to visit

You'll be able to discover the fascinating and multifaceted history of the Vikings via a range of immersive Viking experiences and sights across Sweden. Uppsala is home to the royal mounds, and courtesy of its onsite museum – Old Uppsala Museum – you'll be able to immerse yourself in Viking village life via a compelling VR experience. On the outskirts of Stockholm on the island of Björkö nestles the settlement of Birka Village, dating back to the 750s. Discover this significant archaeological site as part of a guided tour, enlightening yourself further by exploring the museum and the authentically reconstructed Viking village.

While in the Swedish capital, don't miss the Swedish History Museum Historiska's interactive and experience-packed exhibition, The Viking World. Setting out to bust the myth of the Vikings as nothing but violent, godless villains, it presents a more varied picture of the Vikings and their lifestyle via archaeological discoveries and research. Lap it all up via 2,500 original objects, VR experiences and interactive booths featuring themes such as cosmology and shipbuilding.

The Viking Museum is another top attraction in Stockholm. Make sure to experience ‘Ragnfrid’s Saga’ – a Viking ride inviting you to accompany a couple on a journey that begins at Frösala Farm, before taking a more unsavoury turn via bouts of plundering and slave trade.

There are even Viking-themed dining experiences to be had in Sweden. Located in Stockholm's Old Town and named after a Viking ship, Aifur Restaurant & Bar offer a historical dining concept that will have you immersed in the Viking world. Educational storytelling is woven into the varied menu, based on Viking-age culinary and cultural research. To drink, you'll be able to choose from an impressive selection of mead, and the music is in keeping with the theme, too.

Moving further south, the charming city of Visby on the island of Gotland – located in the Baltic Sea some 100 kilometres east of mainland Sweden – has a UNESCO-listed town centre with Viking-era remnants, including some of the winding entry roads running from the cliff to the harbour. Elsewhere on the island, you'll find a number of Viking burial grounds, including a 15-hectare site in Stenkyrka, studded with some 1,000 graves; and on the shores of Fårö, there's a smaller burial site. Also look out for the numerous and impressive picture stones dotted across Gotland in places such as Buttle and Hablingbo.

Important Viking remains have also been found in Skåne, the southernmost county of Sweden. To paint a complete picture of Viking life, buildings such as castles and longhouses have been reconstructed, and so too entire villages. Foteviken, near Höllviken in southwest Skåne, is an authentic environment serving up experiences such as buzzing markets, thrilling battles and jewellery making in the smithy. Don't miss the opportunity to purchase a Viking-inspired piece of craft or jewellery here or at retailers like Handfaste in the Old Town of Stockholm.

Also consider the archaeological theme park VikingaTider in Skåne's Löddeköpinge. This 25-hectare open-air museum has been recreated with pastures and animal husbandry, inviting visitors of all ages to join a guided tour or try their hand at crafts or enjoy a game or two – in true Viking-style.

Wherever you go in Sweden, you will find a wealth of Viking Age history to explore and astound at, hopefully giving you a nuanced idea of what the Vikings were all about.