Very few histories have managed to capture the imagination of the world in the same way as Norse mythology has. From the spectacular feats of Norse gods to the terrifying tales of Viking raiders plundering the shores of Anglo-Saxon England, the original Icelandic sagas have been a major part of the history of Western Europe.
However, although many of the old Norse sagas are the product of historical fiction, much of it is based on true facts about the Norse life of medieval Scandinavians and Viking raids on the British Isles.
Indeed, many of the famous characters of Norse mythology are actually based on real Viking leaders whose reigns are forever recorded in Viking history. Many books about the Vikings as well as archeological findings throughout Western Europe have collaborated on this.
To separate historical truth from Norse myths, we will look at some of the great names in the Viking Age, literature on Norse sagas, and some of the greatest archeological treasures of our time from the Viking world.
Six Great Leaders in Norse History
Viking history sometimes feels like a celebration of the achievements of their legendary warriors, Norse gods, and Kings. While some of the stories are no doubt born from the propaganda of these ancient Viking leaders, in an attempt to further their own agenda, there is a lot of truth hidden in the historical fiction.
With the multitude of facts, myths, and superstition that is available on the subject of Viking Age history, it would be virtually impossible to cover all the great names of the Norse world.
However, the following is a list of some of the Viking leaders whose names have become the stuff of legend due to their impact on the history of lands furthest north of Europe:
- Rollo: First Viking Ruler of Ancient Normandy
The origins of the very first ruler of the Viking Age in Normandy, Rollo, can be traced to the North Atlantic lands of what is now part of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
After conducting countless raids on the coasts of France in the late 9th century, Rollo was gifted large portions of land in modern-day Normandy by Charles the Simple, King of West Franks, under the Treaty of St. Claire-Sur-Epte.
Unlike the valiant ruler of Anglo-Saxon England, King Alfred, Charles the Simple was unable to withstand the Viking raiders, so this was his effort to appease the Viking chief and also provide the hapless King some protection from other Viking raiders.
After expanding his control on these lands, Rollo established a firm stronghold that would last for generations to come, further cementing his title as the original Viking ruler of Normandy.
- Eric the Red: Founder of the Viking Settlement in Greenland
It is not clear whether Erik Thorvaldsson, born in Norway, earned his title, Eric the Red, because of his red hair or red-hot temper, but what is known is his importance in the origins of the North Atlantic island of Greenland.
After being forced into exile from his new home in Iceland for the crime of manslaughter, Erik established himself on the vast, bleak, and frozen shores of the land he would later name Greenland, to attract new settlers.
He returned briefly to Iceland at the head of 25 ships, which he used to ferry settlers back to Greenland. Although only 14 ships survived the voyage, they were enough to establish a permanent settlement in his adopted home.
- Olaf Tryggvason: Introduced Christianity to the Viking World
The introduction of Christianity into the Viking world was not an easy one, and a lot of blood was shed. It was only made possible through the actions of Olaf Tryggvason, a grandson of Harald Fairhair, King of Norway.
Olaf led a successful raid on England, which earned him a huge pay-off, known as Danegeld, and made him a very wealthy man. With his newfound riches, he was able to invade Norway and become its new ruler.
His first act was to impose the religion of Christianity on his subjects who were predominantly pagan and had worshiped Norse gods, such as Odin and Thor for centuries. This introduction of the new deities did not go down well with many of his people, including Olaf’s one-time friend, Svein Forkbeard, who made it his mission to restore Danish rule and religion to Norway.
Five years after his invasion of Norway, Olaf Tryggvason was ambushed at sea by his rivals. During the battle, Olaf chose to jump into the sea, rather than surrender and was never heard from again.
- Leif Eriksson: Leader of Famous Viking Voyages
Many of the great achievements of the Viking period were only made possible through the Norsemen’s mastery of the seas. Such was their navigational and sailing prowess that they are renowned for undertaking some of the greatest voyages of the Viking Age.
One name that stands out among the rest was Leif Eriksson, who was none other than the son of Erik the Red, the founder of Greenland. Around the year 1000, he is said to have sailed to a land far to the west, dubbed “The New World,” which was in fact modern-day America.
By undertaking this voyage across the seas, Leif Eriksson actually beat Columbus by 500 years in the race to discover America! His sojourn in this new land was very brief due to the hostilities of the natives, but his name would be forever written in the history of famous explorers.
- Cnut the Great: First English King of the Viking Period
One of the greatest kings of Viking history, and a legend featured throughout Norse historical fiction, is Cnut the Great. Having arrived in England in 1013 when he helped his father conquer England, Cnut would later on battle with and defeat King Edmund of England, which would lead him to become the ruler of all England.
His reign was so impressive that at one point he had control over the lands covering Denmark, Norway, and Sweden which created one of the biggest empires in the history of Europe. Cnut’s son, Harold, and Harefoot succeeded after him, followed by his second son, Harthacnut, who would later die and become the last Viking to sit on the English throne.
- Harald Hardrada: The Last Great Leader of the Norse World
Old Norse sagas are an endless recital of the many great battles waged by the Vikings among themselves and against neighboring kingdoms. It is the result of these wars that finally led to the demise of the Vikings, with Harald Hardrada being widely acknowledged as the last great Norse ruler.
Having successfully realized his lifelong dream of becoming the King of Norway, Harald went to war with his former ally and now King of Denmark, Svein Estrithson. Rather than rule peacefully side by side, these two fought for many years, with Harald eventually giving up the campaign and turning his eyes towards England.
After one of his successful raids on England, Harald was killed in the battle of Stamford Bridge, thus putting an end to the long and glorious rule of the Vikings in Europe.
The Best Books and Historical Fiction about the Vikings
Norse mythology has been the subject of many great works of written literature, covering various aspects of the interesting Norse world through factual books about the Vikings, and renditions of historical fiction.
Whether or not one is a Norse history enthusiast, there is no denying the attraction of the great story about the Viking world. Of all the books that delve into this fascinating subject, the following are some of the most important versions ever published:
Beyond the Northlands by Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough
The first book on our list, Beyond the Northlands by Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, takes the reader on a breathtaking voyage across the seas to the very ends of the North Atlantic. Using the drama of the old Norse sagas, Barraclough can bring to life the harsh and cruel life of those who survived during the ancient Viking Age.
Places such as Constantinople, the Arctic Circle, Keivan Rus, and Pre-Columbus North America are all blended together to form one of the greatest Viking escapades ever told. The author uses a mixture of fantasy and factual evidence obtained from rune stones, ruins, and written texts from Byzantium and Baghdad to create a story rich in Viking culture and adventure.
The very lands that the Norsemen discovered and invaded are accurately and vividly described in ways that are not usually found in other books about the Vikings. With such a good book, readers can visualize the Viking way of life as they went about their daily activities as well as their endless clashes with the Anglo Saxons.
The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings by Lars Brownworth
Lars Brownworth’s The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings is an epic tale of the legendary Norse warriors as imagined by one of the greatest minds in Viking storytelling. In this book, readers get an in-depth look into what it was probably like to be stuck in the middle of a Viking raid.
The exploits of the raiders are detailed with expert penmanship that will leave the reader breathless and exhilarated. Staying true to history, the writer describes how much of the coast of the British Isles fell before the might and ferocity of the Viking Raiders.
One of the best things about Lars Brownworth’s bestseller is that it takes a deeper look into an area of the Viking world that has been regularly overlooked in Norse historical fiction. Rather than focus on the sheer brutality of Norse conquests, he describes to the reader how the Vikings were also great lawmakers who were actually responsible for the introduction of the trial by jury to the English people.
Many legendary heroes of Norse mythology are also mentioned in this great epic, such as Ragnar Lodbrok, Leif the Lucky, Eric Bloodaxe, and Harald Hardrada, the last King of the Vikings.
Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard by Rick Riordan
Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard is a trilogy of fantasy novels that have earned its American author, Rick Riordan a cult following among Norse mythology enthusiasts. It details the adventure, trials, and tribulations of Magnus Chase, the son of a Norse god.
After discovering his family history, Magnus struggles to come to terms with the implications, as well as learn to adapt to the new world he has been thrown into. The reader gets to tag along for the ride as the teenager not only discovers that the Norse myths his mother used to tell him about are not only true but that he has a major role to play in them.
His world is suddenly full of trolls, fire giants, and other terrifying creatures that are all part of Viking historical fiction. The fact that all this is happening in the modern-day world gives the reader a unique take on Norse mythology.
The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia by Neil Price
A Viking legend would be far from complete without the addition of magic, religion, and war that were such a huge part of the Scandinavian way of life back in the day. There have been a lot of archeological searches conducted in recent times to search for answers about this fascinating Viking Age.
However, surprisingly very little literature is available that provides accurate information on the Vikings without digging into historical fiction. That is what makes this book by Neil Price so valuable.
The writer takes us through the sights and sounds of the world of the Vikings, taking the time to accurately describe how religion and war were such an important part of everyday life, and how the two linked together to provide the foundations of one of the greatest European dynasties.
Combining archeology, actual evidence, and literature, the author can provide one of the best sources of information for anyone more interested in the facts about the Vikings, rather than simply their glorified tales of battle.
Wayward Heroes by Halldór Laxness translated by Phillip Roughton
Reading this book, there can be no doubt that Halldor Laxness really deserved the Nobel Prize that he received in 1955. This is a must-read for anyone who considers themselves a Viking follower. The level of detail and effort to stay true to the facts is unsurpassed.
The lives of two oath-brothers, Thorgeir and Thormod, are expertly detailed in the same fashion that Viking sagas used to be told back in the day, giving this book a haunting yet poetic feel to it that is not common in other books.
As the two major characters compete for glory, women, and treasure, the true meaning of what it means to be a Viking is suddenly made clear. While most books about Vikings aim to glorify their war exploits, Laxness chooses instead to bring to light how senseless the violence really was. If anyone wants a unique take on Norse history, then Wayward Heroes is one of the best books about the Vikings to read.
Viking Fire (Conquest Trilogy) by Justin Hill
The true horrors of war back in the day are brought to the fore in this epic tale by Justin Hill. The book is set in 1035 and details the struggles of a young Viking who is injured during a battle and left for dead on the field.
After miraculously surviving, his life takes him on a whirlwind journey through the mountains and across Russia, all the way to Constantinople and the beautiful Holy City of Jerusalem. The book brings together the stark contrasts between the pagan worshiping of Norse gods, such as Thor, and the new religion that is Christianity.
Furthermore, the various political aspects of Viking culture are also examined as the young man learns how people of different ethnicities mingle and live together in the Holy City. The most astonishing part about all the events that take place in this book, is that it is actually based on the true story of one of the most famous, yet sadly last, leaders of the Vikings, Harald Hardrada.
Swords of Good Men (Valhalla Saga) by Snorri Kristjansson
The world of Valhalla, the legendary place of celebration and rest for victorious Viking warriors has always held a special place in the Norse world. In his book Swords of Good Men, Snorri Kristjansson taps into this mystical world as he unravels the life of a Viking warrior named Ulfar Thormodsson.
Snorri takes us on an epic journey as the warrior travels the world in search of treasure and conquest until at long last he becomes weary and longs for the comforts of home. However, he is sidetracked by the small town of Stenvik which lies along the coast and is the home of many colorful individuals that bring gaiety and adventure to the book.
Ulfar Thormodsson then finds himself trapped in the middle of a Viking raid on the town by another king, as well as a battle with a neighboring city. The impact of Christianity is also examined as the hero comes face to face with King Olav, who is determined to convert all pagans to his own beliefs.
Greenlanders by Jane Smiley
Greenland is well known to be a harsh and largely inhospitable land of hardship that is not for the faint-hearted. However, in the hands of Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author Jane Smiley, it is transformed into a place of hope in her novel Greenlanders.
This great book provides a good overview of the culture and lives of the Greenland settlers, who were forced to leave their homes in Iceland in search of better living conditions for their families. In particular, its focus is on Asgeir Gunnarsson, a homeowner on Greenland, and his daughter, Margret, as they struggle to make ends meet.
It is a vivid description of the lives of farmers, priests, warriors, and hunters as they face the everyday realities of being the inhabitants of a cold and cruel world that they have made their home.
God of Vengeance (The Rise of Sigurd Series) by Giles Kristian
Together, the three books that form the Rise of Sigurd series, are epic tales of violence, sacrifice, honor, and victory that bring the reader face to face with the realities of the war culture of the Vikings.
While the pace of the book is unrelenting from start to finish, there is a lot of important information that is provided to readers thanks to the huge expanse of Viking knowledge possessed by the writer. The link between Viking warriors and their gods, such as Thor, is examined, and its implications in war are presented expertly by Giles Kristian.
Even though this book falls a lot more on the side of historical fiction than actual facts, it is still one of the best reads for those wanting a colorful insight into the world of Vikings.
Northlanders: Sven the Returned by Brian Wood and Davide Gianfelice
When asked to describe the lives of Vikings, most people will be imagining freezing temperatures and screaming barbarians baying for blood. That was the kind of life that a Viking named Sven anticipated as he made his way north, back to his homeland in Orkney to claim his family’s inheritance.
He planned to stick around only long enough to get what he wanted before escaping back to the comforts of the Mediterranean where he had made a home for himself. However, life had other plans for the Viking, as Sven finds that his uncle has stolen his inheritance, meaning he has to stick around and fight for what is rightly his, in a world where he is viewed as an outsider by the other Northlanders.
Key Medieval Archaeology Findings in England About the Norse World
A lot of our knowledge about the Viking Age, their culture, and way of life is thanks to the evidence we have accumulated over the years from archaeological research. Places such as the British museum have become important sources of information and inspiration for those interested in Viking history.
The following are some of the most important pieces that provide a window to the Norse world:
Cuerdale Hoard, Lancashire
More than 150 years ago, a huge collection of silver was discovered by workmen in England and is considered one of the biggest catches of Viking treasure in existence today. It contains more than 65 lbs. of bullion, which is an absolute fortune, considering the value of silver in those days. This discovery serves to highlight how Vikings were involved in global trade.
The Lewis Chessmen, Scotland
By far one of the most famous Viking findings has to be the Lewis chessmen found in Scotland. Made famous by their inclusion in the Harry Potter films, these meticulously carved chess pieces made from walrus tusks and whale teeth can be viewed at, among other places, the British Museum.
The Repton warrior, Derbyshire
One of the best-preserved findings in English history. The Repton warrior gives us true insight into what a Viking warrior looked like, including how they used to wear horned helmets. Additionally, the way the warrior also met a grisly end is another reminder of the brutalities of Viking warfare.
Questions and Answers
What Is the True History of the Vikings?
To discover the true history of the Vikings is no easy task, due mainly to how a lot of their culture was hinged on superstition, magic, and the worshiping of pagan deities. To unearth the truth, one has to sift through all this and rely upon actual sources, such as museums, authenticated published works, and archeological evidence.
How Did the Viking Age End?
Harald Hardrada is widely accepted to be the last Great King of the Vikings, and the demise of their empire can be traced to him. However, given how widespread the Vikings were across the world, it is not guaranteed that this is where they ended. A lot of their influence is still found if far-off places, such as America, the South of Europe, and even Muslim Spain.
Where Can I Learn About Viking History and Norse Sagas?
Our website has one of the largest collections of all things related to Vikings, so this is the right place to learn as much as possible about Norse mythology.
Few histories are as colorful and interesting as that of the Vikings. From blood-thirsty warriors to magic and superstition, there is no lack of thrills and excitement. This website will provide readers with all the knowledge on the Viking world they could ever wish for.