The Vikings were fierce warriors who raided and traded across Europe from the late 8th to the late 11th century. They came from Scandinavia, sailing from modern-day Norway, Sweden and Denmark in their iconic longships. The Viking Age was a tumultuous time, and the Vikings faced many dangers and fears as they explored and plundered. But what was their single biggest fear? Let’s take a look at some of the main threats and sources of trepidation for the Vikings.
Death in Battle
The Vikings were constantly at war, both amongst themselves and against external foes. As a warlike culture centered around ideals of masculinity and valor in combat, the Vikings feared a death that did not live up to these warrior virtues. Dying of old age or illness was not considered an honorable way to go in Viking society. The preferred death was to go down fighting, weapon in hand, achieving a heroic end in battle.
The sagas and poetry of the time show how important and coveted such a demise was. Take this excerpt from the 12th century Poetic Edda poem Hávamál, which advises:
“Cattle die, kindred die, we ourselves also die; but the fair fame never dies of him who has earned it.”
Here we see that heroic reputation was valued above all. The greatest terror for a Viking warrior was to face a dishonorable death from disease or at the hands of an executioner, rather than bravely fighting to the last breath.
Losing One’s Honor
Closely tied to the fear of an inglorious death was the apprehension of losing one’s honor in life. Honor was paramount in Norse society, governing not just warriors but politics, trade and family relations. Honor could be won through success in battle, generosity with wealth, and adherence to the law and custom. But it could also be taken away by cowardly or unscrupulous acts.
To be labeled “níðingr” – essentially, a coward and oath-breaker – was a dreadful slur that could ruin a Viking both socially and legally. The sagas are rife with blood feuds sparked by insults to honor. No fate was more terrifying than to be stripped of respect and standing for a serious breach of honor. At times, the only recourse was suicide or self-imposed exile.
Magical Creatures and Spirits
The Vikings believed in a wide array of supernatural beings and forces that inspired both fascination and fear. This included gods like Odin and Thor, but also more unearthly creatures from Norse mythology and folklore. Jötnar (giants), dvergar (dwarves), trolls, elves and valkyries all lurked in the darkness, not fully understood. Ghosts and undead creatures like draugar also filled the imagination.
These varied spirits, monsters and shapeshifters could influence events for good or ill. Many were thought to inhabit the land, mountains, trees and waterfalls around the Viking homelands. Proper rituals and sacrifices were needed to appease them. It was prudent both to respect and steer clear of such forces beyond human control.
Notable Mythical Beings
- Jörmungandr – the Midgard Serpent that encircled the world
- Fenrir – an enormous wolf prophesied to kill Odin at Ragnarök
- Sleipnir – Odin’s eight-legged horse
- Níðhöggr – a dragon that gnawed on the World Tree Yggdrasil
The Power of Magic
Related to supernatural creatures was a wariness of magic itself. The Vikings operated in a worldview that accepted sorcery and witchcraft as very real forces. Runic symbols and spells could be traced to alter circumstances, for both malign and benign purposes. People skilled in magic, such as the völvas (female shamans), were treated cautiously.
While magic could be useful as a cosmological explanation and a means of seeking knowledge, there was always concern that unknown spells and curses could cause misfortune. Chants, charms, potions and incantations had the ring of power and unpredictability. For many Vikings, the unknown boundaries of magic bred uneasiness and doubt along with wonder. Caution was warranted.
Failure in War
As discussed earlier, Vikings embraced warfare as central to their identity. Raiding and combat tactics were constantly evolving and improving during the Viking Age. Successful raids brought wealth and acclaim, which in turn attracted warriors to join subsequent voyages.
But failure in war and raiding could spell disaster. Defeat brought shame and ridicule, drained morale and cut off crucial spoils needed to impress chieftains back home. At worst, entire warbands could be slaughtered if they suffered a catastrophic loss. Military reputation and control of trade routes hung delicately in the balance.
For chieftains and kings, failed expeditions weakened their power and legitimacy. Common Vikings also dreaded the prospect of returning penniless and humiliated rather than laden with loot to distribute. The repercussions of defeat rippled outward from the battlefield in many damaging ways.
During their migrations across Europe, the Vikings increasingly came into contact with Christianity, which was widespread in regions like France, England and Germany. Some Vikings converted willingly when they settled in Christian lands. In other cases, kings imposed Christianity on their Viking subjects for political reasons.
For traditional Vikings, wariness of this new religion existed. They were skeptical of the one Christian god and saw their native Norse beliefs being pushed aside. Adopting Christianity meant abandoning the old gods and creatures they had grown up revering. It also meant forsaking violent raiding, which was incompatible with Christian teachings.
Fear arose from Christianity challenging and replacing fundamental aspects of Viking society. Even Vikings who did convert negotiated reconciling their old customs with the new faith. The unknown implications of religious transformation generated anxiety.
Climate Change and Environmental Collapse
Scholarship in recent decades has highlighted that climate change may have been a major factor in propelling the Viking Age of expansion and migration. In their cold Scandinavian homelands, shifts toward a warmer climate in the 8th to 10th centuries opened up opportunities to voyage and settle farther afield. The medieval climate shift supported Viking raiding patterns.
But environmental collapse was also a lurking danger. In Greenland, where Viking settlers established themselves from 985 AD onwards, communities ultimately could not survive changes that made traditional farming untenable. Gradually cooling temperatures and harsher conditions set in. Trading with Europe declined due to disrupted sea routes.
By the mid-15th century Greenland’s Viking outposts had vanished, likely from starvation and an inability to adapt. Climate change empowered exploration for a time but also carried the specter of tragedy should the environment turn against them. Environmental collapse was an eerie threat on the horizon, bred of forces beyond their understanding.
Ragnarök and the End of the World
In Norse mythology, Ragnarök was a foretold apocalyptic battle that would destroy the gods and the known world. Many calamities would presage Ragnarök, from lawlessness and kin-slaying to vicious winters and world-spanning wars. Odin, Thor and the rest of the Æsir would perish, along with their enemies.
Although the Vikings likely did not expect Ragnarök imminently, the myth reflects an awareness of cyclical destruction and rebirth in the universe. Total annihilation was possible, part of larger cosmic forces dictating the rise and fall of ages. There was a sense of impending doom woven into Viking worldview – destiny could not be fully altered. No matter how mighty Odin was, even he had to eventually face and succumb to this cataclysm.
The inevitability of destruction was a disconcerting prospect, however distant. Ragnarök showed that even the gods could not escape their fated end. Apocalyptic fears resonated.
The Vikings’ greatest fears arose from the violent but fragile world they inhabited. Concerns ranged from personal ones like dying ingloriously to societal fears like converts to Christianity eroding tradition. Forces of nature, climate and mythology reminded them these fears had foundations deeper than human control. But the daring Vikings also proved remarkably adaptable at building new lives from Iceland to Russia to compensate.
At core, many Viking apprehensions revolved around death, loss of honor, and the precarious nature of their conquests. Dealing with both success and failure shaped their remarkable exploits as well as the trepidations that shadowed them. Through creative literature like the Poetic Edda they gave voice to these worries – the flip side of heroic ideals. Viking courage was defined by confronting fear itself, in all its forms.