The trailer for the last season of Vikings (Prime video)
Is everything we thought we knew about Vikings wrong?
Imagine you're on the east coast of England sometime in the ninth century AD and you see hordes of men and women storming your village, axes and shields in hand - and they all look evil.
The most viking right?
However, while our imaginations are saturated with such images through popular shows on the History Channel or video games like Assassin's Creed Valhalla, it turns out that the truth is light years away.
Here are some things you didn't know about the Vikings - or thought you knew and were wrong.
Vikings never wore horned helmets
For years, this image of a Viking dressed in furs and leather armor, wearing a large helmet with bull horns protruding from the top, was the representation of these early medieval warriors.
The helmet has appeared on everything from toys and mascots to costumes and cartoons - but the truth is that this classic symbol is completely wrong.
There is no historical evidence that Vikings wore such helmets - and similar specimens have never been found at any archaeological site.
The image of the horned helmet was popularized in general by 19th century costume designers, especially Carl Emil Doppler who included horned helmets in his costume designs for the 1897 performance of Richard Wagner's classic saga, "Der Ring des Nibelungen".
The opera consists of four epic dramas in the German language, which were loosely based on German heroic legends that were drawn from Norse sagas.
Wagner's narrative mixed motifs from Norse and Germanic traditions to make them indistinguishable—or rather, to tie the Germanic heritage to the legendary Norse heroes.
German nationalism was on the rise during this time - and many intellectuals were looking for ways to reinforce ideas about the superiority of German culture.
The Norse legends were perfect because they represented an ancient origin that was free from that of the Greeks and Romans.
The horned helmets actually have roots in old Germanic tribes from the Middle Ages who did produce such bulky items, but transferring them into popular Viking images was an artificial and historically specific decision.
Before long, it became a representation of these warriors and became part of a wider enthusiasm for everything Viking-related in late 19th century Europe more generally.
The scientific website iflscience, which published a comprehensive investigation on the subject, wrote that this was the birth of the "Viking Age", as historian Roberta Frank described it, a mythical invention accompanied by historical reality.
"Until the Viking Age was invented, there was no Viking with a horned helmet, and vice versa: the two go together," Frank wrote. For all things related to warfare, expansion, empire building and naval prowess.
That doesn't mean the Vikings didn't exist.
There were certainly people from Norway, Sweden and Denmark who, between the 8th and 11th centuries, explored the continent of Europe, Great Britain, Iceland, Greenland and even America.
They also raided and pillaged as they went, before eventually settling in various locations and becoming active traders.
However, many stereotypes and misconceptions (such as the horned helmet) were born with the "Viking Age"
The real Vikings - did not look like this at all (Photo: ShutterStock, Fotokvadrat)
Viking is a verb, not a noun
Today we are unlikely to use the word "Viking" as a verb ("I'll be back later mom, I'm going to Vikingar"), but that's how the word was first used in Old Norse - to denote an activity, although it's not clear exactly what that activity consisted of.
It is actually the word "Vikinger" that was first used to represent someone on a journey, usually to foreign countries and usually by sea - and in a group (plural Vikings).
By the 12th century, the name "Vikings" was used in Icelandic sagas to describe aggressive, piratical hunters who terrorized the Scandinavian, Baltic and British waters.
These Icelandic sagas have greatly contributed to our perceptions of what a "Viking" is in our modern world.
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To the people of the time, mainly Christians in northern and southern Europe, these people were called Nordic men, northerners, or simply "pagans".
Another misleading feature of this history involves the idea that the Vikings were a single Scandinavian group, when in fact they were not.
In reality, each region had its own leaders and a separate identity.
There were indeed times when one ruler was able to combine his forces with another to increase their power, but to describe them as a homogenous "Viking" people would be grossly inaccurate.
There is plenty of archaeological evidence to show that Viking warrior spikes were not ethnically exclusive.
The mobility of these people led to many mergers of cultures within their groups and ranks, especially as their trade networks spread from North America to Afghanistan.
This is partly why they were so successful - they could adapt and embrace different cultures and people, from Christians in the British Isles to Muslims in the Abbasid Caliphate.
According to the genome analysis of 442 ancient humans from archaeological sites in modern Scandinavia, Great Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, Estonia, Ukraine, Poland and other places, the Vikings were a genetically diverse people and therefore had no concept of ethnic purity.
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It is believed that the Vikings were a single Scandinavian group, but they actually were not (Photo: ShutterStock)
Were the Vikings illiterate?
Rahim believes that the Vikings were illiterate and ignorant, but this is not accurate.
They had their own alphabet called futhark (named after the first six letters of their alphabet - fu-th-ark), which consisted of runes (the letters of the ancient Germanic alphabet).
This written system was not only unique to what are now called Vikings, it was used by other peoples such as the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe, Britain and Iceland.
Nor was there just one letter system, as the use of runes changed over time - the ancient 24-character Putark was used mainly from AD 100 to AD 800;
The younger Putark, with 16 characters, was used from about 800 to 1200 AD;
And the Anglo-Saxon putarch, with 33 notes, was mainly used in England from the fifth century.
Although often associated with magic and mystical beliefs, these early signs were probably first used at all for more practical things like recording payments and tracking orders.
Although over time runes appeared on all kinds of religious objects and were used for charms and spells, they also contained short messages, marked gravestones - and even told jokes.
Interestingly, many of the runes have shapes that would have facilitated cutting wood, suggesting that they were designed for this purpose.
This also explains why so few examples of them have survived to this day.
However, while the "Vikings" did not produce great and timeless written records, this does not mean that they were a simple people.
They were actually prolific storytellers and produced many sagas and poems.
These narratives were passed from person to person and generation to generation orally.
Although it may seem unlikely, it seems that this mode of communication was more accurate than you might think.
It is often believed that the Vikings were illiterate and ignorant, but this is not accurate (Photo: ShutterStock, Nejron Photo)
Were the Vikings godless savages?
Unfortunately, very little is known about the beliefs and rituals in which the various people we now identify as Vikings participated.
But one thing is certainly clear: they were far from being "godless idolaters", as many Christians of their time described them.
But to understand their complex beliefs, we have to do more creative detective work, as there is very little written material to draw on - and what there is was mostly written centuries later by Christian commentators.
Since the Vikings were not a homogenous group of people, it makes sense that their prayer practices and beliefs varied from region to region.
So what those who lived in Norway believed would not necessarily be the same as in Denmark.
Each community had its own ways of honoring the gods and practicing devotion.
Tribal leaders and rulers were responsible for the religious ceremonies.
There is evidence of other religious powers, such as the Valorites (sort of seers who had magical prophetic powers) who provided spiritual guidance in Norse societies.
Sacrifice (the acorn ceremony) was an important feature of Viking ritual, and although human sacrifice did occur, it was not as common as Christian writers would have it.
In most cases, the sacrificial ceremony was conducted by a priest - and it involved the sacrifice of cattle or no other life from the farm.
These sacrifices were made to promote fertility and regeneration for society.
Although we have no written texts describing Viking beliefs, there are several themes that stand out from the established narratives.
Overall, the Vikings believed in a vibrant cosmology full of gods, giants, elves, dwarves and various spirits.
The world was divided between life on Earth - Midgard - and various other realms that were all connected by the roots of the sacred tree Yggdrasil.
The gods, were known as the Asirs and included most of the main characters in this mythology, such as Odin, Frigg, Thor, Balder and Tyr.
They lived in the kingdom of Asgard, and warriors who died a "good death" would go to Valhalla - the temple of the god Odin and the abode of warriors who died heroic deaths on the battlefield.
The temple is located in the area called Gladsheim ("the area of happiness") in Asgard.
They were not godless savages - at least no more than others of their time (Photo: ShutterStock)
Were the Vikings as violent as we think?
With the recent rise of Viking figures in pop culture, the idea that they were all hyper-aggressive male warriors has become problematic.
Not only is it historically inaccurate, but it is also now a hallmark of numerous ethno-nationalist and white movements who believe that Vikings were dissident and ethnic about race, culture and gender and white supremacy.
In fact the myth of Viking racial purity is about as old as the "Viking Age" of the 19th century and was an idea fostered by Nazi ideology in the 1930s.
In reality, that "Norse racial purity" was violated many times, and given their extensive activity throughout the medieval world, it was impractical for Vikings to be hostile to all the different peoples they mixed with.
Equally, the common image of Vikings as "robbers", "robbers" and "raiders" fostered the idea that they were always violent - and more often, men.
This is also not accurate.
Not only were women sometimes active in warfare, but decades of research have shown that Vikings were more generally engaged in many forms of activities other than raiding.
They were merchants, explorers, diplomats, farmers, etc.
Moreover, many stories concerning their alleged barbarism come from Christian sources who criticized them for their early attacks on Christian settlements, especially monasteries.
It is likely that this activity would not be liked by those who produced the written historical record.
However, Viking violence must be understood in the wider context of the medieval period when other peoples committed equally (and sometimes more) horrific acts.
A key example here would be Charlemagne's famous massacre at Verdun in AD 782, where Christian forces murdered more than 4,500 Saxons.
You could argue that the only reason we don't refer to Charlemagne in the same violent terms as we do the Vikings is because he had a Christian biographer.
So while the historical reality concerning the Vikings may not be so sensational, it is important to understand where these inaccuracies came from.
Regardless of whether these impressive explorers were as homogenous or aggressive as popular culture likes to think, their actual activities have nevertheless had an important impact on our history.