Life in Viking Age Scandinavia was harsh and unforgiving. To survive in a region with long, cold winters and relatively short growing seasons, the Vikings had to be savvy and tough, ready to make hard decisions. They worked from morning until night to get everything done, and when winter came, they hoped they had done enough. As you can imagine, this had significant effects on the life-cycles and lifestyles of the Vikings.
From the Cradle…
Viking women gave birth with the aid of female midwives while the men found somewhere else to be. The midwife may also have provided magical assistance through songs or rune spells.
Infant mortality was high and newborns were not necessarily expected to survive. Fathers examined the infants for health, and if the child had physical defects or seemed too sickly to survive, they would be exposed to the elements. The parents may also have waited nine days (nine being a significant number in Old Norse literature) to see how the child fared. Children were not named until they were expected to survive. This rite is reflected in the modern Icelandic tradition in which children are simply referred to as “boy”, “girl”, or some other pet name until they are legally named at their christening ceremony. Some heathens still perform a variant of the old naming rites.
Based on grave finds (and some extrapolated data), the average age in Viking societies was skewed young, probably to around the age of 20. It appears that not only was infant mortality high, but life expectancies were generally short. Children worked alongside their parents, learning skills and responsibilities from the parent of the same sex, although there is evidence that children had some time for play. A Viking was considered an adult when they reached their early to mid-teens, and they were likely married between the age of twelve and twenty.
While children of both sexes start working from a young age, boys were also expected learn the art of warfare and self-defense, including wrestling (glíma).
…To the Grave
This series from the University of Nottingham’s Centre for the Study of the Viking Age is a wonderful resource, covering a wide range of Viking Age artefacts and historical sites found throughout the modern-day U.K., including grave finds and burial practices of some regions.
In this video, Dr. Jackson Crawford, the director of Nordic studies at the University of Colorado, talks about the elaborate and gruesome funeral ritual described by Islamic envoy Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, who stayed with the Russian Vikings (Rus).
Doorways were a powerful symbol in Viking lore, particularly with respect to death. The Vikings’ preoccupation with creating a space, and possibly a barrier, between the living and the dead underlies their funerary and burial practices.
More links about the Vikings: