The Viking Age:

The Viking plunder of Dorestad (Dutch schoolprint by Isings)

The northern Germans, also known as "Scandinavians", "Norse", "Northmen", or (their most popular name) "Vikings", are one of the most famous Germanic peoples, they are sometimes (incorrectly) seen as a separate people but although there were some minor differences between the northern Germanic tribes and the western- and eastern groups they were very closely related to eachother.
The Scandinavian culture has preserved many aspects of the old Germanic culture including a lot of Pre-Indo-European influences that are probably remnants of the native northern European culture, one of the main reasons for this may be the fact that Scandinavia is a somewhat isolated place that had lesser foreign influences, the smaller impact of the Christianization also preserved many old customs.
Originally the word "Viking" was only used to indicate a profession (plunderer, raider) rather than a group of people but nowadays this word is associated with all northern Germanic peoples.

For a long time the northern Germans have only built small ships that were mainly used to sail alongside the coast, but around 700AD they started building large seaworthy vessels of a revolutionary design that was one of the best in the world in those days; this sudden change in shipbuilding was caused by the need for new ships that could be used to reach far away areas to settle, trade, or plunder.
800AD was the start of a massive exodus in which many Vikings started to explore the world and settle in the coastal areas of Europe; one of the main reasons for this sudden travels were overpopulation, lust for adventure and wealth, and curiousity to the world outside their own.
The Vikings were excellent sailors who could reach their destination without using compasses, maps, or other navigation equipment, they used nature to navigate; they looked at the sun, the moon, and the stars and with their help they could calculate their position and course, on the open seas they sometimes let loose a raven; if there was no land nearby the raven would return to the ship but otherwise it would fly into the direction of the nearest land so that the Vikings could follow it.
The word "Vikingr" means something like; "man from the inlet", which refers to the Norwegian fjords, most other peoples refered to the Vikings with the word "Normannen", which means "Northmen".

When going on a raid the Vikings loaded their ships with warriors who could quickly attack and plunder the target after which they could retreat with their fast ships before a counterattack was launched, even when the enemy was able to launch a counterattack it was difficult for them to defeat the Vikings since they were excellent warriors who posessed formidable equipment.
The most popular targets for Viking raids were monasteries and other Christian buildings because those were loaded with gold and valuable religious items, later they even started to plunder entire cities that they sometimes used as a base of operations for further raids into the inland, they were also not afraid to attack fortified cities like for instance the Pictish stronghold of Burghead, which they destroyed in the 9th century AD.
After having captured their target they started collecting money and religious objects made of gold or silver, they also took monks and citizens with them to use as slaves, beautiful young women were often taken to use them as mistresses; an interesting fact is that most Norse women did not see this girls as competition; Germanic society often distinguished between love and sex so as long as the husband did not fall in love with his mistress the wife did not care about her.

Plundering was also normal among Germanic tribes, who did not view their plunder raids as something wrong; they believed that they had the right to take what they want because they were stronger than the enemy, according to Tacitus their attitude was;"why should we aquire something with sweat when we can take it for a few drops of blood?".
Just like their earlier cousins on the mainland the Vikings saw plunder as a way of achieving wealth and glory and they were proud of their achievements during a raid, this may sound weird to our modern ears but in that time it was a common attitude.
It must also be said that the northern Germans did not only spent their time plundering and killing but that they also undertook many peaceful expeditions; most history books portray them as bloodthirsty barbarians but most of them were honest merchants and traders.

The start of the Viking raids:
In 789AD the Vikings started conducting their first small raids in England, this raids slowly intensified and on January 8, 793AD they attacked the monastery of Lindisfarne; they plundered the building and burned it to the ground.
The attack on Lindisfarne is often seen as the beginning of the Viking raids on Europe because it was the first big strike in a sequence that would continue for 250 years.
After the attack on Lindisfarne the Vikings started to invade Scotland; in 795AD they plundered the monastery of Columba on the island of Iona, in 870AD they looted Dumbarton and in 904AD Dunkeld, the attacks on Ireland started at almost the same time as those on Scotland; 795AD, which had its climax in 839AD when the Viking warlord Turgeis plundered the cities of Armach and Abbey.
According to Christian sources Turgeis, or "Thurgesius" as they called him, also established himself as a heathen preast and tried to convert Ireland to the worship of Thor, in 845AD Turgeis was captured by the Irish and drowned, which temporarily decreased the attacks on Ireland.
Despite the Viking plunder raids Ireland did also profit from their arrival; the Vikings founded the first cities in Ireland (like Dublin, Limerick, Waterford, Wicklow, and Wexford) and created a stronger bond with the economy of mainland Europe, which allowed a big economical growth for the island.

A change of tactic:
In 850AD the Vikings started to change their tactic; instead of leaving after an attack they stayed, they conquered large areas of land and brought over their families to settle the newly obtained land, one of the main reasons for this was the overpopulation in Scandinavia, which required new areas to settle in, and the advantage of having a base of operations from which inland targets could be plundered; some of this fortified settlements later grew into big cities like Dublin (Dyflin) and York (Jorvik).
Eventually the Vikings actively started to conquer British lands and after some time they had taken the entire kingdom of Northumbria, their control over northeast England became formal after the establishment of the "Danelaw", an area of land that was ruled by the law of the Danes, even king Alfred the Great who would later dispel the Vikings from Ireland signed this law.
The power of the Vikings became so strong that the Anglo-Saxons instated a new form of tax that was called "Danegeld" (Dane-money); this tax was used to organize local defences against Viking attacks.
Altough many Christian sources exaggerated their cruelty the Vikings did not abuse their power over the Anglo-Saxon people, the amount of tribute they had to pay was reasonable and many Anglo-Saxon men even voluntarily joined the Viking army.
The Vikings also introduced the jury-concept to Anglo-Saxon society and that this jury had to reach a verdict by a majority of votes, the position of women in Anglo-Saxon society was also improved under Viking law and even the word "law" itself originates from the Old Norse word "lög".

The raids on western Europe:
The Viking longship found at Oseberg, Norway After the disintegration of the Franconian empire the Vikings started to increase their attacks on the mainland; western Europe is like a highway of rivers that allowed the Vikings to deeply penetrate into rich western European lands to plunder cities in modern Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and France.
Especially the western Franconian empire (modern France) was popular among the Vikings; in 841AD they plundered Rouen and in 843AD they plundered Nantes after which they hung its citizens in trees to sacrifice them to the wargods, after putting the city on fire they settled near the mouth of the river Loire from where they could organize further attacks.
Throughout France the people were terrified and in almost every church the priests prayed; "Furore Normannorum libera nos Domine" (Save us from the fury of the Northmen Lord), there was even an export-ban on Franconian swords to Scandinavia because nobody wanted the Vikings to posess such high quality swords since they were already dangerous enough without them.
In 844AD the Vikings attacked the important trading city Quentovic and in 845AD the Vikings plundered Paris and in the years thereafter they kept "honouring" the city with regular visits in which the citizens could choose between paying tribute or being plundered.
In 911AD the Franconian king managed to end most attacks on France by signing a treaty with the Viking leader Hrolf (also known as Rollo), which stated that the Vikings would get a piece of land in Normandy ("Northmen-land") and in exchange they had to convert to Christianity and protect the country against attacks from other Vikings.
An interesting thing to mention is that the Old Norse name of Hrolf was Ganger-Hrólfr, which means "Hrolf the Walker", this name was given to him because he was such a big man that no horse could carry him, therefor poor Hrolf always had to walk.

The Viking campaigns in the east:
In 859AD the tribe of the Varangians migrated from Scandinavia to the east into an area they called Gårdariki (what is now western Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine) where they founded cities like Novgorod, Kiev, Kursk, and Smolensk from where they started to conduct trade with the Slavonic tribes in the area, their newly obtained land soon grew into a rich kingdom with Kyawh (Kiev) as its capital, according to the Arab merchant and explorer Ibn Fahdlan other famous cities of the Varangians were Crsk (Kursk) and Hrqh (?).
The local Slavonic peoples called the Varangians "Ruotsi", this word was derived from the Finnish word "rotsi" that was on its turn derived from Old Swedish "rother" (rowers), this word slowly changed into "Rus" and after some time it was adopted by many languages who still use this word today when they refer to the inhabitants of this land; English: Russia, German: Russland, Dutch: Rusland, Danish: Rusland, Swedish: Ryssland.

From "Rusland" the Varangians organized attacks on the Byzantine Empire and especially on its rich capital Constantinople (modern Istanbul); in 907AD king Helgi (who was called "Oleg" by his Slavonic subjects) amassed an army of 80.000 warriors and travelled over the river Dnjepr towards Constantinople, to stop the Varangians the Byzantines blocked the city's harbour (the Golden Horn) with a chain that made it impossible so enter the harbour with ships; the Varangians responded by pulling their ships out of the water and fixing wheels under them, they then travelled further over land and used their ships as wagons.
The Byzantines were so impressed by this perseverence that they sent envoys to the Varangians who agreed to pay a tribute to save the city from plunder, the Varangians also forced the Byzantines into closing a trading agreement, which was only beneficial to the Varangians of course...

Some time later king Ingvar (who was called "Igor" by the Slavs) tried to do the same thing but this time the Byzantines were much stronger and did not agree to a tribute, Ingvar became so angry that he ordered his men to skin all Byzantine prisoners and drive nails into their heads, after that he ordered his archers to use their bodies for target practice.
On the journey back to Rusland the Varangian army was attacked by a local Slavonic tribe who killed king Ingvar, to revenge him the Varangians totally exterminated the tribe from which Ingvar's killers originated.
Ingvar's widow was queen Helga (who was called "Olga" by the Slavs), she took over control of the Varangians after his death and signed a peace treaty with Byzantium; because she was a beautiful and powerful woman she was received with much honour and the Byzantine emperor asked her to rule the empire together with him, queen Helga refused this offer but she did agree to be baptized by the emperor.
After her Christianization she changed her name into "Helena" and the emperor asked her to marry him, but the clever woman responded with the words; "When you baptized me you called me your daughter, don't you know that your Christian laws forbid you to marry your own daughter?"
This subtle rejection did not prevent the emperor to load her with gifts before she travelled back.
After her return to Rusland she has done efforts to Christianize the Varangians and their Slavonic subjects and for that she has been made a saint by the Russian orthodox church, where she is known as st.Olga.

The Varangian guard:
Around 1000AD the Varangians from Kiev formed a mercenary army called the Varangian guard (The word "Væringer" is believed to mean something like "The Sworn" or "The Wanderers") and they were hired by the Byzantine emperor who could use some good warriors to fight the Muslims who kept attacking the eastern parts of his empire.
The Varangian guard fought against the Muslims with enormous success and they even reached the river Euphrates during one of their campaigns where they conquered and plundered no less than 80 Muslim cities; their successes became known throughout the world and from Norway the famous general Harold Hardrada came over to lead the Varangian guard.
Harold Hardrada and his Varangian guard then marched to the mighty city of Jerusalem where he forced the Muslim caliph who owned the city to sign an agreement with the Byzantine empire, after this astonishing victory the Varangian guard left its Byzantian employees and started working for themselves; they built ships and sailed across the Mediterranian sea towards Sicily where they took 4 fortified Muslim cities, from there they conquered the rest of the island and with the help of the Vikings from Normandy they soon controlled an important part of southern Italy, in 1130AD Roger II became the king of this new Viking empire, in the years thereafter the Sicilian Vikings started pirating ships from their island but they soon became honest merchants who turned their new country into a wealthy and flourishing kingdom.

Viking dicoveries:
Like most other Germanic peoples the Norse were a curious people who were very interested in exploring the world around them, during their explorations they dicovered many unknown places; Ottar of Norway was the first human to sail around the Northcape and Naddodd discovered Iceland after his ship was blown out of course during a voyage to the Färöer islands, later Gardar Svavarsson landed on the island and stayed there during the winter and after that Floki Vilgerdarson arrived with the first colonists.
In 985AD Erik (Eirikr) the Red discovered Greenland and founded a few settlements there, the cold unhospitable island was named "Greenland" for propaganda reasons (to attract colonists), life on Greenland was hard for the Norse and after some time most settlements were abandoned, some settlements even completely disappeared together with the people inhabiting them; this mysterious event still puzzles historians today and has led to wild theories about temperature changes and even alien abductions.

An interesting theory about this subject was published in the Dutch newspaper "Gelders Dagblad" on May 9, 2001:

"Vikings fled for cold

London (ANP) The most hardened travellers that the world has ever known, the Vikings, have left Greenland as a bunch of housetomatoes. According to the archeologist Charles Schweger from the university of Alberta the Northmen were chased from Greenland, which they had colonized for four centuries, by a mini-Ice Age in the middle of the 14th century.

Archeologists have always been astonished about the abrupt departure of the Vikings, who collected their belongings, stepped into their long narrow ships and left. While doing this they left their farms and tools behind. It has been thought for centuries that diseases or economical depressions chased away the Scandinavians. The Vikings had lived for four centuries next to the icecap on Greenland, but when it started to grow they decided to leave. According to Schweger the mini-Ice Age caused downpours of muddy water in the summer. Schweger bases his theory on the finding of a farm on the Greenlandish westcoast. The farm has been buried under the ice for six centuries. The finding indicates that the departure of the pirates has been conducted in an orderly and organized way. The excavation in Nipaatsoq on western Greenland has been compared to Pompeii, where the time has not been abruptly stopped by a vulcanic eruption but by ice. Meanwhile during the construction of a new marina in the Limburgian
(Dutch province) city of Neer a Vikingsword has been found. During the extraction of sand and gravel the sword emerged. It lay on a depth of around five meters (16 feet) on a place, where hundreds of years ago a mooring place for ships has been positioned. The sword has a length of around one meter (1 yard or 3 feet)"

The discovery of America:
In 986AD Bjarni Herjulfsson sailed west of Greenland when he suddenly saw an unknown coastline appear in the distance, he approached it and then sailed alongside it to take a closer look but he did not leave his ship, without knowing that he had just written history by discovering a new continent he left and years later he told the story to Leif Erikson, who was the son of Erik the Red (the man who discovered Greenland).

Leif Erikson decided to see this for himself and he sailed westwards, via the islands Helluland (Flatstoneland) and Markland (Forestland) he reached the land that Bjarni Herjulfsson had described to him; he stepped ashore and in 1002AD Leif Erikson was the first European to set foot on the continent of America; 5 centuries before Columbus...
After the landing Leif Erikson and his men explored the new land and they discovered wild grapes, therfor they called the new land "Vinland" (pronounce: Wín-lànd), which means Wineland, it is not entirely sure where the later name "America" is derived from, some theories suggest a Spanish origin but others claim it is derived from the Old Norse word "omme-rike" which means "remote land".
Because it was too late to return to Greenland Leif Erikson decided to stay in Vinland and spend the winter there, they stayed in a small camp near the coast for about half a year before they sailed back to Greenland.

Some time later Leif returned and brought his brother Thorwald with him to show him the new land, together they explored more of the land but on one of those trips they encountered strange people who attacked them and killed Thorwald; although the Norse were excellent warriors they were hugely outnumbered and had to retreat; the first encounter between Europeans and the inhabitants of the new land was not very peaceful.
The Norse named this people "Skrælingar", which means something like "uglies", this people were probably members of the Native American Algonkin tribe, the area that they had called "Vinland" was Newfoundland, this is where they first landed and founded at least one settlement near the modern Canadian city of L'Anse aux Meadows, "Markland" must have been Baffin island.

The 3rd planned journey to America was undertaken by Leif's other brother Thorstein, but this expedition failed because Thorstein died during the long and dangerous travel over the Atlantic ocean.
Thorstein's widow Gudrun remarried with Thorfinn Karlsefni and together they undertook the 4th expedition to America; they arrived safely and stayed for a while; their son Snorri was the first European child to be born in the new land.
After some time the Norse founded some permanent settlements in Vinland that were probably used to supply Greenland with wood, but eventually most settlements were abandoned.

The controversial Kensington runestone There have been many debates on how far the Norse have penetrated into America, but that they have discovered America before Columbus is no longer considered speculation but a proven fact; they have undertaken expeditions to America for hundreds of years and parts of America are even listed in the Landnàmabòk, the Graenlendinga Saga and Erik's Saga also describe the exploration of America and many archeological findings have proven the presence of Norse settlements in America as well.
Many findings have been proven authentical though some findings are still controversial like the Vinland map and the Kensington rune stone, another problem is that there have been many people who forged Norse artefacts for their own personal agendas, messages about the more controversial artefacts appear almost every month in the newspapers; sometimes I read that the Kensington runestone is a forgery, a few months later another source tells me that it has proven to be authentical, I guess we will never know for sure about some of this artefacts.

The Norse saga's about the discovery of America have influenced many other explorers; from 1480 onwards the English starting searching for the land that was mentioned in those saga's but they were beaten by Columbus who accidentally found it before them when he was reaching for a short route to India.

The end of the Viking raids:
The Viking raids did not end suddenly, they slowly diminished since the Scandinavian countries developed into rich trading nations that did not need to plunder anymore and after a long struggle large parts of Scandinavia were Christianized.
After some centuries the Varangians in the east had completely mixed with the local Slavonic peoples and their empire became the foundation of the new Russian empire, in 990AD king Wladimir (whose Scandinavian name was Valdemar) adopted Christianity as his new religion and he brought in Byzantine missionaries to convert the population.
Many Vikings became rich merchants and nobles and a lot of the cities and kingdoms they had founded would later play an important role in history, their descendants in Normandy would even conquer Britain in 1066AD under William the Conqueror.
In our modern times the Vikings have often been depicted as murderers and thieves; especially the Hollywood movies are responsible for this image, although the Vikings were certainly no sweethearts they did contribute more to the world than just simple slaughter; they discovered many new lands, invented new technologies, conducted trade, and left us a beautiful heritage; the modern Scandinavians do not have to be ashamed of their wonderful ancestors who will forever spark our imagination.