Most people think of the Scandinavian vikings as a single entity, but there were actually differences between the vikings from different parts of Scandinavia even back in the viking ages.
The early viking ages didn’t have the same nations as we do now, but natural divisions made sure that the regions known as Norway, Sweden and Denmark was somewhat separated even back then, and were all eventually united into what would become today’s countries.
Even though all three has vikings, there were some pretty big differences between Norwegian, Swedish and Danish vikings, both culturally, socially, as well as how the expanded their viking kingdoms.
Let’s take a closer look at the history and differences between the vikings that operated from Norway, Denmark and Sweden, and finish with a look at their commonalities.
The Norwegian vikings settled in Shetland, Ireland, Iceland and more
Since we’re The Norway Guide after all, we’re obviously looking at the Norwegian vikings first. The Norwegian viking settlements were located in the fjords and along the coast of Norway, with modern day Stavanger and Tønsberg being important cities.
The Norwegian vikings were the first to invent the long ship, allowing them to go on long trips across the sea, which would later prove to be the main mode of operation for the vikings. This proved to be very important in Norway, seeing as it is very difficult to travel over the mountain passes that separates western and eastern Norway.
Some sources claim that Norwegian vikings were the most brutal of all the viking societies, with a higher interest in raiding than our neighbors in Sweden or Denmark, who focused more on politics instead. This does make a lot of sense when looking at the geography, since Norwegian vikings didn’t really have to make a lot of friends with our mainly ocean border.
The Norwegian vikings sailed west into the Atlantic Ocean, as well as south-west towards modern day Ireland. They settled down in modern day Dublin, and had many viking settlements all over Ireland and Shetland.
Norwegian vikings also settled in Iceland, a remote and fertile island. These Icelandic vikings then went even further west, eventually making small settlements in Greenland and even Newfoundland in Canada.
Even though Iceland is its own country these days, vikings living on Iceland were considered Norwegian vikings back then.
Norwegian vikings stayed true to their Norse religion for the longest of all vikings, but was eventually converted to Christianity by Olaf II of Norway, better known as Saint Olaf.
Swedish vikings went east
The Swedish vikings did not have easy access to the Atlantic Ocean, so it was much more difficult for them to explore places like England, Scotland, Ireland or Southern Europe.
This lead them to go east instead, into modern countries like Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, Ukraine, and even Turkey. They frequently traveled to cities like Kyiv, but found modern day Istanbul to be the most interesting city to trade with.
They called Istanbul (then called Byzantium and later Constantinople locally) Miklagard, and it was considered to be the biggest city the Swedes know of.
The Swedish vikings eventually converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity (which was the main religion in Miklagard), and settled down at trade posts along the river Volga in eastern Europe.
The Swedish vikings who settled down here eventually formed into the group called the Rus’ people, which gave name to Russia. This group did not bring the Eastern Orthodox Christianity back to Sweden, so the vikings that did not relocate stayed Norse.
Religious conversion might have been done as a part of making trade with the locals easier and more favorable. Over time, the Swedish vikings who traveled east became a group of their own, and had few ties with their origin country.
Generally speaking, the Swedish vikings were far less violent and prone to raids than their Danish or Norwegian counterparts, and mostly traded with the locals. They established trade routes all along the rivers leading the entire way down to Istanbul, and did mostly peaceful trade runs.
You might think that this is simply because Swedes were less violent by nature, but the real answer is more practical. The Swedish vikings were simply vastly outnumbered by the locals, so they could not just go on raiding parties without any worries.
That said, they did do some raiding, especially towards selected groups along the rivers that were not part of their trade union.
Danish vikings were politically involved in England
Danish vikings were more open to European culture compared to both Norway and Sweden, seeing as it was much easier to get to from Germany.
This has made the Danish more skilled at geopolitical games, which would give them a big advantage once they began to colonize England. A big portion of England, more specifically the northern part of the country then called Northumbria, was under Danelaw for a long time. Danelaw was not just a concept, but an actual country that had its own laws, culture and rulers.
The Danish vikings lived alongside the Anglo-Saxons, and waged both direct war as well as political plays against each other.
Over time, the Danes integrated more into English society, and most Danish vikings had converted to Christianity by the end of the ninth century.
The Danish vikings also focused on Francia (modern day France) after they got a solid foothold in England, and eventually went on to explore the Mediterranean Sea.
Pagan vikings met a terrible fate after Æthelred the Unready declared that all Danes should be killed in 1002. This massacre was probably not as big as some TV shows make it out to be, but it certainly divided the pagan Danish vikings from the converted ones. This marked the end of Danish vikings in modern day England, but there is a lot of viking heritage there still.
There are lots of exceptions to this generalization
Keep in mind that the main viking age was at least 250 years long, and there were lots of different groups from each country that would do their own thing.
It’s not like Norwegian vikings always want to Ireland while Danish vikings always raided and settled in England, but this is just the main way these groups operated, based on where they had access to ports.
There are for sure Swedish and Norwegian vikings who raided and settled in England, and there are even records of Norwegian vikings who traveled to Miklagard.
It is definitely certain that many Norwegian and Swedish vikings settled in England after Danish vikings had already conquered parts of it and founded Danelaw there.
This allowed them to easily move there to get more fertile lands, while still understanding the culture, law and language used.
Viking kingdoms during the viking ages
Another important thing to keep in mind when reading this article is that the national borders were very different back in the viking ages. Take a look at the map below to see a rough estimate of the contemporary borders in the viking ages.
Both Norway and Denmark owned big parts of what is today’s Sweden, and the map gives a bit more context to why few Swedish vikings sailed west. They simply didn’t have easy access to westward facing ports.
Commonalities between Norwegian, Danish and Swedish vikings
This article might make it seem like the Danish, Norwegian and Swedish vikings were very different from each other, but this was not really the case. They had many more similarities between each other than they had differences, and the biggest differences are where they focused their expansion on.
Some of the things all three viking kingdoms had in common was the Norse / pagan religion, the law, and much of the culture. The languages were a lot like each other as well, and they could all understand each other without problems.
The differences kept getting gradually bigger as time went on, when each kingdom became more influenced by the return of raiders and traders, who brought new customs and traditions along.
Nicklas is the owner and editor of The Norway Guide, and is responsible for most of the content on the website.
He lives in Skien, Norway with his wife and two children. Nicklas is specialized in Norwegian ecology (including Norway’s geology, wildlife and flora) from his degree in Ecology And Nature Management at University of South-Eastern Norway, but has a particular interest in tourism and content creation.
His biggest hobbies are fishkeeping, going on hikes with his dog, and rooting for the local football team.