The Vikings were shiftworkers!

by John Larsson

There is probably no word of Nordic origin, that like "Viking" has puzzled linguists in the Nordic countries and internationally. The Viking era was a time of change, where the Moorish culture in Europe pushed the Christians northwards. During a couple of centuries the relatively few but determined and well organized Vikings from the North changed the history in most of Europe, probably due to their pragmatic approach to the Christian religion. However, neither historians nor linguists has ever been able to find out what the actual meaning of the word "viking", its etymology, is. Therefore I, as an amateur historian with lingual interest, present this hypothesis with a bit of humbleness. Serendipity, finding something one is not looking for, is perhaps a good help!

If one looks in etymology dictionaries, Scandinavian or e. g. English or German, one will be informed that "viking" has a disputed and doubtful origin. Apparently one seems to agree that the word is of Scandinavian origin and not a word from those who were plundered or conquered. The Danish "Gyldendals Etymologiske Ordbog" says (with some doubt) that a "Viking" is a "person who dwells or attacks in inlets and coves". Another hypothesis has been that the word means "a person from "Viken". "Viken" is an old designation for the land surrounding the Oslo Fjord. Both hypotheses must be judged as poor as they fail to explain expressions like "go on viking" or "be on viking", which we know have been used . The ending -ing or -ung in Germanic languages indicate a present participle, as we can see e. g. in modern English. Thus "viking" also stands for an activity or function like the Old Norse word "leding" meaning "war" or "campaign"; the etymology of "leding" is however also disputed. Other etymological suggestions have been that "viking" means "one who always is turning" (following the coastline) or that the word originally is Slavic or Latin, but these hypotheses do not have much support today.

Some time ago I was startled by the word "sjövika" in a Swedish book, "Svenska krönikan", from the 1940s. "Sjövika" was an older measure of length at sea, usually corresponding 7-8 km. There was in this book a reference to the Danish "Kong Valdemars Jordebog" ("King Valdemar's Cadastre") from the beginning of the 13th century), where this measure is used. At once I was struck by the thought, that this old measure had a connection to "viking". I had to find "Kong Valdemars Jordebog" and see how "sjövika" was used there. "Kong Valdemars Jordebog" is well known to historians, but there is no facsimile reproduction of the whole book; the chapters where "sjövika" is used, a description of the sailing route from Denmark to Estonia, is not in these facsimile reproductions. I tried to find something resembling to "sjövika" in "Ordbog over det Danske Sprog" (the most comprehensive work on the Danish language), but I was not successful. Suddenly a kind librarian at the local library came to my help with a little book on old measures. This was more perspicuous and I found that "sjövika" in Danish was called "uge soes"; "Uge soes" was the distance the men at the oars could row before they shifted with the extra crew. With the accurate entry, I was able to find "uge soes" in both "Ordbog over det Danske Sprog" and "Kultur-historisk Leksikon for Nordisk Middelalder" (a standard work on cultural history in Scandinavia), where there are several informative articles on how "uge soes" has been used in the Nordic countries. This measure was normally 7-8 km; some sources mean that it corresponded 1000 strokes of the oars. As one easily can understand, the distance may have depended on wind and currents, but was later standardized to exactly 4 nautical miles or ca. 7400 m.

In looking for the etymology of a word, one can easily be absorbed in more than one actually is looking for. Working with "viking" I was struck by a couple of other common Danish words, "uge" (week) and "snes" (score). The time measure "uge" (week) has the same origin as the old sea measure "uge soes". Both have the Old Norse stem "vika" (Old Germanic "vicu"), possibly of Latin origin. The word has had the meaning "shift" or "turn". The seven days of the time measure "week" has its origin in the Middle East and it is assumed that the seven days reflects the four moon phases. This is probably true, but the Germanic name for this time measure is different from the Latin, which usually is the pattern. In Latin languages the name of this time measure is actually "seven days", not "shift"! Therefore I mean that it is disputable whether "week" (Old Norse "vika") stands for the astronomic shift. It might simply stand for the visual break or "turn" of the first wooden calendar sticks. In Swedish "fold" is "vika", one "viker" a sheet of paper. In the same way, it is possible that one after having carved the seventh notch turned the calendar stick in order to get a better overview of a longer period of time!

Carving in wooden sticks has been used long time before people generally could read and write. In Norway they are known as "karvestokke" and in the Swedish speaking parts of Finland "skorstickor". This is close to the English "score" (meaning "20"). The Danish "snes" (also meaning "20") comes from the now archaic Danish "snide", which we know in both Swedish ("snida") and German ("schneiden"). According to the Danish dictionaries, "snes" means "a cut twig", but I think this interpretation is too "primitive". A meaning resembling the Norwegian "karvestok" or English "score" is more plausible! Today we can hardly imagine how important these wooden sticks were to people in old times. In heathen times, when there were no church bells, there wasn't any "synchronization" of time and it must have been difficult for small isolated settlements to keep a good record of the days. How many women nowadays experience that their "P-pill calendar" doesn't fit! Wooden sticks were also used in business. One used to two sticks which were laid parallel and were marked by one cut across both sticks. This cut could e. g. represent the delivery of one bushel of grain. The sticks were the accounting system; one stick was kept by the deliverer and the other one by the receiver!

Thus, the "Viking" was a man who undertook voyages so long, that there was an extra crew to shift at the oars. One rowed "i viking"! The Viking ship was an enlarged rowing boat and to move continuously was advantageous, even if it meant to have an extra crew onboard. Imagining a trip (with one set of rowers) from Lejre at the bottom of the Roskilde Fjord to Halmstad on the west coast of Sweden, one first had to make several stops for resting only to reach the mouth of the fjord. Thereafter one had to stop and rest at numerous places along the coastline of Sealand and Sweden. If the wind was favourable, one did of course not row, but was propelled by the originally rather primitive sail whereby one could shortcut across the Kattegat. Being at sea was also safer than making stops for resting, safer against assaults! The concept with shifting crews at the ors had most likely been practiced for centuries, when what later has been called "Viking Age" began. The Old Norse "vikingr" then suddenly meant something else than a peaceful oarsman, maybe the last generations of the "Vikings" did not even know why they were called so!

It is clearly documented that the old measure of length "uge soes" (Old Norse "vika sjóvar") meant "shift by the oars". This can possibly also explain why some place on a fairly straight coastline, holds the stem "vik" og "vig". One such place is "Viksjö" in the "Lake Mälar". There has since the Viking Age been a substantial land raise in this area of Scandinavia, but it used to be situated at about 7-8 km from Birka, when one sailed towards Old Upsala!


John Larsson

Marianelundsvej 18, DK-3460 Birkerød


Published here 2007 by the author's kind permission. First published 26 January 1998 in the Danish daily newspaper "Information". At this time the author had no knowledge of Bertil Daggfeldt's article in "Fornvännen" 1983, now also published here.

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