In 1898, Olof Ohman was pulling stumps on his Minnesota farm when he encountered a particularly resistant tree. Digging away at its roots, he found a large 202 pound stone lodged beneath the tree (Holand 97, 100). The stone was covered in Norse runes. Little did Ohman realize that his discovery would turn out to be the Kensington Stone, one of many examples of the far-reaching and important effect the ancient Norse had on the world.
When asked to list important world cultures, many people would think of the Greeks and Romans; few people realize the significant effect the Norse had as well. From books like The Lord of the Rings to everyday words, the Norse influence is evident everywhere. Understanding how the Norse affected the world is valuable because they impacted civilization by leading the way in exploration, shaping European politics, and influencing culture.
To begin with, the Norse changed the world through their feats of exploration. According to maps of the Middle Ages, the area which the Norse settled now includes at least 17 modern day countries (Wiseman). The Norse tribes had several prominent leaders who led the Norse expansion across Europe, and one of these was Rollo, who founded Normandy in 911 A.D. (Jones 229). Rollo was the ancestor of William the Conqueror who took over England in 1066. Two other important Norse explorers were Erik the Red and his son Leif Erikson (Quinn 24-26). Erik the Red led a group of Norse to settle in Iceland. From there, Leif sailed even further west to the coast of North America and is credited as the first European to have discovered North America. While these are the most famous Norse voyages, the existence of the Kensington Stone reveals that the Norse continued their explorations for centuries afterwards.
In addition to accomplishing feats of exploration, the Norse impacted European politics and government. According to Winston Churchill in The Birth of Britain, two Norse leaders ruled England and established dynasties there (Churchill 140, 167). The Norse played an important role in the history of other dynasties, as well. For example, a Norse tribe called the Varangians settled in the eastern part of modern day Russia, and their leader Rurik established the Kievan Rus dynasty, which eventually ruled all of Russia (“Rurik”). Another way in which the Norse shaped government was by introducing new forms of government.
The Norse in Iceland established the first parliament in the world, called the Althing (“Althing”; Derry 33), and the Norse also contributed to the development of the Russian city of Novgorod, which was Russia’s first and only republic and a major trading center in the Middle Ages (Marumu).
By beginning dynasties, conquering countries, and establishing new forms of government, the Norse clearly affected the world. Not only did they lead the way in exploration and shape nations, though; the Norse also affected culture. According to language professors Elaine Treharne and A. A. Sokolsky, the Norse influenced the languages of England and Russia (Treharne 1; Sokolsky 11). In a news article, BBC reporter Jayne Lutwyche explained that the origins of the English names for six of the days of the week are Norse. For example, Wednesday is derived from “Wotan’s day,” and Thursday comes from “Thor’s day.” In addition to impacting language, the Norse affected many other aspects of culture. Norse culture and myths have inspired epic poems like Beowulf, fantasy series like The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, movies like Thor, and television shows like The Vikings and Game of Thrones.
The Norse broke over Europe like a tsunami, spreading far and soon disappearing from the surface, yet in their wake, they left a significant mark on cultural traditions, politics, and exploration. Their influence is not merely a part of the past, though. The effect of the Norse continues on in the modern world, for the Norse have inspired feats of exploration that led men to the North Pole, shaped nations that are now major world leaders, and created culture, stories, art, and words that remain in people’s lives today. Like the Kensington Stone, the Norse impact on the world is often buried beneath the surface and forgotten, but it continues to affect history and can be uncovered in some of the most surprising places.
“Althing.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 20 Sep. 2016, britannica.com/topic/Althing.
Churchill, Winston. The Birth of Britain. Dodd, Mead & Company, 1956.
Derry, T. K. A History of Scandinavia: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland. University of Minnesota Press, 1979.
Holand, Hjalmar R. Norse Discoveries and Explorations in America 982-1362: Leif Erikson to the Kensington Stone. Dover Publications, 1968.
Jones, Gwyn. A History of the Vikings. Oxford University Press, 1968.
Lutwyche, Jayne. “Why are there seven days in a week?” BBC, 22 Jan. 2013, bbc.co.uk/religion/0/20394641.
Marumu. “Brief History of Novgorod in Dates.” Way to Russia. 4 May 2016, waytorussia.net/CentralRussia/Novgorod/History.html.
Quinn, David B. North America from Earliest Discovery to First Settlements: The Norse Voyages to 1612. Ed. Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris. Harper & Row Publishers, 1975.
“Rurik.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition. Literary Reference Center.
Sokolsky, A. A. A History of the Russian Language. Imp. Taravilla. Suc. de G. Sáez, 1965.
Treharne, Elaine. “Legacy of the Vikings.” BBC, 17 Nov. 2004, bbc.co.uk/history/trail/conquest/after_viking/legacy_vikings_01.shtml.
Wiseman, Howard. “13 Centuries of the Nordic Peoples.” ICT Griffith University, 19 Feb. 2010, ict.griffith.edu.au/wiseman/Nordic/Nordic-13centuries.html.