When we think of democracy, we think back to Ancient Greece. The first established democracy is thought to have been held in 508-507 BC and stems from a push by the people to exert control on the government. While there were steps to have a people-led society back then, many people in society didn’t receive the franchise until thousands of years later.
So, when we think of democracy, we consider those two time periods and rarely give thought to what happened in between. We never really spend time to consider how democracy worked in other primitive cultures, such as the Vikings. Did the Vikings have a democracy?
Viking society consisted of a king and a parliament. The parliaments and the assemblies held came to be known as ‘things’. The parliament was comprised of one male from every household. The King was elected by these men – much the same way that the President of the United States is elected (minus the Electoral College). Challenges to the rule were accepted – as long as it was an honourable fight. There was no government, as we know it now, but the king did have a network of contacts and alliances to uphold the peace and prosperity of the land. The Vikings also had no taxes.
Viking democracy was in some respects freer than many that followed. The king’s absolute power in Feudal England was less democratic, for instance. The idea that the king could be elected house-by-house was possible due to the relatively small scale of the society. The democracy was held on a local level, so would be akin to electing a mayor. Some women also were able to participate, which was unheard of at the time. Disputes were settled through a hearing and unofficial vote held to determine who was in the wrong. This kind of unofficial democracy came to personify the time and forced people to live by an honour code.
What Have the Vikings Done for Us?
The Vikings have clearly left a mark on us as a modern-day civilization. Their Old Norse tongue mingled with the Old English tongue from their settlement in England to help define our vocabulary today. Famed shipbuilders, the longboat contributed to canal boats, which were a prime form of transportation of goods. The Vikings were also responsible for combs, popularizing skiing, and for giving us soap operas, whose form of storytelling was likely influenced by the Icelandic Sagas.
Vikings are also a popular theme across pop culture. Marvel’s Thor is based on the Norse god pantheon, with many of the themes of Ragnarök, Asgard, and Yggdrasil leeching into the Avengers series. The History Channel’s Vikings TV series is currently airing its final series, with a sequel Vikings: Valhalla already picked up by Netflix. As this collection of gambling games online shows, there are several games inspired by the Vikings, such as Vikings Unleashed and Vikings of Fortune, as well as a slot based on the Vikings series. These show that the theme of Vikings has remained popular. The PC game Age of Mythology also allows players to game as the early Vikings.
The Vikings are definitely not a society to emulate. They are famous for pillaging and destroying villages. But, some aspects of their democracy, specifically the ‘people’s vote’ style method for electing the king had its groundings in a democratic society. Honour was popular in society, so a lot was expected but not officially upheld. All these centuries later, we still feel the impact of Viking society.