Were The Vikings Pirates?

Viking Pirates

When we think of pirates, we often conjure images of swashbuckling buccaneers wielding cutlasses and searching for treasure in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy. But long before these pirates sailed the high seas, there were the Vikings. The question that has intrigued historians and enthusiasts alike is: were the Vikings pirates? In this article, we will explore the connections between Vikings and pirates, the differences between them, and the reasons behind the Vikings’ piratical reputation. We will also address whether the Vikings were the first pirates in history and discuss some famous Viking pirates.

Are Vikings Pirates?

To answer this question, we must first understand what a pirate is. A pirate is a person who engages in acts of robbery and violence at sea, typically without the authorization of any government or state. In its broadest sense, this definition can be applied to the Vikings, as they were known to raid coastal settlements and plunder wealth from unsuspecting inhabitants.

However, labeling the pirates Viking may be an oversimplification. While they did engage in piracy, the Vikings were also skilled navigators, traders, and explorers. Their society was complex and multifaceted, with piracy being just one aspect of their culture. Thus, it would be more accurate to say that some Vikings were pirates rather than equating the entire group to pirates.

What Were Viking Pirates Called? 

The term “Viking” is often synonymous with piracy due to the group’s seafaring and raiding activities. But it is important to note that not all Vikings were pirates, and their culture extended beyond maritime raids. When referring specifically to Viking pirates, they were called “víkingr” in Old Norse, which means “pirate” or “sea rover.” This term encapsulates the spirit of these adventurous and fearsome raiders who plundered coastal settlements and struck terror into the hearts of their victims.

The Viking Age, which spanned from the late 8th century to the late 11th century, saw the rise of these daring seafarers from Scandinavia. The Viking pirates set sail in their iconic longships, designed for speed, maneuverability, and the ability to navigate shallow waters. These attributes allowed the Vikings to swiftly strike unsuspecting coastal towns and escape before any organized resistance could be mounted.

The Viking pirates were not a monolithic group, and their motivations for piracy varied. Some sought wealth and power, while others were driven by a desire to explore new lands and establish settlements. Their raids targeted locations throughout Europe, the British Isles, and even as far as North Africa and North America. The Viking pirates were known for their brutal tactics, including enslaving people, which were referred to as “thralls” in Old Norse.

The exploits of Viking pirates have been immortalized in both history and legend. Famous figures such as Ragnar Lothbrok, Bjorn Ironside, and Ivar the Boneless continue to captivate our imagination through various forms of media, including literature, television, and film. These legendary figures exemplify the traits often associated with Viking pirates: cunning, ferocity, and a seemingly insatiable thirst for adventure and conquest.

In summary, Viking pirates were called “víkingr” in Old Norse, a term that embodies their seafaring and plundering activities. These daring and fearsome raiders left an indelible mark on history, with their exploits continuing to captivate and inspire us today. Still, it is crucial to recognize that the Vikings’ society and culture encompassed more than just piracy, as they were also skilled navigators, traders, and explorers.

Pirates vs. Vikings: The Differences

Although there is some overlap in the activities of pirates and Vikings, there are key differences between the two groups:

a) Period: The Vikings emerged around the late 8th century and continued their activities until the 11th century. In contrast, the Golden Age of Piracy occurred between the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

b) Geography: The Vikings originated from Scandinavia and conducted their raids and explorations across Europe, the North Atlantic, and even as far as North America. Pirates of the Golden Age primarily operated in the Caribbean, along the American coastlines, and in the waters of West Africa.

c) Ships: Viking ships, known as longships, were designed for speed and maneuverability in shallow waters, enabling them to swiftly attack coastal settlements. On the other hand, pirate ships were often modified merchant vessels equipped with cannons and designed for long voyages.

d) Motives: While Vikings and pirates sought wealth through plunder, the Vikings were also driven by a desire for land, resources, and political power. The Golden Age pirates, in contrast, primarily sought personal enrichment and often turned to piracy due to a lack of economic opportunities.

Viking Pirate Ship at the Glance 

A Viking pirate ship, also known as a longship, was the key to the Vikings’ success in their raids and maritime exploits. These ships were meticulously designed to meet the unique demands of their piracy endeavors, and their iconic structure continues to symbolize the Viking Age. Here is a glance at the key features and characteristics of a Viking pirate ship:

  1. Design and Construction: Viking longships were constructed using a clinker-built method, where overlapping planks were fastened with iron nails and caulked with tarred animal hair or moss to ensure water-tightness. This technique provided the ships with strength and flexibility, allowing them to withstand the harsh conditions of the North Atlantic.
  2. Size and Shape: Longships were typically narrow and shallow, with a length ranging from 45 to 75 feet and a width of 6 to 16 feet. This shape allowed them to navigate shallow waters, making launching surprise attacks on coastal settlements easier.
  3. Hull: The hull of a longship was symmetrical and had a shallow draft, which made the ship highly maneuverable and suitable for beach landings. The ship’s bow and stern were often adorned with intricately carved animal heads, like dragons or serpents, to intimidate enemies and protect the crew from evil spirits.
  4. Sails and Oars: Viking ships were equipped with a single square sail made from wool or linen, which allowed them to harness the power of the wind. Additionally, they had rows of oars on either side, which were used for propulsion when there was no wind or when precision maneuvering was required. The combination of sails and oars enabled the Viking pirate ships to reach impressive speeds of up to 15 knots.
  5. Crew: A longship could carry anywhere from 30 to 60 crew members, who were skilled sailors, warriors, and navigators. The crew lived, ate, and slept on the ship’s open deck, enduring harsh weather conditions and the constant threat of storms or enemy encounters.
  6. Versatility: Viking pirate ships were versatile and adaptable to various situations. They could be used for raiding, trading, and exploration. Their shallow draft allowed them to navigate rivers and inland waterways, further expanding their reach and ability to strike deep into enemy territories.

Famous Viking Pirates

Not all Vikings were pirates, but some gained infamy for their maritime exploits. Among the most famous Viking pirates were:

a) Ragnar Lothbrok: Legendary Viking hero and warrior Ragnar led several successful raids on England and France, earning him a fearsome reputation.

b) Bjorn Ironside: Son of Ragnar Lothbrok, Bjorn followed in his father’s footsteps and became a formidable raider. He is said to have sailed around the Iberian Peninsula, raiding the coasts of Spain and North Africa.

c) Ivar the Boneless: Another of Ragnar’s sons, Ivar gained notoriety for his leadership in the Great Heathen Army that invaded England in the 9th century.

Did Pirates Exist with Vikings?

Piracy has been a persistent practice throughout history, so pirates likely existed alongside the Vikings. While the Vikings may be the most well-known seafarers of their time, other groups also engaged in piracy. For example, the Moors and Saracens of the Mediterranean were known to conduct raids on coastal settlements, much like the Vikings. Additionally, piracy existed in the waters of the Far East, with the Wokou pirates terrorizing the Chinese and Japanese coasts during the same period.

Why Were Vikings Called Pirates?

The Vikings earned their reputation as pirates due to their frequent raids on coastal settlements throughout Europe and the British Isles. Their modus operandi involved swift, brutal attacks on unsuspecting towns, where they would plunder wealth, take slaves, and sometimes establish control over the area. This conduct and their maritime prowess led to the Vikings being dubbed pirates.

Moreover, the word “Viking” itself is derived from the Old Norse word “víkingr,” which means “pirate” or “sea rover.” This etymological connection further cements the association between Vikings and piracy.

Were Vikings the First Pirates?

While the Vikings were undoubtedly skilled at piracy, they were not the first pirates in history. Piracy has been a persistent phenomenon throughout history, dating back to ancient civilizations. The earliest recorded acts of piracy date back to the 14th century BCE, with the Lukka, a group of maritime raiders from the southeastern coast of Anatolia (present-day Turkey), attacking ships and coastal settlements in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Other examples of early piracy include the Illyrians, who terrorized the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea during the 1st millennium BCE, and the Cilicians, who operated in the Mediterranean during the Hellenistic period (323-31 BCE).

Vikings vs. Pirates: Who Would Win? 

Comparing Vikings and pirates in a hypothetical battle is an intriguing thought experiment. On the other hand, drawing a definitive conclusion is challenging due to the different contexts in which these two groups operated. The Vikings were active from the late 8th century to the late 11th century, while the Golden Age pirates roamed the seas from the late 17th to early 18th centuries. The following factors can provide some insight into how a confrontation between Vikings and pirates might play out:

  • Weapons and Tactics: Vikings were known for their use of axes, swords, and spears, with the iconic double-edged Viking sword being a symbol of their martial prowess. Pirates of the Golden Age were equipped with a mix of weapons, including flintlock pistols, cutlasses, and muskets. While the Vikings’ hand-to-hand combat skills were legendary, the pirates would likely have had an advantage with their ranged weapons and firearms.
  • Ships: Viking longships were built for speed and maneuverability, making them ideal for surprise raids and quick getaways. On the other hand, pirate ships were often modified merchant vessels with reinforced hulls and heavy cannons, providing them with more firepower. Pirates might have an advantage in a naval engagement due to their superior armament, but the Vikings’ agility could enable them to outmaneuver the slower pirate vessels.
  • Crew and Leadership: Vikings and pirates had fierce, battle-hardened crews with a penchant for violence. Vikings were known for their berserker warriors, who were rumored to enter a trance-like state during battle, making them ferocious and difficult to defeat. Pirates were often desperate individuals who chose a life of crime due to limited opportunities. In terms of leadership, both groups had notable figures who demonstrated cunning and strategic insight.
  • Strategy and Adaptability: Vikings were known for their hit-and-run tactics, using their swift longships to raid coastal settlements before disappearing into the open sea. Pirates were more focused on seizing merchant ships and extracting as much wealth as possible before making their escape. In a confrontation, the outcome might depend on the ability of each side to adapt their tactics to the circumstances and exploit their opponent’s weaknesses.

Considering these factors, it is difficult to definitively say who would win in a hypothetical battle between Vikings and pirates. Each group had its unique strengths and weaknesses, and the outcome would likely depend on numerous variables, such as the location and specific conditions of the engagement. Ultimately, this thought experiment serves as a testament to the enduring fascination with these two legendary groups of maritime raiders.


In conclusion, the question of whether Vikings were pirates is a complex one. While some Vikings engaged in piracy, their culture was far more complex and multifaceted than merely being pirates. There were notable differences between Vikings and the pirates of the Golden Age, and the Vikings were not the first pirates in history. Nevertheless, the Vikings’ brutal raids and maritime exploits have left an indelible mark on history and continue to captivate our imaginations to this day.