How to Avoid Being Killed by Icelandic Vikings

Of all the things that keep you awake at night, no doubt being murdered by Vikings from Iceland is near the top of your list. Not to worry. A new study published in Evolution & Human Behavior has some insights that will be useful in protecting yourself from this fate.

The study is titled Family Counts: Deciding When to Murder Among the Icelandic Vikings. As this title suggests, the study addresses a particular question: how did Icelandic Vikings who were contemplating murder choose their targets?

For people in Viking Age Iceland, this was a practical question. Their society was notoriously brutal, and it lacked centralized institutions for mediating conflicts. Disputes were settled by brute force.

To gain insight into how these folks resolved the dilemma of “to murder or not to murder,” researchers dug into the best historical records we have of that period: the Icelandic sagas. These are literary accounts of actual events that took place in Iceland toward the end of the first millennium.

Looking through these records, the researchers kept an eye out for any mention of unnatural deaths. They also took note of how many family members killers and victims had.

When they crunched the numbers, the researchers found that killers tended to have more immediate family members (up to cousins) than victims did. In fact, it wasn’t even close: murderers had about 18 family members on average while victims had only nine.

This suggests that killers may have been more likely to target people who had fewer family members in general – and people who had smaller families than the killers specifically.

It’s impossible to deduce the motives of murderous Icelandic Vikings with certainty, but there’s a logical explanation for why these people would go after those with smaller families. In Viking Age Iceland, if someone was killed, it was their family’s duty to avenge them. From a legally perspective, this vengeance was A-OK: the family was legally entitled to a revenge killing.

Moreover, when it came to revenge killings, the killer’s entire family was fair game. You can see how things might get out of hand quickly. The corollary of this system was that killing people with larger family’s was riskier. If possible, it was worth avoiding a family feud with a family twice the size of yours.

In Icelandic society, in-laws and foster children were family relations as far as the etiquette of murder was concerned, so one way to increase your protection was to marry into a large family.

All of which leads us to the practical takeaway from this article. If you’re worried about the prospect of being killed by Icelandic Vikings, there are, happily, concrete steps you can take to lower the possibility of this unfortunate scenario playing out. Simply increase the size of your family.

As the ancient Viking proverb goes, “the more the merrier – and the less likely to be murdered!”

Image: Flickr/casper art