Photo: Krystkowiak Photography
Fjord Tours Facts / 7 Oct 2019

How Vikings Created Modern Democracy

When most people think about democracy, they tend to go straight to ancient Greece. However, what many people are not aware of is the fact that fans of modern democracy can actually thank Vikings for its creation.

When looking back at Norwegian history, you can see the start of what would later develop into what we now know as modern democracy. Although it had a very different name, the Norse Thing system shared a lot of similarities with many democratic systems that we see today.

What Was the Thing?

Despite their image of being barbaric savages that cared only about conquering civilizations, Vikings were so much more than that. A good example of this is the fact that most people don’t even know exactly what a Viking is. Most people believe that the term Viking was used to describe all the people living in what is now Norway.

However, Vikings were only a small group of these Norse people and they were only actually classified as Vikings when conducting the aforementioned Viking activities and conquering. Otherwise, they were much more civilized societies made up of farmers and traders and even had their own political system.

This political system was known as the Thing and was an early version of what later became democracy. The Thing was conducted at a local level, with each community having its own system. The Thing was designed to be a system where individual issues would be brought forth in the community and addressed in an inclusive setting so that everyone could voice their opinion on the matter.


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Photo: Berge/Knoff/Natural Light

How the Thing Worked

Unlike similar Greek systems, the Thing actually allows certain females to participate in the system as well and conducted business on a much smaller scale so that everyone had a chance to be heard. Each meeting would involve a specific person who operated as a law speaker and was in charge of keeping mental track of all previous legal precedents set by previous Things. There would also be a local chieftain who was responsible for helping make the final decision.

A dispute would then be brought forth and be heard in front of the entire community of free men. They would then get the chance to voice their opinion on the matter and unofficially cast their vote as to who they thought should be held liable for the trouble that had been caused.

The final ruling would then be delivered by the chieftain and law speaker, who were often heavily influenced by wealthy or powerful families. If something needed to go higher up on the food chain, then it could be brought up in a more prestigious Thing that often covered multiple tribes. This system of giving everyone the chance to vote themselves was a great example of direct democracy and spawned further developments of the democratic system.

When the Vikings weren't busy being "democratic" they did "go Viking", meaning traveling for purposes of trade and pillage. We'd like you to invite you to go Viking in Norway this winter (without the pillaging part). You can see our special winter adventures here.