"It was not as if we'd stayed home and wasted our lives drinking wine with pretty girls."
- – A recurring motif in the Lay of Kraka
Vikings were Scandinavian people from the 8th to 11th century, a period in which societies based in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, making use of their long-ships set forth to trade and colonize areas including Northern France, Ireland, Britain, Russia, Iceland, Greenland and even reached North America (though the settlements they set up there did not last). They also made a habit of bathing and washing their hands frequently, which at the time was unheard of among the peoples of Europe. Probably because they had to have about two dozen dudes on a small boat for a long time, so you would regularly bathe if you didn't want to be That Guy. They only stopped when France, of all countries, rolled a nat 20 on Diplomacy by offering Normandy (deriving its name from the French word for Vikings, meaning Northmen), the northern part of France to duke Rollo. One of his descendents by the name of William (the Conqueror) ended up with a claim to the throne of a place populated with Anglo-Saxons named Anglo-land (later known as England), and ultimately became its king. So in other words, in an attempt to stop Viking raids, France ended up creating what became their arch-enemy for 800 years, making it one of the biggest cases of not as planned in history.
Unlike popular belief, they did not wear horned helmets. This is for the practical reason that a big horned helmet might catch a sword unintentionally, which is all sorts of bad for the wearer; horned helmets were used on occasion, but only for ceremony. The ol' "horn-headed people eater" image was popularized during the 1800s. In general actually, historical Vikings don't have much in common with their pop-culture image aside from longships and fondness for raiding, as the pop-culture image tends to be that of a barbaric dirty warrior carrying unwieldy weapons and wearing stinky fur and leather clothes when in reality, Vikings appreciated hygiene as mentioned above, groomed their beards and had clean clothes, making them in many ways more civilized than rest of Europe at the time. Their weapons consisted mostly of simple spears, bearded axes and dane axes and of course the trusty round shield. While most Vikings had helmets, few had swords or armor as they were very expensive at the time. The pop-culture image of dirty barbarians derives mostly from the fact that history comes mostly from the writings of the Anglo-Saxons and the French, as in, those who were raided by the Vikings so naturally they didn't have particularly good or unbiased image of them.
As a final note "Viking" is not a noun, but a verb. Proper usage would be something like "Hey Olaf, I'm bored and need some spending money, want to go viking?" (The noun form would be víkingr, a person who goes viking). The people who went Viking were known as Norse.
Vikings believed that when they died in battle (preferably in a totally fuck-awesome way) they would go to a place called Valhalla to become one of the Einherjar (Chosen Slain) or to Fólkvangr (the realm controlled by Freyja, the Nordic goddess of love, prosperity, spring and being foxy as hell; also a death goddess and war goddess, which is why she gets half the chosen warriors in the first place), where they would chug booze, eat all the meat and cheese they wanted, and (if that actually managed to get dull) participate in massive murderfests only to be fully healed the next day and ready to do it all over again. On the other hand, if they died in bed or in a totally lame way (such as AIDs or cancer or... actually anywhere but battle is lame) they would instead go to a totally boring place called Hel where NOTHING FUCKING HAPPENED! EVER! (As you might imagine, this became problematic for many of their folk heroes who were just that fucking hard to kill). And if that weren't bad enough, people who committed what the vikings saw as the unforgivable sins, like oathbreaking, went to a prison overseen by the goddess of the dead (Who is also named Hel). The ceiling is made from the bones of serpents, which drip burning venom, the halls are waist-deep in cold, slimy blood, and there is nothing to drink but goats piss and nothing to eat but rotten food (basically a Minnesota Vikings game, but one that never ends and the weather's always bad). The exception is if you died while giving birth, then you got go to Valhalla; the vikings were surprisingly fair for their day in their attitudes towards the sexes.
That said, there was the third way to die. Dying at sea was totally cool for the Vikings, for while the Battle-junkies went to Valhalla and Freya, and the lame ones went to Hel, the Sea-Bears went to the Halls of Aegir, god of the sea, where they got their own Watery Valhalla.
This is of course a massive oversimplification of Norse afterlife beliefs. The Norse peoples did have these four primary after life destinations, with the Folkvangr also taking heroes and people who lived valiantly that didn't die in battle... because Freyja's not about to miss out on some ass kickers or talented folks just because they died in bed. That said, her hall, Sessrúmnir, is battle dead only, just like Valhalla, so if you want the premium seats, die in battle. Hel on the other hand could not suck. If Hel herself found you "interesting", and you're not on the eternal punishment list, you could find yourself invited into her hall to keep the goddess of the dead company till Ragnarok. Could be worse all things considered. Then there was a variety of local afterlives. Think sacred mountains and the like. This subject goes as deep as you want it to in the end. The works of Dr. Jackson Crawford are a great place to start if you'd like to know more. He even has a youtube channel... and has written out the entire Hávamál, aka Odin's Guide On How to be a True Norse Chad, in cowboy English.
Yet there's good reasons Vikings have a reputation for brutality. In short, showing one's strength, dominance and fighting were valued parts of Norse/Viking society and their beliefs included animal and human sacrifices to the gods (even Thor was given such sacrifices, and he's considered one of the more bro-tier member of the Norse pantheon). And, of course, standard procedure during raids was to enslave, rape and/or kill the non-Viking people they encountered. Afterwards, the Vikings would steal everything they could carry. If it couldn't be carried, they'd burn it. If they couldn't burn it they'd 'SMASH' it! And remember, they weren't above attacking people or places that couldn't defend themselves, sometimes choosing their targets because they couldn't fight back.
They continued doing this until they inadvertently stole Christianity and equipped it without reading the effect text, whereupon Viking warlords started to conquer shit rather than rape, pillage and kill everything in their sight. They basically started to notice that rather than just raiding territory constantly and leaving the countryside as a depopulated wasteland, it'd be more profitable in the long run to just take it and manage all the resource production in it. The fact that serfs are tied to the land made it simpler to just conquer a territory for goods and labor instead of raiding for it. For quite a long time a large chunk of France and Italy, and the entirety of England and Russia were ruled by Vikings or their descendants, although they all got quickly assimilated into the nations they've conquered, to the point when they started to think of themselves as French/Russians in just a two or three generations after settling in. The Vikings also had a level of prestige in the Byzantine Empire, as they were the preferred recruits for the Emperor's bodyguard, the Varangian Guard, over other internecine imperial subjects (no doubt due to the Norse emphasis on sworn oaths to leaders holding weight and the hefty perk called polutasvarf that permitted them to legally loot the treasury whenever the emperor dies of natural causes).
Like Greek mythology, the Norse have their own version of creation, different sets of gods, and heroic stories of manly feats. Here are some of them.
Note that, much like Celtic mythology, Norse mythology was spread through oral tradition and only written down long after Scandanavia had become Christian, so there remains a massive amount of missing stories assuming they survived unchanged before committing the mythology to text (for example, while the war between the Vanir and the Aesir is mentioned, we don't actually have the full description of it, even though at one time it probably existed). Even much of what has survived should probably be taken with a grain of salt since whoever wrote it probably didn't hear about it first-hand or wanted to be syncretistic about it to help make it palpable for a Christian audience.
In Modern Fiction
Vikings and the honorable Neanderthals are some of the closest that the real world has ever had to dwarves, but they should not be confused as such. While they had a penchant for axes and could use anything, including body parts and broken furniture, as a weapon, Vikings were just unspeakably awesome humans (they couldn't handle as much booze as a dwarf, though only just). Vikings that rode Dragons even more so. Vikings are not to be confused with barbarians either, despite any combination with the former resulting in awesome. Vikings are also notable for pledging themselves to Chaos and becoming werewolf supersoldiers.
The Vikings have also finally gotten their own TV show starring Vladimir Kullich. It is about the saga of Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons; Bjorn Ironside, Ivar the Boneless, Sigurd Snake-eye, Halfdan, Hvitserk, and Ubbe, as well as the tales of Duke Rollo of Normandy, King Harald Fairhair, and Alfred the Great of Wessex.
On a side note, most stories and documentaries about real-life Vikings demonize either the Norse/Paganism or the Saxons/Christianity (the aforementioned TV show zig-zags between them); which side gets demonized will depend on how the writers feel about the aforementioned groups.
The thing that put the Vikings on the map were their Longships (or LongBOAT if you're not American). Basically these were large canoes made from planks with a mast to catch the wind. They could, however handle rough northern seas very well, and allowed some Vikings to reach such exotic locales as Newfoundland centuries before other Europeans. One thing that helped to make the Longships such a gamechanger was that the vikings worked out that properly curing and drying out timbers it made it stronger and more resistant to being eaten at sea by nematodes and similar grody things. Another thing is that the ship didn't go much under water, which allowed it to be used in almost any river. This led to things such as a fleet of 120 ships and 5000 men suddenly appearing in the middle of Paris in 845. It was also possible to bring the mast down for increased aerodynamics and decreased risk of detection when the ship was moved by rowing.
Sometimes to save travel time, the Vikings would pull their Longships overland for kilometers. No joking, no hyperbole. A few tricks (like log rollers) helped, though. One of them (Oleg, the prince of Kievan Russ) even mounted his longships on wheels to quickly move them into Constantinople harbor, bypassing the defensive chain pulled across the path (which possibly inspired the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II when he used a similar trick to help him capture Constantinople).
Their Longships also had an early warning system so that people could tell whether they were going to fuck them up or not. It's to do with the shields: If the Shields were on the outside of their Longships, then they were coming to trade goods. If the Shields were not on the outside of their Longships, then they were going to use them in battle, and you should prepare to fight or run for the hills (if you get that far...)
There's lot of bullshit about these guys on the internet and in general beliefs. Hell, the word itself had became the synonym of uncontrollable rage in many languages. The truth, however, is quite boring - berserkers (which comes from the Old Norse for "bear hide", as it was their signature piece of clothes they wore above armor, or sometimes instead of it) were equivalents of champions in the Norse culture with a pitch of warrior-priest flavor added - i.e. the guys who fought in duels on behalf of the tribe or some wealthy noble. And Norse culture had a fuckton of things settled with duels. As best of the best professional warriors among already brutally strong vikings they kicked all kinds of asses, and were rightfully feared for their skill and bravery. As you may guess, they where quite rare, so no "hordes" or even "squads" of berserkers for you - at best you'd have two or three per raid, and most often only one. As for uncontrollable rage... well, sagas mention a total of ZERO berserkers going into what we now call "berserker rage" - there are mentions of jarls and ordinary warriors going to battle biting shields, foaming with mad anger and killing friend and foe alike, but never berserkers. WRONG:
"-And as the foemen's ships drew near,
The dreadful din you well might hear
Savage berserks roaring mad,
And champions fierce in wolf-skins clad,
Howling like wolves; and clanking jar."
- – Harald Fairhair Saga ch 19.
...so yeah as can be gleamed from this own article, knowing what's true from the many-myths on the berserkers has been difficult for historians and a true concensus on them hasn't occurred yet, especially since the practice seems to have believed in by contemporary Norsemen themselves with the Norwegian "Gray Goose Laws" outlawing berserkers while of course medieval law and culture in Norway still used champions themselves to settle disputes like the rest of medieval Europe (and so the prosaic explanation of berserkers simply being the Norse synonym for champions meaning none of the crazy tales associated with them have a single grain of truth to them doesn't completely fit).
It's been said their prowess was explained by taking a mushroom brew painkiller allowing them to fight despite heavy or even fatal wounds though this has never been confirmed or replicated in anyway so if this theory was at all true, the proof of it seems to have been quite lost.
Viking is a Fighter archetype from People of the North, that was reprinted with small changes that buff it in Ultimate Wilderness. In exchange for heavy armor, and weapon training it gives the ability to rage like a Barbarian and take rage powers in place of feats. It also replaces armor training with some bonuses to using a shield. It's not a terrible archetype, but suffers from the fact that rage+shield lacks synergy as a fighting style, weapon training being the source of most fighter support, and the question of "why don't you just play a Barbarian when you've given up everything that makes Fighter competitive with Barbarian?" having few good answers, so it winds up a suboptimal archetype.
An archetype that any class can take if you want to be a melee guy that knows some things about sailing and moving through water. You learn how to best use a shield, not be slow by wet terrain, in addition, to throw things while Running. Works well as an early investment in a sailing campaign where your often fighting in the ocean surf or in a swamp, while also dipping into additional weapon proficencys and shields usage in the same tree.
When Elspeth Tirel needs backup, these are the people she calls.