The people living in what we today call Scandinavia have had various names with distinct meanings and connotations.
The Norse were a specific Germanic ethnolinguistic group of the Middle Ages. The Vikings were of Norse descent. Meanwhile, Nordic is a vague modern term that has been used to describe the Scandinavian countries and various ethnic groups throughout Europe.
Both terms cover a diverse collection of ethno-linguistic groups and nations located throughout the North Atlantic region.
The word Norse was borrowed from the Dutch term for Norwegian. It does not appear to have been in use during the medieval era but has since been associated with medieval and ancient Scandinavia.
The main element the people we call Norse had in common was a shared use of the Old Norse Language. The language contained three separate and distinct dialects: Old West Norse, Old East Norse, and Old Gutnish.
The Old Norse Language is the clear predecessor of the modern Scandinavian languages. Therefore, speakers of, for example, Swedish and Danish maintain a reasonably high level of mutual intelligibility today.
A Shared Religion
Another cultural element the Norse had in common was similar and overlapping mythology. While regional beliefs differed, there were enough central tenets they had in common to establish a Norse Religion.
The Norse religion’s roots are prehistoric, and most of what we know about it comes from Christian sources or later eras of its existence. The Norse religion and its mythology were dominant in England until the 7th Century and maintained their popularity in Scandinavia until centuries later.
Most of the religion practitioners at their peak were illiterate, and the belief was, in general, not textually based. Therefore, there is little evidence of its development over the centuries. Luckily, some of the myths and traditions are recorded in late texts from the 12th Century.
The Norse Religion was polytheistic and featured distinctive gods who loved and fought each other, much like humans do. The most powerful and well-known deity was Odin (or Woden in the Germanic version).
He was an exceptionally versatile character known as the god of war, runes, poetry, and even magic. Odin famously purchased his infinite wisdom at the price of his eye.
The religion had a well-developed vision of the afterlife, with four separate realms for the dead. The most famous of these is Valhalla, a great feasting hall intended for warriors.
The primary ritual practice of the Old Norse religion was animal sacrifice. However, there is some evidence that they occasionally practiced human sacrifice as well.
The religion was almost wiped out when all Norse territories were thoroughly missionized and incorporated into the Christian world. However, many of the practices went underground and survived. Today, thousands of modern Scandinavians practice the ancient rituals and believe in the traditional Norse gods.
The Nordic Racial Construct
In the 19th Century dividing people into different races became quite fashionable. Large groups of people were lumped together as belonging to a particular race which it was believed came with inherent characteristics.
Some groups we would today describe as Caucasian were seen as Nordic. This putative group included the people of Scandinavia, Germany, the Anglo-Saxons, and some Celts, and northern France residents.
The Nordic race was said to have light eyes, light skin, and tall stature. As these theories became progressively racist, they were seen as superior to people of other races.
However, the horrific events of World War 2 and advances in genetic science have discredited these racist theories on a social and scientific level.
A Regional Description
Since the middle of the 20th Century, the term Nordic is primarily used to describe a specific geographic area. The countries we call Nordic today include Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and the autonomous regions of Greenland and the Faroe Islands.
These countries are more commonly called Scandinavian today, although Nordic is still used. These areas are lumped together because of their shared cultural heritage, dating back to the Norse days. However, the term Nordic no longer holds the strong racial connotations it once had. Today, the citizens of Nordic countries are multiethnic and mostly tolerant societies.
There is a thin linguistic and cultural thread uniting the Old Norse and the modern Scandinavian people of the Nordic countries. Like most shared identities, it is more myth than reality. However, as we now know, cultural identities are uniformly based on imagined communities anyway.