Rachel Lacy tests her mettle as a Viking before the 20th Jorvik festival gets underway next week.

VIKINGS are perceived as warriors infamous for raping and pillaging their way around foreign shore lines before going home to eat, drink and do nothing much else.

This image is backed up by the dictionary definition: "any of the Danes, Norwegians and Swedes who raided by sea most of north and west Europe".

The real Vikings were as likely to behave like that as they were to wear horns on their helmets. There is some truth in the myth, but far from being a brutal bloody race, they were cultured, given over to producing sagas and songs, making glass and turning wood, as thousands of people find out during the 20th Jorvik Viking Festival which starts next week.

Although by modern standards they could be viewed as bloodthirsty, they were products of their time, part of a world where using a sword, spear, axe and knife were a normal part of life for most men.

This week I had a quick foray into the world of Viking men. Dressed in tunics and trousers, a crucifix and leather boots, I was also issued with a sword.

The most surprising thing wasn't how heavy a sword gets after five minutes of holding it aloft, but how warm Viking clothes are. As people around us shivered on a cold January morning in St Mary's Square, I think we temporary Vikings were the only ones not suffering in our woollen clothes.

I got a closer look at domestic Viking life with the help of Leoba, known in the 21st century as Zoe Durrant-Walker.

Wearing a traditional dress, usually worn with a tunic over it, a shawl, headscarf, leather shoes and jewellery, Leoba's outfit was out-dated compared to mine, bearing two large ornate clasps just below either shoulder. But much as my Viking equivalent would have mocked her, she would have smiled knowingly as she explained "my dress may be old-fashioned compared to yours, but it shows that I have much more money than you do".

Obviously, fashion and status symbols were as much a part of Viking life as they are ours.

This was confirmed in the weaving, one of the crafts that children will be able to try at the Be A Viking event at the Archaeological Resource Centre on St Saviourgate. This is part of the new children's festival within the main event, where youngsters can find out more about Jorvik life by spinning, making Viking shields and handling real Viking artefacts.

Tablet weaving involved threading highly coloured types of wool together to make decorative braiding for high status clothing. Gold thread would have been included for those who could afford it.

The loom was a daunting piece of machinery, as different tablets had to be turned at the right time to make an intricate pattern. Amazingly, the experienced Viking women here could turn out a decent length of braid of about a foot long in 20 minutes. I doubt I could manage that much in a day.

Any child feeling brave enough to tackle it can try from 10am to 4pm, Monday, February 7 to Friday, February 11 at the ARC in St Saviourgate.

"Mini-Vikings" can also try their hand at Battle Drill in Coppergate Square from Monday, February 7 to Saturday, February 12 three times a day.

What may surprise many visitors are the vibrant colours. Using plant dyes, the Vikings made red, yellow, blue, green and purple wool. These colours were also used in a warp-weighted loom for making large areas of cloth, and would have been operated by the womenfolk of every household.

Viking women also used bone sewing needles and balls of yarn to make socks and gloves. The men were usually able to perform these tasks too, but left it to the women (which may well sound awfully familiar).

Leoba revealed another shocking inequality of the times. Women's life expectancy was around 36, whereas men tended to live into their 40s - although if they were warriors that almost halved.

The women's lower age could be explained by the years spent in childbirth. "They would be likely to have around 25 pregnancies, so they were constantly pregnant, of which around one in three made it into adulthood, the rest dying as children or in childbirth," said Leoba.

Nor were the Vikings illiterate. Their runes may be indecipherable at a glance to most modern eyes but they were part of a cultured society, where sagas were told and songs sung, a far cry from the bloody battlefield. This side of Viking life is being celebrated in a new part of the Jorvik Viking Festival on Friday, February 18 and Saturday, February 19 with a range of Scandinavian events that celebrate with saga, dance and song.

A Viking lord will conduct a night of saga and song at Barley Hall on the Friday, where Scandinavian food and drink can be sampled, and performance poet Adrian Spendlow will be performing Bardic Adventures, an evening of scary at the ARC.

On the Saturday, Robin Williamson will be "weaving a tapestry of ancient legends" and Norwegian Hardanger fiddler group Glima will be playing traditional music at the National Centre for Early Music. However, for those who want to participate in a Viking cultural experience, there is a dance workshop and dance party on the Saturday at the Priory Street Centre with Meridian music group.

This year's Jorvik Viking Festival, which for the first time lasts for two weeks, has plenty to show that there's more to Vikings than bloodshed.

That's not so say their reputation as a formidable military force has been forgotten. Visitors can witness battle drills on Saturday, February 12 in the Museum Gardens from 10am, and a gathering of the forces before they march to the Eye of York to re-enact the Battle of Stamford Bridge at 2.30pm, and at 7pm The Rout to Riccall.

A novel idea for this year is the test of weapons between Vikings and Samurai, called The Sword of Warriors, which will also be on the Saturday in Coppergate Square at 11.30am.

Updated: 11:18 Saturday, January 29, 2005