Slavs in the Viking World Series: Introduction – Who Were the Vikings?
Were the Vikings One People? – The Difference Between Danish, Swedish and Norwegian Vikings
Well you must be wondering why I’m writing about Vikings this time. The reason is actually simple. Everyone knows that the Slavs were not united, and on the other hand, most of people believe that the Vikings were all united, even though they were just like Slavs – a bunch of tribes, and each tribe was doing whatever they wanted. Not even all the tribes were Norse. Our organization’s main focus is Slavic history, but that doesn’t mean that we must stay away from the history of other European ethnicities, especially those whose histories have been intertwined with ours. I also believe that Panslavism corresponds to and complements Europism.
In the upcoming series of articles, I will try to cover the Slavo-Norman relationship in early medieval times. But before I start, I would like to introduce you with the Viking society of the early medieval period. People usually tend to ignore that Viking history is full of wars between Viking tribes. So let me start.
Linguistic nuances over the modern use of the word ‘Viking’ aside, the fact is that the historical group known as “Vikings” were not a homogeneous people. The original meaning of the word Viking wasn’t a nationality. The runic inscriptions suggest that a viking was a man who left his homeland for adventure and profit abroad, with the implication that he planned to return home with his newly-won fortune and fame. The word existed in both a noun form (víkingr, the person traveling for adventure) and a verb form (víking, to travel or participate in one of these adventures). Even the origin of the word is debated. In the old Norse language, víkingr means a man from vík, where vík may have the sense of a bay, or the specific bay called Víkin in the south of Norway. Perhaps the name was applied because the first Viking raiders were from Víkin, or perhaps because the raiders waited in sheltered bays for their victims.
By the time the Sagas of Icelanders came to be written after the end of the Viking age, the word víkingr still had the sense of a raider, or an adventurer, who traveled overseas looking for fame and fortune. Many saga-age Icelanders and saga heroes are said to have gone on Viking adventures, notably Egill Skalla-Grímsson and his brother Þórólfr (Egils saga chapter 49).
Some of the “Viking” tribes were not Norse at all. Some Scandinavian tribes were Germanic, some Slavic, other Finnic. The Rugii tribe (Viking name) were actually a Slavic tribe from Pomerania called Runi, who had conquered parts of Norway. It is an interesting fact that Norway has the highest percentage of the R1a haplogroup (the haplogroup that is the most common in Poland, and especially in Pomerania). The genetic similarity between nations as distant as the Serbs and Norwegians is quite big: around 42% (for comparison, Polo-German similarity is 44.7%). The Rugii are probably the best example of a “Viking” tribe that was not Germanic at all and of the diversity of the Scandinavian people.
We know from various sources that from as early as the late 8th century, broad geographically-related forms of identity, such as Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian existed. These are not to be confused with the notion of national identity of the modern era — there were no unified forms of government that we would consider a nation-state quite yet, although they would develop closely thereafter through the late middle ages. Since Christian historians basically did not care that much about the differences between Scandinavian people, they called all of them Vikings (since they were from the North and were pagans). Similarly, Greek and Roman historians called all the people that lived on the territory of Germania – Germans, meaning ‘people;’ even though they were diverse and had plenty of tribes such as Saxons, Marcomanii etc.
We can actually find out more from Muslim chroniclers. The historian al-Yaqubi, in his geographical study of the Mediterranean, linked the Scandinavians from Sweden known as the Rus to those from Denmark who sacked Seville in Spain. He wrote that the attack on Seville in 844 AD was carried out by “the Magus, who are called the Rus.” Back then, the monotheistic religions of Christianity and Islam sought to unite the peoples of the world under one God. Their convictions about their own faith created a perceptual lens about the world that today we would call “us against them.” The differences between those outside groups were of little to no importance because, ultimately, it was believed that they would eventually be converted and brought into the fold. Therefore, an extremely two-dimensional view of Viking-age Scandinavians was created, one which broadly described them all as “pagans.”
Most of what we know about the Vikings, both politically and culturally, is derived from analyses of the Danes. Chroniclers such as Dudo, Alcuin, Saxo Grammaticus, Rimbert, and Notker among others, all focus nearly exclusively on the Danish people to form their conclusions. Therefore, we know much, much more about Viking-age Danes and their exploits than any other group. This is not surprising since the Danes were far more involved with the politics of the continent than the Norwegians and the Swedes.
In contrast to their cousins in Norway and Sweden, the Danes consistently appear to have been a regional, cultural, and military power from the mid-8th century onward. Even the Franks admitted in the Annals of Fulda that the Danes were the most powerful among the Northmen. As a political power, the Danes also had the closest thing to a monarchy of any of the the three regions.
Finally, the Danes developed far more ambitious plans for territorial conquest than any of the others. Their invasion of Britain, the establishment of the Danelaw, and the settlement of Normandy are a testament to their ambitions. Militarily, they are thought to have been more organized and disciplined, and probably better equipped, than their Swedish and Norwegian cousins.
It is against this body of knowledge about the Danes that we tend to compare the other Vikings. Unfortunately, we do not know all that much about the early political formations of Norway or Sweden. We do know that the Norwegians were poised to conduct raids before their Danish cousins – they were the first to attack Ireland and Western France, and are thought to have carried out the raid on Lindisfarne – but ultimately did not exert the same influence as the Danes across Europe. An example of this is the invasion Brittany in the late 9th Century where Norwegian Vikings took control of the regional center of Nantes. They held it for years until the Bretons expelled them, only to find a derelict city and no concerted effort to colonize the land as had been done in Britain and Normandy by the Danes.
Similarly, the Swedes, then known as Varangians, or Rus, were poised to discover and pillage new lands in the east along the Volga and Dniepper rivers. Their expeditions, however, were of a different sort than those of the Danes and Norwegians in the west. The goal of the Rus was primarily to trade (or so it is thought). According to the Russian Primary Chronicle, the brothers Rurik, Askold, and Dir were “invited” by the Slavs to be their rulers. Why this event occurred is unclear to this day, but most historians believe this was a capitulation by the Slavs to years of raids.
We are lucky insofar as we know that the Swedes were likely the most different among the three groups. The account of Ibn Fadlan during his embassy to the land of the Khazars demonstrates a few stark differences between the Rus (that is how he called Swedes) and the Danes. For one, the Rus (Swedes) were allegedly covered in blue tattoos, which is not something that was commonly reported by Frankish scholars. The method of burial for their king and their grooming habits, among other things, stand in contrast to their western cousins. This is evidence that from a cultural and religious standpoint, the Swedes were, for a time, very different from their Danish and Norwegian cousins.
In the upcoming series of articles we will focus on Slavo-Norman relationships. One part will be about western Slavs and ancestors of Danes and Norwegians, and the second part will be about the ancestors of Swedes and their role in creating Kievan Rus. Stay tuned.