Anyone who can make to Laugavatn on the 21st and 22nd of October is welcome to attend the Sigfús Blöndal Memorial Conference on Varangian Studies.

Alþjóðlegt málþing um víkinga í Austurvegi | Háskóli Íslands (hi.is)

University of Iceland, Laugarvatn, 21-22 October of 2021

Day one (21 October)

Session 1 (12.45-15)

Chair: Sverrir Jakobsson

Þórir Jónsson Hraundal, Varangians in Arabic sources

Tonicha Upham, Naming, Defining, and Describing Women in the Arabic and Persian Sources on the Rūs

Csete Katona, “They die when he dies”. The king of the Volga Rus’ and his comitatus

 

Session 2 (15.45-17.15)

Chair: Daria Segal

Ildar Garipzanov, The Concept of “Varangian Christianity” Revisited

Monica White, The Rhythm of Byzantine-Rus Relations

 

Day two (22 October)

Session 3 (10-11.15)

Chair: Þórir Jónsson Hraundal

Sverrir Jakobsson, The Making of the Varangians

Ryan Fenster, The West on The North in The East: Western images of the Norse and the Rus’, 800-1250 AD

 

Session 4 (12.30-14)

Chair: Sverrir Jakobsson

Roland Scheel, Deconstructing Væringjasaga: Byzantine and Old Norse Perspectives on the Varangians

Daria Segal, Discursive Strategies Concerning Scandinavian Presence on the Territories of Rus’ in Old Church-Slavonic Sources.

 

Session 5 (14.45-15.45)

Chair: Daria Segal

Kjartan Jakobsson Richter, Nordic Missionaries

Valur Gunnarsson, The Ancient Rus and the Ukraine-Russia Crisis

 

Session 6 (16-17.00): Final discussion, the upcoming book project

 

Who Did the Rus Fear More than the Mongols?

Ryazan was one of the easternmost principalities of the Old Rus and hence one of the first to feel the Mongol fury. After resisting for about a week in 1237, the city was raised to the ground and apparently not a single inhabitant was left standing.

It perhaps comes as little surprise that some elected to bury their valuable possessions before the Mongols came. Russian archaeologists have unearthed a treasure including hryvna pendants, which could be used as both jewelry and currency, and from which the current Ukrainian currency derives its name.

What is more surprising is that the treasure seems to have been buried 100 years before the Mongol attack. So what were the inhabitants of Ryazan afraid of? Perhaps further research will shed further light.

Medieval Russians hid silver hoard before Mongol invasion | Live Science

old ryazan buried treasure

New Podcast Available! Who Were the Rus?

Who were the Rus? Host Valur Gunnarsson speaks with Dr. Sverrir Jakobsson, one of the worlds’ leading authorities, about all things Rus. Where did they come from, and how did they impact the Middle Ages as well as the world we know today? (In English)

Part 2 of the Legends of the Eastern Vikings Podcast.

Spotify – Legends of the Eastern Vikings: Who were the Varangians and the Rus, with Dr. Sverrir Jakobsson – Legends of the Eastern Vikings | Podcast on Spotify

(see also the Podcast Page for Part 1)

Were the First Norwegian Kings Copying the Rus and the Romans?

One of the more preposterous plot points in “The Vikings” TV show is when the Rus invade Norway. This would have been geographically impossible without cutting through present-day Finland and Sweden first, quite apart from the fact that the Rus and the Scandinavians were generally on good terms.

It is fairly well established that the Scandinavians played a part in the founding of the Rus state, which leads back to modern day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. But what about vice-versa? In his book The Varangians: In God’s Holy Fire, Dr. Sverrir Jakobsson points out that both St. Olaf and Harald Hardrada, two of the kings most fundamental to the creation of the Norwegian state, had been in exile in the Rus for long periods of time. Harald even went further and served in the Varangian Guard of the Roman Emperor.

The Rus at the time had so many towns that the Scandinavians called it “Garðaríki,” sometimes translated as “the kingdom of cities” or “the realm of towns.” And the court of the East Roman Emperor in Constantinople was the greatest in all of Christendom. Were the Norwegian kings inspired by the Rus and the Byzantines when they set about creating a state in Norway? These and many other Rus-related questions will be answered in an upcoming podcast with Sverrir  Jakobsson on this very page.

Harald Hardrada window in Kirkwall Cathedral | Colin Smith / Harald Hardrada / CC BY-SA 2.0

 

Are the Mysterious Figurines Valkyries?

“Mysterious, ancient female figurines have been found by the dozens all over Denmark, and as far afield as England and Russia.” Thus begins an article in a recent issue of National Geographic Magazine. What are these mysterious figurines?

A find in Ribe, Denmark, which was a major trading port in the 9th century, may shed some light on the subject. Here, an “assembly line” of pedants was discovered in 2017. By making moulds out of clay, hundreds of pedants could be made at a time. These represent a variety of figurines similar to the ones seen on the tapestry found in the Oseberg ship, buried in a mound in Norway in 834 and discovered in 1904.

Some of the figurines portray women bearing swords and shields. These have usually been taken to be Valkyries, but a recent study by Pieterjan Deckers, archaeologist at the Free University of Brussels, suggests otherwise. He claims that these represent actual women fulfilling ceremonial roles, as they are wearing dresses that would be highly impractical in combat. Hence, the women are wilfully shown taking on male attributes. Similarly, other figurines show a man tearing at his hair, which is a traditionally feminine gesture.

Leszek Gardela, archaeologist at the National Museum of Denmark, says: “They steer away from a simplistic interpretation of women and weapons, where they’re all Valkyries and warriors, and argue for something else. It’s good to remember there’s no one fixed way of interpreting this material.”

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/viking-amulet-factory-discovery-forces-rethink-enigmatic-artifacts

Valkyrie - Wikipedia

Eastern Vikings Conference in Iceland announced

The Sigfús Blöndal Memorial Conference on Varangian Studies is scheduled to be held on 21-22 October of 2021 as a part of the research project Legends of the Eastern Vikings at the University of Iceland.

It will take place at the university compound at lovely Laugarvatn (around 80 km distance from the capital Reykjavík). The participants will be able to stay at the university residences at this location during the conference. We plan to have a bus to transport participants from Reykjavík and back again.

Laugarvatn is a popular resort town, known for its geothermal steam baths, and they also use the hot earth to boil (yes, boil) bread in. It is also known for its boarding school, whose main building is a nice example of Icelandic interwar architecture.

The participants at the conference will be the research team for the project, including all MA students who have finished theses related to the project. In addition, three affiliated scholars and three invited guests will take part in the proceedings.

We would like you to send us a title of your paper and an abstract of 300 words of its contents by 15 April. This will be put on the conference website accessible from here. We plan to publish the proceedings of the conference in a monograph in 2022.

Ukrainians March to Commemorate St. Volodymyr

This week, Ukrainians celebrated 1033 years since the adoption of Christianity. According to tradition, this took place in the summer of 988. Prince Volodymyr (or Vladimir or Valdimar), soon to become a saint, decided he needed organised religion to hold his vast realm together. To this end, he summoned emissaries representing the major monotheisms to his court. The great prince found Judaism to be too complicated while Islam banned alcohol which was an obvious no-no. This left the two major strains of Christianity at the time, the Catholic and the Orthodox.

Volodymyr went with Orthodoxy, no doubt the promise of marriage to a Byzantine princess having sweetened the deal. Had he opted otherwise, the history of not just Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, but perhaps also of Europe as a whole, might have been very different. However, Orthodoxy was probably always the front-runner, despite this rather amusing story. The Byzantine Emperor was still the regional great power and Volodymyr’s grandmother Olga had converted, although this did not extend to her subjects.

The day has been an official holiday in Ukraine since 2008. However, it can still be cause for contention. 34 percent of Ukrainians see themselves as belonging to the Kyiv patriarchate which became separate from Moscow in 2019, while 14 percent still look to the Moscow patriarchate. The rest see themselves are being Orthodox of no particular denomination or belonging to other Christian sects.

Putin has emphasised the Christianisation of Rus as an event that unites Russia and Ukraine and came to Kyiv to celebrate in 2013, before the present war started. Ukrainian president Zelensky, however, asked people to stay home to avoid contagion. The mayor of Kyiv did allow the Moscow-led event to take place on July 27th, with tens of thousands of people attending. The next day, the Kyiv patriarchate also held a march. There is now worry that the marching may have been a superspreader event, but participants claim to have faith that God will protect them.

Remembrance of St. Volodymyr of Kyiv and the Day of baptism of Rus celebrated in Ukraine - RISU

Links:

Zelensky criticizes Klitschko for allowing religious mass event amid pandemic | KyivPost – Ukraine’s Global Voice

https://jamestown.org/religion-as-a-hybrid-war-weapon-to-achieve-russias-geopolitical-goals/

BBC World Service – The Fifth Floor, Kyiv march: ‘Eucharist is our vaccine’

The World’s Only Viking Helmet (and Other Objects)

Still ongoing in Oslo is the “Vikingr” exhibition at the Museum of Cultural History. On display is the most extensive collection of Viking swank assembled in Norway, including the world’s only intact Viking helmet (sans horns, if there was still any doubt).

Of particular interest to us is silver hoard from the 10th Century, found on the Teisen farm in Oslo in 1844. Among the items here are several Arabian and Persian coins from present day Iran and Iraq. There are also armrings, probably made from melted-down silver coins, which could both be worn and used as currency, sort of like a portable mini-bank. Finally, there are cut-down pieces of silver which must also have been used to buy stuff with and weighed according to price.

As if this wasn’t enough proof that 10th Century Norway was interconnected with large parts of the world, the next display case shows a treasure unearthed at a farm in Buskerud in 1834. While the Vikings mainly used silver, usually originating in the Caliphate, as currency, this hoard contains gold rings including one from England, multi-coloured pearls, Roman jewellery repurposed in the Viking Age, Frankish ornaments, as well as the omnipresent Arabian coins.

At the exhibit there are also finds from a female grave, which includes weapons. This could indicate that the roughly 19-year-old girl was a warrior, but little is known for sure. The still-intact skull will soon be DNA analysed, which may yield further information.

The museum is connected to the Viking Ship House on Bygdö Island, a short ferry trip away. A ticket for one is a ticket for both and can be used on different days. However, the Viking Ship Museum will soon be closed for renovation and will only reopen, vastly expanded, in 2025. Vikingr will run for a few more years. Even if you are not passing through Oslo Norway, you can take a virtual tour here:

https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=KLqd8Ur9Uuf

There is also an introductory video with English subtitles here:

https://www.khm.uio.no/english/visit-us/historical-museum/exhibitions/vikingr/index.html

Bildet kan inneholde: lokk, personlig verneutstyr, sirkel, skrift, metall.

From Byzantium to the Orkneys in the Comics

Between 2007 and 2012, Vertigo, an imprint of DC Comics, published a series called Northlanders by Brian Wood. It was comprised of various stories set in the Viking Age spanning the attack on Lindisfarne to the battle of Clontarf in Ireland in 1014. Some stories spanned multiple issues while others were one-offs.

The first story arc, later collected in one volume, is called “Sven the Returned.” It tells the story of the not very originally named Sven who goes from Mikligarður, or Constantinople, to claim his inheritance in the Orkneys. His father has recently died and the place has been taken over by his evil uncle.

The story is rather pedestrian, a simple tale of coming back for revenge better done in Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s movie The Raven Flies and hopefully in the upcoming Northman by Robert Eggers. The characters are rather one dimensional and a Saxon invasion of the Orkneys at this time seems unlikely.

Nevertheless, the story does show the Viking World as a whole, reaching from Mikligarður in the east and all the way to the Faroes in the west. The fact that Sven has served in the Varangian Guard marks him out as tougher than his opponents, in much the same way that having served the Eastern Empire was seen as a mark of honour in the Icelandic Sagas.

Sven, having seen the world and met Muslims and Orthodox Christians, sees himself as culturally superior and less superstitious than his contemporaries who stayed at home, which probably would have been the case. A whole series set in Byzantium would probably have been more interesting, but at least the Orkneys finally get their due as an integral part of the Viking Age.

Northlanders was cancelled in 2012. Perhaps Wood’s previous series, DMZ set during the second American Civil War, may yet prove to be more historically accurate.

Origin Stories: The Kyivan Rus in Ukrainian Historiography

A new paper is now available in our dissertations segment. Written by your humble editor while on location in Kyiv and having to prolong his stay because of covid, 2020 turned into a very productive period. The stay formed the backdrop to the nr. 1 best-selling non-fiction book Bjarmalönd, now back in the Icelandic charts. The dissertation, which was part of my master’s degree, can be found below. The opening reads:

“The Russians and the Ukrainians, and indeed the Belarusians too, share an origin myth which reaches back to the legendary Rurik’s founding of the kingdom of the Kyivan Rus However, rather than reaching fruition in the early 20th century, as was the case in much of Central Europe, the origin story was subsumed into the Soviet experiment, and only remerged after 1991. It is still very much a work in progress.
Here we will look at how the founding myth of the Rus has been used in the Ukrainian
nation building project, which will unavoidably lead to comparisons with Russia and, to a
lesser extent, other neighbouring countries such as Poland, Belarus and Lithuania. From the Normanist debate of the mid-18th century to the rise of nationalism in the 19th century and the use of the Rus in the the Soviet Union, we turn to the present with its all its historical complexity and political ramifications regarding the relationship between Ukraine and Russia.”

Lokaverkefni: “Origin Stories: The Kyivan Rus in Ukrainian Historiography” | Skemman