Did the Finns Help the Swedes Go East?

The tribes that populated what is now Finland and Estonia have traditionally seen to be in the receiving end of Viking raids, most notably in Egils’ Saga where the titular hero slaughters a whole Estonian farmstead instead of letting them suffer the indignity of being robbed in their sleep. New research suggests that the Finno-Ugric tribes may ialso have played a key role in allowing the Vikings to navigate the waterways that led to the Black Sea, having familiarised themselves with the territory at a far earlier date. Archaeological evidence also suggests that influences from the east may have played a greater role in the culture of the Mälaren area. The iconic thick leather belts with metal buckles may even have come to present day Sweden from nomadic tribes to the east via present day Finland. A new Finnish documentary highlights this and the second part is shown on Icelandic State Broadcasting tonight:


(In Finnish and Swedish with Icelandic subtitles)

A Sami in modern day Finland

Björk Goes Viking in New Historical Epic

Filming of the Viking epic The Northman has finally commenced in Northern Ireland, after having been suspended due to Covid-19. The film is directed by Robert Eggers, known for his portrayal of New England historical epochs, such as The Lighthouse (late 19th Century) and The Witch (1630s), often adding supernatural elements. The film stars Alexander Skarsgård and Nicole Kidman and is written by Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón. Perhaps most interestingly, Björk will appear in the film, her role being that of a “Slavic Witch.” The film is set in Iceland in the early 10th Century and perhaps Björk’s character description indicates that connections between the western and easternmost parts of the Viking World will be utilized in the story.

Sjón and Björk have collaborated before. He has been her lyricist on various tracks, including the soundtrack to Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark for which they were nominated for an Oscar. This was where Björk debuted her famous Swan Dress, so we can only hope she will be nominated again.

Belarus: Waving the Flag of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania

Avid news watchers may have spotted that Belarusian protesters are waving a red and white flag, often with a picture of a knight on it. This flag, in fact, goes back to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania when it was used by Belarusians under Lithuanian rule. It was briefly adopted as the flag of the independence movement at the end of World War I. The white reflected the country’s name. One theory behind the naming of Belarus (sometimes called White Russia) is that it was the part of the Rus kingdoms that was not conquered by the Mongols in the 13th Century and hence was ruled by Christian princes. The westernisers in Belarus, as in Ukraine, see continuity from the ancient Rus through the Lithuanian Duchy and later the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to today.

Hence, a red stripe was added and sometimes the picture of the knight. This was the official flag of Belarus from independence in 1991 until 1995, when Lukashenko changed it back to the flag of the Belarusians SSR of the Soviet Union. Perhaps it will be changed back if he relinquishes power. For more on the Belarus flag, see:


Belarus: He Who Controls the Present Controls the Past

History is being made these days in Belarus and inevitably whoever comes out on top will have his own of history canonized. The current conflict between Westernizers and Pro-Russian groups goes back over 100 years, each faction viewing historical events in very different terms. The difference between the two is recounted in an article late last year by Moscow-born University of Radford Professor Grigory Ioffe called “Split Identity and a Tug-of-War for Belarus’s Memory.”


For the pro-Russians, the history of Belarus goes back to the Polotsk principality, which was subservient to the Kyivan Rus, the precursor to both modern day Ukraine and Russia. For centuries after the collapse of Kyiv, most of Belarus was occupied by Lithuanians and Poles before being liberated by the Russians in the 18th Century (and again during World War II). The official view, quite neatly, sees Kyiv, Novgorod and Polotsk as separate ancestors of the three eastern Slavic states of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.

For the Westernizers, the county’s history also begins with Polotsk but here the connection with Kyiv is downplayed. St. Volodymyr is seen to have incorporated the principality against the wishes of the populace (as related in the Primary Chronicle) and so a heritage of resistance to foreign authority is established. Conversely, the union with the Lithuanians and the Poles in the later Middle Ages is seen as having been on equal terms, making Belarus a full member of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In this narrative, Russia comes the main enemy and the many uprisings of the Poles against the Russians in the 19th Century are seen as joint Polish-Belarusian affairs.

According to Belarusian philosopher (and Westernizer) Valantsyn Akudovich, the former view appeals more to Belarusians as it allows them to be a part of the glory of Russian and Soviet Empires rather than its victims.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s move to Lithuania and Lukashenko’s calls for assistance to Russia can be the seen as the latest chapter in the long running debate about whether Belarus’ history runs through the Grand Duchy of Lithuania or Muscovy, and whether its future belongs to the Westernisers or pro-Russians.

St. Vladimir and Comrade Stalin

Heroic or Just Cruel. What Do the Sources Say?

A review of The Children of Ash and Elm: A New History of the Vikings by Neil Price has appeared in the “Socially Distant Summer Issue” of the London Review of Books, Vol. 42 No. 16, 13 August 2020. Price is an archaeologist and professor at the University of Uppsala and is also associated with this program. His previous book is The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia.

The review is written by Tom Shippey and titled “Did they even hang bears?”, a reference to the ritual sacrifices at Uppsala which may have included larger animals than previously thought. Shippey recounts some of Price’s conclusions, such as the fact that 125 million silver dirhams are thought to have gone north from the Caliphate to Scandinavia in the 10th Century. Meanwhile, only seven million pennies did so from the Frankish Empire, which still amounted to around 14 percent of the Franks output. No one knows why so many of the coins were put into burial mounds but it can hardly have been an accident. Price suggests ritual as a possible explanation.

Even more interesting is the mystery of why the Viking Age started. Price points to a couple of factors, such as lack of central power following the collapse of the Roman Empire as well as the many volcanic eruptions of the 6th Century, which may have destroyed crops all over but hit the Nordic Countries with their limited agriculture particularly hard. More immediately, the feuds between the successors in the Frankish Empire in the 9th Century may have led to new opportunities to acquire loot.

Perhaps most interestingly, there may have been a considerable male surplus in Scandinavia in the period, as male children seem to have been better looked after and less likely to suffer from malnutrition. This may have led to raids to find funds to impress the girls back home or a chance to find and abduct entirely new girls.

Finally, Shippey finds many examples of the Vikings being alternately heroic and cruel in Price’s text, saying that the idea that they were simply one or the other belongs in the realm of comic books.



The History of Hagia Sofia

As probably everyone knows, the Hagia Sofia church in Istanbul has been turned back into a mosque for the first time in almost a century. On Icelandic National Radio this week, our very own Þórir Jónsson Hraundal spoke about the history of the church from Orthodox to Catholic and back again, to mosque to museum and again to mosque.


(Icelandic only)

Meanwhile, on the podcast Byzantium and Friends, University of Pennsylvania professor Bob Ousterhout also recounted the history of the illustrious church, contextualising it with the current global trend of changing memorials. He also mentions the considerable part its reputation played in the Christianisation of the Rus.


(In English)