In a hugely entertaining podcast, professor Sverrir Jakobsson discusses among other things the Varangians in culture. Grettis’ Saga is the perhaps the best example of a Varangian novel, whereas one of the most notable characters is Bolli from Laxdæla Saga. It turns out the Varangians rarely have to do anything to win respect in the Sagas, simply having been a Varangian is enough.
In a surprise turn of events, we also learn that the original Icelandic translation of Star Wars is based on the Sagas. One of the best known examples is Darth Vader’s moniker Svarthöfði (Blackhead) but the Jedi are also called Væringjar, which means … you guessed it … Varangians!
The podcast is episode 24 of Flimtan og fáryrði (Icelandic only):
Sverrir Jakobsson’s eagerly awaited tome The Varangians: In God’s Holy Fire has finally arrived. Years in the making, it should bring the reader up to speed on what is now the most cutting edge field in Viking Studies, their journeys and settlements in the east.
Dr. Sverrir Jakobsson is a professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Iceland and has previously done much scholarship on Vikings, but this is his definitive study of their complete history as gleamed from the sources, including interactions with the great empires of the east, including the Abbasid Caliphate and the Eastern Roman Empire. He also supervises the Legends of the Eastern Vikings project and you can find more about him in these pages.
It is available on Palgrave Macmillan here in both eBook and Hardcover formats. You can even purchase individual chapters separately:
This book is the history of the Eastern Vikings, the Rus and the Varangians, from their earliest mentions in the narrative sources to the late medieval period, when the Eastern Vikings had become stock figures in Old Norse Romances. A comparison is made between sources emanating from different cultures, such as the Roman Empire, the Abbasid Caliphate and its successor states, the early kingdoms of the Rus and the high medieval Scandinavian kingdoms. A key element in the history of the Rus and the Varangians is the fashioning of identities and how different cultures define themselves in comparison and contrast with the other. This book offers a fresh and engaging view of these medieval sources, and a thorough reassessment of established historiographical grand narratives on Scandinavian peoples in the East.
To the serious medievalist, it might be a cause for some disappointment that when one googles Eastern Vikings, the first thing that comes up is the sports team of the Eastern Regional High School in New Jersey. As is to be expected, the logo is of a bearded man with (backwards facing) horns on his helmet. This is also how Leifur Eíriksson is portrayed on statues all over Minnesota, as opposed to our own clean-shaven, hornless Leifur in downtown Reykjavik, itself a gift from the Americans.
Minnesota has its own sports Vikings, of course, and Nordic immigrants in the state have a habit of fabricating evidence that the Vikings reached that far west. As far as we know, they only made it to Newfoundland and there is no evidence of them making it to New Jersey. However, these were western Vikings, emanating from Iceland via Greenland. Eastern Vikings, of course, went east, to present day Russia and Ukraine and even all the way to Iran and Iraq.
So it would be slightly less inaccurate to name the team Western Vikings but in the America-centric view, New Jersey is at the easternmost part of the known world. Of course, it would be more proper to place Scandinavia at the centre of the universe, from where Russia lies east and America (all of it) is west.
“The Soup Wars” are currently raging over who owns the beetroot soup, or borscht, Russia or Ukraine. In some papers it’s called The Battle of the Borscht, while one said that the knives where out, which seems like an unhandy way to eat soup.
But the question that concerns us here is: Did the Vikings in the east eat borscht? Probably not, as the first documented mention of borscht is in Domostroy, a 16th century Russian cookbook with some handy moral advice thrown in.
But people largely agree that borscht originated in what is now Ukraine, so it may have been eaten there much earlier. In fact, the soup reference in the Domostroy is an entirely different soup, here also called borscht, with wild hogweed grass and a light beer made from fermented bread.
So what did the Vikings actually eat? This will be discussed in some detail on a webinar next week hosted by culinary archaeologist Daniel Serra.