The Return of The Vikings

2020 is about to leave us and no one will be sad to see it go. Of course, it’s been 10 days since the solstice and so technically a new year has already begun. The day grows longer by a few minutes each day and soon it will be time to plant the crops again. But for the Vikings (probably) the equinox was the first day of a 12 day feast and when the party’s over, a new year begins. And so it is to this day, more or less.

More importantly, today marks the premiere of the final series of The Vikings, the History Channel series that has been running since 2013. Although increasingly anachronistic, this is as close to history as the History Channel gets these days.

The series begins with the raid on Lindisfarne in 793. This is led by the probably mythological Ragnar Lothbrok, though even the myths don’t credit him with the raid, as he is said to have lived somewhat later. By the present and 6th series Ragnar is dead but his sons have come into conflict with Oleg of Novgorod, thought to have reigned from 879 to 912, although inevitably scholars dispute the chronology and some put him a few decades later. In any case, both Ragnar and his sons seem to have reached Old Testament ages, according to the show.

The first part of the 6th season ended with Oleg invading Scandinavia, which is not only historically but also geographically inaccurate. A Rus invasion of the Nordic countries would probably have been as unthinkable militarily as it was politically, although longships certainly did sail back and forth. The Slavic steampunk look with hot air balloons and all does little for authenticity.

Still, Eastern Vikings scholars can have some fun spotting other famous Rus figures, such as Igor and Askold, but the greatest fun to be had is in pointing out the inaccuracies to non-specialists. If they will have as much fun is another matter, but if not, they are advising us to spend New Year’s Eve alone anyway.

Happy New Year.

Vikings Season 6B | Official Trailer | Prime Video – YouTube

A Very Varangian Christmas

A very happy Christmas from the Eastern Vikings. Enjoy the holidays and don’t forget to clash your weapons loudly in honour of your Emperor-King, for it is written:

“In describing the imperial banquet at Christmas and its attendant ceremonies, the author tells us that before the actual dinner the officials in their several sorts and ranks came to the dining hall to chant their polychronion to the emperor,
that is, they prayed in ceremonial forni that the emperor might live many years.

To each party the appropriate official replied : ‘ Our Lord the Emperor bids you many
years.’ First came the officials of the palace, each class distinguished by special robes
then in order, the Genoese of Galata, more functionaries, the Pisan colony, then the
Venetians, and after these distinguished foreigners came the Varangians. They gave
their greeting in their own language, and this was English-clashing their weapons with a loud noise.

But whether the language was really English, or whether it was Norse, and Codinus says English because there were so many English Varangians, must be left uncertain. To the Greeks all barbarous languages were much the same; and Freeman judiciously says: ‘We must remember that any distinction between English and Danish would disappear in the latitude of Constantinople.’  An acclamation was made by another set of men in the Persian language, a choir sang the Christmas canticle of Romanos, and then the banquet was served.

(from Dawkins, The Later History of the Varangian Guard.)

The Later History of the Varangian Guard: Some Notes on JSTOR

What Happened to the Heruls?

The Heruls were a tribe from southern Scandinavia, known to be capable seamen and raided in Spain and France. A group migrated to present-day Ukraine in the 3rd century and from there raided around the Black Sea and Eastern Med. The ones that remained in Scandinavia were conquered by the Danes in the 6th century and disappeared from history. (John Haywood, Northmen, p. 28. Head of Zeus, London, 2016)

Until, that is, they were resurrected by head of the Icelandic National Library Barði Guðmundsson in his 1959 book Uppruni Íslendinga (the Origin of the Icelanders). Here, he claims that the Heruls, after having moved to Norway where they stayed for four centuries, ultimately colonised Iceland. His evidence was largely that the Icelanders wrote the Sagas instead of the Norwegians, and hence must have been of different stock.

The theory has been noted from time to time, most amusingly in 1999 when an Icelandic supreme court lawyer wrote an article where he tried to show that since the Icelanders were not descendants of the Norwegians, the Norwegians could make no claim to having discovered America at the 1000 year anniversary of that event (links can be found here: Herúlar. (

While it has never been firmly established why the Icelanders proved to be more adept writers than the Norwegians, the disappearance of the Heruls is not much of a mystery. As UCLA professor Patrick J. Geary has shown in The Myth of Nations, tribes disappearing into one another during the migration era, being conquered or willingly merging, was rather the norm.

New DNA research which has shown that Icelanders were rather regular Norwegians (if with a large infusion of Celtic blood) should finally put the Herul theory to bed. And yet they seem to have resurfaced again, now in Lithuania, where some claim them as distant ancestors. Where are the Herul? Here are the Herul!    herulii | Huns | Ancient Germanic Peoples (

Why Belarus Protesters Dress Like Santa Claus

Protests in Belarus continue, though largely absent from the international media. 300 people were detained last Sunday and more protests are expected tomorrow. Instead of taking place in the central square, they are now dispersed all over the city to make the detaining more difficult. The protesters are now sometimes seen in Santa Claus costumes, asking Lukashenko to give the people the present of going away.

Red and white has in fact been the colour of the protests since the beginning. Last August, people were wearing red and white, getting married in red and white wedding dresses, putting red and white underwear next to each other on the clothes line, white dogs wore red ribbons and white-clad women sported red umbrellas.

This is a reference to the old Belarusian state flag, first used in 1918-19 and again from 1991-95 before being substituted for the present green and red flag by Lukashenko after a referendum. It is even illegal to wave the old flag, and “Lukashenko’s ninjas,” police special forces, have been known to escalate buildings to take down the banned flags.

The origins of the flag are traced back as far as the 13th century, as battle flag for what now might be considered Belarusians who fought for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. As the Rus principality of Polotsk, in what is present day Belarus, was incorporated into the Grand Duchy, it could almost be said that the Belarusian opposition is still flying the flag of the ancient Rus.

Flying The Flag: Belarusians Show Their True Colors In Solidarity With Protests (

Here’s why are protesters in Belarus are flying a white-and-red flag — Meduza

Hundreds arrested in fresh Belarus protests against Lukashenko (

Burning the Goat: A Nordic Tradition

In Finland, they traditionally use the Christmas goat to scare children but in Iceland we take the fight to the goat. Ever since 2009, it was been a tradition for vandals (the modern kind) to burn down the Gävle goat in front of the IKEA store in greater Reykjavik. Sometimes the culprits have been apprehended, but occasionally the weather gods have got the goat before the vandals did. Twice it has blown down by the wind, whereas once it spontaneously combusted due to the electric lights.

In fact, the tradition goes back to the town of Gävle, Sweden, where a Christmas goat made of straw has been erected ever since 1966 and been burnt down most years. 37 arson attacks have taken place in the years since. In 2001, a man from Cleveland did the damage, assuming he was taking part in an old and legal tradition. By now, there is a three month prison sentence for goat burning in Gävle.

But this is a year without many traditions, and due to Covid IKEA Iceland only reopened last Thursday. And speaking of Thor, torturing goats seems to be something of a Norse tradition. The God of Thunder, whose carriage was pulled by rams, would kill and eat them, only for them to come back the next day to be eaten again at the earliest convenience.

The goat is actually an old fertility symbol, and the Hall of the Gods has its own goat, called Heiðrún. This one conveniently milks mead rather than the more traditional goatmilk and there is always enough for everyone. Appropriately, there is a liquor store named Heiðrún in Reykjavík.

So if we see goats as giving, we have other ways to terrify children. One of these is the Christmas Cat, who is said to eat children who do not wear new clothes for Christmas. Who says it’s a consumerist holiday?

The Christmas Goat is Coming to Town

It’s probably not escaped anyone’s attention that Christmas is coming and probably everyone who reads this page knows that the tradition is based on an older pagan holiday. In Iceland today, there is a still functioning Ásatrú society which usually celebrates the winter solstice on December 21st, but probably not now in these Covid filled times. As with other moments when the seasons meet, such as the 1st of May, midsummer and Halloween, this is a time when the spirits run free. Remnants of this can still be seen in Iceland where New Year’s Eve is considered a time for elves and bonfires are still lit around the coast, but again, not this year.

In the old Slavic world, people would celebrate Kolyada, which either refers to the infant sun god or the sky-goddess responsible for sunrise. After all, a new year is being born. Today it is still sometimes celebrated, often coinciding with Orthodox Christmas which starts on January 6th.

In Ukraine, bonfires are lit, fireworks set off and Kolyada songs sung, which are supposed to bring in a happy new year where wishes come true. Symbolic for this is the goat, which is seen as a fertility symbol. Probably in previous times, a goat was offered up as a sacrifice, but these day it is play-acted, with someone dressing up as a goat and being mock sacrificed before coming back to life, symbolizing the regeneration of nature.

The Finns also have a Christmas goat, Joulupukki, sometimes conflated with Santa Claus himself or more sensibly his lead reindeer. But the tradition is much older and also involves a man getting dressed up as a goat. There is even a horror film, Rare Exports, about the Finnish Christmas goat.

In any case, goat sacrifices or not, we can surely all look forward to a happier new year.

For more on Kolyada: Kolyada: The Old Slavic Winter Solstice | Kolyada: The Old Slavic Winter Solstice (

For more on the Finnish film to get in the Christmas horror spirit: Rare Exports. This Christmas everyone will believe in Santa Claus. (

1200 Year Old Norwegian Ship May Shed Light on the Rus

Excavations around the Gjellestad ship in south-eastern Norway continue unabated and it is hoped they will be completed this month. GRE radar has shown it to be 19 metres long and five metres wide, and even though much of it has rotted away, it is hoped that a replica may eventually be built.

This is the first major excavation of its kind in Norway for over a century and this boat is of roughly the same size as the famous Oseberg and Gokstad ships, on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. Those ships were found at the westside of the Oslo fjord, but this on the eastern side.

While this does not mean that it was intended for journeys east, the find is nevertheless of interest to scholars of the Eastern Vikings. In the 9th Century the Vikings started using sails which enabled them to cross the open seas to the west. Many ships combined rowing and sailing, depending on the weather, but the Gjellestad ship has a different keel than previous findings, which has gotten archaeologists excited.

The shallow draught enabled the ships to travel across the waves, but also over inland waters as found in eastern Europe. The king buried with the ship may have travelled far and wide, even to Byzantium. The ship was light enough to be carried from one river to the next, as was crucial to navigate the rivers in present day Russia and Ukraine. The ship has been dated to roughly the century between 750 and 850 CE.

For the BBC article, see here:

For more specific questions, you can contact chief archaeologist dr. Knut Paasche directly here:

Worst Year Ever (No, it’s not 2020)

Back in that distant golden age which was 2018, people, it seems, were still not very happy. In fact, so miserable were they that it took a team of scientist to prove that 2018 was not, in fact, the worst year ever, despite a new polio-like disease that could appear at any moment, fear of global warming and Trump still being president.

The experts unanimously agreed on the year 536 and perhaps inevitably, it was all the fault of Iceland. Apparently, a volcanic eruption in the-still uninhabited island at around that time blocked the sun from the sky for 18 months and led to widespread crop-failure and famine. If this makes the Eyjafjallajökull eruption of 2010, which grounded all flights for a week, seem like a mere speck of dust, then the bubonic plague which that year spread from Egypt and across Europe and killed some 50 million people makes Covid look like a case of the sniffles. Also, it was uncommonly cold, worth remembering now that Iceland is going through an uncharacteristic dry spell.

Even the horrors of 2020 (I, for one have put on 10 kilos watching Netflix) can´t hold a candle to 536. Now that we are in the endgame with a mere weeks to go, this Annus Horriblis really must try harder if it is to beat the king.

And speaking of kings, Justinian the First of Byzantium, also known for building the Hagia Sophia, was at the time busy reconquering the Western Roman Empire, ruling over Italy, North Africa and Spain as well as the East. When the plague reached Constantinople in 541, it killed around 40% of the inhabitants. Had it not been for this, who knows, perhaps the Roman Empire would have been reconstituted, the Middle Ages as we know them never happened, and Varangians perhaps never become the elite forces of the Eastern Emperor?

Read more in the Time Magazine article here:

For more detailed information, here is an interview by Ann Gibbon with Harvard Medievalist Michael McCormick: