Sigfús Blöndal Memorial Conference on Varangian Studies

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

  • Preliminary programme

Day one (21 October)

9.00 Departure from Reykjavík to Laugarvatn

Session 1 (11-12.15)

Þórir Jónsson Hraundal, Varangians in Arabic sources

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

Session 2 (13.45-15.15)

Neil Price, Vikings in the (Far) East: the Archaeological Challenge

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

Session 3 (15.45-17.15)

Ildar Garipzanov, The Concept of “Varangian Christianity” Revisited

Monica White, The Rhythm of Byzantine-Rus Relations

Dinner, location to be decided (19)


Day two (22 October)

Session 4 (10-11.30)

Fedir Androshchuk, In search for Harald Hardrada´s  ‘Treasures’

Sverrir Jakobsson, The Making of the Varangians

Session 5 (13-14.30)

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 6 (15.30-17)

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

Kjartan Jakobsson Richter, Nordic Missionaries

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

Session 7 (17-18): Final discussion

18 Departure to Reykjavík

19.30 Final dinner



Fedir Androshchuk, In search for Harald Hardrada´s  ‘Treasures’

This paper scrutinizes written sources, numismatic and archaeological evidence and makes an attempt to visualize what his treasures might look like. Contemporary written sources are very few, biased or obscure to take for granted. That is why we need to verify some accounts with the help of other sources particularly focusing on the search for material evidence for Harald’s wealth.

The account that the incalculable treasure Harald gained in Africa, most likely, is a myth. The military operations of the Byzantines in Africa at this time are not recorded in contemporary sources. However, it is certainly known that the main opponents of the forces of Byzantium at this time were the Arabs of North Africa who attacked Sicily in 1037. We do know that large treasures were seized by the Byzantine forces in an Arab encampment in front of Messina. It is said that ‘it was full of gold, silver, pearls and precious stones which the soldiers measured out in bushels´. In Heimskringla gold is visualized not in the form of coins and other treasures, but as a large ingot in size comparing with a human head. This is undoubtedly not a description of a real things, but an artistic image, which is the embodiment of extraordinary dimensions of Harald’s wealth.

To my mind a solid portion of Harald’s treasure consisting of precious stones, golden and silver coins, as well as the textile was spent in Kyiv while the largest part in Denmark. Also, the examination of the metal composition of silver jewellery discovered in Norwegian hoards with Harald’s penny reveals the very low silver content indicating some kind of silver crisis experienced during Harald’s reign in Norway. It has been suggested that debasement of coinage was an alien concept in Scandinavia most probably inspired by reducing of the content of gold during Michael IV reign (1034-1041).


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

Whereas Byzantine and Arabic sources and views of the Rus’ have been heavily studied, comparatively less attention has been given to Latin sources and Western views of the Rus’. Taking the position that, since Norse peoples were involved with the rise of Rus’, western views on both people would be related, this thesis analyzed seven western sources from the mid-ninth to mid-thirteenth centuries with the goal of collating mentions of the Norse and Rus’ and examining the language used to describe each group. This found that, while the Rus’ were barely mentioned, when they were the view of the west seemed to treat them like the Norse; at first fearing them, then distrusting them, and then finally accepting them as distant and slightly exotic fellow members of the Christian world.


Ildar Garipzanov, The Concept of “Varangian Christianity” Revisited

In my lecture, I will discuss the conceptual model that John Lind has developed in the past two decades to describe cross-confessional borrowing and influences on “the Way from the Varangians to the Greeks.”  He sees “Varangian Christianity” as a useful concept to describe a blend of influences from Latin and Eastern Christianities, “a mixture of Christian elements that Scandinavians picked up on their way and, perhaps, blended, while travelling between east and west.” He refers to six anomalies as corroborating the existence of such a specific blend of Christianity linked to Scandinavian Varangians, namely

  • (1) the presence in the Finnish language of religious terms borrowed from Old East Slavonic, even though Finland is traditionally viewed as converted as a result of the Swedish Crusades;
  • (2) the popularity of the cult of St Olaf in those eastern regions;
  • (3) the listing of some Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon saints in a few early Russian liturgical texts;
  • (4) the presence of the Church of St Elijah in Kiev, which, along with a mention of Christian Rus in Russo-Byzantine treaty of 944, is taken as pointing to a substantial number of Christian Varangians in that city in the mid-tenth century;
  • (5) the veneration of two Christian Varangians allegedly murdered in Kiev in 983 as the first saints in early Rus;
  • (6) the prominent role attributed to Christian Varangians in the early texts connected to the Kievan Caves Monastery.

In my presentation, I will debate the veracity of those phenomena, and will argue that what survives that inquiry does not provide conclusive evidence for a specific blend of “Varangian Christianity” carried by Scandinavians commuting between the Baltic Sea region and early Rus from the second half of tenth to the first half of twelfth centuries.


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

The goal of this workshop is to unravel the various semantics attached to designations of ‘Eastern Vikings’ (Scandinavians) in medieval documents. The present case study aims to illuminate to what extent are we able to homogenize groups appearing in the sources under the contested label, Rus’. We usually associate the Rus’ with a state centred in Kiev rather than around or closer to the Volga, and call Rus rulers as grand princes rather than kings. Nevertheless, various Rus societies existed during the Viking Age, one which was more active around the Volga and was apparently ruled by a king. The key text in this regard is the report of the Abbasid ambassador Ibn Fadlan, who encountered the Rus’ on the Middle Volga in 922 CE. The Rus society described by Ibn Fadlan came under a heavy influence of steppic cultures, as noted by researchers such as James E. Montgomery and Thorir Jonsson Hraundal. An important passage, however, has been left out of the discussion so far. In this, Ibn Fadlan adds a note about the further hierarchies of the Volga Rus society: they are ruled by a king (malik) whose retainers follow him to the afterlife upon his death. Contrasted with other examples on Rus and steppic afterlife notions in (unrelated) contemporary texts, the historical credibility of the passage will be assessed. Taken together with other details within Ibn Fadlan’s report, it will be suggested that the stratification of Rus society encountered around the Volga reflects particular notions of subordination and slavery. How typical or deviant this society might have been in comparison to other Rus or Scandinavian groups is a question posed in the end of the presentation.


Kjartan J. Richter, Nordic Missionaries

This research examines the world view of Icelandic medieval historians and their knowledge of the so-called East way (ON. Austrvegr). Ólafur Tryggvason (r. 995-1000) has been given the title „missionary king“ of Iceland. Various tales from the end of the 12th century claim that he was responsible for bringing Christianity to Old Rus by hand of the emperor in Constantinople. Þorvaldur víðförli Koðránsson is an interesting character in Icelandic medieval literature. He is said to have been one of only a handful of Icelandic missionaries set about bringing Christianity to Iceland. Stories on Ólafur and Þorvaldur bear a resemblance but stories on the latter one are far less complicated and do not differentiate between each other as much. It seems that the younger stories continue to add onto Ólafur’s connection with the East way and make his role at king Vladimir’s court bigger and bigger. The longest story on Ólafur Tryggvason, Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar hin mesta marks a high point in the story telling tradition on Ólafur. Also notable is that this is the only story in which the two men are said to have met. The special interest of the Saga writers (King’s sagas in particular) on the East way and how they seem to be constantly adding to stories, especially in the case of Ólafur Tryggvason, is of particular interest especially regarding the Great Schism within the Catholic church. This research traces that development in the stories and tries to shed light on the world views specific to the Icelandic chroniclers from these stories. The respect that they are given and homage that is paid to these characters is of particular interest, as well as the power and riches they are said to have gained. Interestingly, none of the tales of their fame have survived in Old Rus or anywhere in the East way and no primary sources exist.


Neil Price, Vikings in the (Far) East: the Archaeological Challenge

Over the past three decades, the academic study of the Viking Age has emerged from the shadow of the Cold War, and its artificial barriers to collaborative scholarship across the Iron Curtain. The illusion of discrete ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ sectors of the Viking world has now been subsumed into a fluid diaspora of movement and exchange, spanning vast distances from the eastern American seaboard to the Asian steppe. In the course of this same period, the study of the Rus’ and their complicated ethnicities has blossomed, as western academics have understood the sheer scale of work already undertaken by Russian and Ukrainian researchers, and the latter have been able to access wider comparative literature. The realm of these ‘river kings’, not least as it developed into the polity of Kievan Rus’, has also been reassessed as an integrated part of a wider European world. However, this revision of the ‘eastern Vikings’ has largely focussed on their interactions with the Byzantines; much less attention has been paid to their operations further east into Central Asia, as perceived through Arabic sources. This situation is changing fast in textual scholarship, not least within the Icelandic project at the heart of this meeting, but archaeologists have been slower to engage with the Varangians’ extended eastern range. There have been preliminary surveys of the excavated record; several scholars have noted the presence of Tang silks in Scandinavian burials, alongside items of nomad origin, and begun to evaluate their influence in the material repertoire of the Rus’. But is it really possible to conduct a genuine archaeology of the Vikings in the Far East? This paper reviews a range of recent attempts, including a re-evaluation of Silk Road archaeology in the context of the Rus’, and will try to chart a course for future work.


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

Up to this day, Sigfús Blöndalʼs Væringjasaga – more precisely, its revised English version by Benedikt S. Benedikz – provides the master narrative of the history of the (alleged) Varangian Guard. It is an excellent example of how an appealing historiographical reconstruction of events creates facts upon which other research is built. This is also due to the fact that Sigfús Blöndal with his ability to evaluate both Byzantine and Old Norse sources was a pioneer in this field. In the transition from the Icelandic original to the English version, another effect of historiographic narrative comes to the fore: While the argumentation in his Icelandic narrative is often cautious, sometimes tentative, the English version becomes more graphic and definite and paints a clearer picture of the Varangians, mirroring a typical phenomenon of cultural memory also pertaining to conceptions of history. Since Sigfús Blöndal’s work, however, methods and paradigms in historical research have changed, and especially the trust placed in the historical accuracy of saga narrative treating the early middle ages has dwindled. From today’s perspective, a characteristic feature of Væringjasaga therefore appears problematic: Byzantine sources from the ninth to the eleventh century are more or less constantly read in the light of the much younger Konungasögur and Íslendingasögur. The paper proposes instead to first reconstruct Byzantine perceptions of ‘Scandinavians’ and the perception of Byzantium in Scandinavian sources separately, taking into account the respective dating of the texts and the development of the mutual perceptions, stressing the necessity of the deconstruction of Væringjasaga’s narrative after seven decades. In addition, Byzantine sources edited in the meantime will contribute to the suggestion of an alternative narrative for the history of the Varangians of Byzantium.


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

In the last few decades, the Old Norse-Icelandic literary corpus has been more frequently analysed through the lens of cultural and communicative memory, underlining the importance of a scribe’s (and society’s in general) reflection on the past. Such an approach allowed the identification of descriptions and plots present in these narratives, which likely helped to shape medieval collective identities, consolidating the common past. Old Church-Slavonic sources, however, were not examined thoroughly through this perspective, even though some attempts have been made since the 1970s.

To better understand constructs of cultural and communicative memory in the medieval written sources, especially concerning the creation of imagined communities (including outgroups), the narratives in question are approached through Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). The main focal point of this paper, thus, is to address the discursive strategies employed by the late-eleventh- to thirteenth-century scribes, which were used to create and develop descriptive images of the Scandinavian presence in the territory of Rus’.

Through the analysis of the main discursive devices, such as personal (anthroponymic generic terms, personal pronouns, quantifiers), spatial (toponyms/geonyms, adverbs of place, spatial reference through persons, by means of prepositional phrases such as ‘with us’, ‘with them’) and temporal references (temporal prepositions, adverbs of time, temporal conjunctions) employed to facilitate construction of an imagined community, this paper provides a fresh insight on the Scandinavian presence and absence in the medieval Old Church-Slavonic narratives.


Sverrir Jakobsson, The Making of the Varangians

In this presentation I will argue that there existed a tight relationship between the elite of the three Scandinavian monarchies and the Medieval Roman Empire in the twelfth century, with is reflected in the importance of Constantinople in descriptions of armed pilgrimages made by Scandinavian kings and noblemen. An important feature in all these descriptions is the continued presence of Scandinavian soldiers in the service of the Emperor, as parts of the Varangian Guard. The Varangians are portrayed as countrymen and natural allies of the new arrivals. It is likely that the emperor regarded the Scandinavian monarchs as his oath-bound “liegemen”. This venerable relationship was an important precondition for the the way the Varangians were incorpored into the cultural memory of Medieval Icelanders, as they appear in many types of 13th and 14th century works which deal with 10th and 11th century, belonging to the genres of the king’s sagas, the family sagas and the romance literature.

Such works are situated on the border between history and fiction and serve as a guide to a legendary and semi-legendary past. The main function of Varangians in these narrative will be discussed, with the aim of establishing why the Varangians were important for the Icelanders´view of their past. Some stereotypical roles of Varangians will be observed and debated, such as the Varangian as a returned traveller, the restless Varangian and service in the Varangian guard as a good outcome for sympathetic characters in the sagas.


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

In the study of Arabic and Persian travel and geographical accounts of the Rūs, considerations of gender are still very much in development, and sometimes exhibit shortcomings. Either various depictions of women go unnoticed, or representations of gendered roles are judged to be somewhat lacking. This sense that the sources are lacking from a gendered perspective is sometimes expressed as a frustration that we do not encounter “powerful” women in these sources, or as a judgement that the enslaved women described in Arabic and Persian accounts of the Rūs do not themselves count as Rūs, and so are irrelevant. In passing these judgements, however, we risk overlooking a rich collection of written material which offers reflections on Rūs gender. In particular, these sources speak to the ways in which the Rūs were imagined and enjoyed by geographers and their readers over multiple centuries of textual transmission.

More than offering an overview of the vast array of sources in which we encounter descriptions of Rūs women (or else a sense of how Rūs gender was understood by Arab geographers), this paper explores the reasons why we have had trouble not only in identifying these women, but also in understanding their roles. Focusing in particular on the ways we translate and understand the term jāriyyah (pl. jawārī, ‘slave girl’) in relation to the Arabic and Persian sources on the Rūs, I will confront our expectations and preconceptions of gendered and racialized depictions of the Rūs. Moreover, I will offer suggestions for the uses of these sources when taking a gendered approach, indicating how the discussion of Rūs gender as it is presented in the Arabic and Persian sources cannot be separated from the construction of race in geographical writing.


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

Ukraine is now in a process of nation-building that is reminiscent of what many European countries experienced in the late-19th Century. The similarities to particularly Iceland and the emphasis on medieval manuscripts is apparent. In Ukraine, scholars ransack old chronicles searching for an identity distinct from that of Russia, claiming a linage that goes back to the Ancient Rus in the 9th century. According to this, a clear narrative can be traced from the Viking Rurik to Kyiv and onwards through the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia to present-day Ukraine. To complicate matters, the Russians also claim their descent from Rurik and the Rus, leading through Muscovy to present-day Russia. Whereas the Ukrainians prefer to emphasise a common Swedish-Polish-Lithuanian origin, the Russians traditionally see the Rus as a purely Slavic phenomenon. The debate can have present day implications, as many Ukrainians see the Russian claim to the old Rus as a claim to all their lands, including Ukraine itself.

The Belarusians also claim heritage reaching back to the lands of the Rus, specifically that of the Principality of Polotsk. This presentation traces how the Rus have been utilized in latter day historiography, reaching back to the late 18th Century but particularly of the last years. Instead of the old Normannist debate, we now have a Russian-Ukrainian debate. Particular attention will be paid to how this has manifested itself in the cityscape and in museums, from the new statue of St. Vladimir in Moscow to the “Making of the Ukrainian Nation” museum, which opened in 2019 in Kyiv. Again, there are similarities between Iceland and Ukraine, which to the larger nations of Norway and Russia are simultaneously peripheral and custodians of the common history. But is it possible to ascribe present day nationalities to Medieval peoples?


Monica White, The Rhythm of Byzantine-Rus Relations

The significant milestones in Byzantine-Rus relations looked very different to contemporaries than they do to modern historians. In recent centuries, the baptism of Vladimir Sviatoslavich has usually, explicitly or implicitly, been presented as a watershed moment. Yet the focus on this story distracts attention from longer-term patterns in relations which were more significant to contemporaries.

Vladimir’s actions in the late tenth century were, in fact, very much in keeping with norms which persisted for about 200 years. From the mid-ninth century, the Rus and Byzantines began to engage with each other through diplomacy, raids, trade and mission work. Although these explorations were limited by competing priorities and the countries’ distance from each other, mutual interest remained strong and contributed to the relocation of the Rus power centre to the mid-Dnieper area around the turn of the tenth century.

From this new base relations intensified, but did not change fundamentally. The increasing number of interactions with Byzantium contributed to a growing interest in Christianity among the Rus, but the baptism of leaders in the mid- to late tenth century was not mentioned by any contemporary Byzantine authors, who probably viewed these events as footnotes to the initial mission of the 860s. Byzantine authors did, however, pay attention to military affairs, including the Rus participation in the Byzantine army and their raids on Constantinople, which continued until 1043.

This paper will argue for a new periodization of Byzantine-Rus relations, in which the first 200 years (c. 839-1043) were defined by a rhythm of trading, raiding and mission work as the two sides assessed how best to deal with each other. This rhythm, rather than a teleological focus on the conversion of leaders, offers a new way to understand the foundation of the countries’ complex relationship.


Þórir Jónsson Hraundal, Varangians in Arabic Sources

Medieval Arabic works contain numerous accounts of eastern Vikings/Rus. Most of these hail from the Middle East, mainly Baghdad, while some were written in Al-Andalus. These works employ several different names to denote the Northmen. Most common is Rus, but we also find Majus, Urduman and variants thereof. A handful of sources mention Varangians, in the guise of Warank. Albeit few in number these works are not without interest, such as Al-Biruni who speaks of the Sea of Varangians, and Al-Kashgari who counts them among the peoples of Eastern Europe. Warank makes further appearances in the works of several influential scholars of the later Middle Ages, such as Abu ‘l-Fida, Qazwini, and Al-Dimashqi.

This paper will focus on Arabic geographers’ usage of different terms for Northmen/Vikings with regard to the cultural as well as geographical position of the writer, and with regard to the passing of time. Especial attention is given to Warank, and how this word may have found its way into the writings of scholars from Central Asia and Kashgar in Xinjiang in the eleventh century.



In the spring of 2021, the following course was taught by Sverrir Jakobsson, Þórir Jónsson Hraundal and Daria Segal at the University of Iceland.

Legends of the Eastern Vikings
Course Description:

The course is devoted to the image of the Eastern Vikings, as it is presented in narrative sources in Arabic, Greek, Latin, Old Norse and Old Slavonic. The main purpose is to re-examine medieval sources on the eastern Vikings, and to highlight the ongoing “debate” (to use a term made popular in this context by Jan and Aleida Assmann) on the Rus and the Varangians in the medieval period. The aim is to compare and contrast sources emanating from different cultures, such as Byzantium, the Abbasid Caliphate and its successor states, the early kingdoms of the Rus and the high medieval Scandinavian kingdoms, and analyse what significance these sources attached to the Rus and the Varangians in different contexts. These sources will be analysed with regard to the cultural and political context in which they were written, problems of transmission and the purpose behind the narrative, always with particular attention to the sections connected to the Rus and the Varangians in these accounts.