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


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.

Icelandic Fans of the Eastern Romans

Among the many interesting points raised in Sverrir Jakobsson’s recent podcast on the Varangians is how they have been viewed by posterity. The Varangian Guard was know for its loyalty to the Eastern Emperor, who was not always on good terms with the West, not least after the sacking of Constantinople by Western crusaders in 1204.

In the Icelandic Sagas, however, the view on the Byzantine Empire seems overwhelmingly positive, despite the Great Schism having taken place a couple of centuries earlier, in 1054. In a previous paper entitled “The Schism That Never Was.” (see link below), Sverrir says, as the title implies, that the Schism may not have had as great an effect on contemporaries as often supposed, the real break coming in 1204.

For the Saga heroes, to have served the Byzantines always engenders respect. In fact, to have done so means that the hero is not called upon to prove himself further with great deeds, this seen to already having been done. This view is in opposition to other contemporary Western literature, which tends to have a negative view of the Eastern Romans. In Nordic sources, this only becomes apparent in Sweden in the 14th century. In that sense, he says, Icelanders were more Catholic than the pope, seeing all Christians as belonging to the same group.

It was only centuries later that the Varangians Swedish roots were emphasised in Russia. The Empress Catherine the Great, herself of Germanic stock, even wrote a paly about them and found obvious allusions to herself in noble foreigners ruling Russia. The Scottish poet Walter Scott sees them as English heroes, as later on the Varangian Guard were mainly composed of Englishmen, whereas the Icelandic poet Einar Benediktsson sees them as modernisers and proto-businessmen, an image of Viking-bankers that Icelandic oligarchs would attempt to project. As Sverrir says, the view of the Varangians is usually based on present needs rather than medieval sources.

(article in English)

The Schism that never was: Old Norse views on Byzantium and Russia –

(podcast in Icelandic)

Saga Heroes in Byzantium

Professor Sverrir Jakobsson is interviewed in Morgunblaðið this week about his new book The Varangians: In God’s Holy Fire. He also talks about the Legends of the Eastern Vikings project and says that the Icelandic Sagas, including the Varangians, has been his main interest for the past 30 years, or more or less since he started university. Already in secondary school, Sverrir was known in Iceland for participating on his school team in the annual quiz show Gettu Betur alongside his twin brother Ármann, himself a now professor of Icelandic literature. The competition was broadcast on TV and needless to say, they won.

In the interview, Sverrir talks about the connections between the Icelandic Sagas and the Varangians. Among famous Saga personalities that served at the court of the Eastern Emperor are Kolskeggur (which translates as Blackbeard), who was the brother of the main hero Gunnar in Njáls’ Saga, and Bolli, one of the main protagonists of Laxdæla Saga, was a renowned Varangian too.

Interestingly, while the Byzantine Emperor’s Nordic troops are called “Varjagi” in Slavic chronicles, the term is not used in the oldest Icelandic sources from the 12th century, although veterans from Constantinople are mentioned. The moniker “Væringjar” first seems to come into use in the 13th century in Iceland, at a time when the Varangians, or at least their Nordic element, was in decline in Constantinople and the cohort was increasingly being constituted of Englishmen. The term “Varjagi” can be found in later Arabic sources, but comes later into the old Norse being used in Iceland at the time.

Morgunblaðið newspaper is of a rather later vintage but is Iceland’s oldest functioning newspaper and was founded in 1913. The full interview can be found (in modern Icelandic) on

“Áhugamál mitt í næstum þrjátíu ár.” Þriðjudagur, 19. janúar 2021.

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

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:

Varangians are the Icelandic Jedi Knights

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):

Finally, finally … The Varangians Are Here

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:

The description reads:

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.