Eastern Vikings Conference Results

The Legends of the Eastern Vikings Sigfús Blöndal memorial conference was held at Laugarvatn on the 21st to 22nd of October. Sigfús Blöndal wrote one of the defining accounts of the Vikings in the east over 50 years ago, but a lot has happened in the field since and at Laugarvatn some of the world’s leading scholars in the field presented their findings. Happily, the papers will be published in a book that should be out next year.

Meanwhile, Sverrir Jakobsson’s The Varangians: In God’s Holy Fire presents an updated account of recent scholarship. And while we wait for the book, here is a radio interview with Þórir Jónsson Hraundal about the conference.

Samfélagið – Flatnefja gæludýr, meðafli og væringjar | RÚV Útvarp (ruv.is)


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)

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 – Medievalists.net

(podcast in Icelandic)

Rus Family Dramas

The Rus may not have looked upon themselves as Russians, Ukrainians or Swedes, but how did they self-identify? And perhaps more importantly, to whom did they owe allegiance. Our podcast with dr. Þórir Hraundal (see under the podcast section) we discussed how various groups of Rus may have competed, fought and even enslaved one another rather than forming one cohesive group that saw themselves as distinct from the locals. When the different groups of Rus formed kingdoms centred on Novgorod and later Kyiv, did they see themselves as a tribe or a proto-nation of sorts? Or were different dynasties competing? What held the kingdoms together, and why did they so often tear themselves apart?

Dr. Daniel Ostrowski and Christian Raffensberger of the Ukrainian Studies department at Harvard University claims that the people who mattered most to the Rus were in fact the immediate family rather than larger dynasties. In a description of their forthcoming book, they say:

“If dynasties are difficult to discuss in the medieval world, where does this leave us? The answer is with families. Families are the building blocks of dynasties and it is through studying families – fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and spouses of both – that we are able to better understand the human face of history. Families, in turn, are part of more extended kin entities that we call clans, which themselves can comprise multiple families which may, or may not, always share the same overarching objectives.”

They will be discussing this further at a live zoom session on Wednesday, March 24th, at 16.00 UTC (Greenwich Mean Time)

To register, click the following link. Registration required. Also available on youtube.
The Ruling Families of Rus’ | Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University

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

The Next Frontier in Viking Studies

In his very interesting online talk, Dr. Neil Price of the University of Uppsala suggested that the Eastern Vikings are the next frontier in Viking studies. Whereas 20 years ago it was unproven that they had gone east of the Urals, it now seems that they went as far as Central Asia and even to western China. Dr. Price even mentioned that the Chinese character in season 4 of the Irish/Canadian TV show Vikings was not at all unpalatable.

He further said that one of the reasons why the eastern Vikings have been under researched so far was due to the Cold War. It was very hard for western scholars to be granted access to the Soviet Union and even to communicate with people there, which has led to an overemphasis on the raids, trade and settlements in the west, rather than on a Viking worldview that stretched from North America to China.

Among his other points was that the first documented Viking raid took place not in Lindisfarne in England in 793 but on the Estonian island of Saaremaa in 750. What we now call the Viking Age probably had its roots in around 500 CE, with the major shifts that occurred with the end of the Western Roman Empire.

For more information, his book Children of Ash and Elm is widely available and the Facebook page for the talk can be found here

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

News from Norway

An archaeology student at the University of Trömsö found a previously unknown Viking era trading post in Sandtorg in northern Norway between the towns of Harstad and Narvik. Dating from the 9th century, it is the oldest trading centre in the north of Norway and shows that international trade was conducted from here earlier than thought. Among the artefacts discovered are Arabic coins and an Asian belt strap decoration. Those who know the Sagas will recall that this is the general area Egill Skallagrímsson’s immediate ancestors emigrated from to Iceland.


The NRK national radio series Museum, about Nordic history and archaeology, is finally available as a podcast. In an episode from 2005, hosts  Øyvind Arntsen and Jan Henrik Ihlebæk travel to Starya Ladoga, the old Aldeiguborg, to find out about the beginnings of the Rus. Among the conclusions are that once Rúrík went east, he left Swedish history and entered that of Russia, in much the same way that prince Carl left Danish history and entered Norwegian when he became King Haakon VII of Norway. If Kyiv is he mother of Russian cities, then Aldeiguborg is the grandmother. In Norwegian with some Russian:


 Norwegian lion meets Russian bear