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


Origin Stories: The Kyivan Rus in Ukrainian Historiography

A new paper is now available in our dissertations segment. Written by your humble editor while on location in Kyiv and having to prolong his stay because of covid, 2020 turned into a very productive period. The stay formed the backdrop to the nr. 1 best-selling non-fiction book Bjarmalönd, now back in the Icelandic charts. The dissertation, which was part of my master’s degree, can be found below. The opening reads:

“The Russians and the Ukrainians, and indeed the Belarusians too, share an origin myth which reaches back to the legendary Rurik’s founding of the kingdom of the Kyivan Rus However, rather than reaching fruition in the early 20th century, as was the case in much of Central Europe, the origin story was subsumed into the Soviet experiment, and only remerged after 1991. It is still very much a work in progress.
Here we will look at how the founding myth of the Rus has been used in the Ukrainian
nation building project, which will unavoidably lead to comparisons with Russia and, to a
lesser extent, other neighbouring countries such as Poland, Belarus and Lithuania. From the Normanist debate of the mid-18th century to the rise of nationalism in the 19th century and the use of the Rus in the the Soviet Union, we turn to the present with its all its historical complexity and political ramifications regarding the relationship between Ukraine and Russia.”

Lokaverkefni: “Origin Stories: The Kyivan Rus in Ukrainian Historiography” | Skemman

Visiting the Gjellestad site

The dig at Gjellestad, the most significant Viking find in Norway for over a century, is proceeding apace. The buried Viking ship was discovered two years ago and the excavation is expected to be completed this summer.

As I arrive, there is already a French documentary crew in place. Most Viking ship remains are found at the bottom of the sea, but this is a rare case of burial remains which makes it that much more interesting. Head archaeologist Camilla Wenn tells me that bones have been found belonging to animals, and possibly to humans, but this will have to be verified with DNA.

It’s hard to draw any conclusions at this point, but it seems that the Gjellestad ship did not have a mast. This may indicate that the ship is from before the the time when the old Norse started using sails. It could also just be a different design, or development, a coastal ship perhaps. No one knows.

But it does seem that Östfold, on the eastern side of the Oslo fjord, may have been more equal in power and wealth to Vestfold on the western side. The famous Gokstad ship and the Oseberg ship are both from Vestfold. However, the sandy terrain there does not lend itself well to preservation, so further finds are unlikely. The clay ground in Ostfold has preserved artefacts far better. Among the objects found at Gjellestad are a part of the stem and a large amber bulb. The latter may indicate contact with the eastern Baltic, but amber is quite often found in Viking graves so trade was conducted between the areas in any case.

Here you can see the finds in 3D at the University of Oslo.

Kulturhistorisk museum: 3D-modeller (

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)

Icelandic Viking Conference Announced

The Sigfús Blöndal Memorial Conference on Varangian Studies is scheduled to be held on 21-22 October of 2021 as a part of the research project Legends of the Eastern Vikings at the University of Iceland.

It will take place at the university compound at lovely Laugarvatn (around 80 km distance from the capital Reykjavík). The participants will be able to stay at the university residences at this location during the conference. Busses will transport participants from Reykjavík and back again.

Laugarvatn is a popular resort town, known for its geothermal steam baths, and they also use the hot earth to boil (yes, boil) bread. It is also known for its boarding school, whose main building is a nice example of Icelandic interwar architecture.

The participants at the conference will be the research team for the project, including all MA students who have finished theses related to the project. In addition, three affiliated scholars and three invited guests will take part in the proceedings.

Laugavatn HÍ og KHÍ_05.jpg

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.

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.