Vikings in Byzantium: The Varangians and their Fearless Conquests

Vikings in Byzantium: The Varangians and their Fearless Conquests

It is relatively well known that the Vikings were some of history's greatest travelers, traders, and mercenaries. Their reach extended far, as they are credited with finding North America and Greenland, their names drove fear into the hearts of many European mainlanders. What is sometimes less known, however, is exactly how far the arm of the Vikings reached. In actuality, their culture stretched as far east as Turkey and Russia, culminating in their direct influence in the creation of the Kievan State of Rus', lasting well into the thirteenth century.

According to the Russian Primary Chronicle , one of the foremost texts documenting the Viking influence on Russia, the Varangians—as dubbed by the Greeks and Eastern Slavs—settled in Ladoga, Russia in the mid-750s, and then later in the nearby Novgorod. Not unlike the tracks of the Scandinavian Vikings , their settlements were not initially peaceful as they demanded tribute from the people they had conquered, the Baltic Finns and the Slavs. Because of this, they were initially driven out of Novgorod for a period of time. However, the intriguing twist is that the Finns and Slavs soon began to appreciate the regulations the Varangians had brought to their community and so the Varangians were begged to come back and bring those same regulations with them. It was then that the leadership of Rurik (830-870), from whom a Russian lineage extends, was first recorded.

Painting of the leader Rurik dated 1672. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Rurik's cousin Oleg was responsible for expanding the Varangians from Novgorod further south, eventually capturing Kiev in 882 and forging a seat of Varangian power there. That seat became the capital of a federation of Slavic states, dubbed the Kievan State of Rus'. Following Oleg, Vladimir the Great's reign saw the introduction of Christianity to the Varangians and their subsequent conversion. Rurik and Oleg's descendants continued to remain in charge of the Kievan State, eventually leading to the foundation of the Tsardom of Russia.

The Baptism and Christianization of Kievans, a painting by Klavdiy Lebedev. Painted Prior to 1916. ( Wikimedia Commons )

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Now, it is no surprise that the Varangians were as aggressive as their northern predecessors. While the named Vikings' desire was to expand their land and wealth across the Atlantic and down into England, one of the main priorities of the Varangians was obtaining the untapped riches of the eastern world. They were so forceful and persistent that they intentionally started wars with the people of Byzantium so that they could pilfer in the event of their victory.

The Varangians were a force to be reckoned with because they controlled the two main trades from the east to the west. The Volga Trade was a ninth century route connecting Northern Russia, known to the Varangians as Gardariki, and the Middle East, called Serkland. The trade route was known for transferring goods and wealth from the Baltic Sea to the Caspian Sea, and remained the primary form of transportation and trade until the eleventh century decline in silver. At this time, the Dnieper Route, stretching from the Black Sea to the capital of Byzanitum, Constantinople, took its place, as its directness to the capital provided protection from the Turks.

Map of European territory inhabited by East Slavic tribes in 8th and 9th century. 2010. By: SeikoEn. ( Wikimedia Commons )

When the Viking Age ended, the east saw a conclusion to the influx of Scandinavians to their region, and the Varangians began to assimilate and intermarry with the natives. By the time of the fall of Kievan Rus' in 1240 at the hands of the Mongols, the Varangians became relatively indistinguishable from the native Slavs. Despite this fusion of ethnicities, it is important to create a distinction between the Vikings and the Varangians for a better understanding of their impact on the history of Russia.

Featured Image: The Invitation of the Varangians: Rurik and his brothers Sineus and Truvor arrive at the lands of the Ilmen Slavs at Staraya Ladoga. Painted prior to 1913 by Viktor.M.Vasnetsov. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Read Part 2 – The Varangian Guard: Berserkers of the Byzantine Empire

By Ryan Stone


    The Rus of Kiev and the Varangians

    This article is brought to you by Sons of Vikings, an online store with hundreds of Viking related items including jewelry, drinking horns, shirts, home decor and more.

    Editor's note: Just as Norwegian and Danish Vikings once ruled Dublin of Ireland, Kiev and other Slavic areas were once ruled by Swedish Vikings. A common belief is that the word Russia is based on the word Rus. According to the most prominent theory, the name Rus is based on the Finnish name for Sweden (Ruotsi), and is also Old Norse for "the men who row". The above photograph is of the author of this article and his fellow Slavic reenactors taking pride in their Viking heritage.

    The presence of Nordic Scandinavians in what is now Russia, Ukraine and Belarus is proven by more than a hundred years of extensive archaeological excavations, as well as contemporary DNA research. These early medieval Scandinavians were known as the Rus, and through military and economic might formed an elite ruling class over Eastern Slavic tribes centered in Kiev in modern-day Ukrain. In this short article, we would like to focus on the meaning of the word Rus and the nature of Scandinavian activities in Eastern Europe.

    Even before the well-known Viking Age, Scandinavians were adept ship builders, navigators, and sailors. The distinct advantage of these skills was applied for trade and other means of enrichment. By the 8th century (around the beginning of the Viking Era), Scandinavians Vikings controlled the trade in the Baltic sea, expanding constantly to new and more distant markets. Though first contact between the Scandinavians and the Baltic must have occurred in pre-history, Viking raiding and trading in the east greatly accelerated during the 8th and 9th century.

    "The only occupation of Rus is the trade with sable, squirrel and other furs. They harry the Slavs, using ships to reach them they carry them off as slaves and sell them. They have no fields but simply live on what they get from the Slav's lands." - Ibn Rustah

    The word Rus is found in Arabic, Byzantine, Frankish, Persian and Russian sources. It occurs in the variants Rus, Rus', Rhos, Ruzi, Rūsiyyah and others. Despite the recent notion that the word Rus (which can mean “red”) describes the Vikings’ red hair, the term itself is probably derived of Old Norse róðsmenn, which means "rowers". Some researchers suspect peoples by The Gulf of Finland adopted the original Swedish nomenclature. In Nestor's Primary Chronicle, it is said that the tribe of Rus dwelled beyond the sea, meaning Sweden. Interestingly, modern Finnish and Estonian words for Sweden are Ruotsi and Rootsi. As Swedes moved more and more eastward, the Finnish term was probably copied and changed by other people who had the chance to meet them, spreading the word Rus and bringing it to the masses. From this perspective, the Rus developed a reputation that was well-known throughout Europe.

    While the oldest variant of the word Russia is known from the 10th century, the first mention of the word Rus comes from the Frankish Empire around 839 AD. At that time, Rus accompanied Byzantine messengers to negotiate with the Emperor Louis the Pious. Louis discerned that these bodyguards of the messengers were Scandinavians and as Vikings were currently terrorizing Frankish coasts and waterways, he considered them to be spies of the enemy.

    So, as far as we can judge, the word Rus denotes people of Swedish ethnicity, especially men. The DNA analysis of the Rurikid dynasty, the most prominent house of Russian princes, proved to be directly connected to Sweden.

    The Varangians

    We must define the word Varangian as well. The current trend amongst historians is to (erroneously) call every Eastern Viking a Varangian. In later Russian sources, Varangians are inaccurately described as members of a Scandinavian tribe. However, the term really comes from Old Norse væringi, literally meaning "sworn companion". Unlike the more general word Rus, Varangian signifies a mercenary willing to serve in a foreign army. Units of foreign bodyguards were popular in the Early Middle Ages (and indeed, back to Roman times), as such men were more loyal to the ruler because they had no local political interests.

    The Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Empire gained brilliant renown. However, it is hard to tell when the term Varangian first came into use, and to what extent it should be applied. Some authors think the earliest mention comes from 911 AD, when the Kievan Rus and the Byzantine Empire made a treaty. At that time, several hundred Rus warriors went to serve in Byzantium, though they did not yet form the famous Varangian Guard of the emperors. Other scholars think that the Varangian Guard was first formed after Prince Vladimir, who escaped from Kievan Rus to Sweden around 977 A.D., returned with thousands of mercenaries and conquered the capital city of Kiev (now known as Kyiv in modern-day Ukraine). In 988 A.D., Vladimir sent 6000 warriors to Byzantium (to strengthen his alliance with the super power). This marked the real beginning of the Varangian Guard, which lasted at least to the 13th century.

    The Varangian Guard became a magnet for brave Vikings seeking adventure and riches in the Mediterranean and the fabled lands of the East. Great heroes like Harald Hardrada would make their names and fortunes there. Later, the Varangian Guard served as a destination for Nordic warriors who could not find a suitable place for their talents anywhere else, including Saxons and Danes fleeing from the demise of Viking England and Ireland after the battles of Clontarf and Hastings marked the setting sun of the Viking Age. This exodus of sword skill from the North was lamented by one Swedish source, that describes a moment when there were almost no young men left, since most of them went abroad to be mercenaries. In Uppland, (central Sweden), we can find dozens of runestones bearing names of Varangians that never came back home. Service abroad offered the chance for extravagant profit, but also mortal danger. Our ancestors deserve respect for being brave enough, as well as for their many other admirable qualities.

    From Rus to Russia

    As rich Vikings, mostly Swedes, gradually began to build fortified camps along their trade routes, some settled down, establishing a huge network of contacts, collecting taxes and tribute. In the 10th century, these activities transformed into a state-like entity we now call the Kievan Rus. Generally speaking, Kievan Rus could be considered to be the by-product of Scandinavian trade. It is probable that early rulers of sites like Gnezdovo belonged to the Swedish dynasty which controlled proto-towns, like the famous settlement of Birka. Maybe that's why the material culture of these sites, located 600 miles from each other, is so similar. We must stress, though, that the native tribes inhabiting the lands of the Kievan Rus were Slavic and Finno-Ugric peoples.

    In several generations, the Scandinavian elements assimilated, but they were still aware of their origin. For Swedes, the region of Ladoga and Novgorod remained an area of interest for a very long time. Not only did many Swedish princesses marry Russian noblemen, but there were also massive efforts to reconquer this territory up through the 18th century. All these aspects bear witness to how Swedes understood their participation in the building of the Russian state, and the link between the Russians and their Viking ancestors.

    Thomas Vlasaty, Prague, Czech Republic

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    In the ninth century, Swedish Vikings penetrated deep into today&rsquos Russia and the Ukraine. By 850, they had formed their own principalities in Kiev and Novgorod. From there, they dominated the surrounding Slavs as a ruling caste of a new civilization that came to be known as Kievan Rus. The princes of Rus tended to hire new fighters from Scandinavia, who were known as Varangians &ndash a term meaning a stranger who had taken military service, or a member of a union of traders and warriors.

    By the early 900s, some of these Varangian Vikings had ventured further south, sailed across the Black Sea, and raided Constantinople and the Byzantine lands. Some, however, took service with the Byzantine emperors as mercenaries. As early as 902, contemporary records describe a force of about 700 Varangians taking part in a Byzantine expedition against Crete.


    Globetrotting Vikings: The Quest for Constantinople

    The epic voyages of the Vikings to the British Isles, Iceland, North America and points west tend to obscure the fact that the Scandinavian warriors also ventured far to the east across Europe and parts of Asia. While the Danes and Norwegians sailed west, Swedish fighters and traders traveled in the opposite direction, enticed initially by the high-quality silver coins minted by the Abbasid Caliphate that sprawled across the Middle East.

    Painting of The Invitation of the Varangians: Rurik and his brothers arrive in Staraya Ladoga.

    These Vikings who crossed the Baltic Sea and descended across Eastern Europe were branded “Rus”—possibly derived from “ruotsi,” a Finnish word for the Swedes meaning 𠇊 crew of oarsmen” and the term from which Russia receives its name. As the Rus migrated down the Dnieper and Volga Rivers, they established settlements along trade routes to the Black and Caspian Seas and conquered the native Slavic populations in present-day Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

    By the middle of the ninth century, Rus merchants turned up in Baghdad. The capital of the Abbasid Caliphate may have been the world’s largest city with a population of more than one million people, but it failed to capture the Viking imagination like Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire that was said to harbor even greater riches.

    “Silk and gold are the big lures,” says John Haywood, who chronicles the exploits of the Scandinavian raiders on four continents in his new book, “Northmen: The Viking Saga AD 793-1241.” “The Rus would have heard stories about the riches of Constantinople. The big attraction in trade was silk, which was a massively prestigious product for which they traded slaves, furs, beeswax and honey with the Byzantines. Constantinople was also one of the few places that still had gold coins, which were in short supply compared to the Roman period.”

    Credit: xavierarnau/Getty Images)

    Constantinople’s location on the shores of the Bosporus strait, which divided Europe from Asia, allowed it to become a prosperous crossroads of trade, the largest city in Europe and the richest city in the world. Great treasures necessitated stout defenses. The most-heavily fortified city in the world, Constantinople was encircled by a moat and three parallel walls. In addition, an iron chain that could be stretched across the mouth of the city’s harbor protected it from a naval assault.

    It is not known when the Rus first reached Constantinople, but it was before 839 when Rus representatives arrived at the Frankish court as part of a Byzantine diplomatic mission. In June 860, the Rus launched a surprise attack on Constantinople at a time when the city was left largely undefended as Byzantine Emperor Michael III was off with his army fighting the Abbasid Caliphate in Asia Minor while the Byzantine navy was engaged with Arab pirates on the Mediterranean Sea.

    Viking graffiti scars a balustrade in Hagia Sophia. (Credit: Jim Brandenburg/ Minden Pictures/Getty Images)

    In what the Greek patriarch Photius called 𠇊 thunderbolt from heaven,” the Rus plundered the suburbs of Constantinople and launched coastal raids around the Sea of Marmara in which they burned houses, churches and monasteries and slaughtered the patriarch’s servants. However, they never attempted to breach the city walls before suddenly departing in August. The Byzantines credited divine intervention, but the Rus likely departed to ensure they could arrive back home before winter set in.

    A medieval Russian source details a second attack on Constantinople in 907 when a fleet of 2,000 ships encountered the iron chain blockading the harbor entrance. The resourceful Vikings responded by going amphibious, hauling their ships ashore, affixing wheels and dragging them overland before placing them back in the water on the other side of the chain before being repelled by the Byzantines. No Byzantine accounts of a Viking attack in 907 exist, however, and Haywood notes that the story could have been concocted as a way to explain a subsequent trade agreement between the Rus and the Byzantines.

    A Viking ship is approached by Byzantines at Constantinople. (Credit: Michael Hampshire/National Geographic/Getty Images)

    In 941 the Rus launched a disastrous attack on Constantinople. With the Byzantine army and navy once again gone from the city, a fleet of 1,000 ships descended upon Constantinople only to be done in by 15 old dromons fitted with Greek Fire projectors that set the Viking ships ablaze. Weighed down by their armor, the Rus who avoided the flames by jumping into the sea sank to a watery demise. Others caught fire as they swam. When Byzantine reinforcements finally arrived, the Rus sailed for home.

    A half-century later, the Vikings would be recruited to defend Constantinople instead of attacking it. When Byzantine Emperor Basil II faced an internal uprising in 987, Vladimir the Great gave him 6,000 Viking mercenaries known as Varangians to differentiate the native Scandinavians from the Rus who by the middle of the 10th century had assimilated with the native Slavs and lost their distinct identity. Impressed by the ferocity with which the Vikings battled the rebels, the emperor established the elite Varangian Guard to protect Constantinople and serve as his personal bodyguards. With no local ties or family connections that could divide their loyalties and an inability to speak the local language, the Varangians proved far less corruptible than Basil’s Greek guards.


    The Vikings That Went Greek - The Varangian Guard of Constantinople

    In the seventh and eighth centuries, the Vikings began to explore new lands and spread to northern and western Europe, plowing seas and rivers with their flexible ships.

    By Theo Mak Drummer, Singer, Songwriter and History geek

    They raided because fighting wars and pillaging was essential to their survival.

    As Danes and Norwegians occupied England and raged in France, the Swedish began to descend the rivers of Eastern Europe. In time, the Swedes dominated the Slavic population of modern day Russia, adopted their language and culture and established their own hegemony by founding cities such as Novgorod and Kiev. These people went down in history as "Rus", from the Finnish word Ruotsi which meant rowers and in them are the roots of today's Russia.

    The Dnieper river took them to the Black Sea, and from there they reached Constantinople. The Vikings' attempts to seize Constantinople proved futile.

    They called Constantinople Miklagard, which means "Huge City" because they were so fascinated by it. The Vikings were attracted by the fame of wealth and prosperity that characterized the then, largest city in the world. With the Byzantines, the Vikings established special trade relations, at least during the periods when they did not raid against them.

    The emperors, in turn, were impressed by the fighting skills of the Norsemen, whom they called Varangians, which in the old Norse language meant "sworn warrior".

    Before Constantinople was captured by the Crusaders in 1204, the Varangian Guard fought alongside the imperial army in every major campaign, from Sicily to the Holy Land. A strong connection between the two cultures had been created.

    Visitors to the church of Holy Wisdom, (Agia Sofia) will see that the Vikings literally left their mark on Constantinople.

    Around 1100 years ago, possibly during a Sunday mass, a bored Viking named Halvdan (Halfdan) carved his name on a marble slab in Hagia Sophia's upper gallery. For years, no one had noticed it, and until 1964, people thought these were all spontaneous cracks but it was writing in the old Norse language –“Halvdan was here”–. - The Bored Viking General Who “Vandalized” Hagia Sophia

    The story of the Viking army of Constantinople known as the Varangian Guard (in ancient Norwegian Vaeringjar, cοmes from the Norwegian word ‘var’, which means oath of honour) starts when the Byzantine Emperor Basil II faced an internal revolt in 987. Vladimir the Great provided him with 6,000 Viking mercenaries but various groups of Viking warriors had been in imperial service since 874. Gradually, Vikings predominantly from Sweden but also from Norway and Finland started joining the ranks in great numbers:

    In these years, Swedish men left to enlist in the Byzantine Varangian Guard in such numbers that Västgötalagen declared no one could inherit while staying in "Greece"—the then Scandinavian term for the Byzantine Empire—to stop the emigration - Västgötalagen (Westrogothic law)

    A page of the late 13th century law Äldre Västgötalagen. - photo by Natanael Beckman

    The formidable fighting skills of these Northerners, blindly loyal to the emperor (as long as he rewarded them with enough gold), established them as a special forces battalion, which soon became the emperor's personal bodyguard with considerable power until the 13th century. The service in the guard ensured rich rewards and a great reputation. Today there are 30 runic tablets in Sweden that tell the story of the life and deeds of Varangian warriors in Grikkland, the land of the Greeks.

    On these runestones the word Grikkland ("Greece") appears in three inscriptions, the word Grikk(j)ar ("Greeks") appears in 25 inscriptions, two stones refer to men as grikkfari ("traveller to Greece") and one stone refers to Grikkhafnir ("Greek harbours").

    Among other runestones which refer to expeditions abroad, the only groups which are comparable in number are the so-called "England runestones" that mention expeditions to England and the 26 Ingvar runestones that refer to a Viking expedition to the Middle East. Greece Runestones

    Following the Norman invasion of England, by the time of Emperor Alexios Komnenos in the late 11th century the Varangian Guard started to see a rise in the number of Anglo-Saxons.

    The Varangians fought together with the imperial army in Southern Italy, Sicily Africa and the Middle East. Their duties included serving as palace guards, accompanying the emperor and the Imperial family to festivals and festivities, and church services at Hagia Sophia, in addition to serving as the emperor's personal bodyguard. Scandinavians could occupy a variety of positions in the Guard, but the highest ranks were most likely reserved for members of noble Greek families.

    Membership in the Varangian Guard was a great honor, and men with significant power and status in their home countries were proud to be a part of it. The most prominent Varangian Guard member was probably Harald Hardrada, later Harald III of Norway, who became Akolouthos (Greek: ἀκόλουθος), the commander of the Guard before returning home in 1043.

    The tradition of reliance on barbarian troops from outside the Empire was as old as the city itself, for Constantine showed great honour to the Cornuti for the part which they played in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD 312. Not only are these Germanic warriors depicted clearly on the Arch of Constantine standing close to the Emperor, but the emblem of curving horns ending in animal heads worn on their helmets was incorporated into the Roman army, together with the Germanic battle-cry, the barditus. - The Viking Road to Byzantium

    While the majority of them brought their weapons when they joined the Guard they often supplemented parts from the imperial arsenal and eventually adopted Byzantine military attire and gear.

    Their most distinctive weapon was an axe, which earned them the moniker ᾽πελεκυφορος φρουρα’, or "ax-wielding guard."

    Preparing for a battle, a standard formation type was that the infantry units lined up usually behind the cavalry, as a second line, in compliance with the norms of the rich Byzantine military tactics manuals. The body of the Varangians was divided into battalions of 500 men and was in the vanguard of several battles and performed admirably. It was a fast and flexible part of the army that was capable of quickly outflanking and scaring an enemy.

    The Varangians carried a heavy iron single-edged ax, the Δανεζικο (Daneziko/Danish). This characteristic weapon had a barrel length of 1-1.20m. and a head about 30cm long. Also, their equipment was accompanied by a Scandinavian sword with a deep single-edged or amphistomic blade, as well as spears.

    Their defense equipment consisted of chained armor, gloves, steel helmets and a shield. Their shields were decorated with geometric patterns on the perimeter and animal figures on the main surface, with dragons or the raven, the sacred bird of the god Odin and a symbol of the Vikings.

    During the Fourth Crusade in 1204 the body of the Varangians put up strong resistance to the attacks of the Crusaders, but without being able to prevent the Fall of Constantinople.

    After 1204, the Varangians abandoned the city together with the aristocracy and continued to serve in the court of the Empire of Nicaea with the families of Laskaris and the Palaeologans who later in 1261 managed to recapture the city of Constantinople.

    The last Varangians were eventually ethnically assimilated by the Greeks, but the Guard remained active until at least 1400 AD, when some people in Constantinople were still identified as "Varangians."

    The Rus state of Vladimir the Great left a great legacy. It united administratively and culturally a rising region and turned it into a dynamic kingdom. The Orthodox Church became the dominant church in Eastern Europe thanks to the cultural influence of the Eastern Roman Empire that created a Byzantine-Slavic fusion, with impressive results in culture and the arts. Many rulers adopted imperial ceremonies at their courts and assumed the title of Czar, which was a Slavic translation of the Byzantine title 'Caesar.'

    This culture was the basis on which the great Russian Empire was later on built.

    Finds from graves in Scandinavia indicate that the clothes worn by the upper class were influenced by the imperial court of Constantinople and flaunted their riches by adorning themselves with silk and gold threads from Byzantium. A strong connection between the Viking culture and the Greco-Roman culture which was importing goods and ideas back to Scandinavia.

    Bolli Bollason – goes to Miklagård willing to discover and to be acquainted with more than his native Icelandic territories. He entered the Varangian guard and, after a few years, he returned to his origin place full of riches: “He had on the clothes of fur which the Garth-king had given him, he had over all a scarlet cape and he had Footbiter girt on him, the hilt of which was dight with gold, and the grip woven with gold he had a gilded helmet on his head and a red shield on his flank, with a knight painted on it in gold. He had a dagger in his hand, as is the custom in foreign lands [. ]. Laxdæla Saga

    Τhe Eastern Roman Empire, the continuation and evolution of the Graeco-Roman heritage, a brilliant empire, perhaps the most brilliant and long-lived state, with its crises but also its magnificence, exerted a wide influence on all the peoples of Eastern Europe, Western Europe, South Europe and North Europe.

    It has shaped the continent in all aspects in what we now call European civilization as a whole. Byzantium has left us a glorious legacy in art and literature, the refinement of morals, philosophy and civil law, diplomacy and medicine. The preservation of all the ancient knowledge. It’s power and influence shaped our side of the planet for many centuries. For eleven centuries Constantinople was the center of the world and acted as a formidable shield for Europe.

    As living conditions in Byzantium gradually became more difficult and dangerous due to the Ottoman conquests, numerous Greeks emigrated to the West, taking with them works of their literature. The treasures of the classical world: the eternal Hellenic civilization. By transporting the classic works to the West and rescuing them from the hands of the Ottomans, Byzantium, even on its deathbed, offered a great service to humanity and the future development of mankind. It opened the path towards true freedom the eternal exploration of knowledge and values. The Ancient moral excellence of Αρετή (Areti), the eternal and universal notion of virtue.

    Maybe the international collapse we are now experiencing, is not a coincidence but the symptom of a total collapse of principles and ideas and other social phenomena that sparked the Enlightenment era, but are we experiencing a cultural collapse of our European civilization with its main goals now being profiteering, showing off on Instagram and buying the latest technological gadget even if we do not actually need it without realising that large corporations and banking are taking over control? Are we living again in a new Dark Age without realising it? Has ‘’believe and not doubt’’ being replaced by a new pretty similar but disguised motto?

    Solidarity has been replaced by individualism, subjectivity, individuality and egocentrism. In this way society loses its cohesion and self-dissolves into a set of conflicting individuals. The ego replaces the whole. ‘’I am’’ is now replaced by ‘’I have’’. In this way our Western civilization is transformed from a coherent social structure to an individualized one, and maybe over time it will wear out, corrupt, and collapse the more we are detaching ourselves from reality? What is reality? What about Heracletus? What about Pythagoras? What about Plato? What about Aristotle?


    What was the Varangian Guard? A brief history of the Viking warriors of the Byzantine empire

    Bodyguards to the Byzantine emperors, the Varangian Guard was a military corps in which Norsemen and later Anglo-Saxons made unlikely comrades. But how did the regiment begin, and why was it considered so formidable? Noah Tetzner investigates…

    This competition is now closed

    Published: October 20, 2020 at 4:24 pm

    During the Viking Age there existed, within the army of the Byzantine empire, an elite company of mercenaries mostly from Scandinavia. This group was known as the Varangian Guard, a regiment of warriors renowned for their ruthless loyalty and military prowess. Lured by wealth and glory, these were Vikings who had travelled the long road to Constantinople (or Miklagarðr, in Old Norse).

    These men sought only to serve, and for this they were handsomely rewarded. Adorned in Byzantine silk, expensive and brilliantly coloured, Old Norse sagas emphasise the lavish appearance of Varangian homecomings. Members of the guard were the highest-paid mercenaries in Byzantine service, and received frequent gifts from the emperor himself.

    Illustrious figures such as Harald Sigurðarson (later Harald Hardrada) and the far-travelled Icelander Bolli Bollason followed a long tradition of Scandinavian service in Byzantium. Indeed, Harald’s eventual (and successful) bid for the Norwegian crown was financed by the riches he acquired as a Varangian.

    From c989–1070, scores of Scandinavians joined the regiment, and by the end of the 11th century the guard had caught the interest of Anglo-Saxons, who fought alongside their unlikely Viking comrades.

    Vikings Season 6 arrives on Amazon Prime on 30 December: catch up on what’s happened so far

    How did the Vikings reach Constantinople?

    Although some Swedes followed Danish and Norwegian voyages to England and beyond, countless others set their sails eastward in search of Arabic silver. The allure of the dirham, a silver coin minted in the Abbasid Caliphate and other Muslim states, enticed the Scandinavians to try to discover its source. By the late eighth century, these coins had been appearing in trading places along Lake Ladoga (in today’s northwestern Russia) and the Baltic, where they came into the hands of Swedish merchants.

    Expeditions were organised, and the ‘Volga Vikings’ began exploring the rivers of eastern Europe. The Swedes may have been driven by trade, but their legacy in the east was no more peaceful than the Danish and Norwegian expansion west. Through slave-raiding and tribute-gathering, these Vikings extorted trade goods. They founded settlements or captured existing ones on widely travelled trade routes. Along the way, these Swedes who settled in Eastern Europe, acquired a new name: the ‘Rus’.

    The origins of this word, from which Russia gets its name, are ambiguous. Among scholars, it is widely accepted that ‘Rus’ is derived from the word Ruotsi, the Finnish name for the Swedes. Ruotsi, in turn, probably derives from the Old Norse word róðr, meaning ‘a crew of oarsmen’.

    Vladimir, overlord of Holmgard (Novgorod), would become the eventual ruler of the Kievan Rus. In c978-80, the Rus prince placed his bid for pre-eminence in a power-struggle against his brothers. Holmgard’s northerly position placed Vladimir closest to Sweden, where he mustered 6,000 recruits, and with this newly formed army he returned east, killed his brothers, and conquered the realm.

    Some nine years later, these 6,000 warriors would become the founding members of the Varangian Guard.

    The formation of the Varangian Guard

    In distant Constantinople, c989, the Byzantine emperor badly needed help. Basil II was up against no less than three challengers and appealed to the Rus ruler for military aid. In exchange for marriage to the emperor’s sister, Vladimir obliged, pledging his army of Swedes. These men turned the tide of Basil’s war, and it was Basil who named them the Varangian Guard.

    Why Varangian? Like many Viking Age terms, the etymology of the word is debatable. A widely accepted notion is that it derives from the Old Norse word vár (plural várar) meaning ‘confidence (in)’, ‘faith (in)’ or ‘vow of fidelity’ – therefore, a company of men who had sworn oaths of allegiance and loyalty.

    Basil II gained a national treasure in these valorous men of the north. No sword was drawn against him within the empire, nor could any foreigner withstand his might. Revelling in his new-found protection, the emperor founded an imperial bodyguard, thoroughly disciplined and ruthlessly loyal. The Varangian regiment came to replace his disloyal Greek lifeguards.

    Keepers of Constantinople

    As imperial bodyguards, the Varangians kept close to the emperor, forming the ‘Varangians of the City’, who guarded Constantinople. They stood sentry at the bronze doors of the Great Palace and protected the emperor’s other properties. The guardsmen also performed police duties and were able to carry out delicate tasks (arresting people of high status, for example) because of their imperial loyalty and external origin. For the same reasons, Varangians also acted as jailers, frequently operating at the dreaded prison of Nóumera that was attached to the Great Palace. These guardsmen never left the capital unless the emperor himself required it.

    Varangians accompanied their monarch wherever he went, serving him while he attended church and standing near his throne during receptions. The presence of Varangians in Byzantine churches is illuminated by the graffiti they left in Hagia Sophia during the 11th century. On the marble balustrade in the southern gallery of the cathedral, one suspected Varangian used his axe to carve a mostly illegible inscription including the name ‘Halfdan’. Another inscription in the south gallery denotes a man called ‘Are’, a common name in medieval Iceland.

    The Varangian Guard at war

    When a Byzantine emperor rode out to battle, a detachment of Varangians accompanied him. Contingents were often deployed as shock troops with field armies, as fort garrisons, and on naval duties. In distinction from the Varangians who guarded Constantinople, these units were known as ‘Varangians outside the city’. On the battlefield, they fought as elite infantry, usually in a defensive function. The Varangians were often kept to the rear of the main battle line, held in reserve until the conflict reached a critical point.

    The fact that they used Scandinavian equipment along with Byzantine issue is evident in 10th- to 12th-century Norse swords, axe and spearheads found in Bulgaria and Romania. The two-handed broadaxe was a favoured weapon of the Varangians. Along with the contemporary Rus, these weapons gave rise to the epithets by which they were commonly known: the ‘axe-bearers’ or ‘axe-bearing barbarians’.

    Byzantine sources provide various examples of Varangians being sent to battlefields across the empire. Some 300-500 guardsmen were commanded by Emperor Alexios Komnenos in northwestern Macedonia, against the Norman attack of 1081. During the Byzantine-Venetian War of 1171, imperial ships carrying ‘men who bear on their shoulders single-edged axes’ followed Venetian ships escaping Constantinople.

    Besides these land battles, Varangians were employed for suppressing piracy and other naval matters, because of their seafaring backgrounds. The Heimskringla (the chronicle of the Kings of Norway), written in the 13th century, relays that the Varangian guardsman Harald Sigurðarson, later Harald Hardrada of Norway, was to pay the emperor 100 marks for every pirate vessel he captured.

    Famous Varangian Guards

    Harald Hardrada is without question the best-known Viking to have joined the ranks of the Varangian Guard. Following the dethronement and death of his half-brother Olaf II of Norway during the battle of Stiklestad in 1030, Harald fled to Kiev, where he held some kind of military post. From Kiev, he went on to the Byzantine empire and joined the Varangian Guard.

    Harald served as an officer from 1034 to 1043, campaigning far and wide. From Sicily and Bulgaria to Anatolia and the Holy Land, Harald’s time as a Varangian has been considered the climax of his military career. While the Heimskringla probably exaggerates the favours shown to Harald, it is clear that he made enough money as a Varangian to finance his successful bid for the Norwegian throne.

    Fortunate members of the guard were not limited to Norwegian royalty. Ordinary Varangians such as the Icelander Bolli Bollason (who died c1067) returned to their northern homelands bearing the splendours of Byzantium. The Laxdæla Saga, an Icelandic saga written during the 13th century, recounts that Bolli returned to Iceland carrying a gilded sword and wearing the gold-embroidered silk given to him by the emperor. According to the saga, Bolli’s 11 companions were all wearing scarlet and rode in gilded saddles. Wherever the men took shelter, the saga recounts, womenfolk gazed at Bolli and his companions, for they had been Varangians, still covered in the glory of the Byzantine empire.

    What happened to the Varangian Guard?

    While Scandinavians dominated the ranks during the initial stage of the regiment from c989–1070, the Varangians were destined to become as diverse as the empire that employed them. Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, Anglo-Saxons flocked to the Byzantine empire, eager to join the Varangian Guard.

    In 1071, the Byzantine army suffered a disastrous defeat against the Seljuq Turks at the battle of Manzikert. Emperor Romanos IV was captured, and many Varangians were killed while defending the emperor after most of the army had fled. The depleted ranks of the guard were filled, in part, by Anglo-Saxons, though Scandinavians continued to join the regiment.

    The Fourth Crusade saw Constantinople besieged in July–August of 1203. During the battle, some 6,000 Varangians manned the city walls, achieving several victories against the invaders. On 17 July, when crusaders destroyed a portion of the seawall with their battering ram, it was a contingent of axe-wielding Varangians who did well to repulse them.

    In March–April of 1204, crusaders and Venetians attacked Constantinople once more. The Varangians fought bravely, but after a gate was forced open on 11 April, crusaders rushed in and the Byzantine defenders panicked. On 12 April, the emperor fled, and the Byzantines laid down their arms. Lacking a legitimate ruler to defend, the Varangians followed suit, submitting to the invading army.

    The crusaders subjected Constantinople to a brutal three-day sacking, after which the city became part of a crusader state, the Latin empire. The remaining Byzantine leaders created their own successor states, such as the empire of Nicaea, which would recapture Constantinople in 1261 and reinstate the Byzantine empire. There are indications that a company of Varangians served the ‘exiled Byzantine empire’ in Nicaea. The Latin ruler of Constantinople managed to have a personal regiment of Varangians as well.

    The primary references to Varangians in the 14th century are linked to ceremonial court and guard duties. Early in the 15th century, English Varangians were denoted in a letter from Byzantine emperor John VII to King Henry IV of England, but aside from this letter and a few obscure references, the Varangian Guard was virtually extinct (and barely Scandinavian). In 1453, the Byzantine Empire would perish at the hands of the Ottoman Sultanate, sealing the fate of this famous mercenary corps.

    Noah Tetzner is the host of The History of Vikings podcast, which features scholarly discussions about the history of medieval Scandinavia. His book Viking Warrior vs Frankish Warrior: Francia 799-950 is due to be published by Osprey in 2021

    This content was first published by HistoryExtra in 2020


    Vikings in Byzantium: The Varangians and their Fearless Conquests - History

    It is relatively well known that the Vikings were some of history's greatest travelers, traders, and mercenaries.

    Their reach extended far, as they are credited with finding North America and Greenland, their names drove fear into the hearts of many European mainlanders. What is sometimes less known, however, is exactly how far the arm of the Vikings reached. In actuality, their culture stretched as far east as Turkey and Russia, culminating in their direct influence in the creation of the Kievan State of Rus', lasting well into the thirteenth century.

    According to the Russian Primary Chronicle , one of the foremost texts documenting the Viking influence on Russia, the Varangians—as dubbed by the Greeks and Eastern Slavs—settled in Ladoga, Russia in the mid-750s, and then later in the nearby Novgorod. Not unlike the tracks of the Scandinavian Vikings , their settlements were not initially peaceful as they demanded tribute from the people they had conquered, the Baltic Finns and the Slavs. Because of this, they were initially driven out of Novgorod for a period of time. However, the intriguing twist is that the Finns and Slavs soon began to appreciate the regulations the Varangians had brought to their community and so the Varangians were begged to come back and bring those same regulations with them. It was then that the leadership of Rurik (830-870), from whom a Russian lineage extends, was first recorded.

    Painting of the leader Rurik dated 1672 (Wikimedia Commons)

    Rurik's cousin Oleg was responsible for expanding the Varangians from Novgorod further south, eventually capturing Kiev in 882 and forging a seat of Varangian power there. That seat became the capital of a federation of Slavic states, dubbed the Kievan State of Rus'. Following Oleg, Vladimir the Great's reign saw the introduction of Christianity to the Varangians and their subsequent conversion. Rurik and Oleg's descendants continued to remain in charge of the Kievan State, eventually leading to the foundation of the Tsardom of Russia.

    The Baptism and Christianization of Kievans, a painting by Klavdiy Lebedev. Painted Prior to 1916 (Wikimedia Commons)

    Now, it is no surprise that the Varangians were as aggressive as their northern predecessors. While the named Vikings' desire was to expand their land and wealth across the Atlantic and down into England, one of the main priorities of the Varangians was obtaining the untapped riches of the eastern world. They were so forceful and persistent that they intentionally started wars with the people of Byzantium so that they could pilfer in the event of their victory.

    Prominent American “Anti-Racist” Jews are Funding Racist Gangs Attacking Arabs in Israel

    The Varangians were a force to be reckoned with because they controlled the two main trades from the east to the west. The Volga Trade was a ninth century route connecting Northern Russia, known to the Varangians as Gardariki, and the Middle East, called Serkland. The trade route was known for transferring goods and wealth from the Baltic Sea to the Caspian Sea, and remained the primary form of transportation and trade until the eleventh century decline in silver. At this time, the Dnieper Route, stretching from the Black Sea to the capital of Byzanitum, Constantinople, took its place, as its directness to the capital provided protection from the Turks.

    Map of European territory inhabited by East Slavic tribes in 8th and 9th century (Wikimedia Commons)

    When the Viking Age ended, the east saw a conclusion to the influx of Scandinavians to their region, and the Varangians began to assimilate and intermarry with the natives. By the time of the fall of Kievan Rus' in 1240 at the hands of the Mongols, the Varangians became relatively indistinguishable from the native Slavs. Despite this fusion of ethnicities, it is important to create a distinction between the Vikings and the Varangians for a better understanding of their impact on the history of Russia.


    Islamic world

    The Rus’ initially appeared in the 9th century, traveling as a merchant, as well as luxury goods such as amber, Frankish swords, and walrus ivory. These goods were dirhams. Hoards of 9th century Baghdad- minted silver coins, particularly in Gotland.

    The economic relationship between the world and the developed countries quickly developed into a sprawling network of trading routes. Initially, it was founded by the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. By the end of the 9th century, Staraya Ladoga was replaced by the most important center of the Novgorod. From these centers were as far as Baghdad. It has been a great deal to make it true that it has been the case for the world.

    It was necessary to establish centers of economic activities. The first small-scale raids took place in the late 9th and early 10th centuries. The Rus’ undertook the first large-scale expedition in 913 Gorgan, in the territory of the present-day Iran, and the adjacent areas, taking slaves and goods.

    During their next expedition in 943, the Rus’ captured Barda, the capital of Arran, the Republic of Azerbaijan. The Rus’ stayed there and there was a substantial plunder. It was only an outbreak of dysentery among the rus. Sviatoslav, prince of Kiev, commanded the next attack, which destroyed the Khazar state in 965. Sviatoslav’s campaign has been established in order to help alter the demographics of the region.


    Vikings and Religion

    The Viking Age (793-1066) began with sacking monasteries but ended with Viking kings becoming champions of the Church. This change is startling, especially because the struggle between the Vikings and the rest of Europe was so often framed as the battle between Heathenry and Christendom. But how much of a shift was it really, and why did it happen? This article will briefly look at the relationship between the Vikings and Christianity, and some of the impacts the two forces had on each other.

    Norse Attitudes Towards Faith and Viking Raids on Monasteries

    The early Norse had a profoundly ingrained ethos that permeated every facet of their lives and can still be clearly mapped out in the study of their actions – yet they did not even have a word in their language for ‘religion.' Belief in their gods was just an accepted fact for the early Vikings, and their spiritual rituals were usually conducted by their community leaders. There were a small number of priests, seers, shaman, and other professional spiritualists, but these were rare specialists rather than the everyday ministers of faith. Great Pagan temples, like the one Adam of Bremen described in Uppsala, Sweden, were occasional destinations of homage, but much of the regular worship took place outdoors in groves or other natural sites.

    In short, the Norse did not have an organized religion, the way Christians, Muslims, or Jews did, and they were puzzled by these religions when they encountered them.

    Because the Norse did not have an organized religion and had no concept of sin and salvation, they never made any real attempt to proselytize or spread their faith. There were a few instances of them turning Christian shrines into Pagan ones, but these were usually part of a broader military strategy. Doubtlessly, some people who were taken by the Vikings or whose lands fell under their control adopted the Norse faith, but evidence shows the majority did not. Similarly, the distressing cruelty some Vikings inflicted on Christian priests, monks, and nuns were also military "shock and awe" or merely the depravity of individual raiders.

    For the people of Early Medieval Europe, monasteries and abbeys were not just places were monks chanted and prayed. They were the centers of learning, music, and culture. Kings and nobles patronized them to display their personal riches, largess, and piety and great wealth aggregated there. But this wealth was usually poorly-defended, and so these centers became the prime targets of Viking raids.

    Vikings even attacked their own religious centers. In the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok and His Sons , Ivar and his brothers sack a Pagan shrine for no other reason than it will bring them riches and fame. By the late-10 th and 11 th centuries, Christian Vikings would still sometimes attack monasteries, and non-Norse Christian kings would plunder Christian centers sponsored by Norse leaders. Even for some non-Norse combatants in this violent age, churches and monasteries began to be seen as soft-target assets of a competitor rather than sacrosanct houses of God.

    So, what we see from a close examination of the sources is that for most Vikings the extensive attacks on religious sites was not about promoting their faith or suppressing another. It was about the money.

    Christian Views of Viking Invasions

    Most of our non-Norse primary sources on the Vikings were written by churchmen and contained a religious perspective of the events. While the Norse believed that fate governed all things, Medieval Christians believed that God governed all things. Therefore, it was a tremendous blow when the seemingly-invincible Vikings desecrated churches with impunity. Many people concluded that God was using the Vikings to punish Christendom for some as-yet-unidentified sin.

    In the military and material sense, however, this perspective did not yield immediate benefits. Every Viking victory undermined confidence. Instead of trying to learn from strategic mistakes and get better at fighting the fierce northerners, some Christian leaders concluded they needed to pray and supplicate more – and then became increasingly depressed when they lost the next battle anyway. Thus, the Vikings achieved a strong psychological edge over the armies they were fighting, and it was not until the Christians began racking up some victories (almost a generation later) that they could clear their head and start to solve their Viking problem.

    Early Missionaries to Scandinavia

    Carolingian rulers sent several missionary envoys to Scandinavia (especially Denmark) starting in the 9 th century. While it must have been a daunting task to bring Christianity to the fierce Viking homelands, these missionaries were usually received peacefully.

    However, the missionaries did face the significant obstacle of language. While part of the same linguistic family as other Germanic tongues, Old Norse had changed dramatically over the past few centuries. It was difficult for the missionaries to become fluent enough to meet the poetic standards the Vikings valued. Ultimately, it was not to be the missionaries that converted Scandinavia. It was to be the Vikings themselves.

    Changing Norse Attitudes Towards Christianity

    Gradually, the disdain for Christianity the early Vikings held shifted. One of the reasons for this was that Christian forces began to win battles and earn the respect of their Viking enemies. Men like Alfred the Great in Britain, King Constantine in Scotland, and Mael Sechnaill in Ireland devised strategies that broke the spell of Viking invincibility.

    Simultaneously, some churchmen – disgusted with their royal patrons’ inability to defend them – started leading forces themselves. Some of these bishops and abbots were of noble birth and so had military training, and they could be charismatic and successful leaders. Monasteries built towers (like the one at Glendalough, Ireland) to stave off Viking attacks, and men like Wessex’s Bishop Heahmund fought and died heroically in battle. The Vikings noticed this, and it helped them to see the Christian god as a war god they could better appreciate. This militant response to Viking invasions was to have far-reaching (and often negative) effects on the Church in the Middle Ages and is one reason why a chess board has bishops as powerful pieces.

    But of all the things the Vikings encountered, what finally changed their mind about Christianity the most was contact with the Byzantine Empire. Starting in the 9 th century, Swedish Vikings and the hybrid Kievan Rus began to fight with – and eventually for – Constantinople (now Istanbul in modern-day Turkey).

    Constantinople was by-far the most magnificent city the northerners had ever seen. It was opulently wealthy, and the city alone had more people living there than all of Sweden. It was also the first naval power the Vikings encountered that was able to stand up to them. The Heimskringla sums up the Viking impression of “the Great City” when – upon entering the gates for the first time – Harald Hardrada tells his followers to close their gaping mouths lest they look like fools.

    In the 10 th century, Byzantine Emperor Basil II “the Bulgar Slayer” instituted the Varangian Guard – an elite unit of 6000 ax-wielding Vikings. While initially made up of Swedes and some Rus, the Varangian Guard soon attracted Norse warriors from all over the Viking world. Brave men of ability would distinguish their careers in the service of the Christian emperors for the tremendous prestige, glory, and wealth it guaranteed. These men did not only return home with cash and stories to tell, but with a broader perspective of the world.

    Forced Baptism and Top-Down Conversion

    On the eve of the Viking Age, the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne forced multitudes of Pagan Saxons in mainland Europe to convert at sword point. Sacred oak groves were cut down, and those who resisted were allegedly massacred. The kings of Christendom were rarely to be in the position to do the same to the Vikings.

    Baptism was increasingly demanded of the leaders of defeated Viking armies, though. For example, Alfred the Great required the Danish Sea King, Guthrum, to be baptized along with about 30 of his jarls. One of these jarls reportedly joked that this would be the twentieth time he was baptized, and then complained that the white baptismal garment was not up to his usual quality. His attitude was probably typical.

    Kings like Alfred were less concerned with the state of the Vikings’ souls and more concerned with trying to find some means of enforcing peace. It was hoped that inclusion in the Church might be one more way to exert some influence – however small. The Christian kings also had to navigate their own political realities, as many of their nobles and bishops may have been critical of making treaties with “the heathens.” Viking baptisms removed some of this pressure.

    Overall, the experiment seemed to work. While the English could never entirely count on Guthrum, he did keep the peace after his baptism. Considering he had been a model of Viking cunning before baptism, one can only conclude that there was something about Guthrum’s position and new-found legitimacy that the Dane liked. Similarly, the great Viking, Rollo, accepted baptism to claim Normandy from the Frankish Emperor, Charles the Simple, and used his new-found ties with the Church to strengthen and advance his realm.

    Ironically, more Norse would be forced into Christian conversion by Vikings than by the kings of Christendom. From the late-tenth century onward, Norse Viking kings like Harald Gormsson (aka Harald Bluetooth), Olaf Tryggvason, Olaf the Stout (“Saint Olaf”), and Magnus the Good all believed in Christianity’s benefits for national cohesion.

    In the east, Vladamir the Great of the Viking-hybrid Kievan Rus came to the same conclusion. Supplanting their native faith with Christianity (sometimes by arms) and aligning themselves with Rome or Constantinople became key components of their empire-building.

    Eventually, even Iceland would see Christianization as just “keeping up with the times,” and their parliament (the Althing ) would vote to make Iceland Christian in the year 1000.

    Bottom-up Conversion

    When the Vikings raided, they took everything of value that they could carry, including people. Vikings were notorious slavers. Some of these captives were sold far away in the teeming slave markets of the booming Islamic east. Others they kept for themselves.

    The Vikings also began staying longer and longer into the lands they raided and often intermarried with the people they met there. For example, the Irish annals mention groups of Norse-Irish as early as the 840s. Recent DNA research has revealed that about 25% of the males and 50% of the females of the founding population of Iceland (i.e., 870-930) were Irish or Scottish.

    This all meant that Norse households became increasingly mixed in terms of faith. The Icelandic sagas reflect this. One such example is found in Erik the Red’s Saga . In it, Leif Erikson converts his mother to Christianity, and she subsequently refuses to sleep with her husband, Erik, until he converts, too. The skald adds wryly, “ this was a great trial to his temper .”

    The sagas show that many times these religiously-heterogeneous households were as happy and productive as need-be, while other times the clash of faiths could lead to big problems. In the Greenlander’s Saga, one of the expeditions to America breaks up because of religious strife amidst the parties, and in the Saga of Burnt Njal , two inseparable brothers fight against each other at the Battle of Clontarf, split along religious lines.

    How Were Vikings Different After Becoming Christian?

    Though the Viking Age would end and the Norse warrior ethos eventually cool as Scandinavia became more like the rest of Europe, the Christian Vikings of the 10 th and 11 th century did not behave much differently than their Pagan counterparts. They were still extraordinarily warlike and about as likely to plunder, take slaves, have multiple wives, engage in blood feuds, and display other typical features of Vikings anywhere. They were just as daring in exploration. Some of the most savage, intrepid, and successful Vikings – like Harald Hardrada, Amlaib Cuaran, Sytric Silkenbeard, Leif Erikson, and Cnut the Great – were Christians by choice.

    Viking values of total commitment in battle and placing glory over life itself also did not change. Clear evidence of this can be found in the Battle of Clontarf (Ireland, 1014) and in the Battle of Stamford Bridge, (England, 1066) in which mixed-faith Viking armies chose annihilation rather than dishonor and suffered casualty rates of 80-90 percent. These battles, and the others like them, showed that for the Vikings it did not really matter whether they were going to Heaven or Valhalla.

    The Norse Conversion Experience: Pluralism, Syncretization, Replacement, and Cultural Legacy

    Many early Viking Christians seem to have just incorporated Christ into their cosmology rather than completely rejecting their old ways. We find sayings in the sagas like, " On land I worship Christ, but at sea I worship Thor. " This was not apostasy – just what the pre-modern polytheistic mind considered pragmatic. Other examples of this pluralism (that is, acknowledging both religions as true in their own way) abound in archaeology, where Mjolnir (Thor’s Hammer) amulets have been found in the same graves as crosses. One archaeological dig even turned up a casting mold that could make a Mjolnir and two crosses at the same time (see photo).

    There are many examples of this “Christian polytheism” in the historical record too, such as when a dying Rollo of Normandy gifted 100 pounds of gold to his local Christian churches and then hanged a hundred prisoners as sacrifices to Odin. Professor Kenneth Harl (2005) of Tulane University generalizes that “it usually took Vikings two or three generations to figure out what monotheism was.”

    Hardliners in the Church tried to convince the Norse that their old gods were lesser spirits – or, basically, demons. This was a hard sell. The Norse revered their ancestors, and their ancestral gods seemed impossible to remove from their cultural identity. Over the next few hundred years, some Scandinavians would settle into this opinion, but it was not the most popular one. The idea that the old gods remain "alternative powers" (demonic or otherwise) did eventually take root in Icelandic magic, such as what one finds in the Galdrabok grimoire.

    Other Norse Christians around the Viking Age and after took a different view. They held that the old ways served their purpose but that their time had passed. We see later Scandinavian Christian monks describe an early king as “ a favorite of Odin ,” without any sort of religious apology. In the view of many, the old gods had already perished in Ragnarok, and the world was reborn as the Christian world they lived in.

    By the time Snorri Sturluson and other Icelanders were writing down the sagas and poetry of their ancestors, symbolic ties and Christian themes were being identified (some experts say, added ) to their old lore. For example, Odin’s son, Baldur, with his kind nature, unjust death, and glorious resurrection became allegorically associated with Jesus. As another example, crusading descendants of Vikings identified most with the Odin-like qualities of the Old Testament God. Evidence of this syncretization and culture blending remains evident in the holiday traditions, such as Christmas/Yule.

    By the early 12 th century, Denmark had 2000 churches. Norway and Sweden each had about 1000. Sweden seems to have held on to Paganism the longest, due to its isolation and differences in its political transition from its neighbors. One of the tools archaeologists use to determine “thorough” Christian conversion from native religion is by looking at burial practices. Based on such findings, Scandinavia was Christian in practice by the end of the 12 th century.

    The conflict of ideas between Nordic Paganism and Christianity was one of the defining features of the Viking Age. Very gradually, many of the Norse began to adopt Christianity in response to their changing conscience and expanding world view. Christianity did not end the Viking Age, or make the Vikings not be Vikings anymore. Some of the most epic and brutal battles ever fought were by Christianized Vikings. However, Christianity was recognized by both sides as one of the clearest pathways to bringing the Norse into the broader European community. Rulers of England, France, and Byzantium used it to harness the northerners’ energy while Norse kings used it to advance their drive for power and nation-building.

    Christianity and inclusion in the Church, along with changing economic, military, and political circumstance made the Scandinavia of the 12 th century very different from the Scandinavia of the 9 th century. But focusing too much on this delivers an inaccurate picture. For most of the three centuries the Vikings were exploring the oceans, trading with the far corners of the earth, and fighting all comers, the Christians and Pagans amongst them were moving in and out of conflict and cooperation. Like Odin, the Vikings did not just have a fierce nature, they also had a curious one. Through both their old and new faiths, they found different ways to understand their world and different self-expression in art and action. Though the contact between the two faiths could be violent, in some ways, it could also be synergistic.

    Contributing Author

    David Gray Rodgers is a fire officer, college lecturer, historian, and novelist. He is the author of Usurper: A Novel of the Fall of Rome and co-author of Sons of Vikings: History, Legends, and Impact of the Viking Age.

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