When we think of the Viking Age, we usually think of a time between the 10th and 13th century in Scandinavia and mostly we think of the Viking raids against the shores of England, Ireland and France. As such, the first known raids in Western Europe happened around 787 AD and 793 AD.
But Vikings had existed a long time before that. Vikings, as in “pirates”.
The word víkingr is derived from Old Norse vík, “bay”, and the suffix –ingr, meaning “descendants” or “inhabitants”. The Vikings were inhabitants of the bays, where they would dwell with their ships having no land to live on, and from where they could launch attacks on their victims. (The word could also be used for people who were inhabitants of Víkin, roughly the area of the Oslo fjord, where various tribes dwelled that may have been more lawless than others, such as Alfheim and Ránríki; named after the goddess of the ocean, Rán, whose name means “Robbery”. A tribe of Ranii are described in Classical sources.)
Snorri´s Ynglinga saga describes the presence of Viking fleets ruled by so-called Sea-Kings even as early as the 5th century AD, as well as Viking raids commited by chiefs and kings in Scandinavia against other tribes. One of these early Iron Age legends of Viking raids provided inspiration for my description in book one, The Hammer of Greatness, of how Thordis at age seven was able to secure her position among hostile Viking slavers by acting in an outstanding way:
“Adils King came with his army to Saxland, there ruled a king known as Geirthiof, his wife was Alof the Powerful, and it is not mentioned that they had any children. The king was not in the country. Adils King and his men ran up to the king´s farm and raided there, some took the cattle and chased it down for the beach-cut, and there had been unfree folks (already slaves), men and women, for the herding of cattle, and they took all of them.
Among the slaves there was a girl who was so marvelously lovely, and she called herself Yrsa. Then Adils sailed home with the goods. Yrsa was not placed among the slave women, for it was soon observed that she was intelligent, spoke well, and in all respects was well behaved. All people thought well of her, and particularly the king; and at last it came to so far that the king celebrated his wedding with her, and Yrsa became queen of Svithiod, and was considered an excellent woman.
Helgi Halfdansson King then ruled at Lejre (Zealand in Denmark), he came to Svithiod with an army so great that Adils King could do nothing but flee. Helgi King went ashore with the army and harried, and took great booty, he captured Yrsa Queen and brought her to Lejre and took her for a wife; their son was Hrolfr Kraki.
When Hrolfr was three years old, Alof Queen the Powerful came to Denmark and told Yrsa that her new husband, Helgi King, was her father and that she, Alof, was her mother. Then Yrsa returned to Svithiod to Adils King and was Queen there for as long as she lived. Helgi King fell in Battle. Hrolf Kraki was eight years old then, and he was made king in Lejre.”
(Ynglinga saga 32-33)
More reliable, contemporary sources also indicate that Scandinavian pirates operated as early as this, sometimes even led by tribal chiefs or kings. Gregor of Tours (AD. 538-594), who wrote actual contemporary history in his AD. 590 Frankish Chronicles, refers to a Danish king, “Chochilaicus” (Hugleikr in Norse), who raided the Frankish coasts in AD. 515. The many references to early piracy prior to the official “Viking Age” coincide with the many wars for supremacy that plagued the Swedish tribes, especially since the time of Ingjaldr Illráða (“Bad Ruler”), the last Ynglinga king to rule from Uppsala.
For centuries, an age of unrest led a steady stream of young and landless men from various Swedish tribes onto the path of piracy. Prevented from forming lawful and stable bonds with the lords of the land, these young warriors had been seeking their fortunes with Sea-Kings, rulers of whole fleets of Viking ships, some with pirate armies so great that they could challenge the more traditional land-kings.
According to Snorri, a “Sea-King” (sækonungr) was a man who owned great armies but no land, and who “…never slept beneath sooty roof and never drank at the hearth´s corner.”
For centuries, the Viking fleets harassed the shores of their own homelands as well as the shores of Finland, the Baltic, and Poland. At the beginning of the 8th century, some Vikings discovered river ways to the rich lands of the Abbasid Caliphate and the Khazar Khaganate.
And they found that the rich men from these civilized, southern lands would pay handsomely for young and pretty slaves from the northern lands. And so the Vikings of the east became professional slavers…
We often know these eastern Norsemen as Varangians, and from the early 10th century onwards, we hear descriptions of them from Arab Sources. Yet, the Viking Rus had lived in Russia for centuries already – and we know hardly anything about them at all. But we do know that one of the first Norse settlements in Russia was Aldeigjuborg, just south of the lake Ladoga (Aldeigja in Norse), and that it was settled by at least 753 AD.
For a hundred years, Aldegjuborg was the primary Norse settlement until the more famous Holmgard (Novgorod) was established. Whereas Rurik, Novgorod and the “Varangian Guards” are well-known to most who have taken a peek into Norse history, these hundred years of pre-Rurik Norsemen in Russia-to-be are shaded in mystery.
However, the Slavic “Primary Chronicle” offers a small glimpse into historical events that came before Rurik (who ruled Russia from the 860s), even if the glimpse appears to be very much biased in favor of Rurik and the Rus. We hear of an early, invading Rus nation with base in Aldeigjuborg, that had forced four native tribes of both Finnish and Slavic origin to pay tribute to themselves. The four tribes united against the Rus and forced them back to Scandinavia where they came from:
“The four tribes who had been forced to pay tribute to the Varangians — Tschudes, Slavs, Merians, and Krivichs drove the Varangians back beyond the sea, refused to pay them further tribute, and set out to govern themselves.”
However, according to the Primary Chronicle, once the Scandinavian settlers had left Russia (some time between 800-850), the remaining native tribes found that they were incapable of ruling themselves:
“But there was no law among them, and tribe rose against tribe. Discord thus ensued among them, and they began to war one against the other.”
And then, according to the Chronicle, the native tribes, incredibly enough, INVITED the Scandinavian invaders back!
“They said to themselves, “Let us seek a prince who may rule over us, and judge us according to custom”. Thus they went overseas to the Varangians, to the Rus. These particular Varangians were known as Rus, just as some are called Swedes, and others Normans and Angles, and still others Gutes, for they were thus named. The Tschudes, the Slavs, the Krivichs and the Veps then said to the Rus, “Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come reign as princes, rule over us”. Three brothers, with their kinfolk, were selected. They brought with them all the Rus and migrated.”
Now, this ancient text, which is all we have got for a source, is most certainly an example of how history is written by the victors, but the story certainly served to legitimize the fact that a foreign, Norse prince became the first to rule all the tribes of Russia and besides establish an actual, multicultural Russian nation.
These early Rus lived in a very different sort of society than what they later did. King Rurik assembled the many warring tribes during the late 9th century and created the Russian nation, and their culture was clearly already strongly influenced by many foreign cultures. But who were the first Vikings in Russia? Yes, I use the word Viking and not Norsemen in this case because these men actually were Vikings, as in pirates, and as in slavers.
Having settled by the lake Aldeigja (Ladoga) by the 750s, Scandinavian colonists played an important role in the early ethno-genesis of the Rus’ people and in the formation of the early 9th century Rus’ Khaganate . The Varangians left a number of rune stones in their native Sweden that tell of their journeys to what is today Russia, Ukraine, Greece, and Belarus. Most of these rune stones can be seen today, and are a telling piece of historical evidence. The Varangian runestones tell of many notable Varangian expeditions, and even account for the fates of individual warriors and travelers.
While many may have heard of the Rus at a later stage in history, the events in the BLADE HONER book series date back more than fourty years before their first known king, Rurik, was born in 830 A.D. In this story we are returning to the age of Charlemagne, Harun al Rashid and Empress Irene; to the very dawn of the Viking Age as we know it.
Events, real or fictional, will refer to events happening and archaic cultural traits that may have been common more than eight decades before the first written reports of the Rus that we know of appeared. Scandinavian and Norse cultures underwent dramatic and deep cultural and religious changes during the Viking Age and 10th century sources such as Ibn Fadlan and the Primary Chronicles may not adequately cover the culture of 8th century Rus Vikings, and Icelandic sagas may show a retrospective approach to the pagan past. For this reason I have looked for older as well as more contemporary sources, looking for signs that customs described may have been widespread across time and space.
I have made an effort to look beyond the veil of the outsider´s view and into the yet-to-be-Viking Age Norse culture as it might have been on an archaic stage of cultural and religious development, when the lands of the Norsemen were still largely tribal, and deeply pagan, and described by all outsiders at very, very savage and terribly immoral.
Here follows a few relevant Arab quotes on the Rus, even if they are post-Rurik (mainly the 10th Century):
“As for the Rus, they live on an island … that takes three days to walk round and is covered with thick undergrowth and forests; it is most unhealthy…. 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…
When a son is born, the father will go up to the newborn baby, sword in hand; throwing it down, he says, ‘I shall not leave you with any property: You have only what you can provide with this weapon.’
“They carry clean clothes and the men adorn themselves with bracelets and gold. They treat their slaves well and also they carry exquisite clothes, because they put great effort in trade. They have many towns. They have a most friendly attitude towards foreigners and strangers who seek refuge.”
“I saw the Rūsiyyah when they had arrived on their trading expedition and had disembarked at the River Ātil. I have never seen more perfect physiques than theirs—they are like palm trees, are fair and reddish, and do not wear the qurṭaq or the caftan. The man wears a cloak with which he covers one half of his body, leaving one of his arms uncovered. Every one of them carries an axe, a sword and a dagger and is never without all of that which we have mentioned. Their swords are of the Frankish variety, with broad, ridged blades. Each man, from the tip of his toes to his neck, is covered in dark-green lines, pictures and such like.”
(…) “Each woman has, on her breast, a small disc, tied around her neck, made of either iron, silver, copper or gold, in relation to her husband’s financial and social worth. Each disc has a ring to which a dagger is attached, also lying on her breast.”(…)
Every day the slave-girl arrives in the morning with a large basin containing water, which she hands to her owner. He washes his hands and his face and his hair in the water, then he dips his comb in the water and brushes his hair, blows his nose and spits in the basin (…)
They are accompanied by beautiful slave girls for trading. One man will have intercourse with his slave-girl while his companion looks on. Sometimes a group of them comes together to do this, each in front of the other. Sometimes indeed the merchant will come in to buy a slave-girl from one of them and he will chance upon him having intercourse with her, but the Rūs will not leave her alone until he has satisfied his urge (…)”