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The Swedish Vikings
De foro manligen
fj rran efter guld
g vo rnen f da
De dogo s derut
i S rkland.
Inscription in a stone outside Gripsholms castle.
While the Vikings from Norway and Denmark went hunting for new land in the west and southwest, the Vikings from present-day Sweden usually went east and south-east. There was another aspect to their business abroad. While the Danes and the Norwegians usually conquered and colonized, the Swedes traded (although they were well armed and certainly knew how to fight) and didn’t seek to establish kingdoms and colonies. There were Swedes that went on voyages with the Danes and Norwegians (at that time the differences between the countries were much less than they are now), but the main stream of Swedish Vikings went eastward. They travelled much farther east than any other European people. The Swedish Vikings even travelled as far as Jerusalem (or Jorsalir as they called it), the Caspian sea, and Baghdad (they called it S rkland). Hundreds of Swedes travelled to the eastern Roman city Constantinople (or Miklag rd).
Many of them returned rich from their combined trading/plundering expeditions.
There are more ancient English coins found in Sweden than there are in England, and over 90% of all the coins found in Europe from Baghdad and surroundings have been found in Sweden (Gotland to be precise).
No one knows exactly when Birka was founded, but it boomed in the 9th century. Birka was situated in one of the more populated areas of Sweden at that time. (It still is, as it is in the Stockhom area, with 1 million inhabitants). It lay somewhere on the Island Bj rk . It was ideally placed in the middle of the counties of M lardalen, G strikland and Dalarna. The total population of the area at that time was around 50,000. The city was protected by a wall made of dirt and wood, and had a population of a couple of thousand inhabitants who served and protected the city. In the end of the 9th century activity there came to an abrupt end, and we are still looking for an explanation. Perhaps they were invaded by a Viking fleet from Denmark? Or perhaps they moved their business to the more protected city of Sigtuna? What historians do know is that the contacts eastward were very profitable, and they reached their highest levels when the city Helg (not far from Birka) was booming.
A lot of trading was also done with Finland and the Baltic states. Most of the Swedes who went out traveling were `rospiggarna’, the people from Roslagen. That may be one of the reasons why Finns call Sweden `Ruotsi’ which means `Roslagen’. And even farther east there was a country named `Tavastaland’.
The Vikings traveled farther and farther east up the river Neva to Ladoga, where it is believed they founded a settlement, from which they started to travel south. A monk named Nestor, who lived in Kiev, wrote a chronicle which tells the story behind the Viking travels and why they settled in Russia. In the chronicle he states that Russia was founded by the Vikings, or as they called them `Varjager’. According to Nestor the Vikings levied taxes on the Slavic peoples and therefore were eventually chased out of the country. The local people wanted to have a king of their own. Unfortunately this was not a success, and after awhile there was total anarchy in the country. Then someone came up with a bright idea: Why not get a king from elsewhere? No sooner said than done, they sent for a king from the foreign country Sweden, and after
awhile a Viking turned up. Nestor writes: “Let us find a king from another country who will give us justice and rule over us. And they went over the sea to the land of the Varjager, to Ruserna. Because this people is called Ruser as others are called Svear. Yet others are called Norrmaner, Anglianer and some Goter. So even all these have their names.” When the messengers with their unusual offer from the foreign country turned up in Sweden three men were promptly selected to take on the responsibility. These men were
brothers and their names were: Rurik, Sinjeus and Truvor. The oldest (Rurik) of them settled down in Novgorod; the other ones went to White Russia (Sinjeus), and Izborsk(Truvor). Nestor writes: “It’s after these Varjager that the country of Novgorod now bears the name `land of Rusers’.”
Soon Rurik was the only one left in “Russland”; his brothers went on a trip along the river Dnieper to the city of Kiev (K nug rd), which they successfully invaded. From Kiev they made small expeditions down to Constantinople. Rurik died sometime about 879, and another Viking chief took over, Oleg. Oleg also invaded Kiev and declared this city of all Russian cities the mother. Oleg was soon replaced by his former master’s son, Igor. The Swedish names after Rurik, Oleg and Igor are: R rek, Helge and Ingvar. But there are uncertainties about the Swedish connections. In any event, there are Swedish names involved in the earliest peace treaties which are quoted in their entirety in the Nestor chronicle. Their names have been a bit misspelled but they can be read as: Sven, Gunnar, Tord, Ulf and Karl. These Swedes, as with all other Viking settlements, soon became assimilated with the natives. Igor’s son got the name Sviatoslav and founded the Rurikidernas dynasty, Rurkovitch. They in turn ruled over the Volchov-Lovat-Dnieper area until the year 1610, when the last Rurikiden, Vassilij IV Sjusjkij, died and was replaced by the Romanov dynasty.
Just as in the British Isles and Normandy, the Vikings soon lost their Nordic traditions. They were simply too few to have any impact on the natives.
The Swedes had four main routes to choose from, traveling through mighty Russia down to the richness of the South. Their ships could be carried against the current on smaller rivers until they reached the tributary rivers of Volga. If they chose this way they would pass Finnish speaking peoples all the way between Ladoga and a place called Bulgar at the bend of the Volga. This was a larger city where Swedes met with Turks and other
people from the south. From Bulgar a caravan went to China and the silk that has been found in Birka was most probably brought by this route. For the most part the Vikings did business with so-called
`radamiter’ (Jewish merchants). An= Arab writer, Ibn Khordo Adbeh, described them like this: “These merchantmen speak Arabic, Persian, French, Spanish, Romerska, Slaviska. They travel from the Occident to the Orient. From the Occident they bring with them eunuchs, female slaves, little boys, fabric, skins of different kinds and swords.” According to his tales they travel to “Sind, Hind and China”. On their trips home they bring different sorts of spices and other exotic things. Some of the evidence of the trading is silver coins which have been found in the city of Birka. They show that trade between Swedes and the area between Baghdad and the Volga was rather extensive.
The reason that we know that the Vikings did travel this route is that the Persian and Arabic diplomats have written about their meetings with the northerners, or Ruser as they called them. They have written in rather great detail about the traditions of the Vikings. The Arabic messenger Ibn Fadlan, who was in Bulgar during the summer of 922, saw the Vikings arrive, and he wrote: “I have never before seen such perfect bodies; they were tall
like palm trees, blonde, with a few of them red. They do not wear any jackets or kaftaner, the men instead wear dress which covers one side of the body but leaves one hand free. Every one of them brings with him an Axe, a sword and a knife. They never leave these things. Their swords are broad, grooved, and of French make. From their bellies to their necks they are tattooed in green with trees and other pictures. All of their women have a small box attached over the breast. This can be made of iron, silver, copper or gold. On
each box there is a ring to which a small knife is attached. Around their necks they wear necklaces of gold and silver.” The Vikings obviously made an impression on the messenger, but he also writes about their bad hygiene. He continues, “Each morning the girl comes early in the morning with
a deep dish of water. She gives this to her master who in turn washes his hands, face and hair. When he is through the girl takes the dish to the man nearest the master. This man repeats the process. And so the dish wanders from man to man until everyone has washed himself in the water.”
To Ibn Fadlan’s friends this story must have been horrifying, as they were educated Muslims. They would probably never think of washing themselves in anything other than flowing water. Another thing which interested Ibn was the Nordic men’s sexual habits. This is what he wrote: “At the beach they build large houses made of wood. In one house there live ten to twenty persons. Each one has a bed to sit on (sic). With them they have beautiful women
slaves who are to be sold to the slave dealers. They have sexual intercourse with their slaves while their friends are watching. Often a group of men does this in each other’s presence.” One of Ibn=92s most interesting stories is about a real Viking burial which he witnessed in the city of Atil (placed a bit south of Bulgar). According to him the dead person’s ship was brought up on shore and was surrounded with fetishes of wood. The body was clothed in its finest clothes, placed on cushions in a sitting position in a tent which was
built in the middle of the boat. Around him he had several items which could be useful on his way to the land of the dead. Among the items there were a harp, food, axes and so on. A dog was killed and divided into two parts and thrown on to the ship. The dog was followed by two oxen and two horses and one hen. One of the man’s female slaves was chosen to follow the man to the land of the dead (Valhall, hopefully). She was intoxicated with alcohol, brought forward to the chief and then moved to a tent by the chief’s six closest men. They each had intercourse with her and then she was killed by an old woman (called the angel of death) with a knife (at the same time as the men were strangling her with a rope). Then the relatives of the man set the ship on fire. Afterwards they would
throw a large heap of dirt over the ashes and on top of it all they put a wooden pole on which they wrote the name of the dead man and the name of their king. Ibn tells us further: “When they arrived in this harbour (Bulgar) they left their ships on the shore and brought with them meat, bread, milk and nobid (an alcoholic beverage) and went to a high wooden pole with a carved head. Around this pole there were other smaller statues and behind them other large poles. The merchantman goes forward to the large pole in the center and then he gets down on his knees and puts his head against the ground and says: ‘O, my god, I have been traveling a long way and I have brought so and so many slaves and swords. Now I bring you these offerings.’ This said, he puts what he has in front of the wooden pole and says: ‘I wish that you send me a merchant of great
wealth who will buy on my terms without questions.’ If the business is good he returns and sacrifices animals; if not, he brings other offerings to the statues and asks them for help.” The Arabian historian Ibn Miskaweich tells us about the Ruser attacks on Bredaa, just south of Baku, in the year 943. He describes them as a powerful people who didn’t seem to know how to yield in a fight. They were equipped with axes, swords and long knifes. They fought with spears and shields. They killed the Arabic governor and chased his
people away. The Arabs who survived had to buy their own lives at great expense. The women weren’t included in this deal; the Ruserna kept them for themselves. According to the chronicles over 6,000 Ruser held the city against repeated attacks from the Arabs. Every time one of the Ruser died he was buried with the women he liked and his weapons. In the end the Vikings left Bredaa of their own accord, but only after they had brought everything of value, including the women, to the river Kura where they had their ships.
One of the other routes south through g rdarike which the Vikings traveled was through the city Starja Ladoga on the river Volchov. There was a trading station named Aldeigjuborg, from which the Vikings could make their way to Novogorod, which they called Holmg rd. From here they crossed Lake Ilmen and went along the river Lovat. When they couldn’t travel by ship any more they pulled their ships overland until they reached a navigable
river from which they could travel to the Dnieper, which in turn led them through Kiev and eventually to the Black Sea. As soon as they had reached the Black Sea they were near their final target; they just had to pass the Bosporus and then they were in Constantinople, which was called Miklag rd, ‘the big city’, by the Vikings. There were two reasons for the Vikings to come all this way, business and war. They even tried to invade the city but for the very first time they found that they had a superior enemy. The defenders were equipped with a form of napalm (oil, sulphur and resin – Greek fire) which they sprayed over their enemies from a kind of flame-thrower. To shield themselves from the heat they had jackets made of asbestos. This certainly made a
big impression on the Vikings. Many stories are told in the North about the fire breathing dragons and magical shirt that Ragnar Lodbrok received from his wife Kraka. After a while a treaty was signed between the parties and more peaceful trading began. The treaty was rather harsh, the Vikings weren’t allowed to travel in groups larger than fifty persons, they weren’t allowed to carry arms and they couldn’t buy more silk or fabric than they were allotted. They weren’t allowed to stay the winter in the town either. In return they were given access to the public swimming halls, their ships were fitted without cost for their return and they got free food and drink. The Emperor of Constantinople was very impressed by the fearless men from the North,
so impressed in fact that he formed a life guard composed of only Vikings.
But they weren’t satisfied with this, they went even farther east. Exactly how far east we cannot tell today, but we know that they made serious attempts to reach Samarkand.
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