20 Feb 2023 News in English 10 min. to read

Vikings: there are no ashes without a flame. Who discovered America?

The monument in Boston to Leif Eriksson, the Norse chieftain under whose leadership the Vikings landed on American soil at the end of the 10th century, is a tribute to the memory of fierce warriors, skilled seafarers, and the founders of Western democracy, who left a deep mark on the history of many countries.

In this article, we will talk about those who are mentioned in the Old Norse sagas and Slavic chronicles, in later fiction and non-fiction works, films and TV series under various names: Normans, Varangians, Vikings, Old Scandinavians, Northern Germanic tribes, “wild Norse people”, etc.

The current descendants of these epic characters live in the “least wild”, i.e., the most civilized and prosperous, countries of the world: the nations of Northern Europe consistently make it to the top of international ratings comparing different countries’ quality of life, economic and social development, culture, science, and education.

According to history books, the Viking Age lasted approximately from the late 8th century to the late 12th century. The Varangians are primarily remembered as skilled shipbuilders and navigators, whose fast ships sailed the seas and rivers for such colossal distances that even modern ships cover them only in many days.

Their travels were not of an organized, purposeful nature: some of them sailed east and from there to the south, “from the Varangians to the Greeks”; some went west, to the British Isles and Ireland; some traveled to the north (Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and from there, to present-day Canada); yet others sailed south, by sea and along the rivers of France. The goals of these voyages were also different: from robbing and conquering foreign lands to peaceful trade and establishing new settlements far from home.

We know about the Viking Age from stones with runic inscriptions and thousand-year-old ships unearthed by archeologists from burial mounds: they can be seen in the Viking Ship Museum in the Danish city of Roskilde and in a similar museum in Oslo, Norway (currently closed for restoration).

The Scandinavian heritage is clearly present in geographical names found in various countries, some of which lie very far from Northern Europe; they include, among others, such toponyms as Normandy and Rus (the old name of Russia).

The memory of the Vikings lives on in the New World. Read our article, and you will learn quite a few interesting things. It was written by our editor-in-chief and columnist Ilya Baranikas, who has worked as a correspondent in Norway and Denmark and is closely familiar with the entire region of Northern Europe.

Adventures Leif Eriksson’s monuments

At the western end of Commonwealth Avenue, one of Boston’s main thoroughfares, there is a monument to Leif Ericsson, a Viking chieftain, under whose leadership the discovery of the New World happened 500 years before Columbus. The ocean voyage of “Lucky Leif” (this was his Varangian nickname) to the distant overseas Vinland is not only described in the Icelandic sagas but also confirmed by archaeological excavations on the Canadian island of Newfoundland, where a Viking settlement was found, dating back to 990-1050 AD.

However, from a strictly scientific point of view, the discovery of America by the Vikings occurred even earlier. The island of Greenland, which is considered part of the Western Hemisphere, was discovered in 982, when a group of Norse seafarers landed on the island under the leadership of Leif Eriksson’s father, Erik Thorvaldsson (Erik the Red), who was forced to leave Iceland due to a blood feud.

Erik the Red founded a colony on the world’s largest island and named it Grønland (Greenland). According to one version, this name was a publicity stunt: it was intended to attract settlers to the new colony. Another hypothesis claims that the island, indeed, was covered with vegetation at that time.  

Erik’s son Leif brought Christianity to Greenland and baptized its inhabitants. The then Greenlanders were considered citizens of Norway (which then also included Iceland). The settlements of the Scandinavians eventually fell into decay and from 1408 practically disappeared.  

In 1536, Norway and all its overseas possessions entered into a union with Denmark, which from 1605 began the re-colonization of Greenland. After the dissolution of the union with Denmark in 1814, Norway seceded but Greenland stayed.  

Today, Greenland is a self-governing territory within the Kingdom of Denmark (it has approximately the same status as the Faroe Islands, another autonomous Danish territory in the North Atlantic).  

Denmark has been a member of the EU since 1973, while Greenland left the EU in 1985, retaining the status of an associated state. .

Back to Lucky Leif. In Boston, the cradle of the American nation, he received a more respectful nickname. On the sandstone base of his 2.6-meter-high bronze monument, the inscription reads, “Leif, the discoverer / son of Erik / who sailed from Iceland / and landed on this continent / A.D. 1000.” In runic letters, it also reads, “Leif, son of Erik the Red.”

The bronze Leif looks from under the palm of his left hand at the new world he discovered, a new world that brings a new light. Indeed, this land later became known as the New World, and in 1507, it was named America in honor of Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine discoverer of new lands. Having set sail in 1501-1502 to the shores of Brazil and the West Indies, Vespucci proved that these lands are not the eastern outskirts of Asia (as was assumed based on the results of Columbus’ travels), but a separate continent, described by him as the “New World”.

Shortly after the grand opening in 1887 of the Boston statues of Leif Eriksson, it got a “clone” in Milwaukee, Wisconsin: a copy of the Boston Leif in Juneau Park.

A little later, Leif Eriksson also settled in Chicago: he became a “participant” in the 1893 World’s Fair (World’s Columbian Exposition), which was held in the Windy City: its organizers received from Boston a plaster cast of the monument of the discoverer of the New World and covered it with bronze. The copy turned out so close to the original that after the closing of the World’s Fair, it was sent to the Smithsonian Institution.

The exhibition, notably, was dedicated to the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus, but it found a worthy place for a seafarer who arrived on the American continent five centuries before Columbus.

Soon, another monument to “Lucky Leif” appeared in Chicago: in 1901, a statue 2.9 meters high was erected on a stone boulder in Humboldt Park. The bronze Viking is holding a shield, and the inscription below it reads: “Leif Eriksson, discoverer of America”.

Leif Eriksson Day is celebrated in North America on October 9th. In seven US states and one Canadian province, it is considered an official holiday.

So, the role of the Vikings in the discovery of America has not been forgotten here: in the USA and Canada, they carefully preserve their history, keeping the memory of all of its pages – both good and bad. The early discovery of the New World by the Vikings belongs to the good pages.

Vikings’ Language Has Survived – Almost Intact

The Icelanders and the inhabitants of the Faroe Islands (a self-governing territory within the Kingdom of Denmark) are the descendants of the Scandinavian – mostly Norwegian – Vikings who colonized these territories in the 9th century. But modern Norwegians, as well as Swedes and Danes, understand Icelandic and Faroese rather poorly. The languages spoken by Faroese and Icelanders are preserved forms of Old Norse that have hardly changed in more than a thousand years. Today’s Icelanders can easily read the original Old Norse sagas about the heroic campaigns of the Vikings: this is a unique linguistic situation that has developed due to the centuries-old geographical isolation of the islands lost in the North Atlantic and the almost complete absence of influence on the indigenous population of any alien ethnic groups speaking other languages. For comparison: if modern-day Russians tried to read some of the ancient Slavic epics written a thousand years ago, the degree of understanding would be rather abysmal.

The North Atlantic territories, with their insular isolation, allowed the ancient Scandinavians to exist there for more than a millennium as an unchallenged, stand-alone ethnic and linguistic group. In other places, where other peoples lived long ago before the arrival of the Vikings, the Varangians mixed with the local population and most often lost their language. For example, the name “Normandy” recalls the conquest of this territory by the Viking Normans, but the Normans who came there gradually assimilated, and when the Normans crossed the English Channel to the British Isles in the 11th century and conquered them, they brought there not the Viking language, but French (which, in fact, was a heavily corrupted version of Latin – a legacy of the Roman conquest of Gaul).

Thanks to William the Conqueror and his Norman associates, modern Brits speak a language that is Germanic in structure, but 70% Latin-French in vocabulary (let’s not forget that the Romans conquered Britain long before the French-speaking Normans, and during the years of Roman rule, there was a lot of Latin influence on the English language.)

French-speaking Normans from Normandy maintained the tradition of conquering distant lands, which they inherited from their Viking ancestors. After subduing England, they took possession of Wales and Ireland. Norman knights played a key role in the conquest of southern Italy, which was under the rule of the Saracens, and in the crusades to the Holy Land. In both regions, they founded Christian state formations. One of them, the County of Sicily, later became the Kingdom of Sicily, which existed from 1130 to 1816, encompassing the south of the Apennine Peninsula, the island of Sicily, and a piece of North Africa.  

At the same time, historians believe that the Varangians first arrived in Italy much earlier than the Norman Crusaders appeared there (999): through France, the Vikings came to Spain and Italy already around 860, i.e., long before the Scandinavian kings accepted Christianity (960–1020).  

In the interval between the Romans and the French, Scandinavian Vikings constantly visited the British Isles – for not-quite peaceful purposes, and from the 9th to the 11th centuries, England was almost entirely under the rule of the Norse invaders. The culmination of their dominance was the reign of Canute the Great, who at the beginning of the 11th century united England, Denmark and Norway under the “North Sea Empire”.

Then the Anglo-Saxon royal dynasty of Wessex overthrew the great Viking Canute and restored their power, but not for long. In 1066, the French-speaking Normans defeated the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings, and William the Conqueror ascended the English throne. And the English nation, after the Norman conquest, came under the French linguo-cultural influence of the Normans.

By the way, before the Francization of Britain, the Anglo-Saxons were Germanic tribes akin to the Norwegian-Danish Vikings: all of them spoke practically the same language. This can be confirmed by anyone who has studied the history of the English language and got acquainted with Old English: it differs little from Old Norse, which has survived to this day in Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

Well, the meticulous reader may say, Normandy and the Normans seem to be sorted out, but what about another French province – Brittany, whose name is suspiciously similar to Britain? The explanation is simple: at the beginning of the early Middle Ages, the Celtic tribe of the Britons moved to the European mainland from the British Isles. At least in this case, no Vikings were involved.

Nordic Genetics

It is well known that in the Third Reich, the Nazis were actively engaged in genetics, eugenics, and the search for “scientific” evidence of “racial superiority” of the so-called “true Aryans”, i.e., the Germans and other Germanic peoples, primarily the Scandinavians. However, with the development of genetics of the 21st century, when it became possible to quickly and efficiently analyze the racial and ethnic origin of any human individual, it turned out that the search for “true Aryans” was a futile exercise.

Even the Icelanders do not fully live up to the Nazi standards of a “full-blooded Nordic superhuman.” The Nordic breed was, to use a Nazi cliché, “corrupted” even before the Vikings settled Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland – the Scandinavians did mix with other peoples. A recent scientific study of the genetic dynamics of the populations of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway over the past two millennia proves this in a very convincing way.

Scientists examined 297 genomes recovered from ancient burials and data from 16,638 modern Scandinavians, men and women. It was found that in the genetic structure of the current inhabitants of Northern Europe there is a fair proportion of genes originating from the Baltic states, as well as the British Isles and Ireland. Moreover, these “foreign” genes came, according to scientific analysis, mainly through women from these regions.

Scholars cannot say with certainty who all these “overseas” women were, but suggest, based on the available scientific evidence, that they were mostly wives, concubines and slaves whom the Vikings brought home from distant lands. This went on for several centuries and could not pass without a genetic trace.

What will be the genetic analysis of the northern European population in a few centuries, one can only guess. But already today, the percentage of non-European population in Scandinavia (due to the policy of “open doors” with regard to refugees from third-world countries) is so great that even the most notorious racists, guardians of the “purity of the Aryan race”, will have to forget about the “Nordic breed”. In today’s Scandinavia, thankfully, the number of such individuals is extremely small.

Vikings, Architects of Democracy

Which country’s parliament is the oldest in the world? Most often, the answer to this question is incorrect: “The British Parliament”.

No, the oldest parliament in the world is the Icelandic Althing, created by the Vikings in 930; originally it included 39 Norse chieftains.

There is a challenger, though, which also claims to be the oldest parliament: Tynwald, a legislative body that has existed roughly as long as Iceland’s Althing, on the Isle of Man, a self-governing territory within the UK, located in the Irish Sea, between England and Ireland. But Tynwald is also the work of the same Vikings – so, one way or the other, we owe parliamentary democracy to the ancient Scandinavians.

Russia has “its own pride”: the Novgorod Veche (assembly. – Ed.) It was first mentioned in 1016, when Yaroslav the Wise called it, but many historians take the year 862 as a starting point: according to the chronicle, it was then that Great Novgorod concluded an agreement with the Varangian prince Rurik on limiting the power of the prince by the boyar (noblemen) assembly. The Novgorod Veche lasted until 1478, when the Grand Duke of Moscow Ivan III put an end to the independent existence of the Novgorod state and its self-government.

One way or another, the ancient Scandinavians played a key role here, laying the foundation for the royal dynasty of Rurikovich, which owned the Moscow throne until 1610. A number of rulers of other states descended from Rurik: representatives of one of the branches of the Rurikovich were rulers in part of the Hungarian-Croatian kingdom, single representatives of the Rurikovich ruled in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and in the Bulgarian Kingdom, were co-rulers of the Georgian Kingdom, the Duchy of Austria and the Duchy of Styria, the Great Moravian State, etc.

When Rurik was invited to reign in Novgorod, there existed neither Rus’ nor Russia, but only disparate Slavic principalities that waged incessant internecine wars with one another. The name “Rus”, according to the consensus of most linguists and historians, came from the territory of present-day Sweden along with the Vikings, who went east from there, “from the Varangians to the Greeks.”

Historian A.A. Shakhmatov (1864-1920) noted that the structure of the word “Rus’” allows us to conclude that this word is the name of a non-Slavic tribe, like the names “chud”, “ves”, “vod”, “perm”, “sum”, etc. Scientists associate the etymology of the name “Rus” with the Finnish name of Sweden and the Swedes – Ruotsi, as well as with the toponym Roslagen (pronounced “Rooslagen”), which refers to the coast of Central Sweden.

“The form “Rus’” refers to “Ruotsi” in the same way as the old Russian “Sum” refers to the Finnish self-name “Suomi”. It seems to me that elementary methodological considerations do not allow us to separate the modern Finnish “Ruotsi” from the name “Rus”. – A.A. Shakhmatov.

About the origin of the term “Rus’, Russian land” it is said in “The Tale of Bygone Years” (Old East Slavic chronicle of Kyivan Rus’ from about 850 to 1110, originally compiled in Kyiv around 1113. – Ed.) that he came from the Varangians, who were called to reign in 862. They, the Varangians, as this historical source of the beginning of the XII century says, were called Rus’.

“In the year 6370 [862] … they went across the sea to the Varangians, to Rus’. Those Varangians were called Rus’, as others are called Swedes, and others are called Normans and Angles, and still others, Goths, and these in the same way. Chud, Rus, Slavs, Krivichi and all said, “Our land is great and plentiful, but there is no order in it. Come reign and rule over us.”  

And three brothers were chosen with their clans, and they took with them the whole of Rus’, and came first of all to the Slavs. And put the city of Ladoga. And the eldest, Rurik, sat down in Ladoga, and the other, Sineus, on White Lake, and the third, Truvor, in Izborsk. And from those Varangians the Russian land got its name.” – “The Tale of Bygone Years”.

Not only Great Novgorod, but also Kyivan Rus’ are state formations that Russian history owes to the Varangians. V.O. Klyuchevsky writes in the “Course of Russian History”: “According to the chronicle legend, Kyiv was even founded by the Varangians, and there were so many of them that Askold and Dir (Haskuldr or Hǫskuldr and Dyr or Djur in Old Norse. – Ed.), having established themselves here, could recruit a whole army from them, with which they dared to attack Tsargrad (In ancient times, the Slavs called Constantinople, the current Istanbul, Tsargrad – literally “Czar City”. – Ed.)”

In the year 6390 (882), Oleg set out on a campaign, taking with him many warriors: the Varangians, Chud, Slovenes, Mer, Ves, Krivichi, and came to Smolensk with the Krivichi, and took power in the city, and left one of his men in charge there.  

From there, he went down, and took Lyubech, and also left one of his men in charge there. And they came to the mountains of Kyiv, and Oleg found out that Askold and Dir reigned there. He hid some of the warriors in the ships and left the others behind, and he himself proceeded, carrying the infant Igor. And he sailed to Ugorskaya Mountain, hiding his soldiers, and sent a messenger to Askold and Dir, telling them that “we are merchants, we are going to the Greeks from Oleg and Infant Prince Igor. Come to us, to your relatives.”  

When Askold and Dir arrived, everyone else jumped out of the ships, and Oleg said to Askold and Dir: “You are not princes and do not come from a princely family, but I am come from a princely family,” and showed them Igor, saying, “And this is the son of Rurik.”  

And they killed Askold and Dir… And Oleg took over as the prince of Kyiv, and Oleg said: “May this be the mother of Russian cities.” And he had Varangians, and Slavs, and others, named Rus’.” – “The Tale of Bygone Years”.  

Having come to the Slavic lands to reign and conquer, the Vikings who settled among the Slavs assimilated and became Slavs themselves. Those who were called Ingvar, turned into Igor, Helge – into Oleg, Ragnar – into Ratibor…

Who Nailed a Shield to the Gates of Constantinople? Slavs or Vikings-Varangians?

On September 2, 911, Prince Oleg the Oracle successfully completed a military campaign against Constantinople and signed the first written agreement between Kyivan Rus’ and Byzantium. To commemorate the victory, he ordered a shield to be nailed to the gates of Constantinople.

According to The Tale of Bygone Years, Oleg’s innumerable army included representatives of almost all the East Slavic and Finno-Ugric tribes of Ancient Rus’. But Oleg himself was a Russified Varangian originally named Helge, and there were a huge number of people like him in his army. So, the “Slavic triumph” of 911 can be considered a “Varangian triumph” with as much reason.

The Norman version of the origin of Russian statehood is denied mainly by chauvinistic Slavophiles; many of them, by the way, today demand stronger bombing and shelling of the very city that once became “the mother of Russian cities.” A city, which is now unlikely in the foreseeable future to have anything to do with any Russianness – except, perhaps, the Russian language, which is still native to a significant part of Ukrainians.

…The ancestors of the current Scandinavians gave what later became Russia statehood. But they failed to introduce democracy to the Eastern Slavs: until now, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus are going through a long and difficult process towards this goal. Meanwhile, the Scandinavian states, in which the descendants of the Vikings live, have become, one might say, a “beacon of democracy” for the whole world. They successfully combine monarchical rule (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden are kingdoms) with a highly effective parliamentary democracy, the foundations of which were laid by the ancestors of the current North Europeans in the 10th century.

The monarchy in Scandinavia is constitutional, not absolute: kings and queens, princes and princesses perform purely ceremonial functions there. The real power belongs to parliaments, governments, and the judiciary. All three branches of state power are independent of each other, and the “fourth estate”, the press, is independent of the state. The ideological and moral foundation of the Scandinavian society is the desire for equality and prosperity for all. The state is entrusted with the task of redistributing and equalizing material well-being – to help the poor and the weak at the expense of high taxes from the rich. And, unlike America, in Scandinavia this does not cause any notable resistance from the population.

Vikings: Fact and Fiction

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the Vikings have become a highly visible fixture in mass culture. Adventure novels, comics, feature and animated films, TV serials, all kinds of shows, computer games, etc. – this is just an incomplete list of media, through which shaggy, bloodthirsty characters in horned helmets are promoted to the mass consumer. These bestial creatures drive themselves into a state of rage with hallucinogenic mushrooms, turning into berserkers that terrify all living things. During their overseas voyages, they ruthlessly rob, kill and people their slaves.

And when they rest, they drink beer and mead from the skulls of slain enemies to the songs of skalds, tear with their hands and absorb huge chunks of meat. They believe in a blissful posthumous Valhalla for fearless warriors and a terrible Helheim for everyone else, they worship the pagan deities Odin, Thor, Freya and others, they are afraid of giants, dwarfs, trolls, and other non-human creatures, but they are never afraid of any human beings.

Some of this, actually, has to do with reality, but not all of it. For example, there is very little evidence that the Vikings wore horned helmets: this element of the Varangian attire appeared for the first time on theater stage, namely in the operas of the German composer Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883).

The mythological image of wild Viking feasts is also built on unproven myths: whether the Vikings drank from the skull of a dead enemy is a big question, there is no evidence in written sources.

They definitely drank from some kind of cups, though: the Scandinavian toast “Skål!” comes from a word that translates as “cup” or “bowl”. But it could have been the most ordinary bowl: a thousand years ago, no one was able to record what was happening on the smartphone and pass on the video evidence to posterity. At the same time, historians can find descriptions of how the Scythians, who lived in the south of present-day Russia, drank from the skulls of killed enemies.

No one has yet proved that the Vikings allegedly constantly followed each other with their eyes during meals – raising the cup, drinking from it, and putting it back on the table; and that they did this because they were supposedly afraid of being hit on the head with an ax if they lost their vigilance. The custom of looking into the eyes of drinking companions is present among today’s Scandinavians, but the origin of this tradition is actually unknown. The version of the Varangian table “vigilance” has no factual proof.

But for TV series about the Vikings, such tales are a miracle find. After all, it would be boring to talk about some ordinary peasants who sailed to distant lands for completely unexciting reasons – for example, due to the fact that Harald the Fair-Haired (850-932), the first king of Norway, deprived thousands of people of their land in the process of uniting the country, and they went looking for means of sustenance away from home.

It would be boring to talk “simply” about battles – zillions of them took place in the wild early Middle Ages! It’s far more exciting to portray in all the details insane berserkers behaving like rabid dogs. By the way, it was these “mad dogs” that decisively contributed to the victory of Harald I (Fair-Haired) in the Battle of Hafsfjord (about 872) – the skald Thorbjørn Hornklovi, who lived at the court of King Harald, wrote about this. The result of Harald’s victory in this battle was the emergence of a unified Norwegian kingdom.

Another skald, Snorri Sturluson, who lived later, writes in The Circle of the Earth (a collection of Scandinavian sagas, XIII century):  

“Odin (the supreme god in German-Scandinavian mythology. – Ed.) could make his enemies blind or deaf, or filled with horror, and their weapons hurt no more than twigs, while his warriors rushed into fight without chain armor, raged like mad dogs or wolves, bit their shields and were strong like bears or bulls. They killed people, and neither fire nor iron harmed them. Such warriors were called berserkers.”  

The romanticization of the Vikings began in the 18th – 19th centuries, when in many European countries (not least in Germany and Scandinavia) there was an upsurge in the search for national identity and immense interest in history and traditions. Hence the Wagnerian Nibelungen, the Nordic Ballads by the American poet Henry Longfellow (1807–1882), and the Runic Odes by the British poet and historian Thomas Wharton (1728–1790).

In the course of searching for roots, Norway, which after five centuries of union with Denmark regained the status of a fully independent country in 1814, even acquired a “new-old” language: before that, Danish was the official language. Patriotically minded writers and philologists pieced together dialects, mostly West Norwegian, and built from them a “new Norwegian language” (nynorsk), which, in fact, is more similar to Old Norse. It coexists with “book language” (bokmål), which is a Norwegianized version of Danish. And which, as a matter of fact, is not a “book language” but the language used by the majority of the population of Norway. So, Norwegians live with two Norwegian languages, and they live quite well.

P.S. The history of America and Boston began with a transatlantic Viking voyage over 1,000 years ago. Those epic times were recently revived by Rick Riordan, a fantasy writer whose works are based on Norse myths and sagas.

The author wrote a trilogy about Magnus Chase, a homeless teenager living on the streets of Boston. But in fact, the guy is not an orphan but the son of a Scandinavian god who accidentally fell into Boston through a wormhole straight from Valhalla. We will soon have a review of this series of books, very popular with young people. Despite the general trend of young people’s reluctance to read, the author managed to captivate teenagers and get them to read his trilogy, making it a bestseller.

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