Travel Stories

Scandanavia & Russia: In the Footsteps of the Vikings

Their story begins in raiding, slave-taking, trading and settlement and ends in eventual assimilation into Slavic culture and the Christianity of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The Viking Age lasted from about 800 AD to about 1100 AD. The Vikings came from Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and they began as raiders ands pirates and ended as traders and colonists. Danes settled in Normandy in France, Norwegians and Danes occupied and settled the east coast of England, and Swedes crossed the Baltic and founded the Old Russian State centred on Kiev. The three Scandinavian peoples spoke a common language and shared a common culture, but had a clear sense of their separate tribal identities. By the start of the Viking Age most of Europe was Christian, including all the territories of Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire and one of the most important defining characteristics of the Viking Age is that when it began the Vikings were not Christian, and by the time it ended 300 years later they were. Our trip follows the Swedish Vikings as they made their way east across the Baltic and fought their way down through Russia to the lucrative trade markets of Constantinople on the Black Sea, the capital of the Roman Empire in the east, along the way establishing the Kievan state in what is now the Ukraine. Their story begins in raiding, slave-taking, trading and settlement and ends in eventual assimilation into Slavic culture and the Christianity of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Copenhagen
Of the three Viking peoples, the Danes were the most ‘European’, and 1,000 years ago the seat of royal power in Denmark was not Copenhagen but Jelling, on the Jutland peninsula of mainland Europe. Today it is a tiny rural community, famous for the presence of the Jelling Stone, a massive stone decorated in about 970 with Christian symbolism and an inscription that reads: King Harald had this monument made in memory of Gorm, his father, and in memory of Thyre, his mother; that Harald who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian. The stone is the first known native representation of Christ in Scandinavian art, and is sometimes referred to as the birth certificate of modern Denmark.

This “Harald” was the famous Harald Bluetooth. Harald built the first church at Jelling. It burnt down, as did the two oak churches that followed it. The stone church, built around 1100, survives to the present day. When a heating system was being installed there in 1976–9 a grave-chamber was discovered below the floor of the first church that contained the bones of a middle-aged man about 5 feet 8 inches (173 cm) tall, haphazardly spread about the chamber. In all likelihood they are the bones of Harald’s father, King Gorm the Old, a Heathen whose remains were removed from their original site in a nearby grave mound and reinterred there as a way of posthumously entering him into the Christian Church.

Stockholm is settled on 14 islands between Lake Mälarn and the Baltic.
Not far north of Stockholm is Old Uppsala, once the greatest center of Heathen cult worship in the northern world. Odin himself, the father of the Heathen gods, is said to have lived there in his days as a man. In his History of the Archbishops of Hamburg the 12th century German cleric and historian Adam of Bremen describes a great temple that stood there in the tenth and eleventh centuries, a sumptuous building roofed with gold where people gathered to make sacrificial offerings before the images of their three most important gods: Thor the thunder god stood in the centre, flanked on one side by Odin, god of battle and poetry, and on the other by Frey, priapic, as befits the god of fertility. The rituals performed there involved the performance of some kind of cult drama at which songs were chanted. They were apparently so shockingly obscene that the pious Adam declined to record them in his history. Of the actual formalities of worship, however, we know little.

Overnight by sea Stockholm - Helsinki
Even after the kings of the Norwegians and Danes and Swedes had converted to the new religion, it took a long time for Christianity to penetrate into the territory of the Finns, who spoke a different and non-Scandinavian language. For centuries following the Scandinavian conversions to Christianity the Sami of Finland were still associated with the practice of the old shamanistic religion of Heathendom. A twelfth-century history of Norway (Historia Norwegie) gives us this description of the wild drama of a séance conducted by a Sami shaman:

Once when some Christians were among the Lapps on a trading trip, they were sitting at table when their hostess suddenly collapsed and died. The Christians were sorely grieved but the Lapps, who were not at all sorrowful, told them that she was not dead but had been snatched away by the gandi of rivals and that they themselves would soon retrieve her. Then a wizard spread out a cloth under which he made himself ready for unholy magic incantations and with hands extended lifted up a small vessel like a sieve, which was covered with images of whales and reindeer with harness and little skis, even a little boat with oars. The devilish gandus would use these means of transport over heights of snow, across slopes of mountains and through depths of lakes. After dancing there for a very long time to endow this equipment with magic power, he at last fell to the ground, as black as an Ethiopian and foaming at the mouth like a madman.

Helsinki
It took the Rus about five days to cross the Baltic in their open ships, sailing up Gulf of Finland past what is now Helsinki and up the stub of the river Neva and then along the southern shores of Lake Ladoga to the river Volkhov. All of this they could do in the ocean-going ships they had used for the Baltic crossing. But about 20 kilometres down the Volkhov rapids, in the direction of Lake Ilmen, shallows and sandbanks meant they had to change to smaller ships for the rest of the journey south to Constantinople. The Russian Primary Chronicle gives what is probably a semi-legendary account of the origins of the actual Kievan state. It tells us that in 862, following a devastating period of intertribal warfare among the peoples of what is now the Ukraine, a decision was taken to bring an end to the violence by appointing ‘a prince who may rule over us, and judge us according to law’. Representatives of the tribes crossed the Baltic to Sweden and made their offer to these Scandinavians whom they knew as Rus: ‘Our whole land is great and rich’ they told them, ‘but there is no order in it.’ They asked for leaders to be appointed who would emigrate and rule over them.

Three brothers named Rurik, Sineus and Truvor, along with their families and retainers, accepted the invitation. Soon afterwards two of the brothers were dead and Rurik became sole ruler of the territories. He made his court at Novgorod. ‘On account of these Varangians,’ says the chronicler Nestor, ‘the district of Novgorod became known as the land of Rus. The present inhabitants of Novgorod are descended from the Varangian race.’ The name ‘Russia’ derives from role of the Rus in founding the Old Russian State. Historians of the Soviet era were reluctant to accept the stories associating the origins of Russia with the Rus, because they did not confirm Marxist theories of the formation of nation states. But the archaeological and literary evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the view that the state was founded by a Scandinavian warrior elite that quickly assimilated to native Slavic culture.

Helsinki – St Petersburg
By about the middle of the eighth century a port and service centre for ships and crews heading south or returning home to Sweden after trading in Constantinople had been established, known as Staraja Ladoga. There is a Viking Age burial ground at Plakun, on the bank of the river opposite Ladoga, with some 20 mounds containing the remnants of cremations in boats. Ladoga lies some 80 miles east of St Petersburg and finds from the excavations there are on display at the local museum, and in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg (See supplementary nr.1 for a vivid account of a typical Rus journey down the rivers of Russia to the Black Sea):

In the De administrando imperio (‘On the Administration of an Empire’), from the middle of the tenth century and attributed to Constantine Porphyrogenitos, there is a chapter describing the route taken by Rus warrior-traders on their way to Constantinople. From Constantine we learn that they would arrive at Kiev in longships and there transfer to boats built locally by Slavs, which they would fit out according to their needs. Often equipment from old ships which had been broken up was used. Leaving Kiev in June, the trade fleet set off on the long journey down the Dneiper. At Vitichev they joined up with more Rus ships. The first of several major hazards encountered was the Essupi rapids. Here some were set ashore and the rest organized into three groups, one at the stem, one amidships, and one at the stern, and the passage of the ship through the rapids directed from the shore by means of long poles. Two more rapids were negotiated in the same way. The fourth rapid was ‘the huge one, called in Russian Aifur’: All put ashore, stem foremost, and out get all those who are appointed to keep watch. Ashore they go, and unsleeping they keep sentry-go against the Pechenegs. The rest of them, picking up the things they have on board the ships, conduct the wretched slaves in chains six miles by dry land until they are past the barrier. In this way, some dragging their ships, others carrying them on their shoulders, they get them through to the far side of the rapid. So, launching the ships back on to the river and loading their cargo, they get in and again move off.

After passing seven rapids and reaching the ford at Krarios they passed through terrain that made them easy targets for the arrows of Pecheneg warriors. Those who survived landed on the island of St Gregorios, where they would make a sacrifice of thanksgiving to their gods beneath the boughs of a huge oak tree: They sacrifice live birds. Also they stick arrows in a circle in the ground, and others of them provide bread and meat, bits of anything anyone has, as the practice demands. Also they cast lots about the birds – to sacrifice them, to eat them as well, or to let them live. Proceeding to the river Selinas, they sailed to its mouth and the island of St Aitherios, where they rested again and carried out repairs to their ships before heading on to the Dniester. At the point where they picked up the Selinas again they were once more liable to be harassed by Pecheneg warriors running alongside on the river banks. When, as sometimes happened, one of the ships was driven ashore and attacked by the Pechenegs, the rest of the fleet unhesitatingly went to its aid. ‘After the Selinas,’ writes Constantine Porphyrogenitos, ‘they are afraid of nobody and are able to complete their journey in peace.’

St Petersburg – Novgorod
Beyond Staraja Ladoga, two more settlements grew up further south along the river - Gorodische and Novgorod. Gorodische’s primary function was as a military outpost guarding the approach to Ladoga. Novgorod, or ‘new’ Gorod, was established at the northern end of Lake Ilmen by Rus traders by about 930 and it had access by river and by portage – the practice of carrying boats overland between navigable rivers – to the Upper Volga, the Western Dvina and the Dneiper. The Rus called it Holmgård, ‘the island city.’ Amber, arrows, swords, wax, honey, walrus tusks, fox furs, marten furs, falcons and slaves were what these Vikings brought to the new markets in the south.

Novgorod – with venerable churches dating as far back as the 11th century.
A number of Baltic Slav tribes had accepted Christianity during the middle years of the tenth century. Harald Bluetooth and the Danes had converted sometime in the 960s, as had Prince Mieszko of Poland, through the influence of his Christian wife Dobrava. Around 980, not long after abandoning their nomadic way of life, the Magyars, too, under their chieftain Geza, accepted baptism. By this time the ruler of the Kievan state was Vladimir I, son of the Rus prince Svyatoslav and a descendant of Rurik. A wild Heathen for much of his early manhood, with time Vladimir saw the need not to be left behind by the modernising tendencies of Christianity, and the Russian Primary Chronicle gives an amusing and probably legendary account of how he made up his mind as to which variant of Christianity he should choose.

Representatives of each faith were invited to his court to speak in its defence and praise. Islam was also considered, and though he was attracted by the promise of the 72 virgins he would enjoy in the next life he was less enthusiastic about the Islamic injunction in this one against eating pork and drinking wine. ‘Drinking is the joy of the Rus,’ he is said to have objected. ‘We cannot exist without that pleasure.’ Emissaries of the pope found their insistence on the importance of fasting similarly unpopular, and the tales of the diaspora told by the Jewish Khazars seemed to him a poor advertisement for Judaism. It was the apologist for Byzantine Christianity who was given the lengthiest hearing, and who in the end prevailed.

Vladimir is said to have been reluctant to take human life after his conversion, to have become a generous giver of alms, and to have given up his mistresses. The choice of Slavic and not Old Norse as the language of the Rus Orthodox Church opened up Rus society to the profound and enduring influence of Byzantine culture. In his later years Vladimir put his sons in charge of the major towns of his kingdom. Tmutorokan on the Taman Peninsula, controlling the passage from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov was given to Mstislav. The gift marked the furthest reaches south-east of the Baltic Viking expansion, though the degree of assimilation was so complete by this time that it is no longer really accurate to describe them as Vikings, or even Scandinavians, any more.

Novgorod – Tver – Moscow
For centuries Christians in the western world who encountered the Vikings learned to know them mostly as savage and untrustworthy killers. Encounters between the Vikings and the Muslim world were, for geographical reasons, less common, though they did occur. In about 920 an Arab traveler named Ibn Fadlan witnessed a funeral ceremony held by a group of Rus traders on the banks of the Volga. A slave girl had been chosen to join her master in his death:

They led the slave girl to a thing that they had made which resembled a doorframe. She placed her feet on the palms of the men and they raised her up to overlook this frame. She spoke some words and they lowered her again. A second time they raised her up and she did again what she had done; then they lowered her. They raised her a third time and she did as she had done the two times before. Then they brought her a hen; she cut off the head, which she threw away, and then they took the hen and put it in the ship. I asked the interpreter what she had done. He answered, ‘The first time they raised her she said, ‘Behold, I see my father and mother.’ The second time she said, ‘I see all my dead relatives seated.’ The third time she said, ‘I see my master seated in Paradise and Paradise is beautiful and green; with him are men and boy servants. He calls me. Take me to him.’

Ibn Fadlan noted that each Rus woman wore pinned to her breast a band of silver, copper or gold, its size determined by the wealth of her man. Around their necks the women wore gold and silver rings, each ring representing 10,000 dirham. In Viking Age the status of the dirham was such that it was a universally accepted currency, in much the same way as the American dollar is today. Dirham make up a regular feature of the coin hoards unearthed across the Viking world, from Cuerdale in the north-west of England to Spilling’s Farm in the north-east of Gotland. The Baltic island of Gotland, and Birka, in the Uppsala region, were the main channels for conveying the coins westward. Birka was for many years the greatest and riches trading centre in the northern world.

Tver on the Volga, the “Mother River” of Russia - Moscow.
Moscow - Smolensk
Tribute – or tax – or perhaps even ‘protection money’ as we would now it them – was collected annually in the autumn. The Rus ruler and his retinue would leave Kiev and journey down the western bank of the Dneiper, turn at Smolensk and make their way back up the eastern bank through the lands of the Radimichi and the Severjane.

Smolensk – Minsk
From the rune stones left to commemorate the deaths of Rus traders far from home we know the names of some of these intrepid people. Among the most poignant and striking memorials to the ambitions and perils of the whole Rus venture of crossing the Baltic to open up the markets as far down as Constantinople are the so-called ‘Ingvar Stones.’ There were 26 of them: Many still standing on their original sites in the Lake Mälaren region of Sweden. These record the failure to return of all but one of an expedition, led by the 25-year-old Ingvar the Far-Traveler, that had taken them all the way down to the Black Sea. Plague, sickness and mercenary violence were probably what wiped them out, though the inscriptions on the stones speak only of their courage and ambition.

Minsk – Brest – Warsaw At the start of our journey we met Harald Bluetooth, the Danish king. According to some accounts, Harald ended his days in exile at Jumne (Wolin) in Poland, at the mouth of the river Oder, having been driven out of Denmark by a coalition of Danish chieftains under his own son, Sven Forkbeard, unhappy with the imposition of Christianity. Weakened by an arrow-wound, Harald is said to have made his way with his band of retainers to Jumne and died there in 987. Archaeological excavations at Wolin have unearthed plentiful evidence of a Scandinavian military presence there, and Harald and his band of warriors may well be the origins of the many stories about the semi-legendary warrior society known as the Jomsvikings.

To return to the opening theme and the church at Jelling:
The Dane Sven Forkbeard turned out to be one of the greatest Viking conquerors of all. By 1012 he had conquered all of England. He died before he could expand on it, however, and it was left to his son Canute the Great to establish an empire that included Denmark, Norway, Skåne in Southern Sweden, as well as England and the Scottish islands. Canute was baptized and made a pilgrimage to Rome to atone for his sins and the sins of his father. As for his grandfather, Gorm the Old, Gorm had the possibly unique distinction of being buried for a third time, on August 30, 2000, beneath the latest version of the Jelling church. Among those present at the re-interment of the bones found beneath the floor of the original church was the reigning Queen of Denmark, Margrethe II, herself a member of the Jelling dynasty, honoring the memory of the founder of her line 29 generations earlier.