Going East the Vikings were seen as “handsome but filthy”

ScienceNordic reports on a new doctoral thesis by an Icelandic historian:

The Icelandic historian Thorir Jonsson Hraundal has studied comments about what we call Vikings in original texts by Arab historians and geographers. The texts described Arab encounters with Scandinavians in areas around the Caspian Sea and the Volga River. 

Their depictions differ radically from images of fearsome Viking conquerors handed down from the British Isles and France in the same era. 

“A major difference between the Scandinavians who travelled eastwards and those who sailed west was that in the East they were far more subordinated in societies they came to,” says Jonsson Hraundal.

He recently presented his doctoral dissertation at the University of Bergen about the so-called Rus ― Scandinavian merchants and warriors who travelled to Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East.

“The Scandinavians appear to have been versatile people who were really good at adapting to diverse regions and participating in various power structures,” he says. …

…. For a number of reasons, the East-bound Vikings have been neglected by scholars in comparison to those who headed west. Political problems hampered Western archaeologists for decades. During much of the 20th century it was hard for West European researchers to access artefacts collected behind the Iron Curtain.

“We have a lot more source information from the West because of the linguistic and writing culture that dominated there,” adds Archaeology Professor Jan Bill of the University of Oslo.

“This doesn’t mean that the contact in the East was unimportant, but perhaps we haven’t had as much opportunity to study it.”

There are exceptions and Bill mentions that Arab silver coins and other artefacts from Kazakhstan and neighbouring areas have been found at Heimdalsjordet, a former marketplace not far from the Gokstad Viking Ship Mound in Sandefjord, southwest of Oslo.

“They come from the Silk Road and show that the Vikings definitely had contact with Islamic areas,” he says.

He draws on and analyses the writings of Ahmad ibn Fadlān ibn al-Abbās ibn Rāšid ibn Hammād.

He was a 10th-centuryArab traveler, famous for his account of his travels as a member of an embassy of the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad to the king of the Volga Bulgars. His account is most known for providing a description of the Volga Vikings, including an eyewitness account of a ship burial.

File:Ibn Fadhlan manuscript.jpg

Ibn Fadhlan manuscript

Elements of Ibn Fadlān’s account are used in the novel Eaters of the Dead  by Michael Crichton (adapted to film in The 13th Warrior with Antonio Banderas as Ibn Fadlan), in which the Arab ambassador is taken even further north and is involved in adventures inspired by the Old English epic Beowulf.

Some excerpts from Ahmad ibn Fadlān:

They are the filthiest of all Allah’s creatures: they do not purify themselves after excreting or urinating or wash themselves when in a state of ritual impurity after coitus and do not even wash their hands after food.

I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor kaftans, but the men wear a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free. Each man has an axe, a sword, and aknife, and keeps each by him at all times. Each woman wears on either breast a box of iron, silver,copper, or gold; the value of the box indicates the wealth of the husband. Each box has a ring from which depends a knife. The women wear neck-rings of gold and silver. Their most prized ornaments are green glass beads. They string them as necklaces for their women.

In the case of a rich man, they gather together his possessions and divide them into three portions, one third for his household, one third with which to cut funeral garments for him, and one third with which they ferment alcohol which they drink on the day when his slave-girl kills herself and is burned together with her master.

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One Response to “Going East the Vikings were seen as “handsome but filthy””

  1. christopheadrien Says:

    This is great. There is far too little material about the Rus, and I agree that it has chiefly been a result of modern conflicts which have hampered excavations and research. In college I studied early Russian history, and during that time I encountered a historian by the name of Florinsky, who did a great deal of research on the Rus and their travels East. Ibn Fadlan’s account is fascinating because it paints a picture of the Varangians than, say, Snorri or Alcuin, but we must also remember that the Northmen who sailed west were by-and-large Norwegian and Danish, not Swedish. And by the time the viking raids commenced east and west, the cultures between the Danes, the Norwegians, and the Rus had developed into separate entities. Thus, the Ibn Fadlan account, while likely close to what he actually saw, is very different because he met a different kind of “Northmen”.

    This is all great stuff! I love it! Thanks for the post, and keep them coming!

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