The Vikings as Explorers and Colonists

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The Vikings as Explorers and Colonists


Northern Invaders. With the invasions of the Vikings, which began in Scotland at the end of the eighth century and followed into Ireland and the continent in the early ninth century, Western Europeans recognized how small their own world was. Here, as had been the case with the third-century and fourth-century barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire, were foreigners who seemed to travel from incredibly long distances simply to make the rather conventional lives of western Europeans extremely difficult. However, it would be wrong to consider the Viking invasions only in their “raid-and-return-to-Scandinavia” context. While it is true that the majority of early Viking raids were just that, before even the ninth century was over several groups of these Northerners had begun to settle on some of their conquered lands and trade with their neighbors. Especially active in this were those Vikings who settled along the eastern rivers that flowed south toward Byzantium. Giving their names, the Rus, to this region, Russia became a stronghold of Scandinavian kings and warriors. While never turning away from a fight when one presented itself, these Vikings seemed to be far more interested in whatever could be had in the markets of Constantinople. Trading furs, cloths, and art objects not often found in Byzantium and the Middle East, these Viking merchants realized goods, principally Islamic silver, that were easily traded in Scandinavia and northern Europe. In fact, so diverse was Viking trade in the East that many different strange and exotic objects have been found among their archeo-logical remains, including an Indian Buddha. At the same time, the Arabs and Byzantines were so curious about these Northerners that they sent emissaries to study them, one of whom was Ibn Fadlan, whose tenth-century report of his encounter with the Vikings is one of the best available for the study of Viking life, including hygiene and funerals. Vikings also served as mercenary soldiers in the armies of the Arabs and Byzantines, forming in the latter the famous Varangian Guard, which fought as a unit in the eastern Mediterranean for more than a century.


In 921 the caliph of Baghdad sent an embassy to the king of the Bulgars on the Volga, who had expressed interest in learning the Islamic faith. The embassy took a circuitous route from Baghdad, arriving at the Bułgar capital almost eleven months later, on 12 May 922. On the way it encountered a variety of lands and peoples, all of which were described in the account {Risala) of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a secretary to the embassy. Excerpts of his Risala were included in the Geographical Dictionary (circa 1200) of the Arab writer Yaqut, as well as in the work of the sixteenth-century Persian geographer Amin Razi. Among the most valuable information in Ibn Fadlan’s chronicle is his description of a group of Viking traders the embassy encountered at the Bułgar capital. Though his remarks are not entirely free of prejudice (he refers to them once as “the filthiest of God’s creatures”), his work provides a rare and mostly reliable account of the Viking people known as the Rus, and especially of their funeral rituals:

I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Atil [i.e., Volga]. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy; they wear neither qurtaqs[tunics] nor caftans, 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 a knife and keeps each by him at all times. The swords are broad and grooved, of Frankish sort. Every man is tattoed from finger nails to neck with dark green trees, figures, etc

When they have come from their land and anchored on, or tied up at the shore of, the Atil, which is a great river, they build big houses of wood on the shore, each holding ten to twenty persons more or less. Each man has a couch on which he sits. With them are pretty slave girls destined for sale to merchants …

I had heard that at the deaths of their chief personages they did many things, of which the least was cremation, and I was interested to learn more. At last I was told of the death of one of their outstanding men. They placed him in a grave and put a roof over it for ten days while they cut and sewed garments for him.

If the deceased is a poor man they make a little boat, which they lay him in and burn. If he is rich, they collect his goods and divide them into three parts, one for his family, another to pay for his clothing, and a third for making nabid, which they drink until the day when his female slave will kill herself and be burned with her master …

The closest relative of the dead man, after they had placed the girl whom they have killed beside her master, came, took a piece of wood which he lighted at a fire, and walked backwards with the back of his head toward the boat and his face turned (toward the people) … for the purpose of setting fire to the wood that had been made ready beneath the ship. Then the people came up with tinder and other fire wood, each holding a piece of wood of which he had set fire to an end and which he put into the pile of wood beneath the ship…

One of the Rus was at my side and I heard him speak to the interpreter, who was present. I asked the interpreter what he said. He answered, “He said, ’You Arabs are fools.’” “Why?” I asked him. He said, “You take the people who are most dear to you and whom you honor most and you put them in the ground where insects and worms devour them. We burn him in a moment, so that he enters Paradise at once.” Then he began to laugh uproariously. When I asked why he laughed, he said, “His lord, for love of him, has sent the wind to bring him away in an hour.” And actually an hour had not passed before the ship, the wood, the girl, and her master were nothing but cinders and ashes.

Source: H. M. Smyser, “Ibn Fadlan’s Account of the Rus,” in Francipkgius (New York: New York University Press, 1965), pp. 92-119.

Settlements. The Vikings also began to build settlements in northwestern Europe. In Ireland, Scotland, the Faroes, Orkney and Shetland Islands, and northeastern England, the Vikings mingled and intermarried with the people adopting their languages and customs. In France, a district in the lower Seine River basin was officially granted to them as the duchy of the Northmen (Normandy) in 911. There, too, they assimilated well with the local inhabitants, also adopting their language and many of their customs. Yet, some Vikings were unsatisfied with these settlement plans. Perhaps out of a sense of adventure, or maybe, as in the case of the most famous Viking explorer, Erik Thorvaldson (Erik the Red), out of a sense of outlawry and exile, some Vikings chose to sail farther from their traditional sites of raiding, conquest, and colonization.

Iceland and Greenland. Iceland, an island northwest of the Faroes Islands, had been discovered around 874, with permanent Viking settlement taking place a short time afterward. Despite its name, the island is quite habitable, with significant thermal activity that keeps the climate mild and the land agriculturally viable. However, the same cannot be said for Greenland. Discovered in 982 by Erik the Red, it is surrounded by ice-choked waters and has few habitable farmlands or pastures. Viking colonies survived there into the fifteenth century, when, for some as-yet-unexplained reason, the settlers abandoned them and disappeared.

North America. In circa 1000 one of Erik the Red’s sons, Leif Eriksson, discovered lands westward of Greenland. It is thought that he sailed around Greenland, across the ice floes to Baffin Island, and south along Labrador to Nova Scotia. How far to the south he actually sailed has been debated, as has the location of Vinland, a land supposedly covered with wild grapes. Nonetheless, what is certain is that he and later Vikings continued to travel to North America for cargoes of wood and other goods, with evidence suggesting that these journeys continued until at least the thirteenth century. This theory has been further established by the excavations of a Viking settlement on the north coast of Nova Scotia, L’Anse aux Meadows, which appears to have been a colony that flourished for a time.


George Herbert Tinley Kimble, Geography in the Middle Ages (New York: Russell & Russell, 1968).

Magnus Magnusson and Herman Pálsson, trans., The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1965).

Geoffrey Jules Marcus, The Conquest of the North Atlantic (Wood-bridge, U.K.: Boydell, 1980).

Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

Kirsten A. Seaver, The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America, c. 1000-1500 (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1996).