Perhaps some of the most intriguing sources about Viking Age Scandinavians to date are chronicles written by Muslim travelers. In the days of the Great Caliphs and the Umayyads, Muslims were among the most prolific travelers in the known world. These explorers encountered all manner of peoples throughout Europe, including the Vikings. Two among them, Ibn Fadlan and Al-Gazhal, explored two worlds apart only to find the same phenomena, yet came away with opposing observations. Ibn Fadlan explored eastward and found the Rus sailing up rivers in the eastern steppes. Al-Gazhal is thought to have traveled as far as Ireland where the Norse had begun to aggressively build coastal colonies. What each observed differed greatly, which has helped scholars over the years to conclude that Scandinavians themselves at the time varied greatly in customs and culture.
The Arab chronicler Ibn Fadlan, who encountered the Rus along the Volga River, observed his hosts for several days. One of the most remembered passages from his writings pertains to the Rus’ unusual grooming habits:
“Every day they must wash their faces and heads and this they do in the dirtiest and filthiest fashion possible: to wit, every morning a girl servant brings a great basin of water; she offers this to her master and he washes his hands and face and his hair — he washes it and combs it out with a comb in the water; then he blows his nose and spits into the basin. When he has finished, the servant carries the basin to the next person, who does likewise. She carries the basin thus to all the household in turn, and each blows his nose, spits, and washes his face and hair in it.”
The grooming habits of the Rus were not Ibn-Fadlan’s only observations. Indeed, he observed their funeral rituals as well and has shed light on what may possibly have been a practice among Scandinavians: ship burning. However, his account is to date the only textual evidence for the burning of ships during a Viking funeral.
Ibn-Fadlan characterizes the Rus as a backward, barbaric people, unclean and brutal in their ways. His account has led many scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries to conclude that the Noble Savage view of the Vikings was at least in part correct. This of course is currently being revised.
In the 9th Century a Moorish ambassador named al-Ghazal set sail for foreign lands to study a people called the Majus. His account tells of his voyage across the ocean to a splendid island described as having lush, flowering plants and abundant streams leading to the ocean. For years historians struggled to gather consensus on who these Majus may have been, but more recently it has become accepted that they were indeed the Vikings. Unfortunately, the consensus ends there. Some scholars believe the embassy of al-Ghazal to have taken place in Denmark, whereas others propose he had visited the court of Turgeis, a powerful warlord who ruled over much of Ireland. His account is compelling and offers a tremendous volume of information about the Majus many scholars believe no chronicler of the time could have fabricated.
The source for al-Ghazal’s embassy to Ireland is a document produced by Abu-l-Kattab-Umar-ibn-al-Hasan-ibn-Dihya, who was born in Valencia in Andalucia, about 1159 A.D. The facts and anecdotes in the story were derived from Tammam-ibn-Alqama, vizier under three consecutive amirs in Andalucia during the ninth century who died in 896. Tammam-ibn-Alqama had allegedly learned the details directly from al-Ghazal and his companions. The only manuscript of ibn-Dihya’s work was acquired by the British Museum in 1866. It is titled Al-mutrib min ashar ahli’l Maghrib, which translates to An amusing book from poetical works of the Maghreb.
Contrary to his contemporary from Bagdad, al-Gazhal characterizes the Majus has highly civilized people with many shared customs. Interestingly enough, one of those shared customs happened to be grooming. During his stay in the warlord’s court, he spent a great deal of time with the warlord’s wife who made it her mission to teach her guest about her people’s customs. Evidently she had a profound effect on him.
We must remember that the Vikings who left Scandinavia were highly adaptable, as noted in several of my previous articles. Within a few short generations, the Vikings who settled foreign lands became very different people than their forebears who first arrived in those lands. It is therefore no stretch of the imagination to think that the peoples al-Gazhal and Ibn Fadlan encountered were in fact very different from one another, and this notion is reinforced in several key places in their accounts. Although today both populations of Norse are labeled under the same name, Vikings, they were not in fact as homogenous a society as previously thought.