What Was the Difference Between Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish Vikings?

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Today we refer to Viking Age Scandinavians generally as Vikings as though they were one group. Linguistic nuances over the modern use of the word Viking aside, the fact is that the historical group known as “Vikings” were not a homogenous people. We know from various sources that from as early as the late 8th Century, broad geographically related forms of identity, such as Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian existed. These are not to be confused with the notion of national identity of the modern era—there were no unified forms of government that we would consider a nation-state quite yet, although they would develop closely thereafter through the late middle ages. Further confounding the subject of identity among Viking Age Scandinavians are regional differences. The Norwegian group who sacked the city of Nantes in 843, for example, referred to themselves as Vestfaldingi, or Men of Vestfold. This tells us that there were also regional differences among various groups within the context of their broader geographic affiliations.

Why do we think of the Vikings as one people?

Our sources for the Vikings and their culture are an accumulation of chronicles and histories written first and foremost by religious scholars. Even the Muslim chroniclers framed their examinations of the Vikings within the cultural lens of Islam. The historian al-Yaqubi, in his geographical study of the Mediterranean, linked the Scandinavians from Sweden known as the Rus to those from Denmark who sacked Seville, in Spain. He wrote that the attack on Seville, in 844 A.D. was carried out by, “the Magus, who are called the Rus.”

Back then, the monotheistic religions of Christianity and Islam sought to unite the peoples of the world under one god. Their convictions about their own faith created a perceptual lens about the world that today we would call “us against them.” The differences between outside groups were of little or no consequence because, ultimately, it was believed that they would eventually be converted and brought into the fold. Therefore, an extremely two-dimensional view of Viking Age Scandinavians was created, one which broadly described them all as “pagans.”

Fast forward to the 19th century when a renewed interest in the Viking Age began, the first scholars to approach the subject had little more than these religiously biased texts to go on. And let us not forget that the 19th century was still an age of belief, where Christian dogma was still (for the most part) universally accepted in Western Europe. What this allowed was for the same slanted view of Viking Age Scandinavians to persist for a time, which eventually led to the cultural perception that the Vikings were in no uncertain terms one people. We have since realized the inadequacy of this view. Unfortunately, the cultural perception of the Vikings continues to propagate the one-people myth.

So, What Was the Difference Between Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish Vikings?

Most of what we know about the Vikings both politically and culturally is derived from analyses of the Danes. Chroniclers such as Dudo, Alcuin, Saxo Grammaticus, Rimbert, Notker, among others, all focus nearly exclusively on the Danish people to form their conclusions. Therefore, we know much, much more about Viking Age Danes and their exploits than any other group. This is not surprising since the Danes were far more involved with the politics of the continent than the Norwegians and the Swedes.

In contrast to their cousins in Norway and Sweden, the Danes consistently appear to have been a regional, cultural, and military power from the mid-8th century onward. Even the Franks admitted in the Annals of Fulda that the Danes were the most powerful among the Northmen. As a political power, the Danes also had the closest thing to a monarchy of any of the the three regions. Although they experienced political turmoil at the beginning of the 9th century, their rulers reigned fairly consistently throughout the Viking Age, giving the Danes a political and societal strength the others did not have.

The Danes were also heavily involved in regional politics. The Royal Frankish Annals recorded that the Danes sent an emissary in 782 to Charlemagne’s court, along with other Saxon leaders, to hold formal political discussions in response to the massacre of Verden, in which the Franks captured, forcibly baptized, and murdered three thousand Saxon warriors just miles from the Danish border. Although there is no mention of what came of that meeting, it demonstrates that the Danes were heavily involved in the events of the time and did not simply appear from nowhere.

Finally, the Danes developed far more ambitious plans for territorial conquest than any of the others. Their invasion of Britain, the establishment of the Danelaw, and the settlement of Normandy are a testament to their ambitions. Militarily, they are thought to have been more organized and disciplined, and probably better equipped, than their Swedish and Norwegian cousins.

It is against this body of knowledge about the Danes that we tend compare the other Vikings. Unfortunately, we do not know all that much about the early political formations of Norway and Sweden. The Ynglingasaga, the saga of the Yngling Dynasty in Norway, purports to tell of the events that led to the formation of Norway’s monarchy, but it offers very little in the way of substance about the structure of their society, the influence they exerted over neighboring peoples, and the cultural backbone that drove their ambitions. We do know that the Norwegians were poised to conduct raids before their Danish cousins—they were the first to attack Ireland and Western France, and are thought to have carried out the raid on Lindisfarne—but ultimately did not exert the same influence as the Danes across Europe. An example of this is the invasion Brittany in the late 9th Century where Norwegian Vikings took control of the regional center of Nantes. They held it for years until the Bretons expelled them, only to find a derelict city and no concerted effort to colonize the land as had been done in Britain and Normandy by the Danes.

Similarly, the Swedes, then known as Varangians, or Rus, were poised to discover and pillage new lands in the east along the Volga and Dniepper rivers. Their expeditions, however, were of a different sort than the Danes and Norwegians in the west. The goal of the Rus was primarily to trade (or so we think). They established long trade routes to the middle east and around the Black Sea and avoided much more than that until the late 9th century when, according to the Russian Primary Chronicle, the brothers Rurik, Sineus, and Truvor were “invited” by the slavs to be their rulers. To this day, why this event occurred is unclear, but most historians believe this was a capitulation by the Slavs to years of raids. What is clear is that the entire passage that speaks of the Rus is extremely short, and from this moment on, the Rus who did move east to join the ruling class quickly assimilated into Slavic culture and ceased to be what we would call “Vikings”.

We are lucky insofar as we know the Swedes were likely the most different among the three groups. The account of Ibn Fadlan during his embassy to the land of the Khazars demonstrates a few stark differences between the Rus and the Danes. For one, the Rus were allegedly covered in blue tattoos, which is not something that was commonly reported by Frankish scholars. The method of burial for their king, their grooming habits, among other things stand in contrast to their western cousins. Likewise, the Frankish chronicler Rimbert recounts the mission of Anskar to Sweden to convert them to Christianity where he describes the unusual and shocking religious rituals of the Swedes at Upsalla. This is evidence that from a cultural and religious standpoint, the Swedes were, for a time, somewhat different from their Danish and Norwegian cousins.

The Danes: The True Vikings?

Due to our general ignorance of the political and cultural structure of early Swedish and Norwegian society, it may be said that the real difference between the three groups is how much we know about them, especially early on. Archeologically speaking the three groups were very similar if not the same, and there existed a distinct shared culture, as evidenced by ship burials and colonies in all three regions, that stood apart from their neighbors (i.e. Saxons, Slavs, etc.). By that account, the Danes, as evidenced by the texts we have about them, are far and above the most familiar to us, and tend drive our conception of what it was to be a Viking. From there, we can say that the Norwegians participated in Ireland and France, and made the great leap across the pond to Iceland, Greenland and the Americas, but culturally and politically much of what we think we know about them is derived from our familiarity with the Danes. Likewise, much of what we think we know about the Swedes is a derivation of what we know about the Danes. Further reenforcing this notion is the idea that a larger number of the greatest Vikings of the day were Danish (there were, of course, great Vikings from Norway and Sweden as well). Therefore, dare I say, the Danes were the true embodiment of what we refer to today as “Vikings”.

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17 Comments

  1. Rurik was from the ara Polen/Germany from the Rugi tribe (slavic tribe)
    Rugi tribe was also in Norway (westcoast south/west)
    Ynglingene(swedish ) clan had a norwegian branch
    many of those old tribes in Norway comes orginally from Finland

  2. the norwegian raided England first and from what i can see norwegian ships
    and skills comes in shipbuilding comes from Pomeria.
    The Danes trade with England metal before the viking era
    but the Swedes traded in silver to Europa

  3. Magnus says:

    Rubrik was from Sigtuna,Sweden.
    He was cheife, and The tribe som around Novogrod, askt him for help.
    They 4-5 chans that coulde not hold peace.
    He is sen as the ground er of russia . The Rurik- family holde the power in russian to 1600-1700. After that the Romanov comes

  4. There were definitely regional differences in Scandinavia, but archaeologically the culture was distinct from the Samic culture to the north and the Slavic culture to the East and South of the Baltic Sea. To the South of Danevirke the area was dominated by Saxons and Franks. On the British islands the culture was mainly Anglo-Saxon and can easily be distinguished from the viking settlements. The Vikings also spoke the same language called “danska tungu” (Danish tongue) and they used they used the same runic alphabet (futhark). Actually the futhark was completely changed in early viking age uniformly allover Scandinavia and viking settlements abroard. This would not have happened if they did not feel like being ethnically distinct from surrounding people.

    1. Christophe says:

      Thanks for stopping by my blog. You are correct that generally speaking the Scandinavian culture and language of the early Viking age are considered to be of the same ilk, and were distinctly different from the cultures of surrounding areas. My goal here was to speak to their differences as they were during the Viking Age, not similarities. I am, however, in the process on writing a blog on the Rus, and there I will speak to their similarities, particularly in regards to the Grobin colony on the eastern Baltic, which dates back to the 7th century, and became a Viking Age hub for the Rus’ expeditions east. The colony was identified as Scandinavian precisely because the artifacts discovered were virtually indistinguishable from other sites in Gotland. So stay tuned!

  5. Anna says:

    Dear author, according to Primary Chronicle names of brothers of Rurik were not Ascold and Dir as you mentioned in the article but rather Sineus and Truvor. Thank you

    1. Christophe says:

      Thanks for catching that! Askold and Dir were Rurik’s men who he sent on embassy to Constantinople. I have fixed the error.

  6. Geir says:

    This is purely speculation and has zero historical accuracy. Talking about the Vikings like you know our history. Normandy taken by Danes? Rollo took Normandy and Rollo was Norwegian, Gange-Rolv was his name in Norwegian. Add the exploration of Iceland, Greenland and America to the fact that all the most famous Vikings were Norwegians and your argument falls extremely short. Not a single Danish viking reaches Leif Erikson (America), Rollo (Normandy), Harald Hardrada (the last Viking king), Ivar Gudrødsson (king of Dublin) etc to their knees so why are you claiming the Danes were the greatest? Seems very strange. You don’t have to look further than to the current countries to see how much of an impact the different countries made. Norway is the only country packed with Viking history. From the Stav-Churches , Runes, Viking museum with the only existing Viking ships to the very fjords where the skills and dominance of the sea came from. You must be Danish, that is the only explication to this ignorance?!

    1. Christophe says:

      Norway has a rich history, yes, but when it comes to what we know and understand about the Vikings, it is the Danes we know the most about, especially early on (i.e. late 8th century/early 9th century). As I said, the biggest difference between the three groups is generally what we know about each of them.

      To your point that Rollo was Norwegian, just because you say he has a dedicated name in Norwegian does not make him Norwegian. He was in fact known by many names, such as Rollon in French, but you don’t see me claiming that he was French, do you? (by the way, I’m French) Rollo was, as far as anyone knows, Danish. We know this because Dudo of Saint Quentin, the man who wrote the closest thing to a biography as was ever done for Rollo, says he was Danish, which was later expanded upon by Guillaume of Jumieges. The settlers of Normandy have always been considered to have been Danish.

      I agree with you that there were great names that emerged from Norway. You forgot to mention the Yngling Dynasty, which included Halfdan the Black, Gudrod the Hunter, etc. But the sheer number of names that have survived from Norway vs. Denmark are nowhere close. We have the names of far more Danes than Norwegians who had goings-on in England and Ireland and France, and even Spain. This is not to say Norway was not active – as you pointed out, the king of Dublin was Norwegian, Norwegians sailed to Iceland, and America – at the time, they simply were not recorded as well as the Danes by Christian Chroniclers. Outside the world of Snorri Sturluson, we don’t have much in the way of written record for the Norwegians, and those works were written long after the events they describe. Conversely, the Christian scholars who documented the Danes (who are listed in the article) were by and large there and living during the events they describe, and some shortly after.

      Also, I am not claiming that the Danes were the greatest. I simply said they are the ones we know the most about, and as far as modern representations of Vikings go, they are the people from whom we draw the most to make our conclusions, especially in the Anglophone world. This article has nothing to do with which group was better, and I have no stake in any sort of modern day nationalistic rivalry, which you very obviously do considering your statement, “Talking about the Vikings like you know our history…You must be Danish, that is the only explication to this ignorance?!” Your bias is palpable.

  7. Interesting essay. With deepest respect, I’m not sure I’d concede that Saxo (1150-1220) was all that much closer to the viking age events he chronicled than Snorri (1179-1241). I remember there was a book written quite some time ago that argued that Iceland’s origins too were far more Danish than people think, but I don’t know if that argument has survived the test of time. It seems to me that Denmark does not fall as far short of Norway in terms of “viking history” as one of your commentators claims, especially if one counts places like Hedeby and other places that seem to have been Danish during the viking age at least . For example, I’m not aware of anything in Norway that compares with the Trelleborg style forts or the Danevirke .

    1. Christophe says:

      Thanks for stopping by my blog! You are right that Saxo is also quite removed, and by that account so is Dudo of Saint Quentin. But we do have sources from the day, such as the Royal Frankish Annals, the works of Rimbert, or the works of Notker, or the anonymously penned Annals of Angoulême, or the Annals of St Bertin, or the Annals of Fulda, all of which speak primarily to interactions with the Danes and were written approximately or very close to that time.

      As far as the theory that Iceland was more Danish than previously thought, I have no knowledge of this theory. I’ll have to look it up. I read something years ago that Irish Monks were actually the first to reach Iceland, but I have no idea where to find that again or if it holds any credence.

      1. Thanks for creating such a fascinating blog. I wish I could remember the name of that book but it was at least 35 years ago. My recollection is that it was in Icelandic and was taken seriously as a revisionist sort of scholarly work at the University of Iceland but of course regarded as completely at odds with the prevailing understanding of the settlement process. The next time I go through my notes from that era I will see if I can track it down. I suspect DNA technology that has come along since then might put that book’s arguments to a more rigorous test than was possible at the time. Keep up the good work!

  8. Yvonne Drew says:

    Interesting book on the Vikings is Richard Hall’s Exploring the World of the Vikings published in 2007

    1. Christophe says:

      Ah yes, i read that one. I also like Robert Ferguson’s “Vikings” which is also a pretty good general overview of the Viking Age. A bit older, but still relevant, are Judith Jesch’s books on women in the Viking Age, and as far as revisionist history goes, I think she’s done some of the most credible work out there, although that’s my opinion, and there are a few other candidates who have also done tremendous work in that regard.

      Thanks for reading my blog!

  9. antodav says:

    Well, this certainly does a lot to undermine white nationalist ideas about Northern Europeans being a single united people who are being threatened by an “invasion” of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East…

  10. David A. Howard says:

    School Homework. Tasked to find out who the Vikings were and explore an aspect that I would be interested in.

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