Today we refer to Viking Age Scandinavians broadly as the Vikings as if they were one people. Linguistic nuances over the modern use of the word Viking aside, the fact is that the historical group known as the Vikings were not an entirely homogenous group. We know from various sources that beginning as early as the late 8th Century, large geographically-related forms of identity, such as Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian took shape (these are not to be confused with the modern notion of national identity — there were no unified forms of government that we would consider a nation-state quite yet). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes mention of Danes and Northmen, the Annals of Ulster in Ireland makes a clear distinction between the Danes and Norwegians, and in the East, the Swedes are referred to wholly separately as the Rus. If the Vikings can be broadly split into three distinct groups, the question becomes: what was the difference between Danish, Norwegian, Swedish Vikings?
A quick precision: the evidence suggests Viking Age Scandinavians self-identified more granularly by their specific region of origin. For example, according to the Annals of Angoulême and the Annals of St. Bertin, the Norwegian group who sacked the city of Nantes in 843 referred to themselves as Vestfaldingi, or Men of Vestfold, and not Norwegians. Regional differences mattered as we see most clearly in the history of the Yngling Dynasty in Norway, in which disparate groups in the same region make clear the differences between one another. The differences between these groups would have been small, if not imperceptible to our modern lens, but to the Vikings, they would have been paramount. In parallel, there was the notion that despite such differences, the people of Norway saw themselves as a different group from the people of Denmark and Sweden, and all three saw themselves as a larger group that stood in contrast to the Anglo-Saxons, the Carolingians, etc.
Why do we think of the Vikings as one people?
The primary sources on the Vikings and their culture are an accumulation of chronicles and histories written first and foremost by religious scholars. Back when these texts were written, the monotheistic religions of Christianity and Islam sought to unite the peoples of the world under one god. Their convictions about their faith created a perceptual lens about the world 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.” An excellent example of this is how 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.”
Fast forward to the 19th century when a renewed interest in the Viking Age began, and we see that the first scholars to approach the subject had little more than the 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 (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.
Further reinforcing the view that the Vikings were one people is the fact that from an archaeological perspective, there is a distinct culture that emerged at the beginning of the Viking Age that stood apart from its neighbors. Finds from Norway to Denmark to the Grobin Colony (in what is today Latvia) show that there was a common culture shared across Scandinavia. Therefore, when we speak of the differences between the Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes of the Viking Age, we must be careful to make clear that we are dealing with three regional identities united by a more significant geographical and cultural relationship. We must also be cognizant of the fact that these differences continued to evolve throughout the Viking Age, which lasted three centuries. In 1066, the consensus date for the close of the Viking Age, the differences between the Danes and Norwegians and Swedes far exceeded the differences between them in 793, the consensus date for the opening of the Viking Age.
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 three regions. Although they experienced political turmoil at the beginning of the 9th century, their rulers reigned 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 mere miles from the Danish border. Although there is no mention of what came of that meeting, it demonstrates that the Danes were interwoven in the events of the time and did not appear from nowhere.
While the Danes were not alone in developing ambitious plans for territorial conquest, theirs involved enemies who better chronicled their exploits. Their invasion of Britain, the establishment of the Danelaw, and the settlement of Normandy put them front-and-center in the Christian world and in closer proximity to the most celebrated intellectual centers of the day. The Swedes expanded as well, but their exploits East are recorded in fewer texts, such as the Russian Primary Chronicle. Luckily we have Anskar’s mission to Birka to tell us about the Rus’ cultural and religious practices, but it’s hard to say which of those differed from the Danes and Norwegians because we do not have comparable testimonies about them. The Norwegians were exceptionally active in Ireland and Brittany, but again the sources on their activities are scarce in the form of the Annals of Ulster and other disparate documents of the day. Sagas are often evoked to argue that we know equally as much about the Norwegians as the Danes, but sagas are semi-legendary and unreliable.
It is against our body of knowledge about the Danes that we tend to 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 establishment 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 of 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 Dnieper 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 concise, and from this moment on, the Rus who did move east to join the ruling class quickly assimilated into the 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 Western chroniclers. The method of burial for their king, their grooming habits, among other details, stand in contrast to the Danes. 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 spiritual standpoint, the Swedes may have been, for a time, somewhat different from their Danish and Norwegian cousins. Again, it is hard to say anything for certain as we do not have comparable testimonies about the others.
The Danes: The Original 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, which 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 to drive our conception of what it was to be a Viking. The sagas are more equal: The Danes and Norwegians share a comparable number of heroes and semi-legendary figures. 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 reinforcing this notion is the idea that a more substantial number of historically verified Vikings of the day were Danish (there were, of course, great Vikings from Norway and Sweden as well). Simply put, the greatest difference between Viking Age Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes is what we know about them.
As always, for further reading, check out my selected bibliography.