Do You Have Viking Ancestry?
As Vikings gain popularity worldwide, the endeavor to link one’s ancestry to them is picking up steam. It’s no secret that the Vikings were prolific progenitors. They traveled far in search of riches, and often those they encountered were of interest to them in more ways than one. Their genetic material made its way into populations from Ireland to Russia, and they brought people from all those places back to Scandinavia as well. The Vikings spurred intermixing between communities across Europe more than any other group since the Romans. It’s no wonder so many people believe that somewhere in their family tree, there was a Viking.
One of the most common questions I am asked is, “Do I have Viking Ancestry?” Websites abound promising to reveal a user’s hidden Viking heritage through DNA tests, but most of them are merely swindling people out of their money and genetic data with misleading marketing. Additionally, even the most reputable services that analyze DNA only go back a couple of generations and ignore the broader movements of populations over the millennia.
The truth is, genetics as a field is still very young and very imprecise. To boot, the Vikings are not a genetic group. The word Viking describes those who left home to rove. Asking if you have Viking ancestry is no different than asking if you have Caribbean Pirate ancestry. It’s not a thing. But, if a service told you your DNA was matched to Viking Age Scandinavians, I would encourage you to dig deeper into their methodology and data sets. Don’t take me wrong, I’m not saying you don’t have Viking ancestors, only that you should be skeptical of results that confirm that you do.
If DNA tests won’t reliably tell you if you have a Viking somewhere in your family tree, how could you ever know? The short answer is you can’t for certain. But no one likes to hear that answer, and that’s why I have compiled a shortlist of my own estimates as to how likely you might be to have a Viking in your family tree based on what I know from the historical and archeological record.
Do you have Viking Ancestry? Here are my estimates (from a historian’s perspective) on how likely you might be to have a Viking ancestor somewhere in your family tree.
**DISCLAIMER: This article is for entertainment only. It is meant to serve as a starting point for curious minds to learn more about Viking history. If something you read here piques your interest, I encourage you to explore that topic in more depth. A great place to start is my selected bibliography, where you will find some of my favorite books on the subject of Viking history.
Iceland – 99%
Iceland started as a colony of Norwegian settlers seeking to escape the political turmoil in their homeland. Their history is preserved in the Icelandic Sagas, a body of documents that record the oral tradition of the Icelanders from the Viking Age. The Saga of Egill Skallagrimson, in particular, tells of men betaking themselves a-Viking, and from the sagas, one might glean that to sail as a Viking was almost a right of passage. Iceland also stands apart from other Scandinavian countries insofar as they remained wholly isolated through most of the medieval period. Their language is the closest relative to Old Norse. If you and your family are from Iceland, it is almost guaranteed someone in your family tree took a ship and roved abroad.
Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, Sweden) – 80%
At the start of the Viking Age (~late 8th century A.D.) Scandinavia, roughly defined as modern-day Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, shared a common culture, as verified in the archeological record. These are the lands where the Vikings got their start. Over the three centuries we today call the Viking Age, Scandinavia diverged both culturally and linguistically, in part influenced by the foreign lands with which they had the most contact. The Danes preferred England and France and interacted heavily with the Saxons, Frisians, and Obrodites. Norwegians traveled the extra mile to Scotland, Ireland, and the Brittany region of France, and later Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland (America).
Meanwhile, the Swedes carved out vast swaths of territory for themselves in the East, established the city-states of Kyiv and Novgorod, and traded with the Byzantines. Not only did Viking Age Scandinavians influence the lands they roved, but those lands also influenced them! Not all Scandinavians left to go a-Viking. In fact, most probably did not. If you are from Scandinavia, you are very likely to have a Viking, or several Vikings, in your family tree.
Finland – 70%
Although the people who lived in the area known today as Finland were not part of the shared cultural boundary of Scandinavia at the outset of the Viking Age, they did over time work their way into the fabric of the Viking Age. Swedes trading with Constantinople relied on the Finns to provide the raw materials for trade, and Viking chieftains quickly learned that marrying Finnish princesses was a great way to maintain amicable relationships with them. By the time the city-states of Kyiv and Novgorod were established, many of the Vikings who participated in the eastward expansion were of mixed Scandinavian-Finnish ancestry. If you are from Finland, it is highly likely there was a Viking, or several, in your family 1,000 years ago.
The Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) – 70%
As early as the 7th Century A.D., Swedes from the island of Gotland started to move eastward. They established a colony at what is now Grobina, in Latvia, and that colony would help to facilitate the broader expansion of Viking activity in the eastern river systems. Graves from the Grobina colony reveal a shifting trend in the kinds of people who lived there throughout the 8th century. The younger the grave, archeologists have found, the more likely it is to be a warrior grave. Viking activity in the Baltic States remained steady well into the medieval period. Moreover, Sweden has continued substantial interaction with the region up to today, making it highly likely that someone from one of the Baltic States has an ancestor somewhere up the family tree who was a Viking.
The U.K. – 60%
In the 9th century, Danish Vikings carved out half of Britain for themselves in a territory called the Danelaw. Their capital was a thriving Norse city called Jorvik, today called York. In 1066, England was again invaded, this time by William the Conquerer. William brought with him Norman knights, a group of francophone Danish noblemen who could be considered among the last Vikings. The Normans ruled England and parts of France and Italy well into the high middle ages. If you are English, Scottish, or Welsh, you likely have an ancestor who was at one time a Viking.
Ireland – 60%
Before the arrival of the Norwegian Vikings, the Irish people were quite insular. They had few coastal settlements and spent the entire period from the fall of Rome to the early medieval period culturally frozen in time. When the Vikings arrived, they founded several coastal settlements in what are today Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Limerick, among others. By the time the Irish kings realized what was happening, it was too late. Ireland struggled for many years to rid themselves of the Vikings. Notably, the great kings of Leinster, such as Muiredach Mac Ruadrach, swore specific oaths to the church to help push back against the pagan invasion. In 847, the Irish scored several critical victories across the island, which forcefully expelled most of the Norse settlers from their lands, but fewer than two decades later, the Vikings returned. Scandinavian settlements in Ireland played the game of politics well and over the next century and a half they established themselves firmly in the Irish genetic pool, eventually becoming the aptly-named Hiberno-Norse. If you are from Ireland, there’s a good chance one of your ancestors was one of these debonaire pirates who settled Ireland.
Western France – 40%
Normandy is the obvious region of France one thinks of when invoking of the Vikings, but Brittany and Aquitaine were also heavily frequented by those who roved. In fact, the whole of the Brittany region was held under Viking occupation for three decades until the Bretons re-conquered it under the banner of Alain Barbe-Torte. If you are from Western France (Normandy, Brittany, Aquitaine), there’s a good chance you have a Viking in your family tree. If you are from Central or Eastern France, it is not as likely—the river systems in the Carolingian empire tended to be far more perilous than elsewhere in Europe.
Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus – 40%
Although the tribe of Swedish Vikings known as the Rus gave their name to Russia, the likelihood of having a Viking ancestor is far less there than in Finland and the Baltic States. When the Rus founded the city-states of Kyiv and Novgorod, they established themselves as rulers over the Slavs who comprised the vast majority of the population. If we are to believe the Russian Primary Chronicle (which is often dubious), the only Vikings who established themselves in Kyiv and Novgorod were noblemen. Therefore, if you are from Russia (on the European side of the Ural Mountains), Ukraine, or Belarus, there’s a chance you have a Viking ancestor.
The Netherlands – 30%
The Netherlands, known in the Viking Age as Frisia, was heavily raided for centuries and colonized on multiple occasions by the Danes. Most famous was Rurik of Dorestad, the first Viking chieftain to receive an enfeoffment from the Carolingians. In the long run, however, the Carolingians maintained too strong a hold over the region, stifling long term settlement. If you are dutch, there is a small chance that you have a Viking grandpa.
Spain and Portugal – 5%
The coast of Asturias, an early medieval kingdom in the north of Spain, was attacked several times by the Vikings. What’s more, a Viking fleet successfully sacked Lisbon and captured Seville in 844, inflicting great fear in the Moors. However, Viking activity in Iberia remained sparse. Following the humiliating defeats at the hands of the Norsemen, the Moors quickly built up their navy, which successfully repelled Viking attacks in the second half of the 9th century. Hasting, a supposed son of Ragnar Lothbrok, partook in an infamous excursion into the Mediterranean, which ended mostly in disaster due to the strength of the Moorish fleet guarding the straight of Gibraltar. If you are from the Iberian peninsula, there’s a slim chance you have a Viking in your family tree.
Italy – 5%
There exists a single account of the Vikings reaching Italy. Led by the notorious chieftain Hasting, a fleet of 30 ships sacked the city of Luna with less-than-honorable tactics. They had meant to sack Rome but realized after taking Luna that they had made a navigational error. They did not colonize Italy, and so it is exceedingly unlikely that Italians have many Viking relatives. The reason Italy figures on this list is because of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily. If you are from Italy, there is a slim chance one of your ancestors was a Viking and an indirect one at that.
The Balkans and Turkey – 5%
When the Rus attempted to besiege Constantinople, the Byzantine emperor was so impressed by their ferocity that he invited them to become his elite personal guard, later known as the Varangian Guard. The tradition of serving in the Varangian guard spread to all of Scandinavia, and it became a right of passage for Scandinavian princes and nobles to serve in it. The famed Harald Hardrada, widely regarded as the last Viking king, served in the Varangian Guard in his youth. Interestingly, the Varangian Guard persisted until the 13th century, long after the end of the Viking Age. If you are from the Balkans or Turkey, there’s a slim chance one of your ancestors served the Byzantine emperor.
Mongolia – .05%
Although the Vikings never traveled as far as Mongolia, the Mongolian Golden Horde did invade and occupy Eastern Europe for decades. During that time, they brought back their favorite new pets — blue-eyed and blond slaves. Today there is a recessive gene in Mongolia by which children are born with light hair and blue eyes. Since we know that Norse genes were present in the areas conquered by the Mongols, a tiny fraction of the population may have a Viking in their family tree. For that, of course, we have Genghis Kahn to thank.
Is your country not on this list? Leave a comment below, and I’ll add an estimate for your country.