The Swedish Vikings: Who Were the Rus?

Scandinavia at the beginning of the Viking Age appears to have shared a common culture, as shown by the archeological record, but it later diverged into several distinct groups. As I discussed in my previous blog about the difference between the Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish Vikings, we know the most about the Danes and Norwegians because of the breadth of primary sources written about them by contemporary Christian Chroniclers.  We have far less information on their Swedish cousins called the Rus who, despite how little we know about them at the outset of the Viking Age, left an incredible legacy behind in Eastern Europe. Here I will briefly overview what we know about the Swedish Vikings who were called the Rus (and Varangians), and their early activities across the river systems of what are today Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and even Turkey.

Earliest Mentions of the Rus

Primary sources for the early societal structure, culture, and activities of the Rus are practically non-existent. They did not leave any writings behind for us to find other than disparate runes carved into wood planks or stones. The Annals of St. Bertin tell us of a diplomatic delegation from Constantinople that visited Louis I in Aachen in 834, and among the delegation were several Rus. The Rus were, as far as we can tell, as active in raiding and foreign trading as the Danes, if not more, and earlier. The people they attacked—chiefly those in Finland, then Slavs further east—were not literate like those the Danes terrorized, which might further explain why sources are so sparse about their early activities. The Rus’ arrival in Louis’ court was marred by the fact that the missionary Anskar, the future bishop of the archbishopric of Hamburg, had already visited and returned from Birka, in Sweden, and his testimony about the Swedes led the emperor to distrust his unexpected guests. In the annals, it is said that Louis learned the Rus were, in fact, “people of the Swedes.” He detained the group to verify their claim that they only wished to travel peacefully, and from there the annals cease to mention what happened next.

We do not know if the Rus were allowed to return home, or worse, executed. While we are left in permanent suspense about the fate of these Rus, what this account tells us is that the Swedish Vikings had, by the mid-9th century, traveled far enough to the east to have established relations with the Byzantines. How, or why, or how long it took to arrive at this point is still not well understood, but a treasure trove of silver coins from the Muslim world found at Lake Ladoga gives us some idea of when contacts began. As a standard practice in the Muslim world, the date the coins were minted was imprinted on them, and the coins at Ladoga appear to date back to the 780s. Combined with further archeological evidence of early colonies on the eastern shores of the Baltic, it is likely trade contacts between Sweden and the Middle East began several decades before the Danes and Norwegians launched their first raids against Europe.

The mission of Anskar to Birka is the closest thing to a contemporary source as we have on the Rus, and his story is related to us by his biographer Rimbert. His mission in Birka lasted six months, with the permission of a Swedish king, and when he returned he devoted the rest of his life to turning the archbishopric of Hamburg into the center for the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity. His account of the Swedes must be treated with caution for two reasons: first, he and his fellows had a clear bias against the pagan religions of Scandinavia; second, the testimony given about his mission contains extraordinary elements that undermine the credibility of the author.

Adam of Bremen, a later bishop of Hamburg, carried out a second mission to Birka and reported similar extraordinary elements as Anskar. Most controversially, both men claim to have witnessed human sacrifices. Historians have long discounted the testimony of such practices as propaganda against the pagans. Still, evidence of human sacrifice permeates the archeological record, and additional testimony from the Arab chronicler Ibn-Fadlan almost a century later on the shores of the Volga river lends further credence to the practice. Some elements of Anskar and Adam of Bremen’s testimonies, therefore, may be true. The challenge is splitting apart fact from fiction, and thus we cannot rely on their writings to inform much us on the Rus.

We encounter similar problems with the testimony of an Arab chronicler named Ibn-Fadlan who spent time with the Rus on the shores of the Volga river. His story, called the Risala, is useful insofar as it gives us some good information about the Rus. Unfortunately, numerous inaccuracies and Ibn Fadlan’s prejudices have slanted the account, making the work of historians all the harder. Still, the Risala is a fascinating document that, when combined with other sources, gives us some idea of who the Rus were.


How the Rus Got Their Name

How the Rus got their name is also somewhat of an enigma. Like the word Viking, the name Rus has several possible sources. In the Annals of Saint Bertin, and indeed in several other sources, they are referred to as the “Rhos” which has led historians to hypothesize a connection with their tribal home of Roslagen. Others think the name was given to them by the Finns, who today still call the Swedes Ruotsi, a word borrowed from Old Norse meaning, “those who row.” While the origins of the name remain opaque, it is the name they would give to one of the most powerful nations in modern history, Russia. If the second origin theory of the name Rus is correct—the theory tying it to the Finnish word Ruotsi—the name Russia may actually mean “the land of those who row.”

There are also Arabic sources which chronicled embassies by eastern scholars to visit the Rus, and who refer to them as such. They also referred to them as Majus, but this was a name they tended to use in the West, in Al-Andalus (Spain). The sources are used sparingly and carefully where the Rus are concerned because academics are not entirely certain that they were referring to the Rus. What makes their writings somewhat unreliable are observations that were made that are not consistent with what we know about Viking Age Scandinavians from both written and archeological sources. But, even if there is a kernel of truth in the Arabic writings, it underscores an easy and prevalent awareness of the Rus in the east, as well as proof of enduring contact.

Looking for the Rus in the Sagas

Snorri Sturluson in his work titled Ynglingasaga, which recounts at a broad level the history of the kings of Sweden (it also recounts the history of the kings of Norway), gives us some insight into the early activities of the Rus on the Baltic. It is widely accepted that Snorri’s works are semi-legendary because he wrote them several centuries after the fact and drawing mostly from oral tradition. Again, we are faced with the difficult task of separating fact from fiction, and we must proceed with caution.

There are certain aspects to Snorri’s accounts that have proven useful insofar as they have spurred archeologists to search for evidence to support broad story themes in his work. In 1929, for example, the archeologist Birger Nerman discovered the remnants of a colony in Latvia of Swedish origin. His conclusions were that the colony had existed since the mid 7th century and likely had formed as a result of the expulsion of one-third of the inhabitants of Gotland due to famine, a story related to us in Snorri’s Gutasaga. The discovery was the Viking equivalent of the discovery of the city of Troy, whose existence belonged to mythology until its discovery by Heinrich Schliemann in 1870.

Digging Up the Rus

Birger’s discovery has indeed proved paramount in helping to piece together the narrative of the early activities of the Rus in the east. The colony he discovered, known as the Grobin Colony, uncovered significant evidence in the form of burial mounds directly linking the inhabitants there to the Swedes of Gotland. Among the artifacts were picture stones in the shape and style of the Gotland stones. Further artifacts found within the burials were also of the style and construction known to have been common in Gotland. What is most interesting about the site is the progression of types of burials the colonists left behind. The oldest burials contained women, indicating that the settlement had begun as a colony. The younger burials, dating to the late 8th century, contained men with the typical weaponry of the day, indicating a change in the settlement’s demographics where the ambitions of the Rus shifted toward traveling east for raids and trade rather than to settle the Eastern Baltic to escape political turmoil in Sweden. Grobin is not an isolated archeological find. Distinctly Scandinavian artifacts have also been found in Ladoga, which date back to the mid-8th century.

There is no doubt that the achievements of the Rus in the east were among the most impressive of their day. From the establishment of their first colonies on the shores of the Baltic and Lake Ladoga, they established trade routes that made use of the complex interweave of river networks to dominate the eastern steppes and established trade with the Byzantines. Among the goods they brought were honey, wax, amber, blubber, furs, walrus tusks, and most importantly, slaves. They traded these goods for silver, and from an Arabic coin minted in 786 (it says so on the coin) at Ladoga, we understand that trade between the Rus and the East was already well established by the end of the 8th century. This stands in contrast to the Danes and Norwegians whose exploits had barely begun by this period.

Massive hordes of Arabic silver coins found in Sweden and Gotland over the years are evidence of how extensive their trade was. These hordes contained silver coins numbering in the tens of thousands in some cases, a massive fortune even by today’s standards. The sheer volume attests to a long term relationship between Sweden and the Byzantines, and one which endured several centuries.

Throughout the Viking Age, the Rus imposed themselves over the people they encountered, chiefly the Slavs. After an attempted raid on Constantinople, some enlisted in an elite cohort of warriors called the Varangian Guard, who served the Byzantine emperor (at his invitation). Evidence of their presence in Constantinople abounds, including a few recent finds, such as a Viking sword found in Patarka, Turkey, and runes carved into the walls of an old prison under Istanbul that read, “Sven was here.”

From Rus to Russian

From here, the story of the Rus shifts focus. The Russian Primary Chronicle, which tells of the early foundations of the modern country of Russia, tells of an event whereby the Slavs invited the Rus to rule over them. According to the account, the Slavs admitted to being unable to rule themselves, and so resorted to asking the Rus–considered strong leaders–to establish law and order. Similar to Snorri’s account, the Russian Primary Chronicle is considered semi-legendary. Therefore, the event commonly dubbed “The Invitation of the Rus” may not have ever actually happened. Instead, it may be an allegorical account to describe a process of usurpation that took much longer.

Whatever the true story, the Rus went on from this event to establish the principalities of Kyiv and Novgorod, at which point they ceased to act in a manner we would today associate with Vikings. They took on the role of autocrats rather than raiders, and established dominion over the Slavs, and assimilated into Slavic culture. The Rus’ conflicts with the Byzantines, as related through the Russian Primary Chronicle, and their conversion to the Christian Orthodox Church, all became part of the narrative of the founding of the Muscovy state, which would become Russia. And so as far as the “Viking” history of the Swedes and their eastern exploits are concerned, the story more or less ends there. Anything that came after is the subject of the early history of Russia.

Stay up to date an all things Viking, sign up for my newsletter:

* indicates required

What Were the Vikings Thinking? New Research Seeks to ‘Get Into Their Heads’

One of the great frustrations of historians of the Viking Age has been the lack of written testimony on the Viking side of things. Outside of a few runes on sticks and stones, we have no significant contemporary tellings of the Viking perspective. The National Museum of Denmark seeks to change that. A new research project funded by the Krogager Foundation will seek to uncover deeper insights into the Vikings’ worldview through jewelry, amulets, graves goods, and other items found during excavations. By the end of the 3-year project, the museum hopes to publish a book about the Vikings’ worldview and the results of the project.

The Evidence Right in Front of Us

Toxic herbs, a container of fat, and the remnants of a mysterious wand perhaps used for magic are some of the unusual things that a völva – a kind of female shaman in the Viking Age – left behind in a grave when she was put to rest in the 900s in Fyrkat, Hobro. The völva’s world seems to have been surrounded by mysticism and imagination. 

What do the völva’s belongings tell us about the Vikings’ view of the world? A multidisciplinary team of researchers specializing in archeology, history, anthropology, and natural sciences will seek to answer this question and the broader question of what was in the Vikings’ heads through discoveries and artifacts left behind over 1,000 years ago. The burial tomb from Fyrkat, which includes small masked amulets and jewelry with women’s figures, are some of the many finds that are part of the research project titled, ‘The thought behind things’.

“We have a tremendous amount of archaeological material from the Viking Age, which we believe can give us deeper insight into who the Vikings really were. Their belongings are key to figuring out what they were thinking and how they saw the world,” said National Museum Director Rane Willerslev.

“The past 20 years of research have expanded our knowledge of the Vikings’ religion and their rituals, but there is still much that remains undiscovered. Now we have a chance to get into their heads, and it will give us a more complete picture of who the Vikings were,” said Rune Knude, president of the Krogager Foundation.

Magic, Belief, and Ritual

völva's wand

One of the most compelling areas of research focuses on the life and activities of a member of Viking Age society called the völva. On several pieces of jewelry from the Viking Age, women are seen with a cat-like face. One of these pieces was found in the cult area at Tissø, in West Zealand. The female figure represented has been interpreted as a depiction of the goddess Freja, because the goddess had two cats. But Peter Pentz, a curator at the National Museum and project coordinator at “The idea behind things” has a different idea.

“I don’t think the Nordic gods were depicted with traits of the animals they had. We have no examples of, for example, the god Odin with wolf heads, even though he had two wolves, nor do we see him depicted as a horse in honor of Sleipner. I think the jewelry represents völvas who had painted their faces, or perhaps they cut their faces in some form of a trance,” Peter Pentz suggests.

Völvas were thought to possess special personal qualities. Such women were respected but also feared. A völva was thought to be able to travel in time to predict the future and practice certain forms of magic. The Icelandic sagas help us to confirm their role and place in society, and archaeological finds, such as the Fyrkat tomb, give us tangible evidence of their existence.

A bronze chalice found in the Fyrkat Grave may have played a larger role in ritual than previously thought. Previous analyses of the container have found white lead residue, indicating the use of a white dye. Since white dye occurs naturally in the environment, researchers will further investigate whether the residue in the container occurred naturally, or whether the container was used for a white dye that a völva may have used as a face paint during rituals.

The Fyrkat völva also had a purse containing herbs and a container of fat. The herbs in questions are known to be toxic, but when consumed in the right amounts, can induce hallucinations and euphoria.

“We know of witch recipes with these same ingredients from the Middle Ages. When you mix the herbs and fat and apply them to the body’s mucous membranes, you can get into a euphoric trance-like state. It could well be that this method was already known in the 900s. We do not know if the fat from the tomb has been used for that purpose, but we will investigate what it was for so that we can hopefully expand our understanding of the person in the tomb,” said Peter Pentz.


Book publishing and exhibition about the vault

The research project will conclude with the publication of a book where you can get an insight into the Vikings’ worldview and the results of the project. The exciting, new knowledge of the Vikings’ thoughts and ideas will be complemented by the National Museum’s new Viking Age exhibition, where the current narrative may change along the way. The exhibition ‘Togtet’ will open in the summer of 2021 and will change in the summer of 2024 to ‘The Divination of the Völva’.

Learn more about the ‘The idea behind things’ project from the National Museum of Denmark:

Viking Vlog 9: Women of the Viking Age

Viking Vlog 9: Women of the Viking Age

In this video, I approach the topic of Women in the Viking in a very general discussion. I discuss some of the leading works on women of the Viking Age and broadly overview their approaches to the subject. In later videos, I will discuss more granular topics such as whether women fought as shield-maidens, how often they traveled with the men, etc, but the goal of this first video is to open the door for curious minds to start exploring the subject.

As promised, here are some links to the books I discuss in the video:

As discussed in my videos, if you have burning questions about Viking history, ask away in the comments below, and I may use your question for a future Viking Vlog.

If you’re interested in checking out my novels, click here:

Love my work? Consider supporting me on Patreon:

Did the Vikings Wear Helmets?

Did the Vikings Wear Helmets?

It is well established through consensus among historians and archeologists that the Vikings did not wear horns on their helmets. There is no consensus, however, in regards to whether they wore helmets at all. A curious gap in the archeological record has led to a frustrating controversy in academia and reenactment circles alike. Until 2009, only one Viking Age helmet had ever been found, whereas archeologists have discovered countless swords, axes, shield bosses, and even ships. That so few helmets have ever been found begs the question: did the Vikings wear helmets? If they did, where did they all go?

Two divergent camps have formed over the question of whether the Vikings wore helmets. There are those who believe the Vikings did, in fact, wear helmets, and that the gap in the archeological record is a sort of fluke. The other camp finds the lack of evidence in the archeological record telling. Perhaps the Vikings—the early Vikings, at least—wore no helmets at all. The following are the arguments for and against:

The argument against Viking helmets:

To date, archeologists have only recovered one Viking Age helmet in Scandinavia (pictured below). It dates back to the 9th century and is named the Gjerbundu helmet. It is the most popular style of helmet reproduced for historical reenactment, and for good reason—it has no real competitors. Other items such as swords, axes, various articles of clothing, ships, and even maille have been more commonly found in Viking Age burials and dig sites, which has led many to question whether helmets were ever commonly worn by the warrior class of the time.

Gjermundbu helmet
The Gjerbundu Helmet

In 2009, a mass grave in Weymouth, England thought to contain the remains of a massacred Viking army revealed a well-preserved helmet with an eyepiece uncharacteristic of Anglo-Saxon headgear. Although not entirely conclusive, it is evidence that helmets may have been worn by Vikings. Yet, if the Vikings did wear helmets, how could a mass grave filled with dozens of bodies only have one? The find raises more questions than it answers.

In the last few decades, a spattering of helmet fragments have been found, but they are too incomplete to be helpful in the discussion. Some will argue that helmets were re-smelted and reused for other things, which might explain their rarity. This argument holds little merit considering the metal from many other commonly found metal artifacts would make for much easier repurposing, but we still find plenty of those in the ground. The fact that helmets are such a rare find is a strong indication that, at the very least, iron helmets were not commonly made or utilized. Until more artifacts are found, the presumption should be that Viking Age Scandinavians did not commonly wear helmets.

The argument for Viking helmets:

The lack of archeological specimens of helmets does not necessarily indicate that they were not commonly used. Metal was in high demand in the Viking Age, and even more so later in the medieval period. Quality metals, such as those found in helmets, may have been melted down, refined, and repurposed, which may help to explain the lack of helmets in the archeological record. 

There is evidence in the historical record, such as in the representation of a Viking attack on Guérande in the Annales D’Angoulême (pictured below), that the Norsemen did wear helmets. Helmets are also mentioned in the sagas as being important and valuable possessions for warriors.

Did the Vikings wear helmets? Vikings in Guerande
Vikings attack Guerende, from the Miracles of St. Aubin

We also know that helmets were commonly used in Scandinavia before the Viking Age. The Sutton-hoo helmets are perhaps among the most iconic post-Roman artifacts of Britain, and they belong to a shared culture that originated in Sweden, called the Vendel. It is unlikely that Scandinavians of the Viking Age would have regressed so far as to give up on helmets. The technology was there and coupled with the artifacts we do have, and the historical and hagiographic record, we can say that the Vikings did wear helmets. 

Who is right?

There is not enough information to give a definitive answer. A lack of helmets in the archeological record poses a particularly perplexing argumentative problem because it neither proves nor disproves the widespread use of helmets by the Vikings. Those who argue against the widespread use of helmets will never be able to prove they weren’t used. This problem is further compounded by artistic representations by historians from the time whose artwork may or may not be accurate. Short of a lucky find of a mass grave containing numerous helmet-clad warriors, we may never know for sure. Thus, for now, all we can really say is that we don’t know, but one person at least wore a helmet!

A Silver Ring from the Viking Age Discovered in the Netherlands

The National Museum of Antiquities of the Netherlands has added a recently found silver ring to its medieval collection. Dated to the mid-10th century, museum curators believe the new find was worn as a pendant, indicated by wear marks on the inside edge of the ring. The ring was found in a cornfield near Hoogwoud, in Holland.

A fairly rare find

The silver was found on Christmas Day, 2019 by a man with a metal detector in a cornfield. He later alerted The National Museum of Antiquities of the Netherlands, who bought the ring from him. The Viking ring from Hoogwoud has become part of the National Collection, and further research on its origins is in the works. Finds from the tenth and eleventh centuries are quite rare in the Netherlands. The Rijksmuseum van Oudheden is preparing an exhibition about the period, where the ring will be on display in a few years.

A ring with a thin filigree

The ring was likely forged from a single bar of silver finely crafted to resemble a braid. A filigree thread runs through the entire band, making it look as if the silver is braided. With a diameter of twenty-five millimeters, the ring is too large to be worn on a finger. More likely, it is a miniature version of the famed arm rings known to have been popular in Viking Age Scandinavia.

Silver ring found in the netherlands
Silver ring found in the Netherlands. Photo courtesy of The Dutch National Museum of Antiquities.

Viking Rings in the Netherlands

From the ninth century onward, the north of Holland, then called Frisia, was a base for Vikings from Scandinavia who launched raids on cities further inland. A Viking probably lost the jewel during his stay in the area. Similar silver rings have been found in the Netherlands before. The new ring is very similar to a gold Viking ring that was found in Friesland and is part of the collection of the Frisian Museum.

Discovery originally covered by The Dutch National Museum of Antiquities.