Diversity in the Viking Age

By now you should know the Vikings were expert traders, navigators and explorers as well as the raiders and warriors you see more often in popular culture.

They mixed with a diverse range of people and cultures.

Yet the Viking and Nordic imagery continues to be appropriated by neo nazi groups. You can see why the stereotypical viking in popular culture may appeal to white supremacist groups for example; tall, strong, pale skin, fair hair, a passion for preserving an older way of life against Christianity (and other threats) that could be equated to a modern opposition to immigration and multi-culturalism. It was a time of strong men willing to take risks on the seas and stand shoulder to shoulder with their shield brothers.

Much of this is true, and certain aspects of their way of life might appeal to anyone for dozens of different reasons, regardless of political views. The perceived racial aspects however are a falsehood based on assumed history. The Vikings were strong men (and in some rare cases women) who took risks, celebrated the wild north and lived dangerously, but not because they were white skinned or fair haired, or blue eyed.

Some historians argue we should look at the Vikings as an earlier form of the pirates we associate with the 17th and 18th century. As you probably know by now, to go a-viking meant to go on an expedition overseas, usually raiding in the summer. The word vikingr actually translates as pirate. And like the pirates of the golden age of piracy almost 1,000 years later, there was a lot more tolerance for race and identity than you might think.

In September 2020, the largest ever DNA sequencing of Viking age skeletons was carried out, and the results found that not only were many Vikings brown haired, there was significant genetic ancestry from southern Europe and Asia.

Several individuals in Norway were buried as Vikings, but their genes identified them as Saami, an Indigenous group genetically closer to East Asians and Siberians than to Europeans.

Kiona N. Smith of Ars Technica writes that the study’s genetic evidence underscores a Viking identity as “people who set sail to raid, trade, fish, and settle” who “saw themselves as members of distinct groups, with a shared culture but not a shared identity.” The greater genetic diversity in Viking Age urban centres “indicates that Vikings mingled pretty freely, and on a large scale, with the people they encountered on their travels. They were also willing to welcome outsiders into their own culture.”

There are many things we can take from this study alone, but it is safe to assume that while it was expected to be a Viking you had to act like one and adopt the culture, being a white Scandinavian was not a prerequisite – in fact the Vikings welcomed a diverse range of people.

Not only did they welcome them, they went out and met them where they lived, brought them into their Viking parties, married them into their families, and buried them as their own. The rural folk who never left their local farmlands may have remained more homogenous, but the Vikings who lived in the thriving trading centers and voyaged out into the world embraced diverse peoples and engineered their own social and genetic diversity.

In A History of the Vikings by Gwyn Jones, the author argues, “The viking peoples who lived between the neck of Jutland and the Lofotens, Sogn, and Uppsala, were not all alike, and emphatically not of one ‘pure’ nordic race.

But two main types of Scandinavian have always been recognizable: the one tall of stature, fair or ruddy complexioned, light-haired, blue-eyed, long of face and skull; the other shorter, dark-complexioned, brown- or dark-haired, brown-eyed, broad-face and round of skull.” 

Of course, the latitude of Scandinavia and the genetic adaptations the people who lived there had made over millennia means that most Norsemen and indeed most Vikings were white skinned – this isn’t disputed. But the idea of these supposedly ‘racially pure’ populations of Vikings isn’t accurate.

People with dark skin, other than the darker skinned Scandinavians pre-existing in the region, made their way there as willing travellers. Dark-skinned people from Northern Africa, and certain places in southern Europe like Spain, explored unknown areas just like other Europeans and Asians who sought to discover what foreign lands were like.

Like others, black travellers were looking for resources like fertile land, meaty game, and valuable goods. Over time, some settled in the regions they explored and settled in Northern Europe.

Others were taken there as slaves. The second generation and beyond were born in the region, and were often assimilated into the culture and society despite their heritage being elsewhere. Some of these people went a-viking.

There was a Viking of Norwegian-Mongolian heritage named Geirmund Heljarskinn (“Geirmund the black skinned”) who is said to have lived between 850 and 905. His father was King Hjør (king of Avaldsnes a petty kingdom in Rogaland, Norway) and his mother was Ljufvina.

Hjør and Ljufvina had two children, Geirmund and Håmund. It is said that they were dark skinned and were therefore called “Heljarskinn”.

Even though the majority of Vikings would have been white Scandinavians, we must acknowledge the evidence of people from various backgrounds being accepted in Viking society in addition to Vikings embracing and even adopting parts of other cultures. For example, there have been multiple finds of Vikings with the word ‘Allah’ stitched into their funeral clothing. This would either suggest a Viking with descent from the Islamic caliphate for example, or a Scandinavian Viking adopting parts of the cultures he encountered. Perhaps there were Muslim Vikings as some of the DNA uncovered was found to be of Persian descent.

Ultimately, there is less information about the Viking age than many other eras of the middle ages simply because of the lack of written sources in pre-Christian Scandinavia. The evidence we do have paints a picture of a society more concerned with exploration, trade and discovery than with the skin colour or ethnic origin of its raiders.

For a brilliant fictional read, inspired by real history, check out my review of Althingi: The Crescent and the Northern Star, an anthology from Joshua Gillingham and Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad exploring the interactions between the Viking and Islamic world. It’s an excellent read!


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