In last few weeks, I had the chance to read several articles that connect Viking Age with racist and anti-racist movements of different countries. For a person living in the Czech Republic, whose re-enactment scene is not contaminated by racists and is more focused in authenticity, this is an incomprehensible problem. However, I feel the need to intervene, when it comes to misinterpretation of history.
In fact, no real history enthusiast would ever combined “medieval/Viking” and “racism” in one sentence. There are at least two reasons. Firstly, we cannot simplify the main problems to yes or no questions, because actual reality is too complex for being comprehended by the answer. That means, a misleading question gives you a misleading answer. As my favourite speaker professor Stanislav Komarek says:
Europe is used to think in a cold way – in yes or no questions. This could lead to the invention of computers, for example, but not to mind harmony or to realistic perception of the world. In medias, we can hear a lot of pseudo-questions, like “Is human nature peaceful or aggressive?”, “Is capitalism good or bad?”, “Is human purpose to work or to have fun?”. These questions are totally goofy. […] It is important to stress that a person from a different culture cannot understand this kind of questions.
Secondly, it is not possible to judge the past, based on our modern experience and value system. The fact we have the word “racism” in our dictionaries for around 100 years and we understand the meaning (“Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior“) does not determine the same kind of knowledge in previous cultures and societies. This phenomenon is called cultural relativism.
More correct questions would be “What was the relationship of Old Norse people (including Vikings) to other European and non-European societies?” or “Are there any sources that show Old Norse people acting as what we call racists?”. To find out, we have to describe the main signs of the period. We are talking about millions of people, living in several centuries, different circumstances, weather climate and with various customs. It will always be difficult to summarize such a huge, inhomogeneous mass of people. The Early medieval world was cosmopolitan in the transport of both people and objects, but – at the same time – relatively closed with regard to traditions and habits. Old Norse culture was fixed to customs of fathers, very similar to what we can see in “primitive” societies of the modern world. Changes were accepted in the span of decades and centuries, not months and years as is normal today. The life in that period was much more focused on continuation, on the long-term aspects and the connection to a family, land and traditions.
In the world where – due to the lack of the centralized mechanism – every person can easily kill her/his non-related opponent, one will develop a very good sense for suspiciousness, self- and kin-defence, fame and shame. From our point of view, Viking Age Scandinavia would be a very hostile place to be, with a fragile peace sticking the community together; a typical feature of an uncentralized society that is infested by continual struggle for domination. Speaking of supremacy, it is natural that people feel mutually superior to others, mainly to foreigners, strangers and poorer people. Judging by Sagas of Icelanders that are full of local micro-conflicts, there is no doubt that oppressions took place not only on the geographic level, but also on the hierarchic level. A kin from one side of a fjord felt superior to a kin from the other side, people of Firðafylki felt superior to the people of Sygnafylki, Norwegians felt superior to Icelanders, elites were mocking at lower classes and so on. In contrast to our modern society, there was also functional slave system that used a lot of prejudices and stereotypes (see the table below). It is way easier to became a suprematist in the world where people have different life values given by the law. Using modern terminology, these states could be called “hierarchical supremacy”, “ethnocentrism”, “kinship-centrism” or “proto-racism”, but definitely not “racism” as we know it.
Stereotypes of the Viking Age, gathered from Rígsþula (“The Lay of Ríg”).
It is true that the most of Early medieval Scandinavian population had what we call white skin, as is probable that bright-coloured hair was more prestigious than dark one. For a non-travelling person, the chance to meet a person with a different skin colour was rather low in the period. However, do sources attest any bad behaviour towards a person of a different skin colour? To avoid any misleading and concluding answer, let’s say that approaches surely varied and were not uniform. As the table shows, the lower status and worse physical appearance, the worse behaviour. If Rígsþula is not taken in account, there are two more examples. In the Eddic poem Hamðismál (“The Lay of Hamðir”), heroic brothers Hamðir and Sǫrli are mocking of their half-brother Erpr, who is said to be jarpskammr (“brown little one”). After a short conversation full of misunderstandings, Erpr is killed. The crucial fact behind the relevant word is probably that brothers consider their half-brother to be illegitimate and of half-Hun origin. The second source, Eiríks saga rauða (“The Saga of Erik the Red”), mentions the first meeting of a Norse group with a group of so-called Skrælingar (Indians/proto-Inuits) in what is now Newfoundland. The group of aboriginals are described in these words: “They were black men, ill-looking, with bad hair on their heads. They were large-eyed, and had broad cheeks.” In the source, the negative look plays the role of the first presage of later misunderstandings and fights. Eventually, two native boys are captured and taught the Norse language. A very similar behaviour can be seen in case of slaves that were captured in Ireland and taken to Iceland, where they were assimilated.
Landnámabók (“The Book of Settlement”) mentions three upper class or elite men with the infamous byname heljarskinn (“skin blue as hell”); two of them were probably sons of a Bjarmian concubine and there are some theories their bynames could be related to a possible Finnic / Mongolian origin. Despite the fact that Saami people are described as despicable seiðr-practitioners, shapeshifters and miraculous archers in some sources, these mentions seem to be a common literary formula, contradicting to a more realistic description (for example Ohthere). What is more, aggresive slave characters named as blámenn (“blue men”, men from the Northern Africa) sometimes occur at king’s courts in some sagas, but these could be a copy of the literary invention of High and Late medieval romances, where heroes use to slay dozens of angry Saracens, berserkir and blámenn.
Non-Scandinavian sources, the most promising group of evidence, seem to lack any relevant mention. Persian and Arabic sources mention rather positive relations with Norse people. Ahmad ibn Rustah noted that Rus had “the most friendly attitude towards foreigners and strangers who seek refuge.” Ahmad ibn Fadlan even recorded his good-humoured conversation about burial practises:
One of the Rūsiyyah stood beside me and I heard him speaking to my interpreter. I quizzed him about what he had said, and he replied, “He said, ‘You Arabs are a foolish lot!’” So I said, “Why is that?” and he replied, “Because you purposely take those who are dearest to you and whom you hold in highest esteem and throw them under the earth, where they are eaten by the earth, by vermin and by worms, whereas we burn them in the fire there and then, so that they enter Paradise immediately.” Then he laughed loud and long.
By this positive quote, we should end this short article. To sum up, it is impossible to use the word “racism” in the context of the Viking Age. The period people would probably not understand the concept of exclusively racial supremacy. However, the distinction was based on the status, property and appearance, and the final discriminating result could be similar. Before the very end, let me remind several notes. Do not forget that by asking yes and no questions, you are supporting the idea the world is black and white. Learn more about history and various cultures, do not expect people of the past to have the same manners as you. Remember one of the most important Old Norse principles – the foreign world is a place of strangenesses and dangers, but – simultaneously – it is a place of great potential and gain.
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I am sick of anachronistic history revisionism that is made up to appease progressive sentiments. The Vikings would be considered bigots by today’s standards. The name they gave Eskimos and Indians was the word skraegling which means short,ugly,dark person. Look it up. People during that time didn’t like or trust their neighbors yet alone people who looked different from them.
Actually skraegling only now means those things. the word was invented to describe the indigenous people they encountered and it’s true etymology is debated. it may mean “small and dark” but it may also mean “screaming” in reference to the war cries of those people. The word over time has changed in meaning and come to have racist connotations but that was not the meaning of the word when it was created. Those vikings did not give that name with the intent of it meaning heathen or barbarian as it does now it became that as a result of culture prejudice that developed later on. If they meant to call those people heathens and barbarians then they would have used the slurs of their era to describe them as such but they didn’t. Instead they came up with a totally new word to describe a totally new people. Over time that’s what the word became. similar to how the N word is derived from the spanish would for “black” but now is a slur that is incredibly dehumanizing because of the context of slavery and racism. The origin of the N-word was simply a descriptive of their skin color. It was cultural context and conflict a hundred years down the line that made it a slur. Fear of the other exists throughout history and that fear has evolved into our modern prejudices. Yes if you dropped a viking into the modern world they would be called a bigot but that’s not a good argument because if you dropped literally any medieval contemporary into the modern world they would be considered a bigot. That’s the nature of progress as our world view grows. Consequently that’s also how racism solidifies into a very specific hatred of a particular group as centuries of conflict become concentrated. But the question you have to ask is “is that conflict and the opinions of uneducated people who have been dead 1000 years at all relavent to our perception of groups today” and the answer is no. Just because uneducated medieval peasants feared “the other” doesn’t our hatred is justified. The point this article is making is that there is no history where vikings were xenophobic and racially pure because those concepts didn’t exist in 900AD when most modern European countries were just a collection of tribes who traded and fought with eachother, and there certainly was no history where viking society was bastion of racial diversity and acceptance. No society in the world are either of those things. Yet vikings are being romanticized as being a society that is somehow unique among its contemporaries when the reality is that they were no different than any other society in the medieval period. They took slaves, objectified their women, stole indigenous land, and committed atrocities against their enemies. But they also traded with other cultures, adopted the ideologies of other societies, empowered their women through land ownership and marital rights, and developed a beautiful complex mythos built around 9 moral virtues that extolled honor, courage, and community. If we looked this intently at any other culture you would see a similar dichotomy of good and bad. The point is stop putting ancient cultures of pedestals. Just like today they weren’t perfect but nor were they evil. You can love your culture and commit to not making the mistakes of your ancestors. Don’t use your culture to justify repeating those mistakes when you have a wealth of modern knowledge at your disposal.
Everyone is a racist to some degree and there is nothing wrong with that. Birds of a feather flock together. I went to a very diverse school growing up and people who were similar to one another normally hung out with each other, it’s human nature and it’s not a bad thing. Europeans should be proud of their ancestors just like Africans and Asians should be proud of theirs. In today’s modern Marxist/politically correct world one finds himself always so worried about appeasing others, it’s very sickening
I agree wholeheartedly.
Actually Marxist are the racist, and keep using it to divide people.. First of all, there is no such thing as race, its a modern concept, used to divide. The more wr learn of humanity, the more the concept of race, becomes ridiculous. We only have ethnicity, nationality (born in America? You’re American), and most important, culture. But we are the race of man, and all come from the same place. The differences are beautiful. I was in a diverse school as well.. I didnt hang out with people based on skin color, but if they appeared to maybe be into the things I were. I remember this black kid in my programming class, he was the only black kid in the class, but he got along with everyone, we all became friends fast, because we were all artist, geeks, and shy, but also loved metal music. He said he didnt realize, or even think of himself as being the only black kid in the class, nor did he feel alone, or out of place..
First time you encounter something different you perceive it as ugly. For example one African tribe named some “Anglo” people they encountered as “Skinless” and they thought of them as physically repulsive. Also the ideal of beauty is important. For instance in Epic poems of southern Slavs, hero is always described as tall (towering everyone) with long strong black hair, black eyes and ruddy skin. Yellow hair was perceived as the trait of softness, pale skin as unhealthy(for a man) and dark skin as not very attractive especially for a woman. It was more of a beuty taste combined sometimes with fear of the unknown. I never encountered “organized” racial animosity towards entire groups of people in history.
Of course the viking was somewhat racists lol… They lived in a fucking brutal culture, with hatred, child offerings, decapitations, insanity, etc… Off course they would have been somewhat racists at least very entocentric!” Im Danish and of allmost 100% viking ancestry. Your sincirely, Gert.
Thank you for your thoughtful article. I have Danish ancestry and so have been fascinated by Norse culture. In particular I have read everything about the Lewis Chessmen. However lately I have been concerned about the conscript of this culture. Your article and the The phenomenon of cultural relativism improved my understanding.
Thank you for your feedback, I am glad that article helped you!
Have a nice day!
Best regards from Prague