It’s been some time since my last Map Monday, one of my favourite excuses for meandering the Internet for map discoveries. I’ve been wanting to do a map post on the Vikings for some time, but never did I expect when I started my extensive (I’m joking) research that I’d find a direct connection to Ukraine. Let’s take a look. [You can click on any of the maps for a closer look.]
It’s always occurred to me that the Vikings are purposefully and unfairly overlooked in European history, as if they were barbaric enemies of Europe, best forgotten. Instead, for far too long we were taught all about the brave and industrious explorations of “real” Europeans, like the Spanish, French, British, Portuguese, Dutch and German. Of course, eventually the reality of their own barbarity could no longer be hidden, and the history of the explorers hopefully is no longer written with quite such inspiring descriptions as it was when I was a school kid.
But back to the Vikings. Sorry, other Europeans, but the Vikings were European. They looked like Europeans and they were born and lived in Europe. That counts as European! They explored the world long before other European nations/empires started, which, interestingly, continues to be never or rarely mentioned. The Vikings established a settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland – in what is now Canada – nearly 500 years before Columbus landed on an island in the Bahamas (which he thought was East Asia). You can still visit the remains of the settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows today.
The Vikings continue to be described as heathen warriors who raped and pillaged. Excuse me, but, sadly, the fact that they had not yet adopted a Christian practice (and stop and think what this practice might have been like in the year 1000), had very little to do with trying to take over someone else’s land by rape and pillage. That unfortunate inclination of mankind towards others when they think they’d like to take over their lands and/or riches has absolutely nothing to do with whether they believe in God (or Allah) or not. In fact, as we all know, God is used as an excuse to be as brutal as necessary/possible in many instances. And this hasn’t changed in the past 1000 years, as we are continually reminded. God, of course, would never condone any of these vicious things that are done in His name, but for some reason being a heathen makes it worse. Sure.
So we have these brave, enterprising heathens from Scandinavia who created settlements far and wide, all before 1100 A.D. They figured out how to sail – and row – ships across the North Atlantic way back then. Into the unknown. That feat alone is simply mind-blowing. And they settled parts of Greenland and Iceland – and Newfoundland (they called North America Vinland) with the intention of settling their own populations there, to support their fisheries so far away and to attempt to sustain themselves through farming as well as fishing. Stories have it that Eric the Red was one of the world’s first marketers. He called the new land Greenland in the hopes that the idea of a “green” idyll would entice his countrymen to want to settle there.
As you can see from the maps, it wasn’t just the North Atlantic and the north of England that the Vikings explored and disrupted. They went surprisingly far eastward, including establishing settlements throughout what is now western Russia and Ukraine.
The Vikings might have had a lot to say in the current debate about origins of the Russian and Ukrainian states, if their voice had not been long ago silenced. Between the 8th and 11th centuries, it is generally accepted that groups of Swedish travellers and soldiers – aka the Vikings – seized and settled in areas surrounding the river routes between the Black and Caspian seas. Through this, they came to be known as the Kyivan Rus’, which is commonly considered to be the beginning of modern-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Yet the influence of Scandinavians in this is usually ignored to the same extent that the Vikings extraordinary early arrival in North America is ignored in deference to Columbus. In a carefully crafted essay by Russian President Putin last year, he completely overlooks the Scandinavians/Vikings in his claim that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people – a single whole.”
There is also considerable evidence of the strong and longstanding interactions between the Vikings and the Caliphates in the Middle East. This is based on the many Islamic artifacts that have been found in Scandinavia and Britain, dating from as early as 800 A.D., which gives an idea of just how early connections and trade may have started between Vikings and the western end of the Silk Road. So it turns out that the Vikings were far-ranging commercial travellers long before they arrived on British shores. Using connecting rivers, the Vikings made their way far into the Middle East, travelling to towns like Constantinople – which the Vikings called Miklagaard – Baghdad and Jerusalem. In fact, Vikings made up the vast majority of the Varangian Guard, protectors of the Byzantine Emperors between the 10th and 14th Centuries.
As you can see, there is far more to appreciate in the explorations and, indeed, contributions to history of the Vikings than the popular modern images of rampaging pagan Norsemen and their gods: Thor, Odin, and Frey.
More details about the Vikings in present-day Ukraine and Russia can be found at history.com https://www.history.com/news/vikings-in-russia-kiev-rus-varangians-prince-oleg:
Image sources: Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, mapsontheweb.zoom-maps.com, brilliantmaps.com