When Allah met Odin I

At about the same time as Harald Bluetooth was erecting his great monument to Viking Christianity at Jelling, and the Wessex dynasty was completing the first unification of England with the expulsion of Harald’s brother-in-law Erik Bloodaxe from York, seafaring Vikings of the old-fashioned sort (Erik perhaps among them) were making, after an interval of almost a century, a second series of violent investigations of the territory and peoples of al-Andalus (Muslim Spain and Portugal), and the northern and western shores of Africa.

Muslim civilization had grown dramatically since the founding of the religion in Mecca in about 610 and Mohammed’s emigration to Medina in 622. The territorial and cultural expansion eastward and westward during the period of the Umayyad caliphs in the eighth century created an empire that extended from the borders of China to the Atlantic Ocean, from the Sahara to the Caspian Sea, from India to al-Andalus. With the rise to power of the Abbasid caliphs in the middle of the eighth century, the capital of the Islamic empire moved east, from Damascus to Baghdad. A dramatic rise in interest in Hellenistic and Persian culture followed, and the writing of local, Arab-nationalist literature that had characterized the Umayyad period was replaced by a universal literature. Much of it was scientific. As well as mathematics and cosmography, it reflected a vivid interest in the history and geography of the many peoples with whom the expansion of the seventh and eighth centuries had brought the Arabs into contact. The postal service of the Islamic empire assumed an important role in this trend, facilitating communication and knowledge of the routes and roads that bound the far-flung and disparate parts of the vast empire together; its head of staff was a leading political figure who was also chief of the security service. Books written initially for the purpose of describing the routes connecting the empire presently evolved into textbooks that nurtured an abstract interest in the history and geography of the peoples of the world, and most of what we know of the encounters between Vikings and Arabs in the territories bordering on the east and west of the Muslim empire is derived from books written in this spirit of enlightenment.

In the east, the Arab geographers and historians used the term ar-Rus for the Scandinavians they met in Russia and the surrounding regions; those in Spain and western Europe used the term al-madjus. The term al-madjus was not coined for the Vikings but was applied to them by Arab scholars in the belief that they were fire-worshippers, like the Persian Zoroastrians, whom they erroneously believed to practise cremation of the dead. ‘Their religion is that of the Magi,’ wrote the late thirteenth-century historian Al-Watwat, ‘and they burn their dead with fire.’ Ibn Said, a thirteenth-century geographer and traveller, offered a persuasive logic when he explained the worship of fire among northern peoples by the fact that ‘nothing seems more important to them than fire, for the cold in their lands is severe’. Al-madjus derives from Old Persian magush, which is also the etymological root of the Spanish word mago meaning ‘wizard’ or ‘astrologer’, and of the English word ‘magician’. It is familiar in Christian culture from the story of the three wise men, or magi, who travelled to Bethlehem to hail the birth of the infant Christ. The Vikings were also known as Lordomani and Lormanes in western Latin and Spanish sources. From the earliest times, Arab scholars were aware of the fact that they were dealing with the same people, whether they encountered them east of the Baltic, on Spain’s Atlantic coast, or in the Mediterranean: a geographical study written in 889 by al-Yaqubi refers to the Viking attack on Seville in 844 as ‘by the Magus, who are called the Rus’.

This raid on Seville is generally regarded as announcing the start of the Iberian Viking Age, although the Scandinavian arabist Arne Melvinger noted that Ibn al-Atir, the thirteenth-century historian, used the term al-madjus to identify a force that came to the aid of Alphonse II, king of Galicia, during his campaign against the Arabs in 795. Based on this, Melvinger went on to contemplate the possibility of a Viking presence on the peninsula a full half-century prior to this. He accordingly found it less easy than other commentators have done to dismiss, as poetic licence or simple factual error, Notker the Stammerer’s description of Charlemagne’s distress as the emperor sat at supper in an unnamed coastal town in Narbonensian Gaul and watched a small fleet of longships carrying out a raid on the harbour, for he was able to suggest a possible connection between Notker’s Vikings and the al-madjus who fought for Alphonse II in 795. The Arab military actions against Bayonne in 814, and in 823 and 825 in the Mundaka–Guernica fjord area of what is now Biscay, have all been related to the possible presence of al-madjus bases in these areas. These al-madjus can hardly have been Persian Zoroastrians, but the persistent use by Arab writers of the same term to denote both groups makes certain identification impossible. An objection to the argument for a Viking presence on the peninsula at such an early date is that they had almost certainly not yet established themselves sufficiently in either Ireland or western Francia, the natural staging-posts such bases would seem to require for the undertaking to be logistically credible. There is also the view of a school of Basque historians who posit a late conversion to Christianity in the Vascony area, and take all references to al-madjus in the Arab histories of raids and battles of the ninth and tenth centuries to be to Heathen Basques rather than Vikings.

As a development of the large-scale penetration by river of the northern territories of the Frankish empire, the first serious Viking attack on the Iberian peninsula in 844 came from a fleet that had navigated its way up the Garonne as far as Toulouse before retracing its route and heading south into the Bay of Biscay, following the coastline west past the tiny kingdoms of Asturia, Cantabria and Galicia that divided Christian Europe from Muslim Spain, raiding in Gijon and La Coruña on the way before being met and heavily defeated by Asturian forces under King Ramiro I. Many longships were lost in the attack and the fleet retreated to Aquitaine (or, if we allow the possibility, to a base in Bayonne).

A few months later a fleet of eighty longships, with square brown sails that ‘covered the sea like dark birds’, appeared off Lisbon, in the estuary of the Tagus, and over a thirteen-day period engaged in three sea-battles with local ships before heading further south. The harbour at Cadiz was occupied, and while one group made its way inland to Medina-Sidonia, the main body of the fleet sailed up the Guadalquivir into the very heartland of al-Andalus and established a base on an island not far from Seville. The city was taken, seemingly without resistance, for most of the inhabitants had fled to Carmona or up into the mountains north of Seville, and for some two weeks the city was in Viking hands. With the banks of the great river a noted centre for the breeding of horses they were able to range far and wide across the region in their plundering. As other ships arrived to join the occupying force, those occupants who had not managed to flee were massacred. Others – women and children – were taken captive. It seems the sheer unexpectedness of the raid on Seville astounded the authorities in the capital of Cordova, for it was some time before the emir Abd al-Rahman II thought to order the army out against them. With the help of catapult-machines the army drove the Vikings out of the city and some 500 of them were killed. Four Viking ships were captured intact.

In the middle of November the Vikings were again defeated, again with heavy loss of life. Thirty longships were burnt, and the corpses of Viking captives hung from the palm trees of Seville and Talyata. In symbolic triumph, the heads of the expedition leader and 200 of his men were sent to the Berber emir in Tangier. What remained of the fleet made its way back north up the coast. Abd al-Rahman II’s response to the dreadful novelty of these raids from the sea was to build a number of warships of his own and to establish a chain of lookout posts along the Atlantic coast. Seville was restored, its defences strengthened and an arsenal established.

There is no record of any further Viking activity in the region until the arrival in 859 of a second fleet of sixty Viking ships. Two that were sailing in advance were spotted and captured off the coast of the Algarve, complete with their cargo of booty and slaves. The rest sailed on, passing the Guadalquivir, which was now too well guarded to force, and making land at Algeciras, where they burnt down the mosque. Resuming their voyage, probably with the intention of entering the Straits of Gibraltar, they were driven by bad weather down the Atlantic coast of Morocco as far as Asilah. Making their way back to the Straits they entered the Mediterranean and followed the coast of North Africa as far as Nakur, a town identified as modern Nador, near what is now the small Spanish enclave of Melilla. Over the course of the next eight days they raided the beaches for slaves. This fleet was probably the same one that then went on to raid in the Balearic Islands of Formentera, Majorca and Minorca, landed at Rosellon near present-day Perpignan, plundered and burnt the monastery on the banks of the river Ter and even reached the north Italian city of Luna (now Lucca). Returning along the coast of al-Andalus, they attacked Pamplona and captured García, king of Navarra, whom they ransomed for 70,000 gold coins. A long and well-established Viking Age tradition holds that the leaders of this expedition were Hasting (aka Anstign, aka Hastein, aka Astignus) and Bjørn Ironside.

The attack on Luna was made, according to Dudo, because Hasting erroneously believed it to be Rome and was unable to resist the lure of an assault on the very heart of institutionalized Christianity. Feigning contrition for his evil ways, Hasting contacted local Christian leaders and allowed himself to be baptized. Returning to his men he outlined the plan: they were to pretend he had died and request permission for his body to receive a Christian burial within the city. Once inside the walls, it was a simple matter for him to leap from the coffin and lead his men in a massacre of the innocents of the city. Luna was certainly plundered; but the tactics used to gain entry to the city are less certain, and the ruse of ‘playing dead’ was a familiar example of Viking and Norman cunning that was also attributed to other heroes of the age, including the legendary Danish King Frodo, Robert Guiscard, the eleventh-century Norman duke of Apulia, and the eleventh-century king of Norway, Harald Hardrada.

As a postscript to this first round of ninth-century Viking raids on the Iberian peninsula and beyond, the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland for 867 offer a dramatized account of the background to the Africa campaign which ingeniously relates it to the arrival of the Great Heathen Army in England, and again emphasizes the role of slave-taking and slave-trading in such enterprises:

At this time came the Aunites (that is, the Danes) with innumerable armies to York, and they sacked the city, and they overcame it; and that was the beginning of harassment and misfortunes for the Britons; for it was not long before this that there had been every war and every trouble in Norway, and this was the source of that war in Norway: two younger sons of Albdan (Halfdan), king of Norway, drove out the eldest son, i.e. Ragnall son of Albdan, for fear that he would seize the kingship of Norway after their father. So Ragnall came with his three sons to the Orkneys. Ragnall stayed there then, with his youngest son. The older sons, however, filled with arrogance and rashness, proceeded with a large army, having mustered that army from all quarters, to march against the Franks and Saxons. They thought that their father would return to Norway immediately after their departure.

Then their arrogance and their youthfulness incited them to voyage across the Cantabrian Ocean and they reached Spain, and they did many evil things in Spain, both destroying and plundering. After that they proceeded across the Gaditanean Straits, so that they reached Africa, and they waged war against the Mauritanians, and made a great slaughter of the Mauritanians. However, as they were going to this battle, one of the sons said to the other, ‘Brother,’ he said, ‘we are very foolish and mad to be killing ourselves going from country to country throughout the world, and not to be defending our own patrimony, and doing the will of our father, for he is alone now, sad and discouraged in a land not his own, since the other son whom we left along with him has been slain, as has been revealed to me.’ It would seem that that was revealed to him in a dream vision; and his other son was slain in battle; and moreover, the father himself barely escaped from that battle—which dream proved to be true.

While he was saying that, they saw the Mauritanian forces coming towards them, and when the son who spoke the above words saw that, he leaped suddenly into the battle, and attacked the king of the Mauritanians, and gave him a blow with a great sword and cut off his hand. There was hard fighting on both sides in this battle, and neither of them won the victory from the other in that battle. But all returned to camp, after many among them had been slain. However, they challenged each other to come to battle the next day. The king of the Mauritanians escaped from the camp and fled in the night after his hand had been cut off. When the morning came, the Norwegians seized their weapons and readied themselves firmly and bravely for the battle. The Mauritanians, however, when they noticed that their king had departed, fled after they had been terribly slain.

Thereupon the Norwegians swept across the country, and they devastated and burned the whole land. Then they brought a great host of them captive with them to Ireland. For Mauri is the same as nigri; ‘Mauritania’ is the same as nigritudo. Now those black men remained in Ireland for a long time.

The Arabic records that tell of the third series of Viking raids on the peninsula that began in June 966 sound a weary and frightened echo of the responses of Anglo-Saxon and Frankish chroniclers at their reappearance, and at the predictably violent nature of their errand. The experiences of previous encounters over 100 years earlier had etched itself on the communal memory. The thirteenth-century Moroccan scholar Ibn al-Idari wrote of the response to the sighting of a fleet of twenty-eight ships off the coast of what is now Alcacer do Sal, in the province of Alentejo, just south of Lisbon, ‘that the people of the region were very alarmed, because in former times al-magus had been in the habit of attacking al-Andalus’. Descriptions of the size of the fleets, their movements and doings have the same fearful precision of the western chroniclers, and their sentences are punctuated in the same way by outbursts of pious despair: ‘May Allah destroy them!’ Ibn al-Idari cries out, in the middle of a tale of how the caliph, al-Hakam, hit upon a plan of disguising some ships in his own fleet as longships, in the hope that they would function as decoys and lure the Vikings into the Guadalquivir harbour.

The nucleus of this Viking fleet was the large remainder of an army of Danish Vikings which had arrived in the duchy of Normandy early in the 960s at the request of Duke Richard I to give him military assistance in a regional conflict. Some returned home once the business was settled; some accepted Richard’s offer of land in return for baptism; the remainder set off raiding in Galicia and Leon in the north-west of Spain, even-handedly attacking both Christian and Muslim targets along the way. After encountering some resistance, they were joined in 968 by a fleet of 100 ships under a leader known to the Muslims as Gunderedo and threatened the Galician town of Santiago de Compostela, by this time a place of pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Joseph (Jakob) and, as a result, a very wealthy town. They landed at the head of the Arousa inlet and, while the bishop of Compostela tried to organize resistance, spread terror through the region, burning down buildings, killing and thieving. When at length the bishop arrived at the head of an armed force they withdrew to a place called Fornelos. In a later engagement, the bishop was killed by an arrow and the demoralized Galician troops fled the field of battle and left the people to the mercies of the Vikings. For the next three years they remained a dominant and terrifying presence in the area. Why this dominance in Galicia did not translate into formal possession is not clear; but the last recorded raid in this particular series was an overland advance in June 972 to the Algarve by a Viking army.

A fourth and final wave of Viking attacks that lasted from 1008 to 1038 was notable for the involvement of Olav Haraldson, a future king of Norway, whose redemptive career as a crusader among his own people we shall consider later. The raids were concentrated in the south-west of Galicia. In the most notorious of them, the Vikings sailed up the Miño river to the town of Tui, which they burnt and destroyed. Bishop Don Alfonso was captured, along with a great number of other Christian officials, presumably for ransom, though the records do not say so. Olav’s court poets, Sigvat and Ottar the Black, both refer to their master’s adventures in Spain. The fact that Snorri does not do so in his Saga of St Olav may be a discretionary omission by a Christian author who was self-consciously writing a hagiography in which such details had no place. Twenty years later the Vikings were back in Galicia, briefly this time but apparently again successfully, for their commander made himself a name there and was remembered as ‘the Galician Wolf’.

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