When Allah met Odin II

Other records exist, left by Arab travellers who encountered the Vikings under less fraught circumstances than these and who were able to indulge their anthropological curiosity to leave us an elliptical view of Viking culture that is largely missing from the wounded accounts of Christian scribes in the British Isles and in mainland Europe. We have already met Ibn Fadlan, who closely observed, among other things, the funerary rituals of the travelling band of Rus traders he met on the Volga in 921, and the geographer Ibn Rustah, who travelled to Novgorod with the Rus at a slightly later date than his fellow Muslim and noted down his impressions of the people and their home. Ibn Fadlan’s descriptions veer dramatically from admiration at the physique of the Rus – ‘I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Volga. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date-palms and ruddy-complexioned’ – to disgust at their failure to wash themselves after defecating, urinating and having sexual intercourse. The day began with a slave-girl who passed among the members of the group carrying a pitcher of water in which each washed his hands, face and hair and then cleared his nose and spat. The process was repeated until all had used the same water in the same fashion. With the Volga flowing by outside, the economy would seem unnecessary. Perhaps some bonding ritual was involved that reinforced the group identity and strengthened its internal loyalty. Constantine Porphyrogenitos, in his description of Rus traders making their way down the Dneiper to trade in Constantinople, drew particular attention to the ‘one for all and all for one mentality’ that guided their behaviour. Ibn Rustah observed the same thing: ‘If one group of them is challenged to war, they all join forces. They stand firm as one man against their enemies until they have won the victory over them.’ His account is generally more sympathetic than Ibn Fadlan’s and is free from the latter’s occasional flourishes of disgust:

They keep their clothes clean and the men adorn themselves with armbands of gold. They treat their servants well and dress exquisitely because they are such keen traders. ( … ) They are generous to each other, honour their guests and treat well those who seek refuge with them, and all who come to visit them. They do not allow anyone to annoy or harm these. And whenever anyone dares to treat them unfairly they help and defend them.

Walrus tusks and furs were no doubt valuable and rare commodities to take to market in the Arab world, but Ibn Fadlan and Ibn Rustah both noted the importance of slave-trading:

They terrorize the Slavs, whom they reach by ship. They take prisoners there and transport them to Hazaran and Bulgar and sell them there. They do not own fields, but live entirely off what they bring from the land of the Slavs.

Ibn Fadlan observed that each Rus woman wore pinned to her breast a band of silver, copper or gold, its size determined by the wealth of her man, from which a knife hung. Around their necks the women wore gold and silver rings, each ring representing 10,000 dirham or Arabic coins. For much of the early Viking Age the status of the dirham was such that it was a universally accepted currency, in much the same way as the American dollar is today, and was widely copied or counterfeited. Some of the dirham from the Vårby hoard found near Stockholm have small Christian crosses added above the Islamic inscription, suggesting they may have been struck in a Christian area. Dirham make up a regular feature of the coin hoards unearthed across the Viking world, from Cuerdale in the north-west of England to Spilling’s Farm in the north-east of Gotland. The sheer volume of them is testimony to the extent of the trade relations that existed between Arabs and Vikings in the east, with Gotland and Birka as the main channels for conveying the coins westward; but as we noted earlier, for a Viking the value of the dirham remained its silver content, not its monetary value. Dirham were for daily use, and the fact that so many of them were buried underground by Vikings in their own territories suggests that they were so plentiful as to have attained the status of a surplus material.

It was inevitable that misunderstandings should arise as these Arab travellers tried to make sense of the ritual and mores of this alien culture. Ibn Rustah wrote that the friends of a dead warrior dig him a grave resembling a large house and place him in it, along with his clothes, his gold arm-bands, food, drink and coins, and that his favourite wife is buried alive with him before the grave is closed. There are no indications from any native Scandinavian source that the Vikings practised suttee. What is likely is that such travelling bands, be they Vikings, Rus or al-madjus, developed, as self-contained groups far from home do, their own set of rules and rituals that were unique to them. The degree to which the group observed by Ibn Fadlan was a self-sufficient unit is suggested by the presence among them of their very own priestess, the ‘Angel of Death’, whose functions included the ritual stabbing of the slave-girl who had ‘volunteered’ to accompany her dead master into the next world. Ibn Rustah likewise noted the terrifying power of the Rus priests:

They have their wizards, who decide on what they own as though they were their masters, and tell them to sacrifice to their creator whatever they decide of women, men and cattle. And once the wizards have made the decision, they are compelled to carry out their instructions. The wizard then takes the person or the animal from them, puts a rope around the neck and hangs them from a gallows until dead.

Ibn Fadlan’s group was rich enough to sacrifice an entire ship as a crematorium for its dead chieftain and his slave, but his informant told him that only the greatest chieftains warranted such ceremony. Rank-and-file members of the band were buried alone in small boats, while dead slaves were simply left to rot where they died. The cultural similarities between the Volga and Oseberg funerals include the use of ships as coffins and the provision of food, or perhaps companionship, for the dead in the form of freshly killed horses and dogs. The Volga funeral involved the sacrifice of a slave, and, as we noted earlier, one of the women in the Oseberg ship may have been sacrificed to accompany her mistress. But in terms of the imagined afterlife the differences are striking: the climax of the funeral on the Volga came with the burning of the ship, in which it resembles the ceremony carried out on the Île de Groix off the north-west coast of France, but is distinct from both the Oseberg and the Gokstad ship-funerals, where neither ships nor bodies were cremated.

Ibn Fadlan is the more sensationally inclined of these two great Arab observers and rounds off the Risala, or ‘little book’, as his account of his meetings with the Rus is known, by asserting that their king spent most of his time on an enormous throne studded with precious stones. Forty sexual slaves sat beside him, and whenever it pleased him to, he would take one in full view of his men. When he wished to mount his horse the animal was led to his throne, when he dismounted he did so directly on to his throne. Most striking of all, Ibn Fadlan claims that he did not even leave the throne to answer the call of nature but used a salver. This has the ring of a traveller’s tale to it, and lacks the obvious credibility of the account of the funeral and the events leading up to it. The main purpose of the embassy of which Ibn Fadlan was a part was to instruct the Bulgar kagan in the Islamic faith. Bearing in mind this religious goal, there is perhaps a point of contact between his reactions to the Rus and those of Alcuin, who was so clearly uneasy at the lack of physical modesty on the part of Heathens he had come across before Lindisfarne. There is an almost homoerotic quality to Ibn Fadlan’s description of the magnificence of the Rus as physical specimens, which he struggles to quell with disgusted descriptions of their lack of hygiene. Like the Christian Alcuin, Ibn was effortlessly convinced that, as a Muslim, he represented the higher culture. One exchange makes it clear that the Rus did not agree. Ibn Fadlan noticed his interpreter in conversation with one of the Rus and asked him what they had been talking about. The interpreter told him:

‘He said, “You Arabs are stupid!” So I said, “Why?” and he replied, “Because you take those who are dearest to you and whom you hold in highest esteem and you bury them under the earth, where they are eaten by the earth, by vermin and by worms. We burn them in the fire, straightaway, and they enter paradise immediately.” Then he laughed loud and long. I asked him why and he said, “Because of the love which my god feels for him. He has sent the wind to take him away within an hour.” ’ Actually, it took scarcely an hour for the ship, the firewood, the slave-girl and her master to be burnt to a fine ash.

Among the Vikings, uniformity of procedure on socially significant occasions like births, marriages and deaths waited on the introduction of Christianity and the spread of the written word for its imposition. But in his cheerful arrogance, this particular Rus seems to have known that, in one respect at least, they had the future on their side.

Ibn Rustah also tells us that the Rus were covered to their fingertips in tattoos depicting trees, figures and other designs. This is of a piece with what Alcuin and that other, anonymous, Anglo-Saxon commentator noted concerning the personal vanity of the Heathens, especially their fashion for ‘blinded eyes’, which may have been a form of eye-shadow. An Arab source leaves no doubt that eye make-up was common among the Rus: ‘once applied it never fades, and the beauty of both men and women is increased’. Tattooing was banned in 787 by Pope Hadrian because of its association with Heathendom and superstition, and Christian disapproval may account for the absence of any reference to tattoos in the descriptions of men and women in the sagas written down in the Christian era. Only a clutch of stray references, literary and archaeological, have survived to confirm that it was indeed practised. In the ‘Sigrdrífumál’, a gnomic poem on the deeds of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer collected in the Codex Regius, the hero wakes a Valkyrie named Sigrdrífa whom Odin has condemned to perpetual sleep for her disobedience, and compels her to reveal secrets to him. One verse ascribes a magical power to tattooing:

Ale-runes you will want       if another man’s wife

tries to betray your trust;

scratch them on your drinking horn,       the back of your hand

and the need-rune on your nail.

Another indicates that tattoos could have a medicinal function:

I’ll teach you lore for helping       women in labour,

runes to release the child;

write them on your palms       and clasp her wrists

invoking the disir’s aid.

Özti, the 5,000-year-old hunter whose body emerged from the melting permafrost in the Öztal Alps in 1991, had at least fifty-seven tattoos on various parts of his body. Many were concentrated in areas where the joints bore signs of being worn and painful, and researchers have speculated that they might have combined magic with a form of acupuncture. Tattooing may also have had a ritual significance. An unusual comb, with runic inscriptions dated to about 550–600, was found at Bømlo, in South Hordaland, in Norway, along with a number of bone pins, including one with an iron tip and a small, iron-dressed, hammer-like head. It is possible that in its entirety the find might have been equipment associated with a rite of passage initiating young girls into womanhood that involved tattooing and ritual decoration of the hair.

These encounters between Allah and Odin on the Iberian peninsula and along the coast of the Mediterranean left few lasting traces. Slavers routinely took the precaution of transporting their captives overseas to discourage escape attempts and slaves taken by al-madjus in the region were not offered for sale locally and did not lead to the development of local trade relations. The only known diplomatic contact to have arisen out of the raids is a mission, said to have taken place in about 845, to the court of the al-madjus king who had led the attack on Seville the year before, with the aim of establishing friendly ties with him. The Arab emissary was a renowned poet and ladies’ man known as al-Ghazal, or the Gazelle, a name given to him in his youth in tribute to his good looks. The wealth of detail in the account by the twelfth-century Spanish scholar Ibn Dihya includes a description of the land of this king of the al-madjus:

They came next to the royal residence. It was a large island in the ocean, with running water and gardens. Between it and the mainland is a journey of three days. Innumerable of the al-Magus live on this island. Close to it are many other islands, large and small. All the inhabitants are Magus. And the closest mainland also belongs to them, several days’ journey away. They were formerly Magus, but now follow the Christian religion, since they have abandoned the worship of fire and the religion they followed previously, and converted to Christianity, excepting the inhabitants of some of the islands belonging to them which are further out at sea. These continue to observe the old religion with the worship of fire, marriage with mother and sister and other abominations.

This sounds like Denmark, with the king’s hegemony over ‘the closest mainland’ a reference to Vik in south-eastern Norway and Skåne in southern Sweden, in which case al-Ghazal’s host would have been King Horik, who was baptized by Anskar and encouraged Christianity in Denmark, though without making it compulsory. Most of Ibn Dihya’s account is a literary entertainment describing the king’s wife’s infatuation for her Arabic visitor. Al-Ghazal visited her frequently and she showered him with gifts. He became her lover, and satisfied her curiosity about his people and their customs. He made verse in praise of her: ‘I am enchanted by a Magus woman, who will not let the sunlight of beauty dim, who lives in the most remote of Allah’s lands, where the traveller finds no tracks.’ His companions warned him to stop seeing her and accepting the gifts and al-Ghazal cut his visits down to one every second day. When the queen, who in al-Ghazal’s verse bears the non-Scandinavian name ‘Nud’, was told the reason for the change in his routine she laughingly reassured him that

Our ways are not like that, and there is no jealousy among us. Our women stay with their men of their own free will; a woman stays with her man as long as it pleases her, and leaves him when she wearies of their life together.

The independence of women from the Heathen north generally was a source of great surprise to Arab travellers. One noted that ‘among them women have the right to divorce. A woman can herself initiate divorce whenever she pleases.’ Ibn Dihya adds that, until the coming of Christianity, no woman was forbidden to any man, the exception being when a high-born woman chose a man of lower standing. This was held to shame her, and her family kept the lover away from her. Al-Ghazal, reassured by Queen Nud’s words, resumed his daily visits until his departure. The impression of a Danish society free from sexual jealousy is countered by Adam of Bremen, who states plainly that women who were unfaithful to their men were immediately sold.

No authoritative Arab historian of the time mentions this mission, nor do any of the biographers of al-Ghazal, and the great French arabist, Évariste Lévi-Provencal, judged the whole story to be a fictional improvisation based on a journey to Constantinople known to have been made by al-Ghazal in the winter of 839/840. This was the year in which the Rus turned up at the court of Louis the Pious in Ingelheim on their way back from Constantinople. Lévi-Provencal speculates that al-Ghazal may have met these Rus or heard talk of their land and their customs, with his report from this encounter forming the basis of Ibn Dihya’s later improvisation.

The sole Viking Age artefact to have emerged in Spain is a small cylindrical vessel made of deer horn, with a pattern of holes around it and a handle at one end. It is a rarity among such artefacts in that it was not found accidentally by the digging of archaeologists but had been in use in the Church of San Isidoro, in León, for several centuries until it was finally identified and installed as an exhibit in the town museum. All three of the dominant Borre, Jelling and Mammen styles of the second half of the tenth century have left identifiable traces on the design on the vessel, a gripping beast motif made up of as many as eight smaller beasts. The mingling of styles suggests a transitional phase between the Jelling and Mammen eras, and a tentative dating to the end of the tenth or beginnning of the eleventh century. The provenance of the vessel is obscure, but it may have been part of a large donation made to the church in León by King Fernando I (1037–1065) and his Queen Doña Sancha in 1063. How it came to be in their possession and what its original function may have been are unknown. Other traces of the Viking presence are slight. Generally speaking, it was too sporadic to leave a significant impact on the local language and place-names. In the province of León there is a village called Lordemanos, which may indicate a local settlement of Vikings, and near Coimbra, in Portugal, a village named Lordemão invites similar speculation, as do villages named Nordoman and Nortman. In Vascony, Vikings who settled in Bayonne may have taught the Basques how to hunt the whales that arrived in the Bay of Biscay every autumn. Predictably, the handful of loan-words from Old Norse into Basque, Spanish and French are connected with maritime and fishing activity. The fishermen of Bermeo, the most important fishing-port in the Basque country, use ‘estribor’, compounded of ‘styr’ and ‘bord’, to designate ‘starboard’, and ‘babor’, from ‘bak’ and ‘bord’, to mean ‘port’. Among place-names in the region with otherwise unknown origins, Mundaka, on the mouth of the river Oka, may derive from Old Norse ‘munnr’, meaning ‘mouth’.

The wave of raids between 966 and 971 marked the climax of the Viking Age in Galicia. Briefly, there was a danger that the province might turn into a Spanish Normandy. But it did not, and the raids on the Iberian peninsula and beyond had no lasting political or cultural significance. They were episodic and piratical, long and daring journeys undertaken in search of riches and adventure, and as such perhaps more authentically ‘Viking’ in spirit than the colonizations. There are no conversion stories here, no discourse with local aristocrats, no attempts on the part of the adventurers to establish large-scale settlements and farm the land. Yet we know enough by now to realize that there is no such thing as a typical Viking, and an enigmatic and unusually charming recollection of their presence is a tale told by one Arab chronicler of a certain group of al-madjus who got lost or separated from their companions in al-Andalus, somehow evaded execution, converted to Islam, and married local girls. They started a farm at Isla Menor, on the Mediterranean coast between Alicante and Cartagena, where they presently established a reputation as producers of what was reputed to be the best cheese in the region.