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From America to China—How far did the Vikings travel?

How far did the vikings travel? And how far did their trade routes go?

At this point, most people interested in the Viking Age have heard the story of Leif the Lucky who, thanks to a lucky accident, over-wintered in North America.

So, let's start there.


North America


Leif the Lucky was the son of Erik the Red who quite famously was exiled not just from one country but from THREE countries! A true criminal of his time, upon being outlawed from the island where he had arrived to seek refuge after being outlawed in Iceland, Erik found that the had few places to go next.

He decided to settle with his family in the newly "discovered" Greenland. There, Leif grew up, until he became a teenager and hence, old enough to become a viking; a raider and explorer.

While sailing and exploring Northern Europe, Leif became Christian and upon a meeting with King Olaf Tryggvarsson of Norway, Leif was appointed to bring Christianity to Greenland, where he had grown up. A task that Leif knew would be difficult, because he knew his father.

Leif sailed off on his mission to Greenland, but his ship was blown severely off course and when the storm cleared, the crew found themselves near foreign shores.

Leif the Lucky was not the first Viking to be blown off course to the North American coast. In roughly 986, a few years before Leif would arrive, the traveller Bjarni Herjólfsson and his crew saw the same fate, but turned around to regain Greenland instead of inspecting further.

Leif decided to sail closer and he saw how fertile the land was. On the way up the coast, he even found two shipwrecked men and took them with him, but Leif too did not initially stay long, for he was on a mission from the King of Norway.

He collected samples of the fertile vines and wheat fields that grew without human interference and then sailed home to Greenland. After a campaign to baptise all of the Greenlanders, even his very reluctant father, Leif dreamed of further exploring the lands to the west, and so his journey began.

With a crew of 35, Leif sailed westwards. These eager explorers did find land, but it was barren compared to what they had seen last time. So, they sailed on along the coast, through different kinds of terrain until they once more found the fertile lands that Leif named Vinland.

Here they pulled their ship into a lake, built houses to overwinter and daily they divided into two groups. Half stayed by the settlement and the other half went inland to explore. When summer came anew, they returned to Greenland, their ship full of grapes, timber and stories.

Now Leif's brother, Thorvald, too wanted to be an explorer and Leif lent him his ship.

Thorvald sailed to Leif's encampment in Vinland to overwinter and sent further explorations into the fiords and along the coastline, going much further than Leif.

Most of the land was entirely untouched by people, but one day, they found human dwellings. A battle erupted between the two people. Thorvald died in Vinland and when the weather improved, his crew returned to Greenland.

Other Vikings too travelled westwards and also encountered the Native Americans, or the Skraelings, as the Vikings called this people.

They traded and sometimes they fought.

What a fantastic tale, you may say, but isn't it just fiction? How do we know all of this is real?

That's a very good question.

The first sources are the sagas. The story of Leif the Lucky and other explorers of North America has been told in several sagas. The Greenlander Saga and the Vinland Saga being two of them. If you're interested in learning more about Leif the Lucky and Erik the Red, you can read an excellent translation of the sections of the Sagas which relate to Vinland here.

We must acknowledge here that the sagas were written down centuries after the events took place and while they are a great read and very detailed, texts alone do not prove the existence of Vikings on the North American coast.

However, it is thanks to the detailed descriptions of the coast-line found in these sagas that Norwegian archeologists Anne-Stine and Helge Ingstad made an extraordinary discovery in 1960 to prove the tale of Leif the Lucky.

Following the detailed descriptions of Leif's sail along the coasts to Vinland, the couple were able to discover where the party of Vikings likely landed. What they unearthed was the site of L'anse-aux-meadows.

Here, they found settlements that were of clear Norse design, specifically of the Greenlander and Icelandic tradition.

The discovery finally confirmed that Vikings had indeed made the voyage from Greenland to North America.

Leif's trip to Vinland may be one of the most famous stories about how far the Vikings travelled, but this is just the beginning for us. There are many more places to explore, so let's look at another region.


The Mediterranean


Viking explorers did not only sail west, but also southwards, into the Mediterranean Sea.

How do we know this? Well... let's examine the evidence.

The coins

In 1887 the grave of a a Viking Age woman was unearthed at Østerhalne Enge in Denmark. In this grave, was a necklace decorated with eight foreign coins. All eight coins originated in the Middle East for they were marked with kufic script.

Although it is a wonderful discovery, these eight are far from the only Arabic coins discovered in Scandinavia. There is also a coin from the Idrisid Dynasty (current day Morocco) found in Jelling, and that is just the beginning.

Arabic dirhams are often found in Viking treasure hoards. In fact, several thousand kufic coins have been found across Denmark. A large majority of these dirhams were minted in either Baghdad or Tehran.

In Sweden the numbers are far more impressive. More than 85 000 kufic coins have been found across Sweden in thousands of different Viking Age hoards.

The majority of these coins are found in Götland, an island to the South of Sweden, which suggests that the coins were brought North through the Rus rivers from the Caspian Sea or the Black Sea, instead of being brought around along the Atlantic coast.

Middle Eastern travellers in the North

As evidenced by the many dirhams found across Scandinavia, the Vikings raided not just Northern Europe, but also along the Spanish and Moroccan coasts. They raided for hundreds of years from Spain to Armenia.

The chronicler Ibn Hayyan relies on first-hand accounts to recount a Viking attack on Seville in 844, and Mas'udi tells the tale of a raid by the Caspian Sea. The entire region experienced these kinds of raids.

Eventually the Spanish Emir Abdu-ar-Rahman II decided that enough was enough. They needed to come to an agreement with these northerners and so, the Emir sent a diplomat, Al-Gazul, to negotiate.

Al-Ghazul travelled North, and supposedly arrived in the town of Hedeby in Jutland. There, he met a Viking queen by the name of Nud and fell madly in love. His diary entries were flooded with poetry about her. To sample a small extract:

كُلفت يا قلبي هوىً مُتعبــا......غالبت منه الضيغم الأغلبـــا

إني تكلفت مجوسيـــــــــة......تأبى لشمس الحسن أن تغربا

أقصى بلاد الله لي حيث لا......يلقى إليها ذاهب مذهبــــــــا

يا نود*يا رُود الشباب التي.....تُطلِع من أزرارها الكوكبـــا

"Oh, heart of mine, you bear such a heavy burden—Fight as you might,

I am in love with a wonderous woman—who will not let the sun of beauty set,

Who lives at the end of all that Allah created—The road to which I cannot find.

Oh Nud! Oh youth and beauty—from your buttons the stars break forth!"

The story of Al-Ghazul's encounter with Queen Nud has been retold and modified so many times that while some claim that he travelled to Jutland, others claim that the meeting happened in Constantinople, or not at all.

No matter the validity of Al-Ghazul's travels, there are many other Arabic accounts of Norsemen and other people who lived in the far north.

Among the many Arabic travellers to the North, Ibn Fadlan is probably the most famous. You may have seen a reenactment of his account of a ship burial in the film the 13th Warrior.

Other accounts that are dear to me are those about the fur trade routes from the North by Mas'udi:

"Most of these furs, and especially those of the best quality, that are found in the lands of the Rus [Vikings] are actually brought from the country of Gog and Magog; they are sometimes sold to the Bulghars. This was the state of affairs until the year 358 [969], the date the Rus destroyed Bulghar and Khazaran."

Of course, the account ends with talks of a raid..!

The scholar Biruni gives us accounts of dog sleds and ice skates in the far north (which inspired a short scene in Northern Wrath):

"Men travel from Bulghar in wooden sleighs and reach Isu in twenty days. They load (the sleighs) with provisions and either drag them over the surface of the snow by hand or use dogs to pull them. They also use skates made of bone with which they can travel long distances quickly."

My personal favourite account of Norsemen, though, is from the Jewish merchant Ibrahim Ibn Ya'qub al-Tartushi, who visited the town of Hedeby in the year 965 (which is just around the time my novel Northern Wrath is set).

Ibrahim Ibn Ya'qub was not that impressed by what he saw in Hedeby and from him we get wonderful descriptions such as this:

"They gather together for a religious festival to honour the gods, at which they eat and drink. Those that intend to sacrifice an animal set up a pole in front of their house from which they suspend a piece of the animal whose sacrifice they are offering; beef, mutton, goat or pig. In this way everyone can see that they plan to sacrifice to the gods."

Or musings like:

"Women take the initiative in divorce proceedings. They can separate from their husbands whenever they choose. Both men and women use a kind of indelible cosmetic to enhance the beauty of their eyes."

And finally, comical observation like:

"There is no uglier song than the groans that come out of their throats. It is like the baying of hounds, only worse!"

Which... as a Dane, I can confirm. It is not a pretty language.

These Arabic accounts are some of the only contemporary accounts we have of Norsemen from this time. Most of them were recorded as diaries during the lifetime of the travellers, or re-written from the original sources very soon thereafter.

Since the Vikings themselves mostly followed an oral tradition, they did not leave much more than the limited texts on runestones behind for us to decipher. Other written sources about them were recorded centuries later, and could have been altered many times along the way.

This makes these Arabic accounts an essential read for anyone wanting to know more about the Norsemen of this time.

Let us now move on to another source about Vikings found in the Mediterranean area.

Viking Taggers

We have further confirmation that the Norse people of the Viking Age travelled south thanks to the work of Viking Age graffiti taggers. Yes, you read that correctly.

In the Hagia Sophia Holy Grand Mosque in Istanbul, you can find two inscriptions in the marble.

In the true trend of graffiti tagger, the first, and most famous reads:

"Halfdan carved these runes"

While the inscriptions in the marble have mostly been worn down by time, another inscription is thought to spell:

"Ari made these runes"

Others are entirely illegible, but there might have been many more Norse taggers at work in the mosque which have simply been worn away.

Thanks to these rascal graffiti artists, we have concrete proof of Norse visitors in Istanbul.

A little way across the Sea from Istanbul, another tagger was also at work.

On a lion statue that used to be stationed in the port city of Athens, a swirling runic inscription has been discovered. Now the proud Pireus lion stands guard in Venice.

A proposed translation of both sides of the lion reads:

"Asmund carved these runes with Asgeir and Thorleif, Thord and Ivar, at the request of Harold the Tall, though the Greeks considered about and forbade it.

"Hakon with Ulf and Asmund and Ørn conquered this port. These men and Harold Hafi imposed a heavy fine on account of the revolt of the Greek people. Dalk is detained captive in far lands. Egil is gone on an expedition with Ragnar into Romania and Armenia."