Here’s one of my favourite facts about Vikings.
It starts with a lion.
Not quite that kind though.
In current day Arsenale de Venezia, Italy, stands a marble lion statue from 360 BC. The ancient lion protects the city gates, but this wasn’t always where it stood guard.
Originally, the Piraeus lion, as it’s called, stood proudly in the port of Piraeus, southwest of Athens. Its tall stature of 3meters (9 feet) marked the entrance to the port city, which eventually gained the calling name “Lion Port” as a result.
Centuries later, during the Great Turkish war in 1687, the lion was taken as plunder loot and eventually brought to Venice, where it stands to this date. So, it was not in Venice, but in its original city of Piraeus near Athens, where this stone-cold lion came into contact with a few bored and naughty Vikings.
What was a Viking doing so far away from Scandinavia?
Norsemen sailed the seas of the world and many came to the Mediterranean, which was a true hub of trade and cultural exchange. At the time, Norsemen were quite large compared to the average person and their tall size as well as their ruthless approach made rogue Vikings very employable in these parts of the world.
Norsemen were often hired by rich noblemen as bodyguards. Which included a lot of waiting time for the Vikings, as the person they were supposed to protect held “board meetings” with other influential people of this era.
The Norsemen were also known to occasionally sack cities, demand Danelaw (regular payment to keep the people of the city safe from further attacks) and plunder.
Historians assume that this is how four very bored Vikings by the name of Asgeir, Thorleif, Thord and Ivar, came to lean against the huge lion statue in Port Lion, ordered by their Chief Harold to mischief.
For along the side of the Piraeus long, is not one, but two, long, windy messages, carved into the stone in runes.
The left side (possibly) reads:
“Asmund cut these runes with Asgeir and Thorleif, Thord and Ivar, at the request of Harold the Tall, though the Greeks considered about and forbade it.”
A true rebellious Viking spirit. It shows both some teamwork as the four lads worked on the inscriptions together, and a total disregard for the rules and laws of the locals.
The right side gives us more context about their crew and friends, as it reads:
“Hakon with Ulf and Asmund and Örn conquered this port. These men and Harold the Tall 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.”
Thus immortalising their deeds.
This snake-body runic tale on lion shoulders is far from the only piece of Viking graffiti in the region.
Another very famous piece of Viking tagging can be seen, to this day, carved into the marble of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
On the top floor of this mosque, several Vikings tagged their name in the marble.
Given the location, inside a mosque, it's assumed that these were carved by Norseman for hire, possibly members of the Varangian Guard.
While these inscriptions are only partly preserved, the first inscription is thought to read:
“Halfdan [carved these runes]”
A possible second inscription reads:
“Ari c[arved these runes]”
Five more possible Viking graffiti tags have been found in the mosque, and there may be more yet. It seems that the urge for human beings to write their names on pretty buildings and trees is an ancient one, especially when bored.
This is also evidenced further north by the Neolithic tombs at Maeshowe on Orkney too, where Vikings left dozens of runic messages.
Most of these Viking carvings were tags of their names, much like those found in the marble of Hagia Sofia, while others were more poetic:
“These runes were carved by the most skilled in runes in the Western ocean.”
“Thorni f*cked. Helgi carved.”
Yet Vikings did not only tag marble statues and stone walls… They also, sometimes, tagged their own ships with bored scribbles.
Notably, we have an example from the ninth century Gokstad ship, which boasts the work of a bored Viking, who decided to carve the shape of their foot into a plank of the ship.
I can only imagine how furious the ship builder must have been upon seeing a plank ruined like that...
...and the Cinderella chase which would have followed, where every sailor was required to put their feet into the middle of the carving to see whose foot might fit the wooden-shoe.
Vikings sure were the graffiti taggers of the past.
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