Were the Vikings black?


Viking ship on the riverbank
Viking ship on the riverbank

The stereotypical image of a Viking, thanks in part to depictions of them in popular culture, is that they had white or light-colored skin and blonde, or sometimes brown, hair. But did all of the Vikings look like that? Were there any black Vikings who had brown skin?

A small number of Vikings had black—or brown—skin, according to reliable historical evidence. For centuries dark-skinned people willing traveled to Scandinavia or were forcibly taken there as slaves. Over time some assimilated with the Vikings through farming, marriage, combat, and other cultural factors.

Depictions of Vikings in twenty-first century popular culture is more about entertainment than historical accuracy. Some images are true to the Middle Ages, but others imagine the ancient Scandinavians as superhero-like, especially because present-day, comic-themed stories borrow names, personalities, and abilities from well-known Norse myths.

Learning about the different races of people found in Viking culture—even if their were very few in number—is important to knowing about these ancient Scandinavian people.

Brown-skinned Vikings

Vikings are known for being masterful sailors and ruthless fighters, and while most of them were white, not all of them were. Just like it is a stereotype that Vikings wore skullcaps, it is similarly inaccurate that they all had white, or peach-colored, skin.

Ancient Scandinavia was permeated with myth, but that black people were among the Vikings isn’t one of them. The historical evidence shows that black people were a part of Viking culture. [2] They didn’t have Scandinavian ancestry, at least the first generation didn’t, but through cultural assimilation, it is accurate to call them Vikings.

What exactly do the records indicate?

For people interested in the real story of the Vikings, as opposed to the entertainment-infused versions, historical accuracy is important.

One of the best books that helps people separate Viking fact from fiction on this issue is A History of the Vikings by historian Gwyn Jones. In the book, Jones offers evidence that there were people with different racial profiles among Scandinavian people, including during the Viking age.

The viking peoples who lived between the neck of Jutland and the Lofotens, Sogn, and Uppsala, were not all alike, and emphatically not of one ‘pure’ nordic race.

But two main types of Scandinavian have always been recognizable: the one tall of stature, fair or ruddy complexioned, light-haired, blue-eyed, long of face and skull; the other shorter, dark-complexioned, brown- or dark-haired, brown-eyed, broad-face and round of skull.” (Jones, p. 67) [3]

Jones argues that the myth of a completely white race of people—perpetuated by 20th century propaganda—and perhaps partly encouraged by depictions of Vikings in modern popular culture, is factually false.

Though light-skinned people were certainly the majority at the time, there were minority races who had brown skin tones as well.

Skin color in ancient Scandinavian literature

Poetic references to people’s skin color is not unusual in ancient Scandinavian literature. Descriptions of white people appear in literature, like poems, in the Viking age. For example, in a work of Icelandic origin, the features of a white mother and son are praised:

Her brows were bright, her breast was shining, whiter her neck than new-fallen snow. Blonde was his hair, and bright his cheeks, grim as a snake’s were his glowing eyes.

While white skin tones were celebrated in certain writings, Jones argues that racial tensions were not necessarily severe, writing “there is no evidence of prejudice or dissension between the two [Scandinavian] types” (Jones, p. 68).

Elsewhere, Jones gives examples of people with brown skin in ancient Scandinavian literature. He writes,

Harald Fairhair was the first king of all Norway; his father was Halfdan the Black (svarti), and two of his sons were likewise called Halfdan, one nicknamed the White (hviti), the other, reminiscently, the Black.

Some historians, like Jones, note that the moniker “the Black” may be a reference to hair color. While this may be partially true, the implications likely refer to a person with a dark complexion as well.

If the description exclusively referred to hair color alone, it may raise questions about the son nicknamed “the White” (Jones, p. 137).

Jones gives another example from a Scandinavian work called the Egils Saga:

Thorolf was tall and handsome like his mother’s people, but Grim took after his father and was black and ugly.

Grim’s sons, Thorolf and Egill, born out in Iceland, repeated the pattern: Thorolf was the image of his uncle, tall, handsome, and sunny-natured; Egill was black, even uglier than his father, tortuous and incalculable.

He became the greatest poet of his age, and many a hard-hewn line of verse testifies to his pride in his craggy head, broad nose, heavy jaw and swart visage. p. 128

While such descriptions may offend modern readers, Jones notes that these nicknames “were purely descriptive, like the Short, the Tall, the Fat, the Slender, the Bald or the Hairy-beeked” and contain no negative intent in their day (Jones, p. 68).

Viking shield
Viking shield

How did black people get to Scandinavia?

People with dark skin aren’t native to Scandinavia, but arrived in the region in other ways. As previously mentioned, the most common reasons first-generation black people fled there was as willing travelers. Others were taken their as slaves. The second generation and beyond were born in the region, though their ancestry was elsewhere.

Travel

One reason some black people were in Scandinavia during the Viking age is because they traveled there.

Dark-skinned people from Northern Africa, and certain places in southern Europe like Spain, explored unknown areas just like other Europeans and Asians who sought to discover what foreign lands were like.

Like others, black travelers were looking for resources like fertile land, meaty game, and valuable goods. Over time, some settled in the regions they explored and settled in Northern Europe.

Escape

Another reason black people were in Scandinavia during the Viking age is because they fled there.

Black people were used as slaves in other parts of Europe, and when they succeeded at escaping, they fled and sometimes they fled north to Scandinavia.

Former slaves had the difficult task of resettling in foreign lands. Nevertheless, some successfully assimilated into Viking culture.

Slavery

Slavery is another reason why black people were in Scandinavia during the Viking age. The Vikings took slaves from other places in Europe and forced them to work for them instead. While there are many accounts of the Vikings taking and using white European slaves, there may have also been black people among them. Jones writes:

The total numbers are unknown, but human booty was easy to collect, transport and dispose of in the slave markets all across Europe from Dublin to Bolgar.

An internal Scandinavian market was also established, on the islands at the mouth of the Gota, where the three nascent kingdoms met.

Craftsmen we may suppose were often brought home by their captors, as were certainly many younger women, by whom slave numbers were to some extent replenished…

The labor force of a substantial freeman’s farm seem normally to have included some half-dozen slaves…slave labor was most advantageous in the heavy and exacting work of clearing and tilling new land” (p. 21-22).

The evidence shows there were more black people in Denmark than countries north like Norway and Sweden. This is probably the case because Denmark is closer to the other countries of Europe where black people lived at the time. [3]

In addition, it’s known that Viking raids eventually extended as far south as the Mediterranean world and that black people were forcibly taken from that region.

Jones writes that in Spain “The vikings spent an unharassed week rounding up prisoners for ransom, though some, probably [black], they kept as souvenirs of the voyage. These poor wretches, fir grom, blue men, blamenn, black men (or merely men with dark skins), for the most part ended up in Ireland” (p. 216).

Slavery fades

Like many aspects of Viking life, slavery in ancientt Scandinavia was ruthless and brutal. After the arrival of Christianity, the institution of slavery weakened, but it was not abolished altogether. The Northern European economy was dependent on slave labor. Over time, however, slavery faded, first in the urban areas and eventually in rural areas.

References

[1] https://books.google.com/?id=ATq5_6h2AT0C&pg=PA674
[2] A History of the Vikings. Gwyn Jones.
[3] ibid.
[4] https://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/historical-themes/danish-colonies/the-danish-west-indies/the-abolition-of-slavery/

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