Saturday, March 15, 2014

Vikings Had a Good Thing Going in Greece.

Nicholas Roerich, "Guests From Overseas."

Vikings?  Yep.  That’s what Yrsa wrote about on Wednesday, and it got me to thinking: Men wearing eyeliner and bleaching their hair blond must at some point have found their way to Greece.

It’s only natural…

So, I decided to do a bit of research (Hello, Wikipedia) and see what I could come up with on the Vikings’ Grecian formula.  Interesting.

As Yrsa pointed out, Vikings were around from the Early Middle—aka Dark—Ages, bringing on Scandinavia’s Viking Age, until disappearing through assimilation into “mainstream” European culture during the High Middle Ages.

History doesn’t show Varangians (the Greek word for Vikings) ever conquering Greece (the Scandinavian term for the Byzantine Empire); but they did serve as mercenaries in its wars, and in the 10th Century, Byzantine Emperor Basil II of Constantinople first enlisted Varangian fighters to serve as imperial personal bodyguards.  Known as the Varangian Guard, they were legend for their fierce loyalty to the emperors they served and the wealth bestowed upon them for their service.

Varangian Guard fighters were so well paid that many men left their Viking homelands to find their fortunes in Greece.  So great was the exodus that some Scandinavian lands enacted laws specifically denying inheritance rights to any man who “dwelled in Greece.”

Much of this history is corroborated on ancient Scandinavian runestones—a raised stone bearing inscriptions in runic alphabets (predating the Latin) commemorating events and people.  Of extant runestones in Scandinavia from the Viking Age, ten percent describe those who left Viking lands; and of that ten percent the largest group is the “Greek runestones” which speak mainly of Varangian Guard members who died in Greece or returned home with great wealth.

Yet not one runestone speaks of a Viking conquest of Greece. I was truly surprised, because you’d think with so many fierce warriors ranging far and wide for centuries, there’d be at least one “Greek conquest” significant enough to merit a mention back home.

Being the diligent researcher that I am, I expanded my search beyond Wikipedia and found one suggestion of a possible Viking conquest (Historia Apodeixis).  In the spirit of full disclosure, I must say history offers no corroboration for the alleged event and its existence is not inscribed on a runestone but carved onto the shoulders of a classical stone lion that once sat facing the sea in Athens’ port city of Piraeus.

As this lion (lyin?) tale goes, in the mid-11th Century some Nordic-types made it down to Piraeus from the far north and while there took time away from their otherwise busy schedules to carve runic alphabet inscriptions onto the statue.   Trouble was, no one seemed to notice the “runes” until the late 18th Century, or bother to translate them until the mid-19th Century.  But by then the lion had been appropriated by a Venetian Doge (in 1687) and removed to where it still stands today outside the Armory of Venice.

As best as anyone could tell from the lion inscriptions, those mid-11th Century Varangians were part of a small raid on then unimportant Athens and decided to etch an equally small notation of their triumph on a classical antiquity.

In other words, those Vikings lads might have been responsible for introducing tourist graffiti to Greece.

Next week I’m off to (hopefully) warm and sunny Monterey, California for Left Coast Crime where Cara, Lisa, and I are nominated for the 2014 Calamari Award for Best Mystery in a Foreign Setting, and alum Tim Hallinan is up for the Lefty for Best Humorous Mystery. 

I promise to do my best to restrain my colleagues from leaving Varangian (or “Kilroy was here”) sorts of notations along Cannery Row. 

Team MIE rules!



  1. Best of luck to the three of you at LCC! Wish we could join you, but the Knysna Book Fair is ahead and we're looking forward to Yrsa's visit. Give my best wishes to all.

    1. Thanks, Michael, and I shall extend your congratulations to Louise Penny :). B and I wish we could be there with you and Yrsa, but alas, the calamari has us in its clutches.

  2. I'll be with the MIE invasion of Left Coast Crime, photographing the proceedings and cheering mightily. Yrsa, Michael, and Stan, don't get carried away and try to inscribe the news of an MIE triumph on a lion.

    1. It would not be an invasion without you. Though I think I may have to wear those stilettos suggested by Everett to fit in with our expedition's official battle dress.

  3. Annamaria, PLEASE try to get a flattering picture of Jeff in his stilettos for me. I know that's a challenging endeavor (especially the 'flattering' part), but this could be the next big viral internet 'thing!'

    Best wishes to Cara, Lisa, Jeff, and Tim!

    1. See above comment.

      Thanks, Everett, wish you could be there. Maybe Bouchercon?

  4. Hi Jeff - great piece and apologies on behalf of my brutish ancestors for the graffitti :-)

    1. Thanks, Yrsa, but no apology necessary. After all, they did introduce the blue-eyed blonde gene into the pool.

      Enjoy Africa. We really wish we could be there with you. :(

    2. We will make up for it in Bristol and Reykjavik in November :-)