Sunday, 11 October 2015

The Religion of the Rus – Viking Heathens

Artist: Vsevolod Ivanov. Source: renegadetribune.com
In the early 10th century a devout Muslim diplomat was sent by the powerful Abbasid Caliph to teach the intricacies of Islam to a king of the Volga Bulghars, deep inside Russia, who had recently converted – possibly so he could enlist the help of the Caliphate in his struggles to defend his kingdom against the nearby Jewish Khazars. This Arab traveller is now commonly known as Ibn Fadlan and he has become famous for his account of the polytheistic peoples he encountered on his journey, especially the Turks and the Rus – both peoples would, respectively, become Islamic and Christian within a century or so of his account. The Rus were (most scholars believe) originally Vikings who, over a roughly 200 year period, assimilated with the Slavs of Russia and gave their name to that great nation. The 12th century Russian Primary Chronicle is the primary source for this assertion. We also have corroborating evidence from, inter alia, another Muslim called Ibn Rustah, a Persian scholar who authored an encyclopedia that was completed in 913 – his entry relating to the Rus is thought to derive from an anonymous source dating from the 860s, and in it he seems to suggest the Rus and the Slavs are distinct from each other when he writes:
“The Rus raid the Saqaliba [an Arabic term with multiple connotations, it can be used to specifically denote Slavs, or as a general term denoting northern Europeans], sailing in their ships until they come upon them. They take them captive and sell them in Khazarin and Bulkar [ie, to the Khazars and the Turks]. They have no cultivated fields and they live by pillaging the land of the Saqaliba.”*
Ibn Rustah then goes on to describe the Rus in a way that is entirely consistent with what we know of Vikings:
“They earn their living by trading in sable, grey squirrel and other furs. They sell them for silver coins which they set in belts and wear around their waists.
… The men wear gold bracelets. They treat their slaves well and dress them suitably, because for them they are an article of trade … 
If one of them has a quarrel with another, it is referred to the ruler, who settles it as he sees fit. If they do not agree with his settlement, he orders the difference to be settled by single combat …
They have great stamina and endurance. They never quit the battlefield without having slaughtered their enemy. They take the women and enslave them. They are remarkable for their size, their physique and their bravery. They fight best on shipboard, not on horseback [ibid at 126-127].”