Raiding Danes, Norse Seafarers and Varyag mercenaries. And where do the Vikings come into the picture? ‘A beloved child has many names’ is a Swedish proverb, and a quite fitting one when looking at this topic.
Who were the Varyags? What is a Norseman, or a Norman for that matter? There are a lot of different terms and definitions which can be quite confusing. Let’s have quick look at it and go through the basics.
We choose to start off our story with the Roman Empire. They were the first to record their encounters with the Germanic Tribes of the time, who are the forefathers we’re looking for. The Romans were all about expanding their empire, which meant that they had to conquer those who stood in their way. The tribes inhabiting the dark forests of ‘Magna Germania’ were too hard adversaries though, which led to the northern border of the Roman Empire halting there. It wasn’t a peaceful stalemate though since the Romans tried to defeat the Germanic Tribes, who in turn wanted the Romans to leave. This resulted in the ‘Germanic Wars’ that raged back and forth in between 113 BC and 596 AD.
Vikings, as we choose to refer to the Scandinavians of the time, are a branched out group of descendants to the Germanic peoples. What about the others? We’ll sort them out in a small lexicon below.
Scandinavia – Region in Northern Europe that shares a common heritage. It consists out of the countries Sweden (unified in the 12th century), Norway (unified in 872) and Denmark (unified in early 10th century).
Viking age – A period in Scandinavian History from the late 8th to late 11th century when Norse seafarers used the seas and rivers to raid, trade and colonize. The Viking Age is considered by many to have begun on 8th of June 793 when Vikings raided the abbey on Lindisfarne. Similarly, it is considered to have ended with the Battle of Stamford Bridge on the 25th of September 1066 when the English King Harold Godwinson defeated the invading Norsemen under the leadership of King Harald Hardrada. If going by those dates, the Viking Age lasted: 273 years, 3 months and 18 days (or 99 823 days).
Norse or Norsemen – The name used for the people living in Scandinavia during the Viking Age. It literally means ‘man from the north’.
Viking – Norse seafarers who during the Viking Age left their Scandinavian homelands (Sweden, Denmark and Norway) to raid, trade and colonize. The meaning behind the term is debated, but we tend to consider Anatoly Liberman's thesis the most logical one. In it he argues that most likely means a person who takes rowing shifts on a boat, based on that the noun "Vica" that means the very same thing. From our linguistic perspective, it makes perfect sense.
Dane – A person from Denmark. However, during the Viking Age the word ‘Dane’ became synonymous with Vikings that raided and invaded England. These Vikings consisted out of a coalition of Norse warriors originating not only from Denmark, but also Norway and Sweden.
Varyag or Vargangian – The name given to Norsemen (mainly Swedish Vikings) by the Greeks and East Slavs. They raided, traded and colonized along the rivers of Eastern Europe and as far as the Arab Caliphates and the Byzantine Empire.
Rus – A group of Varangians who relocated to northeastern Europe. Led by Rurik, the Rus eventually founded what would become Russia (which is named after them).
Northman – The same as Norseman.
Germanic tribes – Tribes of people inhabiting Northern Europe. The Roman Empire fought against them in the ‘Germanic Wars’ in between 113 BC and 596 AD. Both the Norsemen and the Anglo-Saxons are later branches of the Germanic Tribes.
Anglo-Saxon – Germanic people who migrated to Great Britain in the 5th century and ruled it until the Norman conquest in 1066.
Norman – Means ‘Northman’ in French. They were descendants to Norseman raiders who in early 10th century under the leadership of Rollo swore fealty to the King of Francia (the region Normandy in France is named after them). King Harold Godwinson of England, who defeated the final invading Viking Army in the Battle of Stanford Bridge, was ironically defeated by Duke William II of Normandy just a few weeks later in the Battle of Hastings. The Normans thus replaced the Anglo-Saxons as the ruling class of England. This also means that all the wars fought in Great Britain between Vikings, Anglo-Saxons and Normans were all between descendants to the Germanic Tribes.