Arabic sources describe the Vikings as beautiful but filthy

Icelandic historian Thorir Jonsson Hraundal has devoted his studies to observations in original Arab texts about the Vikings according to an article in the Science Nordic. The article explains how Hraundal focuses on texts that shed light on Arab encounters with Scandinavians in areas around the Caspian Sea and the Volga River.

Arab writer Ahmad ibn Fadlan remarked on the personal hygiene of the Vikings approximately thousand years ago after meeting with Viking voyagers: They are the filthiest of all Allah’s creatures: they do not purify themselves after excreting or urinating or wash themselves when in a state of ritual impurity after coitus and do not even wash their hands after food.

The depictions in different texts vary drastically ranging from descriptions of fearsome Viking conquerors handed down from the British Isles and France in the same era. “A major difference between the Scandinavians who travelled eastwards and those who sailed west was that in the East they were far more subordinated in societies they came to,” Hraundal elaborates.

He recently presented his doctoral dissertation at the University of Bergen in Norway about the subject of Scandinavian’s in the Middle East. “The Scandinavians appear to have been versatile people who were really good at adapting to diverse regions and participating in various power structures,” he goes on to inform.

The article talks about a travel boom among the Scandinavian people in the time span of the mid-800s until the ca. 1000 AD. The Vikings explored the world and were active merchants, traders and swordsmen. Norwegians are best informed about the raids in Western Europe and the voyages to Iceland, Greenland and North America and according to Hraundal the major rivers in Europe were a likely travel route to the east.

“Archaeological sources placed Vikings further west, but Arabs mainly confronted them closer to the Caspian Sea. This was a completely different cultural setting, one governed by Turks,” Hraundal further elaborates in the article. “The Turks, and especially the Khazars and Bulgars, were the dominant powers in the region when the Rus arrived.

Ahmad ibn Fadlan was not fully repulsed by the Scandinavians he met: I have never seen more perfect physiques than theirs – they are like palm trees, are fair and reddish, and do not wear the tunic or the caftan.

He also describes funeral rites which generally conform to the Norse rituals of Scandinavia, but were very exotic for an Islamic intellectual: In the case of a rich man, they gather together his possessions and divide them into three portions, one third for his household, one third with which to cut funeral garments for him, and one third with which they ferment alcohol which they drink on the day when his slave-girl kills herself and is burned together with her master.

The fact that the Vikings travelled eastwards is not a new revelation. But archaeologists and historians have scarce sources describing the travels. “However, Muslim authors also travelled and met Scandinavian merchants. They made note of these episodes at the time they occurred,” says the historian Hraundal.

The full article can be read here. It was translated by Glen Ostling from a Norwegian article by Hanne Østli Jakobsen in