Monday, April 20, 2009


This is the diatribe where Tolkien meets Teiresias and Thor meets Theseus. Greece has always been known as a country whose primary export was people. The Odyssey has been interpreted as an allegory of the movement and settlement of Greek peoples across the Mediterranean in times ancient, whereas the existence of Greek settlements in such incongruous places as Afghanistan and Pakistan, the delineation of the Icelandic coast in the Periplus of Pytheas, the multitude of Greek folksongs about people toddling off to Wallachia and coming back home to identify themselves to their wives by their intimate knowledge of the positioning of moles on her body, and even the Calabrian-Greek folksong “andra mu pai” attest to the fact that we are a peripatetic bunch. What is not so revealed in the discourse, is that our ancestral land is also a place of migration of pilgrimage and migration, a land to which our northern Indo-European cousins have historically lost the flower of their menfolk.
If we have our folksongs, increasingly disused club buildings, archived Channel 31 footage and dozens of Multicultural Commission-sponsored books to attest to our sojourn in this country, then what of the hapless Vikings, who in times medieval, made their iron-shod, horny helmeted way down into our warmer climes? Fascinatingly, they erected runestones. The survivors of these, known as the Greece runestones are about 30 runestones containing information related to voyages made by Norsemen to the Byzantine Empire. They were made during the Viking Age until about 1100 and were engraved in the Old Norse language with Scandinavian runes. All the stones have been found in modern-day Sweden. Most were inscribed in memory of members of the Varangian Guard, the imperial guard of the Byzantine Emperor, who never returned home, but a few inscriptions mention men who returned with wealth, and a boulder in Ed was engraved on the orders of a former officer of the Guard. Interestingly enough, one of these Varangians was Harald Hardrada, who went on to invade England at the same time as William the Conqueror.
Leaving no room for doubt, these runestones the word Grikkland ("Greece") appears in three inscriptions, the word Grikk(j)ar ("Greeks") appears in 25 inscriptions, two stones refer to men as grikkfari ("traveller to Greece") and one stone refers to Grikkhafnir ("Greek harbours"). Among other runestones in Sweden which refer to expeditions abroad, the only group which are comparable in number are those that mention expeditions to England.
The Greek runestones stones vary in size from the small whetstone from Timans which measures 8.5 cm × 4.5 cm × 3.3 cm to the boulder in Ed which is 18 m in circumference. Since the first discoveries by Johannes Bureus in the late 16th century, these runestones have been frequently identified by scholars, with many stones discovered during a national search for historic monuments in the late 17th century. Several stones were documented by Richard Dybeck in the 19th century, while the last stone to be found was in Nolinge, near Stockholm, in 1952.
Scandinavians had served as mercenaries in the Roman army many centuries before the Viking Age, but during the time when the stones were made, there were more contacts between Scandinavia and Byzantium than at any other time. Swedish Viking ships were common on the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, the Sea of Marmara and on the wider Mediterranean Sea. Until the Komnenos dynasty in the late 11th century, most members of the Varangian Guard were Swedes and as late as 1195, emperor Alexios Angelos sent emissaries to Denmark, Norway and Sweden requesting 1,000 warriors from each of the three kingdoms. Stationed in Constantinople, which the Scandinavians referred to as Miklagarðr (the "Great City"), the Guard attracted young Scandinavians of the sort that had composed it since its creation in the late 10th century.
As early as 911, the Varangians are mentioned as fighting for the Byzantines. About 700 Varangians served along with Dalmatians as marines in Byzantine naval expeditions against Crete in 902 and a force of 629 returned to Crete under Constantine Porphyrogenitus in 949. A unit of 415 Varangians was involved in the Italian expedition of 936. It is also recorded that there were Varangian contingents among the forces that fought the Arabs in Syria in 955. During this period, the Varangian mercenaries were known as the Great Companions (Μεγάλη Εταιρεία).
With the decline of the Byzantine empire, the emperors increased their reliance on the Varangian mercenaries. In 988 Basil II requested military assistance from Vladimir of Kiev to help defend his throne. In compliance with the treaty made by his father after the Siege of Dorostolon (971), Vladimir sent 6,000 men to Basil. In exchange, Vladimir was given Basil's sister, Anna, in marriage. Vladimir also agreed to convert to Christianity and to bring his people into the Christian faith.
In 989 the Varangian guard, led by Basil II himself, landed at Chrysopolis to defeat the rebel general Bardas Phocas. On the field of battle, Phocas died of a stroke in full view of his opponent; upon the death of their leader, Phocas' troops turned and fled. The brutality of the Varangians was noted when they pursued the fleeing army and "cheerfully hacked them to pieces."
The Varangian Guard saw extensive service in southern Italy in the eleventh century, as the Normans and Lombards worked to extinguish Byzantine authority there. In 1018, Basil II received a request from his catepan of Italy, Basil Boioannes, for reinforcements to put down the Lombard revolt of Melus of Bari. A detachment of the Varangian Guard was sent and in the Battle of Cannae, the Greeks achieved a decisive victory.
The Varangians also participated in the partial reconquest of Sicily from the Arabs under George Maniaches in 1038. Here, they fought alongside Normans recently arrived in Italy seeking adventure and Lombards from Byzantine-held Apulia. The Guard was at this time led by Harald Hardrada, later King of Norway. However, when Maniaches ostracised the Lombards by publicly humiliating their leader, Arduin, the Lombards deserted and the Normans and Varangians followed them.
Not long after, the catepan Michael Doukeianos had a force of Varangians stationed at Bari. On 16 March 1041 they were called up to fight the Normans near Venosa and many drowned in the subsequent retreat across the Ofanto. In September Exaugustus Boioannes was sent to Italy with only a small contingent of Varangians to replace the disgraced Doukeianos. On 3 September 1041 they were defeated in battle by the Normans.
Many of the late catepans were sent from Constantinople with Varangian units. In 1047 John Raphael was sent to Bari with a contingent of Varangians, but the Bariots refused to receive his troops and he spent his term at Otranto. Twenty years later, in 1067, the last Byzantine catepan in southern Italy, Mabrica, arrived with Varangian auxiliaries and took Brindisi and Taranto. At the disastrous Battle of Manzikert, in 1071, virtually all the Emperor’s Guards fell around him.
Composed primarily of Scandinavians for the first 100 years, the guard began to see increased inclusion of Anglo-Saxons after the successful invasion of England by the Normans. In 1088 a large number of Anglo-Saxons and Danes emigrated to the Byzantine Empire by way of the Mediterranean. One source has more than 5,000 of them arriving in 235 ships. Those who did not enter imperial service settled on the Black Sea coast, but those who did became so vital to the Varangians that the Guard was commonly called the Englinbarrangoi (Anglo-Varangians) from that point.
The large number of men who departed for the Byzantine Empire to join the Varangians is indicated by the fact that the medieval Scandinavian laws still contained laws concerning voyages to Greece when they were written down after the Viking Age. The older version of the Westrogothic Law which was written down by Eskil Magnusson, the lawspeaker of Västergötland (1219–1225), was strangely reminiscent of Greek-Australian pension agreements in that it provided that "no man may receive an inheritance in Sweden while he dwells in Greece". A later version of this law, amended from 1250 to 1300, adds that "no one may inherit from such a person as was not a living heir when he went away". Also the old Norwegian Gulaþingslög contains a similar law: "but if (a man) goes to Greece, then he who is next in line to inherit shall hold his property".
Not all those who are commemorated on the Greece runestones were necessarily members of the Varangian Guard, and some may have gone to Greece as merchants or died there while passing by on a pilgrimage. The fact that a voyage to Greece was associated with great danger is testified by the fact that a woman had a runestone made in memory of herself before she departed on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem: "Ingirún Harðardóttir had runes graven for herself; she would go East and out to Jerusalem. Fótr carved the runes." However, Blöndal and Benedikz state that although there were other reasons for going to Greece, it is certain that most of the runestones were made in memory of members of the Varangian Guard who died there. Still, some runestones tell of men who returned with increased wealth, and an inscription on a boulder in Ed was commissioned by a former captain of the Guard, Ragnvaldr.
The reasons for the runestone tradition are a matter of debate but they include inheritance issues, status and the honouring of the deceased. Several runestones explicity commemorate inheritance such as the Ulunda stone and the Hansta stone, but the vast majority of the runestones only tell who raised the stone and in memory of whom. Some scholars comment that the vast majority of the runestones were raised in memory of people who are not reported to have died abroad. They argue that few men who went abroad were honoured with memorials and the reason is that the runestones were mainly raised because of concerns at home, such as inheritance issues. Such concerns would have arisen when a family knew that a relative would not return from abroad.
The runestones themselves are short, epigrammatic and to the point:
"These landmarks are made in memory of Inga's sons. She came to inherit from them, but these brothers—Gerðarr and his brothers—came to inherit from her. They died in Greece.”

“Ragnvaldr had the runes carved; (he) was in Greece, was commander of the retinue.”

“Ástríðr had these stones raised in memory of Eysteinn, her husbandman, who attacked Jerusalem and met his end in Greece.”

"Þegn and Gautdjarfr and Sunnhvatr and Þórulfr, they had this stone raised in memory of Tóki, their father. He perished abroad in Greece. May God help his spirit, spirit and soul.”

“Folkmarr had this stone raised in memory of Folkbjörn, his son. He also met his end among the Greeks. May God help his spirit and soul.”

Let us pay homage to the ancestors of Bjorn Borg, Bjork and Lego, who preserved us from harm in exchange for cash and respect their petrine protrusions. On the other hand, these runestones, in depicting our beloved place of origin as a deathtrap, are probably the reason why Greek tourism is doing so badly this year, leaving us, and all blonde haired and blue eyed Greeks who naively maintain that they owe their colouring to the mythical fair-haired original Aryan Greek protoplasts, who looked nothing like the dark, Mediterranean types recorded on ancient Greek vases, rather than sword carrying yobos on medieval package tours, slightly miffed. It would seem meet then, to pepper the villages and mountain peaks of fair Grikkland with Byzantine inscriptions to the effect that: “here Hagar the Horrible went beserk, killing and impregnating many.” But let he who is without sin cast the first runestone.


First published in NKEE on 20 April 2009