Is the Eye Witness Account of the Volga Vikings Reflective of Old East Norse Religion?

Written by Dyami Millarson


This article is a supplement to my recent article on Germanic Village Deities, where I quoted a passage on the Volga Vikings and that passage mentions a large wooden figure which I identified with Freyr. Since Freyr is involved, may the passage be reflective of Old East Norse rather than Old West Norse religion? Although the worship of Freyr is one of the circumstances that leads to this interpretation of the passage, it is not the sole circumstance that leads to this interpretation of the passage:

  • Monarchical lineage — The Old East Norse speakers of Sweden have a monarchical connection to Freyr. According to Old East Norse monarchical tradition, the Ynglings, the Swedish dynasty, are descendants of Yngvi, which is an epithet of Freyr. This makes the relationship between the Swedes and Freyr special. The worship of Freyr is prevalent among the Old East Norse speakers of Sweden.
  • Geographical proximity — The indigenous territory of the Old East Norse speakers is located relatively closest to the Volga; the territory of the Old East Norse speakers is essentially on the route to the Volga. Therefore, a significant portion of Volga Vikings being Old East Norse speakers is to be expected. As can be seen from the map above, there was a direct link between Sweden and the Volga trade route. It was practical and logical for Old East Norse speakers to expand eastward, while it was logical for their Old West Norse-speaking brethren to expand westward, of which the settlement of Iceland between 874 to 930, a period called the Age of Settlement, is an important result, and for which reason Old Icelandic, which is usually treated as the standard version of Old Norse, is to be classified as Old West Norse.
  • Demographic size — The passage, which I quoted in the article on Village Gods, is an account of the Volga Vikings from the 9th century. According to a Russian work by the title of Рост населения в Европе: опыт исчисления which is, by the way, also cited in the Wikipedia article on the population in the year 1000 AD, the Old East Norse-speaking regions Sweden and Denmark had about 0.4 million and 0.62 million inhabitants, while the Old West Norse-speaking Norway had only 0.2 million inhabitants. The Old West Norse-speaking colony Iceland must have had less than 0.1 million inhabitants at that time. The demographic size discrepancy between the East Norse and West Norse speakers persists to this day: Denmark and Sweden together have a larger population than Iceland and Norway. The practical explanation for this lies in the geographical fact that Denmark and Sweden possesses plenty of lands suitable for farming and these fertile lands have historically enabled the East Norse speakers to sustain a larger population, while Norway is mostly mountainous and Iceland used to be a barren wasteland. West Norse speakers would tend to sustain themselves more with fishing, while the East Norse speakers would tend to sustain sustain themselves more with farming; for that is what nature bestowed upon them. As a result, the East Norse speakers would lavitate more towards Freyr worship. It is also no wonder, then, that even in the 19th century Norwegian fishermen prayed to Njörth, whom they called Njor; for it is to be exepcted that the West Norse speakers would lavitate more towards Njörth worship. Of course, Freyr and Njörth worship occurred both in Sweden and Norway, and Freyr and Njörth were often invoked together; many Norse population centres were near the coast. So, there is overlap. As Montensen and Crowell say, “in the worship of the [G]ods there has been but little difference in the different provinces.” However, the emphasis on specific Gods — i.e., as in the sense of certain groups’ preference for specific Gods relative to other closely related groups’ preferences — may vary somewhat due to differences in lifestyle, influenced by factors which also affected the population growth, and that is my point. Furthermore, given the large excess populations of the East Norse regions, the East Norse speakers could easily have been a dominant cultural majority among the Volga Viking; the influence must certainly have been there, also considering the East Norse regions were on the route to the Volga and Volga Viking traders would likely pass by East Norse settlements, therefore maintaining close ties with East Norse culture and religion, while the Old East Norse-speaking regions were, I presume, in all likelihood for many Volga Vikings their historical homeland, and keeping close ties with their roots seems logical. Furthermore, while may have been linguistically, culturally and religiously influenced not only by contact with Old East Norse speakers but also by new blood from thr Old East Norse regions, as they might recruit new men from the nearest Norse population centres for Viking expeditions. Replenishing their ranks with new recruits of Norse extraction must, after all, have been essential for maintaining their presence in the Volga region and thereby ensuring the continuation of their activities along the Volga trade route.
  • Fertility worship tradition — On page 168 of the work titled The Gods as We Shape Them, Fokke Sierksma says of the Norse speakers that they ‘regarded the sacred union of a [F]ertility [G]od and a [F]ertility [G]oddess as prerequisite for the continued propagation of life in all its forms.’ The belief in Freyr is, therefore, all-encompassing and it is then no wonder that Freyr is also called the World God. The all-importance of fertility must have been especially so for the Old East Norse speakers such as the Swedes, who had a historically strong connection with the land and consequently with Freyr. While Freyr was a Great Lord to the Swedes, it is likely he was the Lord, whom the Volga Vikings addressed when they were praying to the large figure.

I have thus made a case for why the account of the Volga Vikings, which I quoted in the article on the Village Gods, may indeed be reflective of Old East Norse religion, although it must be borne in mind that there has always been a great deal of linguistic, cultural and religious overlap between the speakers of Old East Norse and Old West Norse; my interest is, nevertheless, in these local peculiarities, as they teach us a whole lot.

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