The Black Viking

You can see the video about this subject here: [The Black Viking]

 

This is a story about a man named Geirmundur Heljarskinn, born in Rogaland (Norway), between the years 850-950 AD. He was one of the first explorers to settle in Iceland, going with the early Viking expedition teams. This is not a fictional character from Norse mythology or the Sagas. This person is in fact an historical figure and nowadays in Iceland people can still trace their bloodline through genetic tests to this ancestor of theirs (and such tests have been performed). He was a “black” Viking, but not in the way you might think; not black because he was of African ancestry, nor because he was so evil that he gained this seemingly ominous title of being “dark” when darkness is associated with evil, mystery, death and even magic. He was black/dark according to the perception of the people of those times. The reactions people had in relation to this man, are really interesting and makes us wonder about certain attitudes society has towards people who are physically different.

The rather short story of Geirmundur Heljarskinn is present within the Landnámabók, which is “The Book of Settlements”, a medieval Icelandic written record which describes the settlement of Iceland by the Norse between the 9th and 10th centuries. If you research the story, it’s called Geirmundar þáttr heljarskinns, and this story is about Geirmundur and his brother Hámund. This account comes in great detail about the lineage of Geirmundur, which I will not write it here so we can go straight to the point. Suffice it to say that there was a man called Hjör, doing the regular raiding and pillaging to obtain wealth. This Hjör went raiding in Bjarmland, the westernmost part of Siberia, where there was a great trading activity between the natives and the Norse. Hjör took as a hostage of value a young Siberian woman called Ljufvina, the very daughter of the “king” of Bjarmland. Hjör ended up marrying this woman. Now, in Siberia there were no kings, these were nomadic people, so it’s quite possible that this whole story of her being a princess was made up to have a royal justification for her to become a queen in Norway, otherwise, without a royal lineage, she would have no claim to the throne.

The majority of Siberians are of Mongol origins – with dark hair and skin – and Ljufvina was no exception. Now, speaking of genetics, we know that when two people, both having different skin-colors from one another, the darker pigmentation tends to thrive and be more visible. But this is nowadays that we have this knowledge, back in medieval times people expected their sons to follow their father’s lineage, therefore more prone to look like their fathers. Hjör was a man with Nordic features, so people were surprised when Ljufvina gave birth to two boys with dark hair and skin. To the ancient Scandinavian societies, people with darker skin-colours were considered to be, well, back. But being “black” during these times, at least in ancient Scandinavia, wasn’t necessarily a motive for prejudice, intolerance. The only problem here was the fact that the father was white, tall, fair of hair, and the social belief that children should look like their fathers. These were patriarchal societies. Another problem, was that the children looked nothing like the royal lineages of the kings and queens of Norway, they looked much more like Thralls – slaves – and this was absolutely unconceivable for nobles.

This isn’t a case of racism in ancient societies. The problem wasn’t directly due to their skin, the problem was breaking the royal lineage.

The secret of the two brothers, Geirmundur and Hámund, was kept by the family and a few trustworthy people. A white slave woman had given birth to a son, and so they replaced the two brothers for this white-skin baby from a slave. The two brothers lived as slaves within their own father’s household. As I have said, it didn’t matter at all if the boys had light-skin or dark-skin. The only thing that mattered was the fact that they were sons of the king and carried within themselves many of the noble and royal virtues of this great lineage, independent of the dark skin. The two young boys grew up and became healthy, resilient, strong and intelligent – all the characteristics associated with royalty – while the young white prince grew up weak, cowardly and not very clever – a verdict of his slave ancestry according to this account. When the boys reached the age of four, it was clear to those who knew the secret that no one could hide the truth any longer, that the slave boy who looked like a prince had no nobility at all, he only had the colour considered “right” because it was closer to the colour of Hjör, and nothing more.

Well, finally, the mother brought forth the two brothers and told the truth to the king (yeah, he had no idea about the swapping-babies-scheme). The king was only surprised by the colour of their skins because he had never seen before such darker skins, but he believed the boys were his sons. Thereafter the boys gained their nickname – “heliarskinn”(dark-skin). The boys grew up to be great warriors and raiders, accumulating wealth and honour, and perfectly accepted by the society they lived in.

Finally, Geirmundur, like his father before him, travelled to Bjarmland (Siberia) and returned with another Siberian wife – Illþurrka. Together they settled in Ireland and then in Iceland, where they became a very powerful family. The truth of this story has been confirmed by DNA tests of living Geirmundur’s descendants living in Iceland, who have mitochondrial (maternal) DNA which indicates their mother’s Asian/Mongolian ancestry.

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