Slavs Among Norsemen in America and Iceland

There were Slavs living on the shores of the Baltic since antiquity. Their role on the Baltic is not very well known in the West, in spite of that it was considerable. It is interesting to see that the famous Norman vikings who plundered so much of Western Europe failed completely to duplicate their feats against the Slavs dwelling on the shores of the Baltic. In fact it is these very Slavs who often raided and pillaged the Normans instead! These Slavic raids varied greatly in size and took place on Danish, Swedish, and even Norwegian soil. Their devastating nature is well testified in the literary works of the notable Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus. Danes often even paid tribute to these Slavic tribes in order to avoid being raided. Many words of Slavic origin found their way to the Scandinavian vocabulary, even those that have to do with maritime issues like the words for a "boat" or a "ferry", and that fact is even recognized by Western scholars (for more details on that subject see Krystyna Pieradzka, Walki Slowian na Baltyku w X-XII Wieku, Warszawa, 1953).

The Slavs who dwelled on the shores of the Baltic not only proved to be more than just a match for the Norsemen on the waters of the Baltic Sea, but also are known to have ventured outside of that acquen into the North Sea. Such forays took place during the Slavic raids against both Denmark and Norway. For example, on one occasion during a campaign in 1043 AD, the Polabian Slavs first defeated a Danish fleet that was send to capture Vineta, then took advantage of the victory by launching a naval expedition against Denmark. This expedition sailed south of Falster and Lolland, then between Jutland and Fionia, it fought a battle off Arhus, circumnavigated all of Jutland thus ending up on its western or North Sea side, and then crossed Schleswig by land (between the Danish strongholds of Schleswig and Haithabu) fighting much of the way in the process, and safely returned by sea to Slavia, after successfully completing the land crossing of Schleswig. In the end only during this one expedition, the Polabian Slavs managed to lay waste to many of Denmark's coastal areas.

And talking of the Slavs on the North Sea one must also add that some Slavs actually lived on the North Sea's shores, as partial settlement of the Polabian Slavs is know to have taken place in areas on the North Sea to the west of Hamburg. Also noteworthy is the participation of both Vielet and Polish warriors in a Danish expedition against England - these Slavic fighters not only crossed much of the North Sea, but even ended up fighting in distant England (see Gerard Labuda "Slowianie na Baltyku", Szczecin-Tygodnik Wybrzeza, Nr. 24).

There is even some evidence of a more significant and permanent Slavic settlement in Scandinavia, for example there are place names of Slavic origin in Denmark, and in Sweden there is at least one town that is named Wendel - and Wendel is an old Swedish name for Slavs, meaning that the town was named after Slavs who must have founded it. In fact it originally was an old Germanic designation for Slavs, at least the Western ones, and it was derived from the name of the proto-Slavic Venedi (also known as Veneti, Vineti, or Vinedi). Wendel(l) is also found as a surname in Scandinavia, and it is sometimes even used as a first name in the English-speaking and Germanic-speaking countries. For instance Patrick Hankes and Flavia Hodges in their Oxford Dictionary of First Names, Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, Oxford/New York, 1996 (c 1990), have the following to say about the origin of that name: "(m.) German: from an old Germanic personal name, in origin an ethnic byname for a Wend, a member of the Slavonic people living in the area between the [Laba/]Elbe and the [Odra/]Oder...", the same book also states that the given names of Wendelin, Wenda, and Wanda are of the same derivation.

Poland was originally a landlocked country. Nevertheless, the early Polish state during the process of expanding its boundaries did not forget to include some seashore within its limits. The first part of Pomerania to be incorporated into Poland was Eastern Pomerania with its city and port of Gdansk. Then, the central sector of Pomerania followed, with its chief city and port of Kolobrzeg. Circa 965 AD the westernmost segment of Pomerania followed with its capital at Szczecin. Some two years later Poles subdued the Slavic tribe of the Polabian-Pomeranian Vielunczans, and thus Poland's conquest of Pomerania was completed.

Eventually, as Poland consolidated its hold on the newly acquired littoral, the country established and maintained diplomatic relations with both Denmark and Sweden. One of the results of these diplomatic links was the marriage of Swietoslawa, a Polish princess of the Piast Dynasty and daughter of the Polish Duke Mieszko I, with the Swedish King Eric the Victorious. The marriage took place circa 990 AD, albeit the precise date of this event has not been established (see G. Labuda, "Polska w Zlewisku Baltyku", Jantar, Year VI, pg. 34, Booklet 1; L. Koczy, Zwiazki Malzenskie Piastow ze Skandynawami, Poznan 1933, pg. 12; Jadwiga Zylinska, Piastowny i Zony Piastow, Warszawa 1967, pgs. 23-36).

It must be added that this marriage was not a merely trivial historical event, considering the fact that Swietoslawa was the daughter and sister of the rulers of Poland, and also the wife and mother of the rulers of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and even England. Swietoslawa is also considered to be the very first more notable Polish national to have made a trans-sea voyage. She must have definitively not been the only Pole on board her ship, as there must have been some other Poles who were chosen to accompany the princess on her journey. In Scandinavia Swietoslawa became known as Sigrid (or sometimes also as Storrad), and under that name she figures in the Norse sagas. Following Eric's death Swietoslawa married another Scandinavian monarch: King Sven the Forkbearded of Denmark. After a few years he expelled Swietoslawa from Denmark to Poland, but after his death her sons made it possible for her to return to Denmark. One of them, Canute, would become a ruler of three countries as King Canute II the Great of Denmark (1018-1035), of England as Canute I (1016-1035), and also the King of Norway (1028-1035); he was probably the most outstanding ruler in Denmark's history, especially famous for his conquest of England (started by his father), after which he also crowned himself as the king of England, and it is sad to say that very few people are aware of the fact that he was half-Polish.

According to a legend, and there are some sources both Scandinavian and Polish that seem to indicate that is more of a historical fact then only a legend, there were two Polish knights that went along with Swietoslawa to Scandinavia, and later joined the Norsemen on their journeys to Iceland, and possibly Greenland and the continental North America. These two Polish knights were named Wyzdarwoda (sometimes also known as Wyzdraw) and Tyrker (sometimes also known as Tyrkir); the latter is very frequently identified in Western sources as a "German", but the very possibility of him being Polish, or at least Slavic, will shortly be discussed here. Both eventually ended up at the royal Danish court of King Sven the Forkbearded, where they came into contact with, according to some claims, Eric the Red, or at least with some other Norse sailor who convinced the two Poles to join him on a journey to a distant island in the far north. In his companionship they sailed to Iceland, and then possibly on to Greenland, where they might have permanently settled. The notable Polish author and maritime researcher and historian, Jerzy Pertek has confirmed the existence of these two semi-legendary figures as being mentioned in the old Norse sagas, and he believes that it is possible that Wyzdarwoda, along with Tyrker, might have settled on Greenland.

What is interesting about this whole account is that it was neither invented nor propragated by Poles, but rather by Americans. Apparently the very first Polish-language mention of this story was made by a Polish Roman Catholic priest residing in the U.S. named Waclaw Kruszka on pg. 16 in his Historya Polska w Ameryce, Vol. 1, Milwaukee, 1905 (a second edition of this 13 volume work was published in the United States in 1937). Kruszka might not have been the very first to publish that claim, either in English or Polish or in any other language, and the work that he cited as a source for this information is actually the English-language American-written Scribner's History of the U.S.A., Vol. 1, pg. 42. This book was not the work of any sensation-seeking ethno-centric Poles, but rather of unbiased and objective American scholars and researchers who somehow managed (probably using the same old Norse sources that were used by Jerzy Pertek) to establish that a journey of at least two Poles, or other Western Slavs, took place alongside the Norsemen all the way to the New World. In fact there is some evidence to support that claim, and this evidence will be examined in the following paragraphs.

Considering that great many Western sources assume that Tyrker was a German, and there is nothing in the Norse sources to support that assumption, what evidence is there to support the claim that Tyrker was a Slav, and perhaps even a Pole to be more precise? To take a look at this issue one must realize that there is no very solid basis to assume the claim that he was a German - his "German origin" is more assumed than really proven.

Here is what the Tale of the Greenlanders (also known as the Saga of the Greenlanders) has to say about Tyrker/ Tyrkir and who he really was:

"Tyrkir, a 'Southerner' in Leif's crew, wandered off on his own and found vines, from which Leif named the country."

The land to which the saga was referring to was of course Vinland. But that is a very interesting passage in another way, for as the reader can see Tyrkir is not called a German but rather a Southerner, and this particular, albeit one must say vague, designation most certainly does not rule out his possible Slavic origin. All the Western Slavs, whose Poles, Pomeranians, and Polabians are part of, just happen to live directly to the south of Scandinavians, so there should be nothing surprising for the Norsemen to refer to Western Slavs as "Southerners".

There is another fragment of the Tale of the Greenlanders which indirectly suggests Tyrker's Slavic origin. Tyrker became "immortalized" as the one who allegedely discovered "grapes" in the land that the Norsemen would go on to call as Vinland. Whether he found genuine grapes, or rather some wild berries that were much more suitable for growing in a cooler climate is hotly disputed by many scholars, albeit so far all evidence points out to that the Vinland "grapes" were not any real grapes at all. For instance Merrit L. Fernald, a professor of botany at the Harvard University, put forward a very plausible explanation to the whole mystery of the "Vinland grapes" already in 1910 in a paper published in the magazine Rhodora. He pointed out that vinber, the word in the sagas usually translated as "grapes", really meant "wineberry", which might be the wild red currant, the goose-berry, or the mountain cranberry. That also puts to rest the claim that the saga's passage when Tyrker himself says to have came from a land where there is no shortage of either grapes or vines should be understood literally. Also, according to Dr. Helge Ingstad the Norsemen might have intentionally spread a false rumour about grapes being present on Vinland, or at least they misrepresented some wild berries as "grapes", so as to entice more settlers to go there. And in this case one must add that among Norsemen wine was greatly valued, especially the one made from grapes, and to them it was a symbol of great wealth and affluence. In this case, and all the archeological evidence gathered on the Norse settlement in the continental North America supports this stance, Tyrker did not have had to originate in the Rhineland, as many supporters of his alleged "German" origin claim, but he could very well have come from a more northerly and colder area like Poland, Pomerania, or Slavia.

The passage on Tyrker's discovery of the alleged "grapes" yields one more clue to support the thesis that Tyrker was after all a Slav. In the passage on Tyrker's botanical discovery, the Tale of the Greenlanders speaks that he returned very jubilant and enthusiastic to the bewildered Normans, and started to speak to them in his own native language which none of the Norsemen could understand. Therefore, apparently Tyrker's native tongue was not a Germanic one. That is very interesting because the Norse language and German are universally recognized as being related, and in fact back in the Norse days they must have been mutually understandable (and likely they still are mutually understandable to a certain degree even today). Then, why did the Normans fail to understand him? If he had been really speaking in German, then he still should have been understandood. Apparently Tyrker's native tongue was not Germanic in origin, and as a result no Norseman could understand what Tyrker was saying in his own native speech. One must remember that Slavic and Germanic languages were not mutually understandable; therefore, was it a Slavic tongue that Tyrker was speaking to the bewildered Normans? Considering the account as it is related in the Tale of the Greenlanders that is an entirely likely scenario.

And at last we have to face the question of Tyrker's name, since as sceptics might point out it does not sound Slavic (there is no such problem with Wyzdarwoda or Wyzdraw since both of these two names, or rather variations of the same name, sound unquestionably Slavic). Yes, it does not really sound Slavic, but that does not mean that it was Tyrker's original name. It is entirely likely that Tyrker was in fact originally known by the Slavic name of Tyrko, but after he spend many years in Scandinavia that Slavic name was "Normanized" to Tyrker.

The Slavic settlement on Norse-age Iceland is not just a mere hypothesis, but a proven historical fact. In his book Odkrywanie Swiata; Polacy na Szesciu Kontynentach the outstanding Polish author, researcher, and adventurer Ryszard Badowski has the following to say on this topic: "...scholars researching the contacts of Poles with the lands of Northern Europe have confirmed Slavic settlement on the early medieval [, or Norse-age,] Iceland. Unfortunetly, the precise names of these Slavic settlers are not known." Furthermore, it is even acknowledged in Western sources that, according to the Icelandic sagas, some Norse-age settlers on Iceland did in fact claim to have been descended from royal lineages of some Slavic countries - that is by no means an outlandish claim considering the fact that there was frequent intermarriage between the various princely Polabian families, the dukal family of Pomerania, and even the ruling Piast Dynasty of Poland, with the ruling houses of the Scandinavian countries.

Interestingly, there is some additional prove in the Icelandic sagas of contacts between Iceland and the Slavic countries; for example in these ancient sources Poland is known as Pulinaland while Poles are referred to as Polavi.

Could it be that there were Slavs among the Norse explorers of America? This is entirely possible, as according to the Saga of Eric the Red on the Greenlanders' third voyage to America there were as many as 160 men and women on three ships - taking into account the fact that some Slavic settlement on Iceland indeed took place, and considering the fact that most Greenlanders were in reality relocated settlers from Iceland and their descendants, it cannot be completely ruled-out that there might have been some Slavs on board of the Norse ships sailing to the New World. The Saga of Eric the Red reports that at least three journeys to the America were undertaken by the Norsemen. Furthermore, some scholars believe that the Normans from Greenland and/or Iceland made at least several additional landings in America on timber-gathering expeditions, which continued until as late as the 1300's. Again, some sort of Slavic presence cannot be completely ruled-out in this case as well. According to the American historian Samuel Eliot Morison "Some ships may have continued their voyage[s] to Vinland in search of grapes, only to find berries and meet hostile Skrellings. But the tall timber of Markland was a valuable asset for the Greenlanders, although they could get it only in two summer months without being blocked by ice."


Ryszard Badowski, Odkrywanie Swiata; Polacy na Szesciu Kontynentach, Wydawnictwo Pascal, Bielsko-Biala, 2001.

Encyklopedia Popularna PWN, Panstwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 16th edition, Warszawa, 1988.

Zdzislaw Krok, Kto Odkryl Ameryke? (Fakty, Zagadki, Hipotezy), Agencja Omnipress - Spoldzielnia Pracy Dziennikarzy i Panstwowe Przedsiebiorstwo Wydawnicze "Rzeczpospolita", Warszawa, 1987.

Atlas Historyczny Polski, edited by Wladyslaw Czaplinski & Tadeusz Ladogorski, Panstwowe Przedsiebiorstwo Wydawnictw Kartograficznych im. Eugeniusza Romera, 7th edition, Wroclaw, 1987.

Atlas Historyczny Swiata, chief editor: Jozef Wolski, Panstwowe Przedsiebiorstwo Wydawnictw Kartograficznych im. Eugeniusza Romera, 2nd edition, Wroclaw, 1986.

Relja Novakovic, Balticki Sloveni u Beogradu i Srbiji, Narodna Knjiga, Beograd, 1985.

Jerzy Pertek, Polacy na Morzach i Oceanach, Vol. 1, Wydawnictwo Poznanskie, Poznan, 1981.

Ireneusz Grajewski & Jozef Wojcicki, Maly Leksykon Morski, Wydawnictwo MON, Warszawa, 1981.

Dzieje Polski, edited by Jerzy Topolski, Panstwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, Warszawa, 1978.

Frank Rasky, Explorers of the North; The Polar Voyagers, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, Toronto, 1976.

Jon Johannesson (translated by Haraldur Bessason), A History of the Old Icelandic Commonwealth; Islendinga Saga, University of Manitoba Press, 1974.

W.P. Cumming, R.A. Skelton, D.B. Quinn, The Discovery of North America, McClelland and Stewart Limited, Toronto, 1971.

Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America; The Northern Voyages A.D. 500-1600, Oxford University Press, New York, 1971.

Jeannette Mirsky (introduction by Vilhjalmur Stefansson), To the Arctic!; The Story of Northern Exploration from Earliest Times to the Present, The University of Chicago Press, 3rd edition, Chicago, 1970 (c 1934, 1948).

Helge Ingstad (translated by Erik J. Friis), Westward to Vinland; The Discovery of Pre-Columbian Norse House-sites in North America, St. Martin's Press, 1st American edition, New York, 1969.

Tryggvi J. Oleson, Early Voyages and Northern Approaches 1000-1632, McClelland and Stewart Limited, Toronto, 1963.

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