View Full Version : An essay: Viking Age Finland

Sunday, February 6th, 2005, 11:01 PM
This is an essay written by me, an amateur historian with writing as a hobby. It is still a work-in-progress, so I might change, add and remove bits from here and there. I'm still working on more "chapters", but this is how far I've got so far. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Viking Age Finland


Viking Age Finland is a topic which is rarely discussed when talking about Finnish history. In schools, pupils learn next to nothing about pre-Medieval Finnish society. Also, historians have been rather reluctant to deal with the topic in-depth in recent years, and so very few works have emerged. It is almost as if it were taboo.

Before the Second World War, the nationalistic fervour in newly independent Finland encouraged many historians and researchers of the time to draw some rather hasty conclusions, which most certainly were biased in favour of making Finnish history somewhat more glorious than what it in actual fact may have been. After the Second World War, anything which would have compromised good relations with the USSR was forbidden by an “unspoken rule” of sorts, and the pre-war nationalism died down. Ever since, historians have avoided the subject, perhaps fearing to lose their credibility as a “nationalist historian” in the eyes of their colleagues and in the eyes of the public.

Nevertheless, some excellent works, if rather careful and few in numbers, have emerged over time. They have not attracted much attention, however, and the subject has lived in a deep slumber for decades. The general public has shown little to no interest in the subject in recent years, and the pre-war notion of “nationalist history” still exists, which is not lessened by a wave of new nationalist “internet” historians, who are now able to publish some of the most outrageous theories.

As someone tremendously interested in the period, I have become something of a self-educated “amateur-historian” on the subject, by obtaining as much literature on the topic as possible. I continue to go on with my research, and this essay is only meant to give an insight into what I have come to believe that Viking-age Finland must have looked like. I am most open to discuss the subject with anyone who has feedback, complains or corrections to make. I have attempted to remain as unbiased as humanly possible and to remain objective in my research. I am not on a crusade to prove a point, I simply want to shed light on a topic, which has been in the dark for most.

1.0 Western Finland

1.1 Introduction

NOTE: The terms might be somewhat confusing, so to make it a bit clearer, I will avoid using the word “Finnish” to describe the Finnic tribes of Finland in general. The term Finn and Finnish is going to refer to the particular tribe, although in some cases it is impossible to avoid using it to refer to the tribes in general. I have tried to make it obvious from the context which meaning is implied.

Distribution of Finnic peoples

Because of its remote location, Finland has always been a little bit behind in technological advances. The Bronze-age had just made its arrival, when in they already started to become out-dated in the cradles of civilization. However, during the iron-age, there were strong contacts with the Finnic tribes on both sides of the Gulf of Finland, as well as to the east and to the west. During the Viking age, the tribes of Finland were more or less at par in technological development with their neighbours to the west, east and the south. Differences between western Finnic tribes and eastern Finnic tribes of Finland become evident by the Merovingian period. Finland is commonly divided between Western Finnish Cultural Sphere and Eastern Finnish Cultural Sphere. The Pre-historic period of Finland stretched all the way to Swedish conquest in the 12th century, and in eastern Finland it stretched all the way to the late 13th century.

1.2 Western Tribes.

1.2.a The Sums/Finns

One of the two western tribes were the Finns, which eventually gave their name to the entire province, which would form later in the medieval times. They are known as Sums in the Novgorodian Chronicles, and their modern Finnish name would be “suomalaiset”. This tribe inhabited much of the SW coast of present-day Finland, and had their major population centres around the Turku-region and the inland lakes close to the coast. Their lands are thought to have stretched from western Uusimaa, encompassing approximately the area of Varsinais-Suomi of today and reaching northwards to may be as far as “the waist” of Finland. It is commonly accepted, that this tribe had the strongest contact to the west, and it has been speculated, by several historians, that they may have been in some sort of a lose alliance with the Svear of Sweden. Their location was optimal for west-bound trade, and there are several finds which attest to trade going both ways over the Baltic. It is also here, where Christianity started to first replace the old pagan faiths. It is probable that merchants and travellers brought the new faith, and that the two faiths, the old and the new, consisted quite peacefully. The changes in styles of burial are the greatest indicator of the arrival of the new faith. According to the pagan tradition, people were buried with their belongings, jewellery and weapons, while the followers of the new faith were buried without their possessions, and the direction of the graves turned to an east-west axis instead of the common pagan north-south axis.The lack of hill-forts in Vakka-Suomi, which dot the country-side of much of Finland, is commonly taken as a sign, that there was relative peace between the Finns of Vakka-Suomi and their neighbours. The Turku-region on the other hand has far more signs of troubled times. If Vakka-Suomi indeed did have an alliance of some sort with the West (Svea – Birka), the West was most likely, if not certainly, the dominant force in this alliance. However, there are no signs that would suggest Vakka-Suomi was a vassal to Birka. Graves which have been found around the Baltic, which are both different and separated from the graves of the locals, and signify the existence of a foreign ‘upper-class’ are non-existent in Vakka-Suomi.

The entire area that is thought to have been possessed or controlled by the Finns during the late iron-age was most likely not a united province politically until the medieval times under Swedish rule. There appear to have been some key areas, which formed which are thought to have acted as political entities. The most important of these areas are the Turku-region, and the area known as Vakka-Suomi, which has also been referred to as “Kaland” in some historical sources. It is impossible to tell exactly how these areas were governed, but some educated guesses would suggest a very “democratic” style of decision making. The strong men of different villages would decide together on a common course of action, as no single leader was strong enough to dominate the entire province, very much like the Vikings are thought to have operated. One cannot talk of a nobility or aristocracy as such, but there are evident class-distinctions. These become evident when looking at the items found in the graves. As swords were expensive and hard to come by (as they had to be imported from over-seas), they act as a good marker of a wealthy and usually important person within the community. As mentioned earlier, the Finns of the Turku-region and Vakka-Suomi had a very good geographical location to engage in trade with the west, especially with Birka, as this had become a dominant (if not the dominant) trade-centre of the Baltic by the Viking age.

1.2.b The Tavastians/Jems

The Tavastians, known as Jems in the Novgorodian Chronicles and as “Hämäläiset” in Finnish, populated much of central Finland, and their spheres of influence in terms of hunting grounds stretched far and wide. According to old oral tradition, their lands stretched from “salt sea to salt sea”, meaning from the Gulf of Bothnia to the Gulf of Finland. The heart-lands of this tribe were located around Vanajavesi and areas of Satakunta. Other population centres were sometimes far away and isolated from each other. Culturally, the Tavastians belonged to the same Western Finnish Group as the Finns. Small regional differences naturally existed, but one cannot talk about a separate Tavastian culture. However, one cannot talk of a unified political entity at this stage. The Tavastians and the Finns were different peoples in the eyes of outsiders.
The Tavastians appear to have lived a far more war-like and troubled existence than their neighbours, the Finns. The Tavastian lake districts are dotted with several hill-forts, including the biggest hill-fort in Finland, the fort of Rapola. Also the finding of several “treasures”, i.e. hidden or buried valuable possessions in great numbers is commonly assumed to signify troubled times. The relations between the Tavastians and the Finns are quite controversial. In later historical documents, it has been said that the pagan Tavastians raided the (at least partially) Christianized Finns (12th century Swedish documents). The Novgorodian Chronicles claim that war-raids as joint ventures of both “Sums” and “Jems” targeted Karelians as well as Novgorod. However, these occurred in the medieval period, some after the “Swedish” crusade. Still, it is quite possible, that such raids took place earlier as well. The first documented clashes between the Novgorodians (possibly along with the Karelians) and the Tavastians are from the early 12th century, when Vsevolod of Novgorod warred against the Tavastians in difficult circumstances. Revenge and retribution was swift from the side of the Tavastians, sometimes allied to the Finns and possibly even Swedes. These documented raids, although slightly after the Viking age, give valuable insight to the relations between the Tavastians and their neighbours. The Vikings, according to Viking Sagas, also made some raids into Tavastia. Here is an account of Olav the Holy raiding the coast. This may be either in Tavastian or “Finnish” territory:

"Then he (Olav) sailed to Finland, landed and pillaged there, but all of the locals escaped into the forests and took all their possessions with them away from the area/region. The king ventured far inland and through some woods; there were valley regions called Herdalarna. They took some property, but no men (Slaves? Prisoners?). When evening drew near, the King began his way back to his ships. But when they returned to the woods, they were confronted by men from all sides, and harrassed and shot at fiercely. The King told his men to take cover/protect themselves. But before they could get out of the woods, he had lost many men and several were wounded. He arrived at the ships in the evening. In the night, the Finns created a great storm with their witch-craft. But the king ordered to lift up the anchor and raise the sails, and they travelled along the coast during the night. The King's good luck was then, like so often, more effective than the witch-craft of the Finns. They managed to sail along the coast of Balegard and then out to sea. But a band of Finnish warriors followed them on land as the king sailed along the coast."

I myself have not had access to the original version of the Saga, only a Finnish translation, so I am unsure what term was used for the tribe in question, whether it was Finn, Tavastian or perhaps some other name. I have, however, come across a source which claims that Olav the Holy raided the Tavastians in the earlier half of the 11th century, which is more likely than not this same raid. Also, the term Balegard used by the Vikings has been suggested to be the southern coast of Finland, so it is very possible that this was a raid against the Tavastians, but it is not out of the question that it was against the Finns. Balegard or Balegardssida is thought to mean something like “encircled by fire”, which might refer to the signal beacons ancient Finnic tribes are thought to have used as a warning system.

Politically, the finds of the heart-lands of Tavastia would suggest a remarkable level of unity and organisation. The chain of hill-forts in Tavastia formed a sort of defence-net, and from one hill-fort one can nearly see to the next. It is commonly assumed, that some sort of signal beacons were used to communicate between the forts, to quickly notify of danger. Some Viking sagas also tell of such signal beacons being used along coastal areas. Also, the construction and upkeep of such hill-forts would require far more man-power than a few villages had to offer, so one can assume that there was a certain level of unity, at least in issues of war and defence. The war-raids of Tavastians could also consists of hundreds and sometimes thousands of men, which is no small feat in Finland of the time, which is estimated to have had a total population of approximately 50 000. Such a level of apparent organisation and unity in action being exercised by regional communities of a few villages seems impossible, and there for I assume, that it is more than likely, that the Tavastians, at least the heart-lands of Häme, formed a closely-knit, semi-state like entity, which is quite remarkable. On the other hand, the number of hill-forts can also be seen as a sign of weak organisation. Tests with trying to signal other forts using the signal beacon method have so far been unsuccessful, and some think, that the sheer numbr of hill-forts would mean, that separate communities engaged in the construction of these forts quite independently, without consenting their neighbours. However, some hill forts are between the border og two villages, and this could mean, that the villages united to construct these places of refuge.

The Tavastians are thought to have relied quite substantially on their wide hunting grounds, which would often lead to clashed over frontiers and spheres of influence between neighbours. Especially the Karelians, another tribe which traded, raided, taxed and hunted far and wide, are thought to have clashed continuously with the Tavastians.

1.2.c The Kvens/Kainuu

The Kvens, as they were known in the Sagas and other documents, are a very disputed group in Finnish history. Very little is known about them for certain, except for that they roamed the wide north. They relied mainly on hunting, trading (the further north you go, the better the furs) and taxing the Sámi population. The Sagas mention them as being rivals as well as allies of the Norwegians. Sometimes they seem to have been crossing into the Norwegian sphere of influence (and vice versa), and sometimes they seem to have allied with the Norwegians to fight the Karelians and the Nogorodians. The Finnish minority that still exists today in northern Norway is still called the Kvaens by the Norwegians. The Viking Sagas also describe the ancient kings of the Kvens. The names and the existence of the Kings are commonly assumed as being completely fictional, as their names are Norwegian words for different weather phenomena (e.g. Frost, Snow, etc), but it is interesting to note, that the Norwegian thought it natural, that they had kings in the first place. Also, many names of the time did in fact originate from things to do with nature, like weather.

Spheres of influence according to one interpretation

However, I myself do not believe, that the Kvens were a distinct tribe. The lack of any clear heart-lands and major settlements supports this notion. However, their existence cannot be disputed, so what exactly were they? It is more or less commonly accepted, that the Kvens belonged to the Western Finnish Cultural Group, but historical documents do not give much information about their home lands. However, some historians argue, quite convincingly, that they were in fact Finns from the Vakka-Suomi region. A theory, which has significant backing, is that the Kvens were in fact some sort of hunters’ and traders’ organisation, who travelled north, perhaps on a seasonal basis, to hunt for food and fur and to tax the Sámi population. I personally am leaning towards this theory. As for the origin of their name, “Kainuu”, it has been suggested, that it derives from a word meaning walking/trecking stick that they supposedly would have used, to signify that they were travellers. That being said, there is little evidence to support this, and these are educated guesses more than anything else.

1.2.d Other

South Ostrobothnia in earlier times had quite a wealthy culture of its own, which at times seems to have surpassed that of southern Finland, prior to the Viking age, but new trade contacts to the east and the south all but drained it of its life force. This was also in a time, when the distinction between eastern and western Finland was not as evident, and to call it its own culture is not perhaps the most accurate way to describe it.

Ahvenanmaa, or the Åland Islands, began to ‘Germanicize’ and became dominantly Germanic in culture and language by the end of the Viking age, although people settled there from both east and west, as well as south (Ests from Estonia and most likely Saaremaa).

2.0 Eastern Finland

2.1 Introduction

Eastern Finland, areas which traditionally are associated with Karelians, i.e. The N.E shores of the Gulf of Finland and the western, southern and northern shores of Lake Ladoga, remained fairly quiet until the Merovingian period. The finds from that period are culturally in the Western Finnish Cultural Group, and therefore it is assumed, that there was an influx of inhabitants into the area from western Finland, although it cannot be proved nor can the origin of the objects be determined. Since the early Viking age, Swedish merchants (Varyags), looking for new trade routes in a troubled Europe, showed an interest in the area. Trade colonies were established at Staraja Ladoga south of Ladoga, known as Aldeigjuborg in the Sagas as well as Novgorod, which was to become a dominating power in Russia later on. Staraja Ladoga was inhabited by a Finnic people since the Merovingian period. The relations between the Swedish merchants and the local population seem to have been more or less peaceful, and the locals were subject to cultural influence from the Swedish settlements as well as Sweden itself.

2.2 The Birth of Karelian Culture and Karelia from the Viking age to the Crusades

It has been commonly assumed, that the population around Lake Ladoga (Laatokan Karjala) was more or less homogenous until the differences in influx of cultural influences from outside sources formed distinctions between populations. There were 3 main sources of these influnces: Western Finnish, Scandinavian (Swedish) and Novgorodian. It was this influx of cultural influence, that when mingled together, gave birth to a distinguishable Karelian Culture, which separated it from the Western Finnish Culture. By the turn of the millennium, an independent Karelian had emerged.

Karelia was something of a late-comer to the Viking world, but it would flourish as perhaps the most influential of the Finnic tribes of north of the Gulf of Finland. The heart-lands of Karelian culture were the regions around Lake Ladoga, especially the western shore and Käkisalmi, which was perhaps the most important Karelian settlement. The potency of Karelian culture can be seen in its attempts to expand beyond its original borders. Karelian culture made its way south, west and as well as east. Finds pointing to strong Karelian influence have been found as far as in Tavastia in the west, and Ingria also shows clear signs of belonging to the Karelian culture. The Karelians also moved into Savo, a previously scarcely inhabited area in central-east Finland. Savo is thought to have possessed important intersections of trade routes, both land and water ways. In the 900’s, Savo was more Western in, judging by the archaeological discoveries made there, but by 1200 it was clearly Karelian in culture.

2.3 Trade and the case of Bjarmia/Perm

As the eastern trade routes increased in importance, so did the favourability of the position of the Karelian Culture. It seems evident, that the Karelians thrived from the eastern trade, and that they grew wealthy from it. As Novgorod began to become a major power in the region, it seems that Novgorod and Karelia became allies. Once again, the difference between alliance and vassalization is not always clear, but Karelia did not pay tribute to Novgorod by the mid-12th century, so it can be assumed, that they were independent. As a part of trading, the Karelians are assumed to have quite actively hunted for furs and taxed the Sámi population of the north. They are mentioned in the Viking Sagas as having been active in the north, and to have clashed with the Kvens and the Norwegians. Another centre of trade might have been Bjarmia or Perm, but very little is known for certain about it. The Viking Sagas mention it as a major place of trade, and many other historical sources mention as well, but it is impossible to say anything for certain about it, as its exact location has not been found, but it thought to be on the coast of the White Sea. One theory suggests, that “Bjarmian” did not refer to a people as such, but to a trade: merchants. This theory is argued by Kustaa Vilkuna, and it is supported by the fact, that there are said to have existed two Bjarmias. One around the south shores of Lake Ladoga, and one in Viena Karelia. Also, the Veps are supposed to have used the term "Bjarmian" for some merchants up to relatively recent times. However, as evidence is scarce, it leaves much room for guessing and speculation. I personally think that Bjarmia was a Karelian settlement, or may be a large market place, with settlements further away (as was the custom on unsafe shores). There are simply too many mentions of it in historical documents, even such details as what gods the Bjarms are supposed to have worshipped. One particular god which comes up is ‘Jomali’ or ‘jomala’, which is undoubtedly a Finnic god. The vast majority of historians agree, that the Bjarmians most certainly were a Finnic people, probably Karelians. The name Bjarmia is most likely a distorted Scandinavian form of the name "Perm" which is present in many of the local place names in the region. Perm again might come from "Perä-Maa" bening "Back land" or the "Country Beyond". The origin of the name however is uncertain, and cannot be known for sure. References to Bjarmia vanish around the Mongol invasions of Russia, and it is thought that this is one of the reason for the destruction of Bjarmia. Norwegian Sagas record, that many Bjarmians escaped to Norway.

As far as political organisation in late pre-historic Karelia is concerned, it would seem, that as Karelia grew in wealth it also grew in organization. The surroundings of Käkisalmi is quite heavily fortified, with over 20 hill-forts dotting the western shores of Lake Ladoga. As is the case with Tavastians, those forts had to be manned and kept in condition. As is the case with the Tavastians, however, the large number and small distance between the forts can also be interpreted as a very splintered and weakly organized community. A comparison has been made to the Celts of the Classical times, disorganized between themselves, and therefore unable to counter outside pressure effectively.

What the defence of a hill-fort might have looked like

Also, the Novgorodian Chronicles often refer to their Karelian allies, and they remain as ‘allies’ all the way until 1269, when Novgorod is thought to have strengthened their grip on Karelia. So, if the Karelians were independent from Novgorod, as it would seem, and yet they provided man power to go on raids into Tavastia and to fight western Finnic invaders as well as the expansionist Swedes, it can be assumed, that some sort of governing body decided to provide this man power, unless the men joined out completely free will (most probably some did in the hope of war booty). The coordination does hint at some greater decision-making body of some sort, although the archaeological finds say nothing about this. I personally believe, that Karelia was indeed beginning to form into a united entity, at least the Käkisalmi region down to the isthmus, but that this development was cut short by the expansionist Swedes and Novgorodians, who over-whelmed the Karelians stuck between a rock and a hard place. Karelia did regain temporary freedom from Novgorod again in 1278, when the city was suffering from internal strife, and taking advantage of this, the Karelians are told to have rebelled. This freedom was short-lived, however.

3.0 Hill-forts, ancient places of refuge

3.1 Introduction

There are roughly 100 hill-forts that dot the areas inhabited by the three major tribes, which would eventually form Finland and the Finnish people in the future. Some are small, and some are quite big and well built and fortified constructions, which could have held out against a besieging force, be they a neighbouring Finnic tribe, Novgorodians or Vikings. Hill-forts are also thought to have acted as safe market places in some parts of Karelia. These were usually built on islands in rivers and lakes, which made them more accessible. The hill-forts are also thought to have served as meeting places and launching points of war raids. Similar hill-forts can also be found south of the Gulf of Finland in the territories inhabited by other Balto-Finnic tribes and Baltic tribes. Most hill-forts were built on steep hills and places hard to reach and easy to defend due to natural formations of the rock or the hill itself. They are rarely very close to settlements, but usually a bit further away.

3.1 Construction of the hill-forts, when, how, why and by whom?

It has been hard for archaeologists to actually form an accurate picture of when the hill-forts themselves were constructed, but by looking at the different artefacts that have been found, it can be assumed relatively safely, that they were built and used, for the most part, from the late iron-age to the times of the crusades, that would mean around 800-1300 A.D. The construction is thought to have been something which the entire community got involved in. Some of the forts are so big and so close to each other, that a considerable work force was needed for their construction and upkeep. The people who built them were most likely ordinary people from the villages, who thought it best to have an insurance policy against war raids. Many Hill-forts are also positioned so that they have a good over-view of important communication and trade routes in the area, which were usually waterways, the rivers and lakes which dot the Finnish country-side. In some areas, such as the heart-lands of Häme or Tavastia and the western shore of Lake Ladoga, the hill-forts form a chain, which could have been manned on a somewhat regular basis, and which could alert the entire region quite quickly by lighting signal beacons to tell the garrison of the next fort of invaders.

The walls were usually about man-high, the highest reached over 2m, and were built of stone and wood. Some of the forts have also had some basic wooden towers within the walls. The walls as such would not last against siege equipment, however, the vast majority of the walls were completely inaccessible for any kind of siege equipment, and they were also built during a time when next to nothing was known of siege equipment in this part of the world. The forts usually had gates, and these were a bit stronger that the rest of the fort, as this was the area where the brunt of the attack would be absorbed.

The remains of a wall in Savo-Karelia

Although a lot of work was done on the fort itself, there is also evidence indicating, that the area surrounding the fort received an equal amount of attention. Traps and obstacles were built around the fort to make it less accessible from attackers. The sides of the hill could be made steeper, the access to the gate could have been made into a canyon-like passage, etc. Some hill-forts were fitted with stone ovens, and some have thought that these were used to melt snow in the winter to ice the slopes. This might explain the term “glass castles of the Finns” that we know from old Russian tales.

There have also been instances, where access to the gate has been completely walled off from the right side (when looking out from the gate), so that the only way to get to the gate was along the wall from the left. This meant, that the assaulters who were making for the gate had to hold their shields in their right arm in order to protect themselves from the projectiles that were fired and thrown at them from the wall, and so they would be forced to fight left handed. At least that seems to have been the idea.

3.2 The hill-fort of Rapola.

The hill-fort of Rapola in the heart-lands of Tavastia is the biggest hill-fort to have been discovered in Finland and the ceded Karelian territories. The perimeter of its walls is about 1.1 km, and it is fitted with two gates: one facing north and the other one facing south. The North gate also has a tower looking over it. In the centre of the fort, there is a “valley”, a sort of a moat, which has had its sides steepened quite substantially and the fort also has a well and several ovens. There were also several buildings within the walls, perhaps even a smiths’ workshop, so that arms and armour could be repaired during a siege. The entire fort is built on a ridge, which has had its slopes steepened to a great extent.

The hill-fort of Rapola

The walls of Rapola were made of rock and timber and there are traces of a wooden embattlements on the walls, where the defenders could stand. The gates were quite strong, especially the southern gate is thought to have been very tough. It is thought that the village of Rapola was home to the ancient Tavastian tribal chiefs, and therefore it is also the home to the greatest fort in Finland. A letter from the Pope Benedictus XII caught the attention of historians, because it, written in 1340, names one of the hosts of the Rapala ‘castle’ as Cuningas de Rapalum, King of Rapola. It is interesting, because at this time it is thought that the area had already for long been under Swedish control, and yet, a tribal chieftan, calling himself king of Rapola, is in charge of the Rapola ‘castle’. The Pope uses the word Cuningas, which is Finnish, not Swedish.

4.0 Warfare in late iron-age Finland

4.1 Weaponry

Our knowledge of weapons used in Viking age Finland and during the crusades is completely reliant on archaeological finds. Most weapons are found in burial grounds, where they have been buried with the deceased warrior. During this time, especially in the prior to the Viking age, there were two major sources of influence in both weaponry and culture. These were the west (Sweden, Continental Europe) and the South (Estonia and the Baltic). During the Viking age, the southern direction decreased in significance, and it is presumed that this is because the Viking raids along the Gulf of Finland made communication and travel between Finland and the Baltic hazardous. Therefore, the importance of Sweden and Continental Europe (usually via Sweden) grows. However, during the Merovingian period and the Viking age, the tribes in Finland develop some unique characteristics in their own weaponry.

Although iron and working it was well known in Finland, there have been very few home-made full-sized iron swords found. Most were imported from the land of the Franks, although the handles were often made by local smithies to better suite the culture and taste of the locals. Swords are thought to have been quite expensive in Viking age Finland, and so a symbol wealth and status within the community. It is quite possible, that swords were carried as much for protection as for decoration, and a sign of wealth. By Viking times, a large scale weapon industry had developed around the Rhineland, and the availability of good quality swords from there might have lessened demand for domestic swords. However, short swords, which had become clearly distinguished as “Finnish” weapons by the Viking age, were still produced domestically, and they were used widely, as they were cheaper. The art work put into the domestically produced sword-handles would indicate that some caste of artisans, perhaps travelling smithies, was formed. Of course, each man armed man had to know some basics about shaping metal to keep his weapons in shape, but some of the finds show a high level of sophistication in the sword handles.

For those who were not able to afford swords, there was a wide range of other weapons: spears, javelins, axes, bows, short swords and so on. Spear heads have been found commonly around Finland, and they seem to have constituted a very common weapon. They were cheap, yet effective. These were quite often domestic, and in many cases also displayed decorations, sometimes even in silver. Axes and double-edged axes have also been found quite commonly, and they were useful as tools as well as weapons, and therefore they were a popular choice of weapon. Javelins were also quite popular in later iron-age Finland, and there is one type of javelin, which has even sometimes been called the “national weapon” of pre-historic Finland. It is called the ‘ango’, and it has a very long metal spear-head (in some cases over 1m), which is supposed to twist and get stuck, either to the opponents shield or his flesh, hindering his movements, weighing down his shield-arm and making him a more vulnerable target in general for a an attack with a sword, spear or axe.

Viking age swords

Shields were also used, and during the Merovingian period, a wooden shield with a heavy iron centre was a very common shield type. The iron centre got smaller with time, and eventually disappeared, making the shield lighter. There was a general trend towards lighter weapons and armament during the Viking age, and one can only speculate what is the reason behind this.

Armour is something which has been very scarce in Finland, and it does not seem to have been used very much at all. It is hard to find an answer to why this is. There may have been leather tunics and other leather armour (for example helmets), but they have not survived to this day.

4.2 Tactics

Unfortunately very few descriptions of the battles between the tribes and outsiders have survived to this day. However, some educated guesses can be made by considering the different factors that could have influenced. For example, the kind of weaponry that was used will be useful in providing a good insight into the ways in which the Finnish tribes waged war.

The Novgorodian Chronicles have recorded several war raids and conflicts between the Tavastians and the Karelians and the Novgorodians. For example, in 1123, Vsevolod of Novgorod waged war against the Tavastians under difficult conditions, and the Tavastians were quick to respond with revenge, like they did in 1142, perhaps with the aid of Swedish forces. The raid of 1142 is said to have been a catastrophic failure, and that more than 400 Tavastian were slain. During the next year, the Karelians are said to have attacked the Tavastians, but they were beaten and had to retreat after losing some ships. In 1149, the Tavastians started a large-scale winter campaign against Novgorod, but they were repulsed, once more. Again in the summer of 1228, the Tavastians are said to have attacked Karelia and Novgorod, and this expedition is thought to have been quite big as well. They arrived in ships and pillaged much of Aunus Karelia and took many prisoners. The Novgorodians mobilized and headed out to meet the Tavastians. The Chronicles suggest that the Tavastians had split their forces, because when Volodislav encountered a group of Tavastians, they wanted to make peace. When peace was not agreed to, the Tavastians slaughtered all their Karelian and Novgorodian prisoners and escaped into the woods. The Chronicles say that the Tavastians tried to return to their homelands in smaller groups, but that the Karelians pursued them and severly reduced their numbers. This was a large-scale raid, with perhaps over 2 000 Tavastians taking part.
The Sagas also provide some insight, for example Olav’s saga.

What a Finnic Tribal Warrior may have looked like

Taking into consideration the way the tribes have been depicted in documents, the lay of the land and their light weaponry, I would assume, that the Finnish tribes fought in a somewhat unconventional manner, often taking refuge in the forests and so on. There were few plains were large pitched battles could take place, and these were very rare, I would think. Also, the Finnic tribes were mostly made up of light and probably very mobile infantry, used to the lay of the land. Many warriors were probably armed with primary weapons (swords, spears, axes etc) as well as missile weapons as secondary weapons. I have also had access to sources, which tell of a Swedish Viking raid into Tavastia around the year 1050, which was beaten back using unconventional tactics as well, although the raiding party was supposedly quite big.

The raid on Sigtuna of 1187 is said to have been performed by Karelians. This was recorded quite some time after the raid itself though, and it’s reliability is questionable. The Swedish coast did suffer from several raids from the pagan peoples on the eastern shores of the Baltic sea at this time, and this is the culmination of those raids. In 1180, the entire Baltic was in a defacto state of war, with pretty much everyone going against everyone. The traditional powers in Scandinavia had been weakened by internal strife, and the Baltic seems to have been temporarily controlled by the Baltic and Balto-Finnic peoples for some time. It is not impossible by any means, that this raid was performed by the Karelians, perhaps aided by Novgorod, but again, there is very little that can prove it one way or the other. The records left by Saxo Grammaticus would however suggest, that the raiders indeed were Karelians. I myself think that there definately was Karelian involvement, but that this raiding party might have consisted of others as well, because it was of such a large scale. Perhaps an alliance of Ests and Karelians, and perhaps even some of the Baltic peoples were involved here.

When we combine the information we do have, regarding weaponry and armour, culture, terrain and historical documents, a picture begins to emerge. A tribal warrior was probably most likely a very individual fighter, which might be brake the cohesion of larger war bands. The tribal warrior was also armed with a variety of weapons, many of which were ranged weapons, so it can be assumed, that the tribal warrior would first attempt weaken his enemy before engaging in a hand to hand fight. The level of organisation within larger forces must have been quite low, as the Novgorodian chronicles suggest (splitting of forces, etc), and therefore the tribes are not very likely to have engaged in very many pitched battles, as these require a somewhat cohesive command structure. So, a tribal war band on the attack/on a war raid was most likely a disorganized force, probably avoiding battle but targeting defenceless settlements. On the defence, the troops might have had a degree of more cohesion, as they were defending their homes and families, and probably realised, that working together was vital for survival. This is all strictly speculation, which rests on archaeological finds and historical documents.

5.0 Beliefs and Religious life in Viking Age Finland

5.1 Introduction

What we know of the old pagan beliefs of the Finnish tribes is mostly derived from late-medieval and younger church documents, and therefore they must be treated with a fair deal of care. Also, to look for ancient beliefs from Finnish mythology is also problematic, as it is hard to filter out the late-iron age elements from an oral tradition which has existed for thousands of years, changing slightly from generation to generation. Using the religious beliefs and rituals of kindred peoples or other Finno-Ugric peoples as a base is also very problematic, as religions and beliefs are shaped very strongly by outside influences, climate, ways of life, neighbours and so forth, and so each of the Finno-Ugric peoples is in a unique position. We know some gods and beliefs are shared by the kindred peoples such as the god “Ilmari/Ilmarinen”. Nevertheless, the amount of foreign influences is simply too great to use the religious beliefs of kindred peoples as a base for a reconstruction of the religions of the Finnish pagan tribes. Because of the same reasons, even the eastern Finnish and western Finnish religions are thought to have differed to some extent. There is very little evidence to support any great degree of organization within the religion. Although especially western Finland was influenced by Scandinavian beliefs, the Finnish pagan religion was still largely shamanistic by nature.

5.2 Historical documents and Archaeology

In written documents from the period, especially the Sagas, Finns are known as myth-shrouded witches and wise men, as becomes apparent in the part of Olav’s saga quoted earlier. This would support the notion that the Finnish paganism retained its shamanistic elements, which were somewhat foreign to neighbouring religions. Ancestor-worship also seems to have been an important element in the beliefs of the ancient Finns, and many families seem to have had their own burial grounds, usually quite close to their dwellings. Finds tell us, that offerings were made at the graves, and the dead were remembered after they were gone. Like in many other pre-Christian cultures, the deceased were usually buried with their belongings. Men were buried with their weapons, shields and valuables, and women were usually buried with jewellery. By combining the sources we have available, we can form a general picture of the ancient beliefs of the Finns. It is obvious, that there were several gods, which ruled over some specific area in life (for example, a god of war, a god of fertility, etc), and it is likely, that many gods were completely local deities, which weren’t known outside a specific community. Gods could also be imported from other religions. The Baltic god Perkunas became the all too well known “Perkele” in Finland. The thunder god and the “over-god”, Ukko, has clear Scandinavian influences. The Kalevala also paints a very romantic picture of warrior-wizards in the form of Väinämöinen, eternal wise men who lead the spiritual life of a community. It seems likely, that men like these existed, but very little is known about them. How did they become “wise men”? Was there some sort of inter-tribal organization for them, akin to the Celtic druids a thousand years earlier? Too much is left unknown to be sure.


Here's a bibliography of the books that I've used so far:

Matti Huurre: 9000 vuotta suomen esihistoriaa
Lena Huldén: Itärajan vartijat - keskiaika
Viipurin läänin historia I - Karjalan Synty
Pirjo Uino: Muinais-Karjala - Arkeologisia tutkimuksia (Ancient Karelia - Archaeological strudies)

Sunday, February 6th, 2005, 11:14 PM
Good Essay and very interesting :beer-smil

Saisikos tuota myös Suomenkielisenä?

Sunday, February 6th, 2005, 11:22 PM
Good Essay and very interesting :beer-smil

Saisikos tuota myös Suomenkielisenä?

No kirjotan ton ensiks valmiiksi ja katon sitten jaksanko kääntää sen mongooli-murteelle :)

Sunday, February 6th, 2005, 11:24 PM
No kirjotan ton ensiks valmiiksi ja katon sitten jaksanko kääntää sen mongooli-murteelle :)Väärä asenne :annoysigr


Mutta todellakin olisi mukava saada lisää vastaavanlaisia esseitä, kiitos! :)

Sunday, February 6th, 2005, 11:39 PM
I admitedly do not know all too much on Finnish history, so I suppose I can't comment too much. It looks like you went quite a bit of trouble to put this together, very nice!:) I can definetely say I learned something and its great to see such articles appear in the history section:)

To the admin, as there seems to be a few people putting essays up on the forum lately should we perhaps take copyright into consideration? Perhaps make a little note somewhere that no original work on the forum may be used without the author's concent? Just an idea:)

Sunday, February 6th, 2005, 11:42 PM
As a History entusiast, this is something I like doing on my free time. I have an urge to discuss this or somehow put things into words, but unfortunately few of my friends share my interests, so I write as a hobby every now and then.

I'm glad you have enjoyed the essay.

Sunday, February 6th, 2005, 11:43 PM
To the admin, as there seems to be a few people putting essays up on the forum lately should we perhaps take copyright into consideration? Perhaps make a little note somewhere that no original work on the forum may be used without the author's concent? Just an idea:)
Something to consider - thank you. :)

Sunday, February 6th, 2005, 11:56 PM
Väärä asenne :annoysigr


Mutta todellakin olisi mukava saada lisää vastaavanlaisia esseitä, kiitos! :)

Käännös kyllä olisi hyvä, mutta aikaa on odottaa :beer1:

Muutenkin, kaikenlaisia näkökulmia on hyvä laittaa esille :)

Monday, February 7th, 2005, 12:00 AM
Tämänkään teorian mukaan kielemme ei ole mongooleilta peräisin, vain hyvin kaukainen haarauma siitä :icon_ques

Monday, February 7th, 2005, 12:19 AM
Tämänkään teorian mukaan kielemme ei ole mongooleilta peräisin, vain hyvin kaukainen haarauma siitä :icon_ques
Niin, enhän minä nyt aivan tosissani ollutkaan. Mutta mitäs vikaa mongoliassa on? :cool:

Monday, February 7th, 2005, 12:28 AM
Niin, enhän minä nyt aivan tosissani ollutkaan. Mutta mitäs vikaa mongoliassa on? :cool:

Itse asiassa ei mitään, ja sekin kansa on suotta kärsinyt kinukkien ja ryssien aggressioista :mad: . Suomalaisena on usein pakkomielle pitää pienempien puolta :)

Muuten, ovatkohan nykyiset mongoolitkaan samoja, kuin Tshingiksen aikoihin. Suurkaani Ögedeillä oli aikalaisten mukaan siniset silmät, ja punertavat hiukset :cool:

Monday, February 7th, 2005, 12:31 AM
Olisi ehkä parempi jos pitäisimme kauniin pohjoisen kielemme omalla foorumillamme ;) Koska kukaan muu ei ymmärrä meitä...

*Just begging to keep our beautiful northern language in the Finnish forum, because no one else understands it* :biggrin:

Monday, February 7th, 2005, 12:34 AM
Olisi ehkä parempi jos pitäisimme kauniin pohjoisen kielemme omalla foorumillamme ;) Koska kukaan muu ei ymmärrä meitä...

*Just begging to keep our beautiful northern language in the Finnish forum, because no one else understands it* :biggrin:

OK, then :)

Silloin on tosin hyvä käyttää salakieltä, kun on asiaa vain muille härmäläisille :laugh: