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ARCHAEOLOGY

Why these Viking burial clothes had inscriptions to Allah and Ali

Swedish researchers have found references to Allah and Ali on woven silk from ancient Viking graves, a discovery which gives new insight into the link between the Vikings and the Islamic world.

Why these Viking burial clothes had inscriptions to Allah and Ali
One of the woven silk bands. Photo: Annika Larsson

The silk costumes were found in boat and chamber graves but had been kept in storage for decades, believed to be typical burial clothes with Viking Age patterns, until archaeologist Annika Larsson took a closer look.

“This is a very important discovery because it tells us we can't view this historical period as 'typically Nordic',” Larsson, a textile archaeologist at Uppsala University, told The Local on Thursday. “It shows us that the Vikings were in close contact with other cultures, including with the Islamic world.”

Her research shows that the patterns on the silk are Kufic characters, a form of Arabic script. The patterns invoke both Allah – whose name is written in mirror image and was therefore initially hard to decipher – and Ali, the cousin of Muhammed and fourth caliph of Islam.

READ ALSO: Viking warrior found in Sweden was a woman, researchers confirm

A large amount of silk has been found in Viking graves across Sweden, which Larsson says comes from central Asia and often contains Persian motifs.

But while some researchers have suggested the silk found its way to the graves due to plundering and trade, its presence could imply a deeper connection between the Vikings and the Islamic world. For example, Larsson argued that the fact it was so often used in burials may show that Vikings were influenced by the Koran, which states that inhabitants of paradise wear silk.

It is also revealing because while everyday clothing had a practical function, burial garments give clues into the values and beliefs people held. Larsson said it was even possible that the inhabitants of the graves were Muslims, or at least heavily influenced by Islam.

“Of course there were trade relationships, but if you trade a lot over a long period, you start to take in cultural values,” the researcher said. “Objects aren't just dead objects – they represent something. In particular I think the idea in Islam of eternal life and paradise really appealed to them. We have written sources that attest to that, and it could be that the Vikings took this idea from the Islamic world.”

“We also talk a lot about how Vikings went to Asia for trade, and we never speak about the people who came back, but maybe there were Muslims who came to Sweden at this time,” she added.

As part of the same project, analysis is being carried out on the inhabitants of the graves to look at factors such as their geographic origin and discover how integrated the Vikings were.


The mirrored script reading 'Allah'. Photo: Annika Larsson

So why did researchers misinterpret the characters for so long?

Larsson says the original analysis of the silk was done during the Second World War. “At that time people were very Nordic-focused ideologically, and I think they just weren't able to see beyond that world at that time. Afterwards, scholars accepted that those researchers were right, but now I've checked it, I have proof that it's not true. This is why it's important to keep challenging historical research.”

The archaeologist points out that the research could help with efforts to disassociate the Vikings from white nationalist groups, many of whom use Viking runes and symbols. For example, Thor's hammer and the Odal rune (ᛟ), which means 'heritage', have both been used as symbols by racist groups, which while the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement uses the Týr rune.

READ ALSO: 'We can't let racists re-define Viking culture'

LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Why is Sweden called Sweden? The Local answers Google’s questions

Why is Sweden called Sweden? Why is Sweden so depressing? Why is Sweden so rich?  In a new series of articles, The Local answers some of the most common questions that appear when you type "Why is Sweden..." into the Google search engine.  

Why is Sweden called Sweden? The Local answers Google's questions
Why is Sweden actually called Sweden? Let's find out. Photo: Google screenshot

The short answer to “why is Sweden called Sweden?” is that it’s not. It’s called Sverige

When The Local asked Henrik Williams, a Professor of Scandinavian Languages at Uppsala University, he also gave the question a short answer: “Because it’s inhabited by Swedes.” 

We can trace some form of the name back to at least the 13th century, when it was called Swearike in Old Swedish. That translates to “the kingdom of the Swear”.

Two thousand years ago, some of the people living in what is now known as Sweden were called Svear or Suiones, depending on which language you spoke and on how you spelled things (spelling varied greatly). 

The Roman historian Tacitus gives the first known description of the Svear in a book written in the year 93 CE, Germania

Everything comes down to this word, Svear, the name of the people. It means ‘we ourselves’. The Svear lived in Uppland just north of where Stockholm is now, until about the 11th century when they started expanding their territory. 

“It’s very common that people call themselves, either ‘we ourselves’ or ‘the people’” said Professor Williams. 

“We are ‘the humans’ and everybody else is something else. Everyone else is ‘them'”.

Of course, nobody uses the word in that way now, but it still forms the basis of the word Sweden.

The 8th century epic poem Beowulf gives the earliest known recorded version of the word Sweoland, land of the Swear

But at that time, there was no Sweden. Instead, the land was occupied by little kingdoms of Swedes and Goths (in present-day Götaland) and warring tribes of Vikings.

It’s unclear when the King of the Swear started referring to himself as the king of a country called Sweden, but it was probably around the time the country adopted Christianity in the 11th century. 

“Sweden” only came into regular use after 1750, when it replaced “Swedeland” in English. But in Scotland, “Sweden” had been used since the beginning of the modern era.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary in the early 17th century, people would use Sweden as the name of the people, and Swedeland as the name of the country. 

The first attested use of ‘Sweden’ was in a Scottish timber accounting log in 1503, which refers to “Sweden boards.” 

Most countries went from the Old Norse word Svíþjóð (which is still used to describe Sweden in Icelandic today) and turned it into something in their own languages, like the Old English Swíoríce, the Middle Dutch Zweden and High German Schweden

But it’s not called Sweden everywhere. 

In Finnish, Sweden is Ruotsi, in Estonian it’s Rootsi, and in Northern Sami Ruoŧŧa.

This comes from the root-word Rod, as in modern day Roslagen the coastal part of Uppland. It means rowing, or people who row. And because Finland was invaded by people from Roslagen, that’s how Finns referred to them. 

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