In 844 A.D., Norsemen raiders (commonly referred to as “Vikings”) attacked al-Andalus, sacking Cadiz, Lisbon, Medina Sidonia before capturing Seville. They maintained their control over Seville for a little over a month before being defeated by an army sent by the Umayyad emir, ‘Abd al-Rahmān II (r. 822–852) to repel them. The battle, according to most accounts, was quite fierce and ended in the victory of Andalusi Muslims over a large Viking force consisting of about 15,000 men. Following the retreat, the emir—recognizing the vulnerability of his kingdom to raids and seeking to avoid future confrontations within his own territory—ordered the construction of a navy (the first of its kind in al-Andalus) and sent emissaries to initiate peace talks with the Vikings. There is a lot of dispute about the origins of the Norsemen who reached al-Andalus. If they were Norwegian, their raids would most likely have been launched from Ireland, while Danes would have most likely have set out from the territory comprising modern-day Denmark. The surviving account of the Andalusi embassy—included below (which is a slightly revised version of W.E.D. Allen’s)—is also ambiguous on this point and mentions only that the Norse monarch’s court was located on an “island” (which could signify either Ireland, where the chieftain Turgesius/Turgeis [d. 845)] was based, or the island of Zealand, where the court of King Horik I [d. 854] was located). I am personally inclined to believe that it was to the Vikings in Ireland that this account refers, due to some of the details provided within the text.
The Andalusi diplomatic mission was led by a renowned poet and courtier—Yahya b. Ḥakam al-Bakrī (better known as al-Ghazāl)—who had earlier been sent as a diplomat from Umayyad Cordoba to the Byzantine Emperor Theophilus (r. 829–842). The mission carried gifts for the Viking king and his wife and sought to establish a truce in order to avoid future Norse raids on al-Andalus. In any case, it seems that the embassy had little long-term impact since the Norsemen would carry out a major raid against Iberia in 859, only to be repelled by the well-armed Andalusi navy that would not allow a repeat of the disaster of 844.
The only detailed account of the mission is preserved in a much later Andalusi source—the poetic anthology by Ibn Dihya al-Kalbī (d. 1235) entitled al-Muṭrib min Ash’ār Ahl al-Maghrib—which throws many of the details into question. Since the account survives only within a text compiled nearly 400 years after the fact, many scholars have, rightly, questioned the authenticity of the narrative and, others, have even doubted whether there was even an embassy sent to the Vikings from al-Andalus at all. For those wishing to read more about the various debates about this embassy and the authenticity of the narrative, read W.E.D. Allen, The Poet and the Spae-Wife: An Attempt to Reconstruct al-Ghazal’s Embassy to the Vikings (Kendal: Titus Wilson and Sons Ltd., 1960), pp. 1–18. In any case, whether or not one accepts the text as a faithful rendering of the embassy, it makes for an interesting read! For one thing the account, in contrast with Ibn Fadlan (who designates them Rūs), refers to the Norsemen as majūs (the Arab-Islamic term for “Zoroastrian) and ascribes distinctly Zoroastrian practices—“fire-worship” and the marriage between siblings—to the pre-Christian Norse faith. Even more interesting is his claim that the Vikings had converted to Christianity, although this is not known to have happened until the tenth century. The close relationship that al-Ghazāl develops with Nud, the Viking queen, is also quite noteworthy (even if highly embellished) and occupies the bulk of the account. Moreover, the mention of the role of al-Ghazal as an intermediary between the Norse chieftain/king and the king of Asturias (Ramiro I, r. 842–850) is a curious detail. The most fascinating aspect of the text, however, is how—in contrast to the image of the uncultured Viking barbarian that one encounters in the Latin and Arabic chronicles—the Norse court is described as rather civilized, with court scholars present (referred to as ‘ulamā’) who engage al-Ghazāl in intellectual debate and (possibly?) religious disputation.
“When the envoys of the king of the Vikings (malik al-majūs) came to Sultan ‘Abd al-Rahmān to ask for peace after they had left Seville, had attacked its surroundings and had then been defeated there with the loss of the commander of their fleet. ‘Abd al-Rahmān decided to accept this request. He commanded al-Ghazāl to go on this mission with the envoys of their king, since al-Ghazāl possessed keenness of mind, quickness of wit, skill in repartee, courage and perseverance, and knew his way in and out of every door. He was accompanied by Yahya b. Ḥabīb. He went to the city of Shilb (Silves), where a fine, well-equipped ship was prepared for them. They bore a reply to the message of the king of the Vikings and a gift in return for his gift. The envoy of the Viking king embarked on the Viking vessel on which he had come, and sailed at the same time as the ship of al-Ghazal. When they were opposite the great cape that juts out into the sea and is the westernmost limit of al-Andalus, that is, the mountain known as Aluwiyah, the sea grew fearsome against them, and a mighty storm blew upon them, and they reached a point which al Ghazal has described as follows:—
Yahya said to me, as we passed between waves as high as mountains
And the winds overbore us from West and North,
When the two sails were rent and the cable-loops were cut
And the angel of death reached for us, without any escape,
And we saw death as the eye sees one state after another—
“The sailors have no capital in us, O my comrade!”
When al-Ghazāl was saved from the terror and dangers of those seas, he arrived at the first of the lands of the Vikings (bilād al-majūs), at one of their islands, where they stayed several days and repaired their ships and rested. The Viking ship went on to their king and they informed him of the arrival of the envoys. At this he rejoiced, and sent for them, and they went to his royal residence which was a great island (or peninsula) in the Ocean, with flowing streams and gardens. It was three days’ sail, that is, three hundred miles, from the mainland. In it are Vikings, too numerous to be counted, and around the island are many other islands, large and small, all peopled by Vikings. The adjoining mainland is also theirs for a distance of many days’ journey. They were heathens, but they now follow the Christian faith (dīn al-naṣranīya), and have given up fire-worship and their previous religion, except for the people of a few scattered islands of theirs in the sea, where they keep to their old faith, with fire-worship, the marriage of mothers and sisters and various other kinds of abomination. The others wage war against them and enslave them. The king ordered his people to prepare a fine dwelling for them [the Andalusi emissaries], and sent out a party to greet them. The Vikings thronged to look at them, and they wondered greatly at their appearance and their garb. They were then led to their lodgings in an honorable manner and spent a day there.
After two days the king summoned them to his presence, and al-Ghazal stipulated that he would not be made to kneel to him and that he and his companions would not be required to do anything contrary to their customs. The king agreed to this. But when they went to him, he sat before them in magnificent guise, and ordered an entrance, through which he must be approached, to be made so low that one could only enter kneeling. When al-Ghazal came to this, he sat on the ground, stretched forth his two legs, and dragged himself through on his rear. And when he had passed through the doorway, he stood erect. The king had prepared himself for him, with many arms and great pomp. But al-Ghazal was not overawed by this, nor did it frighten him. He stood erect before him, and said: “Peace be with you, O king, and with those whom your assembly hall contains, and respectful greetings to you! May you not cease to enjoy power, long life, and the nobility which leads you to the greatness of this world and the next, which becomes enduring under the protection of the Living and Eternal One, other than whom all things perish, to whom is the dominion and to whom we return” [Q. 28:88].
The interpreter explained what he had said, and the king admired his words, and said: “This is one of the wise and clever ones of his people.” He wondered at al-Ghazāl’s sitting on the ground and entering feet foremost, and he said: “We sought to humiliate him, and he greeted us with the soles of his shoes. Had he not been an ambassador, we would have taken this amiss.” Then al-Ghazāl gave him the letter of Sultan ‘Abd al-Rahmān. The letter was read to him, and translated. He found it good, took it in his hand, lifted it and put it in his bosom. Then he ordered the gifts to be brought and had the coffers opened, and examined all the garments and the vessels that they contained, and was delighted with them. After this, he permitted them to withdraw to their dwelling, and treated them generously. Al-Ghazāl had noteworthy sessions and famous encounters with them, in which he debated with their scholars and silenced them and contended against their champions and outmatched them.
Now when the wife of the Viking king heard of al-Ghazāl, she sent for him so that she might see him. When he entered her presence, he greeted her, then he stared at her for a long time, gazing at her as one that is struck with wonderment. She said to her interpreter; “Ask him why he stares at me so. Is it because he finds me very beautiful, or the opposite?” He answered: “It is indeed because I did not imagine that there was so beautiful a spectacle in the world. I have seen in the palaces of our king women chosen for him from among all the nations, but never have I seen among them beauty such as this.” She said to her interpreter, “Ask him; is he serious, or does he jest?” And he answered: “Serious indeed.” And she said to him: “Are there then no beautiful women in your country?” And al-Ghazāl replied: “Show me some of your women, so that I can compare them with ours.” So the queen sent for women famed for beauty, and they came. Then he looked them up and down, and he said: “They have beauty, but it is not like the beauty of the queen, for her beauty and her qualities cannot be appreciated by everyone and can only be expressed by poets. If the queen wishes me to describe her beauty, her quality and her wisdom in a poem which will be declaimed in all our land, I shall do this.”
The queen was greatly pleased and elated with this, and ordered him a gift. Al-Ghazāl refused to accept it, saying “I will not.” Then she said to the interpreter: “Ask him why he does not accept my gift. Does he dislike my gift, or me?” He asked him — and Ghazāl replied: “Indeed, her gift is magnificent, and to receive it from her is a great honor, for she is a queen and the daughter of a king. But it is gift enough for me to see her and to be received by her. This is the only gift I want. I desire only that she continues to receive me.” And when the interpreter explained his words to her, her joy and her admiration for him grew even greater, and she said: “Let his gift be carried to his dwelling; and whenever he wishes to pay me a visit, let not the door be closed to him for with me he is always assured of an honorable welcome.” Al-Ghazāl thanked her, wished her well and departed.
Tammām b. ‘Alqama said: “I heard al-Ghazāl tell this story, and I asked him: ‘And did she really approach that degree of beauty which you ascribed to her?’ And he answered: ‘By your father, she had some charm; but by talking in this way I won her good graces and obtained from her more than I desired’.” Tammām b. ‘Alqama also said: “One of his companions said to me: ‘The wife of the king of the Vikings was infatuated with al-Ghazāl and could not suffer a day to pass without her sending for him and his staying with her and telling her of the life of the Muslims, of their history, their lands and the nations that adjoin them. Rarely did he leave her without her sending after him a gift to express her good-will to him — garments or food or perfume, till her dealings with him became notorious, and his companions disapproved of it.
Al-Ghazāl was warned of this, and became more careful, and called on her only every other day. She asked him the reason for this, and he told her of the warning he had received. Then she laughed, and said to him: ‘We do not have such things in our religion, nor do we have jealousy. Our women are with our men only of their own choice. A woman stays with her husband as long as it pleases her to do so, and leaves him if it no longer pleases her.’ It was the custom of the Vikings before the religion of Rome reached them that no woman refused any man, except that if a noblewoman accepted a man of humble status, she was blamed for this, and her family kept them apart. When al-Ghazāl heard her say this, he was reassured, and returned to his previous familiarity.” Tammām related: “Al-Ghazāl was striking in middle age; he had been handsome in his youth, and was for this reason nicknamed al-Ghazāl (the Gazelle). When he traveled to the land of the Vikings, he was over 50 years old and his hair was turning grey. He was however in full vigor, straight of body and handsome of aspect. One day the king’s wife, whose name was Nūd, asked him his age, and he replied jestingly: ‘Twenty’. And she said to the interpreter: ‘What youth of twenty has such grey hair?’ And he replied to the interpreter: ‘What is so unlikely about that? Have you never seen a foal dropped that is grey-haired at birth?’ Nūd laughed and was struck with wonder at his words. And on this occasion al-Ghazāl extemporized:—
‘You are burdened, O my heart, with a wearying passion
With which you struggle as if with a lion.
I am in love with a Viking woman
Who will not let the sun of beauty set, who lives at the limit of God’s world, where he who goes towards her, finds no path.
O Nūd, O young and fair one,
From whose buttons a star rises,
O you, by my father, I see none sweeter or more dear to my heart,
If I should say one day that my eye has seen any one like you, I would surely be lying.
She said: “I see that your locks have turned white”
In jest, she caused me to jest also,
I answered: “By my father,
The foal is born grey like this.”
And she laughed and admired my words
—Which I only spoke that she might admire.’
Had this poem been composed by ‘Umar ibn Abī Rabī‘a (d. 719) or Bashshār b. Burd (d. 783) or ‘Abbās b. al-Ahnaf (d. 809) or any other of the (Eastern) classical poets who took this path, it would have been highly esteemed. But the poem is forgotten, because the poet was an Andalusi. Otherwise it would not have been left in obscurity, for such a poem does not deserve to be neglected. Have you seen anything more beautiful than the line: ‘Who will not let the sun of beauty set’, or as the first line of this piece, or as the description of the exchange of jests? Are they not strung pearls? And are we [Andalusi poets] not wronged and treated unjustly? But let us return to the story of al-Ghazāl. When he had recited his poem to Nūd, and the interpreter had explained it, she laughed at it, and ordered him to use dye. Al-Ghazāl did so, and appeared before her next morning with dyed hair. She praised his dye and said it became him well, whereupon al-Ghazāl recited the following verses:
‘In the morning she complimented me on the blackness of my dye,
It was as though it had brought me back to my youth.
But I see grey hair and the dye upon it
As a sun that is swathed in mist.
It is hidden for a while, and then the wind uncovers it,
And the covering begins to fade away.
Do not despise the gleam of white hair;
It is the flower of understanding and intelligence,
I have that which you lust for in the youth
As well as elegance of manner, culture and breeding.’
Then al-Ghazāl left them, and, accompanied by the envoys, went to Shent Ya‘qūb [Santiago de Compostella] with a letter from the king of the Vikings to the ruler of that city. He stayed there, greatly honored, for two months, until the end of their pilgrimage. Then he travelled to Castile with those who were bound for there, and thence to Toledo, eventually reaching the presence of Sultan ‘Abd al-Rahmān after an absence of twenty months.”
[W.E.D. Allen, The Poet and the Spae-Wife: An Attempt to Reconstruct al-Ghazal’s Embassy to the Vikings (Kendal: Titus Wilson and Sons Ltd., 1960), pp. 19–25; translation revised in accordance with the text found in Ibn Dihya al-Kalbī, al-Muṭrib min Ash’ār Ahl al-Maghrib (Cairo, 1954), pp. 138–146]
For some additional reading on the Vikings in al-Andalus and Muslim-Norse relations in the early Middle Ages:
W.E.D. Allen, The Poet and the Spae-Wife: An Attempt to Reconstruct al-Ghazal’s Embassy to the Vikings (Kendal: Titus Wilson and Sons Ltd., 1960)
Mariano G. Campo, ed. Al-Ghazal y la Embajada Hispano-Musulmana a Los Vikingos en el Siglo IX. Madrid: Miraguano Ediciones, 2002.
Anne Kormann and Else Roesdahl, “The Vikings in Islamic Lands.” In The Arabian Journey: Danish Connections with the Islamic World over a Thousand Years, ed. K. von Folsach, T. Lundbaek, and P. Mortensen (Aarhus: Prehistoric Museum Moesgard, 1996).
Eduardo Morales Romero. Historia de los Vikingos en Espana: Ataques e Incursiones contra Los Reinos Cristianos y Musulmanes en la Peninsula Iberica en los Siglos IX-XI. Madrid: Miraguano Ediciones, 2004.