The Invitation of the Varangians.

Tracing the Paths of the Vikings Through Their Graffiti

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One of the things that the Vikings are renowned for is their seafaring abilities. As a result of their expertise in this field, the Vikings were able to travel around Europe (and beyond) via various waterways such as seas and rivers. Archaeological traces of the Vikings have been found in many of the places where they travelled to and settled on. Such traces include runestones, burials (including grave goods), and even ships. One of the lesser known traces left by the Vikings is perhaps their graffiti.


One of the places where the Vikings ended up was Constantinople (now known as Istanbul), in modern day Turkey. During the Viking Age (from 8th until the 11th centuries AD), this was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and was one of the greatest cities in Europe at that time. The Vikings arrived in the Byzantine capital from the lands of the Kievan Rus’ via the Dnieper River and the Black Sea.

During the second half of the 10th century AD, a prince of the Kievan Rus’, Vladimir (who later became known as Vladimir the Great), was forced to flee to Scandinavia as a result of a civil war with his brothers. Once there, Vladimir assembled an army of Norse warriors (known as Varangians), returned home, and defeated his enemies.

Having been victorious, Vladimir faced a new problem – he could not afford to pay his mercenaries. The Varangians did not seem eager to return to Scandinavia either, and demanded to be shown the way to Miklagard (the name used by the Norse for Constantinople).

Around the same time, the Byzantine Emperor, Basill II, was requesting military aid for the purposes of putting down some revolts, and defending his throne. Thus, Vladimir sent 6000 of his Varangians to Constantinople, which was the beginnings of the Varangian Guard, an elite unit of the Byzantine army whose members served as the bodyguards of the Byzantine emperors. 

Halfdan and Are were in Haghia Sophia

One of the possible marks left behind by the Varangians in Constantinople are two pieces of graffiti in Haghia Sophia. The graffiti can be found on a parapet on the top floor of the former basilica’s southern gallery, an area traditionally reserved for the empress and her court. The first of these graffiti, which is in the form of runic inscriptions, was discovered in 1964.

Exterior view of the Hagia Sophia, 2004.

Exterior view of the Hagia Sophia, 2004. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The runes corresponding to the letters ‘FTAN’ are often thought to be part of the graffiti maker’s name, which in full is said to be Halfdan. The rest of the inscription is said to be illegible. The second inscription was discovered in 1975, the runes of which may be transliterated as ‘ARI : K’. The person who carved this was a person called Are.

The "Halfdan inscription"

The "Halfdan inscription" ( Public Domain )

Graffiti on a Lion to Honor Horse

It is known that the Varangian Guard fought for the Byzantines in a number of their wars. In other words, they were not merely residing in Constantinople, but were deployed to other parts of the empire as well.

Another example of Viking graffiti can be found on a marble statue of a lion, which now stands at the entrance of the naval dockyard in the Venetian Arsenal. Prior to its present location, the lion stood in the Piraeus, the ancient harbor of Athens. It is likely that when the runes were carved onto the shoulders and flanks of the lion, Greece was part of the Byzantine Empire.

Lion statues outside the Venetian Arsenal.

Lion statues outside the Venetian Arsenal. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The graffiti was apparently first recognized as runes by a Swedish diplomat during the 18th century. Unfortunately, as a result of weathering and conflict over the years, this inscription has severely faded, to the point that they are now extremely difficult, if not altogether impossible, to decipher.

Nevertheless, at least one attempt (by Eric Brate, a Swedish linguist and runologist in 1919), has been made to decipher these runes. According to Brate’s decipherment, the inscription was carved in memory of a fallen Viking by the name of Horse. Interestingly, there is a runestone at Ulunda, in Uppland, Sweden, which commemorates a traveler to Greece called Horse. This may be taken as corroboration or inspiration behind Brate’s reading, depending on how one chooses to view it.    

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