Given its close proximity to the homelands of the Vikings, you might think that it’s possible that there were Vikings in Finland, creating notable ties between the Finnish people and the Norsemen.
In fact, in the first few episodes of the series Vikings, a Finnish warrior named Kauko fought and died for Ragnar. Could Kauko have been a historical figure, or was a dramatic backstory concocted for his character?
How close is Finland to Viking countries?
First, it helps to have an understanding of the region’s geography. Terrain and climate impacted migration for early humans. Even driving over a snowy mountain pass is a chore, so it is understandable if you’re a Viking who’s not too keen on marching hundreds of miles through it, either.
The primary Viking settlements were on the Scandinavian peninsula, an area that now falls under Norway and Sweden. The Jutland peninsula of modern day Denmark sits just across the Kattegat, a sea that’s a third of the size of Lake Michigan. While the Jutland is geographically distinct, the political region extended onto both peninsulas during the Viking Age.
Finland sits just east of Sweden, and the two countries share a substantial land border on the northern end. The geographical region is called the Lappland, and it’s a wintry place full of frigid mires, snow-covered forests, and jagged fells. Pictures from the area are gorgeous, but surviving in that environment is no easy task.
The bulk of Finland’s land is separated from Sweden by the Gulf of Bothnia. Off the southwestern corner of Finland, the Åland Islands spread across the mouth of the gulf, roughly halfway between Stockholm, Sweden and Helsinki, Finland. Because it’s the most likely origin of any connection, Viking Age researchers continue to look through the thousands of small islands for clues.
Were there Vikings in Finland?
Because of Finland’s proximity and the wide range of Viking expeditions, there is no doubt that there were Vikings in Finland due to known contact between the two groups. The earliest known interactions happened near the beginning of the Common Era. The Vikings may have had settlements within the Aland Islands before the onset of the Viking Age.
Vikings did not use writing to record their history, so reconstructing their history is primarily based on writings from other cultures and archaeological evidence. New findings may overturn old assumptions as research continues.
(However, you can find out more about those earliest interactions between Finland and the Vikings here and on the aforementioned early settlements here.)
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Did Vikings raid Finland?
Evidence suggests that the Vikings did not raid Finland frequently. The Sami tribe in the north had a trade relationship with the Vikings, and the Kven and Karelians in the north and east lived further inland. When Vikings did raid, it was likely to fall upon the Tavastians and Finn Propers to the south and west near the coast.
While their trade relationship is well established, the most notable story of Viking attacks on Finland regards King Olaf Haraldson II of Norway, also known as Saint Olaf and who is easily one of the most famous Viking kings who ever lived. The account of his life is told within the Heimskringla, a collection of epic stories about Norse kings.
According to his saga, he set forth to raid the Finnish coast just after the turn of the first millennium, but he spent more time fighting other Vikings than he did raiding to the east.
Runestones serving as gravemarkers for fallen Vikings are the earliest archeological evidence of attacks on Finland. The GS 13 runestone mentions a warrior dying in “Tafeistaland”, which was the Swedish word used to describe the region of Finland inhabited by the Tavastians.
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Why didn’t the Vikings invade Finland?
The Vikings were opportunistic, engaging in either trading or raiding to gain wealth based on circumstances. The poor results of King Olaf II’s attempt to raid Finland provide a potential reason that their raids looked elsewhere, even if there are clear cultural beliefs at work in the story.
Where Vikings were people of the sea, the various tribes in Finland were people of the land. They did occupy their coasts, but settlements were sparse. Unlike the vulnerable monasteries full of precious items around the British Isles, the Finns could rapidly relocate everything worth taking deep into the woods.
When Olaf led his troops deeper into the region, the Finns set a trap for them on the return route through the woods. Many of his men died before they broke through to their ships.
A storm caught the ships as they sailed home from the failed raid, and the story attributes it to Finnish witchcraft. According to the story, the Finns chased after the ship as it slowly fled through the storm. Eventually, Olaf’s retinue made their full retreat.
Viking raids relied on their oars as much as their swords, so fighting so far inland worked against them. This tactical mismatch likely played into the minimal raiding against the Finnish, and it wouldn’t be until after the end of the Viking Age that the Scandinavians attacked Finland in earnest.
Were there ancient Finnish warriors during Viking times?
Since the term ‘Vikings’ is more akin to ‘pirates’ than a description of ethnicity, there very well could have been Finnish Vikings. If an adventurous young Finn, Sami, or Karelian came asking to pillage and trade, there was a chance that an enterprising Viking leader would add them to their retinue.
This is likely given that, as part of their standard operations, Vikings would both force other people into service and allow them to join their ranks.
However, it’s worth noting that the practice of far-ranging voyages by boat to raid and trade was not part of Finnish society. They led simple lives that consisted of subsistence farming, hunting, fishing, and gathering. The various tribes were overall much more peaceful – yet still capable of defending themselves when pushed.
The Finns did have Iron Age weaponry, and their trading brought in goods from many of the same countries that the Vikings visited. Weapons were commonly purchased as imports, frequently making their way into burial sites. Some may have been for show, but the right circumstances existed to forge Finnish warriors within their own culture.
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Are Finns descended from Vikings?
Although the inhabited regions of the Vikings and Finnish were within a reasonable distance of each other, their settlers had distinct ethnic origins from one another. The two cultures became more entwined during the twilight years of the Viking Age and the start of the Medieval Era.
Humans may have settled parts of the region as early as 130,000 years ago, according to archeological finds at Wolf Cave in the gulf town of Kristinestad. A lingering ice age made the region more inhospitable, then a period of warmth opened up the peninsula around 12,000 BCE. The Sami were likely the first long-term residents.
Siberian migrants had arrived in Finland by 500 CE. The western portions of Scandinavia saw their first migrants coming from the south. DNA analysis of ancient remains from Scandinavian countries showed how the two halves of the region were split along these lines. To say there is no crossover between the two before the Medieval Era would be extreme, but the line is distinct enough to play a role in understanding their cultural differences.
Modern Swede-Finn Descendants
Today, there is a substantial demographic block of those who have both Finnish and Swedish backgrounds. Their history can be traced to the Vikings, but they are a byproduct of a Viking culture that was rapidly changing from its heyday in the 9th and 10th centuries. By 1050 CE, the Vikings had largely converted to Christianity, and the date is a frequent marker for the end of the Viking Age.
The growth of the Swede-Finn population began in earnest after the First Swedish Crusade near 1150 CE. The veracity of this crusade is debated by scholars, but the timing of the events coincides with Viking settlements along the Finnish coast by what we can assume were Swedish Vikings. Whether as a result of a crusade or peaceful migration at first, Swedish settlements began appearing in Finland throughout the 12th and 13th centuries.
By the end of the 13th century, tensions in the region had escalated, and the Swedes came out ahead in the power struggle commonly called the Second Swedish Crusade. The Swede-Finn population continued to grow from there, declining after the Swedes ceded land to Finnish resistance.
Viking and Finnish history through linguistics
The differing backstories can be heard in the languages of the people. Old Norse was a derivative of North Germanic dialects, placing it within the Indo-European family of languages. On the other hand, Finnish is within the Uralic family of languages that come from the area around the Ural mountains where Europe and Asia meet.
For English speakers, Swedish and Norwegian are category I languages according to the U.S. Department of State, which means they are about as easy to learn as Spanish or French. Finnish is a category III language, putting it equivalent with Greek and Vietnamese.
There are other notable Uralic languages and cultures within Finland. Both the Karelian and Sami cultures still have unique languages in use to this day. Karelian has even stronger ties with languages further east, including stints of using Cyrillic instead of Latin characters.