In and around southern Sweden, archeologists have uncovered what are today known as the Ingvar runestones.
Numbering 26 in total, each of these stones makes at least one reference to Ingvar the Far-Traveled, a Norse leader who is believed to have led an expedition to the lands of modern-day Georgia and perhaps even beyond to the Caspian Sea and the cusp of Asia.
Although Ingvar's tale is also told in The Saga of Yngvar the Traveller, written more than a century after the suspected year of his death, there is a regrettable absence of more contemporary sources that could further confirm both Ingvar's existence and the precise route of his legendary expedition.
Acknowledging the difficulties of narrating through the blurred lines between history and fiction, this is the story of his journey.
The many runestones in Uppland, Södermanland, and eastern Sweden, which recount Ingvar's adventures, suggest he likely grew up in this region. Photo: trabantos / Shutterstock
Early life among rulers and kings
Like many legendary Vikings, the details of Ingvar's early years are somewhat muddled, with different sources giving varying accounts of his birth and childhood.
In one paper on Ingvar's life, the scholar Marcin Böhm outlines the three main possibilities.
The first, which comes from the saga, has it that Ingvar was the son of Eymund, who was, in turn, the son of Aki, a chieftain who stole away and married the daughter of King Eric the Victorious.
A second idea suggests that Eymund was instead the son of Eric the Victorious and brother to Olof Skötkonung, who would go on to become King of Sweden. In contrast, a third theory suggests Ingvar was the son of King Edmund the Old and the grandson of Olof Skötkonung.
Whatever his origin, Ingvar is believed to have been born in Sweden somewhere around the start of the 11th century.
The fact that most of the runestones which reference the Ingvar adventure come from Uppland, Södermanland, and other areas of eastern Sweden suggests he was probably either born in this area or moved there at a relatively young age.
The saga tells us that Ingvar journeyed around Sweden as a boy before residing with King Olof as a young man.
Here, Ingvar apparently helped negotiate "with great skill" a tax dispute with the Semigallians, a Baltic tribe that lived in what is today part of modern-day Latvia and northern Lithuania.
During the Viking Age, the Volga River trade route connected Northern Europe, the lands of what is now Northwestern Russia, and the Caspian Sea region, allowing Scandinavian warriors, traders, and adventurers to trade and interact with local communities. Photo: Ell_lial6 / Shutterstock
Ingvar certainly had a high enough standing to raise the money, boats, and people needed for a large expedition. He departed Sweden with a retinue of ships, rumored to have been 30 in number.
First, he traveled to visit Yaroslav the Wise in a place known in Old Norse as Garðaríki, or "the land of the Rus." The term is believed to refer to an area of Eastern Europe ruled by the Rus during the Viking Age.
Trips to this land were common among the Norse due to the relative proximity and the shared heritage of the Vikings and Rus peoples.
According to the saga, Ingvar and his countrymen would stay in the area for three years, learning languages and studying the peculiarities of the local rivers.
Next, the Viking visitors moved further south along a great river, where they encountered giants and serpents.
Having survived these mythical tribulations, the Norse finally reached the city of Citopolis, ruled by Queen Silkisif. The beautiful queen meets them at the gates and graciously offers her hospitality:
"Yngvar follows the river now for many days. Then towns and big buildings rose into view, and then they see a magnificent citadel. It was built of white marble. As they neared the citadel, they saw great crowds of men and women. They marveled then at the beauty which they saw there, and the grace of the women, for many were strikingly beautiful. But one among them stood out both for dress and beauty. That fine woman signaled to Yngvar and his men that they should come to meet with her."
(The Saga of Yngvar the Traveller, translated by Peter Tunstall)
The following spring, Ingvar and his crew departed the city and, after negotiating treacherous rapids and ravines, reached Heliopolis (Heliópólim) by the end of summer.
They elected to winter in the city, which was ruled by King Jolf.
Tension between the locals and the Norse swiftly developed, however, and Ingvar soon left for a new adventure, though not before promising to return and assist Jolf in his struggle against his hated brother, Blolf.
Historians speculate that Ingvar the Far-Traveled may have journeyed as far as the mouth of the Rioni River in western Georgia during his legendary expedition. Photo: STUDIO MELANGE / Shutterstock
Dragons, giants, and pirates in Georgia
It is impossible to say with any certainty where exactly Ingvar and the rest of the Vikings went next.
The saga describes a long and arduous journey along a river, marked by encounters with giants and a terrifying dragon, as well as attacks by pirates who disguised their ships to resemble floating islands.
In a battle with the pirates, Ingvar heroically fired a flaming arrow that ignited a furnace on one of the pirate ships, causing its destruction and helping win the day:
"But as soon as Yngvar hears the blast of the bellows, he shot consecrated fire and so destroyed those folk of the devil with God's help, so that they came to nothing but ash."
(The Saga of Yngvar the Traveller, translated by Peter Tunstall)
Ingvar and his crew later returned to Heliopolis to help Jolf fight against his brother.
In a vicious battle, the Norse slew all of Bjolf's sons with the aid of spiked wheels and specially prepared armaments.
With the would-be usurper finally defeated, King Jolf immediately turned on his Viking ally, and the Norse were forced to flee.
The saga's end
Soon after the battle and the betrayal of King Jolf, Ingvar becomes mortally ill from an unnamed disease that will also take the lives of many of his fellow travelers.
Before his death, Ingvar orders that his wealth be distributed in three parts: a third to the church, a third to the poor, and a third to his father and sons.
Dispirited, the remaining Norse return Ingvar's body to the city of Citopolis, where they are once again received by Queen Silkisif:
"She had him borne into the city with great honor and prepared for burial with costly unguents. Then the queen bade them farewell with the blessing of God and Yngvar. "He is my God, he who is yours. Take my greetings to Yngvar's kin when you come to Sweden, and ask some of them to come here with preachers and christen this people, and then a church shall be built here, where Yngvar shall rest."
(The Saga of Yngvar the Traveler, translated by Peter Tunstall)
In the conclusion of the saga, a crew member, Ketil, returns to Sweden and tells Ingvar's son, Svein, of their exploits in the East. Svein heroically returns to slay the dragon, marry the beautiful Silkisif, and found a church that he names after his father.
Ketil travels to Iceland, where he finally settles down and passes on the tale for future generations.
Sö 281 joins twenty-five other runestones in Uppland, Sweden, honoring the warriors who embarked on Ingvar's historic journey to the Saracen lands. Photo: Berig / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Laid to rest
"Tóla had this stone raised in memory of her son Haraldr, Ingvar's brother.
They traveled valiantly far for gold, and in the east gave (food) to the eagle. (They) died in the south in Serkland."
(Rune Sö 179, Gripsholm)
So, to what extent can we trust the story of the saga and the details of the inscriptions?
Most historians believe that Ingvar was indeed a historical figure, but it is difficult to state with confidence what his achievements were other than that he journeyed somewhere to the East.
For example, the name Serkland, referenced in more than one runestone, is usually thought to refer to the land of the Saracens.
Most historians, however, believe that Serkland here is more likely to simply mean a place of the East, in this case, Georgia.
In fact, there is one reference to a group of 3,000 Varangians – Viking warriors – who landed at the mouth of the Rioni River in Western Georgia, when Ingvar was thought to have made his expedition.
It is also reported that Bagrat IV (1018-1072, King of Georgia) employed 700 of these soldiers into his forces to help quell an army of rebels who had risen against his authority.
However, no concrete information exists on whether these Varangians were Ingvar and his fellow sailors. And even if they did make it to Georgia, we can only speculate on what other lands they may have seen.
It is conceivable that they could have reached as far as north-west Iran, an area that was once under the broader domain of the Georgian kingdom.
However, most experts think it is more probable that they traveled directly eastward, heading towards present-day Azerbaijan and possibly even reaching the Caspian Sea.
Yet while it is difficult to be sure of exactly how far Ingvar and his group traveled, we can rest convinced that he did more than enough to earn his famous name.
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