Jomsvikings, the legendary Viking mercenaries who formed a military brotherhood

Within that reality halfway between history and legend that the Viking sagas tell us, the world of warriors occupies a special place. It is true that at this point we already know that these towns did not spend their lives looting looting but that such actions corresponded to a mere complement to their economy, fundamentally commercial but also agrarian, their famous raids being somewhat seasonal, without too many differences with which both Christians and pagans did in almost all of medieval Europe. But it is also true that, as in epic tales and other epic tales, the sagas focus their attention on this war side, and one of the most interesting in this sense is the so-called jomsviking.

The title comes from combining the term Viking (whose etymology is controversial but seems to refer to the mentioned expeditions, to the settlements where the Norse people lived or to their geographical environment) with the proper name Jomsborg, a fortress that would be located in the Baltic Sea and in the one inhabited by a brotherhood of Viking mercenaries who, consequently, became known as jomsvikings.

The place is mentioned in several lausavisur (skaldic poems) and in the aforementioned saga, but also in that of Olaf Tryggvason (king of Norway in the late 10th century who grew up in Russia and tried to spread Christianity in his country) and in the flatey book (Codex Flateyensis either Flateyjarbók), a 14th-century Icelandic manuscript with later additions.

The Viking world/Image: Max Naylor on Wikimedia Commons

Nor could it miss the essential Gesta Danorumby Saxo Gramático, who calls this enigmatic enclave Julinum, explaining that its conqueror, the Danish king Harald Blåtand, later ceded it to the Swedish prince Styrbjörn the strong. the saga Knýtlinga (a chronicle of the Danish monarchs written in the 13th century), endorses that view, as does the Styrbjarnar þáttr Svíakappa and the eyrbyggja. Instead, the saga jomsviking attributes its foundation to Palnatoke, after receiving the land from the sovereign Vendo Burislav. Vendo was the name given by the Germans to the North Slavs, especially the Sorbs, and Burislav, identified by some with the Pole Boleslaus I, was their monarch between AD 965 and 1025.

As for Palnatoke, it was how Tord Palnason was popularly known, a Danish hero, warlord of the island of Fyn, who convinced Prince Svend of Denmark to take up arms against his father, the aforementioned Harald Blåtand, in defense of religion. ancestral. Of course, Palnatoke had his own reasons for hating the monarch, since the latter, according to the historian Saxo Grammaticus, forced him to shoot an arrow at an apple placed on the head of his son while the boy had to run down a hillside; This story will sound familiar to more than one from the Swiss version, that of William Tell, since it is a classic episode that is repeated in the legends of the regions of Germanic culture.

As always, it is very difficult to differentiate what is true from what is fantastic, especially considering that all the sources are later -except for the three runestones of Högby, Hällestad and Sjörup- and no material evidence of the existence of Jomsborg has been found. nor its exact location, beyond deducing that it was in what is now Pomerania. But the idea of ​​a warrior brotherhood whose members were guided by a code, just as the military orders would do in other latitudes of the continent soon after, is very attractive.

Moreover, it was not a unique case and it is worth reminding the berserkersthe warriors who fought in a kind of furious trance (if they really existed), or the huscarles, the professional soldiers who made up the royal guards. Thus, many Vikings were grouped in the generically called vinkinge-lageach one with its regulations and that when the summer arrived (end of the agricultural season) they offered their services to the jarls to reinforce the expeditions they planned.

However, the interpretations of Jomsborg in particular vary a lot and there are those who believe that in reality it would not be more than a part of the Danish army made up of bandages, which at that time had a great role. facing the saga jomsvikingwhich considers all Vikings jomsvikingsthe Styrbjarnar þáttr Svíakappa He insists on this mixed composition when he tells that among those men there were many from the East. Harald Blåtand himself married a Venda princess, teaching her people the Viking secrets of navigation that enabled them to raid places like Hamburg, Brandenburg, and Holstein.

Due to this ethnic multiplicity, although the brotherhood was pagan and maintained the cult of the two great gods of Scandinavian mythology, Odin and Thor, it could admit jomsvikings of other faiths. Being mercenaries, the first thing was business and for this reason they had no problem putting themselves at the service of even Christian lords; Neither did they differ in that from usual cases in other corners of Europe, such as the host of El Cid, which was hired by Al-Muqtadir, king of the Taifa of Zaragoza.

And that according to the saga jomsviking the candidate selection process was meticulous, requiring them to be between the ages of eighteen and fifty (only a twelve-year-old boy named Vagn Åkesson, Palnatoke’s grandson, broke that scheme by defeating the veteran Sigvaldi Strut-Haraldsson), be of proven bravery, and submit to still holmgangthat is to say, a duel (in this case of an initiation character), with a jomsviking. By the way, the saga says that the episode of the Palnatoke apple with her son was precisely an entrance test.

Once admitted, the novice had to swear to the aforementioned code, which included typical precepts: not fight with the other brothers, neither physically nor orally (a superior mediated in the discussions), defend them and avenge their death, not show fear in combat, retire alone before a superior enemy, distribute the loot among all, not be taken prisoner, not be absent from the fortress for more than three days without authorization, not have relatives living in it (it is unknown if they could have been outside) and suffer expulsion for the breach of some of these rules.

Insisting on the fortress, its base of operations, some suggest that it was on the Silberberg hill on the island of Wolin, a piece of land measuring two hundred and sixty-five square kilometers located on the Polish Baltic coast and on which it also the legendary city of Vineta has been located, a Slavic trading center that according to tradition sank in the waters when rejecting Christianity but, if it existed, was probably destroyed by a Viking raid in the 12th century. Since there is no archaeological record of Vineta either, the defenders of its existence identify it with Jomsborg itself, which would have been built on top of it. According to some narrations, in its period of splendor Jomsborg had capacity for between thirty and three hundred ships in its port; if we take the small number as more reliable, this would mean a number of warriors that would oscillate between nine hundred and two thousand.

The raids of the jomsvikings they developed throughout the 10th and 11th centuries, with interventions in the wars between Norway and Sweden over dynastic disputes between 984 and 986. Now, after the golden age lived in the days of Palnatoke, Styrbjörn the strongSvend I of Denmark, Sigvaldi Strut-Haraldsson and Thorkell the tall, things have changed. It was said that the penetration of Christianity would have weakened the brotherhood, which is inaccurate because, as we said before, Harald Blåtand had already converted in the year 965.

Another version of the Battle of Svolder (Otto Sinding)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

But the idea that prevailed was that, we will see below. The jomsvikings they suffered heavy defeats at the battles of Fýrisvellir and Hjörungavágr. In the first, dated around the year 984 or 985, Styrbjörn the strong fell before his uncle eric the victorious when trying to snatch the crown; according to tradition, the latter benefited from a pact ad hoc who signed with Odin. In the other contest, a year or two later, the jomsvikings they were defeated by Håkon Sigurdsson of Norway and it was their end, although they had the swan song in one last fight, that of Svolder, in the year 1000, under the mandate of the jarl Sigvaldi Strut-Haraldsson, when Olaf of Norway was left alone causing the disaster of his fleet, presumably because of his Christianity.

The survivors still had the strength and morale to carry out expeditions through England, Normandy and other northern territories at the beginning of the 11th century, possibly becoming the base of the tinglithPadfoot’s personal guard the big one. However, in 1043, the Norwegian king Magnus I decided to put an end to them for good and attacked Jomsborg, sacking the city, demolishing the fortress to a trace and executing the survivors. Perhaps he is to blame for the doubts that assail us now on the subject.


Northern demons. viking expeditions (Carlos Canales and Miguel del Rey)/The Saga of the Jomsvikings (Translation by Lee M. Hollander)/The Viking Age. A reader (Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald)/A history of the vikings (Thomas Downing Kendrick)/the vikings (René Chartrand, Keith Durham, Mark Harrison and Ian Heath)/Wikipedia

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