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The Vikings in the south through Arab eyes

Ann Christys

Modern historians of the Viking Age have paid little attention to the activities of the Norsemen in Spain and
the Mediterranean. There were significant attacks in the 840s and 50s, between 964 and 971, and raids

continued into the twelfth century. The impact of these attacks was documented in a wide variety of literary
sources, some contemporary with the events described, and toponyms hint at Viking settlement in Galicia.2 In
2002, Mariano Campo claimed that this evidence was of more than local significance, since it was an
Andalusi, born in Jan in the eighth century, who was the first person [Campos emphasis] to offer a
fascinating, almost ethnographic portrait of the customs and geography of the men of Northern Europe in the
Early Middle Ages 3 Campos witness was the poet al-Ghazl, who headed a delegation from the
Umayyads in Cordoba to the court of an unnamed Viking king.

Several scholars have treated this episode as a true story.4 Yet the celebrated scholar of al-Andalus,

variste Lvi-Provenal, raised a number of problems in accepting its historicity and Sara Pons-Sanz found

John Hayward, The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings (London, New York, 1995), pp. 58-59; Jn

Stefnsson, The Vikings in Spain. From Arabic (Moorish) and Spanish Sources, Saga Book of the Viking
Club, 6 (1908-9): pp. 31-46.

Eduardo Morales Romero, Historia de los vikingos en Espaa. Ataques e Incursiones contra los Reinos

Cristianos y Musulmanes de la Pennsula Ibrica en los siglos IX-XI (Madrid, 2004).


Mariano G. Campo (ed.), Al-Ghazl y la embajada hispano-musulmana a los vikingos en el siglo IX

(Madrid, 2002), p. 9 .

W.E. Allen, The Poet and the Spae-Wife. An Attempt to Reconstruct al-Ghazls visit to the Vikings

(London, 1960); Abdurrahman A. el-Hajji, Andalusi diplomatic relations with the Vikings during the

additional reasons to question it. This paper considers al-Ghzls embassy as one of a number of the ways
the Vikings in Spain were remembered in the early Middle Ages, which have pushed them to the margins of
modern histories of the period. In general, the Vikings in Spain seem to have been neglected because
historians have found it difficult to evaluate the sources. A central core narrative, remembered by authors
writing both in Arabic and in Latin, appears to point to what really happened, but it was simply the starting
point for a wide variety of retellings in both traditions. Christian clerics deployed the Vikings as extras in
battles between rival bishops, arriving on cue to punish bad bishops, and providing the opportunity for a good
bishop, Gonzalo of Mondoedo to demonstrate his sanctity; at the appearance of a Viking fleet he began to
pray, and with every Ave Maria a Viking ship sank or caught fire.7 Accounts of the Vikings written in Arabic
can be even more dramatic. In a description of the attack on Seville in 844, we can see the Viking fleet

they had, as it were, filled the ocean with dark red birds, in the same way as they had filled the
hearts of men with fear and trembling. After landing at Lisbon, they sailed to Cadiz, then to Sidona,
then to Seville. They besieged this city, and took it by storm. After letting the inhabitants suffer the

Umayyad period (AH 138-366/ 755-976 AD), Hesperis Tamuda, 8 (1967): pp. 67-110; Bernard Lewis, The
Muslim Discovery of Europe (London and New York, 1982, reprinted London, 1994), pp. 93-5.

variste Levi Provenal, 'Un change d'ambassades entre Cordue et Byzance au IXe sicle', Byzantion 12

(1937): pp. 1-24.


Sara Ponz-Sanz, Whom did al-Ghazl meet? An exchange of embassies between the Arabs from al-

Andalus and the Vikings, Saga Book of the Viking Society, 28 (2004): pp. 5-28.

Reinhart P. A. Dozy, Les Normandes en Espagne, in ibid. Recherches sur lhistoire et la littrature

dEspagne, (2 vols, Leiden, 1881) vol. 2, pp. 250-315, at p. 292.

terror of imprisonment or death, they remained there seven days, during which they let the people
empty the cup of bitterness

The terror which the Vikings inspired in the Arabic sources echoes Christian responses to the sack of
Lindisfarne. As is often the case with Arabic sources, however, this passage was written in a far country and
centuries after the event in this case, by the Maghrebi historian Ibn Idhri at the turn of the fourteenth
century. It is not clear where Ibn Idhri got his information, or how much creative freedom he allowed
himself; he may have added a description of the defeated Vikings being hung from palm trees. Yet his work
should not be dismissed out of hand. Embellishments of a story whose details may have been forgotten help
to locate the Vikings within a common culture of scholarship disseminated across the Islamic world, creating
a set of sometimes contradictory preconceptions that influenced how this threatening group of outsiders was
named and characterised.

A passage from a Book of Geography attributed to al-Zuhr illustrates several aspects of the Arabic view of
the Vikings; this is another late source but perhaps better-informed, since the author seems to have lived in
Granada in the twelfth century.9

Formerly, over [the great sea in the West] says al-Zuhr, many big ships sailed, which the people
of al-Andalus called qarqr. These ships were capable of sailing backwards and forwards and had
square sails. They were crewed by the people they called the majs, who possessed a strength,
courage and tenacity without equal for navigating the sea. When they appeared off the coast, the
inhabitants fled towards the interior, in the grip of pure terror. These majs put to sea every sixth or

Ibn Idhr al-Marrkush, Kitb al-bayn al-mughrib, ed. Georges Sraphin Colin and variste Lvi-

Provenal (2 vols, Leiden: Brill, 1951) vol.2, pp. 96-7.


Halima Ferhat, Al-Zuhri, Encyclopaedia of Islam (2nd edn, Leiden, 1958-2007), vol. 11, p. 566a.

seventh year. They assembled fleets of at least eighty ships, sometimes more than one hundred. All
those whom they encountered at sea they overcame, took prisoner and carried off..10

Al-Zuhr, in common with most of the Arabic writers, called the Vikings majs. This term has generated
unwarranted controversy as modern scholars look in vain for terminological precision. Although used
originally of Zoroastrians, the term majs was in time applied by the Arabs to all northern nations, as the
Spanish Arabist Pascal Gayangos noted as long ago as 1840. 11 The details of al-Zuhrs description confirm
these majs as Vikings. Some scholars have tried to sweep all the references to majs in Spain into the same
basket. They have identified groups of majs who allied with Alfonso II of Len against the emir Hisham in
79312 and with the Basques against the emir Muhammad in 81613 as the first Vikings active in the peninsula.
The earliest reference to majs in Spain who are likely to be Vikings, however, comes from the Eastern
geographer al-Yaqb, writing in 889-90 about the raids of 844.14 From al-Andalus, the earliest surviving
narrative of this attack is probably the History of the Conquest of al-Andalus of Ibn al-Qtya (d.977),
compiled in the generation after his death. Ibn al-Qutiyas characterisation of the raiders as majs was


Al-Zuhri, Kitab al-Djarafiyya. Mappemonde du calife al-Mamun reproduite par Fazari (IIIe/Ixe s.),

rdit et comment par Zuhri IVIe/XIIe s.) ed. M. Hadj-Sadok, Bulletin dEtudes Orientales, 21 (1968): pp.
1-346 (not consulted), cited in Alexander Seippel, Rerum Normannicarum Fontes Arabici, (2 vols, Oslo,
1896) vol. 1, p .11, my translation.

Al-Maqqar, The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties of Spain, trans. Pascual de Gayangos (2 vols,

London, 18403, reprinted London and New York, 2002), vol. 1, p. 323, n. 48.

Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kmil f l-tarkh,, cited in Seippel, Rerum normannicarum, vol.1, p. 20.


Ibn Hayyan, Muqtabis II. Anales de los Emires de Crdoba Alhaqem I (180-206h./796-822 J.C. y

Abderramn II (206-232/822-847) (facsimile, Madrid, 1999), fol.103r., trans. Mahmud Ali Makki and
Federico Corriente, Crnica de los emires Alhakam I y Abdarrahman II entre los aos 796 y 847
[Almuqtabis II-1] (Zaragoza, 2001), p. 54.

Amad ibn Ab al-Yaqb, Kitb al-Buldn, ed. Michael Jan. de Goeje, (Leiden, 1892), p. 354.

repeated by later authors and the same label was attached to the protagonists of later attacks. Yet another
tenth-century Andalusi, al-Bakr, talked about the land of the majs known as al-Inglz, which is probably a
reference to Britain. 15 Ibn awqal, who visited al-Andalus in 949, and noted that from time to time, the
peninsula has been attacked by the fleets of the majs, included among them the Turks, Pechenegs and
other races such as Saqliba [possibly slaves of Eastern European origin] and Bulgars.16 Omeljan Pritsak, an

eminent scholar of the Vikings in Eastern Europe, proposed a new way out of this confusion. He started
from Ibn Idhrs description of Septimania as the land of the majs.18 This cannot possibly mean Vikings
and must, argued Pritsak, mean the land of markets from a Celtic suffix magos that appears in place names
in southern France. Therefore, when Alfonso II asked for help from the majs in 793, they were traders, not
raiders, following the same profession, but perhaps not of the same ethnicity as the men who were active in
the emporia of Eastern Europe, and not related to those who harried the coast of al-Andalus fifty years later.
This hypothesis is too creative. Pritsak, like Ibn awqal, missed the point that although nearly all Vikings are
labelled majs, not all the majs are Vikings.

Characterising the Vikings as majs had a number of implications. Majs derives from the Greek ,
magician or magus. It was used of the Zoroastrians of Iran, whom the Quran classified as one of
the Peoples of the Book protected under Muslim law. By the period of the Viking attacks, however, the
category majs had been widened to include peoples other than the three monotheistic faiths, and in a twelfth-


Al -Bakr, Jughrfyyt al-andalus wa-urbba min kitb <<Al-masalik wa-l-mamalik>>, ed Abd al-

Rahmn Al El-Hajji (Beirut, 1968), p. 145.


Ibn awqal, Kitb urat al-ar, ed. J.H. Kramers (2 vols, Leiden, 1967), vol. 1, p. 113.


Omeljan Pritsak, Did the Arabs call the Vikings Magians?, Atti del 12 Congreso Internazionale di Studi

sullAlto Medioeveo, Spoleto 4-10 Settembre 1988 (Spoleto, 1990), pp. 463-78.

Ibn Idhr, Kitb al-bayn al-mughrib, ed. G.S. Colin and E. Lvi-Provenal (2 vols, Leiden, 1951), vol. 2,

p. 64.

century Latin-Arabic glossary now in Leiden, majs is glossed as pagan.19 There are several references by the
historians of al-Andalus to majs in this context. To quote the Maghrebi Ibn Idhr again: It is said that the
first [people] to settle al-Andalus after the Flood were called al-Andalush . and it was named al-Andalus
[after them]. And it is said that they were majs.20 In the tenth century, al-Masudi (of whom more
later) illustrated the scope of this usage by using majs both for the kings of the Franks before their
conversion to Catholicism and for the Vikings: indeed, in the same passage.21 The association of the term with
Zoroastrians persisted, however, even in contexts where it is clearly inappropriate, and where greater
precision might be expected. A legal judgement made in the tenth century in al-Andalus refers to majs.22 A
fifteenth-century Maghrebi collection preserves a ruling against lighting a fire at night, which [says the
judge] is the custom of the majs.23 There is no other evidence for Zoroastrians, or pagans, in al-Andalus or
the Maghreb at this period and majs was often simply a term of abuse.24 Echoes of all these meanings of
majs could be incorporated into descriptions of the Viking majs, as we shall see.

There were also other ways of labelling the Vikings, although it was surprisingly rare for these pagan warriors
to be called simply pagans. Ibn Idhr occasionally used the terms kafirun (unbelievers) and mushrikun (idol
worshippers) of the Vikings, but in the works of other Muslim authors these terms were much more often


Federico Corriente, A Dictionary of Andalusi Arabic (Leiden, New York and Cologne, 1997).


Ibn Idhr, Kitb al-Bayn, vol. 2 p. 1.


Al-Masd, Les Prairies d'Or (Murj al-dhahab), ed. and trans. C. Barbier de Meynard and Pavet de

Courteille (9 vols, Paris, 1864), vol. 2, p. 68-73.


Ana Fernndez Flix, Cuestiones legales del islam temprano: la Utbiyya y el proceso de formacin de la

sociedad islmica andalus (Madrid, 2003), p. 414.


Vincent Lagardre, Histoire et societ en Occident musulman au Moyen ge. Analyse du Miyar dal

Wansharishi (Madrid, 1995), p. 49.


Esperanza Alfonso, Islamic culture through Jewish eyes. Al-Andalus from the tenth to twelfth centuries

(Abingdon and New York, 2008), p. 32, n. 118.

applied to Christians, particularly the enemy in Northern Spain. The Arab authors sometimes used of the
Vikings a term similar to that used by the Latin authors, who called the Vikings Northmen, Nordomanni,

Normani or Lodomani; they were, says the Chronicle of Alfonso III, a pagan and extremely cruel people
previously unknown to us.26 This terminology may have been picked up in al-Andalus as a result of
embassies from the Asturias; an account of one of these was concerned with the Viking threat.27 An eleventhcentury writer, Ibn ayyn, perhaps reliant on a tenth-century source, linked the designation Northmen with
majs when he called the raiders al-majs al-ardumniyyn.28

Whereas the term majs was geographically imprecise, the designation of the Vikings as men from the North
fed into the Arabic authors knowledge of the great sea to the west of al-Andalus and the lands that lay
beyond it, which was derived from classical Greek geography. Al-Zuhri said that the majs ships that
harassed the Straits came from the land of Galicia which is on the shores of the great sea in the West. A
century later, Ibn Said al-Maghribi [d.1286] said that the majs came from the islands of the North, which
included Britain.29 Other authors said that they came from the Great Sea in the west, which formed part of an


Anales Complutenses 2, ed. Enrique Flrez, Espaa Sagrada (50 vols, ed. Flrez and others, Madrid, 1754-

1879), vol. 20 (1765), p. 311; Anales Toledanos 1, ed. Manuel Risco, Espaa Sagrada, vol.30 (1775), p. 382.

Chronicle of Alfonso III, 15, 2, ed. Yves Bonnaz, Chroniques Asturiennes (fin IXe sicle) (Paris, 1987), p.

54; trans., Kenneth Baxter Wolf, Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain (Liverpool: Liverpool
University Press., 1990) p. 174.

Ibn Hayyn, Muqtabis, trans. Garca Gmez, Anales palatinos del califa de Cordoba al-akam II, por Is

ibn Amad al-Rz Madrid, 1967, p. 50.


Ibn Hayyn, Muqtabis, trans. Garca Gmez, Anales palatinos., pp. 48, 88, 101, 116.


Juan Vernet,, Textos rabes de viajes por el Atlntico, Anuario de Estudios Atlnticos, 17 (1971): pp.

401-427, at p. 415.

Encircling Ocean (al-Bar al-Muhit) that girded the world like a green sash (al-awq al-Akhdar).30. An
alternative name, the Tenebrous Ocean (al-Bar al-Muzhlim), invoked the Greek division of the world into
seven latitudinal zones that began slightly north of the Equator and ended in the perpetual darkness of the far
North.31 Although, by the time of the second wave of Viking attacks in 859, the Andalusis were apparently
able to assemble a fleet to go out into the ocean after them,32 the classical view of the Western Ocean
prevailed over actual experience of sailing on it. In 1154, al-Idrs, was still insisting that al-Andalus was the
end of the known world; beyond was the Tenebrous Ocean, where no-one dared to venture. Or almost no-one:
al-Idrs recounted the story of the Adventurers of Lisbon;33 he believed it to be a true story, because a street
in Lisbon was named after them. The Adventurers sailed into the Western Ocean, but were advised not to sail
into the total darkness to the North. They confined their exploration to some of the islands, where they found
giant, strangely-inedible sheep.


Al-Zuhr claimed to have derived his Geography35 from a work of the caliph al-Mamn,36 celebrated for
sponsoring translation from the Greek,37 although the description of the world attributed to him does not


Christoph Picard, Locan Atlantique musulman. De la conqute arabe lpoque almohade. Navigation et

mise en valeur des ctes dal-Andalus et du Maghreb occidental (Portugal-Espagne-Maroc) (Paris, 1997), pp.
29 and 31.

Al-Masd, Kitab at-Tanbih wa-l-Ischraf, ed. Michael Jan de Goeje, (Leiden, 1894), pp. 72-77.


Vernet, Textos rabes, p. 404.


Al-Idrs, Nuzhat al-mushtq fi ijtirq al-afq, ed. Dozy and de Goeje (Leiden 1886), pp. 184-186; Al-

Himyr, La peninsule ibrique au moyen ge dapres le Kitab al-Rawd al-mitr fi habar al-akhtr, ed. and
trans, Lvi-Provenal (Leiden 1938), text p. 16, trans. p. 23.

Perhaps the first sighting of polar bears? Robert Hoylands observation.


Andr Miquel, La gographie humaine du monde musulman jusquau milieu du IIe sicle. Gographie et

gographie humaine dans la literature arabe des origins 1050 (4 vols, Paris, 1967), vol. 1.

survive. The geographers, however, were polymaths, and open to a number of other influences. One of the
most important of these was the Quran, and there was a tendency to try to make the world conform to the
Quranic picture, however unlikely the result. The famous tenth-century geographer al-Muqaddas was
puzzled that the maps of the sea that stretched from China to Africa did not correspond with his experience of
sailing on it. He consulted several scholars, including a sheik, who was both a learned man and the owner of a
merchant fleet, for a more credible description.38 When it came to the number of seas in the world, however,
al-Muqaddas thought that, since only the two seas mentioned in the Quran could exist,39 the Encircling
Ocean and the other seas of which the geographers wrote had to be redefined: we do not include the
Encircling Ocean because it is the boundary of the world, with no limits.40 Another pool of knowledge was
adab, a common cultural heritage of secular scholarship that included poetry and fantastic ethnography, such
as the description of the island of Waqwaq where men grew on trees. A poetic image comparing a ship to a
dark-hued camel with wings like a bird may have been in Ibn Idhrs mind when writing about the
Vikings.41 There seems to have been no orthodox way of combining these influences and each individual
author made his own synthesis.


Al-Masd, Kitab at-Tanbih, p. 53; ibid., Les Prairies dOr, vol. 3, pp. 191, 193; Miquel, La gographie

humaine, vol. 1, p. 73; Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought and the Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early
'Abbasid Society (2nd-7th Centuries) (London, 1998).

Ferhat, Al-Zuhri.


Al-Muqaddas, The Best Divisions for knowledge of the regions; a translation of Ahsan al-Taqsim fi

M rift al-Aqlm, trans Basil Anthony Collins and Muhammad Hamid al-Tai (London, c.1994), pp. 10-11.

Al-Muqaddas, The Best Divisions, pp. 17-19.


Al-Muqaddas, The Best Divisions, p. 20.


Jall Abd Alghni, The Poet and Daughter of the Sea: Animated ships in Andalusian Arabic Poetry, Al-

Masaq 19/2 (2007): pp. 121-130, at p. 122.


Some of this may be recognised in the work of an author who was, unlike most of our sources, contemporary
with the Vikings. Al-Masd, born in Baghdad in the 890s, was a prolific author and travelled widely in the
Muslim world, although he did not visit al-Andalus. He was more interested in non-Muslim peoples than his
contemporaries and made several interesting statements about the Vikings in the South. Al-Masd adopted
the Ptolemaic world-view, in which the movement of the planets governed the physical conditions in each
zone of the sublunary world and in turn, the character and language of their inhabitants, though he
supplemented this information from his own observations and enquiries and from books he discovered on his
travels. Al-Masd accepted the Greek idea that the world ended near the straits of Gibraltar and noted that
there was a colossus at Cadiz with its arm raised towards the West, warning travellers not to go any further.42

Beyond here, in the very vaguest of terms, were the North and the West. 43 Al-Masd included among
the peoples inhabiting the North not only the Turks, Rs, Slavs and Franks but also the Christians
of northern Spain and the Lombards (al-Nukubarda), of whom he says that their country extends to the West
and their location is in the North.44 He was little clearer in describing the adverse effect of the climate of the
North on its peoples:

. in the extreme North,.. where the influence of the sun is rather alleviated and the regions
abound in cold, moisture and snow, the people are characterised by good physique, rude behaviour,
slow speech, harsh tongues, white complexion, thick flesh, blue eyes, thin skin, curly and red hair.
All these characteristics are found due to the predominance of moisture in their lands, and their cold
nature does not encourage firmness of religious belief. Those living further North are characterised
by dullness of mind, harsh behaviour and barbarism.45


Al-Masd, Kitb al-tanbih, pp. 68-69.


Ahmad M.H Shboul, Al-Masudi and his world: a Muslim historian and his interest in non-Muslims

(London, 1979), p. 177.


Al-Masd, Les Prairies dOr, vol.3, pp. 76-77.


Al-Masd, Kitb al-Tanbih, pp. 23-24.


Al-Masd thought that it was from this region that the people came who attacked al-Andalus:

Before the year 300 ships returned to al-Andalus by sea bearing a thousand of the Aghart/Faghart
people to her shores. The people of al-Andalus believed that they were a people of the majs who
successfully raided them from this sea every two hundred years. [They also believed] that they came
to their country from a bay/gulf lying on the opposite coast of the Uqyans sea (possibly the Atlantic)
and not from the gulf where there is a copper lighthouse. And I think but God alone knows that
this gulf is connected to the Mayutus sea and Buntus and that this people are the Rs whom we
mentioned earlier in this book for they are the only people who sail across those seas, which are
connected with the Atlantic Ocean..46


Although al-Masd was not the first to link the attacks of the majs on al-Andalus with the Rs, he may
have been the first to suggest that these majs came from beyond the Encircling Ocean. Al-Masd knew the
Rs from his travels in the eastern Islamic lands and in the Caucasus. 48. They were pagans who travelled by

boat, and traded with Byzantium; he thought that they owed no allegiance to any law or king. Like the
Turks, they consisted of different peoples (ajns, the plural of jins, the Arabic gens). Al-Masd labelled one
group of the Rs as al-lawdhna, perhaps an echo of the term al-ardumniyyn, that some authors used for
the majs in Spain: al-Masd said that this group traded with al-Andalus, Byzantium and the land of the



Al-Masd, Les Prairies d'Or, vol. 3, p. 193.


Al-Yaqb, Kitb al-buldn, p. 354.


Al- Masd, Les Prairies dOr, vol. 3, pp. 143, 214, 216, 218; Shboul, Al-Masudi, pp. 172-178.


Al- Masd, Les Prairies dOr, vol. 2, p. 15.


Al- Masd, Les Prairies dOr, vol. 2, p. 18.


It seems that there is a core of direct observation, but at every point we can see al-Masds reading
triumphing over his personal experience, as in this passage [the attribution to al-Masd is not certain]:

Concerning the majs who worship the sun. They live by a pleasant sea that runs from the
region of the North to the South and also a sea that runs from the West to the East until it meets
another sea that runs from the direction of the Bulgars. They have many rivers which are all in the
North and they do not have a salt-water sea because their land is far from the sun, and their water is
sweet. No one lives in the North because of the cold and frequent earthquakes. Many of their tribes
are majs whose bodies are burned by fire which they worship. There are many towns and fortresses
and they have churches with bells hanging in them which they strike like al-Nuwqish. Among them
is a people between the Saqliba and the Ifranja [Europeans] of the faith of the Sabians who profess
worship of the stars..51

Al-Masd probably knew that these majs were not Zoroastrians, whose beliefs he describes in some detail,
having travelled in Iran, talked with Zoroastrian priests, read their religious texts and visited their fire
temples.52 Nevertheless, false etymology and the desire to include all the information at his disposal led him
to attribute some of their practices to the men of the North just because they too are labelled majs.

This portmanteau ethnography provides the background to the story of the poet al-Ghazls embassy to the
Viking court with which I began. It survives in an encyclopaedic collection of adab composed in Egypt in the
thirteenth century by an Andalusi, Ibn Dihya; his source for the embassy is a ninth-century history of alAndalus up to the reign of Abd al-Ramn II (822-852) by Tammm ibn Alqama, now lost, which Ibn al-


Al- Masd or Ibrhm ibn Wif Shh, Kitb al-ajib unpublished MS Paris, Bibliothque Nationale,

cited in Seippel, Rerum normannicarum, pp. 127-8, my trans.


Al- Masd, Les Prairies dOr, vol.2, pp. 123-126; ibid, Kitb al-Tanbih, p. 95; Shboul, Al-Masudi,, pp.

61, 107-108.


Qya also used. In fact, the account of the embassy is probably based on another mission reportedly
undertaken by al-Ghazl, to Constantinople.53 The episode related by Ibn Dihya is clearly meant to relate to
the Viking attack on Seville in 844, since in begins: A majs ambassador came to make peace with the
SultanAbd al-Rahman, after they had left Seville.54 Abd al-Ramn equipped al-Ghazl and his
companions with a ship and they sailed to the majs king, who lived on a great island in the ocean, three
days journey from al-Andalus. Ibn Dihyas account must have been composed, or interpolated, in the
eleventh century or later, because it says : the majs were heathens. but now they follow the Christian faith.
It would be nice to be able to read it in the spirit of Michael McCormicks remark that imaginary travellers
shed real light on early medieval travel and communications.55 The account of the embassy, however, was
not written as an essay in ethnography. The section of Ibn Dihyas encyclopaedia devoted to al-Ghazl
concentrates on two aspects of the poets biography: his works, which Ibn Dihya cites extensively, and his
wit. One episode shows how al-Ghazls quick response saved him from imprisonment after he had accused a
wazr of hoarding grain at a time of shortage, forcing up the price. The embassy to the Vikings illustrates both
these aspects of al-Ghazl.56 When the poet arrived at the majs court, their king tried to demean him by
making him enter the court through a very low door; the Byzantine emperor had supposedly presented alGhazl with the same dilemma. In both cases, al-Ghazl went in feet first, a perennial insult. Three poems
punctuate the account of the embassy to the Vikings. Ibn Dihya emphasised the poets skill and interrupted


Ibn Hayyan, in al-Maqqar, Analectes sur l'histoire et la littrature des arabes d'Espagne, ed. Reinhardt

Dozy, (2 vols, Leiden and London, 185561), vol., I, pp. 223, 631ff.; Lvi-Provenal, Un change, pp. 1014.

Umar ibn Hasan ibn Dihya, Al-Mutrib min ashr ahl al-maghrib ed. Ibrhm al-Abiary, mid Abd al-

Maguid and Amad Amad Badaw, revised by Taha ussein, (Beirut, no .date), trans. Allen Poet and SpaeWife pp. 19-25.

Michael McCormick, Origins of the European Economy. Communications and Commerce AD 300-900

(Cambridge, 2001), p. 237.


Miquel, La gographie humaine, vol.1, pp. 495-497.


the narrative to lament the neglect of Andalusi and Maghrebi poets compared with those in the eastern Islamic
world: the published translations omit this section of the text, thus skewing the meaning of the whole. More
than half the passage describes al-Ghazls flattery of the queen of the majs to whom he improvises a poem
that begins: You have to resist, Oh my heart, a love that troubles thee, and against which you defend yourself
as a lion. You are in love with a majsiyya, who never lets the sun of beauty set, and who lives at the rarely
visited extremity of the world. His portrayal strays little from the standard representation of the barbarian

as the inversion of normality. It is hardly surprising to find that the religion that the majs have abandoned
in favour of Christianity is fire-worship. A discussion of marriage and divorce among the majs women
shows them as the object of the type of textual strategy housing both barbarian and female otherness that
Walter Pohl has analysed.58 Sexual freedom for barbarian women and the lack of jealousy of their men were
topoi of this genre. Another example is Bertha, the queen of the Franks who is supposed to have proposed
marriage to a caliph.59 Neither of these stories contributes to the discussion of barbarian ethnography which
was, in a slightly less garbled fashion, taking place in the work of geographers such as al-Masd.

Al-Masd and perhaps al-Zuhr knew quite a lot about the real Vikings, but this sort of knowledge
contributed little to their picture of them. The Vikings remained resolutely Other, both geographically and
as pagans. Scholars writing in Arabic put the Vikings into a category majs with which they were already
familiar. In doing so, they tried to put in everything they knew about this category, no doubt gaining
credibility with their readers as they lose it with us. Later readers were more interested in the anecdotes than
geography; descriptions of the peoples from the beyond the western ocean began to lose their precision,


Aziz Al-Azmeh, Barbarians in Arab Eyes, Past and Present, 134 (1992): pp. 3-18.


Walter Pohl, Gender and ethnicity in the early Middle Ages, in Leslie Brubaker and Julia Smith, (eds),

Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900 (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 23-43, at p. 40.

Ann Christys, The queen of the Franks offers gifts to the caliph al-Muktafi, in Wendy Davies and Paul

Fouracre, (eds.), The Languages of Gift in the Early Middle Ages, (Cambridge, forthcoming).


becoming descriptions of marvels which transport us from tangible reality to the realm of fancy constituted by
the oriental tales .60 It is there that we must leave the story of al-Ghazl.


Csar E. Dubler, Adjaib Marvels, Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol I, pp. 203-4.