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Aalto S. Bjarmaland in Finnish historiography  

Источник: Висы дружбы. Сборник статей в честь Т. Н. Джаксон. – М.: "Университет Дмитрия Пожарского", 2011


Bjarmaland and its inhabitants have been in the focus of interest of scholars during the last two hundred years. The most important sources in this scholarly debate have been the Kings' sagas, fornaldarsögur, Ohthere's account in King Alfred's "Orosius" and Saxo's "Gesta Danorum". Bjarmaland is mentioned also in "Egils saga Skalla-Grimssonar", "Historia Norwegiae", in Icelandic geographical treatises from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and in "Gráfeldardrápa" by Glúmr Geirason (ca. 975). Both in the Kings' sagas and in several fornaldarsögur Bjarmaland is presented as a far-off exotic place where the Norsemen trade and plunder1. In this article I intend to look at Bjarmaland and its inhabitants, the Bjarmians (ON bjarmar), in the Finnish historiography. I have chosen to look at the theme mainly through writings of archaeologist Aarne M. Tallgren (1885-1945), folklorist Kustaa Vilkuna (1902-1980) and folklorist Martti Haavio (1899-1973).

The Finnish scholars were mainly acquainted with the information on Bjarmaland given by Ohthere's account in King Alfred's "Orosius", "Heimskringla", and Saxo's "Gesta". Surprisingly many of the scholars knew fornaldarsögur too. Today, after two centuries of interdisciplinary studies, we know that not all these sources have the same value as historical sources. Especially the fornaldarsögur are now considered to be later, medieval fabrications whereas in the nineteenth century and in the beginning of the twentieth century they were used as reliable sources for Viking Age. The Finnish scholars were interested in the accounts concerning Bjarmaland because the number of written sources for Finnish Viking Age and early Middle Ages are limited and the Finnish sources consist only of folklore and archaeology. They considered stories about Bjarmaland to represent the heroic past of some Finnic tribe.

The location of Bjarmaland was and is still widely disputed. Considering the information given by the Old Norse sources as well as Ohthere's account in King Alfred's "Orosius", there is no doubt that Bjarmaland that is described by these sources situated somewhere in the northern part of Fennoscandia, somewhere around the White Sea. Tatjana Jackson, for example, has been one of the scholars involved with this question. T. Jackson has pointed out how the location of Bjarmaland has been treated by the Russian scholars in historiography. Depending on whether the Russian scholars were acquainted with Scandinavian written sources, which mention River Vína, they placed Bjarmaland either by the Northern Dvina or around the White Sea. Those Russian scholars with no knowledge of the Scandinavian sources located Bjarmaland further east in Perm' provinces. It was easy to mix the words Bjarmia and Perm' because the latter was indeed at some point in the early Middle Ages an important centre of European and Asian trade. This has been important information for those scholars not acquainted with the Russian scholarly tradition. T. Jackson herself made important observation by pointing out that there seems to have been two Bjarmalands: western and eastern. She motivated her argument by analogues that can be found in Olaus Magnus' Carta Marina. In this map we can see toponyms Bothnia occidentalisBothnia orientalis and Lappia occidentalisLappia orientalis lying on the opposite shores of the Gulf of Bothnia2.

Because the Finnish scholars thought that Bjarmaland was a manifestation of Baltic-Finnish culture, they wanted to see it as a realm that did not just confine to the shores of the White Sea. According A. M. Tallgren and M. Haavio, Bjarmaland extended all the way from the Kola Peninsula to the shores of Lake Onega and Lake Ladoga, but A. M. Tallgren emphasized that the centre of Bjarmia must have been in Karelia3. K. Vilkuna shared their opinion in principle but he suggested that the Bjarmians were in the first place Karelian merchants, who travelled far and wide in Fennoscandia4.

Not only the location of Bjarmaland, but also the toponym Bjarmaland / Bjarmia / Perm' has been debated extensively. One of the explanations has been that the word derives from the Finnish word Perämaa meaning "the hind land, land beyond the border". This idea was introduced by a Russian author and scholar Jakov Grot, who had a position at the University of Helsinki (then University of Alexander) 1844-1853, and during his stay he learned some Finnish. He introduced this idea of Perm' being Perämaa in 1867 in the Journal for Ministry of Education. The idea was accepted and upheld by Russian linguists (for example A. Potebnja) and Finnish historians, such as Jalmari Jaakkola. K. Vilkuna did not accept this explanation, because Finnish linguists (E. N. Setälä, J. J. Mikkola, Max Vasmer) had proven that this explanation was impossible. According to K. Vilkuna, Ja. Grot had invented it on the basis of his poor knowledge in Finnish. K. Vilkuna pointed out further that such a toponym as Perämaa has not been found anywhere5. This example shows how Finnish and Russian historiography were closely intertwined to each other.

Considering the remote location of Bjarmaland it is interesting that the sagas describe Bjarmians as enormously wealthy. How did they gain this wealth? The sources often mention trade with the Bjarmians. Bjarmaland was hardly a nodal point of trade between east and west in the Viking Age because the main trade route, Austrvegr, lay further south in the Baltic Sea, but certainly the inhabitants around the White Sea took part in local trade in Fennoscandia. Bjarmians themselves probably sold furs and changed them for prestige objects. This aspect of trade has inspired scholars to speculate that the Old Norse word *bjarm or its Finnic form perm might mean a merchant or a jnember of a merchant organization. Not only the Finnish scholars but also some Russian scholars read the word Perm' as an ethnic term6. In the case of Russian scholarly tradition, this connection between the word Perm' and merchants also suited well to the theory of Bjarmia / Bjarmaland being identical with the Perm' provinces. Thus, the word *bjarm / perm would not have referred to any specific ethnos but it would have been a designation for a group of merchants, as for example K. Vilkuna suggested. M. Haavio, on the other hand, suggested that the words bjarmar, fenni, and kvenir, that are ethnonyms for people living in Fennoscandia, all mean "fair people" although the words derive from different languages. According to present knowledge on the etymology of these words, M. Haavio's hypothesis cannot be taken seriously7.

Trade and treasures

Traditionally the Bjarmians have been associated with treasures, especially with silver. The sagas are not interested in explaining where the Bjarmians had gotten their silver and gold. In ch. 133 in "Óláfs saga ins helga" in "Heimskringla" the saga emphasizes that the Bjarmians gave their treasures to the deceased and the Bjarmian god Jómali, whose statue situated in a graveyard. In this episode, it is mentioned that the statue was lavishly decorated with a golden ornament hanging around the statue's neck and that there was a silver bowl placed on the statue's knees8. The description in "Óláfs saga ins helga" resembles Christian topoi on heathen temples and statues of gods. On the one hand, it is, of course, possible that Snorri Sturluson used in this case conventions that are familiar from hagiography, but on the other hand, the association between the Bjarmians and treasures may derive from Old Norse oral tradition.

An interesting detail can be mentioned in this episode in "Óláfs saga ins helga": a Norwegian Þórir hundr who is trading with the Bjarmians buys among other things sable pelts9. This is strange because sable has never lived in Fennoscandia. One possibility is that in this case sable is mixed with pine marten. Archaeologist A. M. Tallgren, who was acquainted with the episode mentioned above, suggested that the Norsemen bought pelts of squirrel, beaver and lemming (!). The last one must be a mistake. A. M. Tallgren does not specify in which language he had read "Heimskringla", but apparently he or the translation he used had mixed ON safali "sable" with the Finnish word sopuli ("a lemming")10. Lemming can hardly have been hunted for its fur. However, mentions of fur trade would imply that Bjarmaland was a place for transit trade for products coming from the east. It is true that objects made further in the east have ended up in the northern part of Fennoscandia. Lively trade would thus explain how the Bjarmians were thought to own treasures.

Treasures of the Bjarmians are not only mentioned in Heimskringla. It is a common topos in saga literature that heroes go to Bjarmaland and rob treasures there. We can take as an example "Örvar-Odds saga" in which Oddr arrives in Bjarmaland. Oddr and his companion capture a Bjarmian cupbearer (byrlarinn) and ask him about the Bjarmians. The cup-bearer reveals that the Bjarmians bury their dead in mounds and plenty of silver is buried with the dead. Oddr decides that they will rob the mounds. When Oddr and his companions are heading from the graveyard to their ship with the booty they are caught by surprise. Namely, the cup-bearer had escaped from Oddr's men and raised alarm. Interestingly, the Bjarmians did not want to attack the Norsemen immediately but they were eager to make a deal: they wanted to change their silver weapons to iron weapons which Oddr and his companions had with them. Oddr does not agree on this and so the battle is inevitable11.

Bjarmian silver weapons must be a saga fabrication just to emphasize that they were extremely wealthy. As M. Haavio has pointed out, "Bjarmaland of the Scandinavian sagas was a land of gold as was Hyperborea [in Greek mythology]". Thus, on the one hand, Bjarmaland in the sagas tends to be a fictional and mythical place where anything could happen. On the other hand, it was also a geographical, real place which is mentioned in "Historia Norwegiae" and on medieval maps12. M. Haavio, who admitted that Bjarmaland had also mythological dimension, deviates in his opinions from other Finnish scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who tended to see Bjarmaland only as a geographical place and a proof for the great past of the Baltic-Finnic tribes.

Religion of the Bjarmians

"Óláfs saga ins helga" in "Heimskringla" mentions that the Bjarmians worshipped their god, which was called Jómali, and they had a statue of him. The word Jómali seems to derive from the Baltic-Finnish word jumala "a god". This has been one of the strongest evidences for the Finnish scholars that the Bjarmians spoke a Baltic-Finnish language.

The Finnish scholar Adolf I. Arwidsson (1791-1858), who had a Romantic view about Bjarmaland as an ancient realm of some Finnic tribe, suggested that the Bjarmians had had a central cultic place or temple, which was visited by other peoples, but especially by Finnic peoples. These peoples donated valuable objects to the temple or shrine, and thus also developed the extensive trading network13. This view was, of course, only romantic speculation, but without competing studies, the idea was persistent among other Finnish scholars in the nineteenth century. Even Elias Lönnrot who collected poems in Karelia and compiled the Finnish national epic "Kalevala" saw the background of the poems to lie in this great "realm of Perma"14. This only shows that even on the basis of meager source information, scholars of the National Romanticism fabricated histories that suited them. A. M. Tallgren, however, rejected the idea of a shrine dedicated to Jómali. He motivated his argument by pointing out that the Finnic peoples such as the Karelians and the Veps' never had such phenomena (A. M. Tallgren suggested thus that the Bjarmians were either Karelian or Veps'). Instead, he pointed out that idols and sacrificial mounds were of "Lappish" (i. e. Sámi) origin. According to A. M. Tallgren, the authors of the sagas had just added these details to make the story more interesting. He was thus reluctant to see that the Bjarmians could have had connection to the Sеmi, which reflects the contemporary view about the Sеmi and their culture among Finnish scholars before the World War II: the Sеmi were "racially" inferior and could not have created anything sophisticated15.

A. M. Tallgren thus admits that worship of the Bjarmian god Jómali had resemblance with the Sеmi or generally Finnic practices of religion, but he preferred to see the Bjarmians as Karelians or Veps', because the Sеmi were thought to be more primitive than the "Finns". Even though we have no records of Finnic peoples worshiping idols that were statues, we know that natural objects were worshiped as cult monuments (Fi. seita, Sámi siei'di or seijdde). The concept of seita is heterogeneous but usually they were separate stones, stone formations or stone statues but also trees, tree statues or stumps16. People offered different kinds of things to these cult monuments: jewellery, money, food. Considering this background, the statue of Jómali may not be fantasy but is based on a real model. M. Haavio was convinced that the cult of Jómali had really existed, and he paid a lot of attention to it in his book. He tried to show with the help of etymology that the word Jómali was related to several Indo-European god-words, such as the Indian Yama17. His conclusions were, however, very far-fetched. K. Vilkuna did not draw any further conclusions about Jómali, and he just mentioned it in one sentence18.

It is worth noticing that at least in "Óláfs saga ins helga" there is an underlying tendency to show that the Bjarmians are heathens and thus evil. In this saga passage the wealth of the Bjarmians seems to be bound to their god Jómali – after all, the treasures were placed in the cemetery and the statue of Jómali was decorated with them – which gives the audience a hint that the wealth is questionable, maybe of devilish origin. For example, the treasures taken from the Bjarmian graveyard did not bring luck to Karli, who was later killed by Þórir, so we may assume that the Bjarmian treasures were somehow cursed. Þórir himself turns out to be an evil man and opponent of King Óláfr Haraldsson.

We do not know why Snorri included torir's journey to Bjarmaland in "Óláfs saga ins helga" but at least the story gives some background by showing that he was from the beginning "an evil character". The Finnish scholars failed to see this background because they were convinced that the sagas could be used as reliable sources and they did not understand the cultural context of the sagas.


The Finnish scholars during the nineteenth and long into the twentieth century were interested in studying Bjarmaland and the Bjarmians, because they were thought to represent the magnificent past of a Finnic tribe. The scholars were eager to find out the ethnic and linguistic background of the Bjarmians, because they were convinced that they could be connected to a certain Finnic tribe. This assumption reflects the ideas of National Romanticism according to which nations and nation states were preceded by tribes and tribal societies. The assumed Finnic background of the Bjarmians would show that the Finns were as highly organized and developed as their Scandinavian or Russian neighbours had been. Finnish scholars were thus actively participating in creating national history for the Finns.

The debate on connection between Bjarmians and Finnic peoples goes on: Maj-Lis Holmberg has questioned the whole idea. According to her, Icelanders or the saga audience could not have thought the Bjarmians as a people to have a connection with the Finnar because this is never stated in the sagas19. Lately, Mervi Koskela Vasaru has contributed to this debate with her Ph. D. thesis "Bjarmaland". Her conclusion was that the Bjarmians were an independent group that spoke a Baltic-Finnish language and who later assimilated with Karelians20. From today's perspective we could ask whether there is actually any point in trying to identify the ethnicity of the Bjarmians. Maybe we should see the word only as one ethnonym among many others that were given to ethnic or communal groups living in Fennoscandia in the Viking Age and early Middle Ages. Or should we accept the old hypothesis that the Bjarmians were just a name for northern merchants?


1. "Ágrip af Noregskonunga sögum" does not mention Bjarmaland or Bjarmians. "Morkinskinna" mentions it once: Morkinskinna / Utg. ved Finnur Jónsson. København, 1932 (Samfund til udgivelse af gammel nordisk litteratur. В. 53). S. 297. "Fagrskinna" mentions it in chapters 8, 14, 31, 80: Fagrskinna – Nóregs konunga tal / Bjarni Einarsson gaf út. 1985 (ÍF. В. XXIX). Snorri Sturluson mentions Bjarmaland or Bjarmians as follows: Hkr. 1962. В. I. Bls. 135, 217; Hkr. 1945. В. II. Bls. 227-234; Hkr. 2nd ed. 1979. B. III. Bls. 212; following fornaldarsögur mention Bjarmaland: "Hálfs saga", "Bósa saga", "Sturlaugs saga", "Örvar-Odds saga".

2. Jackson T. Location of Bjarmaland // Suomen varhaishistoria / Ed. K. Julku. Rovaniemi: Pohjois-Suomen Historiallinen Yhdistys, 1992 (Studia Historica Septentrionalia. 21). S. 122-125.

3. Haavio M. Bjarmien vallan nousu ja tuho // WSOY: Porvoo, Helsinki, 1965. P. 80.

4. Vilkuna K. Kihlakunta ja häävuode. Helsinki, 1964. P. 101.

5. Ibid. P. 87-90.

6. Jackson T. Location of Bjarmaland. P. 122.

7. Saarikivi J. Substrata Uralica. Studies on Finno-Ugrian Substrate in Northern Russian Dialects. 2006 (bttp://ethesis.helsinki.fi/julkaisut/hum/suoma/vk/saarikivi/substrat.pdf). P. 28; Vilkuna K. Kihlakuntaja häävuode. P. 100-101; Haavio M. Bjarmien vallannousujatuho. P. 48; A. M. Tallgren did not attempt at trying to solve the etymology of Bjarmaland.

8. Hkr. В. II. Bls. 230.

9. Hkr. Bls. 229: "Þórir fekk óf grávöru ok bjór ok safala".

10. Huldén L. Oliko soopeli karjalainen turkiseläin // Viipurin linnaläänin synty / Ed. J. Korpela. Lappeenranta: Karjalan kirjapaino, 2004. P. 176-178; Wallerström Т. Norrbotten, Sverige och medeltiden. Problem kring makt och bosättning i en europeisk periferi. Lund, 1995 (Lund Studies in Medieval Archaeology, 15:1). S. 315: "...levande exempel av denna art [sobel] har veterligen aldrig existerat väster om Petjora-floden i östra delen av europeiska Ryssland eller väster om floderna Dvina eller Mezen"; Tallgren A. M. Bjarmienmaa. Eripainos Kalevalaseuran vuosikirjasta. WSOY. 1930. № 10. P. 61.

11. Örvar-Odds saga // Fomaldar sögur nordrlanda / Utg. af C. C. Rafn. Kaupmannahöfn, 1929. В. II. S. 174-179.

12. Haavio M. Bjarmien vallan nousu ja tuho. S. 174, 179f.

13. Arwidsson A. I. Tillägg // Finland och dess invеnare / Udg. Fr. Rühs. Stockholm: Z. Hæggströms Förlag, 1827. P. 183-195; Vilkuna K. Kihlakuntaja häävuode. P. 81.

14. Vilkuna K. Kihlakuntaja häävuode. P. 81; Lönnrot E. Kalevala. Helsinki: SKS, 1964 (1849). Prologue § 8. P. iv-v.

15. Tallgren A. M. Bjarmienmaa. P. 82.

16. Korpela J. The World of Ladoga – Society, Trade, Transformation and State Building in the Eastern Fennoscandian Boreal Forest Zone ca. 1000-1555. Münster: LIT Verlag, 2008 (Nordische Geschichte, 7). P. 60-61.

17. Haavio M. Bjarmien vallan nousu ja tuho. P. 197-237.

18. Vilkuna K. Kihlakuntaja häävuode. P. 83.

19. Holmberg M.-L. Om Finland och övriga finnländer i den isländska fornlitteraturen // ANF. 1976. B. 91. S. 166-191.

20. Vasaru M. K. Bjarmaland. Leiden: Brill, 2010.