Cultures of Northumbria: Varangians

In this series of articles, Michael Garcia shares various custom rules and handouts related to his worldbuilding for his ongoing Northumbria campaign. 


Varangian legends, recorded in the skaldic eddas, tell that a dozen Varangian adventurer-kings of old, in response to a challenge, crossed the Great Sea and settled in Northumbria about five centuries ago, as early as 128 FR. The eddas recount how these kings successfully fought the natives and even fought one another for dominance, until a new savage people emerged from the northern forests—the Picts. Then the Varangians banded together, even allying with Northumbrian natives, to resist the fury of the demon-worshipping Picts.

The primary Varangian history, the Royal Edda, tells that in 206 FR, the great King Jorn Ironhand united the eleven other petty kings and formed a great Northern Kingdom in Northumbria, centered on the fertile valley of the Blackrun River. The kingdom enjoyed a century of prosperity and reached its zenith under King Hakkon the Just, but his queen’s infidelity led to the downfall of his house. Subsequent kings were weak, and the emergence of goblyn hordes from the mountains caught the royal army unprepared. King Ragnar tried to rally the kingdom, and his calls were answered by the Dwarven King of the Mountains, Kroin son of Kror. Together they made their stand and won many battles, but their defeat at the Battle of Bloodeagle Pass in 499 FR spelled doom for the Northern Kingdom. Goblyn hordes overran the northern valleys, massacring tens of thousands of innocents, razing hundreds of hamlets and villages, and burning the royal capital to the ground.

Waves of Varangians migrated south into central Northumbria. In many places, they mingled peacefully with native Kenienka and Wendat tribes, though there were occasional battles. The Varangians later mixed even more easily with the newly arrived Frangians and Zeelanders.

Many Varangians yearn for the return of their great Northern Kingdom, but none see any hope of its return, and it has become more of an ideal.

Varangians in Northumbria

In Northumbria, Varangians tend to be explorers, traders, and craftsmen. They typically work as farmers, merchants, shipwrights, navigators, pilots, fishermen, foresters, huntsmen, and mercenaries.

Typical Varangian Appearance

Varangians are generally tall and muscular people, with pale skin and long, straight, blonde or dirty-blonde hair (though red is not uncommon). Eye color tends to be blue, though green is not uncommon. Most upper-class men wear trimmed beards and long mustaches, while commoners tend to trim facial hair less.

Concerning fashion, Varangians favor simple bright colors, often utilizing vertical stripes, combined with furs. They favor loose-fitting breeches, secured tightly around the lower legs with crossed straps. Knee-high soft boots, richly adorned with brass buttons, are currently the fashion for men. Varangian cloaks are usually long and fur-trimmed.

Varangian Food

Varangians typically eat only two meals per day, one in the morning and one at night, though times vary. They eat a wide variety of pickled or salted meat and fish, including beef, pork, mutton, lamb, goat, venison, horse, fermented shark, herring, haddock, pike, salmon, whale, mussels, eels, and oysters. Most meat is boiled or stewed, not roasted. Varangians also eat rye or barley bread, yogurt, eggs, cheese, butter, assorted berries, and honey. Vegetables, somewhat rare given the climate, include beets, onions, mushrooms, peas, and cabbage. Varangians tend to favor honey mead, milk, and mixtures of the two.

Varangian Language

Currently, most Varangians still speak their cultural language of Norsk (northern runes), but the great intermingling in Northumbria during the last century has caused most to learn Frangian as well. Norsk runes derive from dwarven runes, so some educated Varangians can read those runes as well.

Stereotypical Varangian Qualities

Stereotypical Varangians are tough-minded, virtually fearless, quick-tempered, highly independent, fond of carousing, and somewhat irreverent.

Varangian Cultural Achievements

Varangian culture currently lacks real distinction. Before the arrival of the Frangians and Zeelanders in the fifth century FR, the Northern Kingdom could boast the finest shipwrights, the bravest sailors, the most talented sea captains, talented smiths, and the most innovative farmers. They also boasted of the discovery of the iron plow, with which they could till the hard soil of the north. In the current landscape, however, only bits of this once proud Varangian culture remain, especially as the people mix freely with Frangians and Zeelanders. Those with Varangian heritage often retain their knowledge of the Norsk language, as well as the use of kennings in literature.

Varangian Cultural Beliefs

The manner in which a person faces death determines his fate in the afterlife. Gain fame for your bravery and prowess. If possible, become a great king by your own hand.

Safeguarding one’s guest is a sacred responsibility.

Varangian Behavioral Norms

Men should make a name for themselves. Laziness is disgraceful. Transgressors are rude and tasteless, and they should be shown the error of their ways. If they repeat the behavior thereafter, they are to be shunned.

Decorate all of your belongings to the best of your ability to show your fame. Transgressors are rude and tasteless, and they should be shown the error of their ways. If they repeat the behavior thereafter, they are to be shunned.

Show impeccable honor in ritual combat (fight fairly, no poison, no sneak attacks or ambushes). Transgressors are considered rude and tasteless by conservatives in society, but most people do not mind.

Never claim credit for another warrior’s kill. Transgressors are to be beaten upon the first offense and killed thereafter.

Never harm your liege lord or allow anyone to harm him. Transgressors are a threat to society and must be slain immediately or onlookers are guilty by association.

Never harm or allowed to be harmed one that enjoys your hospitality. Transgressors are rude and malevolent and must be shunned.

Varangian Customs

Before battle, pray for bravery, invoke the aid of your ancestors, and recite one’s past deeds.

A host greets a guest with a drawn sword, and, after touching the guest’s head, declares, “Dwell beneath the safety of my blade.” Sometimes hosts condense this to simply, “Beneath my blade.”

Common Male Varangian Names

Aksel Albin Alf Andor Arn Arvid Asbjorn Bard Bjarne Bjorn Dag Egil Einar Erik Erland Fredrik Gotfried Gunnar Gustav Hakon Haldor Harald Henrik Holger Ivar Jens Jorg Jorn Lars Lief Nils Njord Olaf Osvald Ragnar Ragnvalder Rikard Rorik Sigurd Snorre Soren Steiner Sten Sven Tallak Thor Thorvald Tollak Tor Torkel Tormod Torstein Torvald Ulf Valdemar Varg Vidar Viggo Vilmar

Common Female Varangian Names

Aina Alva Anja Anna Asa Astrid Bera Dagmar Dalla Eira Erika Erna Eydis Frida Froya Gerda Greta Gudrun Gyda Hanna Hedda Heidi Hella Henrike Hildur Ilsa Inga Ingrid Ingun Jofrid Jorunn Kaja Kara Karin Karina Lina Maren Nora Ragna Rakel Reidun Runa Sigrid Sigrun Signy Siri Sonja Thora Thyra Tyra Ulrikke Vana

View of the Frangians:  Powerful warriors, but too wiling to bend the knee
View of the Zeelanders:  Peddlers that often lack the prowess to defend themselves
View of the Kenienka: Brave and strong warriors, but foolish in the ways of war
View of the Wendat: Brave and strong warriors, but foolish in the ways of war
View of the Picts:  Fearsome and fearless warriors, but they lack all other virtues
View of the Dwarves:  Grim foes or stalwart allies, depending on the day
View of the Elves:  Shifty and suspicious folk, though valiant at times
View of the Gnomes:  Helpful and cheery folk, they are welcome guests
View of the Goblyns:  Primordial creatures of shadow and chaos, fit only for the sword

Predominant Varangian Deities

Istus, the Lady of Our Fate, has long enjoyed the respect of Varangians of all classes. Most Varangians worship only infrequently—before battle, before a large business venture, or before a long journey—and occasional sacrifices to Istus provide the comfort that they seek. Most pureblooded Varangians strongly believe in fate, giving them an aloof, almost detached, attitude toward life.

Fharlanghn, the Dweller on the Horizon, is another favorite deity among Varangians. Many explain the stereotypical Varangian wanderlust as a blessing or curse handed down by Fharlanghan. Some legends say that it was this deity that challenged the dozen Varangian adventurer-kings to cross the Great Ocean and come to Northumbria.

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