The Viking BuddhasThinking of your Ancient Art, would you consider the Viking Age ancient? It’s more early Middle Ages generally speaking.
I was wondering if you’d seen any of the Viking Buddhas? The Vikings had extensive trade with Asia (some through Russia and extensively through Persia). The most common east Asian trade item found in the Viking world (from what I understand) is silk. Less well known are the “uncommon” but not “rare” occurrence of Buddhas. There are several “classic” style Buddhas found in the Viking world that were likely acquired in trade from eastern Asia (i.e. China) as well as some in the style of southern Asia (i.e. India), but there are also some that are done in a style and with materials that suggests they might have been created in northern Europe, from within the Viking world. The more famous of these (to my knowledge) is the “Oseberg Bucket Buddha” (wikimedia link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Buckle_from_Oseberg_Vikingship_Buddha.JPG ). It was found in a burial of a very high profile woman.
From what I’ve been able to find, how these Buddhas fit into the Viking worldview is not known. where they representations of a religious minority? Where they co-opted as representation of Norse gods? Was a Buddha figure incorporated into the Viking pantheon in some areas? Where there immigrants or descendants from east/south Asia living in the Viking world that maintained their religious heritage (we know the Viking brought back people from both raid and trade expeditions from most of the “known” world, as spouses, slaves, and even equals/freemen immigrants, and it was possible for slaves to become freemen). In addition to the Buddhas, there are several figurines, mostly interpreted as Valkyrie or Shield Maidens, that have what art historians and hobbyists describe as “slanted” eyes (how i wish they said “artistic interpretation of a hooded eye” or something less probematic! Even “Asiatic” would have been less loaded, for goodness’ sake. ) ( wikicommons link http://www.flickr.com/photos/28772513@N07/4560502772/ ).
Actually, in recent years, more connections to the Vikings and Asia have been revealed in both art and literature. In additions to the Buddhas from Helgö and Oseburg, Persian silk fragments previously thought to have been looted from England or Ireland are now thought to have been gained by legitimate trade directly with Persia. Some of the fragments are suspected to have originated even further east in China.
The literary connection comes from the Saga of Siddharta, which became Baarlams and Josaphat, which was originally Buddha. Apparently a written version of this tale was recorded as a Norse saga in the 13th century.
There are also some linguistic and genetic connections, but that’s definitely wayyy outside my field.
photo credit to Saamiblog