One thousand boats sailed out from the Dnieper River and into the Black Sea, the sky above them ablaze in a swirling maelstrom of fiery-orange clouds. Aboard each vessel were forty armed Varangians swelling with confidence, for the most experienced among them took the fearsome sunset as a good omen. They laughed heartily at the thought of the magnificent treasures that would soon be theirs.
Their object was some 380 miles away at the mouth of “the passage of the cow.” Constantinople.
Aboard the flagship at the head of the fleet was the man upon whom these Vikings placed their trust, Prince Igor of Kiev. He stood near the bow and stared up at the supernatural display. Symptoms of deep thought were etched upon his low brow. He didn’t share the exuberance of his men.
The city surely had advance warning of their deployment but Igor knew that the entire Byzantine fleet was away at war against the Saracens and Constantinople was utterly defenseless.
It was foolish to entertain any thought of failure but the prince couldn’t help but feel that the heavenly fire before him was somehow a foreshadowing of events to come.
On June 30th, 941, against all odds, fifteen rotted and leaking barques pushed into the Bosphorus and met the thousand-strong force of invading longboats head-on. It was a pitiful site. Jeers and growls and hideous, mocking laughter rose from the wet lips of the marciless Varangians.
The laughter very quickly turned to screams of horror though when plumes of fire spurted from the siphons positioned bow to stern on the fifteen meager Byzantine hulks.
This “Greek Fire” burned wood and sails, and stuck to the flesh. It was inextinguishable. The water itself ignited and Prince Igor was fortunate to escape with a third of his fleet.