SNORRE STURLESON, the great historian and poet of Iceland, of the earlier half of the thirteenth century, is considered to be the author of the history of the kings of Norway which, after the first words of the first chapter, has been called Heimskringla. As an introduction to the work he has put the saga of the Yngling kings of Sweden, of whom many of the Norwegian kings were supposed to be descendants. The Ynglinga Saga is a paraphrase to the much older song of Ynglingatal, a poem composed by the Norwegian poet Thiodulf of Hvin (who lived in the latter part of the ninth century) in praise of the supposed Swedish ancestors of the Norwegian king Ragnvald. The Ynglings were probably not identical with the kings of Upsala, who were of the race of the Skilfings, but of South Swedish or Danish origin. It is either out of ignorance, or out of sagacity, that the poet selected the Upsala rulers as originators of the Norwegian line of kings, but he has been unfortunate in the choice of a name for the dynasty. The poem itself is a trustworthy historical document, at least as far as the times are concerned which come comparatively close to the time of its own composition, the first part containing many traits of a mythical character. The saga spun around it is far from trust-worthy. Of the poem evidently the first, or first few, strophes are missing, but the “historian” supplies the vacuum with stories of the gods Odin, Niord and Frey, whom he, according to the ideas of his time, changes from gods into historic kings, the first who ruled Svithiod (Sweden). Among learned men in Snorre’s day there was a craze for tracing the pedigree of all nations of any renown back to some of the heroes of ancient Troy. Snorre serves us a saga of Odin’s migration from Troy which, besides being confuse, would appear only ridiculous, if it had not wielded about as highly disastrous an influence upon correct conceptions of Swedish history as the work by Jordanes. This migration saga is found in a still more elaborate form in an introduction to Snorre’s Edda, and is responsible for the erroneous opinion held by earlier Swedish historians, that the Swedes had migrated from Asia under the leadership of a chief who called himself Odin, and that the Swedes and the Gauts were, if not of different origin, at least of a habitation of differing age, in their present locations.
Based upon the information found in Ynglinga Saga we will give a review of the history of the early kings of Sweden, although the first dozen, and more, of these kings are of a doubtful “historic” character. At the dawn of history, Sweden was, like most other countries of North-ern Europe, divided into petty communities, each ruled by a king. These communities seem to have been nearly identical with the “lands” or later provinces into which Sweden is yet divided, although the administrative divisions are different. In spite of the fact that it is about 1,200 years since these communities were united into one single realm, the inhabitants preserve to this day their respective peculiarities of customs and language.
The most important among the chieftains of Sweden was, since time immemorial, the king of Upsala, who con-ducted the sacrifices and temple service at Upsala, the oldest and most celebrated place of heathen worship in the Scandinavian North. Originally, he had under his rule only one-third of the present province of Upland, the chief settlement of the Sviar, or Swedes in a limited sense. The Upsala kings belonged to the ancient royal race of Skilfings (or “Ynglings,” according to Snorre), who traced their origin from the gods. The founder of the dynasty as accepted by Thiodulf and others was Yngve, who is said to have built the great temple at Upsala, moving thither the capital from the older Sigtuna and contributing to the temple all his lands and riches. Yngve’s son was Fiolner. King Fiolner was drowned by accident in a huge vessel full of mead, during a visit paid to King Frode in Denmark.
His son Sveigder disappeared during a journey which he made in order to find Odin, the old. Both the names Fiolner and Sveigder appear to be mythical. Sveigder’s son Vanlande was a great warrior. He is said once to have taken up his winter abode in Finland, which, together with several archæological finds, point to an early inter-course between Sweden and Finland. Visbur succeeded his father Vanlande, marrying the daughter of Aude (the Rich), whom he afterward left and took another wife, bringing on himself a curse by so doing. Visbur’s sons fell unexpectedly over him, burning him in his house. Domalde, his son, succeeded him. During a great famine in Svithiod he was offered to the gods in order to obtain good seasons. Domalde’s son and grandson, Domar and Dygve, both reigned and died in peace. Dag, the son of Dygve, was so wise a man that he understood the language of birds. Agne, the son of Dag, was the ruler after him. One summer he invaded Finland with his army. When the Finns gathered there was a great battle, in which Agne gained victory, subduing all Finland. The daughter of a conquered chief, Skialf, was carried back to Sweden as his bride. But after a drinking feast, Agne was hanged in a tree by Skialf and her men. The place where this happened was called Agnefit, and is said to be identical with the site of Stockholm, the later capital of the country. Alrek and Eric became kings after the death of their father Agne. They got into a dispute one day while out walking. Having no weapons, they assailed and killed each other with their horses’ bridles. Their successors, Yngve and Alf, the sons of Alrek, shared a similar fate, killing each other in the royal hall by the high-seat. After them Hugleik, the son of Alf, became king of the Swedes. On the Fyrisvols, the plains by the river Fyris in Upland, Hugleik was killed in battle against a famous sea-king Hake, who subdued the country and became king of Svithiod. The saga mentions that this Hake was a brother of Hagbard, whose love for the king’s daughter, Signe, cost him his life.. This love story is one of the most famous in the North and much spoken of in saga and song. The spot where Hagbard was hanged in a tree is still pointed out. When Hake had ruled as king for three years, Jorund and Eric, the sons of Yngve, returned with warships and warriors. They had grown up and become famous by conquering the king Gudlaug, of the Haleygians in Norway, whom they had met in Denmark.
Now they met King Hake and his army at the Fyrisvols. In the battle, Eric was killed and Jorund fled to his ship. But King Hake was himself so grievously wounded that he ordered a warship to be loaded with his dead men and their weapons, and himself to be placed upon it. The sails were hoisted and the ship set on fire, and out it flew, with the dying king on board, between the skerries to the sea. Jorund now became king in Upsala. When he was one summer marauding in Jutland, he met a son of King Gudlaug, in the battle with whom he was overpowered, captured and hanged.
King Aune or Ane was the son of Jorund. He was a wise man who made great sacrifices to the gods. Being no warrior he lived quietly at home. Twice he fled from Upsala, on account of Danish invasions, remaining in West Gothland twenty-five years each time, and holding sway ab Upsala for an equally long time between his periods of exile. He lived to become 110 years of age. The secret of his longevity was that he sacrificed one of his sons to Odin every tenth year, and was granted in return a decade of prolonged life. When about to sacrifice his tenth son, the people interfered, and he died from old age. The last ten years of his life he was very feeble, drinking out of a horn like an infant. He was buried in a mound at Upsala.
King Egil was the son of Ane, and, like his father, no warrior. Under his reign and that of his son, king Ottar, Sweden suffered a good deal of trouble from Denmark. The Danish king Frode had helped Egil against the re-volt of one of his subjects, and demanded from his son a scat, or tribute, in return. Ottar fell in battle against the jarls of Frode. Both he and his son Audits, who ruled Svithiod after him, are mentioned in Beowulf as Ôhthere and his son Eadgils of the royal Swedish line of the Scylfingas (Skilfings). This fact gives to Swedish history its first reliable date. The Danish king Hugleik, a contemporary of King Ottar, died in 515 A.D., which renders with a certainty Ottar’s reign as falling in the first part of the sixth century. Audils ruled for a long time and often went on viking expeditions to Saxonland, Denmark and Norway. In Saxonland, Audils captured the household of King Geirthiof, among whom was a remarkably beautiful girl, called Yrsa. The king married her, but she was afterward taken to Denmark by King Helge of Leire after a successful plundering expedition in Svithiod. Helge had a son by her, Rolf Krake, but Yrsa returned to her first husband, after being told by Queen Alof, the wife of Geirthiof, that Helge was her father and Alof her mother. When Rolf Krake later became king his men once helped King Audils in one of his expeditions in Norway. King Rolf’s men did not receive the compensation promised them, and Rolf came to Upsala to demand it for them. King Rolf was warned by his mother Yrsa that Audils was not well disposed, and he and his men made in haste for their ships. King Audils and his men started out in their pursuit. Then Rolf took a horn filled with gold, a recent gift of his mother, emptying its contents on the plain. Audils and his men stopped to pick up the gold, and Rolf thus made his escape. Rolf Krake is one of the most famous of Danish heroes. In the poetic language of the Old Northern literature, gold is often called “the seed of the Fyrisvols” or “Rolf Krake’s seed.” As King Audils once rode around the hall at a sacrifice his horse stumbled and fell, and the king was killed.
Eystein, the son of Audils, ruled after him and was succeeded by his son Yngvar. Eystein was never able to defend his people against the Danes, while Yngvar was a successful warrior, both at home and abroad. But one summer when he was fighting in Esthonia he was killed by the Esthonians. He was buried in a mound close to the seashore.
Anund was Yngvar’s son and successor. He went to Esthonia to avenge his father, ravaging the country and returning with great booty. In his time there were fruitful seasons in Svithiod. On this account, and because he made many roads, cleared the woods and cultivated the new land, he became one of the most popular of early Swedish kings. He was called Brat-Anund, viz., Anund Roadmaker.
Ingiald, the son of Anund, became king in Upsala after his father. He was the most remarkable of all the Ynglings (Skilfings), for, through violence and cunning, he united all the communities of Sweden into one realm. When his father died, the king at Upsala was certainly the supremely powerful ruler in Svithiod, but not the only one, for there were many district-kings who were to a great extent independent. There were not only kings in East Gothland, Soedermanland, and Nerike, but in Upland there were, besides the Upsala king, also kings in each of the three “lands” into which this province was formerly divided; viz., Tiundaland, Attundaland, and Fiedrundaland. Ingiald ordered a great feast to celebrate the fact that he had come to the throne after his father, and invited seven other kings, all of whom were present, except Gran-mar, king of Soedermanland. When the Brage-bowl, on which promises were made, was carried in, King Ingiald made a solemn vow to enlarge his dominions by one-half, toward all the four corners of the world, or die. In the evening Ingiald set fire to the hall, and all the six royal guests perished with their followers. Ingiald took possession of all the dominions belonging to the unfortunate kings. In the next year he surrounded the hall in which King Granmar found himself at the time, killing him and taking his land in possession. “It was a common saying,” Snorre tells us, “that King Ingiald had killed twelve kings and deceived them all under pretence of peace; therefore he was called Ingiald Illrade (the evil-adviser).” His daughter, Asa, was of the same disposition as her father. She was married to Gudrod, king of Scania, but had to flee from the land after having caused the death of her husband and his brother. When it was learned that King Ivar, nephew of Gudrod, had entered Svithiod with an army, Asa counselled her father to set fire to the hall of the king after his men were drunk and asleep. Thus perished Ingiald Illrade with his daughter, very much in the same fashion in which he had killed so many of the petty kings.
For the centuries following upon Ingiald’s death, Snorre has a very short, or almost no account to give about Sweden and her rulers. What can be gathered from other sources, principally from late Icelandic sagas, is not trustworthy, mythical and fictitious elements being discernible.
After Ingiald, Ivar Vidfamne (the Far-stretching) is said to have ruled Sweden, “also Denmark, Saxonland, all of Austria and one-fifth of England.” One account has it that Ivar was the head of a new dynasty in Sweden. As he was originally king of Scania, perhaps these were the real Ynglings. Another source claims for the succeeding Swedish kings descent from the old race of the Ynglings (viz., the Skilfings). Ingiald’s son Olof, according to Snorre, fled to the woods of Vermland, until then uninhabited, and later came to Norway. But it is a misunderstanding of Thiodulf’s lines which causes Snorre to say that King Olof was buried close by the Lake Venar, in Vermland. The province of Vermland was inhabited much earlier than in Olof’s time, and the Olof who be-came the founder of a Norwegian dynasty was probably a Danish prince.
Harald Hildetand of Denmark is said to have succeeded Ivar, and to have ruled over as much territory as his mother’s father. Several sources speak of King Harald and the battle of Bravols, in which his life was ended and which battle generally is taken as a historic milestone, marking the opening of the Viking Age. It was fought somewhere about the year 740. King Harald had become old and almost blind. In Svithiod and West Gothland, the kings Sigurd and Ring (by the sagas made into one hero by the name “Sigurd Ring”) ruled under Harald, while he reigned himself over Denmark and East Gothland. The relations were good at first, but their aspect soon changed. After great preparations on either side, Ring met Harald on the plains of Bravik in East Gothland. The battle was a long and bloody one and the most renowned in song and saga. King Harald, too old to take an active part, mounted a chariot, which carried him into the midst of the fight. When King Ring at last saw the chariot empty, he under-stood that the aged king had fallen and gave the sign that the battle should come to an end. King Ring caused the remains of his fallen foe to be burned with great pomp and ceremony on a pile with his horse, weapons and many a costly treasure of gold and silver. King Ring was said to have been ruler of Sweden and Denmark after King Harald. The sagas mention the hero, Ragnar Lodbrok, as his son and successor. While this great viking and sea-king appears to have been a historic personage in the earlier half of the ninth century, it is impossible that he could have been identical with King Ring’s son Ragnar, or that he or his sons ever were kings in Upsala or Sweden.
With the first attempts to introduce Christianity into Sweden (of which more later) a more definite knowledge of Swedish rulers and conditions is gained. When Ansgar, the apostle of Sweden, visited the country for the first time, about 830, the ruling king was Birn. Shortly afterward King Anund is mentioned. He fled from his land, but was reinstated with the help of the Danes. King Olof was on the throne at the time of Ansgar’s second visit to Sweden, about 850. These kings must have been of the same family as those who held the throne up to the middle of the eleventh century, for their names all occur again in the line of later Swedish kings, the reigns of whom fall in the broad light of history.
We have seen how Ingiald Illrade joined the various communities into one single realm. Although there is doubt whether this realm from the start embraced all Sweden, there is no historical evidence or any reliable traditions whatever to show that Sweden was ever divided into smaller kingdoms after the death of King Ingiald. When Ansgar reaches Sweden he travels through half of the country in order to reach the commercial centre of Birka, where the king of Sweden is dwelling. No other king, great or petty, is spoken of, while the contemporary Icelanders mention jails (earls) in Gothaland, which proves that the once independent kings in that district were madea away with.
Of particular importance is the account of a journey which a certain Wulfstan made to the North, at the close of the ninth century. This account is given in an Old English translation of Orosii Historia, credited to King Alfred of England. Thus it runs : ” Wulfstan said that he went from Schleswig to Truso in seven days, that the ship was all the way running under sail. Wendland was on his right, but Langeland, Lolland, Falster and Scania on his left, and all these lands belong to Denmark, and then Bornholm was on our left, which has a king of its own. Then after Born-holm, the lands of Bleking, Moere, (land, and Gotland, were first on our left, and these lands belong to Sweden.”
Wulfstan’s account, besides furnishing evidence to prove the political consolidation of Sweden, also gives a good idea of the size of the country in this period. The once independent province of Scania, which had kings of its own, already belongs to Denmark. So does also the province of Halland, while Bohusloen belongs to Norway. Dal and Vermland are contested provinces between the kings of Sweden and Norway, while great parts of Norrland are yet uninhabited, except by Laps, who ramble from one place to another, without a fixed dwelling place. In King Alfred’s Orosius, Danish Jutland and Swedish Gautland (Gothaland) are alike called Gotland, which recalls the supposition of the majority of modern scholars that Gotland was in the earliest times the common Teutonic name of the North, and Goths the common name of its Teutonic inhabitants.