Archceological Finds and Classical Testimony
THE Swedes, although the oldest and most unmixed race in Europe, realized very late the necessity of writing chronicles or reviews of historic events. Thus the names of heroes and kings of the remotest past are helplessly forgotten, and lost also the history of its earliest religion and institutions.
But Mother Earth has carefully preserved most of what has been deposited in her bosom, and has repaid diligent research with trustworthy and irrefutable accounts of the age and various degrees of civilization of the race which inhabited Sweden in prehistoric times. Thus it has been proved that Sweden, like most other countries, has had a Stone Age, a Bronze Age, and an Iron Age. But there is absolutely no evidence to prove the now antiquated theories of various immigrations into Sweden by different races on different stages of civilization. On the contrary, the graves from the remotest times, through all successive periods, prove by the form of the skulls of those buried in them that Sweden has, through all ages, been inhabited by the same dolichocephalic, or long-headed, race which constitutes the overwhelming majority of her people today.
Sweden, physically considered, is not of as high antiquity as some countries of Europe. Yet it has been inhabited during the last four thousand years, at least. In the quaternary period the Scandinavian peninsula was a centre of a glacial movement which spread its disastrous influences over Western Russia, Northern Germany and Holland. In that period no vegetable or animal life was possible in Sweden. From the fact that the earliest stone celts found in Sweden and Denmark are not polished, archaeologists were led to suppose that the Stone Age of the North was contemporaneous with the Paleolithic civilization in Western Europe. But this standpoint has been found untenable, because it has later become evident that the fauna surrounding the earliest inhabitants of the Northern countries was ours and not a quaternary one. . The oldest types of finds of the Stone Age in the North have been discovered in the refuse-heaps on the Danish coast. These refuse-heaps, consisting of stone implements, shells, bones, etc., do not occur in Sweden, but the implements characteristic of them are found scattered over some parts of the southernmost Swedish province of Scania. The shape of these earliest finds is exactly the same as of those of the later Stone Age, the only difference being that the former are not polished. But there are transitions between the classes, and the act of polishing must be regarded as an important phase of progress.
The Stone Age of Sweden is quite remarkable. If the remains of the earlier period are scanty, the finds from the later one are all the more numerous. With the exception of Denmark and a part of North Germany, there is no European country which can boast of such rich and beautiful relics from the later Stone Age as the southern part of Sweden. The finds in the other countries mentioned are almost exactly like those of Sweden from the Stone and the Bronze Ages, both as far as implements and skulls are concerned, proving them to have been settled by the same race.
The weapons and implements from the Stone Age consist of axes, daggers, spearheads, arrowheads, saws, and knives of flint; axes, gauges, handmills of stone; fishhooks and arrowheads of bone; earthenware, etc., etc. The graves of this period are dolmens, passage-graves, and stone cists, the last mentioned either uncovered or covered with a bar-row. The different forms of burial places seem to indicate four successive stages of the period. Through their existence it becomes probable that the inhabitants of Sweden during the Stone Age had fixed dwelling places.
A dolmen is a grave-chamber of which the walls are formed of large, thick stones set up edgewise, covered with one huge block of stone as a roof, all the stones being rough outside and smooth inside. The passage-graves are built in the same way, but are larger and distinguished by a long covered passage leading to it. These graves are surrounded by a low barrow, upon the top of which the huge roof-stones were originally visible. Dolmens and passage-graves occur in Sweden in considerable numbers along the coast of Scania, on the plains of West Gothland and in Bohuslæn, more sparsely in other parts of West Gothland and in Hal-land, with stray cases of graves of a similar construction in Nerike and Western Soedermanland. It is important to note the regions in which these graves have been found, for they must be identical with the parts of the earliest settlements. Such graves are also very common in Denmark, while only one has been found in Norway.
The stone cists resemble very much the chamber of a passage-grave. They are larger and four-sided, and built of somewhat thinner stones. Stone cists standing partly visible above the barrow constitute a form peculiar to Sweden, occurring in great numbers in West Gothland, Bohuslæn, Dalsland and Southwestern Vermland, while the covered stone cists appear in the same provinces and in Nerike, East Gothland, Smaland, Bleking and the Island of Gothland.
During the Stone Age the bodies were buried unburned, in a recumbent or sitting position. By the side of the dead body was usually placed a weapon, a tool, or some ornaments, sometimes also earthenware vessels, now filled only with earth. These vessels may once have contained food. The elaborate graves seem to indicate a belief in a future life. The food, if any such was placed by the side of the dead, would not necessarily point to the fact that such a future life was imagined merely as a continuation of earth life. The heathen Scandinavians of a later age believed that the dead remained for some time in their burial place before reaching their ultimate destination. For their possible wants during this intermediate state food was left with the dead body.
The total number of relics of stone found in Sweden is 64,000. Of these only 4,000 belong to Svealand and Norrland, while of all the rest found in Gothaland 45,000 belong to Scania alone.
In a much later age the Scandinavians were regarded as pure barbarians. For this reason it is important to observe that graves from the Stone Age show that the Swedes in that remote period had several domesticated animals, the dog, horse, ox, swine, sheep, and, perhaps, also the goat. Hence they were certainly a pastoral people, not living exclusively by hunting and fishing. But whether they practiced agriculture cannot be decided in the present state of our knowledge. The fact that the very oldest graves are found in the most fertile districts of Southern Sweden seems to speak in favor of the supposition that agriculture was known and appreciated.
Of metals, even of gold, the people of the late Stone Age were entirely ignorant, also of the art of writing. Hence no monuments of their language will ever be found. Still it is highly probable that the Teutonic ancestors of the Swedes began to settle in the land from the beginning of the Stone Age.
It is true that some skulls, very much like those of the Laps, have also been found in the graves of the Stone Age; but it must be borne in mind that these burial places, impressive through their size and the amount of work and mechanical skill necessary for their erection, can be believed to have been originally intended only for kings or chieftains, and their families. It was probably a custom, as in later heathen times, to bury with such distinguished people a number of slaves, dead or alive. The presence of skulls of a non-Scandinavian type can thus be explained, without the necessity of accepting the theory of an early mixture of two races.
In the northern part of Sweden have been found relics of stone, usually of slate, which do not appear to have belonged to the people of the dolmens or passage-graves. They bear a close resemblance to those found in Finland and in other countries inhabited by Laps, Finns and peoples related to them. This seems to prove that these so-called Arctic stone implements are relics of the Laps and belong to the time when this people was still ignorant of the use of metal. Judging from the number of relics found on the coast, from Westerbotten to Gestrikland, and in Dalecarlia, the Laps dwelt also in somewhat more southerly parts of Sweden than at the present day. So far south as in the middle provinces, no Arctic stone relics have been found, still less in any of the southern provinces. This seems to indicate that the Laps and the Swedes did not dwell in the same parts of the country during the Stone Age, and their intercourse, if any, must have been of a very accidental and casual nature.
That the Stone Age lasted a very long time in the North is proved by the fact that it reached a far higher development there than anywhere else in Europe. The best authorities think that it must have ended rather before than after 1500 B.c., or 3,500 years before our time.
The Bronze Age followed upon the Stone Age. Flint exists in Sweden and was easily found. There are also copper mines, but their working is of comparatively mod-ern date. The copper of the Bronze Age must have been brought from abroad, and tin, necessary for the production of bronze, is foreign to Scandinavia. The knowledge of the working of any metal proves an immense progress. Yet there are strong grounds for the opinion that the be-ginning of the Bronze Age in Sweden was not connected with any great immigration of a new race, but that the inhabitants learned the art of working bronze by inter-course with other nations. The resemblance of the graves during the last part of the Stone Age and the early part of the Bronze Age points most strongly to such a conclusion. From Asia the knowledge of bronze, and the higher civilization dependent on it, had gradually spread itself over the continent of Europe, in a northerly and north-westerly direction, until it reached the coasts of the Baltic.
The Bronze Age of Sweden began about 1500 B.C., and lasted for a thousand years, or until the beginning of the fifth century before Christ. The period has been divided into an Earlier and a Later Bronze Age, a division which has been questioned as to its absolute correctness. The works from the former are decorated with fine spiral ornaments and zigzag lines. The graves generally contain re-mains of unburned bodies. The antiquities of the Earlier Bronze Age, almost without an exception, appear to be of native workmanship. They are distinguished by artistic forms and point to a highly developed taste in the working of bronze. They generally surpass in this respect the relics of the Bronze Age found in almost all other European countries. The works belonging to the Later Bronze Age are characterized by a very different taste and style of ornamentation, though even they are often the result of great skill. The spiral ornaments are no longer pre-dominant, but the ends of rings, knife-handles, and the like, are often rolled up in spiral volutes.
During this period the dead were always burned. But-tons, sword-hilts, and other works of bronze were some-times decorated with pieces of amber and resin inlaid. Objects are also often found overlaid with thin plates of gold.
Remarkable are the rock-carvings from this period. The Swedes of the Bronze Age understood, by a kind of picture-writing, how to preserve the memory of important events, although an alphabet of any kind was unknown. The rock-carvings have been found abundantly in Bohuslaen (formerly a part of West Gothland) and East Gothland, but also occur in Scania and other parts of Sweden. At the time of the arrival of Cortez in Mexico the Aztecs were exactly on the same standpoint. In spite of their high civilization, they were in the Bronze Age and possessed a picture-writing, but were not acquainted with an alphabet. In Sweden, as in Mexico, there certainly once existed an oral tradition necessary for its interpretation, which, now lost, leaves little hope for their present or future explanation. Yet they throw considerable light on Swedish civilization during this remote period. Thus they show that horses were already used for riding and driving. Cattle are represented. In pairs these are harnessed to a plow, which is being driven by a man. Boats are depicted, generally very large ones, without masts, but with thirty pairs of oars or more. They are usually unlike at the two ends, sometimes adorned with an animal’s head in the high and narrow stem, sometimes with a similar decoration also in the stern.
The rock-carvings tell us nothing of the dwellings or the dress of the Swedes in the Bronze Age. All the instruments and tools necessary for the construction of wooden houses existed and appear to have been in use. The material was ever abundantly supplied by the Swedish forests, but it was not strong enough to withstand the influence of time. All the more surprising it is that articles of dress from such a remote period as the Earlier Bronze Age, 1000 B.C., should have been preserved to our time. Still such is the case, thanks to a combination of exceptionally favor-able circumstances. These garments are of wool of a very simple substance; some have been worn by men, others by women. The man’s dress consisted of an unbrimmed cap of thick woven wool, a wide circular mantle, a kind of tunic, kept together with a woollen belt, and some narrow strips of wool which probably covered the legs. In a man’s grave was found a shawl of wool with fringes. The woman’s dress consisted then, as it does now, chiefly of two garments, a jacket with sleeves and a long robe, the latter held together with a belt of wool, ending in ornamental tassels. Large mantles, of mixed wool and cow hair, were used as wraps. The women wore splendid bronze ornaments, such as finger-rings, bracelets, torques and brooches. From the finds it becomes apparent that many women in those days carried weapons, a dagger often being found at the side of the body.
Besides swords and axes of beautiful workmanship, fish-hooks, sickles and the different parts of harness have been found; also vessels of gold or bronze, evidently used for temple service. The Swedes of the Bronze Age were not acquainted with the art of forging the heated metal, but they possessed much technical skill in the art of casting. When the implement was taken out of the mold it was dipped in cold water, and very often the surface was ornamented by means of punches made of bronze. Their good taste was as highly developed as their skill. That the work was done in the North is proven by numerous finds of the very molds in which weapons and agricultural implements were cast. During the Stone Age only Gothaland and parts of Svealand were inhabited. The finds of the Bronze Age prove that the limits of the population were about the same during this period. The southern provinces continued to be the more thickly settled. Twenty times as many finds have been made in the soil of Scania as in the rest of the country. Norrland was hardly settled to any extent until the Iron Age, and has offered comparatively few finds from the Bronze Age, the total of which for the whole of Sweden amounts to about 4,000.
The Iron Age followed upon the Bronze Age. It lasts to this very day, we ourselves still living in the Iron Age; but the term is generally applied to that part of the period which commences with the close of the Bronze Age, and ends with the fall of heathendom. During the Iron Age, the Swedes first became acquainted with iron, silver, brass, lead, glass, stamped coins from foreign lands, and learned how to solder and gild metal. Archaeologists have divided the period into two main parts, the Earlier and the Later Iron Age, both with subdivisions. The Earlier Iron Age includes the time from the fifth century B.C. to about the beginning of the fifth century A.D. The first half of the Earlier Iron Age is characterized by swords with both blades and sheaths made of iron, thin crescent-shaped knives, brooches of iron, collars, and decorative plates over-laid with bronze. The graves resemble those from the end of the Bronze Age, containing burned bones in urns, or laid together in a heap. This circumstance makes it more than probable that the first introduction of iron in the North was not connected with any immigration of a new people. The finds of the earliest Iron Age are not very rich, but they prove that the people who have left them behind had been subjected to a very strong influence from the Gallic tribes living close to the south of the Teutonic area of population. Then came the second half of the Earlier Iron Age, characterized by a strong Roman influence. It commences with the extension of the Roman empire toward the North, about the beginning of the Christian era, and winds up with the beginning of the fifth century, when Teutonic migrations and invasions put an end to the power of Rome. In the hostile or friendly relations between Romans and Teutons the Swedes were not involved. But by the peaceful ways of commerce the influence of Rome penetrated to the people of the North. Great numbers of Roman coins have been found in Sweden, and also vessels of bronze and glass, weapons, etc., as well as works of art, all turned out of workshops in Rome or its provinces. Out of about 4,760 Roman coins of this time found in Sweden, no less than 4,000 were found in the remarkable Island of Gothland, in the southern half of the Baltic, 90 in the neighboring island of OEland, 650 in Scania, but only 23 on the mainland of Sweden, excluding Scania. About 250 were found in Bornholm, 600 in Denmark, but only 3 in Norway. It becomes evident from these finds that there existed a regular traffic over the Baltic, through Germany, between the Island of Gothland and the Roman provinces, from the epoch of the Marcomannic war down to the time of Septimius Severus. Similar finds have been made on the southern shore of the Baltic, showing that the traffic came from the southeast, along the valleys of the Vistula and the Oder.
One of the most important discoveries of this period was the art of writing, which the inhabitants of the North seem to have acquired soon after the beginning of the Christian era. The earliest alphabetic symbols in Sweden, and the only ones used there during the whole of heathen times, were runes. These were probably invented a little before the Christian era by a South Teutonic tribe, in imitation of the Roman writing which the Teutons received from one of the Celtic tribes living just to the north of the Alps. The Roman characters were adapted for the use of inscriptions in stone and wood, the curves being changed into straight lines. The Runic characters, in use among all Teutonic tribes, were twenty-four in number; these older runes were, by the Scandinavians, later simplified and reduced to sixteen. There is a number of inscriptions in older runes in Sweden, dating from about 300 to 500 A.D. They are found chiefly on stones and gold bracteates, also in England, France, Germany, Wallachia and the west of Russia. All belong to about the same date, and are of Teutonic origin. The early Runic inscriptions do not contain any accounts of historically known persons or events. Yet they are of the greatest historical importance, for they show that during the Earlier Iron Age, in the fourth and fifth centuries, the language of Sweden, and consequently also the people, were Teutonic. These inscriptions in Sweden and neighboring countries give samples of the earliest known form of the Northern language, which is considerably different from its descendants, the Old Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic, but very much resembling the language spoken by the Goths on the Danube during the same period.
The Later Iron Age commences with the fifth century and stretches to the beginning of the eighth century A. D. When Italy had been overrun by the “barbarians,” the centre of the old civilization shifted to Byzantium, and there are many traces of an active intercourse with the capital of the Byzantine rule in the finds made in Swedish soil. Most of these finds consist of gold coins of the fifth century, the majority of them having been found in the islands of C Eland and Gothland. The stream of gold coming from Byzantium must have been quite considerable, having its source in the tribute which many of the Byzantine emperors had to pay to the Goths on the Danube.
They are the very same emperors whose names appear on the coins found in Sweden. The great number of costly and beautiful ornaments of gold found in Sweden, and dating from this period, must have been made out of Roman and Byzantine coins, melted down. One of the largest hoards of gold ever found in Europe was discovered in the Swedish province of Soedermanland. Its weight was twenty-seven pounds, and it contained several ornaments of consummate workmanship.
Remarkable are the graves from this period, discovered in the province of Upland. They are barrows containing the more or less mouldering remains of a large boat in which the dead man has been buried unburned with his weapons, horses, and other domestic animals. The swords found in these graves are of iron with hilts of beautiful designs in gilded or enamelled bronze. The shields and helmets are often of elaborate workmanship. Unlike the swords, which mostly, or perhaps always, are of foreign, generally of Celtic make, these ornaments and weapons are of domestic origin.
It appears, from the many beautiful and artistic finds in Swedish soil, as if the inhabitants have benefited by their situation, aside and outside of the rest of the world. Continual migrations subjected the tribes of the continent to repeated changes and to a never-ceasing series of new and heterogeneous impressions. The tribes of the North remained on the same spot, and their whole development was slower but more consistent. The foreign influences penetrated slowly and gradually, without crushing the old civilization. The industrial arts blossomed not so often in the North as in the South, but steadier, giving a clearer expression of the national traditions and peculiarities.
These circumstances make the study of Northern antiquities of absorbing interest.
Before the end of this period, not only Gothaland and Svealand, but also the coast of Norrland, as far north as the province of Medelpad, were inhabited. As a whole, the first part of the Later Iron Age forms a transition between the Earlier Iron Age and the Viking Age, the archaeological finds of which we must leave aside to take up the threads of the earliest history. The Viking Age is exceedingly rich in stones with inscriptions in the later runes, some of these inscriptions being quite lengthy, and containing strophes of alliterative verse in Old Swedish.
Before entering into an account of early Swedish history, let us gather what information the classical writers of history have to give in regard to the countries of the North, or rather whatever of such information that has been preserved to our day.
The Scandinavian countries are for the first time mentioned by the historians of antiquity in an account of a journey which Pyteas from Massilia (the present Marseille) made through Northern Europe, about 300 B.C. He visited Britain, and there heard of a great country, Thule, situated six days’ journey to the north, and verging on the Arctic Sea. The inhabitants in Thule were an agricultural people who gathered their harvest into big houses for threshing, on account of the very few sunny days and the plentiful rain in their regions. From corn and honey they prepared a beverage (probably the mead). By Thule is no doubt meant the Scandinavian peninsula, or rather the western coast of it. Pyteas also tells of the land of amber, or the southern shores of the Baltic, where the guttones are dwelling. As the northern and southern shores of the Baltic from the very earliest period seem to have been inhabited by the same race which has shared the same development and civilization, there is every reason to recognize the name guttones as identical with the one given to the inhabitants of the Swedish Gothaland and Island of Gothland.
Several centuries pass without any notice of Scandinavia in the classical literature. In the still preserved manuscripts of the geographical work by Pomponius Mela, written in the middle of the first century A.D., is found a reference to Codania, a large and fertile island inhabited by Teutons. Codania is likely some scribe’s misspelling of Scandinavia.
Pliny the Elder, who himself visited the shores of the Baltic in the first century after Christ, is the first to mention plainly the name of Scandinavia. He says that he has received advices of immense islands “recently discovered from Germany.” The most famous of the many islands situated in the Codanian Bay was Scandinavia, of as yet unexplored size; the known parts were inhabited by a people called hilleviones, who gave it the name of another world. When he speaks of the British isles, Pliny again gives notice of islands, situated opposite Britain in the Teutonic Sea, without suspecting their identity with Scandinavia. He mentions Scandia, Nerigon, the largest of them all, and Thule. Scandia and Scandinavia are only different forms of the same name, denoting the southern-most part of the peninsula, and is yet preserved in the name of the province of Scania. Nerigon stands for Norway, the northern part of which is mentioned as an island by the name Thule. It is not surprising to find the classical writers ignorant of the fact that Scandinavia was not a group of large islands, but one great peninsula, as the northern parts were as yet uninhabited and their physical connection with Finland and Russia unknown.
Tacitus is the first who mentions the Swedish name. In his work “Germania,” of such great importance for the knowledge of the ancient Teutons, their conditions and institutions, and written about 100 years after Christ, the Baltic is described as an open sea called the Suevian Sea, shut out from the west by the Danish mainland of Jutland, by the Romans called the Cimbric Peninsula. The eastern shore is the country of amber. The Swedes are by Tacitus called Suiones, and he speaks of them thus :
“Next occur the communities of the Suiones, seated in the very sea, who, besides their strength in men and arms, also possess a naval force. The form of their vessels differs from ours in having a prow at each end, so that they are always ready to advance. They make no use of sails, nor have they regular benches of oars at the sides: they row, as is practiced in some rivers, without order, sometimes on one side, sometimes on the other, as occasion requires. These people honor wealth; for which reason they are subject to monarchial government, without any limitations or precarious conditions of allegiance. Nor are arms al-lowed to be kept promiscuously, as among the other Teutonic nations : but are committed to the charge of a keeper, and he, too, a slave. The pretext is that the sea defends them from any sudden incursions, and men unemployed, with arms in their hands, readily become licentious. In fact, it is for the king’s interest not to intrust a noble, a freeman, or even an emancipated slave, with the custody of arms.”
These remarks by Tacitus, in all their brevity, are of great importance. Boats, exactly corresponding to the description as given, have been found in Swedish graves of this period, and that they were used for river traffic, to bring the gold and products of Rome and Byzantium up the Vistula and Oder, is evident. The great opulence in dress and temple service of which the archaeological finds bear witness, and of which later writers also speak as characteristic of the Swedes, is a proof of the wealth that at all times has attended naval dominion. Thus far all the statements being fully corroborated, one cannot but place great importance upon those that follow. The Roman historian tells us that, on account of the honor which the Swedes held for wealth, they were subject to a monarchial government, without any limitations; that is, the crown was hereditary, not elective. This coincides in every way with Swedish conditions of political affairs, such as we know them from later times. The important conclusions to be gathered from the statements of Tacitus, are that the Swedes already at the dawn of the Christian era held the political supremacy in the Scandinavian peninsula, or at least in its eastern and southern parts, and that the various lesser communities stood in allegiance to the hereditary king of the Sviar (Svear), or Swedes in a limited sense, the inhabitants of Svealand.
The psychological conclusions made by Tacitus, on the basis of his own statements, hold good of the Swedes of to-day as well as of those of 2,000 years ago. They still honor wealth and a monarchial government and consider the sea their best defence against foreign foes.
Ptolemy, the Alexandrine geographer of the second century after Christ, speaks of the Scandinavian islands, situated east of the Cimbrian peninsula. The fourth and most easterly of these is the one originally called Scandeia.
He enumerates six tribes which inhabit it, the names being unrecognizable, except the one of Gutai, Gauts or Goths, by him for the first time mentioned as dwelling in Scandinavia.
To this information, gathered from classical authors, nothing is added for the next four hundred years in regard to the countries of the North. Only in the sixth century, when Rome has succumbed before the Gothic invasions, and the Teutonic tribes have divided between themselves the provinces of the West Roman empire, new information about Sweden is given by a Byzantine author; Prokopios, a contemporary of emperor Justinian. He mentions Scandinavia by the name Thule, and says he bases his statements upon information obtained from people “who come from there.”
Prokopios says that in the immense island of Thule, in the northern part of which the midnight sun can be seen, thirteen large tribes occupy its inhabitable parts, each tribe having its own king. One of the largest tribes is the Gauts (the Goetar, or the inhabitants of Swedish Gothaland). These tribes very much resemble the people of southern Europe, with the exception of the Skee Finns, who dress in skins and live from the chase.
Prokopios tells a remarkable story about an immigration to Sweden of Herulians, a Teutonic tribe closely connected to the Goths on the Danube. In the beginning of the sixth century, it happened that the Herulians, after an unsuccessful war with the Longobardians, were divided into two branches, of which the one received land from the emperor Anastasius south of the Danube, while the other made a resolve to seek a home in the Scandinavian peninsula, When they had passed the Slays, they came to uninhabited regions, whence they continued to the country of the Varinians, and later to that of the Danes. The Danes granted them a free passage and the use of ships, in which they crossed to the island of Thule. Here the Herulians went to the Gauts and were well received by them. Some decades later the Herulians in South Europe were in want of a king. They resolved to send messengers to their kinsmen who had settled in Sweden, hoping that some descendant of their old royal family might be found there who was willing to assume the dignity of king among them. The messengers returned with two brothers who belonged to the ancient family of rulers, and these were escorted by two hundred young Herulians from Sweden. That this immigration really took place there is no doubt. The district of Sweden where these kinsmen of the Goths settled was early distinguished from the surrounding ones, inhabited by the Gauts of Sweden, through the peculiarities of its laws and customs, of which some survived into the commencement of the nineteenth century. This district forms the southern part of the province of Smaland, called Værend, its inhabitants Virdar, and the adjoining province of Bleking.
The Gothic historian Jordanes, or Jornandes, called Master Ardan, who was a contemporary of Prokopios, has taken upon himself to explain the reason of the strange resolve of the Herulians to seek a home in Sweden. He speaks of the traditions of the East Goths, which tell of their descent from the people of the North. Similar traditions also have existed among the West Goths, Longobardians, Gepidae, Burgundians, Herulians, Franks, Saxons, Swabians and Alemannians. Thus Jordanes: “In the North there is a great ocean, and in this ocean there is a large island called Scandza, out of whose loins our race burst forth like a swarm of bees and spread over Europe.” The island of Scandza, he says, has been officina gentium, vagina nationumthe source of races, the mother of nations. And thence also the Goths have emigrated.
Material is lacking to prove the historical truth of the Teutonic traditions which point to Scandinavia as the cradle of the Teutonic tribes. But Jordanes, the first historian of Teutonic birth who speaks of Scandinavia, stands at the cradle of Swedish history, and, as a modern historian has expressed it, his shadow throws an umbrage across the whole field of Swedish historical research. The mistake, based upon Jordanes’ history, of identifying the Swedish Gauts with the Goths has caused a great deal of mischief and ridiculous chauvinism, Gothic and Swedish history and royal lines being mixed up or put in connection with each other.
In leaving aside the Teutonic traditions of the island of Scandza, or Scania, as the cradle of the race, let us quote a remark by Tacitus which seems to point to the conclusion that such traditions were current already in the first century of the Christian era: “I should think that the Teutons themselves are aborigines, and not at all mixed through immigrations or connections with non-Teutonic tribes. For those desiring to change homes did not in early times come by land, but in ships across the boundless and, so to speak, hostile oceana sea seldom visited by ships from the Roman world.”
The Old English poem of Beowulf must also be mentioned among the sources which throw light on early Swedish history. Whether the Geâtas of Beowulf are identical with the Jutes of Denmark, or with the Gauts of Sweden, is a much disputed question. Although, phonetically, the Old English name Geâtas corresponds to the Old Swedish Gautar, it seems most plausible to suppose that by this term is meant the Jutes, and not the inhabitants of Swedish West or East Gothland. This accepted, the poem does not contain much about the Swedes. But the information, therein given, of the Swedish kings is of great value, be-cause it renders the service of a firm chronological support to the facts gathered from another source. This source, of vastly greater importance, is the Ynglinga Saga, or rather the poem around which it is spun, in Heimskringla, of which more in the next chapter.
The first information of the religion practiced by the inhabitants of Scandinavia is given by Prokopios, who says that they worshipped many gods and spirits of the sky, air, earth, sea, and also some who were supposed to dwell in springs and rivers. Offerings were constantly made, the chief ones being of human beings, for which the first prisoner made in a war was destined. This sacrifice was made to “Mars,” who was the highest god. The statements of Prokopios without doubt are correct. The Scandinavian war-god who corresponds to the Mars of classical mythology was Tyr. Odin, originally the ruler of the wind, became the highest god during the Viking Age. He is an aristocratic god, the god of the select few, whose cult succeeded that of Tyr as the cult of the latter had succeeded that of Thor, the thunderer, as the highest god. The idea of a supreme God was probably unknown until the contact with Christianity, or at least not common. Thor, the peasant god, is probably the oldest of the gods of Teutonic mythology, the representative of stern power and law-bound order. Thor was the most popular god of the Swedes, to judge from the great number of ancient Swedish proper names of which his forms a part. Besides Thor, Odin and Frey were the most honored. All the other gods and goddesses mentioned in Old Norse literature were probably known, but few of them much worshipped in Sweden.