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Skandinavian History

Scandinavia was first populated approximately 14000 years ago. During the Late Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods, 12000 – 4000 BC, reindeer, mammoth, giant deer and rhinoceros were hunted. Today’s Lapps are believed to be forefathers of those who first came to inhabit Scandinavia. The period between 4000 – 1700 BC is called the Neolithic period, and during that period, people were for the most part engaged in stock farming and farming.

Vikingahjälm
Viking helmet (©SHM-bild)

The period 1800-500 BC is known as the Bronze Age. The men wore frocks and loincloths. Bronze objects were considered symbols of status and power. The chiefs wore bronze helmets at formal ceremonies. Around the year 25 BC, the Roman scald, Vergilus, made the Romans aware of the land “Ultima Thule”, which was believe to be situated at the end of the world. There lived horrifying fable animals and wild savages. This terrifying land is probably what Gaius Plinius in Pompeii (better known as Pliny the Elder) later calls Scandia.

Vikingahjälm
Viking helmet (©SHM-bild)

 

 

It is the first time we hear of anything close to “Scandinavia”. The word “Viking” is believed to mean “from the gulf” (“vik” is Scandinavian for gulf), which would mean someone who lived, or used to occupy themselves, by gulfs and fjords. During the time of the Vikings in Europe, the word came to mean “pirate”, since the Nordic people for the most part were known for their plundering expeditions.

 

History tells that it were the Heruls, a North Germanic tribe, who brought the runes to Scandinavia from the Danube-region in the 6th Century. Runes, however, have been found in Sweden from the time around 200 AD. There are several types of runic alphabets and Elder Futhark and Younger Futhark are two of the most known. The Elder is thought to be the oldest version of the runic alphabet. The Younger, “Normal Runes”, came to be the main alphabet in Norway, Sweden and Denmark throughout the Viking Age.

Den Äldre Futharken
The Older Futhark

The joint language, Old Norse, was spoken all over Scandinavia, but there was never one united Viking nation. A lot of mystique was associated with runes from the beginning. Runes were carved on stone. They were often commemorative words over fallen relatives, or tales about far-away lands, like Vinland. There were also some poetic runic texts, of which the most known are now at Gripsholm Castle. Runes were used at some places in Sweden until the 19th Century.

Runstenar vid Gripsholms slott
Rune stones at Gripsholm Castle

What we call the Iron Age, 500 BC- 1060 AD, includes the Migration Period and the Viking Age, which lasted for approximately 250-300 years. The Viking Age is the epos in the history of the Nordic people which interests the people in the great culture countries the most. During the main part of the Viking age, the Vikings were pagans. Christianity came to Scandinavia via Norway in the beginning of the 11th Century, but at the end of the Viking Age, more and more people converted to the Christian belief. The battle of Hastings is considered the last moment of the Viking Age. Revenge was an honorary matter for the Vikings. At the same time, they were also capable of showing great affection and faithfulness to their friends, chiefs and families. They were probably more loving and forgiving than the Christian medieval knights. The Vikings also had a great sense of humor and enjoyed telling, and listening to, entertaining stories. A good storyteller was regarded highly in the Viking society.

Mjölner
Mjölner (©SHM-bild)

The Vikings worshipped Aesirs, or Asagods. These gods were powerful and often merciless, but also had many human traits. This made it easy for the Vikings to believe and have faith in their gods, and many of them were regarded almost as good friends and companions on the journeys. Odin was the leader of the Aesirs and the Overgod of the humans. He chose which of the dead would sit in his hall, Valhalla, and feast all day long. This was the Vikings’ idea of Paradise. The most popular god, however, was Thor, and he ruled over thunder. His war hammer, Mjölner (also called Thor’s Hammer) was worn by the Vikings as jewellery around their neck, like the Christians came to wear a cross.

The Vikings founded many cities and colonies, according to the Russian monk, Nestor, who lived in Kiev in the 12th Century. The Scandinavians can also take the credit for founding the Russian Empire. During the 9th Century, Iceland was discovered by the Norwegian, Naddod, and the Swede, Gardnar Svarvarsson. Iceland later became colonized by mainly Norwegians, who later discovered Greenland. The North American continent, called Vinland, was discovered by islandic Leif Eriksson, in the year 1001.

The name “Vinland” (also known as “Winland”, which means Wine land), is mainly referred to the area in North America where the Vikings settled. It was rich in grapes, therefore the name. Old Norse has influenced many of the foreign languages the Vikings came in contact with. We know that the Vikings conquered England in 1013, and that affects us still today. Many English dialects, Scottish for example, contain a great deal of Old Norse loanwords. Some thousand of the most common words of the English language come from the Vikings’ language, like skin, scissors (“sax” in Swedish) and under. Other words are very similar, like Vindue/window, Orm/Wurm (“snake” in English), ulf/wolf and ull/wool. The extinct language, Norn, was spoken earlier by the descendants of the Nordic settlers on the Orkney and Shetlands Islands. Even other languages, like Russian and French, have been influenced by Old Norse.

Våg & viktsats
Scale & weight kit (©SHM-bild)

The Vikings were merchants, farmers, explorers and warriors. The two most important trades during the Viking Age were commerce and farming. Different heads on the ships showed what business the Viking had before landing at the harbour. These ships were fast and easily manoeuvred vessels, which were suitable for trade, landing and retreats in connection with pitched battle. There were many chiefs and little kings who had gained power over larger or smaller territories through conquest. The borders for such kingdoms increased, shrunk or ceased to exist as the man in power died or was killed.

The Vikings even founded cities in Naples and on Sicily, which stood standing until the 1860s, when the modern Italy came to be. Cities and states were founded to become meeting points for those who had something to sell, and those who wanted to buy. It is widely known that the Vikings practiced regular trade as far south as the Mediterranean Ocean. We also know that the Vikings sold European slaves to the “blue men” in North Africa.

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Scandinavians of today are often reminded of their origin through, for example, the similarities in many names, runes and Viking graves. Today, a Viking is the symbol for strength and “toughness”. If you are a “Viking”, you are considered “tough”. The Vikings were definitely no racists, and a connection between the subject of Vikings and hostility towards foreigners can not be made, although, unfortunately, it is sometimes done in today’s Europe. The Vikings were skilful farmers, merchants, craftsmen, storytellers, diplomats and discoverers, and their traditions and knowledge live on among today’s Scandinavians.