Ancient Sweden

The Ancient Swedish Vikings traveled east from there Scandinavian homelands to raid cities as far south as Byzantium and established some of the earliest trading communities on the Volga.

The Ancient Scandinavian World

Elk Horn Carving of Viking Head, Sigtuna 11th Century

Some historians believe that the ancestral homeland of the Teutons lies in the heart of Swedish Scandinavia. Despite only having scattered sources of Swedish people written prior to the 1st millennium, on thing is certain, in the late 9th century the Vikings spread out of Sweden to raid settlements, and later establishing new colonies and trading outposts along the waterways of Europe. Using some of the most sophisticated ships of their day, these tall Nordic people placed fear in the eyes of the European population, and established a reputation for barbarism and cruelty. In reality, the Vikings were quite sophisticated in their abilities, as both farmers and seafarers, as well as colonizers and tradesmen. They certainly took advantage of the wealth the monasteries and cities of northern Europe could provide, but they were also trading with Arab and Byzantine merchants along the large central European waterways. Their long ships had specifically crafted narrow drafts that could allow for fording even small waterways.

The Early Uppland

The Swedish Knorr, the shallow drafted ship that could navigate European waterways

In Swedish prehistory, the Vendel era (550-793) is the name given to a part of the Germanic Iron Age (or, more generally, the Migration Period). The migrations and the upheaval in Central Europe had lessened somewhat, and two power regions had appeared in Europe: the Merovingian kingdom and the Slavic princedoms in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. A third power, the Catholic Church, had begun to expand its influence. In Scandinavia, the Germanic clan society was still very much alive. In Uppland in what today is the east-central part of Sweden, Old Uppsala was probably the center of religious and political life. It had both a well-known sacred grove and great Royal Mounds. There were lively contacts with Central Europe, and the Scandinavians continued to export iron, fur and slaves; in return they acquired art and new innovations, such as the stirrup.

The finds in Vendel and Valsgärde show that Uppland was an important and powerful area consistent with the sagas’ account of a Swedish kingdom. Some of the riches were probably acquired through the control of mining districts and the production of iron. The rulers had troops of mounted elite warriors with costly armor. Graves of mounted warriors have been found with stirrups and saddle ornaments of birds of prey in gilded bronze with encrusted garnets.

Swedish Vikings depicted in the Skog Tapestry from the 11th century

Swedish Vikings depicted in the Skog Tapestry from the 11th century

These mounted elite warriors are mentioned in the work of the 6th century Goth scholar Jordanes, who wrote that the Swedes had the best horses beside the Thuringians. They also echo much later in the Norse sagas, where king Adils is always described as fighting on horseback (both against Áli and Hrólf Kraki). Snorri Sturluson wrote that Adils had the best horses of his days. Games were popular, as is shown in finds of tafl games, including pawns and dice. This is the time when Swedish expeditions start to explore the waterways of what was to become Russia.

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Sweden During the Viking Age

A Swedish Vendal warrior

Perhaps the best known period of Swedish history, is the time of the Vikings. The stereotype Viking is a tall blond figure possessed with a raging fury which he releases upon other countries, and although this period was short compared to the rest of the long history of Sweden, it is one of the most widely known. This is mainly due to the writings of those people with the whom the Vikings raided. A common prayer in the French churches during the 9th century states…

‘A furore normannorum libera nos domine
‘Skona oss herre från nordmännens raseri’
‘Oh lord, save us from the rage of the Nordic people’

The 8th of June was a beautiful summer day on the holy Island of Lindisfarne, situated on the Northumberland coast in the north east of England. It had a monastery which was founded in the 6th century and was famous for the fact that some of the finest literature of its time came from here. Some of the books written there are still intact and readable. The monks, who didn’t suspect anything unusual, went down to the shore to greet the strangers who had arrived. An author stated about 100 years later: ‘The same year the heathens arrived from the north to Brittany with a fleet of ships. They were like stinging wasps, and they spread in all directions like horrible wolves, wrecking, robbing, shattering and killing not only animals but also priests, monks and nuns. They came to the church of Lindesfarne, slayed everything alive, dug up the altars and took all the treasures of the holy church’.

The attack wasn’t the first. Numerous smaller attacks had been made earlier. However, they tended to be rather sporadic. This was something completely different. The attack came as a shock to the rulers of Brittany and the rumors about the fearless Nordic men spread over Europe. The French king Karl the Great had an English adviser by the name of Alcuin. As soon as he heard of the attack on Lindesfarne, he wrote: ‘In nearly 350 years we and our forefathers have been living in this the best of countries and never before has such terror struck Britain as the one we now have to suffer from this heathen race. Nor was it thought to be possible that such an attack could be carried out from the sea. Look at St Cuthbert’s church sprinkled with the blood of the holy priests, deprived of it’s decorations, a room more venerable than any in Britain given as spoils to this Heathen race’.

The next year the Vikings returned and plundered the convent in Jarrow, just a few miles from Lindisfarne. This was the real start of the Viking Age. The Vikings were to be the first Europeans who passed the winter in Labrador and New Newfoundland. They populated Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the Shetland Islands, Orkney, the Hebrides and the Isle of Man. They founded states in Ireland and in Britain. They conquered Normandy in France and founded a dynasty which lived and ruled far into the Middle Ages. They built merchant towns in Birka (Sweden), Hedeby (Denmark) and Kaupang (Norway). They even founded the first colony in America long before anyone else in Europe even thought that there existed land that far westwards.

Ancient Swedes hunting on Skis, from the Histories of Olas Magnus

Ancient Swedes hunting on Skis, from the Histories of Olas Magnus

Vikings also founded kingdoms in Russia and built trade stations along the rivers all the way down to the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. They went to Constantinople and Bahgdad, Gurgan and Chorezm. They even came into contact with Byzantium and they formed a feared elite regiment for the East Roman Emperor, a guard which existed for some hundred years. They conquered London, besieged Lisbon, burnt Santiago, assaulted Seville, attacked Mallorca, and sold European slaves in North Africa. They terrorized Paris (on numerous occasions) and burnt Hamburg and many other German cities. They even went to Jerusalem and possibly also to Alexandria.

During a quarter of a century, from 8th June 793 until 15th October 1066, these men would come in waves, often young and seeking a fight, and extremely skilled as sailors and warriors. Their activities left traces for eternity. Over 900 of the most common English words come from the Vikings, sky, skin, scrape, skirt, husband (husbonde) and window (vindue) are some examples. There are over 600 village names in England which can be directly related to the Vikings and there are English counties where about 75 percent of the village names derived from the Vikings. On the Shetland Islands the percentage goes up to about 99 percent. In the North East of England the Nordic languages were spoken until as late as the 12th century, on the Isle Of Man until the middle of the 15th century.

In Normandy there are still village names which have their origin in the Nordic countries like: Dalbec, Runitot, Bourguebu (Borgeby) and sex la londe (av lund, offerlund). And every French sea captain still gives the commands ‘babord’ and ‘tribord’ when he means left and right.

In Russia, which was founded by the people from Rus (the Swedish Roslagen County), millions of people still hold the name Oleg, Olga and Igor – from the names of the Viking gods Helge, Helga and Ingvar. When Russians politely address each other as ‘gentlemen’, the word comes from the Viking word ‘husbonden’. As always, their enormous success as traders and warriors can’t be easily explained. How was it possible for such a small population to instill the feeling of fear the way they did throughout the whole of Europe? At the beginning of the Viking era there were no united kingdoms in Scandinavia, and the people who went out on crusades were a minority. Most people spent their time at home, farming and trying to run the matters in general.

One of the main reasons for their success is the fact that Europe at the time was not unified. As it was, many small kingdoms fought with each other to form a big country. The Vikings, who from birth were taught how to fight well, and encouraged by their religion to do it, and how to maneuver a boat. Their boats at this time were by far the best built in Europe, possibly even the best in the world, and were used with much success. When they started to take horses on board the boats, the Vikings were more or less invincible when attacking a town, especially as the attacks came very suddenly and often from the open sea by boats which could travel at a good 15 knots all the way in to the shore.

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The Viking Long Ships

The seafaring Longship

The Drakkar Long Ship was one of the key factors behind their success, the Drakkar was a long, rather narrow boat built of oak. The boat building skills had been developed over hundreds of years in countries where the only practical way of traveling was by boat. When the wind was not blowing it was possible to row the boats, and when the wind came from the stern the boats were very fast. They didn’t need deep water since normally a Viking boat could be used as a landing vehicle and they could still take a heavy load. They were very easy to maneuver and they could carry large numbers of warriors as there were boats which could take a crew of up to 200 men or more.

Life on board was rather hard and the normal boat was about 30 meters long and had a maximum width of five meters at the broadest place. The Vikings ate dried and salted meat, and fish which was caught en route. For drink they usually had sour milk, water and beer or mead. To prevent scurvy they ate cloudberry and a plant called cochleria officinalis. The only protection from the weather was a small tent in the best of cases. Every man had his own chest with his personal belongings. The chest also served as the bench they sat on when they had to row the boat. The ship was steered by a large oar on the right side, therefore called ‘styrbord’ (starboard), and the first mate’s back pointed to ‘babord’ (the port side). At the stem and the stern there were small platforms named ‘lyftingar’.

There were many types of boats. In an attack fleet there usually was a couple of battleships with long and narrow design so as to be fast and able to take many men. Then there were the merchant ships which were much broader so that they could take a great load of up to 20000 kilograms of weight. These boats were called ‘knorr’, possibly because of the sound that they made when they moved in the sea.

The navigation was handled by specially trained personnel who mostly navigated by the stars and the sun. Sometimes they brought birds with them which they let go and then followed to the nearest shore. They had peloruses and the famous ‘sun stone’. The latter was thought to be a fraud, but later findings make it clear that it wasn’t. The sun stone is a mineral found in Iceland or Norway which could polarize the sun light. That way you could see where the sun was even if it was cloudy and the sun itself was not visible to the naked eye.

To measure the sailed distance they used their experience when studying the wash , or the flow of water around the stem. But there were no exact methods to measure the speed. Usually the Vikings followed the coasts as closely as possible, but they weren’t afraid to make long voyages over the open sea without any contact with land if they had to.

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The Travels of the Swedish Vikings

While the Vikings from Norway and Denmark went hunting for new land in the west and southwest, the Vikings from present-day Sweden usually went east and south-east. There was another aspect to their business abroad which was unique among the Scandinavian Vikings, the Swedes tended to be traders. While the Danes and the Norwegians usually conquered and colonized, the Swedes traded, although they were well armed and certainly knew how to fight, yet didn’t seek to establish kingdoms and colonies.

There were Swedes that went on voyages with the Danes and Norwegians since at that time the differences between the countries were much less than they are now, but the main stream of Swedish Vikings went eastward. They traveled much farther east than any other European people. The Swedish Vikings even traveled as far as Jerusalem – or Jorsalir as they called it, the Caspian sea, and Baghdad (they called it Särkland). Hundreds of Swedes traveled to the eastern Roman city Constantinople (or Miklagård), and many of them returned rich from their combined trading/plundering expeditions. But they weren’t satisfied with this, they went even farther east. Exactly how far east we cannot tell today, but we know that they made serious attempts to reach Samarkand.

There are more ancient English coins found in Sweden than there are in England, and over 90% of all the coins found in Europe from Baghdad and surroundings have been found in Sweden, in Gotland to be precise. No one knows exactly when Birka was founded, but it boomed in the 9th century. Birka was situated in one of the more populated areas of Sweden at that time. It lay somewhere on the Island Björkö. It was ideally placed in the middle of the counties of Mälardalen, Gästrikland and Dalarna. The total population of the area at that time was around 50,000.

The city was protected by a wall made of dirt and wood, and had a population of a couple of thousand inhabitants who served and protected the city. In the end of the 9th century activity there came to an abrupt end, and we are still looking for an explanation. Perhaps they were invaded by a Viking fleet from Denmark? Or perhaps they moved their business to the more protected city of Sigtuna?

What historians do know is that the contacts eastward were very profitable, and they reached their highest levels when the city Helgö was booming. A lot of trading was also done with Finland and the Baltic states. Most of the Swedes who went out traveling were `rospiggarna’, the people from Roslagen. That may be one of the reasons why Finns call Sweden `Ruotsi’ which means `Roslagen’. And even farther east there was a country named `Tavastaland’. The Vikings traveled farther and farther east up the river Neva to Ladoga, where it is believed they founded a settlement, from which they started to travel south.

Viking raiders from an 11th century illuminated manuscript

Viking raiders from an 11th century illuminated manuscript

A monk named Nestor, who lived in Kiev, wrote a chronicle which tells the story behind the Viking travels and why they settled in Russia. In the chronicle he states that Russia was founded by the Vikings, or as they called them `Varjager’. According to Nestor the Vikings levied taxes on the Slavic peoples and therefore were eventually chased out of the country. The local people wanted to have a king of their own. Unfortunately this was not a success, and after awhile there was total anarchy in the country. Then someone came up with a bright idea: Why not get a king from elsewhere? No sooner said than done, they sent for a king from the foreign country Sweden, and after awhile a Viking turned up.

Nestor writes:

“Let us find a king from another country who will give us justice and rule over us. And they went over the sea to the land of the Varjager, to Ruserna. Because this people is called Ruser as others are called Svear. Yet others are called Norrmaner, Anglianer and some Goter. So even all these have their names.”

When the messengers with their unusual offer from the foreign country turned up in Sweden three men were promptly selected to take on the responsibility. These men were brothers and their names were: Rurik, Sinjeus and Truvor. The oldest (Rurik) of them settled down in Novgorod; the other ones went to White Russia (Sinjeus), and Izborsk (Truvor). Nestor writes: “It’s after these Varjager that the country of Novgorod now bears the name `land of Rusers’.”

Soon Rurik was the only one left in “Russland”; his brothers went on a trip along the river Dnieper to the city of Kiev (Könugård), which they successfully invaded. From Kiev they made small expeditions down to Constantinople. Rurik died sometime about 879, and another Viking chief took over, Oleg. Oleg also invaded Kiev and declared this city of all Russian cities the mother. Oleg was soon replaced by his former master’s son, Igor. The Swedish names after Rurik, Oleg and Igor are: Rörek, Helge and Ingvar. But there are uncertainties about the Swedish connections, but there are Swedish names involved in the earliest peace treaties which are quoted in their entirety in the Nestor chronicle. Their names have been a bit misspelled but they can be read as: Sven, Gunnar, Tord, Ulf and Karl.

These Swedes, as with all other Viking settlements, soon became assimilated with the natives. Igor’s son got the name Sviatoslav and founded the Rurikidernas dynasty, Rurkovitch. They in turn ruled over the Volchov-Lovat-Dnieper area until the year 1610, when the last Rurikiden, Vassilij IV Sjusjkij, died and was replaced by the Romanov dynasty. Just as in the British Isles and Normandy, the Vikings soon lost their Nordic traditions, since they were simply too few to have any impact on the natives.

The Swedes had four main routes to choose from, traveling through mighty Russia down to the richness of the South. Their ships could be carried against the current on smaller rivers until they reached the tributary rivers of Volga. If they chose this way they would pass Finnish speaking peoples all the way between Ladoga and a place called Bulgar at the bend of the Volga. This was a larger city where Swedes met with Turks and other people from the south.

From Bulgar a caravan went to China and the silk that has been found in Birka was most probably brought by this route. For the most part the Vikings did business with so-called `radamiter’ or Jewish merchants. An Arab writer, Ibn Khordo Adbeh, described them like this:

“These merchantmen speak Arabic, Persian, French, Spanish, Romerska, Slaviska. They travel from the Occident to the Orient. From the Occident they bring with them eunuchs, female slaves, little boys, fabric, skins of different kinds and swords.” According to his tales they travel to ‘Sind, Hind and China’. On their trips home they bring different sorts of spices and other exotic things.”

The Vikings described by Ibn Fadlan and Arab Chroniclers

Some of the evidence of the trading is silver coins which have been found in the city of Birka. They show that trade between Swedes and the area between Baghdad and the Volga was rather extensive. The reason that we know that the Vikings did travel this route is that the Persian and Arabic diplomats have written about their meetings with the northerners, or Ruser as they called them. They have written in rather great detail about the traditions of the Vikings.

A Viking funeral ship set afire with the body of the slain warrior

A Viking funeral ship set afire with the body of the slain warrior

The Arabic messenger Ibn Fadlan, who was in Bulgar during the summer of 922, saw the Vikings arrive, and he wrote:

“I have never before seen such perfect bodies; they were tall like palm trees, blonde, with a few of them red. They do not wear any jackets or kaftaner, the men instead wear dress which covers one side of the body but leaves one hand free. Every one of them brings with him an Axe, a sword and a knife. They never leave these things. Their swords are broad, grooved, and of French make. From their bellies to their necks they are tattooed in green with trees and other pictures. All of their women have a small box attached over the breast. This can be made of iron, silver, copper or gold. On each box there is a ring to which a small knife is attached. Around their necks they wear necklaces of gold and silver.”

The Vikings obviously made an impression on the messenger, but he also writes about their bad hygiene. He continues,

“Each morning the girl comes early in the morning with a deep dish of water. She gives this to her master who in turn washes his hands, face and hair. When he is through the girl takes the dish to the man nearest the master. This man repeats the process. And so the dish wanders from man to man until everyone has washed himself in the water.”

To Ibn Fadlan’s friends this story must have been horrifying, as they were educated Muslims. They would probably never think of washing themselves in anything other than flowing water. Another thing which interested Ibn was the Nordic men’s sexual habits. This is what he wrote:

At the beach they build large houses made of wood. In one house there live ten to twenty persons. Each one has a bed to sit on… With them they have beautiful women slaves who are to be sold to the slave dealers. They have sexual intercourse with their slaves while their friends are watching. Often a group of men does this in each other’s presence.”

One of Ibn’s most interesting stories is about a real Viking burial which he witnessed in the city of Atil (placed a bit south of Bulgar). According to him the dead person’s ship was brought up on shore and was surrounded with fetishes of wood. The body was clothed in its finest clothes, placed on cushions in a sitting position in a tent which was built in the middle of the boat. Around him he had several items which could be useful on his way to the land of the dead. Among the items there were a harp, food, axes and so on. A dog was killed and divided into two parts and thrown on to the ship. The dog was followed by two oxen and two horses and one hen. One of the man’s female slaves was chosen to follow the man to the land of the dead or Valhalla. She was intoxicated with alcohol, brought forward to the chief and then moved to a tent by the chief’s six closest men. They each had intercourse with her and then she was killed by an old woman called the angel of death, with a knife and at the same time as the men were strangling her with a rope. Then the relatives of the man set the ship on fire. Afterward they would throw a large heap of dirt over the ashes and on top of it all they put a wooden pole on which they wrote the name of the dead man and the name of their king.

Ibn tells us further:

“When they arrived in this harbor (Bulgar) they left their ships on the shore and brought with them meat, bread, milk and nobid (an alcoholic beverage) and went to a high wooden pole with a carved head. Around this pole there were other smaller statues and behind them other large poles. The merchantman goes forward to the large pole in the center and then he gets down on his knees and puts his head against the ground and says: ‘O, my god, I have been traveling a long way and I have brought so and so many slaves and swords. Now I bring you these offerings.’ This said, he puts what he has in front of the wooden pole and says: ‘I wish that you send me a merchant of great wealth who will buy on my terms without questions.’ If the business is good he returns and sacrifices animals; if not, he brings other offerings to the statues and asks them for help.”

The Arabian historian Ibn Miskaweich tells us about the Ruser attacks on Bredaa, just south of Baku, in the year 943. He describes them as a powerful people who didn’t seem to know how to yield in a fight. They were equipped with axes, swords and long knifes. They fought with spears and shields. They killed the Arabic governor and chased his people away. The Arabs who survived had to buy their own lives at great expense. The women weren’t included in this deal; the Ruserna kept them for themselves.

According to the chronicles over 6,000 Ruser held the city against repeated attacks from the Arabs. Every time one of the Ruser died he was buried with the women he liked and his weapons. In the end the Vikings left Bredaa of their own accord, but only after they had brought everything of value, including the women, to the river Kura where they had their ships. One of the other routes south through gårdarike which the Vikings traveled was through the city Starja Ladoga on the river Volchov. There was a trading station named Aldeigjuborg, from which the Vikings could make their way to Novogorod, which they called Holmgård.

From here they crossed Lake Ilmen and went along the river Lovat. When they couldn’t travel by ship any more they pulled their ships overland until they reached a navigable river from which they could travel to the Dnieper, which in turn led them through Kiev and eventually to the Black Sea. As soon as they had reached the Black Sea they were near their final target; they just had to pass the Bosporus and then they were in Constantinople, which was called Miklagård, ‘the big city’, by the Vikings.

There were two reasons for the Vikings to come all this way, business and war. They even tried to invade the city but for the very first time they found that they had a superior enemy. The defenders were equipped with a form of napalm (oil, sulphur and resin – Greek fire) which they sprayed over their enemies from a kind of flame-thrower. To shield themselves from the heat they had jackets made of asbestos. This certainly made a big impression on the Vikings. Many stories are told in the North about the fire breathing dragons and magical shirt that Ragnar Lodbrok received from his wife Kraka.

After a while a treaty was signed between the parties and more peaceful trading began. The treaty was rather strict as the Vikings weren’t allowed to travel in groups larger than fifty persons, they weren’t allowed to carry arms and they couldn’t buy more silk or fabric than they were allotted. They weren’t allowed to stay and winter in the town either, but in return they were given access to the public swimming halls, their ships were fitted without cost for their return and they got free food and drink. The Emperor of Constantinople was very impressed by the fearless men from the North, so impressed in fact that he formed a life guard composed of only Vikings.

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Viking Homeland Culture

A typical Viking village in ancient Sweden

As the viking went to Miklagård and Särkland the life at home in Svitjod continued as usual, and the farms was handeld by the wife, the kids and the old ones who where to old to go out on longer trips, and last but not least the slaves (‘Trälarna’). All in all the population at the time was estimated to be around 200 000 and allthough not everyone of them went on the long trips they almost certainly had relatives which had done it. Most the farms was selfsuporting and nearby farm made up a village which in turn had a leadership called ‘byalag’. The fields where cultivated in a two shift scheme. That is, the fileds was sown every second year.

Every farmer had at least one or two slaves and the richer farms had about ten or more of them. The free women where equal the man at work and she was expected to do the same work as the man. The man often had several women and he could do whatever he wanted with the women slaves. Every child which the man had with the different free women was considered as his son or daughter. He thereby also had the responsibilities associated with being a father. That is, the term ‘illegitimate child’ didn’t exist, but this this was to be changed when Sweden was Christianized.

Officially the practice of having slaves was abandoned as a law proclaimed by the king Magnus Eriksson when traveled through the country in the year of 1335. The original text do not exist any longer but the pieces which survives says that ‘every man and women which is born by a christian man and women is to be free in the county of…’. The official reason to ban the slavery was the christian faith and in reality other reasons much more powerful than that existed. It was simply more profitable to have people which could be hired for shorter periods, instead of having a large workforce which the owner had the responsibility for all year around, even when didn’t need them. Instead the farmer could give away a bit of land and let the former slaves pay for cultivating this land with workdays on the his farm. Formally the slaves now where free, but in practice the landowner earned money as he didn’t have to pay for food during the winter months at the same time as he got his work done.

Theoretically the slaves now was members of the community with equal right but they still didn’t own anything. For most of the slaves the situation actually had gone from bad to worse. During the long Viking trips around Europe new slaves where gathered from all levels of society from the continent. Many came from the Baltic states, Poland and Russia. The wives of the clan leaders lead the work on the farm when the men was away on their business trips. The men went away in the spring time and usually return in time for the winter, if they where lucky.

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Rune Stones and Inscriptions

A statue of Odin, the all father and head god of the Nordic pantheon

There are some 3500 rune inscriptions left in Sweden known, a third of them is to be found in the county of ‘Uppland’. The knowledge of how to do inscriptions were not meant for everyone. That knowledge was considered to be of utmost importance and gave the person who had it a lot of respect. In many ways it was considered to be magic. Just to think that you with a few lines carefully done in stone could be able to capture thoughts and heroic deeds for all eternity amazed the Swedes.

The first runes arrived in Sweden at about the third century, according to the legend with Odin and his family. This first runic alphabet consisted of 24 different symbols which where called futharken as it started with the letters ‘f’, ‘u’, ‘th’, ‘a’, ‘r’ and ‘k’. During sixth century the Norse language slowly changed. The old nordic language which was a rather difficult and clumsy language slowly became the old Norse language in which the Icelandic Edda and tales are written. The transition between the old and new language was finished at about the ninth century. The 24 letter long alphabet was then abandoned in favor of an alphabet consisting of 16 letters.

As the letters grew fewer the writer had to simplify his use of them. A letter had to stand for several different sounds. One funny thing about this is the fact that the transition between the old and the new alpha bet was more or less immediate. There wasn’t any delay to speak of. One day they used their old letters and the next they used the new. It’s as if all the people who dealt with rune writing met up and agreed on the new system and then started to use it.

Runes wasn’t only written on stones. Most of the written material of the day was probably done in less resistant materials like leather and wooden sticks. It’s a pity that this kind of material do not survive the years. There is evidence of quite advanced writing besides the ones done on the stones. Several stone inscriptions refers to other inscriptions and the more you read the more you realize that the academic people of it’s time must have had efficient ways of communicating with each other. One of the most fascinating rune stones in Sweden is the famous ‘rökstenen’. Quite simply a must to se for those interested in the Viking area.

Rune stone with an inscription from the 11th Century AD, "Holmfast had the stone erected in memory of Igulger, his father, and Torbjörn"

Rune stone with an inscription from the 11th Century AD, “Holmfast had the stone erected in memory of Igulger, his father, and Torbjörn”

One of the more interesting rune stones is ‘rökstenen’ (something like: smoke stone. It’s one of the bigger rune stones and it’s completely covered with text. Unfortunately the stone has been used as building material to church during it’s life time. When it was found in the church wall it was soon taken out but in that process some of the inscriptions where damaged. Rökstenen is a large stone with a lot of text. Normally a runestone has text and pictures but this stone is uniqe in the fact it’s salut to the written text. It’s not a beginner who has done the inscription. Its a man of great knowledge about his time and the literature available. He refers to tales, other runestones and people from his time. The text is in parts unreadable and thus the message which the writer tries to get across is somewhat blurred.

It’s from the nineth century and it’s located in the county of Östergötland, who some have called this county the cradle of Sweden. The inscription was made by a famous, and by all evidence, very learned man with the name Varin. Varin hasn’t tried to hide his knowledge of the classic tales, the myths and the events of the times he lived in. Like any writer he quickly get’s in to the mood the text starts live a life of it’s own. The text is full of ciphers where he is using the magic numbers associated with the letters. He has a lot of references till classic tales, myths and events and he writes in an ambiguous way which means that his text is open for many interpretations depending on on your interpretation.

The text was probably obscure even in it’s own time and then you have to remember that the learned of those day had a better knowledge of the old tales and myths that the writer was referring to. Some look upon ‘rökstenen’ as a monument over the literature of it’s time. One of Sweden’s best rune interpreters has read the following start of the text:

Då rådde Tjodrik den djärve, sjökrigarnas hövding, över reidhavets strand. Nu sitter han rustad på sin gotiska häst, med sköld över axeln, den främsta av märingar…

Some scientists thinks that Tjodrik was the East gothic king Teoderik the great which lived in Verona but ruled over a large kingdom all the way up to Germany and France.

Gripsholm-stenen or The Gripsholm Stone. The inscription is dated to the middle of the 11th century. The runes are inscribed inside a snake or dragon, a characterisic trait of the more elaborately crafted rune-stones. The idea is that you start reading from the “head” of the snake and finish at its “tail”. The 11th century was the hayday of making rune-stones, especially around Lake Maelaren in Sweden. Of the 3000 known rune-stones, more than 2500 are to be found in Sweden, some 1800 of which in the area mentioned. Most of them are raised in memory of dead relatives, but some say something more than just that “x raised this stone over Y”.

The inscription reads as follows:

tula lit raisa stain thinsat sun sin haralt bruthur inkuars thair furu trikila fiari at kuli auk a ustarlar ni kafu tuu sunar la a sirk lan ti

Tula had raised stone this (over) son her harald brother ingvars they went manly far after gold to (the) east fed the eagle south in Saerkland killing (plenty of) enemies in battle, Where the Muslims ruled

The Sigurd inscription on Ramundsberget, Södermanland, is dated to the early 11th century, and is beautifully enclosed in a characteristic snake/dragon. The inscription also shows scenes from the Sigurd-saga: the killing of Favner, the decapitation of Regin, Sigurd roasting the dragons heart and listening to the birds speech and his horse, Grane. The inscription is a “bridge-inscription”: it was very popular to “dedicate” bridges to dead relatives and to erect stones not only to commemorate the dead but also to show who built which bridge and for what reason. It reads:

“sirithir kiarthi bur thosi muthir alriks tutiR urms fur salu hulmkirs fathur suk ruthar buata sis”

“sigrid made bridge this mother alriks daughter Orms for soul holmgers father sigroeds husband her Sigrid, Alriks mother, Orms daughter made this bridge for her husband, Holmgers, father of Sigoerd, soul”

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Foundation of Sweden

The Odin stone from Gotland

A foundation date of the nation Sweden cannot be determined with any degree of certainty, since it evolved from a warfare center of power, Svea Rike, centered in old Uppsala, which might have had many increases and decreases in power and influence. The existence of such a power is stated already by Tacitus (see Suiones), around AD 100. The neighboring areas of West and East Geats probably also played a very important historical role in defining the nation. About 1000, the first certain king over Svea and Göta Riken is documented to be Olof Skötkonung, but the further history is obscure with kings whose periods of regency and actual power is unclear. In the 12th century, Sweden was still consolidating with the dynastic struggles between the Erik and Sverker clans, which finally ended when a third clan married into the Erik clan and founded the Folkunga dynasty on the throne.

This dynasty gradually consolidated a pre-Kalmar-Union Sweden to an actual nation, which essentially fell apart after the Black Death. The conversion from pre-Christian beliefs to Christianity was a complex, gradual, and at times possibly violent (see Temple at Uppsala) process. The main early source of religious influence was England due to interactions between Scandinavians and Saxons in the Danelaw, and Irish missionary monks. The German influence was less obvious in the beginning (despite an early missionary attempt by Ansgar), but gradually emerged as the dominant religious force in the area (especially after the Norman conquest of England). Despite the close relations between Swedish and Russian aristocracy (see also Rus’), there is no direct evidence of Orthodox influence, possibly because of language barriers.

This consolidated state of Sweden already included Finland presumably from an early crusade into the area of Tavastland in central current day Finland. After the Black Death and internal power struggles in Sweden, Queen Margaret I of Denmark united the Nordic countries in the Kalmar Union in 1397, with the approval of the Swedish nobility. Continual tension of economic nature within the countries and within the union gradually led to open conflict between the Swedes and the Danes in the 15th century, however. The union’s final disintegration in the early 16th century brought on a long-lived rivalry between Denmark on one side and Sweden on the other.

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