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Scandinavian Pre-History


The origin of the word "Scandinavia" is hidden in the remoteness of time. If the explorer Pytheas of Marseilles visited Norway in the fourth century before Christ, he knew it simply as the land upon the borders of the earth, the Ultima Thule. Roman authors of the early imperial time had some notions of Northern Europe—few and slight, it is true, but giving some tangible facts in a darkness not illumined by the light of history. Pliny had heard of a country in the extreme north called Scandinavia. The term "Scandia" or "Scandinavia" was first applied to the remoter lands of northern Europe, in the works of Pliny, the Roman geographer, in the first century AD, and of Ptolemy, the Alexandrine geographer, in the second century.

The name, although Romanised, is correct; it exists even to-day, but changed of course, as, in the lapse ot time, language is inevitably changed. The southernmost province of Sweden is called in the present day Skane. The old northern literature shows that the final e is an abbreviation of an older ey, in Gothic avi, which signifies island, and also, a projection from a mainland. Skane is, therefore, Scandinavia, and hence the name borrowed from Roman literature ought strictly to be applied to the southern part of Sweden. The geography of the word was extended by Roman writers to cover all that mountain-ribbed peninsula which dangles from the north of Europe, and in the middle ages the term came also to be applied to Jutland, the peninsula that rises from central Europe to meet it, and to the islands of Denmark that lie between the two headlands, in short, all the land inhabited by the kindred Northerners.

The earliest antiquities in Scandinavia belong to the Flint Period, during which the peninsula appears to have been inhabited by the same people as Denmark and N. Germany. Their rude implements indicate that they possessed fixed dwelling-places and cattle, and were acquainted with the art of fishing and probably of hunting also. They buried their dead in large stone tomb-chambers. This epoch was succeeded by the Bronze Period, when implements and ornaments in bronze and even in gold were first imported, and afterwards manufactured by the natives themselves. Agriculture was now regularly practised, and the same domestic animals were used as at the present day. The tombs of this period sometimes contain cinerary ums, and sometimes bones unconsumed. During this and the preceding period the population seems to have been confined to Skane and Vester-Gotland. Lastly, about the time of the birth of Christ, begins the Iron Period , when the use of that metal was introduced from Central Europe. At the same time silver and glass made their appearance, and Roman coins and 'bracteates' (ornamental disks of metal) are occasionally found.

During this period also the contents of tombs prove that the dead were sometimes burned and sometimes buried in coffins. The cinerary urns are usually of terracotta, rarely of bronze. Among other curiosities which have been found in the tombs are trinkets and weapons, some of which appear to have been purposely broken. To this period also belong the earlier Runic Inscriptions, in a large character differing from that afterwards used. Quite distinct from the earlier part of this era is the Later Iron Period, which began in Sweden about the year 500 or 600, and in Norway about the year 700 A.D. The Runic inscriptions of this period are in the smaller character, and the language had by this time attained to nearly the same development as that used by the later manuscripts, while the native workmanship exhibits evidence of a new and independent, though still barbarous, stage of culture.

To what people the inhabitants of Scandinavia during the first and second of these periods belonged is uncertain, but it is supposed that they were of the aboriginal Finnish stock. That the relics of the following periods were left by a different people is most probable, as no antiquities have been found which show a gradual transition from the bronze to the early iron period, and it is well ascertained that the inhabitants of the Southern parts of the peninsula were of Germanic origin, both during the earlier and later iron periods. It has also been ascertained that the older Runic alphabet of 24 letters, common to Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon, Burgundian, and Gothic inscriptions, was afterwards modified by the Scandinavians, who substituted for it the smaller character, consisting of 16 letters only. It therefore seems to be a well-established fact that during the later iron period, if not earlier, the Scandinavians had developed into a nationality distinct from the ancient Goths or the Anglo-Saxons.

The earliest historical writers agree that Scandinavia was at an early period inhabited partly by a Germanic people, and partly by Finns or Lapps. The Germanic inhabitants, before whom the weaker peoples seems gradually to have retreated, were first settled in Skane (Skaney) in the South of Sweden, whence the country was named Scandia, and the people Scandinavians. The name of 'Swedes' is mentioned for the first time by Tacitus (Suiones), the 'Goths' are spoken of by Ptolemy, and the Suethans and Suethidi (i.e. Svear) by Jordanis. Jordanis also mentions the Ostrogothae and Finnaithae, or the inhabitants of Oster-Gotland and Finnveden in Sweden, the Dan or Danes, the Raumaricii and Bagnaricii, or natives of Romerike and Kaurike in Norway, and lastly the Ethelrugi or Adalrygir, and the Ulmerugi or Ha1mrygir. As far back, therefore, as the beginning of the Christian Era, the population in the South of Sweden and Norway appears to have been of the Gothic stock. To this also points the fact that the names of Rugians, Burgundians, and Goths still occur frequently in Scandinavia; the Rygir were a Norwegian tribe, the name Borgund and Bornholm (Borgundarholm) recur more than once , and the district of Gotland and the island of Gotland or Gutland were doubtless so called by Goths or Jutes. It is therefore more than probable that the picturesque myth of the immigration of the AEsir or ancient Scandinavians from Asia under the leadership of Odin entirely lacks foundation in fact.

It is at least certain that the history of Scandinavia begins with the later iron period. At that time the southernmost part of Sweden seems to have belonged to the Danes. Farther North was settled the tribe of the Gotar, to whom belonged the adjacent island of Oland, while Gotland appears to have been occupied by an independent tribe. Still farther North were the Svear, who occupied Upland, Vestermanland, Sodermanland, andNerike. The territories of the Gotar and the Svear were separated by dense forest, while the latter were also separated from the Norwegian tribes by forests and by Lake Venern and the Gota-Elf.

Beowulf, the famous Anglo Saxon epic poem, dating from about the year 700, mentions Denmark as an already existing kingdom, and also speaks of the different states of the Gotar and Svear, which, however, by the 9th cent, had become united, the Svear, or Swedes, being dominant. The same poem refers to 'Norvegr' and 'Nordmenn', i.e. Norway and the Northmen, but throws no light on their history. It is, however, certain that the consolidation of Norway took place much later than that of Denmark and Sweden, and doubtless after many severe straggles. To the mythical period must be relegated the picturesque stories of the early Ynglingar kings, beginning with Olaf Traetelje, or the 'tree-hewer'; but they are probably not without some foundation in fact, and it is at any rate certain that the migrations and piratical expeditions of the Northmen, which soon affected the whole of the north of Europe, began about this time (7th-8th cent. A. D.).

The predatory campaigns of the Danish King Hugleikr, which are mentioned both in the Beowulf and by Frankish chroniclers, are doubtless a type of the enterprises of the vikings, which continued down to the llth century. The Swedes directed their attacks mainly against Finland, Kurland, Esthonia, and Russia, which last derived its name and its political organisation from Sweden; the Danes undertook expeditions against France and England, and the Norwegians chiefly against the north of England, Scotland, the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and the Hebrides.

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Page last modified: 21-12-2015 19:18:18 ZULU