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In the widest sense History must be considered the knowledge, the portraying, or the total sum of all that in nature, amongst men, and in the whole circle of experiences, there is, or comes to pass, was, or came to pass, and which accordingly only can he learnt through experience or instruction. History is, consequently, the opposite of Philosophy, which is the knowledge of all needful and universal truths, comprehensible only by the mere reason. But, nevertheless, if the cultivator of History is not guided by Philosophy, or the rules of reason. History will to him be only a barren act of memory, without life or nourishment for the understanding and heart; in short, History will not be a science to him; he will not clearly comprehend the consequences of events in their pragmatical connection. “It little concerns us to know,” says Rollin, “that there were once such men as Dschengischan, Caesar, Alexander, Gustavus Adolphus, Napoleon, Washington, and so on, and that they lived in this or that period, or died in this or that day; but it highly concerns us to know the steps by which they rose to the exalted pitch of grandeur we cannot but admire, what it was that constituted their glory and felicity, what were the causes of their declension and fall, and how in religious and moral respects they have influenced their own and after-ages; all of which we cannot obtain but by Philosophy, or more properly, by the Philosophy of History, through which we ascertain the causes of things or their phenomena. History itself is immense in reference to compass, circumference, and contents. A boundless ocean of facts and events lies behind us, while each day and each hour the stream of time is swelling in new and large billows of events, visions, and names; all of which, seen in the light of truth and pragmatical connection, are of exceeding interest and use. And of such great interest and use is the History of the Scandinavian Kingdoms, taken, as all History must be, in due connection with the contemporaneous History of other lands. This History is that of a brave and interesting people, which, on a large scale, has influenced the world, and is yet so little known to the United States, where I, however, rejoice at seeing much interest paid to the culture of science.
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Copyright © 2016 by Paul Sinding
Published by Perennial Press
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History of Scandinavia.
From the Foundation of the Danish Kingdom till A. D. 1042.
IN THE WIDEST SENSE HISTORY must be considered the knowledge, the portraying, or the total sum of all that in nature, amongst men, and in the whole circle of experiences, there is, or comes to pass, was, or came to pass, and which accordingly only can he learnt through experience or instruction. History is, consequently, the opposite of Philosophy, which is the knowledge of all needful and universal truths, comprehensible only by the mere reason. But, nevertheless, if the cultivator of History is not guided by Philosophy, or the rules of reason. History will to him be only a barren act of memory, without life or nourishment for the understanding and heart; in short, History will not be a science to him; he will not clearly comprehend the consequences of events in their pragmatical connection. “It little concerns us to know,” says Rollin, “that there were once such men as Dschengischan, Caesar, Alexander, Gustavus Adolphus, Napoleon, Washington, and so on, and that they lived in this or that period, or died in this or that day; but it highly concerns us to know the steps by which they rose to the exalted pitch of grandeur we cannot but admire, what it was that constituted their glory and felicity, what were the causes of their declension and fall, and how in religious and moral respects they have influenced their own and after-ages; all of which we cannot obtain but by Philosophy, or more properly, by the Philosophy of History, through which we ascertain the causes of things or their phenomena. History itself is immense in reference to compass, circumference, and contents. A boundless ocean of facts and events lies behind us, while each day and each hour the stream of time is swelling in new and large billows of events, visions, and names; all of which, seen in the light of truth and pragmatical connection, are of exceeding interest and use. And of such great interest and use is the History of the Scandinavian Kingdoms, taken, as all History must be, in due connection with the contemporaneous History of other lands. This History is that of a brave and interesting people, which, on a large scale, has influenced the world, and is yet so little known to the United States, where I, however, rejoice at seeing much interest paid to the culture of science. A talented young American wrote, last summer, an eloquent article in the Journal of Commerce, inscribed “Scandinavian History—a Work Wanted,” wherein he says: “There is a nation, even now extant, possessing as brave a History as that of the Romans, as poetic as that of the Greeks; a nation that has controlled the World’s History in many things, and at many times, and whose achievements in war and in letters, are worthy the most heroic age of Rome and the most finished period of Greece; a nation whose Philosophy outran their age, and anticipated results that have been slowly occurring ever since. This reference,” he says, “can be true of but one people, and that people is the Norsemen, the dwellers in Scandinavia, who lived as heroes, lords, and conquerors; who, sailing out of the ice and desolation in which they were born and nurtured, conquered England, Scotland and Ireland; ravaged Brittany and Normandy; discovered and colonized Iceland and Greenland; and they can be said, with confidence, to have crossed the Atlantic in their crazy barks, and to have discovered this very continent, before Columbus, to have anchored in Vineyard Sound, and left a monument behind them; and wheresoever they went, they went as lords and rulers. And then their religion,” he continues—"what a wild, massive, manly mythology! With nothing of the soft sentimentalities of more southern people, but continent of much that revelation has assured us to be true in doctrine —preaching ever the necessity of right, and doing right—of manliness, honesty and responsibility, rewards and punishments.” And he thus concludes: Is there not some one who will plunge in medias res, and, bringing order out of confusion, give us this so greatly desiderated History of Scandinavia?”
These eloquent words, a correspondence with the talented writer, and later, an interview with him, have inspired me, a native Dane, having completed my theological studies at the University of Copenhagen, and penetrated with patriotic feelings, with a mind and courage to plunge in medias res, and to the best of my ability to do justice to that undeniably interesting subject. Jacta est alea, and I will commence by describing the state and condition of Denmark, in the most ancient times, until the Provincial Territories were united, and Christianity began to be promulgated by Ansgarius, a learned and pious monk from Westphalia, in Germany.
THE ORIGIN OF THE PEOPLE—MYTHOLOGY and Public Worship—Language—Skalds or Bards—Runes—The Warfaring Life of the People—Piracy—Duels—Foster-brother Covenant—State and Condition of the Female Sex—Means of gelling a livelihood by—Victuals—Trade—Dwelling-places—Weapons—Funeral Solemnities—State Affairs—King—Peasants and Prefects—Slaves—Norse Expeditions—The Oldest Kings.
The present inhabitants of Denmark, as well as of Norway and Sweden, are successors of the enormous Gothic tribe formerly dwelling round about the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, to which district this tribe seems to have come from yet more eastern regions, afterwards wandering up to the northern coasts of the Baltic, whence the one branch of the Gothic tribe departed to the opposite tracts of Scandinavia, peopling and settling the southern part of Sweden, Skane, Halland, and Bleking, the Danish islands, together with the northern part of the Jutlandish peninsula, and likewise spreading itself over the greater part of Norway. The other branch of these ancient and distinguished Goths remained south of the Baltic, and oftentimes changing their dwellings, afterwards prevailed in Germany, scattering under the great European emigration over a great part of southern Europe, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and France, making considerable conquests, and even often exacting tribute. Divided here into Ostro and Visi-Goths, they erected, under their chief leader, Theodorik, the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy, and the Visigothic in Spain under Astulph, and their influence and that of their descendants have since been permanent in Europe and the world. On the southern borders of Denmark, in the present Duchy of Holstein, dwelt the Saxons, belonging to the German Goths; higher up in Schleswig and in the southern and western part of Jutland dwelt the Angles and Jutlanders, forming, in a certain way, an intermediate line between the Scandinavian and German Goths. But as a great number of Angles, Saxons, and Jutlanders, in the middle of the fifth century, led by the brothers, Hengist and Horst, departed for England, founding there the Saxon Heptarchy, the more northern Goths settling in the regions which those had left, were afterwards the prevailing tribe in all Jutland and Schleswig. On the entrance of the Goths into Scandinavia, the land was inhabited by two reciprocally kindred nations, whose present names are Laplanders and Finns. Both of them had come from the cast, but the Laplanders were forced by the Finns up to the remotest parts of Norway and Sweden, where remnants of them are yet to be found. The Finns themselves were, after a valiant resistance, pressed back by the Goths, whose descendants at present live in Finland, which now belongs to the Russian Empire. It is also possible that some Celtic tribes, the primitive inhabitants of the south and west of Europe, have lived in the Scandinavian countries. The culture of the oldest dwellers of the north was at a very low ebb; they lived dispersed, rambling about the immense and impenetrable forests, and on the coasts adjacent to the ocean and the numerous lakes, many of which are now transformed into moors and marshy land, or dried up altogether. Game from the forests, and fish from the sea and lakes, supplied the inhabitants with nutriment and hides and furs to protect their bodies against the severe climate; and in such respects they were very well off, wanting nothing fortune could supply. Their weapons and hunting-tools were stones, but often made with curious and admirable workmanship—the use of metals being yet unknown.
Very interesting, deep, and instructive is the religion or the mythology of the Norsemen, wherein their character and peculiar views of life have received a proper embodiment, containing much of the spirit of obedience, for which St. Paul praises the heathens that are without the law, but do by nature the things contained in the law, showing the work of the law written in their hearts. Their religion, better, perhaps, called their mythology, announced also clearly the important doctrine of future responsibility—rewards and punishments. At all events, it was great, nervous, and poetic, and, in many respects, fit for facilitating the introduction of the higher light of Revelation, which first in the ninth century was brought to them. In the abyss of ages—thus read the old Sagas—all was without form and life, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, on which is. c., the warmth was continually operating, until Ymer, a giant sprang forth. But Odin, a Scandinavian Deity, yet supposed to be a historical person, having come from Asgard on the river Don (Tanais) in southern Russia, killed Ymer and his whole offspring; the bad and evil Jetters and Thyrsers (giants) were drowned in that stream of blood proceeding and flowing from Ymer’s corpse, except one, who propagated the generation of Jetters or Thyrsers, and lived in continual enmity with gods and men. Of Ymer’s body—thus read the old Sagas—Odin moulded and framed the ordained and settled world with mountains, rivers, lakes, trees, and clouds; and of the great ash-tree, Yggdrasill, whose topmost branches were said to dance eternally in the heavenly light, he moulded the first couple of men, Askur and Embla, who resided in Midgard. The gods themselves live in Asgard, close by Upsala, in Sweden. Odin, superior to all the other gods, is father of gods and men, and rules the whole world, which he, by his wise and judicious eye, contemplates and views from his high Hlidskjalf, his heavenly seat, his royal palace. The peculiar God of War and Thunder is Thor, a son of Odin, most ardently worshipped by the warlike Norsemen, and kept long in memory even after the other gods were thrown into oblivion. He being considered the good principle, and chosen to bruise the head of all the evil principles, is incessantly fighting with the Jetters, slaying them with his hammer, the heavy Mjólnir. The brave having found an honorable death on the battle field were taken up to the mansion of the gods, and came to the splendid castle, Valhalla, radiating with shining shields and glittering swords, and where Odin, Thor, Freia, Frigga, and the Nornas, with their irrevocable decrees, wore assembled. Odin’s maidens, the Valkyriers, were continually rushing through the ether, seeking in all countries for the bravest heroes, whom they marked with their spear-point, when the hour of death had come. The departed heroes, called Einheriars, pass their time in Valhalla, having every day the pleasure of arming themselves, marshaling themselves in military order, fighting and knocking down one another; but in the evening they get up again and return to Valhalla, where a festival meal is prepared for them, consisting of the flesh of a boar, called Sahrimner, which, though butchered every day, returns to life again, and the beautiful virgins, the Valkyriers, present to them the mead-horn, of which they drink till they are in a state of intoxication; but the pleasures of love do not enter at all into the joys of this extraordinary Paradise. Odin sits by himself at a particular table. A different lot or fate fell to the cowards who feared the battle and dangers of war, and allowed themselves to be cut off by disease. Cast down to Helheim (hell) they had to continue their life there, as silent, trembling shadows, without pleasure and exploits, and under the perpetual suffering of anguish, remorse, and famine. Odin himself, Thor, and the keen Tyr, belonged to the Asatribe; while Freia, the goddess of love, together with Njord and Frigga, disposing of tranquil occupations, hunting, fishing, favorable winds on the ocean, and plenteous years, were ascribed to the gentle Vane-tribe.
Nevertheless, the dominion of the Valhalla gods was not to last forever, but the power to be given to another god, who should judge men conformably to a higher law, not as they were brave or cowardly, but as they were good or evil, for the Edda of Snorro says: “The world shall be judged in righteousness.” The Valhalla gods, however, were safe as long as Baldur, the wisest and most righteous of all gods, and protector of innocence, was living. But the cunning and designing Loke, the evil deity and the father of treachery, by birth half related to the gods, half to the Jetters, and father of Hela, the Fenriswolf, and the dreadful Midgardsserpent, smuggling himself into the fellowship of the gods, so prevailed, by his craftiness, upon Baldur’s own brother, as to kill him. Now nothing can avert the declension of the gods and the perdition of the world. The sun becomes eclipsed, the ocean overflows, and the Midgards serpent rises from the deep. Loke and Jetters confederated with the burning and consuming Surtur, rush now upon Valhalla, which, together with Niftheim (Helheim) perish in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods. All gods and Einheriars fall in the battle, and the whole world perishes. But a new earth rises from the ocean, and the Almighty God descends himself to judge men in righteousness. The honest and true get permission to enter into Gimle—Odin’s gold-radiating palace—to live there in eternal joy with the Almighty, and in fellowship with the other gods, who had been purified through the flames. Gimle has no need of the sun, neither of the moon, for Odin gives it light himself. But the evil, perjurers, murderers, and seducers, could not enter into that society, but are cast down to Nastrond, the eternal fire, where they have to expiate their misdeeds crossing streams of yellow matter, and suffering great pain in the eternal flames prepared for them.
The gods were worshiped partly in the open air, in groves, or places encompassed by a circle of big stones, partly in wooden temples, among which that in Upsala (Sweden) was most famous. The public worship—the main point of which were sacrifices—was in general administered by the head of the family; at the temples priests were appointed—sometimes, also, priestesses. In order to honor the gods several great annual feasts were established, among which Juel (Christmas) was most remarkable as the most joyous and festival season to the Norsemen. From all quarters of the country men and women then resorted to the temples, making large offerings; friends and relatives presented one another with gifts, and many days were spent in feasts and gay compotations. In the spring there was a sacrificial offering, to ensure luck in war and in Viking expeditions (piracies) usually beginning at that season. With these barbarous people the number nine was supposed to have something in it of peculiar sanctity. Every ninth month, therefore, a sacrifice was offered up to the gods. The usual victims were horses, oxen, young swine, hawks, and cocks. From the entrails and the running blood the priests told the people their fortunes, and the flesh was prepared for a meal to the assembled sacrificers. Sometimes even men were offered—mostly slaves and prisoners of war—for the Norsemen, in their uncultivated state, were, to a certain extent, cannibals; to which Dithmar, a reliable historian of the eleventh century, bears witness, telling that before Odin’s arrival the goddess Hertha was, in Leira, in the island of Sjelland, (Zeeland,) worshiped with great solemnity; and that every ninth year, in the month of January, the Danes offered up to her ninety-nine men, and the same number of horses, dogs, and cocks, in the firm assurance of thus obtaining her favor and protection.
The different classes of Norsemen, being of the same extraction, had also the same language, except some provincialisms, idioms, and differences in pronunciation, entirely inevitable where the same language is spoken over extensive tracts and territories. While thus the old Scandinavian language, in process of time, was undergoing several alterations, it was in the remote Iceland kept in its perfect purity, free from all foreign idioms. The general appellation of the common language was Danish tongue, the Danes being a long time considered the main people, and through several centuries playing the roost important parts in the North. The language improved by discourses in public meetings, and by the songs of Skalds or Bards; and later, when the use of letters became customary, by a multitude of historical writings, particularly composed by the Icelanders skilled in old sayings, which were handed down to them from antiquity, a considerable number of which writings are yet left. The poets, generally called Skalds, who by their songs have immortalized ancestral achievements and exploits, were seldom missing in public meetings, drinking bouts, and other festival occasions. They stayed often at the royal courts and the manors of the Prefects, where they propagated, through their songs, achievements and exploits of Kings and Prefects to succeeding generations; and being often, not only eye-witnesses themselves, but even partakers of the achievements they have glorified in their songs. Their poetic productions, a great number of which have been preserved uncorrupted down to our very days, are of importance for History.
The Norsemen had some peculiar letters, consisting of sixteen marks or characters, called Runes, the origin of which ascends to the remotest antiquity. They were used not only by the Norsemen, but also by kindred tribes abroad. The signification of the word Rune (mystery) seems to allude to the fact that, originally, only a few have known the use of these marks, and that they mostly have been applied to secret tricks, witchcraft, and enchantments. There were both plain and artificial Runes, called Lónrunes, (the Scandinavian word Lón denoting secret,) with the latter of which a great superstition was connected, the priests believing, by aid of them, to be able to haunt a place, to dull weapons, to stop thunder and hurricanes, to cure or occasion diseases, and so on; and, when engraved on nails, wrists, rudders of ships, handles of swords, these Lónrunes were supposed able to bring a thing to a happy issue, or avert dangers. But the Runes were also used as communications in writing; for instance, on being engraved on thin wooden tablets, which were sent away as letters, or on being used to record a series of kings, genealogical tables, and the like. Worthy to be noted is also the use of Runes for inscriptions on stones, in order to preserve the remembrance of celebrated men and their achievements. To the most remarkable of such Rune-stones, to be found round about in the Scandinavian countries, belong the two Jellingstones in Southern Jutland, where it is supposed that the king, Gorm the Old, and his queen, Thyra Dannebod, have their sepulchre.
The warlike mind, so strongly and clearly expressed in the Northern mythology, appears in all parts of the popular life. Tranquil occupations did not enjoy any reputation among the ancient Norsemen, while war and fighting were a sure way of acquiring an eminent name with contemporaries, glorious fame with succeeding generations, and means and riches in abundance. To eat bread in the sweat of the brow was considered inglorious. Life was of little value, and had to be risked at any cost for honor; and an old warrior, when unable to wield his sword, often caused one of his friends to kill him, to avoid a natural death, which was an exclusion from the privileges of Valhalla. But, although frequent wars and mutual challenges were carried on in Scandinavia, the Norsemen often sailed to far-off regions to win honor and renown. Yet, however, not only desire for warfare allured the Norsemen from home, but much more, the necessity of procuring such necessaries of life and such enjoyments as they could not have in their own countries. In the spring, great crowds of new-raised men, fit to bear arms, usually went away from home, mercilessly plundering coasts and lands, wherever they made their appearance, and in the fall returning with rich spoil and prisoners of war, who thereupon became slaves. Such expeditions were called Vikingefarter, and the partakers Vikings. Some made even such a life a business, and spent nearly all their time on the ocean as pirates, despising the easier country life, and speaking disdainfully of sleeping under a sooty ceiling, or sitting round a warm stove with old women. According to the character of the Norsemen, their disputes were nearly always settled by arms. “It was more honorable for men,” say the old Sagas, “to fight by sword than to quarrel by tongue;” and when, therefore, a quarrel arose, either on account of personal offences, or concerning inheritance and borders, then the sword was usually the judge. After challenging one another to a duel, they met on a place surrounded by a circle of big stones, 01 hedged in by wicker-work, or also on a small island, and if the challenged did not punctually make his appearance, he lost his reputation; nobody would keep company with him, and sometimes even a high pole was erected, on which Runes were engraved, announcing his name and infamy. The challenged, however, was permitted to prevail upon another to fight instead of himself; but, in general, they were loth to do so, as it always set the principal in an unfavorable light. One murder became generally the cause of another; for, although fines could be paid as atonement for a murder committed in an open and honest duel, the near relatives often required blood for blood; a manner of thinking which a father, being offered money for a murder committed on his only son, properly expressed in answering: “I will not carry the corpse of my dearly beloved son in my pocket-book.” And if a murder was committed cunningly and treacherously, then vengeance of blood was an unavoidable obligation, from which the surviving relatives could not withdraw without total loss of their reputation. Revengeful and inexorable as the Norsemen were in their enmity, so faithful and self-denying they proved themselves in their friendship. Warriors valuing one another highly, often made a contract called Foster-brother Covenant, by which they, under the observance of different solemn ceremonies, mixed blood together, swearing allegiance, and binding themselves by a fearful oath to avenge the death of one another, by inflicting severe punishment upon the murderer. This covenant was now and then extended even so far as to promise not to outlive one another; and the ancient History of Scandinavia sets forth many beautiful examples of such faithfulness and self-denying love. Though bloody and implacable in war, they were not strangers to the virtues of peace; hospitality and kindness to strangers, which are the common virtues of rude nations, the dwellers of Scandinavia possessed in a very high degree, and appreciated highly, and they entertained for each other the most kindly feelings of regard. Every traveler was received kindly, and the person of the guest considered holy; and when a man entered into the house of his enemy, with whom he everywhere else would have to abide the issue of a bloody fight, he was, as long as he was his guest, safe from any outrage or mischief. On the whole, it was as if the Apostle’s words had been known to the ancient Norsemen: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” It is, therefore, very wrong, when some partial historians, as for instance Voltaire, set forth a few instances of brutality and barbarism among the Norsemen as characteristic of the manners and genius of the whole race.
The respect, likewise, which the dwellers of Scandinavia entertained for the female sex, was a striking feature in their character, and could not fail to humanize their dispositions. The state and condition of the female sex in society at large, was better in the north than in most other countries where Christianity had not produced a salutary revolution. The daughters, brought up in their paternal home, and taught occupations pertaining to females, were permitted to partake in social enjoyments and public meetings. Even the females appreciated bravery and a manly mind; the want of which with the males, was, in their opinion, not reparable from other excellencies. The father or guardian disposed, according to custom, of the hand of the unmarried girl, but in reality she was, however, at her own disposal, being very seldom given in marriage against her own option. The wedding ceremony, performed under the observance of religious ceremonies, was attended with festivities during several days, whereafter the husband guided his wife to her new home, handing her the bunch of keys (Nógleknippet) as a sign of her duties as the mistress of the house. Monogamy was customary; nevertheless the husband cohabited now and then with concubines,—a cause of frequent divorces and bloody fights. As for chastity and pure manners, the old sayings report well, and speak in high terms of the women of the north. They were true to their country, their husbands, their friends and their home, and their love did not cease on this side the grave. The science of healing, imperfect as it might be at that time, was mostly practiced by women, to whom, also, the peculiar gift to interpret dreams was ascribed; which gift, according to the old sayings, Odin had sent down to all women from his splendid Hlidskjalf.
The business of the Norsemen was hunting, fishing, and breeding of cattle, also a little agriculture. Pytheas. a merchant from Marseilles, in Southern France, who, about three hundred years before Christ, arrived in & country which he calls Thule, generally considered to have been Southern Norway, tells that the inhabitants understood how to till barley, and prepare a drink of honey, and that they did not, as in Southern Europe, thresh their grain in the open air, but binding it up into sheaves, carried it into large barns to be threshed. The most common food of the Norsemen was the flesh of wild and domestic animals, fish, and vegetables; horse and swine flesh were considered the finest dishes; beer and mead were their drinks. Trade was exercised by the keen northern navigators on far-off coasts, but their traffic was often turned into piracy, and the sword was substituted for gold and silver. Grain, honey, flour, salt and cloth were brought from England. Oriental commodities came by land to Russia, from whence the Norsemen imported them, and the harbors of Northern Germany drew together commercial connections with Middle Europe. Scandinavia herself had only very few wares to export; nearly none but fish, fur, and amber, which was found on the shores of the Baltic and on the western coast of Jutland. Coins were unknown, and payment was, therefore, made by pieces of gold and silver, or wares exchanged for wares. Of mechanical arts there were in ancient times only very few. Nevertheless, the art of ship-building, and dexterity in hammering arms and ornaments were highly valued and exercised by free-born men, while plainer works and domestic services were made by slaves. The women were very skillful in weaving tapestry, and interweaving figures of men, animals, and landscapes.
The dwellings of the Scandinavian people were made of timber, and the construction was plain, one room being both kitchen, bed-chamber, and sitting-room. In the middle of the room were the stove and the chimney, and to let out the smoke an opening was made in the ceiling, which also let in light to the room; for windows were unknown. Nevertheless the rich and prominent families had more convenient dwellings: kitchen, parlor, bed-chamber, bathing-room, and often a handsome hall.
The Norseman’s dearest and most important property were his arms. In ancient times they were plain and artless, and, like other implements, made of stones; later, of copper; for it was a long time before the Norsemen learnt how to forge iron. Their aggressive weapons, frequently mentioned in the old sayings, were clubs, stones, swords, battle-axes, slings, bows, arrows, and spears; their defensive were shirts of mail, helms, and shields, adorned with figures of animals, as armorial ensigns, and so highly appreciated as to be hereditary. On the whole, for the young Norseman, whose education was, like the ancient Spartan’s, exclusively calculated for a military life, the practice in using arms was necessary to make his body pliable and hardy; by the early and frequent exercises of which they also acquired an almost incomprehensible dexterity and muscular strength in using and wielding the sword. Braver men never lived; truer men never drew the bow. They had courage, fortitude, sagacity, bodily strength, and perseverance; they shrunk from no dangers, and they feared no hardships. “Odin is for us—who can be against us?” was their watchword; and the old Sagas say: “Here it was beautiful to live, heavy to die.” Penetrated with a lively desire for acquiring honor and renown, the ancient Norsemen employed all their efforts to keep their famous ancestors in an unshaken memory; and when an eminent chief had died, his relatives and friends decreed solemn funeral honors, called Gravól, (parentations,) by which a glorious mention was made of the actions of the deceased, and drinking cups of beer emptied in his honor, the present guests obliging themselves to honor his glorious and sacred memory by promising to perform some distinguished deed. To make such a vow, and empty such a cup of memory, which was called the Minnicup, was a duty indispensably incumbent on the son, before he could place himself in the chair of state of his celebrated father.
In remotest antiquity the corpses were buried in the earth; later, burnt, the ashes being stored up in urns—a custom ascribed to Odin. At a later period it became again customary to bury the corpses, and heap up gigantic hills, many of which are yet to be found. The corpses of more distinguished persons were, however, seldom buried in the bare earth, but in a vault (mausoleum) surrounded with big stones; and upon the vault was generally laid a tall stone, with an inscription—(Rune-stone.) According to the general opinion, that in the life to come the deceased would have to acquit himself of the same office as here, the best decorations, and things which had belonged to his situation and office, were laid down in the sepulchre; wherefore, also, in said sepulchres, frequently are found swords and other arms, different implements, finger-rings, bracelets, necklaces of pearl and amber, and mosaic work, and the like ornaments.
Denmark, Norway, and Sweden were, in ancient times, divided into small portions, districts and provinces, (Herreder, Sysler,) more of which by degrees were so united as to form small states, until at last all these single provinces made up three kingdoms, which for many centuries had mostly only one king. These ancient kings of Scandinavia were—thus record the old sayings—beloved and honored by their people, as fathers and friends. They did not expect their subjects to kneel to them when they came to ask a favor or advice, nor did their subjects ever prostrate themselves, like those of great monarchs of Asia or Egypt. Their power was limited, and their function, as written laws had not yet existed, was to settle disputes which might arise among the selfish and ignorant, to make laws and alter the old ones, by which the people and the influential men consented to be governed, and to lead their subjects in war. To offer sacrifices, and take a leading part in divine worship, was also often the king’s business. For this the subjects gave their King large farms and lordships, a considerable part of the spoils of war, and the highest places at all feasts, and in the public deliberations—that is, in the assemblies or assizes (Thinge)—where they consulted together concerning public affairs; and they always addressed him with respect. Moreover, forests and untilled tracts of land, and ornaments found in the earth, belonged to the king. When a king died, the people convened to elect his successor; but, though heirship was not fully entitled to ascend the throne, the eldest son of the deceased king was generally chosen, in order to avoid disputes. Upon the failure of the blood royal, the election was entirely free. The government seems, on the whole, to have been almost an absolute monarchy, of a mixed, hereditary, and elective nature.
The peasantry was, in this early age, almost the only corporation of Scandinavia. By a peasant was understood, not alone a husbandman, an agricultor, but every free-born person who was possessed of real estates, with whatever office he else might be invested. Thus the peasantry constituted the people. But above the peasants ranked the chiefs or leaders, not on account of peculiar privileges, but of the greater credit and influence they enjoyed, because they were in possession of larger property, and descended from distinguished families. From among such families the kings in general took earls (Jarler) to rule the conquered provinces, and all the warriors and officers who constituted their court (Hird). The peasants and the chiefs constituted the Diet, and met at the assize (Thing), a place selected for this very purpose, and surrounded with holy ash trees or with a circle of stones. Here they consulted concerning war and peace; here the kings were elected; here the laws were passed or annulled, and lawsuits decided; and without the consent of the Diet the king could not decide upon anything of consequence. The laws were few and simple, consisting mostly in customs; the punishments were mild, and most crimes could be atoned for by paying a fine; yet assassination, high-treason, arson, and burglary, were now and then punished, either by slavery, outlawry, or forfeiture of life. The slaves were divided into native Scandinavians and foreigners. In the many wars which the Norsemen waged with southern Europe, they made prisoners, who became slaves, if their relatives or friends could not pay for their liberation. Also, many slaves were made by trade. Their condition was miserable. The ancient Norsemen hardly acknowledged slaves to be men. A slave might be beaten, starved, and otherwise tormented, or be killed by his master’s order, and the abuser might go unpunished. They could not buy, sell, nor inherit—not take oath, not marry—but were sold and bought as other wares. Slaves never carried arms, except when expressly armed for military service. One of the most toilsome but necessary labors of slaves, was the preparation of corn or wheat. In those ages there were neither wind nor water mills, corn being beaten by slaves, or pounded, or ground in a hand-mill There were, however, many slaveholders who never practised these cruelties, and the slaves of Scandinavia were, on the whole, treated with more humanity than in other parts of Europe. Slaves were even sometimes let out to serve other citizens, and in that case they were permitted to have a part of their wages, and the money thus earned was often saved to purchase the liberty of the slaves. A kind master granted, sometimes, a faithful slave his liberty, whose children then could become citizens, and enjoy all civil privileges. Of course, the introduction of Christianity put a stop to many abuses of slavery, and the first Scandinavian Christians treated their slaves kindly, approving of St. Paul’s words to the Athenians: “God made of one blood all nations of the earth, bond and free.”
Upon the whole, nothing is more horrible and affecting than such debasement of a fellow creature. The Greek poet, Homer, who lived about twelve hundred years before Christ, says truly: “Whatever day makes man a slave takes half his worth away.”
Of the great European Emigration the Norsemen were, properly speaking, not partakers, except as far as Jutlanders, Angles and Saxons, at about the same time, under the command of the two brothers, Hengist and Horst, set out for and conquered England, and erected the Saxon Heptarchy, the history of which is very obscure. The duration of the several kingdoms, till their union under Egbert, is almost all that can be noted with any approach to historical certainty. But it is beyond all question, that the Cimbri and Teutons, and later, the Goths and Longobeards, and the other people mentioned, have emigrated from Scandinavia, except, perhaps, that some single crowds from the north might have joined the kindred tribes south of the Baltic. But after that great agitation, called the European Emigration, had subsided, an emigration from Scandinavia commenced in the seventh and eighth centuries, breaking out violently in the ninth and tenth centuries. The Normans (the Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes, commonly styled so in southern Europe,) had undoubtedly formerly made frequent expeditions (Vikingefarter) to near and far-off regions; but now their expeditions began to be made in greater numbers, intending not only to obtain booty, but even possessions and dwellings abroad. The union of the provincial territories under one king, both in Denmark and Norway, and the introduction of Christianity, and the change of manners and customs connected therewith, had made many dissatisfied with their native country. This, together with a strong desire for a warfaring life, induced numerous crowds from all regions of the North to go away to seek a new homo; and the southern lands, which by the dissolution of Charlemagne’s empire, were enervated and entirely defenceless,were a tempting bait for the Normans. Their expeditions extended from the Baltic straight down to the coasts of Africa, and to the innermost parts of the Mediterranean sea, which had so often formerly resounded with the strife of Latin arms. Nor were their enterprises confined to these coasts. They descended all along the shores of Portugal and Western France, and thereafter along the largest rivers of Europe—Elbe, Rhine, Scheldt, Seine, Loire, Garonne, and Rhone. They dared, on their small flat-bottomed vessels, to make irruption into the inland parts of the countries, spreading terror and causing the most terrible havoc wheresoever they went. The flourishing cities of Holland and Germany, Nimvegen, Liege, Bonn, Cologne, and Aachen, were consumed by their fire, and they went over the entire dreadful drama of warlike glory. Finally Arnulf, the German Emperor, put a stop to their invasions and cruelties, after having completely defeated them near Lóven, in Belgium.
To France was the cruel Danish Viking, Hastings, a horrible scourge. He marched twice to the gates of Paris, plundered, and exacted tribute. The third time Paris was saved by the bravery of Count Odo, afterwards King of France. Then he prepared to set out for Rome, resolving to give full way to his natural desire for conquest; but mistaking the city Luna for Rome, he attacked and obtained it. Yet no rest for France, until Charles the Foolish, King of France, gave up to Rollo, or Rolf Gange, a Norwegian chief, a whole province, which was now called Normandy. Alfred the Great, of England, had, in resisting the cruel Hastings, to withstand a skillful veteran. For three years he had, undismayed, contended against Alfred, till he at last had to yield indignantly to that noble King of England. Hastings had marked his course with blood; but whatever was done by him, fell short of the merciless ferocity of other Danes, who, about the same time, laid England waste. Scotland, the Hebrides, and Ireland were thrown into the most extreme desolation by the Danes and Norwegians, who in Ireland were called Ostmen (men of the east.) The exclamation of a monk of Worcester is forcible: “O quam crebris vexationibus, quam gravibus laboribus, quam diris el lamentabilibus modis, non solum a Danis, verum etiam ab filiis satanicis Ilastingii, tola vexata est Anglia.” Not till the Norsemen had won pleasant dwellings, and states by them were founded in France, Italy, Ostangel, Northumberland, on the Island of Man, and the Orkney Isles, as also in Russia, where they were called Vareger, did the tumult gradually subside; while, at the same time, the fierce passions of the Norsemen were in some degree moderated by the mild precepts of the Gospel.
The oldest events in Scandinavia are only known from the old sayings or traditions, which first, at a later period, have been written down, and therefore do not give the events back in their true form, but are mixed up with fiction, which has given rise to an insuperable chronological difficulty. The traditions are so varied, that it is often impossible to discover the truth of any of the circumstances. The materials from which these traditions are compiled, are in Scandinavia, as in Rome, and Greece, the legendary ballads, which are in every country the first records of warlike exploits. Of consequence are also the calendars and annals kept by the priests, and the genealogical tables kept by the earls and other distinguished families. But poetic historians have afterwards mingled so much fiction with truth, that often only few of their assertions can be deemed authentic. The history, therefore, of Scandinavia, through the first eight centuries after Christ, until King Gorm the Old, is properly and correctly called the Fabulous Age, because deprived of the nature of historical evidence, and often involved in impenetrable obscurity, and accordingly, full of the greatest improbabilities; while the period before Christ, destitute of all light, is called the Obscure Age. Odin, supposed to have arrived in Scandinavia about seventy years before Christ, and, according to the religious ideas of the Norsemen, considered the Supreme God, is by some historians described as a real historical person—a mighty king—who has ruled the northern countries. Several sons are ascribed to him, who, after his death, divided Scandinavia into equal parts. Heimdal is said to have reigned in Skane, Niord in Sweden, Seming in Norway, Balder in Angel, (Schleswig,) and Skjold in Sjelland (Zealand) and Jutland; the latter being the head of an illustrious generation of kings, called Skjoldunger, who are said to have resided in Leire, (Lethra,) twenty English miles from Copenhagen. In Christ’s time FrodeFredegod (Pacific) is said to have been King of Denmark. The rulers at that time were not called kings, but Drots, and Rig, ruler of Skane, adopted first the title of Icing. A new generation begins with Dan Mykillati (The Splendid). Almost all historians agree that he was the founder of the country called Denmark. Some have from him derived the name Denmark; but it is more probable that it has originated from the word Dan, denoting low or flat, and from Mark, denoting overgrown with wood; the name Denmark thus denoting a flat land, overgrown with wood. After a reign of forty years, with the utmost justice and reputation—thus record the old sayings—he died greatly lamented by his subjects. He ordered his courtiers to bury him solemnly, and in full equipage, in a hill; and because it from his time became customary to bury the kings in such hills, the following age is called the Hill Age. At a subsequent time Rolf Krake was king. The graces of his person are said to have equaled those of his mind; and his stature and strength to have been so extraordinary, that he was surnamed Krake, an old Danish word expressive of these qualities. He has become famous for his bravery and martial spirit, and for the twelve giants (Berserkers) he kept at his court; among whom Bjarke, Hjelte, and Wiggo ought to be named. Berserker is a word of frequent occurrence in the Sagas, and denotes giants or warriors. They were often seized with a kind of frenzy, either arising from an excited imagination, or from the use of stimulating liquors—committing then the wildest extravagances, and striking indiscriminately at friends and foes. Rolf Krake was killed by the base perfidiousness of his own sister, Skulda, married to Hjartvar, Rolf’s viceroy in Skane, whom he had distinguished by numberless instances of his favor, and even exempted him from paying taxes for three years. Meanwhile Hjartvar, prompted by his wife, buckled for war; making haste, at the time expired, to Leire, where he in the night assaulted the sleeping king and his Berserkers, who had intoxicated themselves at a banquet Rolf had given in honor of his sister’s arrival. Rolf and all his Berserkers were put to the sword, except Wiggo, who promised to avenge the death of the king. He kept his promise, and pierced Hjartvar with seven dagger-stabs.
In the middle of the seventh century the brothers Rerek and Helge, thus sing the old Sagas, reigned jointly in Leire, at the same time as Ivar Vidfadmie (i. e., who surpasses his bounds,) made himself ruler over a great part of the North, besides Sweden, which he already ruled. To enter into possession of Sjelland, he gave his daughter, Audur, in marriage to Rerek, though she herself preferred the more warlike Helge. After that, he kindled variance between the brothers, so that Rerek, in a fit of jealousy, killed his brother, whereafter Ivar Vidfadme succeeded in conquering Rerek and becoming master of Sjelland. But some time after, Ivar lost his life on an expedition to Russia (Garderige), whither his widowed daughter had fled for refuge. About this time Hamlet, a Danish prince, whom Shakespeare has immortalized, is said to have enjoyed for a great number of years the Danish throne. It is, however, doubtful, in spite of assertions to the contrary, whether Hamlet ever was king of Denmark, all the best critics affirming that he was killed in a battle, just as he was endeavoring by force to succeed to the crown; and even Saxo Grammaticus does not place him among the Danish monarchs. Harald Hildetand, a son of Rerek and Audur, now brought under subjection all the countries his grandfather, Ivar Vidfadme, had ruled, and became a mighty and sovereign king. But, after bearing sway a long time in peace, Sigurd Ring, his nephew, and viceroy in Sweden, raised a sedition against him. The memorable battle was fought at Bravallahede, in Smaland, Sweden, where the most noble heroes and giants of the whole North encountered; amongst whom was the notable Stoerkodder, whose bravery and gigantio size have been so much praised in the heroic songs. But Harald Hildetand fell in the battle, Sigurd Ring gaining the victory; whose reign, however, is not worthy of much notice. He is said to have founded the city of Ringsted, in Sjelland, called after him. The more remarkable has his son, RegnerLodbrok, become, of whose exploits and enterprises of hazard the old sayings record so much. Perpetually roving in defiance and war, partly on the southern and eastern coasts of the Baltic, partly in Flanders, partly in Scotland, Ireland, and England, and being lord and ruler wheresoever he went, he was, at last, captured by King Ella, of Northumberland, who, so say the English historians, throw him, bound, into a dungeon filled with snakes, vipers, and poisonous animals; thus ingloriously putting an end to a life grown old in glory and victory. The great Danish historians, Saxo Grammaticus, Pontanus, and Meursius, correspond with the English in this circumstance. His four sons avenging his death, divided now the wide-spread realm which Ivar Vidfadme, Harald Hildetand, and Sigurd Ring had gathered together. Bjórn Jernside obtained Sweden, Hvidsaerk Jutland and Wenden, Ivar Beenlós Northumberland, and Sigurd Snake-eye Denmark, Skane, Halland and Southern Norway. The historian, Meursius, speaks in high terms of Sigurd Snake-eye. “God,” says he, “enabled him to complete a reign as pregnant with real felicity as any which the annals of Denmark can show.” A grandson of his was Gorm the Old, who collected the separate Danish provinces into one aggregate body.
Thus has been traced the History of Scandinavia, from the fabulous age down to the period of historical evidence; on the accounts of which we accordingly could bestow an implicit credit. Christianity, also, now commenced to be preached; paganism at length entirely disappeared, and the influence of a purer faith became discernible in the lives and actions of the old Norsemen
PROMULGATION OF THE GOSPEL BY Ansgarius—Gorm the Old and his Queen, Thyra Dannebod—Harald Bluetooth—Christianity—Civil War—Palnatoke—Svend Splitbeard—Viking Association—Battle by Svolder—Conquest of England—Harald—Canute the Great—England and Denmark united—Pilgrimage to Rome—Battle by Helge-River—Ulf Jarl—Conquest of Norway—The union with England ceases.
A few years before Gorm’s accession to the Danish throne, the promulgation of Christianity was commenced, but met with great opposition from the warlike mind and rude manners of the people. The humble and self-denying spirit taught by Christianity was in no accordance with the stubborn mind of the ancient Norsemen. The Christian idea of the life to come, as a spiritual union with God and the Saviour, was very much opposed to the hope of the northern pagans for Valhalla, and the sensual enjoyments expected there. The doctrine of fasting, abstemiousness, and chastening the body, displeased the Norsemen, who wished to enjoy the pleasures which this life offered them, and appreciated a strong and vigorous body. A long time, therefore, passed away, till Christianity as an active principle entered their hearts; but it is to be observed, that the victory was gained, not, as in many adjacent countries by violence and compulsion, but by the intrinsic power of the Gospel itself. Several points, also, of the heathen doctrine facilitated the introduction of Christianity. The doctrine of the pious Balder, of the destruction of the gods, after which a holy and righteous God was to rule, paved the way for the Christian ideas. The heathens’ Loke, Gimle, and Nastrond, became easily the Christians’ devil, kingdom of heaven, and hell; as also the outward pomp and splendor of the Catholic divine service influenced the tractable mind of the ancient Norsemen. The Frankish emperors (the Franks were some petty German tribes, who in the fifth century had established themselves as a nation in the provinces lying between the Rhine, the Weser, the Maine and the Elbe, including the greater part of Holland and Westphalia,) endeavored to spread Christianity among the Norsemen, in order thereby to bridle these troublesome neighbors. Charlemagne had with violence compelled the Saxons to embrace Christianity, and thus deprived the people of its independence. But the daring and efficient Godfred, King of Jutland, apprehending his designs, protected the Saxons, and commenced war. Making large progress. and even threatening to visit Charlemagne in his residence, Aachen, the emperor was happy enough to get rid of that intelligent and brave enemy, Godfred unfortunately being treacherously killed by one of his own people. His successor, Hemming, made peace with Charlemagne, by which the river Eider was appointed the limit between Denmark and Germany. Louis the Pious, a son of Charlemagne, not so able as his father, but of a more pious mind, concerned himself very much in spreading Christianity in Denmark, sending thither the Archbishop Ebbe, of Rheims, who, nevertheless, did not perform anything of consequence. But a Jutlandish sub-king, Harald Klak, who had been banished from the country, fled to the emperor for refuge, hoping by his aid to regain the kingdom. While staying there, Harald was baptized in Ingelheim, by Mainz, the emperor himself being sponsor at the christening, and putting on him the white baptismal robe. It was after his return from Germany that we may date the era ef Christianity in Denmark. Ansgarius, called the Northern Apostle, a learned and pious monk in the cloister of Corvey, Westphalia, was the happy instrument of spreading Christianity in the North. The emperor was looking for a man who could guide Harald Klak home, strengthen his faith, and spread the Christian doctrine amongst his people. Ansgarius undertook this bold and difficult enterprise; and, attended by another energetic monk, Autbert, arrived in Denmark, where he first resided in Hedeby (now the city of Schleswig), at that time a flourishing commercial city, and erected a missionary school, preaching the Kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ. Such was the force of truth—or such, perhaps, the inconstancy of human nature, always eager after novelty—that Christianity spread with amazing rapidity, and was greatly aided in its progress by the zeal and piety of the king. After some years’ preaching and baptizing in Denmark, he went, advised by the emperor, to Sweden, preaching Christianity there for a year and a half. The emperor, learning what rapid progress the new doctrine had made in Scandinavia, purposed now, in order to promote it still further, to erect an archbishopric in Hamburg; and Ansgarius, with whose Christian zeal he was highly pleased, was accordingly appointed Archbishop. Autbert, his faithful and pious attender, was already dead, deeply bewailed by Ansgarius. But the Northern Vikings (freebooters) some time after attacking and ravaging Hamburg, put unfortunately a considerable stop to the missionary undertaking of Ansgarius. Through several years he had to ramble about, helpless and forsaken; while the disturbances, which broke out at the soon ensuing death of the emperor, could but withdraw attention from the advancement of Christianity in the North. Finally, Louis the German, interesting himself in the subject, united the bishopric of Bremen with the archbishopric of Hamburg, and took care of Ansgarius, who anew commenced to preach, set the school of Hedeby again on foot, and, because of the favor he enjoyed with the Jutlandish sub-king, Erik, was permitted to build in this city the first church—the very first—in Denmark But upon returning from another journey in Sweden, ht found King Erik dead, and Christianity under persecution of the new king, who put several of the most devout and zealous Christians to death, who had refused to abjure their religion. Others he forced or bribed into a compliance with his will. He leveled all the churches with the ground, and sent an army to ravage Saxony, chiefly because the people of that country had received the light of the Gospel. But Ansgarius spoke so convincingly to the king, that he not only withdrew his resentment, which had grievously oppressed the Christians, but published entire liberty of conscience, and embraced the true faith. He erected, at his own expense, a magnificent church at Ripen, in Southern Jutland, ordered the pagan temples to be razed, and now became as zealous a Christian as a little before he had been a bigoted heathen. Upon the recommendation of Ansgarius he appointed persons properly qualified for teaching the Gospel in every corner of his dominions, allowed them handsome salaries, and took Ansgarius for his counselor, not only in spirituals but in temporals likewise. He died the proselyte and chief support of that religion which, only a few years before, he had persecuted with such cruelty and bitterness. Of the new church erected by him at Ripen, Rembert, a disciple of Ansgarius, was appointed minister. At sixty-four years of age Ansgarius died in Bremen, after a powerful and self-denying endeavor for spreading the Gospel in Scandinavia. Rembert, above mentioned. succeeded him in the archbishopric, acting with the same apostolic zeal as his great teacher, whose biography he has written and published in Latin. A following king of Denmark, by the name of Frotho, prepared, the better to propagate the faith, an embassy to Pope Sergius III., to acknowledge his supremacy in spirituals, and to request that he would send some persons perfectly qualified to teach the Gospel in Denmark, when death claimed him, and deprived his people of an excellent prince. The spread of Christianity in Scandinavia gave additional vigor to the papal power, for the Norsemen, with all the zeal of new converts, became eager to prove their sincerity by some enterprise in support of the pontiff, whom they regarded as the great director of their faith and hope.
Shortly before the death of Ansgarius, the famous and heroic king Harold Hairfair, of Norway, so called because of his long and beautiful hair, commenced his bold and glorious career. He ascended the throne in. At that time Norway was divided between thirty-one petty kings, against whom he immediately commenced making war, till they all were subdued and he had become the sole ruler of all Norway himself. That which induced him to wage so long and hazardous a warfare, was, besides his ambition and strong desire of superiority, his intense love of the two handsome princesses Ragna and Gyda. Ragna he saw at a Christmas festival, and wooed her; but she said that, before consenting, she should wish to know whether he or another should rule Norway. At this bold question the king flew into a passion; but the young lady answered calmly, “I should deem it more proper if thou didst pour out thine anger upon all those petty kings with whom the country swarms.” Apt words have power to assuage the heat of a passionate mind. The king confessed the truth of her remark, and promised not only to war against all of them as long as one was left, but he even enacted a law that forbade all violence against women, under the penalty of banishment. Afterward, Harold was enamoured of the beautiful Gyda, who had been brought up with a rich peasant. Embassadors were sent to court her in behalf of the king. The proud Gyda answered, “Please tell the king that I will give him my hand and my heart, but only upon the condition that he makes himself indisputable sovereign of all Norway, and rules this realm with the same supremacy with which the kings of Denmark and Sweden do theirs.” No sooner was this answer conveyed to Harold than he exclaimed, “I swear, by Him who made me and all that is, that I will neither cut nor comb my hair until all Norway has submitted to my authority!” Harold faithfully kept his word, and at his death the whole kingdom was subject to his sceptre. But not only the tremendous power which he wielded in a military point of view makes him remarkable; he is still more remarkable for his trampling under foot all the objects of credulity and idle superstition then so deeply rooted in his subjects, and for raising his mind to the invisible Master, the Father of the sun and all the universe. His words in a political assembly in the year 932, when Christianity had not yet found its way to that country, deserve to be quoted: “I swear, in the most sacred manner, that I will never offer sacrifices to any of the gods adored by my people, but to Him only who has formed the world and what I behold in it.”
He was succeeded on the throne by his son Erik
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