Only real Vikings come from Norway?

If you want to visit Norway, you should try to be in the country on the 17th, or Syttende Mai, Norway’s Constitution Day, when flag-waving Norwegians bedecked in national costumes, or bunader, fill the streets. One reason to their immense cheerful nationalism (that almost only can be beaten by the States) is that Norway knows what it means not to be free. It is a “young” country in that sense it hasn’t been a sovereign state for long (during the 19th century, Sweden and Norway were ruled as one kingdom, under one King – it all ended in 1905) and it was sadly occupied by the German fascists during the Second World War. Therefore they really know how to cheer for their independence. I see the same signs here in Reykjavik, Iceland. In my own country Sweden (who never been ruled by an alien state!!) this is at times seen upon as something strange and even as something shameful. Too bad for that, because it is a hell of a party in both Oslo and Reykjavik when this takes place!

But of course, as elsewhere, nationalism can go overboard (it almost always does) causing a delivery of false information in a manner to create a more positive autobiography for the country itself. That’s the way it seems to be with Norway nowadays. I heard from my Norwegian friend, Solveig Rydland, that they in Norwegian schools learned that the Vikings originally came from Norway! And her thesis (or experience?) was evinced true today when a Norwegian group came to my museum and started to talk about Vikings. It all started when one of them stated that “it would be great fun to see the Norwegian Vikings in Iceland”. So I asked him;

“Why do you call them Norwegians?”, in a friendly tone.

“Because there were Norwegians coming here and discovering this country”, he said.

“A lot of the people who came with them were Celts. And did you know that the first Nordic settler to come here to Iceland was a Swede, named Garðar Svarvarsson?, I replied.”

Of course he did not know that. Garðar Svarvarsson isn’t exactly famous and well known, but none the less important. And the Celts who came here to Iceland were situated a notch down in the social ladder – they were thralls and slaves, therefore has their history been seen as less important and been neglected by history research.

Garðar Svarvarsson was a Swedish man who was the first Scandinavian to live in Iceland, although only for one winter (probably due to supply shortages).

According to Haukr Erlendsson’s edition of Landnámabók, he owned land in Denmark and he was married to a woman from the Hebrides (diverse archipelago off the west coast of Scotland). During a voyage to these isles (in the 860s) in order to claim his inheritance from his father-in-law, he sailed into a storm at Pentland Firth. This storm pushed his ship far to the north until he reached the eastern coast of Iceland. He circumnavigated the island, becoming the first known person to do so (!) and thus establishing that the landmass was an island, and went ashore at Skjálfandi. He built himself a house and stayed for the winter. Since then, the place has been called Húsavík (which is also the place where my girlfriend’s family on her father’s side originally comes from).

Having returned, he praised the new land and called it Garðarshólmi. Nothing is known of his fate afterwards, but his son Uni emigrated to Iceland and his grandson Hróar is named as the goði at Tunga.

Of course it was right that most of the settlers came from territories around what nowadays is Norway, but it is a falsification of history to say that they were Norwegians – it is probably even wrong to say that Garðar Svarvarsson was a Swede. Firstly, it is really hard to talk about countries during this time – the conception of a Nation State is something new. The idea of a nation-state is associated with the rise of the modern system of states — often called the “Westphalian system”. It has its origin in the era of Romanticism (around the 18th-19th centuries), at first as the natural expression of the individual peoples. Then what states existed before nation-states? Mostly it was a matter of aristocratic territories with a bigger emphasis on lineage and ancestry rather than national descent.

Secondly, because of the blurred national borders, it is much better to talk about a unified Nordic cultural zone during this time. So we had a zone of a unified and joint culture in all of Scandinavia and the northern parts of Great Britain (the Hebrides). It is therefore a time-wasting discussion to have whether Leif Ericsson was Norwegian, Swedish or Icelandic, or if the Vikings originally came from Norway (like this man actually stated in the end of the discussion).

History and history research are difficult matters. It doesn’t make it easier when you add Nationalism to it. It is nothing wrong to be proud of your country and origin, but one must have in mind that the answers that we learn in State-owned schools in our homelands most often are simplifications and propaganda.

//Carl-Mikael A. Teglund
Reykjavik – 2007


About tegis

This blog belongs to Carl-Mikael A. Teglund - tegis. Swedish emigrant with a heart for languages, philosophy, history, and politics (classical liberalism in the European tradition). Go ahead and look, read, or listen. I'm sure you will find it interesting.
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5 Responses to Only real Vikings come from Norway?

  1. tegis says:

    “most often are simplifications and propaganda.” – carried by the State (skall tilläggas) 😉 en liten vink till de som alltid tror på övermaktens godhet! 🙂

  2. Charlie says:

    Tja nu tror jeg ikke altid på overmagtens godhed, men heller ikke altid på menneskets godhed…

  3. df says:

    didnt the Vikings invade france

  4. Emil says:

    Ja nu r ju denna text skriven 2007 men jag svara nd. Fr jag har upplevt exakt samma sak som du!
    Jag har en vn som r nst intill otrevlig nr det kommer till att prata om Norsk historia. Sen har jag en annan Norsk vn som trodde att vi svenskar sg upp till normnn fr att de var riktiga vikingar. Jag upplever ett obehag nr de stter igng. Jag fr faktiskt riktigta nazi-tyskland vibbar av dom. Dom ser sig sjlv verkligen som rena arier och alla andra r frdare eller fiender. Mer eller mindre.
    Men dom har en konstig bild om omvrlden. Till exempel fr jag alltid i ansiktet att i Sverige var vi nazister under 1940 talet och frrdde Norge.

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