The Scandinavian Homer

W.G. Collingwood (1854 - 1932), translation of Sæmund's Edda (1908). The god Odin hangs in the tree, having sacrificed himself. Photo: Wikipedia.

Geographically, Ancient Greek, ancient Rome and Scandinavia are not that far apart. The expeditions of Greek armies, colonists and traders and Roman ventures exceeded the frontiers of Asia. Roman expeditions reached the shores of Denmark in the age of August, the first Roman emperor. Greek and Roman artefacts, coins and military equipment have been found in large numbers in Scandinavian countries as a result of trade, booty and diplomatic contacts.

Museums in Norway, Denmark and Sweden display Greek and Roman golden objects, ceramics, glassware and jewelry. Scandinavian amber, walrus ivory and furs were exported to the Mediterranean. Greek and Roman religion had strong similarities with the Scandinavian pantheon, both of indo-European origin with strong oriental influences.

The Scandinavian and ancient worlds are in our perception separated by oceans of barbarism on the one hand and refinement on the other hand however. It is true that the Romans never invaded Scandinavia. Monumentalization and urbanization, a system of written laws and jurisprudence, a network of roads, education and a certain bureaucratization of the central government and the development of artes liberales never materialized in Scandinavia until the year 1000.

The Christianisation of Scandinavia followed a different path as well. The developments in the Roman Empire, the Edict of Milan (313) and the legal acknowledgement of Christianity as state religion (395), didn’t reach the Pagan Scandinavian territories until 950-1050. On first sight, Scandinavia missed the most relevant developments of continental Europe.

It remains to be seen whether this was a disadvantage for the developments in the long run however. It is striking how fast, thoroughly and sustainable the Normans or Vikings (as the many Scandinavian ethnic tribes were called in the Middle Ages) implemented the Christian religion, administrative and bureaucratic structures and Christian and Latin-European art into their culture(s) and society. They founded kingdoms and sovereignties across Europe the centuries preceding and after the first millennium.

Scandinavia may not have been isolated and barbaric after all, but a territory with long lasting European (commercial) contacts and clear concepts of society, religion and law. Not the written texts (except for runic texts) and schools, but (family ) tradition, oral communication and clear division of society into the free, the slaves and the aristocracy created the social structures. Unrest, (civil) war, armed conflicts and rivalries were the rule, but ancient Greece and Rome didn´t differ that much. Greek raiders and colonists also invaded foreign countries. Rome was able to organize its ventures rather well and offered local elites and populations clear advantages and a better way of life, but (brutal) military aggression was present as well.

The eighth century witnessed the rise of a new superpower, the short lasting Carolingian Empire (800-843) and the beginning of an extreme violent period in western Europe, due to the prominent military role of thousands of warlords. The rise of the Holy German Empire from 962 and in particular the ever growing strength, influence and (military and diplomatic) power of the Church in the eleventh century checked this violence to a certain extent and brought the worst excesses to an end by exporting it by the crusades to the Middle-East.

The Vikings are the scape goats of the violent nine and tenth centuries however. The annals of the priestly chroniclers of this period, the most important written evidence, are to blame. In 617, the Vikings first appeared for the Irish coast, the Scottish Islands were settled soon afterwards.  In 793, they swarmed over the monastery in Lindesfarne and by 825 they had spread inland, seizing large cities and even staying on the British isles. In 874, the settlement of Iceland, Ireland and Scottish islands (Orkneys, Faroe, Caithness, the Shetlands) began. They settled in Normandy in 911, while the Swedes had swept through Russia and Ukraine, founding new kingdoms and were even threatening the Byzantine Empire in 907 .The Danish occupied Wendish territory and established a settlement on the Prussian coast. Wherever they went, they left their impress on the country, culture, people and institutions. The invading Normans were everywhere adjusting and adapting themselves (including religion) to the new environment, to local customs, laws, institutions and languages. Their initial violence is undeniable, but far from exceptional. This was rather rather common in this period.

The Hávamál was composed between 800 and 1000. This poem is a part of an old Scandinavian verse which has come to the 21st century under the name of Edda. The poems are written in old-icelandic and are regarded Homeric in the timelessness of vitality, power and the truly universal character of the central thought and individuals. Hávamál means ‘Words of the High One’ (Wodan or Odin) and this brings scholars to the common indo-European roots of ancient Greek and Roman and Scandinavian mythology. The sustainable accomplishments of the Scandinavians go without saying as well. Greeks, Romans and Scandinavians have never been united by military force and political rule, but they all contributed to Europe. (Source: S. Johnson, ‘Old Norse and Ancient Greek Ideals’, in Ethics Vol. 49, No. 1 (Oct., 1938), pp. 18-36).