(The statue of Gefion and her Oxen at Copenhagen, Denmark)
I’ve always wondered about the origin of the myth of Gefion and the story of the creation of Zealand in Denmark. At first, it looks like just a myth but, over time, I began to feel that there may be more behind this myth that what it seems. What I write below is an idea that came to me about this that I feel is interesting enough to note down.
I should emphasize that what we are looking at is a situation that happened before the Viking invasions. Unfortunately, this is a period of time in which we have sporadic, minimal, and questionable sources. The myth of Gefion is one of the few references that may refer to this time period and, as a result, may be a good starting point to look at what happened. But, as with everything else in this time period everything, it can only be considered speculation.
In addition, this speculation is assuming that this myth describes a historic condition, which it may or may not be doing. What I mean by this is that it is a way in which a long-standing historical condition was described by the early Vikings, to give meaning to a historic fact that affected their lives. As to whether this assumption is true or not I cannot say for certain.
There are two accounts of the myth of Gefion that I’m aware of. Both were written by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson.
The ‘Gylfiginning’ in the ‘Edda’
There was a king in Sweden called Gylfi. A “vagrant” woman was supposed to of come to his kingdom and entertained King Gylfi. Here name was Gefiun. She was of the Aesir. He was so impressed by her that he gave her enough plough-land that she could do in a day and a night using four oxen. She had four sons who were oxen. Their father was a giant from Giantland. Because they were giants they had great strength and the plough cut deep and hard into the earth. In fact, it cut so hard and deep that it uprooted the land and the oxen drew the land out into the sea to the west and set the land in the middle of a sound there. Gefiun gave it the name Zealand. Where the land was there became a lake called Lake Malar in Sweden. The inlets in the lake are supposed to correspond to the headlands in Zealand.
The ‘Ynglinga Saga’
As Odin was travelling into the northern lands he stayed at Odenso (on the island f Fyn in Denmark) for a time. While there he sent Gefion northeast into Sweden to look for land. She met Gylfi who gave her a ploughland. She then went to a giants home and had four children by him, who she shaped into oxen. She then yoked them to a plough and broke up the land into the sea opposite Odenso, to the east, and created Selund (Zealand). She lived there. She married Skjold (who founded the Danish Skjoldung line of kings) in Leira. Where she ploughed is now called Loginn (lake Malar in Sweden), which have the same nesses as Selund. He quotes this poem from Bragi the Old:
“Gefin drew with gladness
From the gold-rich Gylfi
Denmark’s new increase
(so that it reeked from the beasts)
The oxen bore eight eyes
And four heads
They they went forth,
Far over Vino’s bay”
Odin heard of the good land in Gylfi’s country and went over there. Gylfi could not compete with the Asapeople (who are gods). They had many dealings, using cunning and charms, and the Asapeople always won. He was powerless against them. Odin ended up settling down in a place near Logrinn called Gamla-Sigtun (old Sigtun).
THE ‘GYLFIGINNING’ AND KING GYLFI
The myth of Gefion is described at the beginning of the book ‘Gylfiginning’ in the ‘Edda’. The bulk of the story, though, speaks of King Gylfi who plays a big part in the Gefion myth. He is portrayed as somewhat ‘backward’ or ‘primitive’. Snorri has him appear as if unable to compete with the Aesir, who are better than he is. As a result, King Gylfi tries to try to find out about the Aesir by traveling to Asgard. To do this he diguises himself and calls himself Gangleri. The Aesir, being very wise, discover his intentions and create a fantasy castle to receive him. He is presented to three Kings called High, Just-as-High, and Third (all these, later in the tale, are said to be names of Odin). He is then allowed to ask all these questions about the Aesir which the three Kings answer. This question and answer dialogue is the source of many of the Norse myths we now have. This story is called the “Gylfiginning” or ‘The deluding of Gylfi’.
POSSIBLE DISTORTIONS TO THE STORY
Being that the story is a myth it needs to be looked at closely and we need to show caution. Knowing the history of Snorri Sturluson we know that he did tend to make two common distortions in many of his writings. These are:
- He often tried to make the pagan myths as if they were historical events.
- Being a Christian, he tried to belittle pagan religion.
We must also be mindful of other things that might of influenced this story, which include:
- The influence of history and time, as it was recorded years after the Viking era (Snorri was writing in the 1200’s).
- Snorri Sturluson lived and wrote in Iceland, which is a long ways from Denmark and Sweden. This distance means that it had a long way to travel to get to him. Who knows how many mouths it had to go through to get to him?
- Because the two accounts differ in many ways its possible that Snorri, himself, altered the story either deliberately or unknowingly, perhaps by remembering them differently each time he wrote the myth, which may have been years apart.
With all these factors the chances that there are distortions to this story is very high. As a result, we must keep this in mind when looking at it.
SOME FIRST REMARKS
This story first caught my attention for a number of reasons:
- The fact that both myths involved locations of the power centers of Sweden and Denmark. In Sweden the power center is located at Sigtuna and Uppsala (which are near each other). These are located near Lake Malar (Logrinn) which, incidentally, was ploughed up by Gefion to create Selund (Zealand) in Denmark. Zealand, was the power center of Denmark, with the kings living in Lejra (which is where, one myth says, Gefion lived). I felt that this can’t be coincidence but showed a specific association between the two countries as reflected in the myth.
- The importance of these areas is further supported by the fact that both Sweden and Denmark did a great sacrifice every 9 years, whereas this happened nowhere else that I’m aware of. This was supposed to take place in Uppsala in Sweden and Lejre in Denmark which are both mentioned in the myth as being associated with Gefion and are the locations of the power centers. This shows that not only is there a power association but a religious association as well. More than likely they are related.
- In addition, there were repetitive stories of disputes between the kings of Sweden and the kings of Denmark in the sagas and accounts. These have been going on for centuries. These are so prevalent that it hardly can escape notice. Disputes between other kingdoms and places tend to be sporadic and occasional and are often only a one time event. In many ways, the disputes between Denmark and Sweden (that is, Leire and Uppsala) define much of these countries histories before the Viking invasions.
All these suggests a strong Danish/Swedish connection between their respective power/religious centers. They also describe a continuous and long-going rivalry.
THEMES IN THE GEFION MYTH
There are a number of themes in the Gefion myth:
1) The name “Gefiun”: a gift
The name ‘Gefiun’ seems to derive from “gefa” which means ‘to give’, ‘to give quarter’, and ‘one is enabled’. It generally refers to something one is given. This may possibly suggest that ‘Gefion’ is a reference to a gift of some sort.
But what kind of gift?
It’s difficult to say but I often wonder that when the islands were first settled they may have seemed out-of-place in the wide expanse of sea of that area. This may have made the islands appear extraordinary and unique . . . a gift, perhaps, from god. This may even be hinted at in the name of the main island, which is Zealand, or “sea-land” meaning a unique form of land, unlike any other land. Perhaps the islands were perceived as ‘sacred’ in some way and may have been thought of as being Divine and set apart from the mainland? Their sense of extraordinariness is further hinted at by the fact that it was created by mythological beings (Gefion and the oxen).
All this is too vague to say for certain.
2) The reference to “movement of land”
Being that it is a movement of land, from Sweden to Denmark, it may hint that this involved the power of the King as Kingly power which is associated with the land. A king was a king on his land only. Saint Olav of Norway, for example, had to have everyone agree that he will remain king while he was on the water when on a Viking expedition. In addition, a kings only had power over his land. As a result, while in the kings land you would be protected by his laws or “under the Kings protection”. If you went out of his lands his laws did not apply. These are just several examples of the king/land association. Because of this, the “land movement” theme, in this myth may, perhaps, refer to a rivalry or conflict between two Kings, one centered in Leire, Denmark, and one in Uppsala, Sweden.
This is particularly more apparent when you look at the areas involved in this myth. Lake Malar is next to Uppsala, the power center of Sweden. Zealand was the area where the kings of Denmark lived and therefore was their power center. This can’t be coincidence.
Since Denmark received the land from Sweden to form Zealand I’m inclined to think that it was probably a Danish developed myth as they gained “land” from Sweden. This would suggest that, not only the Gefion myth, but even the ‘gylfiginning’ (see below) is Danish in origin.
But what was this “land” that Denmark received from Sweden? I can see some scenarios:
- That the royal household was first settled in Uppsala, Sweden. Then a member of that house settled in Zealand and became king there, making Zealand his domain. Hence, the royal power, represented by the “land”, was taken from the Swedish Uppsala royal house and “transplanted”, so to speak, to Zealand in the myth. In this way, the “land” may be a mythological representation of a settlement in Zealand by a member of the Uppsala royal house thereby giving it its “land” or ‘power’.
- Perhaps a member of the Uppsala royal house was allowed to be King in Zealand by the King in Uppsala, hence it being a “gift” (per the name of Gefion, as described above)? Being a gift, in this way, may mean that he was not a King originally, but just a family member or, perhaps, someone who somehow deserved it (such as a warrior).
- I’ve even speculated that, perhaps, the whole Danish/Swedish dispute is because the person in Zealand made themselves King against the King in Uppsala’s wish, which caused resentment in Uppsala?
Of course, we have no way of knowing.
3) The degradation of King Gylfi of Sweden
In both accounts of the Gefion myth, it is spoken of that Gefion went to Sweden in King Gylfi’s land. There, she basically ‘duped’ Gylfi into giving her land that would create Zealand. This makes Gefion a representative of Denmark and Gylfi as a representative of Sweden. This situation suggests several themes:
- Gylfi was degraded, humiliated, or belittled.
- Denmark received something from Sweden.
This seems to suggest that this story may be associated with the rivalry between the two kingdoms that went in favor of Denmark. It basically shows a success in this rivalry for Denmark. In this way, this shows that the Gefion myth is a result of this rivalry and, as a result, is Danish in origin. Being that it was described in mythological terms may mean that this rivalry was old by the time of the Viking era, hence our inability to find any account of it.
4) The name “Gylfi”: land/sea references
There seems to be three references to the meaning of the name Gylfi that I’m aware of:
- An association with the sea. This is referred to in the ‘Skaldskaparmal’ by Snorri Sturluson. There it says that ‘sea’ is sometimes called “Gylfi’s land”.
- A reference to a generalized name for a King in general, particularly a ‘sea King’ or Viking. This also referred to in the ‘Skaldskaparmal’.
- Gylfi is also spoken of as one of 9 sons of Halfdan the Old that were born together. These 9 sons were supposed to be very famous as warriors and were often used synonymously for King or Earl. Because it is in regard to a specific person I’m inclined to think that this is coincidence and does not have anything to do with the myth. This is also referred to in the ‘Skaldskaparmal’.
Because the name Gylfi has been used in other contexts its possible that it means that Gylfi may not be based on an actual man at all, but a mythical figure. This seems likely, as both Gefion and her four sons are mythical. Because of this, I’m inclined to think that King Gylfi, in the Gefion myth, is also ‘mythical’ or is a generalized name and not a reference to an actual person.
It cannot be coincidence that the Gefion myth describes the origin of Zealand, “sea-land”, involving a man called Gylfi, in which sea is referred to as “Gylfi’s land”. In both cases, it’s as if the sea is described as “land” in some way. But why? Here’s some thoughts:
- Could it be that the islands of Denmark were associated with a sacredness? Perhaps this is why there was a great temple at Odense on the island of Fyn to the west of Zealand? Odense supposedly means ‘Odin’s temple’ and Odin figures prominently in this myth. I’ve often speculated that the island Fyn may have been a religious center for Odin originally, perhaps, because it was an island, being perceived as removed from the world, hence sacred. This is not unusual as several Viking accounts describe how they used islands for sacred events (such as ‘King Gautreks saga’ – see my article: “Interesting facts from “King Gautrek’s saga”“).
- Could it be that this area was known for people who lived on their ships as, for the Vikings, their “land” was their ship on the sea? Could this be a reference to long-standing Viking attacks? Could it, perhaps, refer to multiple attacks that were waged against Zealand by Swedes? The ‘Ynglinga Saga’, an account of early Swedish Kings, states there were many raids upon Denmark by the kings of Uppsala. Denmark, and especially Zealand, was an area that was situated in the center of trading, making it an easy target for Viking attacks.
Either way, it appears that the islands of Denmark were viewed in a ‘special’ way. It appears that the Danish islands were perceived as being more than normal “land” though the exact context of this is unclear.
A MYTH OF A DANISH/SWEDISH RIVALRY?
As I stated above, I questioned if this myth refers to a long-standing Danish/Swedish rivalry turned into a myth. It would have to be very old as it seems to predate recorded history. As near as I can tell I cannot find any reference to the origin of this rivalry. The main reason why I suspected this is because of the continual references of conflicts between Sweden (in Uppsala) and the Kings of Denmark (based in Leire). The accounts seem to give this image that, in the early years, the disputes were always between Uppsala and Leire. Hardly ever is there any mention of other people in Sweden, or even Norway, at least in the early years.
What makes this even more interesting is that Uppsala and Leire are a long ways apart . . . there was no instant communication back then. The fastest way to travel between these areas is by ship which would have taken weeks, perhaps months. Any correspondence would be slow process. Normally, you’d think that any disputes would be toward people near each other and not far away, as in this case. Because of the long distance it suggests that there was a great bond between Uppsala and Leire. Because of this I tend to feel that it was a ‘family royal dispute’. That is to say, the Kings of Sweden, in Uppsala, were related to the Kings in Denmark, in Liere. For a bond like this to happen it would most likely have to be a blood association . . . relatives.
In addition, its interesting that between Uppsala and Leire is the whole of southern Sweden which, in many accounts, had many people and leaders. Why were there no disputes with these people? I think its clear that there was ‘some connection’ between Uppsala and Leire.
Examples of Danish/Swedish conflict
So far I am unaware of any account that describes why this rivalry began. Much of the histories (such as the ‘Ynglinga Saga’ and ‘Heminskringla’) seem to automatically start describing conflict with no hint as to their origin or cause. The rivalry is just “there” as if it always existed. This makes me think that the rivalry is very old, certainly predating the Viking era (about 800 AD), and probably centuries before that too.
A lot of the ‘Danish History’, by Saxo Grammaticus, is nothing but the conflicts between the Danes and the Swedes. The first account of this conflict, though, begins as if it was always there. It describes the account of the Danish King Gram and the Swedish King Sigtryg. In this story, King Gram goes to Uppsala, apparently as a result of a repulsion to the idea of a princess in Uppsala marrying a giant. Though it does not describe the cause it describes a familiar theme in this rivalry: the repulsion of the Swedes by the Danes. Looking at the many accounts, there appear to be many similar situations such as:
- Unjust marriages in Sweden.
- The sacrifices that take place in Uppsala, Sweden.
- The worship of things, such as cattle, that took place in Uppsala, Sweden.
- The sorcery that takes place in Uppsala, Sweden.
- The greed of the Swedish kings.
- The deceitfulness of the Swedish kings.
One can see that, in all the accounts, they seem to reflect how the Danes were repulsed by something going on in Uppsala. In other words, all accounts are from the Danish perspective and reflected how they were bothered by things in Uppsala.
This rivalry seems to of gone on for generations, and possibly centuries, before the Viking invasions. This is very apparent in ‘The Danish History’ but many other accounts refer to it such as ‘The Saga of Hrolf Kraki’ and ‘The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok”. I should point out that these two later saga’s happen in the Viking era whereas ‘The Danish History’ happens before the Viking era showing that it is, indeed, a long-standing conflict.
The ‘Peace of Frode’
It appears that the rivalry lasted so long that the periods of times when there was peace was given a special name: the ‘Peace of Frode’. For something so long-standing there would naturally be periods of peace, something lie the détente during the Cold War. During this time, there would be a lessening of bitterness and they would be friendly toward each other. As a result, a “peace” would result. I tend to think this is what the ‘Peace of Frode’ meant, and that it didn’t refer to a one-time event during a specific reign, as is often supposed. I mention this because the ‘Peace of Frode’ is mentioned in many accounts at different times and under different Kings. This makes me think that the ‘Peace of Frode’ is referring to peace between the two Kings regardless of when it happened. Typically, it’s compared to the peace during the time of the Roman emperor Augustus. Knowing that latter accounts tended to try to Romanify everything, especially after the Christian conversion, I’m inclined to think that it’s a modification of an existing condition. In other words, they tried to make it fit the Roman model.
The resemblance to a family feud
This rivalry, in some respects, has a quality of a family feud. It’s a dispute that went on for generations and between the same power centers. In fact, its possible that the rivalry between Denmark and Sweden went on so long that it created:
- A feud that went on so long that no one could even recall what started it. This is why there are no accounts of it.
- It became such a part of life that no one questioned it . . . it was just the ‘way of things’. As a result, it started an ‘acceptance’ of the dispute which may of paved the way for the ‘acceptance of the Viking invasions.
- It turned the main god of these power centers – Odin – into a ‘war god’ as a result of the ongoing rivalry and conflict.
A religious conflict?
An aspect of this rivalry appears to be due to religious influence. Odin is described as being involved with the areas in which the rivalry is involved. As a result, the Gefion myth is greatly associated with the Norse god Odin. Because of this, the rivalry may, to some extent, revolve around Odin, his worship, and the power the King derives from him as there appears to be an association between Kingly power and Odin . Many Kings, even in Anglo-Saxon England, claimed descent from him as a result. In many ways, the power source of these power centers appears to be Odin himself. This would then make this a religious conflict.
The accounts state that there were two “temples” or “shrines” of Odin, one by each power center. The one in Denmark gave the city Odense (‘Odin’s shrine’) its name. It was supposedly founded in 988. The one in Sweden was in Uppsala (‘Upper Hall’). There also seems another association with Odin with Sigtuna (‘Victory Town’?), some several kilometers east of Uppsala. Supposedly, Sigtuna was founded in 980. Both of these towns were apparently founded in about the same time. Also, they were founded well into the Viking era. But the accounts seem to suggest that they actually existed earlier as many of the accounts of the kings in Saxo Grammaticus’ account are earlier than the 980’s. Interestingly, the period of founding is the time of Christian conversion. This makes me think that the official ‘founding’ of those towns may be largely due to Christian influence, as the accounts suggest that people were living there centuries before.
Because of some references in the accounts I’ve questioned if the Swedes had perhaps taken foreign religious practices that were viewed by the Danes as repulsive. It’s possible that they may have taken some of them from the Lapps up north. Its possible that the Swedes took on foreign religious practices that the Danes felt ‘corrupted’ Odin and, therefore, to offense. One reason why I think this is because the accounts state unusual religious practices by the Swedes in Uppsala, a place even the Danes acknowledged as where Odin lived. Could this of caused a ‘religious dispute’ between these two royal families? It’s impossible to say for sure.
One thing that is mentioned numerous times is the Danes condemnation of sorcery and magic by the Kings in Uppsala. It’s interesting that the ‘Ynglinga Saga’, which describes the history of the early Kings of Sweden, specifically states that sorcery and magic was considered ‘unmanly’ and therefore gave it to the females. Considering the conditions as I’ve described them above, this sounds like it might be a Danish perspective as it follows the familiar condemnation of the Swedes that the Danes did in this rivalry. This is very possible as it was written by Snorri Sturluson who appears to of taken the stories and myths from the Danish and Norwegians (see below).
I’ve often wondered if the ‘educating’ of Gylfi about the Norse gods, as described in the ‘Gyfliginning’, is really a reference to a ‘re-teaching the Swedes about Norse gods’, so to speak, because they have strayed away. In that way, its like a ‘preaching’ to the Swedes about what their beliefs are. This may suggest that the Danes perceived the Swedes as corrupt or distorted in their beliefs.
A power struggle?
I often feel that an influence to this rivalry was the fact that Denmark was critical because it, in a sense, controlled the water passageway between the Baltic Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Denmark was in a position to do commerce or raiding or even controlling anyone who tried to get through. This gave it great strategic, commercial, and practical importance. Uppsala, on the other hand, was way up north in an out-of-the-way place, unable to do such things. Because of this Uppsala found itself without power and wealth compared to Denmark. As a result, the Kings of Uppsala may have found themselves jealous of the Danes. This may account for the many accounts of ‘greed’ on the part of the Swedish King in Uppsala which so disgusted the Danes. A good example of this is how Hrolf Kraki, the Danish King in Leire, dropped the loot he had stolen from the King of Uppsala, while he was being pursued by him, because he knew the King of Uppsala would stop and pick it up.
OTHER ASPECTS TO THE RIVALRY
Odense/Leire and Sigtuna/Uppsala
Snorri, in both accounts, mentions Odense, on the island of Fyn, as first being ‘occupied’ by Odin. This suggests that it may have been a religious center. The ‘Ynglinga Saga’ and ‘Edda’ both describe that Fyn was inhabited by Odin before Uppsala. The Gefion tale describes how Sweden was overtaken by Odin. In other words, from the accounts, it appears that Odin first occupied Denmark or, more specifically, the island Fyn at Odense. There is no mention of Odin being in Zealand that I know of. In other words, in Denmark it seems there was a “religious center” at Odense, on the island of Fyn, and a “political center” at Leire on the island of Zealand. These are two distinctly different places on two different islands. The Gefion myth refers only to Zealand and, therefore, only the “political center”. In addition, one account says that Gefion married Skjold of Denmark and lived on Zealand. Skjold was an early King in Denmark and founded the Skjoldung dynasty of Kings in Denmark that were very powerful there. Because Skjold is specifically marrying Gefion it is possible that the rivalry began with Skjold. Unfortunately, we have no definite account of this. It’s interesting that it is his son, Gram, who became King next and is the source, in ‘The Danish History’, of the first dispute with Uppsala (of the princess marrying a giant as described above).
Snorri mentions that Odin went to Sigtuna, a few kilometers west of Uppsala, perhaps representing that this was the “religious center” in Sweden. The Kings would inhabit Uppsala near the coast. There appears to be a “religious center” – with Odin as center – and a “political center” – with the King as center – in both Denmark and Sweden:
- Odense – Odin – “religious center”
- Leire – King – “power center”
- Sigtuna – Odin – “religious center”
- Uppsala – King – “power center”
This similarity is quite interesting and probably shows that we are dealing with the same people and culture.
Since most of the power revolved around the king the influence went to where the king was (Leire or Uppsala). It’s no surprise, then, that most of the conflict, in the later years, would center around the power centers of Leire and Uppsala, as they were primarily power struggles of the Kings.
It appears, though, that in Denmark Odense ceased to be a “religious center” as time went on. This may have been because it was perceived that the center of the Odin cult had been transferred to Uppsala. Because of this, Denmark began to put more emphasis on the King and Odin lost a central role.
In Sweden, they appeared to of integrated the “religious center” and “political center” in Uppsala with Sigtuna slowly disappearing over time.
Drottnar and King
In the ‘Ynglinga Saga’, it states that the early Kings of Sweden were spoken of as ‘Drottnar’. I cannot find any root word for the origin of the root word Drott. Generally, its just interpreted as ‘lord’ or even ‘warband’. This, though, seems to be of latter origin, as a result of the Viking invasions, and tells us nothing of where the word originally came from or what it originally meant. But I have speculated that Drott may have strong reference to the religious significance of Uppsala. Perhaps it has a connotation similar to ‘high priest’ or a “Pope”, as religious leader of the people? This, to me, would make sense but we will never know for sure.
During the reign of Dygvi it is stated that the Drottnar in Uppsala began to be called “Kings” after the Danish. This fact may show that Denmark was perceived, at that time, as a great power, perhaps for the reasons I describe above. As a result, the Drott of Sweden felt compelled to adopt their same title, a symbol of power, showing that the power of Uppsala was waning and fading at this time . . . another sign of the rivalry.
But why would the Danes create the title of King? The term “King” seems to originate from a word for ones people, deriving from the word “kin”. In that sense it seems to say a ‘leader of a people’. That would make sense as, if they were ‘splitting off’ of Uppsala, they would emphasize that their leaders are for a specific people (namely, the Danish people) and not anyone else. Because the term “King” is associated with people it could show that the Danes severed their association with the religious-based authority of the Uppsala Kings. In other words, they ceased to be subservient to them. They then needed to create their own authority and leadership. If this were the case then it would mean that the term “King” is Danish in origin and is a result of a breaking away from an established authority. In other words, it’s a result of a rebellion.
A POSSIBLE SCENARIO???
In my mind I keep seeing a specific scenario. Considering the minimal amount of information we have it is, of course, only speculation.
I should first point out that one of the reasons why this myth is so mystifying is because it has a ‘crisscrossing’ of movement that do not seem to describe a consistent situation:
Political power – Sweden to Denmark (the “land movement”).
Religious power – Denmark to Sweden (Odin moving to Sweden).
Normally, you’d think the powers, religious and political, would move in the same direction. According to the myth this is not the case. Because of this, it cannot be a ‘simple migration’ or a simple ‘conquering’ of a people but entail more involved and, probably, complicated conditions.
Here’s what we do know about the situation:
- There was a dispute that lasted centuries.
- There were many other kingdoms and people that were left out of this dispute.
- It seems to involve people with the same culture, gods, and myths which specifies a religious and cultural connection.
- The connections between the two people’s involve the religious/power centers of the each people.
- Odin was originally in Denmark then “moved” to Uppsala.
- The Danes accepted that Odin and “moved” and was “centered” in Uppsala.
- The Danes were appalled by various behavior by the Kings of Uppsala.
- Somewhere along the line Sweden was degraded in some way.
- Somewhere along the way Denmark received some gain.
- There is a land/sea association in the myth surrounding the islands of Denmark.
- Only Sweden had a special name for their king in Uppsala (Drott) and they took up the Danish custom of “King” later.
If I were to take the myth as representing an accurate portrayal of a condition (which it may or may not be), as well as other facts about the times, I can see a scenario describing various phases in this rivalry:
- The Danish either create the Odin cult or lay down its foundations. Whether an early form of Odin cult existed in Uppsala originally, or not, is difficult to say. I’m inclined to think Odin developed in Denmark
- The islands of Denmark either were or became perceived as “special”. Whether this was inherent with the Danes originally, or as a result of the Swedish, is difficult to say. All islands in Denmark, may have been perceived as ‘beyond the King’s control’ and given a somewhat sacred quality. This perception of Denmark being ‘beyond the King’s control’ may of helped create Denmark’s splitting off from Uppsala later on as well as a source of Denmark’s continual resistance to Uppsala. .
- Members of the Uppsala royal house move to Denmark and set up residence. Whether the moving of the royal house entailed a conquering, a result of marriage, or any other means, is unknown. It is also unknown if the Danes were given power as an independent entity, or were subsidiary to Uppsala. I’m inclined to think they were subsidiary to Uppsala in some way, at least initially.
- A special form of Odin cult may have developed. It’s possible that it was actually the Swedes that created the “center” of the Odin cult in Odense whereas the Danes originally had no specific location for him. This, at least to me, appears to be the case. In other words, it was the Swedes who created the idea of a “religious center” for the Odin cult, not the Danes. In this way, the original Danish Odin cult was changed and altered by the Swedes, creating a new form. As a result, the Danes never enforced this idea. This may have been why the Danes allowed Odense to fall easily, therefore putting emphasis on Leire and the King. In addition, it may have been why they so easily allowed the “religious center” to move to Uppsala. The idea of a “religious center” was a concept the Danes did not share.
- The “religious center” of the Odin cult moves to Uppsala. This move would mean that someone in power, for some unknown reason, moved it to Uppsala. It’s possible that, because this was apparently accepted by the Danish, it could mean that, at this time, Uppsala (the Swedes) was still considered an authority (meaning that the Danes saw themselves as subsidiary to Uppsala). But, as I described above, the Danes may of just allowed this to happen as they had no notion of creating a “religious center” for Odin.
- Because of the different conditions and influences in Uppsala the Odin cult begins to change. They start to develop different customs, attitudes and such, which appalled the Danes.
- Various disputes begin to happen between Leire and Uppsala as a result of these new conditions.
- Denmark eventually splits off from Sweden and becomes independent. This may of been when the Danish King called himself “King”.
- A rivalry begins between the two people’s that resembles a family feud and lasts for centuries. Harsh feelings are felt for generations with occasional periods of peace (the ‘Peace of Frode’).
- Because of Denmark’s location it becomes prosperous. Their location gives them a front row seat to exploiting the trade and riches passing by the islands.
- Sometime later, Sweden becomes resentful because of Denmark’s prosperity. Uppsala see’s the Danes rise in power whereas they see their power waning. This may be why the Swedish Kings took the Danish title of “King”.
- Sweden possibly attacks Denmark as part of gaining some of its wealth and/or power. Many early accounts seem to describe Viking attacks by the Swedes, in Denmark. They may of wanted to ‘cash in’ on what’s going on. No doubt, this would create many harsh feelings.
- The stage is set for the Viking invasions.
These events would have all taken place before the recording of events was firmly established during the Viking invasions. As a result, we only have bits and pieces of it. I would suspect that the time period for this to happen would be about the birth of Christ to about 600 A.D.
Danes and Swedes
For all this to happen it appears, to me, that the Danes and Swedes were of similar cultures and beliefs. But they had differences enough to create a rivalry. In this way, one could describe them as separate ‘tribes’. In addition, there were many marriage alliances between the two countries creating great bonds between them as well as a sense of responsibility. It’s possible that the ruling houses of each people were so intermarried that they may have been so closely related that it created a strong bond between the people’s which is why it lasted for generations.
The development of the Odin cult in Denmark and sacrifice
In a previous article I wrote (“Thoughts on how the Norse god Odin’s association with sacrifice, and historical circumstance, turned him into a ‘war god’ and a ‘god of the dead’“) I mentioned how Odin was greatly associated with sacrifice. It just so happens that, during the pre-Viking era there were, in fact, great sacrifices in Denmark. Interestingly, we have no real accounts of this. We know this primarily by the many bodies that have been found in peat bogs throughout Denmark. The bodies of sacrificial victims (apparently) were thrown in to peat bogs where they were so preserved that, on some of them, you can take their fingerprints. Many of these people were estimated to of been killed some time before the Viking invasions (0-500 AD or thereabouts), about the time I suspect this all happened. It stands to reason that there is probably an association between these peat bog bodies and Odin’s association with sacrifice. In other words, these peat bog sacrifices may have been to Odin.
Looking at the way of death seems to show a number of ways they were killed:
- Hanging or strangulation. Many still have the rope around their neck.
- Their throats were cut.
- Possibly a blow to the head.
- Drowning. That is to say, by being thrown into the peat bog. It appears, though, that most, or even all, were thrown into the peat bog after they were already killed.
The common latter Viking era accounts of sacrifice to Odin describe that people were generally hung or pierced with a spear, or both. These seem to show an inconsistency in how they were done. More than likely there were various ways of sacrifice, possibly varying from area to area even and even person to person. In fact, if one looks at the people in the peat bogs one see’s great variation, even in the same bog. This suggests that there was no “standard” of sacrifice. To put it another way, the Danes had no religious control to coordinate and specify the manner of sacrifice and, probably, worship as well. This is further proof that the Danes had no “religious center” and that it may have been the Swedes who brought this idea to Denmark.
In Uppsala, at least in the later years, there appears to be a number of ways they performed their sacrifices:
Both of these were done in Denmark. What’s interesting is the way in which Uppsala performed their drowning’s . . . we are told that they had a “well” in front of the temple in which they would throw people in. Supposedly, if they did not come up their sacrifice was considered ‘acceptable’ to the gods. In Denmark, they threw people into natural bogs but the people in Uppsala didn’t have bogs so it almost appears as if they “created” their own bog or place of sacrifice by drowning. The “well” may not be a well at all but something they specifically made for sacrifice. If this were the case, it would mean that the people in Uppsala were imitating the Danes showing that the Swedes were adopting Danish “worship” . . . they might of even adopted Danish gods as well. This may be further proof that Odin originates in Denmark. Not only that, the Danes repulsion of the Swedes (as described above) may be rooted in how the Swedes ‘corrupted’ the Danish worship of Odin and gods further showing that the Swedes adopted Danish customs.
The Corruption of Uppsala
It seems that, over the years, Uppsala went through a corruption of religion and power. In fact, if the idea of the “religious center” was Swedish, then they may of been corrupting worship from the beginning. In addition, they were perhaps exposed to foreign influence, perhaps from the Lapps from the north, the Fins, and other people there. This may have caused a general deterioration of religion and power in Uppsala, at least as seen by the Danish. To them, it may have appeared to corrupt the ‘Drott’ and the worship of the gods. They began to do things such as practice magic, sacrifice for odd reasons, become particularly greedy, and other things viewed as unacceptable by the Danes. In fact, very early in the ‘Ynglinga Saga’ it tells of Huld the witch who used sorcery to manipulate people, something apparently abhorred by the Danes. Things such as this appears to of appalled the Danish causing great resentment.
While this was going on, the Danes probably continued the traditional Norse worship of Odin, and continued to view the “religious center” of Odin in Uppsala, oblivious to what was going on. No doubt, over time, they’d hear of the corruption and became disgusted with it. It probably took awhile because of the great distance between Uppsala and Leire. This delay in communication may have been why it was “accepted” that Odin had “moved” to Uppsala . . . it could have been years or generations before they found out was going on.
This would mean that two forms of Odin worshipped existed:
- The original Norse worship of Odin, practiced in Denmark.
- The altered worship of Odin, practiced in Uppsala.
Leire’s break from Uppsala
Why would Leire break from Uppsala? I see a number of reasons:
- Denmark was developing more power and wealth, probably as a result of its location with the trades routes.
- Denmark began to feel independent particularly as a result of the great distance between Denmark and Uppsala.
- Denmark was becoming appalled at the behavior of the Uppsala Kings.
- The Swedes attacked Denmark as part of Viking raids which appalled the Danes.
I’m inclined to think that there is no one reason but, rather, multiple reasons or even all had an influence.
THE AEISER/VANIR CONFLICT
Could the Aiser/Vanir conflict, described in the “Voluspa” of the “Poetic Edda”, describe the Danish/Swedish conflict and rivalry? It’s difficult to say. The account is vague about it but I often wonder if it could be. Some interesting points about it are:
- The account states that the “first war” involves a lady who had spears thrown at her in Odin’s (Hor’s) hall. Is this a reference to a sacrifice to Odin? Odin is associated with a spear in sacrifice and armies were often ‘consecrated’ to Odin by having spears thrown over them. In fact, later it states that the “first war” was started when Odin through a spear. It also states that she was also burned. Could this also be a reference to sacrifice? These seem to suggest that there is an association between the “first war” and sacrifice. I would be inclined to say that it suggests that “war” was viewed, by the early Danes and Swedes, as a form of sacrifice. In other words, war was fought by Danes and Swedes as a religious act, not necessarily because of disputes and conflicts between the two people’s, as is often supposed. An early account, described in the ‘Ynglinga Saga’, is rather interesting. It tells of an early Swedish King who went to Leire and got up in the middle of the night to slip and fall into a vat of beer and drown. Could this, in fact, be a reference to a sacrificial drowning of a King from Uppsala by the King of Leire? Could the drowning in beer refer to the drowning in the peat bogs of Denmark? Could it of became a custom that the Kings of Leire and Uppsala would hunt each other down to offer sacrifice? This is very possible. It just so happens that James Frazer’s book, “The golden bough”, tries to explain the unusual custom of sacrificing Kings which this may very well be. Perhaps the rivalry between Leire and Uppsala had a far more religious meaning that has been forgotten in time?
- It states that the lady had thrown spears at her and was burned three times and that they, basically, couldn’t kill her. It then says that she “lives still”. This sounds mythological and not a reference to an actual happening or person. Perhaps this “lady” is a mythological representation of a sacrificial victim? It’s difficult to say.
- The following stanza mentions a witch who cast spells and did evil things. Its unclear of her role in all of this, if any.
- Later, it states that they either would have to give tribute or accept another belief. In other words, the Aeiser and Vanir had different beliefs. Could this be a reference to the difference in Swedish and Danish belief which seems to figure prominently in this rivalry? That is to say, is it a reference to the religious conflict I described above?
- It states that neither the Aeisir or Vanir could win over the other. This would mean that none conquered the other. In other words, they fought but could not win over each other.
- Because neither could win it states that they gave hostages to each other to ensure peace. Is it possible that the “hostages” is the ‘crisscrossing’ I described above? That is to say, the “hostages” are referred to in the myth as the “land movement” from Sweden to Denmark and the “move” of Odin to Uppsala. It’s difficult to say.
If this were the case, it would mean that the Aeiser would be the Danes and the Vanir (or Wanes) would be Uppsala. If this was the case, maybe it was this lack of war or, rather, the ‘forced peace’ caused by the truce, that created a mild tension between Leire and Uppsala which, over time, turned into the rivalry?
This would show that the rivalry was viewed in a very religious way and being involved with myth. This suggests that this conflict may be very old. In other words, it was so old that it went from memory, to legend, to myth. In fact, it seems to me that this rivalry was old before the Viking invasions began. It could very well have origin before Christ. As far as I know, the oldest Viking account of “actual” historic events probably originates from about 600 A.D. or so. By that time, the rivalry had been going on for some time, before anything was recorded.
DID THE DANISH/SWEDISH RIVALRY SET THE STAGE FOR THE VIKING INVASIONS?
I’ve often questioned if the Danish/Swedish rivalry set the stage and, in actuality, started the Viking invasions. Some of the conditions why this would have happened include:
- The fact that war, between Leire and Uppsala, may of been a form of sacrifice to Odin, as described above. This would have made war ‘acceptable’.
- The fact that the Viking invasions are associated with Odin, the god of Leire and Uppsala. He figures too prominently in both areas to escape notice.
- The long-standing rivalry may have created a hatred and dislike that became ingrained in the people and culture to the point that it became acceptable.
- The use of ships. The main contact between Leire and Uppsala is through ships making it a major medium in the association between them.
- The questing after wealth. As mentioned above, Uppsala may have quested after the wealth that Denmark had. We must also remember that Denmark was using piracy of shipping to gain its wealth. This piracy would lead to the Viking invasions.
A particular important point is the association between Odin and the Viking invasions. This is significant and shows a number of points:
- Odin was worshipped by both Leire and Uppsala.
- Odin is associated with sacrifice . . . one form of sacrifice he is associated with is war.
- This may have made it so that Odin became associated with the rivalry and wars it caused.
- Being thus established in this way, he would continue to be associated with all forms of war such as the Viking invasions.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he had been associated with this conflict from the very beginning. All in all, it appears that the Danish/Swedish rivalry, which laid the foundations of the Viking invasions, turned Odin into a ‘war god’, which is what he was portrayed as during the Viking era and, because of this, he is popularly portrayed as today.
IS THE SURVIVING VIKING MYTH REALLY DANISH AND NORWEGIAN MYTH?
This rivalry, I think, is very important as it has had great impact on early Norse history and has greatly affected Norse mythology. In fact, the main account of Norse mythology (the ‘Gylfiginning’) is situated on the theme of this rivalry. Not only that, it seems a one-sided mythology as it seems to leave out Swedish beliefs and causes. As the Viking myths written by Snorri Sturluson seems to describe things from a Danish perspective it may hint that Snorri actually was describing a Danish mythology. In other words, what has survived about early Viking mythology and Odin (primarily through Snorri Sturluson) is the mythology of the Danes, reflecting their perspectives and points of view. I mention this as I was always mystified how the accounts of what was going on in Uppsala seemed so different than the Viking mythology we have. What little we know of Uppsala describe kings who behaved differently from what was going on in Denmark. In some ways, they seem to have different religious customs. There are several accounts, for example, of how the Swedes worshipped a cow and would drive it in between opposing forces before a battle which was never done in Denmark (as far as I know). Swedish Kings also used magic and spells. All in all, the Swedish kings were described as doing more magic, sacrifice, and other odd religious things.
At this point I am unaware of any reference to any Norse myth that we know absolutely originates in Sweden . . . we only have scattered accounts of some of the things they did in Uppsala. And these accounts seem to originate from somewhere else speaking about Uppsala, as if observing it from the outside. There seems an absence of accounts of Uppsala from “inside”. If this is the case then it would mean that all the accounts originated elsewhere which would mean that we have lost a whole body of myth, tradition, belief, and history that existed in Sweden. There must have been whole other stories, and customs, surrounding the Odin culture at Uppsala. Sadly, I am unaware of anything of the Odin culture that originates directly from Sweden. This fact, really, is a tragedy.
Because of this it would also mean that Snorri got most of his general Norse mythology about Odin from the Danes, probably, and therefore reflecting their perspective on the situation . . . the Swedish perspective is all but absent. He did describe Norwegian myth, though, as many of the tales of Thor he describes were primarily from Norway, where Thor was very popular (more so than in Denmark and Sweden). Myths coming from Sweden, and even Denmark, appear to be missing Thor. This shows that Snorri actually received his mythology from Denmark and Norway.
But, because Snorri had accounts of Odin and Thor, it may have meant that he may of ‘merged’ the accounts together – the Thor accounts from Norway and the Odin accounts from Denmark – giving the illusion that they were all one ‘tradition’. In actuality, they were probably from two ‘cultures’ that, though similar, were very different: the Odin culture of Denmark and the Thor culture of Norway. This seem very likely as there is very little mention of anything involving Odin, or the creation myths, in Norwegian viking sagas.
What all this shows is how little we know more than anything else. Trying to piece together a situation with scraps is never easy. Not only that, it can never be completely right. At best, all we could possibly do is ‘point in the right direction’. Whether I have done that or not, I cannot say . . . I doubt anyone can.
Copyright by Mike Michelsen