Swedes (Germanic tribe)

Swedes (Germanic tribe)

in the 12th.Legend|#92b78b|Gotlanders ]

The Swedes ( _sv. svear; Old Norse: "svíar"; Old English: "Sweonas"; _la. Suiones, "Suehans" or "Sueones") were an ancient North Germanic tribe in Scandinavia. As the dominions of their kings grew, their land slowly evolved into the modern Swedish nation.

According to early sources, such as the Norse sagas, and especially "Heimskringla", the Swedes were a powerful tribe whose kings claimed descendence from the god Freyr. During the Viking Age they constituted the basis of the Varangian subset, the Vikings that travelled eastwards (see Rus').

Their privileged position within the Swedish kingdom was abolished in the mid-13th century.Larsson 2002:178] Until then, the Swedes had had semi-aristocratic status being only obliged to provide the King of Sweden with ships, warriors and their provisions during wars, whereas other nations within the kingdom, such as Geats and Gotlanders were tributary nations who were regularly taxed.

On the name

As the dominions of the Swedish kings grew, the name of the tribe could be applied more generally during the Middle Ages, to include the Geats. Later it returned to referring only the people inhabiting the original tribal lands in Svealand, in opposition to the Geats.

In modern Scandinavian, the adjectival form "svensk" and its plural "svenskar/svensker" have replaced the name "svear" and is, today, used to denote all the citizens of Sweden. The distinction between the tribal Swedes ("svear") and modern Swedes ("svenskar") appears to have been in effect by the early 20th century, when "Nordisk familjebok" noted that "svenskar" had almost replaced "svear" as a name for the Swedish people. [ [http://runeberg.org/nfcg/0605.html The article "Sverige", "språkv." in "Nordisk familjebok"] ] Although this distinction is convention in modern Norwegian, Danish and Swedish, Icelandic retains the traditional terminology and call both "Svíar".


Their primary dwellings were in eastern Svealand, i.e. the traditional "Folklands" of Attundaland, Tiundaland, Fjärdhundraland and Roslagen in the area of the present cities of Uppsala and Stockholm and the modern province of Gästrikland. Their territories also very early included the provinces of Västmanland, Södermanland and Närke in the basin of Mälaren which constituted a bay with a multitude of islands. The region is still one of the most fertile and densely populated regions of Scandinavia.

Their territories were called "Svealand" (the Voyage of Ohthere: "Swéoland"), "Suithiod" (Beowulf: "Sweoðeod"), "Svíaveldi" or "Svea rike" (Beowulf: "Swéorice"), and the unknown moment when they subjugated, or united politically with, the Geats in Götaland, sometime between the 6th century and the 11th century is nowadays often regarded as the birth to the Swedish kingdom, although the Swedish kingdom is named after them, "Sverige" in Swedish, from "Svea rike" - i.e. the kingdom of the Suiones. The English name "Sweden" is derived from an old name for Sweden and the land of the Suiones: "Sweoðeod" ("the people of the Suiones").

The Ásatrú Aesir-cult centre in Gamla Uppsala, was the religious centre of the Swedes and where the Swedish king served as a priest during the sacrifices (blóts). Uppsala was also the centre of the Uppsala öd, the network of royal estates that financed the Swedish king and his court until the 13th century.

Some dispute whether the original domains of the Suiones really was in Uppsala, the heartland of Uppland, or if the term was used commonly for all tribes within Svealand, in the same way as old Norway's different provinces were collectively referred to as "Nortmanni".


The form Suiones appears in the Roman author Tacitus's "Germania". A closely similar form, "Sweon(as)", is found in Old English and in the work of Adam of Bremen about the Hamburg-Bremen archbishops who are denoted "Sueones".

According to one theory (Schagerström 1931), the name is derived from Proto-Germanic *"saiwi-" meaning "lake" or "sea" resulting in *"siwíoniz" and later *"swi-oniz" meaning the "sea people". However, this root is not known to have produced any other derived names, and is considered unlikely.

Noréen (1920) proposed that "Suiones" is a Latin rendering of Proto-Germanic *"Swihoniz", meaning "one's own (tribesmen)", derived from the same Proto-Indo-European root as the Latin "suus" (i.e. not from Latin but from the same reflexive pronominal root, a root also existing in Slavic languages). In modern Scandinavian, the same root appears in words such as "svåger" (brother-in-law) and "svägerska" (sister-in-law). The form *"Swihoniz" would in Wulfila's Gothic become *"Swaíhans", which later would result in the form "Suehans" that Jordanes mentioned as the name of the Swedes in "Getica". Consequently, the Proto-Norse form would have been *"Swehaniz" which following the sound-changes in Old Norse resulted in Old West Norse "Svíar" and Old East Norse "Swear". However, this root has not gained wide acceptance, which leads to the oldest theory of which the proposed root is widely accepted.

According to a third theory (v. Friesen 1915), it is not derived from the root *"swih", but from the root *"Swe" and being originally an adjective, Proto-Germanic *"Sweoniz", meaning "kindred". Then the Gothic form would have been *"Swians" and the H in "Suehans" a pleonasm. The Proto-Norse form would then also have been *"Sweoniz" which also would have resulted in the historically attested forms.Although, scholars differ on the origins of the name, they agree that "Suiones" is the same name as Old Norse "svíar" and Old English "Sweon(as)". Even though the n has disappeared in the plural noun "svear"/"svíar", it is still preserved in the old adjective which has become the noun designating modern Swedes: "svensk".

The name became part of a compound, which in Old West Norse was "Svíþjóð", (The Suione People), in Old East Norse "Sweþiuð" and in Old English "Sweoðeod". This compound appears on runestones in the locatives "i suiþiuþu" (Runestone Sö Fv1948;289, Aspa Löt, Sörmland), "a suiþiuþu" (Runestone DR 344, Simris, Skåne) and "o suoþiauþu" (Runestone DR 216, Tirsted, Lolland). The 13th century Danish source "Scriptores rerum danicarum" mentions a place called "litlæ swethiuthæ", which is probably the island "Sverige" (Sweden) near Stockholm. The earliest instance, however, appears to be "Suetidi" in Jordanes' "Getica" (6th century).

The only Germanic nation having a similar naming was the Goths, who from the name *"Gutans" (cf. "Suehans") created the form "gut-þiuda".

The name "Swethiuth" and its different forms gave rise to the different Latin names for Sweden, "Suethia", "Suetia" and "Suecia" as well as the modern English name for the country.

A second compound was "Svíariki", or "Sweorice" in Anglo-Saxon, which meant "the realm of the Suiones". This is still the formal name for Sweden in Swedish, "Svea rike" and the origin of its current name "Sverige" with the "k" in the old form "Sverike" changed to a "g" through Danish influence.In contemporary Latvian the word "zviedri" means "Swedes" and the word "Zviedrija" (originating from "Svea rike") is the name for Sweden, showing the very old relations between the ancestors of Swedes and Latvians since the first scandianavian settlements in Grobiņa and Apuole in 6th century AD.


The history of this tribe is shrouded in the mists of time. Besides Scandinavian mythology and Germanic legend, only a few sources describe them and there is very little information, in spite of the fact that the tribe existed already during the first century A.D.


", in 500 villages, and they considered their country to be a world of its own.

What strikes the commentators of this text is that this large tribe is unknown to posterity, unless it was a simple misspelling or misreading of "Illa" S"vionum gente". This would make sense, since a large Scandinavian tribe named the "Suiones" was known to the Romans.

Tacitus wrote in AD 98 in that the Suiones were a powerful tribe ("distinguished not merely for their arms and men, but for their powerful fleets") with ships that had a prow in both ends (longships). Which kings ("kuningaz") ruled these Suiones is unknown, but Norse mythology presents a long line of legendary and semi-legendary kings going back to the last centuries BC.

After Tacitus' mention of the Suiones, the sources are silent about them until the 6th century as Scandinavia still was in pre-historic times. Some historias have maintained that it is not possible to claim that a continuous Swedish ethnicity reaches back to the Suiones of Tacitus [Dick Harrison: "Sveriges historia - Medeltiden" (2002); Fredrik Svanberg: "Decolonizing the Viking Age" (2003).] . According to this view the referent of an ethnonym and the ethnic discourse have varied considerably during different phases of history.


who were of the same stock.

Anglo-Saxon sources

There are three Anglo-Saxon sources that refer to the Swedes. The earliest one is probably the least known, since the mention is found in a long list of names of tribes and clans. It is the poem Widsith from the 6th or the 7th century:

On line 32, Ongentheow is mentioned and he reappears in the later epic poem "Beowulf", which was composed sometime in 8th, 9th and the 10th centuries. in the end of the epic of new wars with the Swedes:

When more reliable historic sources appear the Geats are a subgroup of the Swedes.

The third Anglo-Saxon source is Alfred the Great's translation of Orosius' "Histories", where are told the voyages of Ohthere from Hålogaland and Wulfstan of Hedeby, who in the 9th century described the "Sweon" and "Sweoland".

Ohthere's account is limited to the following statement about Swēoland: :Ðonne is toēmnes ðǣm lande sūðeweardum, on ōðre healfe ðæs mōres, Swēoland, oð ðæt land norðeweard; and toēmnes ðǣm lande norðeweardum, Cwēna land.( [http://web.uvic.ca/hrd/iallt2003/oldenglish/OEparagraph-5.html Excerpt presented by the University of Victoria]

:Then Sweden is along the land to the south, on the other side of the moors, as far as the land to the north; and (then) Finland (is) along the land to the north.( [http://web.uvic.ca/hrd/iallt2003/oldenglish/OEparagraph-5.html Translation of the University of Victoria]

Wulfstan only mentions a few regions as being subject to the Sweons (in translation)::Then, after the land of the Burgundians, we had on our left the lands that have been called from the earliest times Blekingey, and Meore, and Eowland, and Gotland, all which territory is subject to the Sweons; and Weonodland was all the way on our right, as far as Weissel-mouth. [http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/4076]

Frankish sources

During the 8th century and 9th century Suione traders and raiders settled in the north of eastern Europe, a country of rivers and Baltic, Slavic and Finnish tribes.

The "Annales Bertiniani" relate that a group of Vikings, who called themselves "Rhos" visited Constantinople around the year 838. Fearful of returning home via the steppes, which would leave them vulnerable to attacks by the Magyars, these Rhos travelled through Germany. They were questioned by the Frankish Emperor Louis the Pious somewhere near Mainz. They informed the emperor that their leader was known as "chacanus" (the Latin for "Khagan") and that they lived in the north of Russia, but that they were Sueones.

Adam of Bremen

Dealing with Scandinavian affairs, Adam of Bremen relates in the 11th century that the Sueones had many wives and were severe on crime. Hospitality was an important virtue and refusing a wanderer to stay over the night was considered shameful. The visitor was even taken to see the hosts' friends.

It is interesting that even if 1000 years separate Adam of Bremen from Tacitus both describe the Suiones as being composed of many tribes, probably identical to the traditional provinces of eastern Svealand. Like Tacitus, he also notes that they are powerful warriors at sea, a power that they use to keep their neighbours in order. Their royal family is of an old dynasty (see House of Munsö), but the kings are dependent on the will of the people (the Ting). What has been decided by the people is more important than the will of the king unless the king's opinion seems to be the most reasonable one, whereupon they usually obey. During peacetime, they feel to be the king's equals but during wars they obey him blindly or whoever among them that he considers to be the most skillful. If the fortunes of war are against them they pray to one of their many gods (Aesir) and if they win they are grateful to him.

Norse sagas

The Norse sagas are our foremost source for knowledge and especially Snorri Sturluson who is probably the one who has contributed the most (see for instance the Heimskringla). His descriptions concur to a large extent with those of the previous sources.

For a continuation, see "Early Swedish History".

Notes and references


*Larsson, Mats G (2002). "Götarnas Riken : Upptäcktsfärder Till Sveriges Enande". Bokförlaget Atlantis AB ISBN 9789174866414

ee also

*Mythical kings of Sweden
*Semi-legendary kings of Sweden
*Swedish people
*Mother Svea
*Trial by combat
*Trial by ordeal

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