Sweden, from violent Vikings to moral superpower

The Vikings, fearsome, violent, uncompromising people. They bring with them the sharp, swift slice from the blade and leave behind them a trail of destruction, devastation and depression.

That’s the conventional story of the Vikings that lives in our mind.

The most well told story of the Vikings is the destruction of the thriving monastery of Lindisfarne.

It was because of this plundering that the myth of the Vikings evolved.

But were the Vikings just raiders and pillagers was there more to them? How did we get from violent Vikings to the world’s Moral Superpower? How did Sweden end up as the most egalitarian and equal society in the world? There must be something in its history that would tell us something.

I decided to visit the Swedish History Museum to find out more.

The Vikings appeared only around the 8th century, however Scandanavia was already populated from 12,000 BC. The story of the Vikings is chornicles by Runestones, some of which have been located at the Swedish History Museum.

The early Swedes were known to the Romans and were described in 98 AD (by the historian Tacitus) as “a powerful tribe distinguished not merely for their arms and men, but for their powerful fleets.” The story of Viking raids has created heroes such as Ragnar Lothbrok who was a scourge for the English and the French

and his sons Ivar the Boneless who came to rule over parts of modern day Ireland and England and Björn Ironside who conquered the lands that make Denmark today.

Among the hoards of the Vikings were gold. A lot of gold.

 Vikings were certainly fearsome warriors, but they were also shrewd traders who knew how to enjoy their lives with a strong sense of the aesthetic.

 They loved a good drink,

And worked hard for their food as farmers.

Not very different from the life humans lead today. The earliest Vikings settled and built their first city in Birka and lived there for almost 2 centuries until it was abandoned.

Model of Birka

This also marked the rise of Sigtuna slightly further north which then came into prominence and became the first city of the new Christian nation. Both Birka and Sigtuna are still broadly intact and are today tourist sights.

The establishment of Sigtuna by Erik the Victorious was the start of a different Sweden, a Sweden that went from raids to rule. This new Sweden was characterised by a marked shift in religion with the Norse pagan gods replaced by the Christian God. St Angsar is commonly thought to have been the first person to have brought Christianity to the Nordic region. Sacrifices in the Dark Forest were replaced by the Sacrifice of Jesus at the altar.

Items used as part of human sacrifice practice in the Dark Forest

The Kingdom of Sweden under the successors of Erik the Victorious made a series of crusades to present day Finland to christianise the heathen land and expand their territory. This continued centuries of wars with the modern day Finns, Russians and Danes.

Christianity was a religion of the poor and because the religion was not as entrenched as it was in southern and central Europe, spiritual power was not as fully polluted by temporal political power. Early Norse religions had hierarchies and a strong culture of slavery. Partly as an identification of pee-Christian practice and the logistical difficulty in obtaining slaves, slavery, feudalism and serfdom never entrenched itself as deeply in the Christian Sweden and as a practice was officially outlawed in 1335 by King Magnus IV.

St Brigitta of Sweden

Sweden continued as a Christian Kingdom, but a poor one, run de jure by young Kings and de facto by a regent who happened to be King Christian of Denmark. The fateful decision by Christian II of Denmark to establish his authority by force led to the killing of the elites in Sweden in the Stockholm Bloodbath. The subsequent disenchantment led to the rise of Gustav Vasa, a Swedish noble and the founder of modern Sweden. Gustav Vasa’s reign also marked the start of Lutheran christianity in Sweden as part of the Reformation.

Gustav Vasa’s reign marked the start of the rise of military and political Sweden. Sweden’s most glorious period came in the 1600s when the Kingdom became an Empire.

swedish-empireSwedish Empire (Wikipedia)

And yet, throughout this time of expansion, Sweden was a military force whose conquests were hampered by a lack of food and resources.

The empire stretched all the way to the Americas and Africa.

It was only at the tail end of the wars, that a different Sweden emerged. It became a consequential scientific country with scientist like – Carl Linnaeus, Anders Celcius and Carl Scheele leading the world in the scientific enlightenment.   It was also as the wars ended that Sweden became more prosperous. This was marked by a repealed of a law against ostentatious dressing. Sexual openness became common among the upper class and ostentatious dressing became commonplace. I thought the juxtaposition of skin deep beauty and deeper physical injury a very power message.

The 18th century marked the start of the Industrial revolution and Sweden became much richer. However as the population doubled many left to find another way to survive and thrive. They emigrated to the United States and mostly settled in Minnesota.

Things changed in the 19th century with the agrarian society giving way to the industrialised one. Because of Sweden’s lack of serfdom and slavery (that was abolished in 1335) the farming culture established it self as very important in Sweden. The farming people became part of the political fabric with the establishment of the Agrarian Party (today the Centre Party). Grassroots movements continued to grow stronger and the industrialised Swedish staff gave rise to the Social Democratic Party.

 Sweden’s modern economy boomed after the two World Wars. Because of the nation’s neutrality in these conflicts the cities of Sweden never faced the devastation that the British, Germans or French did. This led to Sweden taking advantage of the situation to supply the rebuilding of Europe.

Even as a monarchy, early Sweden was comparatively more egalitarian than most, which might also explain why it is the most socially progressive and equal society in the world today. A country that is prides itself as the Moral Superpower of the World.

Quite an unthinkable story that has emerged from a violent Viking source.



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