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Good Words 1860
Our Scandinavian Ancestors


Few subjects possess greater interest for the I British race than the Scandinavian North, with its iron-bound rampart of wave-lashed rocks, its deeply-indented fiords, bold cliffs, rocky promontories, abrupt headlands, wild skerries, crags, rock-ledges, and caves,—all alive with gulls, puffins, and kittiwakes; and, in short, the general and striking picturesqueness of its scenery, to say nothing of the higher human interest of its stirring history, and the rich treasures of its grand old literature.

The British race has been called Anglo-Saxon; made up, however, as it is, of many elements— ancient Briton, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Dane, Norman, and Scandinavian—the latter predominates so largely over the others as to prove by evidence, external and internal, and not to be gainsaid, that the Scandinavians are our true progenitors.

The Germans are a separate branch of the same great Gothic family, industrious, but very unlike us in many respects. The degree of resemblance and affinity may be settled by styling them honest, but unenterprising, inland friends, whose ancestors and ours were first cousins upwards of a thousand years ago.

To the old Northmen—hailing from the sea-board of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark—may be traced the germs of all that is most characteristic of the modern Briton, whether personal, social, or national. The configuration of the land, and the numerous arms of the sea with which the northwest of Europe is indented, necessitated boats and seamanship. From these coasts, the Northmen— whether bent on piratical plundering expeditions, or peacefully seeking refuge from tyrannical oppression at home—sallied forth in their frail barks or skiffs, which could live in the wildest sea, visiting and settling in many lands. We here mention, in geographical order, Normandy, England, Scotland, Orkney, Shetland, Faroe, and Iceland. Wherever they have been, they have left indelible traces behind them, these ever getting more numerous and distinct as we go northwards.

Anglen, from which the word England is derived, still forms part of Holstein, a province of Denmark; and the preponderance of the direct Scandinavian element in the language itself has been shewn by Dean Trench, who states that, of a hundred English words, sixty come from the Scandinavian, thirty from the Latin, five from the Greek, and five from other sources.

In Scotland many more Norse words, which sound quite foreign to an English ear, yet linger amongst the common people ; while, as in England, the original Celtic inhabitants were driven to the west before the Northmen, who landed on the east. In certain districts of the Orkneys a corrupt dialect of Norse was spoken till recently, and the Scandinavian type of features is there often to be met with.

The Norse language is still understood and frequently spoken in Shetland, where the stalwart, manly forms of the fishermen, the characteristic prevalence of blue eyes and light flaxen hair, the universal observance of the Norse Yule, and many other old-world customs, together with the oriental, and almost affecting regard paid to the sacred rites of hospitality on the part of the islanders, all plainly tell their origin. The language of the Faroe islanders is a dialect of the Norse, approaching Danish, and peculiar to themselves. It is called Faroese. The peaceful inhabitants not only resemble, but are Northmen.

In Iceland we have pure Norse, as imported from Norway in the ninth century, the lone northern sea having guarded it, and many other interesting features, from those modifications to which the Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish have been subjected by neighbouring Teutonic or German influences. This language, the parent, or, at least, the oldest and purest form of the various Scandinavian dialects with which we are acquainted, has been at different times named Donsk Tunga, Norraena, or Norse, but latterly it has been simply called Icelandic, because peculiar to that island.

The language, history, and literature of our ancestors having been thus preserved in the north, we are thereby enabled to revisit the past, read it in the light of the present, and make both subservient for good in the future.

Herodotus mentions that tin was procured from Britain. Strabo informs us that the Phoenicians traded to our island, receiving tin and skins in exchange for earthenware, salt, and vessels of brass; but our first authentic particulars regarding the ancient Britons are derived from Julius Caesar, whose landing on the southern portion of our island, and hard-won battles, were but transient and doubtful successes. The original inhabitants were Celts from France and Spain; but, as we learn from him, these had long before been driven into the interior and western portion of the island by Belgians, who crossed the sea, made good their footing, settled on the east and south-eastern shores of England, and were now known as Britons. With these Caesar had to do. The intrepid bravery of the well-trained and regularly-disciplined British warriors commanded respect, and left his soldiers but little to boast of. The Roman legions never felt safe unless within their entrenchments, and, even there, were sometimes surprised. Strange to realise such dire conflicts raging at the foot of the Surrey hills, probably in the neighbourhood of Penge, Sydenham, and Norwood, where the Crystal Palace now peacefully stands. Even in these dark Druid days the Britons, although clothed in skins, wearing long hair, and stained blue with woad, were no mere painted savages, as they have sometimes been represented, but were in possession of regularly-constituted forms of government. They had naval, military, agricultural, and commercial resources to depend upon, and were acquainted with many of the important arts of life. The Briton was simple in his manners, frugal in his habits, and loved freedom above all things. Had the brave Caswallon headed the men of Kent, Caesar and his hosts would never, in all likelihood, have succeeded in reaching their ships, but would have found graves on our shores. His admirable commentaries would not have seen the light of day, and the whole current of Roman, nay, of the world's, history might have been changed.

Our British institutions and national characteristics were not adopted from any quarter, completely moulded and finished, as it were, but exhibit everywhere the vitality of growth and progress, slow but sure. Each new element or useful suggestion, from whatever source derived, has been tested and modified before being allowed to take root, and form part of the constitution. The germs have been developed in our own soil.

Thus to the Romans we can trace our municipal institutions—subjection to a central authority, controlling the rights of individuals. To the Scandinavians we can as distinctly trace that principle of personal liberty which resists absolute control, and sets limits—such as Magna Charta—to the undue exercise of authority in governors. These two opposite tendencies, when united, like the centripedal and centrifugal forces, keep society revolving peacefully and securely in its orbit around the sun of truth. When severed, tyranny, on the one hand, or democratic licence, on the other—both alike removed from freedom—must result, sooner or later, in instability, confusion, and anarchy. France affords us an example of the one, and America of the other. London is not Britain in the sense that Paris is France; while Washington has degenerated into a mere cockpit for North and South.

From the feudal system of the Normans, notwithstanding its abuses, we have derived the safe tenure and transmission of land, with protection and security for all kinds of property. British law has been the growth of a thousand years, and has been held in so much respect that even our revolutions have been legally conducted, and presided over by the staid majesty of justice. Were more evidences wanting to shew that the Scandinavian element is actually the backbone of the British race— contributing its superiority, physical and moral, its indomitable strength and energy of character—we would simply mention a few traits of resemblance which incontestably prove that ''the child is father to the man."

The old Scandinavian possessed an innate love of truth; much earnestness; respect and honour for woman; love of personal freedom; reverence, up to the light that was in him, for sacred things; great self-reliance, combined with energy of will to dare and do; perseverance in overcoming obstacles. whether by sea or land; much self-denial, and great powers of endurance under given circumstances, These qualities, however, existed along with a pagan thirst for war and contempt of death, which was courted on the battle-field that the warrior might rise thence to Valhalla.

To illustrate the love of freedom, even in thought, which characterises the race, it can be shewn that, while the Celtic nations fell an easy prey to the degrading yoke of Romish superstition, spreading abroad its deadly miasma from the south, the Scandinavian nations, even when for a time acknowledging its sway, were never bound hand and foot by it, but had minds of their own, and sooner or later broke their fetters. In the truth-loving Scandinavian, Jesuitical Rome has naturally ever met with its most determined antagonist; for

" True and tender is the North."

In the dark days of the Stewarts, witness the noble struggles of the Covenanters and the Puritans for civil and religious liberty.

Notwithstanding; mixtures and amalgamations of blood, as a general rule the distinctive tendencies of race survive, and, good or bad, as the case may be, reappear in new and unexpected forms. Even habit becomes a second nature, the traces of which centuries with their changes cannot altogether obliterate, On the other side of the Atlantic, the Puritan Fathers, their descendants, and men like them, have been the salt of the north; while many of the planters of the south, tainted with cavalier blood, continue to foster slavery—"that sum of all villanies" — and glory in being man-stealers, man-sellers, and murderers, although cursed of God, and execrated by all right-thinking men. John Brown, who was the other day judicially murdered, we would select as an honoured type of the noble, manly, brave, truth-loving, God-fearing Scandinavian. His heroism in behalf of the poor despised slave had true moral grandeur in it—it was sublime. America cannot match it. Washington was great — John Brown was greater. [The general opinion in this country is that John Brown was a sincere fanatic. Very decided anti-slavery publications in America express the same estimate of his character. We have come to the same conclusion.—Ed, G. W.] Washington resisted the imposition of unjust taxes on himself and his equals, but was a slaveholder; John Brown unselfishly devoted his energies—nay, life itself—to obtain freedom for the oppressed, and to save his country from just impending judgments. The one was a patriot; the other was a patriot and philanthropist. The patriotism of Washington was limited by colour; that of Brown was thorough, and recognised the sacred rights of man. He was hanged for trying to accomplish that which his murderers ought to have done—nay, deserved to be hanged for not doing—hanged for that which they shall yet do, if not first overtaken and whelmed in just and condign vengeance; for the cry of blood ascends. He was no less a martyr to the cause of freedom than John Brown of Priesthill, who was ruthlessly shot by the bloody Claverhouse. These two noble martyrs, in virtue alike of their name and cause, shall stand together on the page of future history, when their cruel murderers have long gone to their own place. For such deeds there shall yet be tears of blood. The wrongs of Italy are not to be named in comparison with those of the slave. Let those who boast of a single drop of Anglo-Saxon blood in their veins no longer withhold just rights from the oppressed—rights which, if not yielded at this the eleventh hour, shall be righteously, though fearfully, wrested from the oppressors, when the hour of retribution comes; and come it will. But we digress.

Perhaps the two most striking outward resemblances between Britons and Scandinavians may be found in their maritime skill, and in their powers of planting colonies, and governing themselves by free institutions, representative parliaments, and trial by jury.

The Norse rover—bred to the sea, matchless in skill, daring, loving adventure and discovery, and with any amount of pluck—is the true type of the British tar. In light crafts, the Northmen could run into shallow creeks, cross the North Sea, or boldly push off to face the storms of the open Atlantic. These old Vikings were seasoned "salts" from their very childhood—"creatures native and imbued unto the element;" neither in peace nor war, on land nor sea, did they fear anything but fear. In them we see the forerunners of the buccaneers, and the ancestors of those naval heroes, voyagers, and discoverers—those Drakes and Dam-piers, Nelsons and Dundonalds, Cooks and Franklins, who have won for Britain the proud title of sovereign of the title which she is still ready to uphold against all comers.

In Shetland, we still find the same skilled seamanship, and the same light open boat, like a Norwegian yawl; indeed, planks for building skiffs are generally all imported from Norway, prepared and ready to put together. There the peace-loving fishermen, in pursuit of their perilous calling, sometimes venture sixty miles off to sea, losing sight of all land, except perhaps the highest peak of their island-homes left dimly peering just above the horizon-line. Sometimes they are actually driven, by stress of weather, within sight of the coast of Norway, and yet the loss of a skiff in the open sea, however high the waves run, is a thing quite unknown to the skilled Shetlander. The buoyancy of the skiff (from this word we have ship and skipper) is something wonderful. Its high bow and stern enables it to ride and rise over the waves like a sea-duck, although its chance of living seems almost as little and as perilous as that of the dancing shallop or mussel-shell we see whelmed in the ripple. Its preservation, to the onlooker from the deck of a large vessel, often seems miraculous. It is the practice, in encountering the stormy blasts of the North Sea, to lower the lug-sail on the approach of every billow, so as to ride its crest with bare mast, and to raise it again as the skiff descends into the more sheltered trough of the wave. By such constant manoeuvering, safety is secured and progress made. When boats are lost—and such tragedies frequently occur, sometimes leaving poor widows lonely, and at one fell swoop bereft of husband, father, and brothers, for the crews are generally made up of relatives—it is generally when, mastered by strong currents between the islands, which neither oar nor sail can stem, they are carried among skerries and rocks. Such losses are always on the coasts—never at sea.

Of the Scandinavian powers of colonising: there is ample evidence of their having settled in Shetland, Orkney, and on our coasts, long before those great outgoings of which we have authentic historical records. To several of these latter we shall briefly advert, viz., the English, Russian, Icelandic, American, and Norman.

We may first mention that, in remote ages, this race swept across Europe from the neighbourhood of the region now called Circassia, lying between the Black Sea and the Caspian, to the shores of the Baltic, settling on the north-west coast of Europe. Their traditions, and numerous eastern customs, allied to the Persians and the inhabitants of the plains of Asia Minor in old Homeric days, which they brought along with them, all go to confirm their eastern origin. Nor did they rest here, but, thirsting for adventure in these grim, warrior ages, sallied forth as pirates or settlers, sometimes both, and, as we shall now see, made their power and influence felt in every country of Europe, from Lapland to the Mediterranean.

They invaded England in a.d. 429, and founded the kingdoms of South, West, and East Seaxe, East Anglia, Mercia, Deira, and Bernicia; thus overrunning and fixing themselves in the land, from Devonshire to north of the Humber. From the mixture of these Angles, or Saxons, as they were termed by the Britons, with the previous Belgian settlers and original inhabitants, we have the Anglo-Saxon race. The Jutes who settled in Kent were from Jutland. In A.D. 787, the Danes ravaged the coast, beginning with. Dorsetshire; and, continuing to swarm across the sea, soon spread themselves over the whole country. They had nearly mastered it all, when Alfred ascended the throne in 871. At length, in A.D. 1017, Canute, after much hard fighting, did master it, and England had Danish kings from that period till the Saxon line was restored in 1042.

In the year A.D. 862, the Scandinavian Northmen established the Russian empire, and played a very important part in the management of its affairs even after the subsequent infusion of the Sclavonic element. In the "Memoires de la Societe Royale des Antiquaires du Nord," published at Copenhagen, we find that, of the fifty names of those composing Ingor's embassy to the Greek Emperor at Constantinople in the year A.D. 994, only three were Sclavic, and the rest Northmen— names that occur in the Sagas, such as Ivar, Vig-fast, Eylif, Grim, Ulf, Frode, Asbrand, &c. The Greeks called them Russians, and Frankish writers simply Northmen.

In the year A. D. 863, Naddodr, a Norwegian, discovered Iceland, [The antiquarian book to which we have already referred, erroneously attributes the discovery to Garder, a Dane of Swedish origin. Our authority is Gisli Brynjulfsson, the Icelandic poet, now resident in Copenhagen, to whose kindness we are indebted for the copy which we possess.] which, however, had been previously visited and resided in at intervals for at least upwards of seventy years before that time, by fishermen, ecclesiastics, and hermits, called West-men, and thought to be from Ireland. Of these visits Naddodr found numerous traces.

In A.D. 874, Ingolf with his followers, many of whom were related to the first families in Norway, fleeing from the tyranny of Harold Harfagra, began the colonisation of Iceland, which was completed during a space of sixty years. They established a flourishing republic, appointed magistrates, and held their Althing, or annual national assembly, at Thingvalla. Thus, in this distant volcanic island of the Northern Sea, the old Danish language was preserved unchanged for centuries; while, in the various eddas, were embodied those folk - songs and folk - myths, and, in the sagas, those historical tales and legends of an age at once heroic and romantic, together with that folk-lore which still forms the staple of all our old favourite nursery tales, and was brought with them from Europe and the East by the first settlers, [For these last we would refer to Thorpe's "Yule-, tide Stories," Dasent's "Popular Tales from the Norse," and to our own nursery lore.] All these, as well as the productions of the Icelanders themselves, are of great historical and literary value. They have been carefully edited and published, at Copenhagen, by eminent Icelandic, Danish, and other antiquarians. We would refer to the writings of Muller, Magnusen, Rafn, Rask, Eyricksson, Torfaeus, and others. Laing has translated "The Heimskringla," the great historical saga of Snorre Sturleson, into English. Various other translations and accounts of these singularly-interesting eddas, sagas, and ballads, handed down by the Scalds and Sagamen, are to be met with; but by far the best analysis, with translated specimens, is that contained in Howitt's "Literature of the North of Europe." We would call attention, in passing, to the edda, consisting of the original series of tragic poems from which the German "Niebelungenlied" has been derived, as a marvellous production, absolutely unparalleled in ancient or modern literature, for power, simplicity, and heroic grandeur.

Christianity was established in Iceland in the year 1000. Fifty-seven years later, Isleif, Bishop of Skalholt, first introduced the art of writing the Roman alphabet, thus enabling them to fix oral lessons of history and song; for the Runic characters previously in use were chiefly employed for monuments and memorial inscriptions, and were carved on wood-staves, on stone or metal. On analysis, these rude letters will be found to be crude forms and abridgments of the Greek or Roman alphabet. We have identified them all, with the exception of a few letters, and are quite satisfied on this point, so simple and obvious is it, although we have not previously had our attention directed to the fact.

Snorre Sturleson was perhaps one of the most learned and remarkable men that Iceland has produced.

In 1264, through fear and fraud, the island submitted to the rule of Haco, king of Norway:—he who died at Kirkwall, after his forces were routed by the Scots at the battle of Largs. In 1387, along with Norway, it became subject to Denmark. In 1529 a printing press was established; and in 1550 the Lutheran Reformation was introduced into the island—the form of worship which is still retained.

True to the instinct of race, the early settlers in Iceland did not remain inactive, but looked westward, and found scope for their hereditary maritime' skill in the discovery and colonising of Greenland. They also discovered Helluland (Newfoundland), Markland (Nova Scotia), and Vineland (New England). They were also acquainted with American land, which they called Hvitramannaland, (the land of the white men,) thought to have been North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. We have read authentic records of these various voyages, extending from a.d. 877 to A.D. 1347. The names of the principal navigators are Gunn-biorn, Eric the Red, Biarne, Leif, Thorwald, &c. But the most distinguished of these American discoverers is Thorfinn Karlsefne, an Icelander, "whose genealogy," says Rafn, "is carried back, in the old northern annals, to Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Scottish, and Irish ancestors, some of them of royal blood." With singular interest we also read that, "in A.D. 1266, some priests at Gardar, in Greenland, set on foot a voyage of discovery to the arctic regions of America. An astronomical observation proves that this took place through Lancaster Sound and Barrow's Strait to the latitude of Wellington's Channel."

When Columbus visited Iceland in A.D. 1467, ha may have obtained confirmation of his theories as to the existence of a great continent in the west; for these authentic records prove the discovery and colonisation of America by the Northmen from Iceland upwards of five hundred years before he rediscovered it.

The Norman outgoing is the last we shall here allude to. In A.D. 876 the Northmen, under Rollo, wrested Normandy from the Franks; and from thence, in A.D. 1065, "William, sprung from the same stock, landed at Hastings, vanquished Harold, and is known to this day as the Conqueror of England. It was a contest of Northmen with Northmen, where diamond cut diamond.

Instead of one article, this subject, we feel, would require a volume. At the outset we asserted that northern subjects possessed singular interest for the British race. In a very cursory manner we have endeavoured to prove it, by shewing that, to Scandinavia, as its cradle, we must look for the germs of that spirit of enterprise which has peopled America, raised an Indian empire, and colonised Australia, and which has bound together as one, dominions on which the sun never sets; all, too, either speaking, or fast acquiring, a noble language, which bids fair one day to become universal.

The various germs, tendencies, and traits of Scandinavian character, knit together and amalgamated in the British race, go to form the essential elements of greatness and success, and, where sanctified and directed into right channels, are noble materials to work upon.

It is Britain's pride to be at once the mistress of the seas, the home of freedom, and the sanctuary of the oppressed. May it also be her high honour, by wisely improving outward privileges, and yet further developing her inborn capabilities, pre - eminently to become the torch-bearer of pure Christianity — with its ever-accompanying freedom and civilisation—to the whole world!


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