Swedes (Germanic tribe)

Sweden in the 12th century. Svealand in yellow, Götaland in blue and Gotland in green.

The Swedes (Swedish: svear; Old Norse: svíar / suar (probably from the PIE reflexive pronominal root *s(w)e, "one's own [tribesmen/kinsmen]";[1][2] Old English: Sweonas) were a North Germanic tribe.

The first author who wrote about the tribe is Tacitus, who in his Germania, from 98 CE mentions the Suiones. Jordanes, in the sixth century, mentions Suehans and Sueones.

According to early sources such as the sagas, 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' people).

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 also the Geats. Later it again meant only the people inhabiting the original tribal lands in Svealand, rather than the Geats.

In modern North Germanic languages, the adjectival form svensk and its plural svenskar 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.[3] Although this distinction is convention in modern Norwegian, Danish and Swedish, Icelandic and Faroese do not distinguish between svíar (Icelandic) or sviar (Faroese) and sænskir (Icelandic) or svenskarar (Faroese) as words for modern Swedes.[4]


Gamla Uppsala was the main religious and political centre of the tribe.

Their primary dwellings were in eastern Svealand. Their territories also very early included the provinces of Västmanland, Södermanland and Närke in the Mälaren Valley 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 - "Swede-land" ("The Voyage of Ohthere" in Seven Books of History Against the Pagans: Swéoland), Suithiod - "Swede-people" (Beowulf: Sweoðeod [hence Sweden]), Svíaveldi or Svearike - "Swede-realm" (Beowulf: Swéorice). The political unification with the Geats in Götaland, a process that was not complete until the 13th century, is by some contemporary historians regarded as the birth of 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 Æsir-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 were 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 Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum of Adam of Bremen about the Hamburg-Bremen archbishops who are denoted Sueones.

Most scholars agree that Suiones and the attested Germanic forms of the name derive from the same Proto-Indo-European reflexive pronominal root, *s(w)e, as the Latin suus. The word must have meant "one's own (tribesmen)". In modern Scandinavian, the same root appears in words such as svåger (brother-in-law) and svägerska (sister-in-law). The same root and original meaning is found in the ethnonym of the Germanic tribe Suebi, preserved to this day in the name Schwaben (Swabia).[1][2][5][6] The details of the phonetic development vary between different proposals.

Noréen (1920) proposed that Suiones is a Latin rendering of Proto-Germanic *Swihoniz, derived from the PIE root *swih- "one's own". The form *Swihoniz would in Ulfilas' 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. Currently, however, the root for "one's own" is reconstructed as *s(w)e rather than *swih, and that is the root identified for Suiones e.g. in Pokorny's 1959 Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch and in the 2002 The Nordic languages: an international handbook of the history of the North Germanic languages edited by Oskar Bandle. *Swe is also the form cited by V. Friesen (1915), who regards the form Sviones as being originally an adjective, Proto-Germanic *Sweoniz, meaning "kindred". Then the Gothic form would have been *Swians and the H in Suehans a epenthesis. The Proto-Norse form would then also have been *Sweoniz, which also would have resulted in the historically attested forms.

The Runestone DR 344 is one of the earliest surviving instances of the name Svíþjóð, in Scandinavia (only Runestone DR 216, Beowulf and probably also the Getica are earlier).

The name became part of a compound, which in Old West Norse was Svíþjóð ("the Svear 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, Södermanland), a suiþiuþu (Runestone DR 344, Simris, Scania) 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 Old English, 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".


The history of this tribe is shrouded in the mists of time. Besides Norse mythology and Germanic legend, only a few sources describe them and there is very little information.


The Roman empire under Hadrian (ruled 117-38), showing the location of the Suiones Germanic tribe, inhabiting central Sweden
Gaius Cornelius Tacitus

There are two sources from the 1st century A.D that are quoted as referring to the Suiones. The first one is Pliny the Elder who said that the Romans had rounded the Cimbric peninsula (Jutland) where there was the Codanian Gulf (Kattegat?). In this gulf there were several large islands among which the most famous was Scatinavia (Scandinavia). He said that the size of the island was unknown but in a part of it dwelt a tribe named the Hillevionum gente, 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 Svionum gente. This would make sense, since a large Scandinavian tribe named the Suiones was known to the Romans.[7]

Tacitus wrote in AD 98 in Germania 44, 45 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). He further mentions that the Suiones were much impressed by wealth, and the king's thus was absolute. Further, the Suiones did not normally bear arms, and that the weapons were guarded by a slave.

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 historians have maintained that it is not possible to claim that a continuous Swedish ethnicity reaches back to the Suiones of Tacitus.[8] According to this view the referent of an ethnonym and the ethnic discourse have varied considerably during different phases of history.


In the 6th century Jordanes named two tribes he calls the Suehans and the Suetidi who lived in Scandza. They were famous for their fine horses. The Suehans were the suppliers of black fox skins for the Roman market. Then Jordanes names a tribe named Suetidi a name that is considered to refer to the Suiones as well and to be the Latin form of Sweþiuð. The Suetidi are said to be the tallest of men together with the Dani 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:

Wald Woingum, Wod þyringum,
Sæferð Sycgum, Sweom Ongendþeow,
Sceafthere Ymbrum, Sceafa Longbeardum,
Wald [ruled] the Woings, Wod the Thuringians,
Saeferth the Sycgs, Ongendtheow the Swedes,
Sceafthere the Umbers, Sceafa the Lombards,

On line 32, Ongentheow is mentioned and he reappears in the later epic poem Beowulf, which was composed sometime in the 8th-11th centuries. The poem describes Swedish-Geatish wars, involving the Swedish kings Ongentheow, Ohthere, Onela and Eadgils who belonged to a royal dynasty called the Scylfings. These kings might have been historical as kings with similar names appear in Scandinavian sources as well (see list of legendary kings of Sweden). There appears to be a prophecy by Wiglaf in the end of the epic of new wars with the Swedes:

Þæt ys sio fæhðo and se feond-scipe,
wæl-nið wera, þæs þe ic wen hafo,
þe us seceað to Sweona leode,
syððan hie gefricgeað frean userne
ealdor-leasne, þone þe ær geheold
wið hettendum hord and rice,
æfter hæleða hryre hwate Scylfingas,
folcred fremede oððe furður gen
eorl-scipe efnde.[9]
Such is the feud, the foeman's rage,
death-hate of men: so I deem it sure
that the Swedish folk will seek us home
for this fall of their friends, the fighting-Scylfings,
when once they learn that our warrior leader
lifeless lies, who land and hoard
ever defended from all his foes,
furthered his folk's weal, finished his course
a hardy hero.[10]

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, with appended tales of the voyages of Ohthere of 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.[11]
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.[12]

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.[13]

Frankish sources

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 Hungarians, the Rhos travelled through Germany. They were questioned by Louis the Pious, Emperor of Francia, 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 Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum 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.

Their royal family is of an old dynasty (see House of Munsö), but the kings are dependent on the will of the people (the Thing). 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 (Æsir) and if they win they are grateful to him.

Norse sagas

The 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 sometimes concur with, sometimes contradict the previous sources.

For a continuation, see History of Sweden (800–1521).

See also

Notes and references

  1. 1 2 Pokorny. Indogermanisches Etymologisches Woerterbuch. 1959
  2. 1 2 Bandle, Oskar. 2002. The Nordic languages: an international handbook of the history of the North Germanic languages. 2002. P.391
  3. The article Sverige, språkv. in Nordisk familjebok
  4. The recommendations of the Council for the Faroese Language on nationality words
  5. Noreen, A. Nordens äldsta folk- och ortnamn (i Fornvännen 1920 sid 32).
  6. Hellquist, Elof. 1922. Svensk etymologisk ordbok. Svear
  7. Waldman, Carl; Mason, Catherine (2006-01-01). Encyclopedia of European Peoples. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 9781438129181.
  8. Dick Harrison: Sveriges historia - Medeltiden (2002); Fredrik Svanberg: Decolonizing the Viking Age (2003).
  9. Lines 3000-3008.
  10. Gummere's translation
  11. Excerpt presented by the University of Victoria
  12. Translation of the University of Victoria
  13. http://www.gutenberg.org


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