Origin of the Danish People

From 'Gesta danorum' (the Deeds of the Danes)

By SAXO GRAMMATICUS (c.1150-1220)



Dan and Angel



Dan and Angel, the sons of Humble, from whom the Danes originate, were the founders of our nation, although the French chronicler Dudo says that the Danes are the descendants of the Greek or, as they were called, the Danae and have taken their name from this people. Dan and Angel were also the first rulers in our land, but although they won great renown by their bravery, and by the consent of the people possessed royal power, they were nevertheless not called kings since, at that time, the title of king had not yet been brought into use.

Angel, from whom the Angles are said to be descended, gave his name to that part of the country over which he ruled (Angel in southern Jutland), and in this manner he made it immortal. His descendants conquered Britain and named this nation after their homeland, replacing its name of old. In antiquity this was considered very impressive. About this writes the renowned clerical scribe Beda (673-735), who was born an Englishman and who, besides writing of godly matters, also wrote the history of his native country since he considered it the duty of a Christian writer to describe the achievements of the forefathers and fully as important as writing about religious things.

From Dan, according to the ancients, our royal line is descended, and from this excellent beginning our kings have held the throne of Denmark right down to the present time. With a high-born German woman, Grytha, he had the sons Humble and Loter.



Humble and Loter



It was the custom among our forefathers, when they chose a new king, to stand upon big rocks well anchored in the ground. This was to indicate that their choice was firm as the rocks on which they stood. In this manner Humble was elected by the people after his father's death, but luck was not his fate, and from being king he became a commoner. His brother, Loter, went to war against him and took him prisoner, and he had to buy his life by renouncing the throne, there was no other choice. By being forced to abdicate by the might and wrong-doings of his brother, he showed the human race that although there might be splendor and glory in the king's castle, there is also less security than in the hut of the common man. He suffered the wrong that had been done him with such patience that you would almost believe he was happy by the loss of his dignity, as if it were good fortune that had been handed him, and to my mind he proved himself a wise man by showing of how little worth it really is to be king.

As a king, Loter acted in a manner as cruel as he had done as a warrior. He ruled with great haughtiness and did not shy away from committing criminal acts; he considered it his right to take away life and property from many noble men and in this way rob the nation of many brave men since he considered anyone of noble birth as a rival to the throne. However, he did not get the chance to practise his infamous deeds for long, the people conspired against him and killed him. Those who had given him the power also took his life.



Skiold and Gram



Loter's son Skiold might well have owed life to his father, but did not take after him in unethical conduct and already as a child did he act totally different. Instead of following in the footsteps of his shameful father, he chose to follow the example of his virtuous grandfather, a heritage that was of old, but not of less value. In youth he won great renown among the royal hunters by getting the better of a ferocious wild animal, thereby giving sign of what was to be expected from him later. He had at one time obtained permission from his tutors, who were striving to teach him good manners, to take part in the hunt, and when a great big bear came at him while he had no weapon with which to defend himself, he tied the animal down with his belt and held it down until the others came to kill it. Also, it is said, that while still a youth he defeated several well-known giants, among whom were two named Atle and Skate.

When Skiold was fifteen years of age, he was so strong and full-grown that he easily could go up against anyone, and he had proved his ingenuity to the point where all later kings of Denmark took name after him and called themselves Skioldunger (Children of Skiold). He also advised with eager anyone living a depraved or aimless life and wasting their manhood by luxury and effeminate living, to choose a better way and do something useful with themselves. How strong he was, his gallantry and brave manhood were even greater and he did deeds so great you should hardly have expected from a man so young.

While he thus, as time went by, grew in virtuousness and good manners, was he challenged to single combat by Skate, chieftain in Alemania, because he was wooing the same woman as Skate, a fair maiden named Alvilde. The duel was witnessed by both the German and Danish armies, and Skiold slew Skate. The Germans, who considered themselves vanquished when their chief had fallen, subjected themselves to Skiold, and thus he made Alemania tributary of taxes.

But Skiold did not only excel in the use of weaponry, but also by his love for the nation. He abolished several laws and introduced good new ones in their place, and everything that would further the well-being of his native country, he promoted with all his might. The country his father had lost by his wickedness, he won back by his virtues. First, he passed the law saying that freedmen again could be made slaves; a thral (slave) he himself had granted freedom and who in secret sought his life, was punished severely in this way, but he also gave the aforementioned law showing that it was only right to let all other freedmen pay for what one had offended. He paid everyone's debt out of his own treasury and it was like he vied with other kings in bravery, munificence and generosity. To the sick he brought medical healing, and to those who suffered bad luck he brought comfort and assistance, and in every way did he show that he cared more for his country than for himself. His men were not only paid wages, but he also let them keep the spoils they took from the enemy. As he used to say: The booty belongs to the warriors, the glory belongs to the king.

The fair maiden for whom he had fought a duel took he, after he had killed his rival, as the reward of the battle. He made her his wife and after a while she bore him a son, whom they named Gram, and he followed in the footsteps of his father in regards to virtues and glorious aptitudes. He had been born with all the greatest gifts of body and soul and already as a youngster won he the highest honor and renown. This he also retained with his descendants, and for this reason the old troubadours, when they wanted to praise a king, called him Gram. All athletic pursuits aimed at strengthening the body he engaged in with the greatest of zest, and with experienced warriors as teachers did he practise the use of arms, both in attack and in defending himself. Out of gratitude to his foster father, Roar, for that care he had received in his tender years, did he marry his daughter who was of his own age and his suckling sister, but later he gave her to a man named Besse as payment for the help he always received from him, because Besse was so much a companion in all his battles that it is hard to say whether he could thank Besse's bravery for all the glory and honor he won.

Gram heard that the Swedish King Sigtryg had promised his daughter Graa to a Jaette (a giant, supernatural being) and he thought it was a shameful marriage for a maiden of royal blood. He then decided to wage war against the Swedes in order to, like another Hercules, match his strength with monsters. In order to scare those he met on his way, he dressed himself in buckskin and the hides of wild animals and took an enormous wooden club in hand, and in all respects he looked like a Jaette, and in this way he came to Gotaland. There, in a forest, he met Graa who came riding with her ladies-in-waiting on their way to a lake where she wanted to bathe.

Immediately she thought that it was her betrothed, and like any woman she became so scared that she dropped the reins, and shaking throughout the body she quoth:

Come not the giant
with club in hand,
crude and cruel
to fetch Graa?
Would that my sight
me failed
and the animal skin
hide another!

Besse quoth:

Fairest maiden
on the steed so grey,
who art thou
and who is thy father?

Graa quoth:

Readily tells thee
Graa her name,
Sigtryg King
call I my father.
Tell me now
thou fearsome swain
wherefrom thou hail
and whom thou art.

Besse quoth:

Besse's my name,
bold I am called,
oft forward I strode
in glorious combat;
where Besse advances
blood flows,
sword and spear
I swing with delight.

Graa quoth:

Tell me then, Besse,
I pray thee, quick,
who is the chieftain
of the army thou follow?
Why did I come hither
battle to seek?
Who wilt pale
on the bloody ground?

Besse quoth:

Gram is the king
bold and just
who the army commands
as chief and lord.
A more able warrior
I know not,
always he triumphs
where fighting men meet.

Graa quoth:

Besse, I warn ye
quick to flee,
dangerous for sure
I find thy advancing;
Come Sigtryg
he triumphs for sure,
thou and King Gram
on the gallows will swing.

Besse quoth:

First well my king
a combat will try
and swing his sword
against Swedish fellows;
thy father watch
himself with us,
that not his head
from the neck we shall sever.

Graa quoth:

Home I hurry
to Sigtryg's estate,
home I wilt ere
the giant comes.
Graa will not see thee
biting the dust,
but glad she will be
when on the battlefield thou lie.

Besse quoth:

Hurry thou home
to Sigtryg's abode,
thee neither pain
nor distress we will suffer.
Ride in peace,
we fear not.
Minds to change
is women's lot.

Now Gram lost his patience and could no longer keep quiet; he took on a fearsome voice befitting his appearance, and quoth:

Fear me not
thou fairest of maidens,
only as messenger
of my brother I come.
Not will with power
thy will I force,
thy favor I reward
with gold and joy.

Graa quoth:

Greedily lusting for man
I must be
if vile giants
I offered to embrace.
Hairy body
and bent claws
please only little
young women.

Gram quoth:

Mighty warriors
I slew on the field.
Booty I took
where the swords glittered.
To thee my gold
and possessions I give
if thou, fairest,
my wife wilt be.

 

After uttering these words he dropped the animal hide, and as fearful as she had been, just as inflamed she now became of desire when she saw how good-looking he really was. Having won her love, he gave her great gifts of betrothal. As he continued on his way, he was warned by people he met that two highwaymen were waiting in ambush near the road. When they rushed out in order to rob him, he struck them down right away, and in order not to be known for having done his enemies, the Swedes, a favor, he propped up the two corpses and tied them to poles, making it look like they were still alive. In this way, even after death, they continued to frighten the travelers whom they had injured while still alive, and people kept thinking of the road as fearsome as before. From this it can be seen that he slew the two robbers for his own and not the Swedes' sake; how he was minded towards them became even more evident by his next deed. By some magicians he had been told that King Sigtryg only could be subdued with gold, and therefore he let his wooden club be spiked with gold and then Sigtryg had to bite the dust. About this adventure Besse quoth:

Gram in Gothland
gold not spared,
serious wounds
on the king did inflict.
Sword and spear
he flung so oft
the Gota king
he killed with his club.

Derision him,
the seers promised:
Flee the land
ere thou ist slain.
Steel and iron
bite not on Sigtryg,
only gold
the doughty fells.

Took then Gram
his heavy club
gold he fastened
hard around it,
swung it at
the king of Swedes
Gothland's king
for gold blows fell.

 

After Gram had killed Sigtryg, it was his intention to take possession of the realm he had thus won by the use of arms, and since he suspected that Svarin, the chief in Gotaland, would try to win it from him, challenged he him to a duel and slew him; when Svarin's sixteen brothers, of whom seven were born within marriage, the nine illegitimate, would avenge his death, Gram fought them all, and however uneven the battle was, he killed them all.

King Skiold, who by now was an aging man, gave his son a part of the royal power for the sake of his great exploits and because he found it more useful and comfortable now, when walking in the shadow of death, to share the burden of the crown with his own flesh and blood than to carry it alone. A high-born Sealander named Ring did not like this, since he thought that Gram was too young for such honor and that Skiold was too old. He incited the Danes to revolt, telling them that none of the two be suited to be king, one was only a boy and the other in his second childhood.

In the war that followed, Ring succumbed and thus provided proof that bravery and manhood will thrive at any age.

King Gram did many more deeds. When he was at war with the king of the Finns, Sumble, he fell in love with his daughter, Signe, and ceased the fighting and from an enemy became a suitor; she was promised to him when he solemnly declared that he would cast off his queen. But soon was he drawn into a war with the Norwegian King Svibdag who had violated both his sister and his daughter, and Sumble then went back on his word and pledged Signe to the Saxon King Heinrich. When Gram heard of this, his love for the maiden grew even stronger than his love for his warriors; silently he left the army and hurried to Finland where he arrived just as the wedding feast was under way. He had dressed himself in tatters and was seated at the lowest place. When he was asked what he had to offer, he answered that he was skilled in the medical sciences, and when everyone was good and drunk he sent a caustic look at the bride and in the middle of the merriment and the noise he spoke her hard to for her easy virtues and praising his own virtues, he quoth:

Odd the threads
of fate are spun,
better conditions
I deserve.
Capricious woman
with me plays,
for all that Gram
is well too good.

Many deeds the king
has practiced,
wide his fame
flew through the world;
just recall the sixteen brothers
of Svarin
who for Gram
the dust did bite.

Now me Signe,
Sumblesdaughter
has betrayed,
and my heart aches.
None shalt trust
words of a woman,
only lies
and deceit she spews.

 

Thus speaking, he jumped from his seat and killed Heinrich as he was sitting at the wedding feast surrounded by friends and relatives; many among the guests he also slew, and he pulled the bride from the circle of the bridesmaids and sailed away with her. In this manner the wedding became a funeral, and the Finns were taught the lesson that they should keep out of other people's affairs of the heart.

After that, Gram again took up the war which he had begun with the Norwegian King Svibdag to avenge the violence he had used against his sister and daughter, but he was defeated and fell. The Saxons had sent a big army to help Svibdag, not so much for his sake but as vengeance for the death of Heinrich.



Svibdag and Guthorm



When Svibdag had won Denmark, the sons of Gram, Guthorm whom he had with Graa, and Hading, whom Signe had borne him, were taken by their foster father Brage on a ship to Sweden and handed over to the two giants Vagnhoft and Hafle, who took it upon themselves to bring them up and protect them.

As now and again I speak of such monsters and of their exploits, and I would not like to be known to present something as the truth that really clashes with that which is true and is believed to be such by the people, will I take the trouble here to recount how, in the days of old, there were three kinds of monsters who by the use of magic incantations caused many strange things to happen.

The first kind were misshaped monsters whom the ancients called Jaetter. They were much bigger and stronger than ordinary humans.

The second kind were the first to study the laws of nature, and they were in possession of the gift of telling the fortunes. They did not match the giants (Jaetter) in size nor strength, but far surpassed them in wisdom and cunning. Between them and the giants there was a perpetual battle for supremacy, but they were also said to be gods. Both of these people were warlocks and so skilled in deceit that they could assume other shapes and appearances than they really beheld, both for themselves and others. They were highly skilled magicians.

The third race were the children of interbreeding of the two others. They did not match the giants in size nor the hexmasters in intelligence or cunning, but nonetheless those who blinded people's senses with their magic skills were regarded as gods. And it was little wonder that people watching their strange workings were led into idolatry. Even the shrewd Romans were tricked into considering mortal men as gods.

This I have mentioned so that the reader shall not look upon it all as tall tales and lies whenever I make mention to magic spells and other miracles. And now I will resume where I left off.

When Gram had fallen, and Svibdag had conquered Denmark and Sweden, he yielded to the entreats of his wife and let her brother, Guthorm, be called home from exile and placed him as ruler in Denmark after he promised to pay taxes.



(Notes: Saxo was a Danish historian in the twelfth century AD. He was also a clerk at the seat of Archbishop Absalon (1128-1201), his patron and employer at Lund in Skanor. His 'Gesta danorum' is an important albeit somewhat romanticized source of the most ancient history of Denmark and the other Nordic nations. Saxo's authorship is, however, typically patriotic Danish. The excerpts from Denmark's Chronicle brought here constitute only the four opening chapters of Book One, and tell the stories of the first nine kings of Denmark. All the kings mentioned here are believed to be historical figures who lived some time during the tenth or eleventh century BC. )



Return to Origins Index