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Literature / A Description of the Northern Peoples

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"The three main gods of the Geats." Frigg, Thor and Odin.

A Description of the Northern Peoples note  is a massive Latin-language anthology, written in 1555 by the exiled Swedish Titular Bishop, Olaus Magnus. It's an absolute Doorstopper of a work, divided into 22 books and numbering nearly a thousand pages. Work on the subject began in 1518, when Magnus was tasked with selling letters of indulgence in Swedish Norrland — then considered to be akin to The Wild West and filled with pagan, godless Lapps and Finns with their creepy rituals — and finished 35 years later in Rome, where he was living in exile, since Sweden had kinda, sorta, outlawed Catholicism during that time.

It's a very eclectic work, going into detail about everything from architecture to agriculture to war, beer and armies of dwarves fighting cranes on Greenland. It covers a huge chunk of history, from The Time of Myths to about the mid 16th century. Naturally, the book is mostly focused on the affairs of Sweden and Finland, but Magnus also talks about Norway and "Muscovites". Denmark is also included, of course, but in contrast to the former, Olaus Magnus doesn't seem to consider the Danes as "Nordic peoples".

Although A Description of the Northern Peoples might be less know than the Heimskringla, Gesta Danorum or even The Kalevala in the pantheon of Nordic legends, this wasn't always the case for better of for worse. During the Salem Witch Trials, the prosecution used the stories about Lappish magic and sorcery in this book as a basis for their mock jurisprudence.

See also the Carta Marina, another work by Olaus Magnus depicting a fantastical take on the north of Europe.

You can check out the original print as a digitized book.

Provides Examples Of:

  • Art Imitates Life: Magnus writes about how, when a city is withstanding a siege in the freezing winter, it's possible with enough water and manpower to build a wall of ice for protection. Sounds familiar, no?
  • An Offer You Can't Refuse: When the Swedish borders are threatened, a rider is sent out carrying a stick which is burnt in one end and wrapped in rope in the other. This is a sign that all the villages receiving it who refuse to provide men for combat will be burned down and have their people hanged.
  • Cultural Translation: Much like Saxo Grammaticus, Olaus had to simplify Nordic culture a bit for his mainly Italian audience. Among other things, elves are called "satyrs".
  • Dance Battler: The book claims that Swedish youths have a dance that is more like a form of ritualized sword-fighting. Two lines of dancers symbolically take turns at striking each other with (pulled) sword blows. Gradually, the music is played faster and faster, and the dancing is forced to follow suit, demanding extreme skill from the dancers not to kill each other.
  • Death as Comedy:
    • Magnus cautions about going ice-skating on treacherous lakes, since he has seen many skaters fall right through the ice and be decapitated, with their body sinking to the bottom while the head is left on the ice "with a stupid expression".
    • In another chapter, where Magnus talks about the importance of physical fitness, he remembers a story about a soldier in Stockholm who was set to be executed, only for the execution to be called off since the soldier was so fat that the hangman was physically unable to do it. Magnus seems to feel genuinely sorry for him.
  • Depraved Dwarf: Greenland is supposedly home to a gang of pirate raiders led by an evil dwarf. This dwarf, Magnus claims, is not afraid to fight normal-sized men, but instead "offers the tall man the edge of his spear and stands proud like a Triumphator". Clearly.
  • Fire Stolen from the Gods: Mankind learned of the runes because a man called Kettil Runske stole them from Odin in the form of three staves on which the runic alphabet was inscribed.
  • Internal Homage: A lot of references to earlier sagas and legends are made, including Ragnar Lodbrok and His Sons, The Battle of Bråvalla, Starkad and Eric Weatherhat, to mention a few.
  • Nonindicative Name: The books' titles sometimes bear little relevance to what they're actually about. To quote the Swedish other Wiki:
    "There's nearly always a red thread between the essays of the books, but they don't always allude to the books' title. Book number thirteen is a good example of this, since according to its title, it should concern itself with agriculture and living conditions but is mostly about beer, how good it is, how funny in the head it makes you, and different ways of brewing it around the world."
  • Sealed Room in the Middle of Nowhere: The story about the evil wizard Kettil Runske, who trapped his apprentice Gilbert in one of these on Visingsö. Not only is it a Sealed Room in the Middle of Nowhere, it's also a labyrinth, and the air inside it is so stale and poisonous that neither human or animal can breathe it without dropping dead. Hilariously, Magnus ends by saying that, despite this, Visingsö is actually a nice, scenic location, and he can recommend giving it a visit.
  • Sea Serpents: A fearsome, black-scaled serpent that lives in the sea caves near the Norwegian city of Bergen, which comes out on summer nights to prey on livestock, sailors and marine creatures. It also possesses a hairy mane, unusually enough.
  • Shear Menace: The Swedes like to attach shears and scythes to wagons, tie them to trees and camouflage them, feint a retreat, and, when the enemy is in position, loose them.
  • Shrouded in Myth: Olaus Magnus freely mixes actual historical facts with pure mythology. However, A Description of the Northern Peoples shouldn't be used as a historical source for anything other than Olaus' own time.
  • Spiked Wheels: The Swedes have a type of armed chariot that apparently works like a giant reel mower, and which is used against cavalry.
  • Sword Cane: Ole den Raske and his warriors all use this weapon.
  • Take That!: Magnus says that there are many places in Sweden with names like "Danskkärr" ("Dane's Bog") because of the large number of Danes that have been drowned there in wartime. There's also a place called "Fyrtandskulle" ("Four teeth hill") because of its vicinity to Brunkeberg, where Christian I of Denmark lost his front teeth to fire from a hand cannon.
  • Tree Cover: The "Bråte." Swedish farmers were semi-famous throughout Europe for their skill in guerilla warfare. Olaus Magnus describes how they would cut trees along forest roads until they were halfway down, then tie ropes around them, and when your standard German or Danish knightly army comes along, the Swedes would pull the trees down and then let loose with slings, crossbows and throwing spears from behind their new battlements. The word "Bråte" remains in the Swedish language today, and means "junk" or "mess".
  • Tyke Bomb: Swedish children are bred for war by way of snowball fights. The defending side builds forts and so learns about fortifications. The attacking side learns about siege warfare and artillery. Pretty soon the fighting goes hand to hand, and the losers "are subject to insults so they can perform better the next time".
  • Weather Manipulation: If you are a sorcerer or warlock, in A Description of the Northern Peoples, then this is probably your main talent. The Lapps and forest-Finns make a living by selling magical knotted ropes to sailors stuck in a lull. For every knot loosed, a stronger wind will blow, varying from "breeze" to "tsunami". There's also the Swedish king Eric Weatherhat, who owns a magical helmet that, when waved, gives him fortuitous winds on his Viking cruises.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Two Geatish brothers receive a prophecy as kids: one of them will kill the other. They decide to travel as far away from each other as possible, winding up in different hemispheres of the world. Years later, they return to Sweden as old men. They meet each other when stopping to rest under a spruce tree, each not recognizing who the other is. Pretty soon their dogs get into a fight, followed by their owners — who, of course, kill each other.