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Suiones, Swedes, Svíar or Svear, were an ancient Germanic tribe in Scandinavia. They are usually only referred to as Swedes in English. In modern Scandinavian, but not in Icelandic, the adjectival form svensk and its plural svenskar/svensker have replaced the name svear and is, today, used to denote modern Swedes in opposition to ancient Swedes, svear. During the Viking Age they constituted the basis of the Varangian subset, the Vikings that travelled eastwards (see Rus').

According to early sources, they were a powerful tribe whose kings claimed descendance from the god Frey.



Their primary dwellings were in eastern Svealand, i.e. the traditional Folklands of Attundaland, Tiundaland, Fjärdhundraland and Roslagen in the area of the present cities of Uppsala and Stockholm and the modern province of Gästrikland. Their territories also probably included the provinces of Västmanland, Södermanland and Nerike in the basin of Mälaren which constituted a bay with a multitude of islands. The region is still one of the most fertile and densely populated regions of Scandinavia.

The lands of the Svear were called Svealand (the Voyage of Ohthere: Swéoland), Suithiod (Beowulf: Sweoðeod), Svíaveldi or Svea rike (Beowulf: Swéorice), and the unknown moment when they subjugated, or united politically with, the Geats in Götaland between the 6th century and the 11th century is nowadays often regarded as the birth to the Swedish kingdom, even though the Swedish kingdom retains their name, Sverige in Swedish, from Svea rike - i.e. the kingdom of the Suiones. The English name Sweden is derived from an old name for Sweden and the land of the Suiones: Svitjod (the people of the Suiones).

The Aesir-cult center in Gamla Uppsala, was the religious centre of the Swedes and where the Swedish king served as a priest during the sacrifices (blóts).

Some dispute whether the original domains of the Suiones really was in Uppsala, the heartland of Uplandia, 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 work of Adam of Bremen, about the Hamburg-Bremen archbishops, they are denoted Sueones.

According to one theory (Schagerström 1931), the name is derived from Proto-Germanic *saiwi- meaning "lake" or "sea" resulting in *siwíoniz and later *swi-oniz meaning the "sea people". However, this root is not known to have produced any other derived names, and is considered unlikely.

Noréen (1920) proposed that Suiones is a Latin rendering of *Swihoniz, meaning "one's own (tribesmen)", derived from the same Indo-European root as the Latin suus (i.e. not from Latin but from the same reflexive pronominal root, a root also existing in Slavic languages). In modern Scandinavian, the same root appears in words such as svåger (brother-in-law) and svägerska (sister-in-law). The form *Swihoniz would in Wulfila's Gothic become *Swaíhans, which later would result in the form Suehans that Jordanes mentioned as the name of the Swedes in Getica. Consequently, the old North Germanic form would have been *SwehaniR which following the sound-changes in Old Norse resulted in Old West Norse Svíar and Old East Norse Swear. However, this root has not gained wide acceptance, which leads to the oldest theory of which the proposed root is widely accepted.

According to a third theory (v. Friesen 1915), it is not derived from the root *swih, but from the root *Swe and being originally an adjective, *Sweoniz, meaning "kindred". Then the Gothic form would have been *Swians and the H in Suehans a pleonasm. The Proto-Old Norse form would then have been *SweoniR which also would have resulted in the historically attested forms.

Although, scholars differ on the origins of the name, they agree that Suiones is the same name as Old Norse svíar and Old English Sweon(as). Even though the n has disappeared in the plural noun svear/svíar, it is still preserved in the old adjective which has become the noun designating modern Swedes: svensk.

The name became part of a compound, which in Old West Norse was Svíşjóğ, (The Suione People), in Old East Norse Sweşiuğ and in Old English Sweoğeod. This compound appears on runestones in the locatives i suişiuşu (Aspa Löt, Sörmland), a suişiuşu (Simris, Skåne) and a suaşiuşu (Tirsted, Lolland). The 13th century Danish source Scriptores rerum danicarum mention a place called litlæ swethiuthæ, which is probably the island Sverige (Sweden) near Stockholm.

Interestingly, the only Germanic nation having a similar naming was the Goths, who from the name *Gutans (cf. Suehans) created the form gut-şiuda.

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 Anglo-Saxon, 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.


The history of this tribe is shrouded in the mists of time. Besides Scandinavian mythology and Germanic legend, only a few sources describe them and there is very little information, in spite of the fact that the tribe existed already during the first century A.D.


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.

Tacitus wrote in AD 98 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 (longships):

Beyond these people (the Rugii and the Lemovii) are the states (civitates) of the Suiones, but these are in the ocean itself (i.e. on an island and not, like the Rugii and Lemovii, on the South Baltic coast of the mainland). The Suiones are distinguished not merely for their arms and men, but for their powerful fleets, though the style of their ships is unusual in that there is a prow at each end so that the boat can advance head-on in either direction. Moreover, they do not use sails, and the oars are not fixed in rows along the sides, but are detachable, and are removed on certain rivers; they can also be reversed, if occasion demands. These people respect wealth, and one man among them is supreme, there being no limits to his power and no question as to the full obedience due to him. Promiscuous carrying of arms is not allowed here, as it is among the other Germans, but weapons are kept shut up in the charge of a slave who acts as guard. This is because the sea prevents sudden inroads from enemies, and because bands of armed men who have nothing to do often become unruly. It is not found expedient for the king (regia utilitas) to place a nobleman or a freeborn man, or even a freedman, in charge over these arms...[1] (

What kings (kuningaz) ruled these Suiones is unknown, but Norse mythology presents a line mythical kings whom Thor Heyerdahl has proposed existed in real life (see Mythological kings of Sweden).


After this the sources are silent about the Suiones until the 6th century, when Jordanes names two tribes he calls the Suehans and the Suetidi who lived in Scandza. The Suehans are considered to be the Suiones, and they were famous for their fine horses. Interestingly, Snorri Sturluson wrote that the contemporary Swedish king Adils (Eadgils) had the finest horses of his days. 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 Svitjod. 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 Suiones. 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:

linjer 30–33:
Wald Woingum, Wod şyringum, Wald of the Woings, Wod of the Thuringians,
Sæferğ Sycgum, Sweom Ongendşeow, Saeferth the Sycgs, Ongendtheow of the Swedes,
Sceafthere Ymbrum, Sceafa Longbeardum Sceafthere of the Umbers, Sceafa of the Langobards,

On line 32, Ongentheow is mentioned and he reappears in the later epic poem Beowulf.

Beowulf is the second source and it was composed sometime in 8th, 9th and the 10th centuries. The poem describes the wars between the Sweon and the Geatas, during the 6th century. The epic mentions the Swedish kings Ongentheow, Ohthere, Onela and Eadgils who belonged to a royal dynasty called the Scylfings. These kings were probably historical kings as they appear in many Scandinavian sources as well (see Swedish semi-legendary kings). There is a prophesy that the Geats will be subdued by the Swedes and that is what happened.

The third Anglo-Saxon source is Alfred the Great's translation of Orosius' Histories, where are told the voyages of Ottar from Hålogaland and Wulfstan of Hedeby, who in the 9th century described the Sweon and Sweoland.

Adam of Bremen

Adam of Bremen relates in the 11th century 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.

It is interesting that even if 1000 years separate Adam of Bremen from Tacitus both describe the Suiones as being comprised of many tribes, probably identical to the traditional provinces of eastern Svealand. Like Tacitus, he also notes that they are powerful warriors at sea, a power that they use to keep their neighbours in order. Their royal family is of an old dynasty (see House of Munsö), but the kings are dependent on the will of the people (the Ting). 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 (Aesir) and if they win they are grateful to him.

Norse sagas

The Norse 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 concur to a large extent with those of the previous sources.

For a continuation, see Early Swedish History.

See also

la:Suehans ru:Свеи sv:Svear


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