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'Our Norwegian Heritage'

By B. A. Gimmestad

 

I appreciate the honor bestowed upon me by being asked to speak at the 25th anniversary meeting of this Nordfjordlag. I wish I could speak in the Norwegian, but my Norse is rather faulty, and I dare not make the attempt. This opportunity to speak has given me an experience that prompts me to urge upon the younger generation the necessity of becoming more intimately acquainted with the history of the land from where their forefathers came. In preparing for this talk I felt it necessary to review what little Norse history I had had, but to my amazement. I found I knew very, very little. I began skimming through Professor Boyeson's 'Story of Norway', but before I knew it I had stopped skimming and was reading in detail. I read the book from cover to cover, and found it as fascinating as any good piece of fiction I had ever read.

My topic this evening is 'Our Norwegian Heritage'. In the few minutes allowed to me I want to try to bring to the younger generations something I feel they are lacking-namely a sincere pride in their, forbears, and in the country from which their inheritance has sprung. Descendants of every country have something to be proud of, but I believe that we of Norwegian descent have a special right to be proud of our heritage.

In order to understand a country and its people, one must necessarily be well acquainted with its history. Let us for a few moments review briefly some of the highlights of Gamle Norge's history. I know this is familiar to most of my audience, but there are those who know little or nothing about it.

First of all, where did the Norse people come from? We know they belong to the Aryan or white race of peoples, and history tells us that the Aryan tribes probably had their original home in that part of Asia which the ancients called Bactria, near the sources of the rivers Oxus and Jaxartes. The first of these Aryan tribes, to migrate to Europe were those of the Heilenes. or Greeks, and the Italic group from which came the mighty Roman Empire. Then followed the Celts, Slays and Teuton to which belong the Scandinavians. It is believed that the only portion of this Aryan race that remained in Asia were the Iranians in Persia, and the Hindus in India. The dates of the migrations of the various tribes is unknown, but it is believed that the Scandinavian tribes invaded the countries that they now inhabit during the second century preceding the Christian era. These tribes subdued the Finns and Lapps, whom they found in pos session of the land, partly exterminating them, and driving the rest into the barren mountains of the extreme north.

Bear in mind that the chief occupation of these early tribes was fighting-war to conquer new lands, and war to hold what they had conquered. Do not be too hasty in judging them for some of the things they perpetrated, at least until you know something of the times in which they lived. Their religion centered about fighting. They had waged war from time immemorial because to them it was an honorable occupation. They fought to exist, and they fought for honor and glory for them selves and their country. Life was pretty much in the raw, and one cannot judge them from the standards of modern civilization.

In settling Norway, the tribes divided into groups so that almost every separate valley in Norway became a little kingdom by itself. These were called 'fylkis'. The leader, who was also the tribal priest, was king over his own little group to start with, but here is an interesting thing regarding these 'fylkis'. Al though the 'fylkis' had its chief, or 'jarl' as he was called, he could not tax the people for his own support nor could he impose on them any burden they would not accept of their own free choice. The people expressed their will in the 'fylkis thing', or popular assembly, and this idea has been carried throughout the entire history of the country-the various 'Things' during the days of the Vikings, growing into the Storthing in 1814, the present representative assembly in Norway today. Later on, as the country became more nationally minded, these 'fylkis' were banded into larger units and were more like counties-Trondelag, Viken, Vermaland, Gudbrandsdal, etc.

The topography of Norway decided the occupations of the people. Between raids on the neighboring countries or themselves, the inhabitants devoted themselves to fishing and agriculture, the chief and only main industries for centuries outside of fighting-if you can call that an industry, and it probably was so considered in those days.

The Vikings were a bold, fearless and ferocious band of men, marauding, pillaging, and murdering. Rightly did the other nations of Europe fear this fierce race of men. They have been condemned by historians of other nations and praised and lauded in the sagas of their own land, but remember the background of the race and the period of history they were living in and you can see that they were doing what they thought was right and proper. It is a peculiar thing about right and wrong. Men of other nations did the same things as the Vikings, but instead of condemning them they received a prominent place in the history of their nation, and in many cases were given titles and lands for their deeds. It is unfortunate that the history of these early Vikings is so fragmentary and indefinite, but we do not find anything definite outside of the Sagas until the time of Harold, the Fair Haired.

By their invasions and by their conquests, the Vikings brought to the nations of Europe a quality that has been the backbone of modern civilization-that independence that states as Abraham Lincoln did a thousand years later-'all men are created free and equal'- that spirit that gave to the world the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence.

These Vikings did more than invade and pillage a country. They conquered and settled in the lands they conquered and spread the quality that gives a Norseman the right to hold his head high among his fellowmen. Scotland was under their do minion for over three hundred years; Dublin, Ireland was under the rule of the Norsemen for 350 years; Northumbria in England, and other parts of England; the Orkney, Hebrides, Shetland and Faroe Islands, and Iceland. Rolf, the Walker, received the province of Normandy as fee from King Charles, the simple. The results of the influence of the Vikings and their ideas of democracy can be traced right down the line of Rolf's descendants through William Longsword, Richard the Fearless, and William the Conqueror, and so down the line of English kings to the time of the Magna Carta-the eventful period in English and World history when the people of England declared in no uncertain terms that they were a free people and must be governed as such.

Mention was made of the early religion of the Norse. We cannot judge them rightly unless we know somewhat of this powerful influence on their lives and thoughts. Heathens they were and heathens they remained even long after Christianity had been introduced into Norway. Today we find Norway among those at the head of the list of Christian nations. There can be no object in this talk to go into detail regarding the religion of the ancient Norse, but a very brief summary may bring things to mind that may have been forgotten and give us a better understanding of our ancestors.

You are all acquainted with the Snorre Sagas and the ancient myths of Norse religion-Odin, Thor, and Frey-(after whom three days of the week are named), the Valkyries, Balder, Loke-all are familiar names to those of Norse descent. The world in the beginning was conceived by the early Norse as an enormous ash tree, named Ygdrasil, the three roots of which extend one to gods in Asgard, another to Yotunheim, the home of Night, the third to Niflheim, the home of frost and darkness. Odin dwelt with the other gods, Honer and Lodur, in Asgard, where he receives in his shining hail, Valhalla, all of those who died by the sword. These men in Valhalla, chosen by the Valkyrie maidens, issue forth each day and fight great battles, killing and maiming each other. But every evening they wake up whole and unscathed and return to Odin's hall where they spend the night in merry carousing and feasting. The emphasis in this religion, you will note, is that of fighting, and accounts for some of the zeal displayed by the Vikings. Each warrior dying by the sword, goes to his reward in Valhalla. The story of Thor and his great hammer Mjolner, riding in a cart drawn by two rams over the Gjallar bridge, Balder, the good and beautiful, Njord, ruler of the sea, Frey, ruler of the seasons, peace and good crops; Tyr, god of courage; and the evil Loke-these are all familiar, but we cannot take the time to relate these in detail.

Time does not permit going into details regarding the history of the Viking kings. Suffice it to say, that had it not been for the independent spirit of the people, their love of liberty that never died, and the courage of the peasant in the face of almost insurmountable difficulties, Norway would not today be the nation she is, nor in all probability would you and I be here today. Periods of darkness and periods of light-that was the story of the early kings. Darkness in periods ruled by Eric Blood Axe and his wicked wife, Gunhild; Harold Gille and that long dark period beginning with the reign of Magnus the law maker in 1263. The period of light with Harold the Fair Haired, Olaf Tryggvason, Olaf Haroldson, Sverre Sigurdson and others of like rule. All through the entire history of Norway runs the vein of courageous independent spirit of the peasant. The Tronders, all of the west coast of early Norway, seem to have been representative of this spirit, and their active participation in the fight for independence and personal liberty is typical of the temper of the entire race.

It is of interest to see the influence that custom has on our present day civilization. It has been the custom that all kings of Norway are crowned in the Cathedral at Nidaros, or Drontheim, as it was known in the days of the early kings. The Trondelag was one of the most populated districts and its citizens were active in their insistence on preserving their inherent rights. It was here that Olaf Tryggvason built the city of Nidaros, and it was here that that great Cathedral was built in memory of Olaf the Saint, who put down the last barrier to Christianity in this section of Norway. The Tronders in their 'thing' often controlled the naming of a king and it was because of their power and their location that this custom was begun and has continued down the ages. History shows us that these men of central and western Norway were the foundation and the backbone of modern Norwegian democracy.

The dark centuries for Norway from about 1263 to 1814 only glorify all the more the indefatigable spirit of our forefathers. Though they were little better than serfs during the years under Denmark, they did not bow to the yoke as did the peasants of other nations under the Feudal system. Though disaster in the form of the Gula-Elva disaster and the horrors of the Black Death in 1349 which swept away the population of entire districts and paralyzed the entire country-these were enough to make ordinary mortals give up in despair, but these ancient Norse did not know the meaning of 'giving up'. Dark was the day when Norway lost her last vestige of independence in 1537 by being declared a province of Denmark. Through it all, these Norsemen never lost their inherent ideas of democracy and personal liberty. They resented every encroachment and never for got the inheritance that had been passed down to them, and lost. Slowly Norway emerged-bit by bit-gamely fighting their way back, contesting every inch they gained until one by one the yokes were thrown off. Then on that day glorious to all of Norse descent, May 17, 1814, when at Eidsvold, Norway declared her independence of Denmark-where men like Sverdrup, Falsen, and Motzfelt overruled the timidity of those who were afraid to face the world as an independent nation. Again in 1905 when the final separation was made from the Union with Sweden, and Norway at last stood among the free nations of the world-free to work out her own problems in her own way.

What have you and I gained from these ancestors of ours? To know the history of Norway is to know that we of Norwegian descent have much to be proud of. No nation of weaklings could have come through such a bitter struggle as did Norway- stronger than ever because of the struggles. No nation without the intense love of liberty could have achieved what Norway has done in the short period after regaining her independence.

Listen to what historians and travelers, not of our nationality have to say:

'The most marked mental characteristics are clear insight, unconquerable pertinacity, dogged obstinacity, absolute honesty, and a sturdy sense of independence.'

'No other country possesses so many men in official positions-doctors, clergymen, engineers, teachers and merchants-- who are peasant born, and no other country has so many eminent men of science and statesmen risen directly from the peasantry.'

'Poverty and piety alone have been left to influence the Norwegian. A deep sense of religion and a faith grounded in Almighty God is found in every home.'

'Few peoples are as honorable and amiable and as free from destructive passions and pernicious prejudices. They are fond of a quiet and simple life with kinsfolk and friends.'

Not the least of our heritage is that of health. A hardy race that has passed down to us a health that resists disease. In posture the Norse stand above all races of men. In the Civil War they were with the native Americans the tallest in the army, and in chest expansion were superior to them all.

To summarize, you and I have inherited these things from our forefathers:

Deep seated feeling of democracy and independence,

Strength of character,

Healthy bodies,

Reverence for God.

What more can one ask for? We have a right to be proud of our ancestry.

One could go on for hours reciting and recounting deeds of the past and present in Norwegian history. We point with pride that one of our race discovered America in the year 1000. We are proud of the fact that Norwegians took a prominent part in the early history of our own country. We rejoice in the fact that Norway today stands respected of nations, contributing to the wealth of the world, in music through Grieg, Ole Bull, and Nordraak; in literature through Bjornson, Ibsen, Jonas Lie and Kielland; in are through Johan Dahl, Baade, Gude and Tideman, in sculpture by Sinding and Skeibrok. Today we find Norway leading in many social reforms, quietly tending to her own business, and growing in her influence on modern civilization.

Those of us in America who are descendants of the Norse are first and foremost Americans. We hold no allegiance to any other flag, no loyalty to any other nation other than our own beloved United States. We do, however, take pride in the fact that we are descended from a race of people with a history as proud as of any nation. With thousands of others of the younger generation here in the Northwest I can honestly say, 'I am proud of my Norwegian ancestry!'

 

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