Scandinavia--Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland--is blessed with five distinct, yet related, cultures.

Learn about the stories behind the legends, about the countries, and most of all about the people.

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"We sailed our ships to any shore that offered the best hope of booty; we feared no fellow on earth..."
Saga of Arrow-Odd

What is Scandinavia's largest city?
Helsinki
Stockholm
Copenhagen
Oslo
Stavanger

Correct answer?
COPENHAGEN
Denmark

København, known to the rest of the world as Copenhagen, wonderful Copenhagen, became the capital of Denmark in 1415, but several of its fine old buildings date from the reign of King Christian IV, from the late 16th to the mid-17th century.

Read more

Feature: Elsinore Castle
Food: Lefse, Almond Bread
         Iceland's Hearty Fare
History: The Round Tower
Arts:   Scandinavian Pewter
          Georg Jensen
People: Hans Christian
Andersen
     
News: Happiest Countries

Who Are the Scandinavians?
by Bob Brooke

What characterizes the peoples of the North? The Danes, the Swedes, the Norwegians, the Icelanders are the Scandinavian peoples–these are the folk whom the racial anthropologists call Nordic. The men stand tall and blond, the women fair. Nevertheless, the Nordic peoples rank high when it comes to health, strength, endurance, size, intelligence, even subjective beauty.

Originally the Scandinavians–except for the Finns and the Lapps–must have been one people. Perhaps their ancestors came northward from Asia Minor or the Balkans and founded the great Teutonic family. As the last ice sheet receded, small groups crept northward to hunt and fish and to settle. Tribal differentiations developed, and by the Age of the Migrations, beginning in the 2nd second century B.C., the Cimbri and the Goths, plus the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, a few centuries later, mix with the Norse Vikings. As late as 700 A.D., the runic inscriptions found in the three central countries indicate that the people used exactly the same language, but during the Viking period from 800-1100 A.D., a consciousness of the oneness of Norway and of distinction between Danes and Swedes grew.

Gradually environment played its subtle part in selection and modification. Immigrating groups--Scots, Walloons, Germans, and others–affected communities differently. Variation in personalities and in experience changed habits and traditions. Hence people and speech aren’t now the same in urban Copenhagen, in the mining town of Kiruna in northern Sweden, and in the rural valley of Setesdal in Norway.

Scandinavian Languages
Books of one country can be more easily read in the other countries when they’re translated, but translation is a matter of convenience rather than necessity. Any Dane, Swede, or Norwegian can travel in the neighbor countries, use his own speech, and be understood without too great difficulty. In fact, these peoples don’t try to learn each other's language, but at their various common gatherings each speaks his own, with an occasional bow to some special idiosyncrasy of his neighbor. Skane has been a Swedish province for about 300 years and it speaks and writes Swedish. But it was long Danish territory and still has close cultural and economic ties with Denmark.

The story is different with Iceland, for the Icelanders, basically of Norwegian stock since the Viking Age have retained their ancient speech. At least their language is most closely akin to that of the ancient skalds or poets and the saga-writers. Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish have succumbed to modernization within themselves and to acceptance of a number of words from German, French, and English. The Icelanders are proud to say that they, like the Greeks, always have a word for it. Even for such an invention as the radio the Icelanders utilized one of their own root-words and called it utvarp or out-casting and for television used the ancient sjon or sight, vision.

Language illustrates one of the many ways in which continuity and originality blend, and similarities and differences exist side by side.

The Finns, related culturally and geographically to their western neighbors, are of different origin. Their ancestors moved westward in prehistoric times across the Russian plains, then north into Estonia and Finland. Perhaps their homeland was around the Caspian Sea or in the Ural Mountains. Related tribes, still scattered along the Volga, might be the reason the Hungarians probably originated from the same stock.

The languages of these groups are at least distantly related, and belong to a distinct development, as do the peoples themselves, not Slavic, not Teutonic. They’re all part of the separate Finno-Ugrian group. They’re tall, blond, and virile, with broad cheekbones. When they moved across the Gulf of Finland, they probably found settlements of Germanic peoples already in their destined country. The Finns absorbed some of these peoples, but the Swedish communities on the west and south coasts have remained distinct in blood and speech. The Finns themselves have retained definite tribal characteristics in several of the landskap or provinces. Others have moved on and have spread into northern Sweden and Norway and mixed to some extent with the Lapps. Still other related peoples, the Karelians, have occupied sparsely the cold forest area east of Finland, but their contact with the Finns is slight.

Within Finland a self-conscious minority retains Swedish speech and customs, and the Finnish and Swedish languages are equal before the law. These Swedes have been for centuries officials and farmers and fishers and have clung to their two coastal areas in west and south. Finland was converted to Christianity from Sweden, and for 600 years was an integral part of the Swedish state. The national culture is therefore strongly impregnated with Swedish elements, now so thoroughly absorbed that they seem indigenous.

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