CELT document E800002-016

The Sea Kings

Thomas Osborne Davis

Edited by T.W. Rolleston

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The Sea Kings 1

These Sea Kings were old friends and old foes of Ireland. History does not reach back to the age in which ships passed not between Ireland and Scandinavia. It seems highly probable that the Milesians themselves—that Scotic (or Scythian) race who gave our isle the name of Scotia Major— reached our shore, having sailed from the Baltic. They were old Sea Kings.

So were the Jutes, or Getae, who came under Hengist and Horsa to England in the fifth century, and received the isle of Thanet as a reward for repelling the Irish invaders; and, not content with this pay, used their saxes (or short swords), from whence we name them Saxons, till all the east of England obeyed them. So, too were the Danes, who conquered that same England over again in the tenth century. So were the Black and White Strangers, who held our coast and ravaged our island till Brien of Thomond trampled their raven at Clontarf on the 23rd April, 1014. And the Normans themselves, too, were of that self-same blood.

Mr. Laing has given us fresh materials for judging the race so related to Ireland. He has translated the greatest of their histories, and prefaced it by an account of the creed, literature and social condition of the Scandinavians.


There are strong reasons for believing that these people came from the east, through Muscovy, and preferring the fish-filled bays and game-filled hills of Norway and Sweden to the flat plains of Germany settled far north. Such is the tradition of the country and the expressed opinion of all their writers. The analogy of their language to the Sanscrit, their polygamy and their use of horse-flesh, all tend to prove that they were once an equestrian tribe in Upper Asia.

However this may be, we find them, from remote times, living in the great Peninsula of the North. Their manners were simple and hardy and their creed natural. The Cimbri, or Kymry whom Marius encountered, and the Milesians, both apparently from Scandia, showed equal valour, though not with the same fortune.

Their paganism was grand, though dark. Idolaters they were, but idolatry is but an outward sign. The people who bow to a stone have got a notion of a god beyond it. That this northern paganism originated in the natural custom of all people to express their belief in some soul mightier and better than their soul—some ruler of the storm and the sun—we may agree with Mr. Laing. But surely he is wrong in jumping from this to a denial of Hero-worship. Nothing seems more likely, nothing in mythology is better proved, than that this feeling took the shape of reverence for the soul of some dead chief who had manifested superior might. Time would obscure his history and glorify his attributes till he became a demi-god.

The pagan gods rarely seem to be absolute deities. Behind the greatest in renown of these hero-gods lurks some Fate or Wisdom whose creature he is.


The materials for the mythology of the Scandians are, according to Mr. Laing, very small, The principal work is the older Edda, composed by Saemund. Of this there are only three fragments:— ‘The one is called the Voluspa, or the Prophecy of Vola. In the Scotch words “spae-wife,” and in the English word “spy”, we retain words derived from the same root and with the same meaning, as the word “spa” of the Voluspa The second fragment is called Havamal, or the High Discourse; the third is the Magic, or Song of Odin. The Voluspa gives an account by the prophetess of the actions and operations of the gods; a description of chaos; of the formation of the world; of giants, men, dwarfs; of a final conflagration and dissolution of all things, and of the future happiness of the good, and punishment of the wicked. The Havamal is a collection of moral and economical precepts. The song of Odin is a collection of stanzas in celebration of his magic powers. The young Edda, composed 120 years after the older, by Snorro Sturleson, is a commentary upon the Voluspa; illustrating it in a dialogue between Gylfe, the supposed contemporary of Odin, under the assumed name of Gangir, and three divinities—Har (the High), Jafnhar (equal to the High), and Triddi (the Third)—at Asgard (the abode of the gods, or the original Asiatic seat of Odin) to which Gylfe had gone to ascertain the cause of the superiority of the Asiatics. Both the Eddas appear to have been composcd as handbooks to assist in understanding the names of the gods, and the allusions to them in the poetry of the Scalds, not to illustrate the doctrine of the religion of Odin. The absurd and the rational are consequently mingled. Many sublime conceptions, and many apparently borrowed by Saemund and Snorro from Christianity—as for instance the Trinity with which Gangir converses—are mixed with fictions almost as puerile as those of the classical mythology. The genius of Snorro Sturleson shines even in these fables. In the grave humour with which the most extravagantly gigantic feats of Thor and Utgaard are related and explained, Swift himself is not more happy; and one would almost believe that Swift had the adventures of Thor and the giant Utgaard Loke before him when he wrote of Brobdignag. The practical forms or modes of worship in the religion of Odin are not  p.147 to be discovered from the Eddas, nor from the sagas which the two Eddas were intended to illustrate. It is probable that much has been altered to suit the ideas of the age in which they were committed to writing, and of the scribes who compiled them. Christianity in Scandinavia seems, in the eleventh century, to have consisted merely in the ceremony of baptism, without any instruction in its doctrines.’ (Laing, op. cit.)

The priesthood consisted of the descendants of the twelve diars or goddars, who accompanied Odin from Asia; but they were judges as well as priests. Their temples were few, small, and rude. Their chief religious festivals were three in number. The first possesses a peculiar interest for us. It was called Yule from one of Odin's names, though held in honour of Thor, the supreme god of the Scandians. Occurring in mid-winter it became mixed with the Christmas festival, and gave its name thereto. The other festivals were in honour of the goddess Friggia (pronounced Freya), and of Odin or Wodin, the demigod or prophet. From these deities our Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday take their names. The Valhalla, or heaven of these Pagans, reserved for warriors, free from women, and abounding in beer and metheglin, is sufficiently known.

Centuries after Christianity had been received by their neighbours these pagans held to Odinism and Pagans they were when, in the ninth century, their great colonies went out.

The spread of the Northmen at that time came to pass in this way. Along the broken coast of the Northern peninsula reigned a crowd of independent chiefs, who lived partly on fishing and hunting, but much more by piracy.

In the beginning of the ninth century their expeditions became formidable. The north, and  p.148 finally the whole of England, was overrun, and it took the genius of Alfred, Edmund, and Athelstane to deliver it even for a time. Ireland suffered hardly less. Some of these rovers even penetrated the Mediterranean, and Charlemagne is said to have wept at the sight of those galleys laden with wrath. The achievements of one of them, Regnar Lodbrog, have been as nobly described in an Icelandic poem as anything Homer wrote of the Sea Kings of Greece who warred against Troy.

So powerful abroad, they paid slight allegiance to the King of Norway. At length, about 870 King Harald Haarfager (or the Fair Haired) resolved to stop their iniquities, or at least to free his own dominions from them. In a series of wars he subdued these sea kings, and forbade piracy on his coast or isles. Thus debarred from their old life at home, they went out in still greater colonies than before.

One of these colonies was led by Rolf, who was surnamed Gangr, or the Walker, as from his great stature he could get no horse to carry him, and walked with his followers. Sailing south they entered the Seine, took Rouen, besieged Paris, and finally extorted from Charles the Bald that tract to which they gave the name of Normandy. But these events took many years.

Other bands came to the aid of their friends in England, Ireland, and the Scotch Isles, while a large and illustrious colony went to Iceland.

In that land of snow they found fish and game. They abandoned piracy and became merchants, trading through the whole west of Europe. Nor did they remain at this side of the Atlantic. Sailing north-west, they occupied Greenland, and  p.149 visited some more southerly part of America, which they called Vinland.

But still a higher honour belongs to the Icelanders. They were the most famous Scalds or Bards who spoke the Norse tongue. Amongst the earliest institutions of the North were the laws of Gavelkind, and a strict entail of lands. Lands could not be sold or devised, the next of blood took them in equal shares. It was, therefore, of great value to preserve a knowledge of relationship, and this office fell to the literary class or Scalds. There was no law limiting the bardic office to natives of Iceland, yet, in fact, their superior skill won such an eminence for them that an Icelandic scald was as needed in every Norse settlement, from Rouen to Drontheim, as an Irish saint was in every part of Christian Europe.

Mr. Laing prints a list of about 200 Norse histories, romances, &c. Originally, it seems their sagas were oral, and it was not till the twelfth century that any progress was made in transferring them to writing. The reader of Mr. Laing's details will be struck by many facts like those used in the controversy as to whether the Iliad was a collection of ballads, or an originally single work.

It seems that there is no manuscript saga older than the end of the fourteenth century in existence. With his usual heartiness, Mr. Laing defends the Norsemen through thick and thin. In his opinion the best parts of the English constitution are due to them. He describes the Saxons as cowardly and slavish devotees when these gallant and free Pagans came in and renewed their vigour. The elective judges, and officers, and juries he traces to the Danes, and in the Things or popular assemblies of these Northmen he finds the origin  p.150 of English parliaments. Nor would he have us judge them by the report of trembling monks who wrote Latin invectives and invocations against them, while through the window of their transcribing-room they could see the homestead blaze and the Raven soar.

In this part of his case he seems rather successful. The writings of the Anglo-Saxons were a few dry chronicles in Latin; while the Northmen had an endless mass of histories and popular ballads. But even here he is in excess. He seems forgetful of the Saxon ballads of Brunanburgh, of Beowulf, and many others. If we can trust our recollections or Thierry's quotations, there are many touching and lofty passages even in these old Latin Chronicles.

His proof of the knowledge of the useful arts possessed by the Northmen is very ingenious. It rests on the account of their shipping. One ship is described as being as large as a 40-gun frigate. To make vessels so large and efficient as even their smaller ships required skill in working timber, in raising, smelting, and preparing iron, masts, sails, ropes, and anchors for such ships; and the necessity of coopering water vessels, and salting meat for long voyages, imply the existence of several arts.

The amount of knowledge of countries and men sure to be acquired in their joint piracies, should also be remembered.

He is very exclusive in his advocacy. So far from sanctioning the claim of the Teutonic race to general superiority over the Celts, he treats it as “the echo of the bray” first heard in the Ossianic controversy.

‘The black hair, dark eye, and dusky skin of the small-sized Celt, were considered by those philosophers to indicate an habitation for souls less gifted than those  p.151 which usually dwell under the yellow hair, blue eye, and fair skin of the bulky Goth. This conceit has been revived of late in Germany, and in America; and people talk of the superiority of the Gothic, Germanic, or Anglo-saxon race, as if no such people had ever existed as the Romans, the Spaniards, the French—no such men as Caesar, Buonaparte, Cicero, Montesquieu, Cervantes, Ariosto, Raphael, Michael Angelo. If the superiority they claim were true, it would be found not to belong at all to that branch of the one great northern race which is called Teutonic, Gothic, Germanic, or Anglo-Saxon— for that branch in England was, previous to the settlements of the Danes or Northmen in the tenth or eleventh centuries, and is at this day throughout all Germany, morally and socially degenerate, and all distinct and distinguishing spirit or nationality in it dead, but to the small cognate branch of the Northmen or Danes, who, between the ninth and twelfth centuries brought their Paganism, energy, and social institutions, to bear against, conquer, mingle with, and invigorate the priest-ridden, inert, descendants of the old Anglo-Saxon race.’ (op. cit.)

The writer of the work now translated by Mr. Laing was Snorro Sturleson, an Icelander, born in 1178, of a noble and learned family. He appears to have been skilful, imaginative and bold, but he was also grasping and fierce. Laing gives a slight sketch of his life. It, like most of his introduction, wants in finish and abounds in repetitions.

The work is generally known in Norway and Iceland as the Heimskrringla, or “world's circle”, from that being “the first prominent word in the MS.”, but Sturleson called it, as Laing does, a “Saga” or “Chronicle” of the Kings of Norway....

Mr. Laing's translation comes fresh and racy. He seems to like the ship-building and roving, and fighting. Cast a few centuries earlier, he had made a famous Viking. Notwithstanding his Benthamite notions, his heart is strong and natural and he relishes vigorous humanity wherever it is found ...

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Title (uniform): The Sea Kings

Author: Thomas Osborne Davis

Editor: T.W. Rolleston

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Electronic edition compiled by: Beatrix Färber

proof corrections by: Margaret Bonar

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2. Second draft.

Extent: 3850 words

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Publisher: CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University College Cork

Address: College Road, Cork, Ireland—http://www.ucc.ie/celt

Date: 2006

Date: 2010

Distributor: CELT online at University College, Cork, Ireland.

CELT document ID: E800002-016

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  • First published in The Nation 26 November, 1842. [This date is given by K. M. MacGrath, in his edition. O'Donoghue gives the later date of 9 June, 1845. — The Rolleston edition, on which this electronic edition is based, almost exactly matches that found in Essays, literary and historical. by Thomas Davis, edited by D. J. O'Donoghue.]

Editions of this text; other writings by Thomas Davis

  1. Thomas Davis, Essays Literary and Historical, ed. by D. J. O'Donoghue, Dundalk 1914.
  2. Sir Charles Gavan Duffy (ed.), Thomas Davis, the memoirs of an Irish patriot, 1840–1846. 1890.
  3. Thomas Osborne Davis, Literary and historical essays 1846. Reprinted 1998, Washington, DC: Woodstock Books.
  4. Essays of Thomas Davis. New York, Lemma Pub. Corp. 1974, 1914 [Reprint of the 1914 ed. published by W. Tempest, Dundalk, Ireland, under the title 'Essays literary and historical'.]
  5. Thomas Davis: essays and poems, with a centenary memoir, 1845–1945. Dublin, M.H. Gill and Son, 1945. [Foreword by an taoiseach, Éamon de Valera.]
  6. Angela Clifford, Godless colleges and mixed education in Ireland: extracts from speeches and writings of Thomas Wyse, Daniel O'Connell, Thomas Davis, Charles Gavan Duffy, Frank Hugh O'Donnell and others. Belfast: Athol, 1992.

Selected further reading

  1. Arthur Griffith (ed.), Thomas Davis: the thinker & teacher; the essence of his writings in prose and poetry. Dublin: Gill 1914.
  2. William O'Brien, The influence of Thomas Davis: a lecture delivered by William O'Brien, M.P., at the City Hall, Cork, on 5th November 1915. Cork: Free Press Office, 1915.
  3. Johannes Schiller, Thomas Osborne Davis, ein irischer Freiheitssänger. Wiener Beiträge zur englischen Philologie, Bd. XLVI. Wien und Leipzig, W. Braumüller, 1915.
  4. Michael Quigley (ed.), Pictorial record: centenary of Thomas Davis and young Ireland. Dublin [1945].
  5. Joseph Maunsell Hone, Thomas Davis (Famous Irish Lives). 1934.
  6. M. J. MacManus (ed.), Thomas Davis and Young Ireland. Dublin: The Stationery Office, 1945.
  7. J. L. Ahern, Thomas Davis and his circle. Waterford, 1945.
  8. Michael Tierney, 'Thomas Davis: 1814–1845'. Studies; an Irish quarterly review, 34:135 (1945) 300–310.
  9. Theodore William Moody, 'The Thomas Davis centenary lecture in Newry'. An t-Iubhar (=Newry) 1946, 22–26.
  10. D. R. Gwynn, O'Connell, Davis and the Colleges Bill (Centenary Series 1). Oxford and Cork, 1948.
  11. D. R. Gwynn, 'John E. Pigot and Thomas Davis'. Studies; an Irish quarterly review, 38 (1949) 145–157.
  12. D. R. Gwynn, 'Denny Lane and Thomas Davis'. Studies; an Irish quarterly review, 38 (1949) 15–28.
  13. N. N., Clár cuimhneacháin: comóradh i gcuimhne Thomáis Daibhis, Magh Ealla, 1942. Baile Átha Cliath (=Dublin) 1942.
  14. K. M. MacGrath, 'Writers in the

    Title (periodical): Nation

    , 1842–5.' Irish Historical Studies 6, no. 23 (March 1949), 189–223.
  15. Christopher Preston, 'Commissioners under the Patriot Parliament, 1689'. Irish Ecclesiastical Record, 5th ser., 74:8 (1950) 141–151.
  16. W. B. Yeats, Tribute to Thomas Davis: with an account of the Thomas Davis centenary meeting held in Dublin on November 20th, 1914, including Dr. Mahaffy's prohibition of the 'Man called Pearse,' and an unpublished protest by 'A.E.', Cork 1965.
  17. Theodore William Moody, 'Thomas Davis and the Irish nation'. Hermathena, 103 (1966) 5–31.
  18. Malcolm Johnston Brown, The politics of Irish literature: from Thomas Davis to W. B. Yeats. Seattle (University of Washington Press) 1973.
  19. Eileen Sullivan, Thomas Davis. Lewisburg, New Jersey: Bucknell University Press, 1978.
  20. Mary G. Buckley, Thomas Davis: a study in nationalist philosophy. Ph.D. Thesis, National University of Ireland, at the Department of Irish History, UCC, 1980.
  21. Giulio Giorello, "A nation once again": Thomas Osborne Davis and the construction of the Irish "popular" tradition. History of European Ideas, 20:1–3 (1995) 211–217.
  22. John Neylon Molony, A soul came into Ireland: Thomas Davis 1814–1845. Dublin 1995.
  23. Robert Somerville-Woodward, "Two 'views of the Irish language': O'Connell versus Davis." The History Review: journal of the UCD History Society, 9 (1995) 44–50.
  24. John Neylon Molony, 'Thomas Davis: Irish Romantic idealist'. In: Richard Davis; Jennifer Livett; Anne-Maree Whitaker; Peter Moore (eds.), Irish-Australian studies: papers delivered at the eighth Irish-Australian Conference, Hobart July 1995 (Sydney 1996) 52–63.
  25. David Alvey, 'Thomas Davis. The conservation of a tradition.' Studies; an Irish quarterly review, 85 (1996) 37–42.
  26. Harry White, The keeper's recital: music and cultural history in Ireland, 1770–1970. (Cork 1998).
  27. Joseph Langtry; Brian Fay,'The Davis influence.' In: Joseph Langtry (ed.), A true Celt: Thomas Davis, The Nation, rebellion and transportation: a series of essays. (Dublin 1998) 30–38.
  28. Joseph Langtry, 'Thomas Davis (1814–1845).' In: Joseph Langtry (ed.), A true Celt: Thomas Davis, The Nation, rebellion and transportation: a series of essays. (Dublin 1998) 2–7.
  29. Patrick Maume, 'Young Ireland, Arthur Griffith, and republican ideology: the question of continuity.' Éire-Ireland, 34:2 (1999) 155–174.
  30. Sean Ryder, 'Speaking of '98: Young Ireland and republican memory'. Éire-Ireland, 34:2 (1999) 51–69.
  31. Ghislaine Saison, 'L'écriture de l'histoire chez la Jeune Irlande: quelle histoire pour une nation du consensus et de la réconciliation?' In: Centre de recherche inter-langues angevin, Écriture(s) de l'histoire: Actes du colloque des 2,3 et 4 décembre 1999. (Angers 2001) 435–446.
  32. Gerard Kearns, 'Time and some citizenship: nationalism and Thomas Davis.' Bullán: an Irish Studies Review, 5:2 (2001) 23–54.
  33. Ghislaine Saison, 'Thomas Davis et la nation irlandaise'. Cercles, 4 (2002), 121–131.
  34. Helen Mulvey, Thomas Davis and Ireland: a biographical study. Washington, D.C., Catholic University of America Press, 2003.

Davis, Thomas Osborne (1910). ‘The Sea Kings’. In: Thomas Davis: Selections from his prose and poetry‍. Ed. by T. W. Rolleston. Dublin and London: The Talbot Press, pp. 144–151.

You can add this reference to your bibliographic database by copying or downloading the following:

  author 	 = {Thomas Osborne Davis},
  title 	 = {The Sea Kings},
  editor 	 = {T. W. Rolleston},
  booktitle 	 = {Thomas Davis: Selections from his prose and poetry},
  publisher 	 = {The Talbot Press},
  address 	 = {Dublin and London},
  date 	 = {1910},
  pages 	 = {144–151}


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Creation: by Thomas Davis

Date: 1842

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  1. The Heimskringla, or Chronicle of the Kings of Norway translated from the Icelandic of Snorri Sturleson, with preliminary dissertation by Samuel Laing, Esq., 3 vols. [Published London 1844; available at the Online Medieval and Classical Library at http://omacl.org/Heimskringla/]. 🢀


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