The power of antiquity: the Hyperborean research tradition in early modern Swedish research on national antiquity

Author/s: Tero Anttila, PhD
Availability: Open Access
Type: Dissertation
Year: 2014

Abstract: My thesis focuses on the incorporation of Hyperboreans, a mythical classical race, into the prevailing Gothic or Geatic narrative of national history in seventeenth and eighteenth century Swedish historiography. The beatific Hyperboreans were identified with ancient Swedes to emphasise that the Gothic ancestors of Sweden’s rulers had not been mere mediaeval barbarians. The most extreme proponents of this Hyperborean research tradition claimed that a high culture had thrived in Sweden before classical antiquity. They asserted that traces of this highly-developed northern civilisation could be found in the Bible, classical writings and mediaeval historiography, as well as the domestic antiquities such as runestones and Old Norse writings. By close-reading published and unpublished writings of historians and antiquaries, I examined the overarching and shared distinctive features within this Hyperborean research tradition. This involved an analysis of the main content of this research tradition in its learned, mostly Western European historiographical setting. I focused especially on understanding the Hyperborean research tradition within the intellectual traditions of constructing fabulous pasts. The seventeenth century was a period of institutionalisation of historical and antiquarian research in Sweden and Europe. Hence, I also studied the role of specific politico-historical and institutional conditions in the emergence, development and decline of the Hyperborean research tradition. By combining these two approaches, I attempted to strike a balance between research on long-term intellectual traditions and short-term immediate situations in which the ideas about the Hyperboreans were developed and used. Ultimately my thesis illustrates that the Hyperborean research tradition was a fairly coherent tradition of research. It arose in the early seventeenth century as part of the political pursuits and problems of Swedish monarchs in the domestic front and the Baltics. The tradition dominated Swedish historiography during the period of Swedish absolutism (1690–1720), before gradually crumbling from 1730s onwards. The emergence, development and decline of the Hyperborean research tradition were all a result of complex historiographical and politico-institutional factors.

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