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Ættenuten - the ancestral cliff

The renowned Ættenuten, also known as Ættestupet, is widely used in popular culture as a sign of our ancestors' atrocities and "barbaric human views". It nourishes under the view of our pagan ancestors as worshipers of a kind of death cult. This, like many other stereotypes, does not seem to be rooted in reality.

The argued "Ättestupet" in Västergötaland. By Willem Swidde from a book from the 16th century.

In recent Christian times, it has been argued that the Gentiles had such cliffs, in which old, sick, or others who were a burden to the tribe, threw themselves to death, voluntarily or involuntarily.

In such questions it is wise to discern the time the alleged sources are dealing with such claims, and the circumstances. Most of them are stories from very troubled times, from extreme situations, such as war and strife. There are a number of these, as when Jordanes tells about the warrior tribe, Scandinavia's elite force, which in the 300s forced the old and sick to the bonfire, without pity. As Tacitus, a few decades after our counting of time, tells us that most Germans who fled in battle hung themselves in shame, or when Adam of Bremen indicates human sacrifice in Uppsala. Today we are left with the impression that our ancestors expelled their unwanted children to be eaten by the wolves, and that this was almost a generally acceptable practice. As far as one can see, there is not a single source of such practices in pagan times. Tacitus also mentions this specifically in his writing, that among Germanic tribes, limiting the family or exposing children to death is considered an abomination.

Ættenuten and the narrative around it, spins out of one single source - Gautrek's saga. This is an Icelandic saga, which was translated in 1664. The original term we come closest to is "ancestral cliff" at the time of the record. Gautrek's story is mythological - so, symbolically, rather than anything else. It is similar to the Yngling saga, where examples such as the sacrifice of Domalde for literal readers should serve as evidence of our ancestor’s barbaric human sacrifices as a practice, in a primitive belief in "cartoon gods".

Olof Verelius' translation of Gautrek's saga from 1664 resulted in extensive work on finding such barbaric Ættestup in place names in Sweden and in the rest of Scandinavia. With goodwill and imagination, a number of them apparently appeared. This helped create yet another false narrative, which unfortunately still lives at its best.

There are no sources that can in any way establish that our ancestors had a tradition of throwing people off cliffs. Not written, not archaeological. Unfounded Christian speculation, fantasies and dogmas, spiced with much later overtones, are what we have to deal with.

A nestor at Bergen museum by the name W.F. Koren Christie wrote in 1834:

”Om en hos Almuesmænd paa Landet herskende Overtroe, som gjør, at de ikke ville skille sig ved Jordgravede Oldsager; og om en sjelden Antiqvitet, som formedelst saadan Overtroe holdes skjult”, lyder den omstendelige tittelen. Den ”sjeldne Antiqvitet” som bonden holdt skjult for antikvaren. En ”ætteklubbe”, som ”i Oldtiden skal have været brugt til at slaae udlevede Folk i hjel med! Paa en exursion, som jeg i Aaret 1823 gjorde i det nordlige af Bergens Stift, fortalte en gammel Bonde mig, at der paa en Gaard, som vi reiste forbi, opbevaredes en saadan Træ-Klubbe, hvis Bestemmelse og Brug i Oldtiden fortælles at have være den, at slaae gamle Kjærlinger i hjel med. Han forsikrede, at han ofte havde seet Klubben og havt den i sine Hænder, samt beskrev mig den at være tyk i den ene Ende og ganske spids i den anden, samt brun af Ælde. For ikke at gaae glip af dette, efter min Formening sjeldne, Stykke talede jeg ikke noget derom til Besidderen, for hvem jeg var fremmed. … En af mine Venner, som har gjort sig megen Umage i denne Sag, erklærer, at han af alt det, som han har hørt og erfaret, betræffende den eftersøgte Træklubbe, troer sig overbeviist om, at den endnu existerer, men at man anseer den som en Helligdom, tjenlig til at helbrede syge Mennesker og Dyr, og at den, i saadan Hensigt, bliver hemmeligen hentet og bragt hele Bøygden om.”

The old text from 1834 basically speculates if there is such a thing as an Ætteklubbe (a wooden club) that was used to kill off “unwanted” sick and old family members, if anybody had seen or heard of suck a wooden club, where it was at the time etc. Nothing of substance, in other words.

This interest in wooden clubs and “barbaric behavior” continued throughout the 19th century, where one on a non-existent basis, speculated on the tradition and use of this weapon. Archaeologists today are reasonably in agreement that the "clan club" must have been a peasant weapon from the Middle Ages. Neither Christie nor anyone after him, have ever laid their eyes on or physically held such a "club".

Today we have more knowledge, and not just superstition and free imagination. We know that there are no sources or indications of such pagan murder practice in Scandinavia, neither with cliffs or clubs. No written sources, no archaeological sources or cultural indications.

Our ancestors were honorable people. One can very well conclude that they generally had a disdain for weakness. Similarly, we can conclude that human sacrifice has not been a documented practice either. To the extent that people were executed; this was linked to serious criminal cases, based on our old Germanic and Norse laws. It can be imagined that these were ordained a god of death or a death goddess, but this is by no means comparable to the impression given by meaningless killings and sacrifices of people and relatives.

The tradition of taking care of our own, and respecting the old, stood no weaker in pagan times. Rather the contrary.

The fact that landmarks such as cliffs, most often in close proximity to a farm, were given correlating names, and were related to home, family and tribe, on the other hand, are well documented in the name research in Scandinavia.

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