The religious beliefs and rituals of the Vikings

Fiona Wilkinson, Dickson College 2008


Even after their conversion to Christianity the Norse were accused of being Pagans. The Christians described the Norse as violent and obscene, but their religion was just a way of life. The well-known descriptions of the Norse by Anglo-Saxon chroniclers has given a biased view of the religious beliefs of the Norsemen. However, through poems, stories and archaeological findings, the beliefs and rituals of the Norse show that they are not such obscene and bloodthirsty people as popular history suggests.

Evidence of Norse worship can be found in written sagas, poems and in archaeological findings. There are a few sagas that chronicle the lives and habits of the Norse, such as The Younger Edda of Snorri Sturluson[1] , a 10th Century Icelandic poet and historian. Although these sagas are not primary sources, they give details of the Norse culture that would otherwise be unknown. Through these sagas, the reader learns of the stories of the Norse view on the creation of the world, humans and gods. Sturluson writes, in the Younger Eddas, that;

One day... as the sons of Bor were walking along the sea-beach they found two stems of wood, out of which they shaped a man and a woman. The first god (Odin) infused into them life and spirit; the second (Vili) endowed them with reason and the power of motion; the third (Ve) gave them speech and features, hearing and vision. The man they called Ask, and the woman, Embla. From these two descend the whole human race whose assigned dwelling was within Midgard.[2]

These sagas also tell of particular rituals that supposedly took place, although many scholars have dismissed them as “medieval fantasies.” However, Sturluson is known to have possessed a large knowledge of the pre-Christian past.

Freyr.jpg
Artwork by Jacques Reich (1852 - 1923) showing the Norse god Freyr and his boar Gullinbursti.
Archaeological research has also found evidence of Norse worship in the forms of tomb stones; small, gold sheets and bog bodies. Stones have been found in church yards that have scenes from Norse myths engraved on them. On many of these stones there are traces of blue, which would indicate that these stones may have been coloured. According to Ronald Jessup, author of Age by Age: Landmarks of British Archaeology, these relics are believed to be part of stone coffins.[3] Small gold foil sheets have also been found. These sheets are no bigger than 1 centimetre square, and many show an image of a man and woman embracing. The sheets are too light to have been used as money. William R. Short states that these sheets were deposited when a king or chieftain celebrated his wedding.[4] The sheets were often found under posts that support structures, or under high-seats. Short continues to say that the figures on these gold sheets represent Freyr and his wife, the Giantess Gerð. In Norse religion this marriage is considered very important as it brought the Gods and the Giants together.

The Norse believed that the gods were split into two different groups; the Æasir and the Vanir. The Vanir, according to Amanda O’Neill[5] , are the oldest of the gods. The gods who are classified as Vanir are Freyr (meaning “lord), the god of fertility; his sister Freyja (meaning “Lady” respectively), the goddess of fertility, love, war and beauty (and, according to Sturluson, considered to be the leader of the Valkyries) and Njord, the god of the sea, who is said to be Freyr and Freyja’s father.[6] The Vanir appear to be connected mainly with cultivation and fertility. The Æasir, however, were associated with war and power. The gods of the Æasir are: Odin, the god of wisdom and war; Vili and Vé, brothers of Odin; Thor, the god of thunder and battle; Loki, the mischievous trickster and supposed foster-brother of Odin; Tyr, the one-handed self sacrificing god of justice and law; Heimdall, the watcher and guardian of the gods; Baldur, god of radiance and rebirth and one of Odin’s sons; Hod, the blind god of darkness and Odin’s son; Hœnir, the indecisive god, Meili, the god of travel and also son of Odin; Forseti, the god of peace and truth and the son of Baldur; Vidar, the god of stealth and vengeance and another son of Odin; Vali, the avenger and son of Odin; Ullr, god of hunting (who was, according to the 12th century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, slain by the Norse after he filled in Odin’s job while Odin was exiled)[7] ; Bragi, god of poetry; Idon, goddess of youth; Skaði, a giantess who was goddess of snow and winter and also second wife of Njord, and Hermod, messenger of Odin.

The Æasir and Vanir are said to have had a war in which Freyja, Freyr and Njord were taken as hostages, and became part of the Æasir.

Freyja.JPG
Sculpture of Freyja in Stockholm, Sweden. Sculpture by Rolf Adlersparre, 1880s.
The gods of the Norse appear to have been worshipped differently. Some were content with simple food offerings, whilst others required human sacrifice in order for them to bless their followers. Offerings were made to the god Freyr at weddings, so that he would bless the couple with joy and fertility. At these weddings, animal sacrifices were often made to Freyr. In this ritual a boar would be killed and its blood poured into a bowl which was placed upon a högr- a type of altar. Fir twigs would then be dipped in the bowl and then waved in the form of a hammer. The participants of this sacrifice would be spattered with the blood, and thus these participants would be consecrated.

Although human sacrifice was most often linked to Odin, Freyr has also been worshipped through such human sacrificial acts. According to Grammaticus’ (Gesta Danorum),

[I]n order to mollify the divinities he did indeed make a holy sacrifice of dark-coloured victims to the god Frø [Freyr]. He repeated this mode of propitiation at an annual festival and left it to be imitated by his descendants. The Swedes call it Frøblot.

‘Blot’ is widely translated to mean “strengthening”, but most scholars have translated it to mean “sacrifice”. As sacrifices were used to make the gods stronger, and thus act favourably to men, both translations are suitable. An example of one type of blot was detailed by Sturluson in his Heimskringla saga. He wrote that a sacrificial feast occurred in a place called Troøndelay. At this feast, sacrificial animals, particularly horses and pigs, were killed and cooked in a deep pit. The blood of these animals was sprinkled on the walls and on the images of the gods and the participants of the rite. The blood was thought to contain special powers. The food and drink would be blessed by a chieftain, and then participants would drink first to Odin for victory and power to the king, then to Njord for luck on the sea, and finally to Freyr for fertility and peace. They would later drink to their ancestors.

In the Hrafnkels saga (author unknown), the story goes that the protagonist of the saga dedicates a horse to Freyr, and kills a man for riding it. The goddess Freyja is the most honoured goddess, and in the Droplaugarsona saga (author unknown), it is said that in a temple the statue of Freyja is seated upon a higher throne than the statues of Thor and Freyr, and her statue was covered in drapery and gold and silver ornaments. Sturluson writes in the Heimskringla saga that

Njörðr's daughter Freyja was priestess of the sacrifices, and first taught the Æsir the magic art, as it was in use and fashion among the Vanir.

This implies that sacrifices were indeed made to Freyja, in this case animal sacrifice, a sow, much like the sacrifices made to Freyr.

The god Thor also receives sacrifices in the same vein as those Freyr and Freyja received, only Thor’s sacrificial animal was a goat. The Norse offered him sacrifices when they were threatened by hunger or disease. However, unlike many of the other gods, Thor did not require human sacrifice. Hammer shaped amulets were a symbol of Thor as it represented his hammer, Mjollnir, and many Norse wore these amulets as a sign of respect and worship for the god.

It is written in many sources that Odin was the god that received the most sacrifices; particularly sacrifices of the human kind. As he brought victory to the Norse in battle, sacrifices were held often. Adam of Brenen, a German medieval chronicler, describes one such sacrificial act.

It is the custom moreover every nine years for a common festival of all the provinces of Sweden to be held at Uppsala. Kings and commoners one and all send their gifts to Uppsala, and what is more cruel than any punishment, even those who have accepted Christianity have to buy immunity from these ceremonies. The sacrifice is as follows: of every living creature they offer nine head, and with the blood of those it is the custom to placate the gods, but the bodies are hanged in a grove which is near the temple; so holy is that grove to the heathens that each tree in it is presumed to be divine by reason of the victim's death and putrefaction. There also are dogs and horses hang along with men. One of the Christians told me that he had seen seventy-two bodies of various kinds hanging there, but the incantations which are usually sung at this kind of sacrifice are various and disgraceful, and so we had better say nothing about them.

Apparently, everyone was obliged to take part in these celebrations, but Christians had to pay to be exempted. The sacrifice was made at the start of summer, in return for victory for the coming season.

Another form of worship to Odin was the “blood eagle”. According to Michael Wood,[8] , in 867, when the Norse attacked the kingdom of Northumbria, they captured the Northumbrian king Aelle and performed the blood eagle rite. This involved cutting the ribs and lungs from the still living man and spreading them beside his body in the shape of eagle’s wings. In 869, Edmund, king of the East Angles, suffered the blood eagle too. The Norse had planned to use this method of sacrifice on King Alfred, had they managed to defeat him.[9]

The Norse are commonly portrayed as stupid, bloodthirsty villains. However, their “thirst for blood” was part of their religious practice. Through reading stories and poems, and from archaeological discoveries, a better understanding of their culture and behaviour can be gained.

Bibliography

  • Blackwell, I.A.; 2005; The Elder Eddas of Saemund Sigfusson.
  • Crossley-Holland, K.; 1993; The Penguin book of Norse Myths: Gods of the Vikings; Penguin Group
  • Elton, O.; 1905; Gesta danorum books I-IX; Nooroena society
  • Hathaway, N.; 2002; The Friendly Guide to Mythology; Penguin Group
  • Heselton, P.; 1995; Earth Mysteries; Element Books Limited
  • Hreinsson, V., and Kellogg, R.; 1998; Droplaugarsona Saga; Penguin Classics
  • Jessup, R.; 1967; Age by Age: Landmarks of British Archaeology; Michael Joseph Ltd.
  • Laing, S.; 1844; Heimskringla, Retrieved, 13/10/2009.
  • O’Neill, A.; 1993; Gods and Demons; Grange Books
  • Pálsson, H.; 1971; Hrafnkel's saga and other Icelandic stories; Penguin Classics
  • Sawyer, P.; 1997; The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings; Oxford University Press
  • The Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus from "The Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus", translated by Oliver Elton (Norroena Society, New York, 1905). Retrieved 13/10/2009.
  • Short, W.; Hurstwic, Retrieved 2008.
  • The Younger Edda of Snorri Sturluson; Project Gutenberg.
  • Wood, M.; 1982; In Search of the Dark Ages; British Broadcasting Corporation.

References


  1. ^ The Younger Edda by Snorri Sturluson, Project Gutenberg.
  2. ^ The Younger Edda by Snorri Sturluson, Project Gutenberg.
  3. ^ (pg. )
  4. ^ Short, W. Hurstwic, Retrieved 13/10/09
  5. ^ 1993, p.
  6. ^ (pg. )
  7. ^ The Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus
    From "The Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus", translated by Oliver Elton (Norroena Society, New York, 1905). Retrieved 13/10/2009.
  8. ^ Wood, M. In search of the Dark Ages, British Broadcasting Corporation.
  9. ^ (pg. )