Viking human sacrifice

Viking human sacrifice DEFAULT

It was always important for the Vikings to be on good terms with the gods. In order to ensure that this was the case they made “blót” sacrifices. The blót was an exchange, in which they sacrificed to the gods in order to get something back in return. For example, this might the gods’ goodwill regarding weather, fertility or luck in battle.

Viking names in the landscape today

Viking names in the landscape today

Old place names can indicate which gods were worshipped in certain geographical areas. For example, Tissø in West Zealand and Tyrseng at Viby in Jutland, are named after the god Týr. Týr was the god of war, but also god of the assembly or “ting”, where legal proceedings and meetings were held. Therefore Tyrseng may have been a location for assemblies.

There are also places in Denmark which are named after Odin. The Vikings did not use Odin’s name indiscriminately. It was reserved for places of special significance. Onsholt in Aarhus is one such place. Onsholt is a shortening of Odin’s Holt, which means ”Odin’s Wood”. We know from written sources that the Odin cult demanded human and animal sacrifices. Both animals and people may have been hung at Onsholt. Odin was the god of the upper classes and was primarily worshipped by magnates and warriors.     

Another example is Odense, which means Odin’s Vi. The word ”vi” appears in many place names and means shrine. The Vikings called special consecrated areas “vier”. Here sacrifices were offered to the gods in natural surroundings. The word ”vi” is still used in Danish and means to make something holy. It forms part of the Danish words “vielse” (marriage or wedding) and “indvi” (christen, consecrate or ordain). 

Magnates’ residences in Scandinavia

Magnates’ residences with cult buildings and sacrificial areas have been found at several locations in Scandinavia. These include: Tissø, Lejre and Toftegård on Zealand; Gudme on Funen; Sorte Muld on Bornholm; Lisbjerg Church and Erritsø in Jutland; together with Uppåkra and  Järrestad in Scania, Sweden.

Magnates in charge of celebrations

Control of the cult was important. Evidence suggests that local magnates were in charge of the large religious celebrations on their impressive estates. Archaeological excavations have provided evidence that the great estates were once political, economic and religious centres.

Various forms of rituals were presumably practised on small farms, but the larger ceremonies took place at the magnates’ residences. Here the farmers of the area met on certain occasions to worship the gods in a great sacrifice known as a “blót”. At the great blót celebrations the local magnate functioned as a ”Gode” (pagan priest) – the practitioner of the cult.

The blót feasts were also a way in which the magnate could display his wealth and power, for instance, by supplying food and drink to all. With the introduction of Christianity, religious power was transferred to the Church and these blót feasts lost their significance.

Sigurd Håkonsson’s blót

One of the most comprehensive descriptions of a blót sacrifice in the North can be found in Hakon the Good’s Saga, which was written by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson in the 1200s.

Sigurd Håkonsson, like his father, frequently made sacrifices. It was the common practice that all farmers from the area gathered at the temple to sacrifice. All were given food throughout the celebration.

Many different animals were sacrificed, especially horses. The blood from the sacrificed animals was collected in bowls and twigs were used to spatter the blood on altars, walls and cult participants. The meat was cooked and then eaten by all in attendance. It was boiled in cauldrons that hung over a fire in the middle of the hall. Full cups of beer were carried around the fire and the magnate, who was the pagan priest, then blessed the meat and the cups.   
Toasts were then made. The first was in honour of Odin, “to the king and victory”.  Afterwards the cups were emptied for Njörd and Frej in the hope of securing a prosperous and peaceful future. Then the participants emptied their cups with a personal pledge to undertake great exploits, in battle, for example. Finally toasts were made for kinsmen resting in burial mounds.

Snorri writes that Sigurd Håkonsson was a very generous man and supplied the whole feast, which he was long remembered for.

The Viking blót sacrifices
The Viking blót sacrifices
The Viking blót sacrifices
The Viking blót sacrifices

The sacrificial rituals of the Vikings

The sacrificial rituals of the Vikings ranged from great festivals in magnate’s halls to offerings of weapons, jewellery and tools in lakes. Humans and animals were also hung from the trees in holy groves, according to written sources. The Vikings repeatedly used certain sacrificial sites, because they believed that there was particularly strong contact with the gods at these locations. From the accounts of the Christian missionaries we know that the Vikings sacrificed to statues, which stood out in natural surroundings or in cult buildings.

It is believed that there were four fixed blót sacrifices a year at the following times: winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice and autumn equinox. The Vikings also held additional blót sacrifices, for example, if a crisis arose that required help from the gods.

The Arabic traveller al-Tartuchi describes how the Viking town of Hedeby celebrated the winter solstice. “They celebrate a festival, at which all come to worship the god and to eat and drink. The one who slaughters a sacrificial animal erects stakes at the entrance to his farmyard and puts the sacrificial animal on them. This is so that people know that he is sacrificing in honour of his god.” The sacrifices might be followed by a communal blót feast – a feast at which the participants ate and drank together. Sacrifices of animals were not the norm, but were primarily associated with magnates and kings.

Cult specialists

Cult specialists were closely connected to the gods. The sagas and archaeological finds show that völur or seeresses existed. These were women with magical and prophetic powers. In the sagas and on rune stones great men are also mentioned known as “Goder”, or heathen priests, who functioned as cult leaders. Therefore both men and women could be specialists in cultic activities.

The runic inscription on the stone from Helnæs mentions the Viking pagan priest, the “gode” Roulv (Hróðulfr), who is also mentioned on other rune stones in the southern part of Funen. The inscription dates to the 700s or 800s. When it was found the stone split into several pieces and the upper part is missing. The rune stone was brought to Copenhagen at the request of King Frederik VII.

Hróðulfr, {nuRa}-priest/chief, placed the stone in memory of Guðmundr, his nephew. They drowned ... Ávarr coloured.

Tissø – a magnate’s residence used for rituals

Archaeologists have discovered an impressive Viking magnate’s residence at Tissø, in West Zealand, with an associated market place and several cult sites located in the surrounding landscape. When the market was held, the magnate’s residence was an important meeting place, and could host significant religious celebrations and sacrifices. The residence belonged to a magnate, or perhaps even the king.

The Viking blót sacrifices

The magnate’s residence

The residence included a great hall and a small enclosed area with a cult building. Cult activities were performed in this small building, and statues of gods and cult objects may have been kept here.   

Numerous animal bones and fragments of drinking glass have been found in the great hall. This indicates that great feasts were held here. A large pile of stones, which had been subjected to heat, was located outside the hall. The stones may have been used in connection with ritual feasts and sacrificial activities in the hall.

A ritual landscape

Several cult sites, which have produced evidence of ritual activity, have also been found in the landscape surrounding the magnate’s home.

Weapons and jewellery were recovered from the lake known as Tissø (meaning ' Týr’s lake'). They were thrown into the lake at some point during the Viking period. Týr was the Viking god of war and the numerous swords, lances and axes were probably an offering to him. Weapons and smith’s tools have also been found nearby, at the Viking bridge over the River Halleby. The smith was highly regarded in Viking society and his work was considered as holy.
On a hilltop a few hundred metres from the magnate’s residence, another sacrificial site has been excavated. This was an open “hørg”. A thick layer of animal bones was found, which has been interpreted as the remnants of ritual feasts. Offerings of silver objects, coins, jewellery and tools were also recovered on the hill.

The Viking cult activities at the magnate’s residence and in the surrounding area at Tissø display great variations. At least four different sacrificial sites were used simultaneously. The cult site that was used and the nature of the offerings may have depended upon the time of year and on which gods were being sacrificed to. The offerings on the hilltop may have taken place at the summer solstice on the 21 June, whilst the great hall (“hovet”) was probably used for sacrifices at the winter solstice on 21 December.

New times

For almost 500 years, from 550 AD onwards, the magnate’s residence functioned as the centre of the pre-Christian cult in the Tissø area. Around 1000 AD the pre-Christian cult structures were apparently demolished and taken down. They were replaced by a small Christian chapel or church - a square stave building measuring only 7 x 7 m. This was probably one of the first private churches in Denmark. Sacrificial activities also ceased at the cult sites in the surrounding landscape around this date. Time was running out for the Norse gods and Christ was ready to replace them.


Maybe they'll find a hammer? 1,200-year-old sacrificial temple to Thor and Odin unearthed in Norway

Viking artifacts often surface in Norway and other parts of Scandinavia, but what recently emerged after being buried from thousands of years is the closest any mortal will get to Valhalla.

While the remains of an Iron Age Viking settlement were rising from the ground at an archaeological site at Ose farm in Ørsta, Norway, the surviving parts of a magnificent pagan temple or “god-house” were found among longhouses and other remnants of Viking life. This is an especially thrilling find because not many of these buildings have survived in Scandinavia. Archaeologist Søren Diinhoff of Bergen University Museum, one of the excavation leads, has never seen one of these temples in such a state of preservation.

“We have discovered the most perfectly shaped god house of all the finds so far — I know of no other Scandinavian buildings in which the house construction is as clear as it is here,” he told SYFY WIRE. “I think our building is central to document and verify this very special architecture. Another important observation is that centralized religious activity in this area can be traced back into the Middle Iron Age around 4–500 AD.”

There was one missing piece that could have revealed even more. The floor of the building had long since been plowed away, which means that any wooden or metal objects typically placed there — such as figurines of gods or other offerings — would have dissolved. Intact, it would have looked like this. There are some other things that this structure can reveal about Norse religion when heavy Christian propaganda is stripped away. The beliefs and rituals of the people we now know as the Vikings are actually not well known, despite legends that have persisted enough for Neil Gaiman to humanize Odin the All-Father in American Gods and Marvel to create a legendary comic and movie series out of Thor.

The temple and the overall finds at the Ose site also tell us about Viking society during the Late Iron Age. The longhouses in which most people lived supposedly date from 400 or 500 to 1200 A.D. It is believed that the the leading families in society, who ran the most prominent farms (more like manors) in the settlement, also ran the god house. Diinhoff believes that the excavation supports how archaeologists believe the Vikings was organized and ran their societies.

“Buildings like this show that although the Norse cult would not be a systematic unified religion, there was a unity in certain high end cult buildings. Whoever build these houses made an effort to construct them in a very specific design. Doing this one expressed a common Scandinavian understanding of ideological power,” Diinhoff said.

Whether humans were also sacrificed in such god-houses remains a topic of debate that started when the German scholar Adam of Bremen traveled to Denmark in 1070. In his work Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, in which he documented the Norse people and customs, he also wrote about human sacrifices taking place every nine years at the pagan temple at Uppsala, Sweden. The god-house at Uppsala is thought to have been one of the epicenters of ancient Norse worship. There is an episode of Vikings that reenacts a festival at Uppsala. Even the Viking metal band Rebellion echoes a pilgrimage the holy place for an offering to the All-Father and the Thunder God before battle in their song Sweden, with the lyrics “To Uppsala/Odin and Thor”.

Still, Adam of Bremen’s work is thought to be biased because he was a Christian, and early Christians were known to erroneously view pagans as brutal and uncivilized.

“Human sacrifices in the Viking Age have been a hot topic for years,” Diinhoff said. “All what was written in Christian era about Norse religion must be read critically. Adam’s story was probably constructed to tell how awful and primitive the heathens were.”

Something that Adam of Bremen wrote does stand out, whether or not he actually witnessed human sacrifice. Nine is the sacred number that recurs most often in Norse mythology. Some archaeologists believe that it is rooted in the lunar calendar’s 27 days being a multiple of nine. Yggdrasil, the ash tree from which Odin was rumored to have sacrificed himself, held up nine worlds on its branches. There are also rumors of sacrificial feasts that lasted nine days and involving nine sacrifices. Another Viking metal band, Bathory, speaks of this in their song Vinterblot (which literally means a blood sacrifice in the winter), referring to the sacrifices as “nine by nine”, hanging from an ash tree. Among them are humans.

“There are a few finds in the Viking Age that may show human sacrifice,” said Diinhoff. “In a few graves the deceased seem to have been followed by a sacrificed person—most likely a slave–and finds of human skulls may be interpreted the same way. However, at the cult building, it is human bones that we found. If human sacrifices took place, it would have been rare. The sacrifices at the temples did not demand human sacrifices, only animal offerings.”

Whether the human sacrifices reenacted in Vikings or hidden in song lyrics are actual shadows of history or sensationalized rumors remains unknown. It is unlikely the practice was common. Even the Bathory song speaks of a ritual outside of the usual solstice festivals that was held as a plea to the gods to end a particularly rough winter. The main religious festivals of the year were during the summer and winter solstice, much like rituals thought to take place at Stonehenge. Any human sacrifice must have meant it was a desperate time. For many other ancient cultures, offering up one of their own was usually a last plea to the gods in times of drought or famine or other unavoidable disasters.

The legacy of the Vikings really has proven to be immortal. However, the sudden voluntary sacrifice of a warrior in place of a servant in that Vikings episode is probably no more than a flourish of drama.

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When most people think of Vikings, they think of the usual stuff: longships, raiding, fighting, loot, burial and paganism. Scholars are increasingly aware that the reality was more complicated, but no doubt the popular associations will remain – and are reinforced by the likes of last year’s Viking exhibition at the British Museum in London.

Yet one aspect of Viking culture that gets little attention is funeral rites. There are very few sources that allow us to reconstruct in precise detail what happened during these complex ceremonies – there are no descriptions of funerals in Scotland, for example. But we can get a sense of Vikings’ burial custom from a 10th-century eye-witness account from Russia by the famous Arab traveller Ahmad ibn Fadlan, and from some references in the ancient poem Beowulf.

They suggest that songs and chants about the deceased were performed, along with processions in circular directions around mounds, and the use of simple percussion instruments. In the account by ibn Fadlan, which was the basis for the beginning of the Hollywood film The 13th Warrior, the funeral takes ten days to prepare and is presided over by a character described as the Angel of Death.

It features feasting and excessive alcohol consumption. A ship containing the deceased is placed on a funeral pyre, with grave goods alongside including his weapons, silk quilts and a couch covered with cushions. The deceased is dressed in specially prepared, expensive funeral clothes.

The ceremony also involves the sacrifices of various animals and a slave girl. Before the slave girl is simultaneously strangled by two men and stabbed by the Angel of Death, she is forced to have sex with many of the men who are present. The ship is then set alight and later a mound is raised over the remains, upon which is placed a piece of wood inscribed with the name of the dead man and his king.

Our re-enactment

This gives some indication of how elaborate and spectacular a Viking funeral could be. To help understand what these ceremonies could be like and the likely effect on the participants, we carried out a re-enactment project on Kildonnan on the western Scottish Isle of Eigg.

Kildonnan is one of many sites in which Vikings were buried in the British Isles, though there is no evidence of animal or human sacrifice. We know that the deceased was buried in a grave rather than cremated – just like us, Vikings did both.

In August 2014, with the help of adults and schoolchildren from the local community at Kildonnan, we staged two re-enactments of a Viking funeral procession at two original burial mounds that date back to between 900 and 950. When they were excavated in 1875, they contained various grave goods including two swords, an axe, a spear, two brooches and a sickle, all of which are now in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

We brought Viking-style shields with us and invited participants to bang these with sticks in time to the singing (which can be heard here). Our aim was certainly not for accuracy but to create an atmosphere through music, sound and movement which would in some way resonate with our historical knowledge of Viking funerary customs and with the location in which the performances were taking place.

As part of the rite we chose to sing the first four lines of a Viking-age poem, Sonatorrek, to the rhythm of a rimur (Icelandic poetic form):

I´ll make offerings to Odin
Though not in eagerness,
I´ll make my soul´s sacrifice
Not suffer silently.

What came out of it

Many of those taking part hadn’t previously been aware of the existence of the Viking burial mounds at Kildonnan. Having the time and resources to explore the site and some of the funerary practices which may have taken place there more than 1000 years ago created a great sense of curiosity and interest.

Some said it increased their awareness of the spiritual importance of Kildonnan through history. One person said: “I liked the idea that I was following in the footsteps of Vikings so that I knew a little of how they felt.” Another said: “The beat from the shields at the Viking graves all felt like you were back in time doing it for real.”

Performing the rituals also allowed participants to be directly involved in the experience. Instead of just “attending” a Viking funeral, they were part of it. One participant said: “It felt very involving. I enjoyed that it felt like we were all taking part rather than just observing and listening. This helped to create atmosphere.”

Finally, we all became aware of the power and beauty of the landscape within the context of funerary ritual. Participants expressed a feeling of freedom and transition, and an understanding of the location as somewhere to “free the soul from the body”.

Being in tune with the surrounding landscape seemed to allow participants to be at ease and experience what a sorrowful occasion in relative calm. One person said it felt, “peaceful, sad – the beauty of the place, the music and the sounds of nature made me feel I was saying goodbye to someone”.

The different sensations that were sparked by the landscape resonate with what we know about humans’ natural tendency to bond with and be surrounded by other living things, and the fact that different environments can help to restore people’s bodies and minds.

Close interaction with nature has beneficial consequences for humans. It seems that even at times of distress, such as funerals, even pretend ones, such connections allow us to digest information in a more positive way.

Lagertha's Blood Sacrifice
Human sacrifices?
Human sacrifices?

A human life was the most valuable sacrifice that the Vikings could make to the gods. We know from written sources that Odin – the king of the gods – demanded human sacrifices. But do the sources tell the truth?

Human sacrifices?

Exaggerated accounts?

There are several horrifying accounts of human sacrifices from the Viking period. The German bishop, Thietmar of Merseburg, describes how the Vikings met every nine years at Lejre on Zealand in January “and offer to their gods 99 people and just as many horses, dogs and hens or hawks, for these should serve them in the kingdom of the dead and atone for their evil deeds.”

The German monk Adam of Bremen wrote a similar account in 1072 about the sacrificial tradition at Gammel Uppsala in Sweden, where the temple was devoted to Thor, Odin and Frey. Here the Vikings also met every 9 years to ensure the goodwill of the gods. 9 males of all kinds of living creatures were sacrificed in a holy grove nearby. According to Adam of Bremen dogs, horses and humans hung from the trees. The number 9 was apparently of magical significance to the Vikings and was involved in a number of rituals.

There has been extensive debate over whether these accounts were real or simply Christian propaganda. Neither Thietmar nor Adam witnessed the cult activities themselves. They wrote their chronicles in the late Viking period and early Middle Ages, when Christianity had taken over and human sacrifices were no longer acceptable.

Therefore, Thietmar and Adam’s accounts have long been dismissed as pure fabrication. However, archaeological finds from recent years show that human sacrifice was a reality in Viking Age Denmark. In particular, skeletons recovered from wells at the Viking fortress of Trelleborg and the magnate’s residence at Tissø​​​​​​​, both in West Zealand, have made archaeologists think very differently.

Human sacrifices at Trelleborg

Human sacrifices at Trelleborg

At Trelleborg a sacrificial site was found from the time before the Viking fortress was erected in 980-81. In five c. 3 metre-deep wells human and animal skeletons were found, together with jewellery and tools. Of the total of five human sacrifices, four were young children aged between 4 and 7.

It is very significant that the skeletons were found in wells. The Vikings attributed great symbolic importance to wells. Odin gained his wisdom from drinking at Mímir's well. In exchange he had to sacrifice one of his eyes to Mímir. But what could the sacrifice of a whole human being be rewarded with?

At Trelleborg a small enclosure was also identified near to three of the sacrificial wells. Here a sacrificial ritual may have taken place before the victims were deposited in the deep wells. Perhaps the sacrificial site belonged to the settlement that was located 300 m from Trelleborg. When the fortress was constructed, the cult site was dismantled and the sacrifices stopped. In the new Christian religion, which was becoming increasingly dominant, humans were not sacrificed.

Did the Vikings go on cult processions?

Did the Vikings go on cult processions?
Did the Vikings go on cult processions?

A woman of high status, perhaps a queen, was laid to rest in a ship burial at Oseberg. Amongst her many precious grave goods was a fine woven tapestry depicting a procession. The participants are festively dressed warriors and women, who walk, ride horses and two of them sit in one of the horse-drawn vehicles. We know that the Iron Age fertility cult involved transporting the deity over the fields in a covered cart in order to secure the best yields.

Just such a fine carved cart, which would have been unsuitable for daily use, was found in the grave. The cart has therefore been interpreted as a cultic procession vehicle. Support for this function is provided by the fact that it is decorated with cats - an animal that is associated with the fertility and love goddess Freyja. If we return to the tapestry, it includes depictions of covered carts. Do they conceal icons of Freyja? The cultic nature of the burial may indicate that the buried woman was Freyja’s earthly representative.


Human sacrifice viking

Human Sacrifice in Viking Age Britain and Ireland.

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Human sacrifice, as part of pre-Christian religious rites, is one of a number of violent attributes commonly associated with the Vikings both in post-Viking Age medieval written and visual sources and in popular imagination, the latter perhaps best exemplified by the 'blood eagle' as performed on Jarl Borg and King of Northumbria in the popular television show Vikings. But is there any unequivocal contemporary evidence for human sacrifice? This paper will briefly discuss the problems of interpreting the evidence for human sacrifice, before concentrating on the evidence from Britain and Ireland. Despite the silence of contemporary insular written sources, it is found that there is one certain and other probable examples of human sacrifices in the archaeological records of England, Scotland, the Isle of Man, and Ireland. Amongst the probable examples is a new suggestion that human sacrifice occurred at Whithorn, the site of a Northumbrian bishopric and monastery, but now in southern Scotland. Discussion of Whithorn will be the focus of the article. The evidence for human sacrifice will be briefly discussed with regard to the active practice of Norse religious beliefs in Britain, and in the Scandinavian acculturation to indigenous practices, including Christianity, in the ninth and tenth centuries CE.


Viking, Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon Britain, burial, human sacrifice


Human sacrifice is one of a number of stereotypes attributed to Viking Age Scandinavians (hereafter used inter-changeably with the more common 'Vikings') in popular consciousness, but contemporary evidence for the practice is remarkably rare, leading Anders Hultgard to question whether it occurred at all during the Viking Age. (1) Although various post-Viking Age medieval authors, including Scandinavians, mention Viking acts of human sacrifice, Hultgard suggests that these should be "interpreted as literary motifs". (2) Despite this caution, an overview by Neil Price provides various examples from both the archaeological and contemporary written records, confirming that the practice did occur. (3) However, all but one of the archaeological examples provided by Price are from Scandinavia (the exception is from the Isle of Man and will be discussed below), and all of the written accounts are from Arab and Byzantine sources detailing Rus' activity in eastern Europe, (4) with the latter raising the issue of how 'Scandinavian' the Rus' practices were considering their acculturation with Slavic peoples. (5) Despite these issues, it is still clear that human sacrifice did at times occur in the Viking world.

Before proceeding to a discussion of human sacrifice it is first necessary to establish exactly what it is. The first definition for 'sacrifice' in the Oxford English Dictionary states: "Primarily, the slaughter of an animal (often including the subsequent consumption of it by fire) as an offering to God or a deity." (6) Thus, human sacrifice is the deliberate killing of humans as part of some form of sacrificial ritual to do with religion/beliefs in the supernatural. Consequently, the killing of hostages or warriors who have surrendered would not constitute human sacrifice unless the killings involved some form of ritual involving supernatural powers. Sacrifices...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A596402497

Earl Haraldson's ritual and funeral (S01 EP06)

Norse rituals

Norse religious worship is the traditional religious rituals practiced by Norse pagans in Scandinavia in pre-Christian times. Norse religion was a folk religion (as opposed to an organized religion), and its main purpose was the survival and regeneration of society. Therefore, the faith was decentralized and tied to the village and the family, although evidence exists of great national religious festivals. The leaders managed the faith on behalf of society; on a local level, the leader would have been the head of the family, and nationwide, the leader was the king. Pre-Christian Scandinavians had no word for religion in a modern sense. The closest counterpart is the word sidr, meaning custom. This meant that Christianity, during the conversion period, was referred to as nýr sidr (the new custom) while paganism was called forn sidr (ancient custom). The center of gravity of pre-Christian religion lay in religious practice — sacred acts, rituals and worship of the gods.[1]

Norse religion was at no time homogeneous, but was a conglomerate of related customs and beliefs. These could be inherited or borrowed,[2] and although the great geographical distances of Scandinavia led to a variety of cultural differences, people understood each other's customs, poetic traditions and myths.[3] Sacrifice (blót) played a huge role in most of the rituals that are known about today, and communal feasting on the meat of sacrificed animals, together with the consumption of beer or mead, played a large role in the calendar feasts. In everyday practice, other foodstuffs like grain are likely to have been used instead. The purpose of these sacrifices was to ensure fertility and growth. However, sudden crises or transitions such as births, weddings and burials could also be the reason. In those times there was a clear distinction between private and public faith, and the rituals were thus tied either to the household and the individual or to the structures of society.[4]

It is not certain to what extent the known myths correspond to the religious beliefs of Scandinavians in pre-Christian times, nor how people acted towards them in everyday life. The Scandinavians did not leave any written sources on their religious practice, and Christian texts on the subject are marked by misunderstandings and negative bias, since the Christians viewed the Nordic beliefs as superstition and devil worship. Some archaeological evidence has been discovered, but this is hard to interpret in isolation from written material.[5]

Worship of the gods[edit]

Recent research suggests that great public festivals involving the population of large regions were not as important as the more local feasts in the life of the individual. Though they were written in a later Christian era, the Icelandic sagas are of great significance as sources to everyday religion. Even when the Christian influence is taken into account, they draw an image of a religion closely tied to the cycle of the year and the social hierarchy of society. In Iceland the local secular leader had the title of gothi, which originally meant priest but in the Middle Ages was a term for a local secular leader.[6]

Ceremonial communal meals in connection with the blót sacrifice are mentioned in several sources and are thus some of the most described rituals. Masked dancers, music, and singing may have been common parts of these feasts.[7] As in other pre-Christian Germanic societies, but in contrast to the later situation under Christianity, there was no class of priests: anyone could perform sacrifices and other faith acts. However, common cultural norms meant that it was normally the person with the highest status and the greatest authority (the head of the family or the leader of the village) who led the rituals.[8] The sources indicate that sacrifices for fertility, a safe journey, a long life, wealth etc. were a natural and fully integrated part of daily life in Scandinavian society, as in almost all other pre-modern societies across the world.[9]

The worship of female powers is likely to have played a greater role than the medieval sources indicate, because those texts were written by men and pay less attention to religious practices in the female sphere.[10] A trace of the importance of goddesses can be found in place-name material that has shown that there are often place names connected to the goddess Freyja near place names connected to the god Freyr.[11] Fertility and divination rituals that women could take part in or lead were also among those which survived the longest after Christianisation.[12]

Different types of animals or objects were connected to the worship of different gods; for instance, horses and pigs played a great role in the worship of Freyr. This did not mean that the same animal could not also play a role in the worship of other deities (the horse was also an important part of the Odin faith).[13] One of the most important objects in Norse paganism was the ship. Archaeological sources show that it played a central role in the faith from the petroglyphs and razors of the Bronze Age to the runestones of the Viking Age. Interpretation of the meaning of the ship in connection to the mythological material is only possible for the late period,[14] when it was mainly associated with death and funerals.[15]

Faiths, statues and images[edit]

Drawing of an archaeological find from Öland, Swedenof a gold-plated depiction of Mjolnirin silver.

Several written sources mention statues of heathen gods. They are mostly described as either anthropomorphic or as wooden staves with a face carved at the top. Ahmad ibn Fadlan writes about such poles in his description of a Scandinavian sacrifice at the Volga. This account has a suggestion of the mythological connection but it is impossible to decipher it.[16] No such large statues from the Viking Age have been found, only small figures and amulets. This may be because larger statues were deliberately destroyed. After Christianisation, the possession of such figures was banned and severely punished. Many accounts of missionaries have the destruction of heathen idols as their climax, symbolising the triumph of the strong Christian god over the weak, "devilish" native gods. The sagas sometimes mention small figures that can be kept in a purse. Such figures are known from archaeological findings across Scandinavia. They include hammer-shaped jewelry, golden men or figures of gods.[17]

Sources from different periods also suggest that chariots were used in fertility rituals across Scandinavia over a very long period. In his Germania, Tacitus refers to a sacred chariot in the faith of Nerthus. Also the Dejbjerg chariots from the Roman Iron Age, the Oseberg ship from the Viking age and the medieval tale about Gunnar Helming have survived until today. It is possible that this motif can be traced as far back as the processions of the Bronze Age.[18]

Public faith[edit]

Although no details are known, it is possible to form an unclear image of some of the rituals and religious practices through interpretation of the sources that have survived. The sources are heterogeneous since the written accounts are from the late heathen period and written in a Christian context. Thus it is also hard to determine whether a ritual was private or public.[5] The only heathen shrine about which there is detailed information is the great temple at Uppsala in modern Sweden, which was described by the German chronicler Adam of Bremen in a time where central Sweden was the last political centre where Norse paganism was practised in public.

Centres of faith[edit]

Further information: Hörgr, Vé (shrine), and Heathen hofs

Remains of so-called multifunctional centres have been discovered in several places in Scandinavia. Near Tissø, archaeologists have unearthed a complex consisting of, among other things, a central mead hall connected to a fenced area with a smaller building. The hall is likely to have been associated with the great festivals and the fenced area to have contained a hörgr. This complex is similar to others found in Scandinavia.,[19] such as Borg in Lofoten, Uppsala in Uppland, Uppåkra in Scania, Gudme in Funen and Lejre in Zealand. Since the 1970s, discoveries have significantly expanded knowledge about the public faith. The excavations have shown that large buildings were used for both secular and religious purposes from the 600s and into the Viking Age and the Middle Ages. Such structures are likely to have been both religious and political/economic centres.[20] The combination of religious festivals and markets has been common to most cultures through most of history, since a society where travel is difficult and communication limited uses such occasions to get several things done at the same time. Thus the religious festivals were also the time and place for things, markets and the hearing of court cases. The religious festivals have to be seen in the light of these other activities. In some places the same area was used for these festivals from the Roman Iron Age until the Middle Ages, while in other places different locations were used in succession.[21] Excavations of the complex at Tissø have shown that it grew from the 7th century until the 10th century. The most recent findings are from 1020 to 1030, when the great hall seems to have been dismantled.[22]

Locally there were several kinds of holy places, usually marked by a boundary in the form of either a permanent stone barrier or a temporary fence of branches. Thus a holy space was created with rules of its own, like a ban on spilling blood on holy soil.[23] The importance of these holy places should be understood in connection to the cosmological ideas people had. It is known that different types of divine forces were tied to different places and that there were different rituals connected to them. In addition to sacred groves, texts mention holy wells and the leaving of offerings at streams, mountains, waterfalls, rocks, and trees; these may have been to the landvættir as well as, or rather than, the gods. There is no mention of worship of the jötnar and it is unknown whether there were places sacred to them.

The sources disagree about faiths buildings, so there are varying opinions about their form and nature.[24] However, it seems that for some buildings, sacral use was secondary.[25] The Germanic languages had no words in pre-Christian times that directly corresponded to the Latin templum, the ancestor of the modern word temple. Thus it has long been a topic for discussion whether there were buildings exclusively meant for religious purposes in pre-Christian Scandinavia.[26] It is most likely that religious buildings were erected in some places, as the words hörgr and hof are found in several place-names.[7] Other sources suggests that the ritual acts were not necessarily limited to religious buildings. Whether "temples" were built is likely to have depended on local custom and economic resources.[27] A hof or a hörgr did not need to be connected to one of the faiths centres.[28]

Other forms of the faiths buildings were the hall and the . Place names containing the word sal (hall) occur in several places and it is possible that this word was used for the multi-functional halls.[29] Earlier scholars often translated sal as barn or stable, which has been shown to be inaccurate. Such a hall is more likely to have been a long-house with only one room. This was a prestigious type of building used for feasts and similar social gatherings in the entire Germanic area. In place names the word sal is mostly connected to Odin, which shows a connection with political power.[30] Old place names containing the word sal may thus mean that a religious hall once stood there.[31] Another word for hall, höll, was used to describe another kind of sacral building, not meant for habitation but dedicated to special purposes like holding feasts. In the legend of Beowulf, Heorot is named as such. However the word höll is not found in place names and is likely to have been borrowed into East Norse from German or English in the late period.[32]

The is another kind of holy place and is also the most unambiguous name used for holy places in Scandinavia. The word comes from the proto-Germanic *wîha, meaning "holy". Originally this word was used for places in nature but over time religious buildings may have been built.[33]

Gamla Uppsala[edit]

Main article: Temple at Uppsala

Adam of Bremen's description of the sacrifices and the religious centre in Uppsala is the best known account of pre-Christian rituals in Sweden.[34] There is general agreement that Gamla Uppsala was one of the last strongholds of heathen religion in central Sweden and that the religious centre there was still of great importance when Adam of Bremen wrote his account.[35] Adam describes the temple as being gilded everywhere and containing statues of the three most important gods. The most important was Thor, who was placed in the middle, with Odin at one side and Fricco (presumably Freyr) at the other. He tells that Thor reigned in the skies where he ruled rain, wind and thunder, and that he provided good weather for the crops. In his hand he held a sceptre. Odin was the god of war and courage, his name meant "the furious" and he was depicted as a warrior. Fricco, on the other hand, was the god for peace and physical satisfaction, and was thus depicted with a huge phallus. Each god had his own priests and people sacrificed to the gods whose help they needed: Thor was called upon in times of famine and disease, Odin was called upon to gain victory and Fricco was called upon for fertile marriages.

According to Adam, the temple at Uppsala was the centre for the national worship of the gods, and every nine years a great festival was held there where the attendance of all inhabitants of the Swedish provinces was required, including Christians. At these festivals men and male animals were sacrificed by hanging. Adam recounts from Christian eyewitness accounts that up to 72 corpses could be hanging in the trees next to the temple during these sacrifices. He uses the Latin term triclinium, meaning banquet hall, for the central religious building and says that it was used for libations. In Roman culture such a building was not considered a temple proper, but it had a function similar to that of Heorot in the legend of Beowulf.[36] For comparison the Iron Age hall at Berg in Lofoten had benches along three of the walls just like the Roman triclinium.

In recent Strahinja, remains of a large building have been found in Uppsala. It was 100m long and was in use from 600 to 800. It was built on an artificial plateau near the burial mounds from the Germanic Iron Age and was presumably a residence connected to the royal power, which was established in the area during that period. Remains of a smaller building have been found below this house and the place is likely to have been in use as a religious centre for very long time. The memory of the hall (sal) remains in the name Uppsala.[37] The building was surrounded by a fence which could not have had any defensive function but could have marked the royal or sacral area.[38] Around 900 the great hall burned down, but new graves were placed on the site. The traces of postholes under the medieval church have traditionally been interpreted as the site of the temple, but some scholars now believe the building was a later feast hall and that there was never a "temple" as such, but rather a hall used for banquets and political and legal functions as well as sacrifices.[39][40] Gamla Uppsala was used for about 2000 years but the size and complexity of the complex was expanded up until the Viking Age,[38] so that Uppsala in the period from 500 to 1000 was the centre of royal power and a location of a sizeable religious organisation.[41]

Religious leaders[edit]

A goði leads the people in sacrificing to an idol of Thor in this painting by J. L. Lund.

Norse religion did not have any class of priest who worked as full-time religious leaders. Instead there were different kinds of leaders who took care of different religious tasks alongside their secular occupation.[42] From Iceland the terms goði (gothi) and gyðja are known for "priest" and "priestess" while the terms vífill and lytir are primarily known from the East Norse area. However the title gothi is also known from Danish rune stones. The king or the jarl (earl) had overall responsibility for the public faith in his realm while the head of the household was responsible for leading the private faith.[43]

Thus, religious as well as secular power in Norse society was centered on individuals. It was secured through ties of friendship and loyalty and meant that there never were any totally consolidated structures of power. The king could only exercise his power where he or his trusted representatives were personally present. A king thus needed to have homesteads throughout the realm as the physical seat of his government. It is unclear which of them were royal and which of them were owned by local aristocracy, but place names can give an indication.[44] The common Swedish place name Husaby or Huseby could be an old term for a royal homestead.[45] The same was true for leaders of lesser rank in the hierarchy; they too had to be present for the rituals to work.

The most known type of religious leader is the gothi, as several holders of this title appear in the Icelandic sagas. Because of the limited knowledge about religious leaders there has been a tendency to regard the gothi and his female counterpart, the gyðja, as common titles throughout Scandinavia. However, there is no evidence pointing to that conclusion. In historic times the gothi was a male politician and judge, i.e. a chieftain, but the word has the same etymological origins as the word "god," which is a strong sign that religious functions were connected to the title in pre-historic times. In pre-Christian times the gothi was thus both politician, jurist and religious expert.[46]

Other titles of religious leaders were þulr (thul), thegn, völva and seiðmaðr (seidman). The term thul is related to words meaning recitation, speech and singing, so this religious function could have been connected to a sacral, maybe esoteric, knowledge.[42] The thul was also connected to Odin, the god of rulers and kings, and thus poetry and the activities in the banquet halls. It is a possibility that the thul function was connected to the king's halls.[47] Both the völva and the seiðmaðr were associated with seid.

Human sacrifice[edit]

It has been a topic for discussion whether human sacrifice was practised in Scandinavia. There has been great disagreement about why, for instance, two bodies were found in the Oseberg tomb or how to interpret Ibn Fadlan's description of the killing of a female thrall at a funeral among the Scandinavian Rus on the Volga.[48] The many discoveries of bog bodies and the evidence of sacrifices of prisoners of war dating back to the Pre-Roman Iron Age show that ritual killings in one form or another were not uncommon in Northern Europe in the period before the Viking Age. Furthermore, some findings from the Viking Age can be interpreted as evidence of human sacrifice. Sagas occasionally mention human sacrifice at temples, as does Adam of Bremen. Also, the written sources tell that a commander could consecrate the enemy warriors to Odin using his spear. Thus war was ritualised and made sacral and the slain enemies became sacrifices. Violence was a part of daily life in the Viking Age and took on a religious meaning like other activities. It is likely that human sacrifice occurred during the Viking Age but nothing suggests that it was part of common public religious practise. Instead it was only practised in connection with war and in times of crisis.[49]


Excavations of the religious centres have shown that public religious practise changed over time. In Southern Scandinavia, the great public sacrificial feasts that had been common during the Roman Iron Age were abandoned. In the 6th century the great sacrifices of weapons were discontinued. Instead there are traces of a faith that was tied more to the abode of a ruler. This change is among other things shown by golden plates and bracteates becoming common. Gold was a precious material and was thus connected to the ruler and his family. The changes are very remarkable and might be a sign that the change of religion in Scandinavia started in an earlier time than was previously believed, and was closely connected to the establishment of kingdoms.[20]

Private religion[edit]

The rituals of the private religion mostly paralleled the public. In many cases the line between public and private religion is hard to draw, for instance in the cases of the yearly blót feasts and crisis and life passage rituals. In the private sphere the rituals were led by the head of the household and his wife. It is not known whether thralls took part in the worship and in that case to what extent.[50] The rituals were not limited to seasonal festivals as there were rituals connected to all tasks of daily life. Most rituals only involved one or a few persons, but some involved the entire household or the extended family.

Rites of passage[edit]

These rituals were connected to the change of status and transitions in life a person experiences, such as birth, marriage and death, and followed the same pattern as is known from other rites of passage. Unusually, no Scandinavian sources tell about rituals for the passage from child to adult.[51]

Birth and naming[edit]

Birth was seen as extremely dangerous for mother and newborn. Thus, rites of birth were common in many pre-modern societies. In the Viking Age, people would pray to the goddesses Frigg and Freyja, and sing ritual galdr-songs to protect the mother and the child. Fate played a huge role in Norse culture and was determined at the moment of birth by the Norns. Nine nights after birth, the child had to be recognised by the father of the household. He placed the child on his knee while sitting in the high seat. Water was sprinkled on the child, it was named and thus admitted into the family. There are accounts of guests being invited to bring gifts and wish the child well. Children were often named after deceased ancestors and the names of deities could be a part of the name. People thought certain traits were connected to certain names and that these traits were carried on when the names were re-used by new generations. This was part of ancestor worship.[52] Putting the child on the knee of the father confirmed his or her status as a member of the clan bestowed the rights connected to this status. The child could no longer be killed, or exposed by the parents, without its being considered murder.[53] Exposing children was a socially accepted way of limiting the population.[54] The belief that deities were present during childbirth suggests that people did not regard the mother and the child as excluded from normal society as was the case in later, Christian, times and apparently there were no ideas about female biological functions being unclean.[55]


As it was the core the family, marriage was one of the most important social institution in pagan Scandinavia. A wedding was thus an important transition not only for the couple but also for the families involved. A marriage was a legal contract with implications for, among other things, inheritance and property relations, while the wedding itself was the solemnization of a pact in which the families promised to help each other. Because of this the male head of the family had the final say in these matters. However it is clear from the sagas that the young couple also had a say since a good relationship between the spouses was crucial to the running of a farm. A wedding was a long and collective process subject to many ritual rules and culminating in the wedding feast itself. The procedures had to be followed for the divine powers to sanction the marriage and to avoid a bad marriage afterwards. However accounts in the sagas about the complicated individual emotions connected to a marriage tell us that things did not always work out between the spouses.[56]

Freyja(1901) by Johannes Gehrts.

As a prelude to marriage the family of the groom sent the groom and several delegates to the family of the bride to propose. Here the date of the betrothal was set. This was the first legally binding step between the families, and the occasion was used to negotiate the inheritance and property relations of the couple as well as the dowry (heimanfylgja) and wedding present (mundr) from the groom's family. Those were the personal property of the bride. Usually the bride's family were less wealthy than the groom's, but in most cases the difference was not great. Thus the dowry was an investment by the bride's family that made it possible for her to marry into a more powerful family.[57] When an agreement on these matters had been reached, the deal was sealed at a feast.[58] These conditions were reserved for the dominating class of freeholders (bóndi/bœndr), as the remaining parts of the population, servants, thralls and freedmen were not free to act in these matters but were totally dependent on their master.[57]

The wedding (brudlaup) was the most important single ritual in the process. It was the first public gathering of the two families and consisted of a feast that lasted for several days. Anything less than three days was considered paltry. The guests witnessed that the process had been followed correctly. The sources tell very little about how a wedding was related to the gods. It is known that the goddess Vár witnessed the couple's vows, that a depiction of Mjolnir could be placed in the lap of the bride asking Thor to bless her, and that Freyr and Freyja were often called upon in matters of love and marriage, but there is no suggestion of a worship ritual. From legal sources we know that leading the couple to the bridal couch was one of the central rituals. On the first night the couple was led to bed by witnesses carrying torches, which marked the difference between legal marital relations and a secret extra-marital relationship.[59]

Ancestor worship[edit]

The Royal moundsof Gamla Uppsalain Swedenfrom the 5th and the 6th centuries. Originally, the site had 2000 to 3000 tumuli, but owing to quarrying and agriculture only 250 remain.

Ancestor worship was an element in pre-Christian Scandinavian culture. The ancestors were of great importance for the self-image of the family and people believed that they were still able to influence the life of their descendants from the land of the dead. Contact with them was seen as crucial to the well-being of the family. If they were treated in the ritually correct way, they could give their blessings to the living and secure their happiness and prosperity. Conversely, the dead could haunt the living and bring bad fortune if the rituals were not followed. It is not clear whether the ancestors were seen as divine forces themselves or as connected to other death-related forces like elves.

The status of the dead determined the shape of the tomb and the burial mounds were seen as the abode of the dead. They were places of special power which also influenced the objects inside them. The evidence of prehistoric openings in mounds may thus not indicate looting but the local community's efforts to retrieve holy objects from the grave, or to insert offerings. Since the excavation of a mound was a time- and labour-consuming task which could not have happened unnoticed, religious historian Gro Steinsland and others find it unlikely that lootings of graves were common in prehistoric times. There are also several mythological tales and legends about retrieval of objects from burial mounds[60] and an account in Ynglingasaga of offerings to Freyr continuing through openings in his burial mound at Uppsala.

The connection between the living and the dead was maintained through rituals connected to the burial place like sacrifice of objects, food and drink. Usually the graves were placed close to the dwelling of the family and the ancestors were regarded as protecting the house and its inhabitants against bad luck and bestowing fertility. Thus ancestor worship was of crucial importance to survival and there are signs that it continued up until modern times in isolated areas. Ancestor worship was also an element in the blót feasts, where memorial toasts to the deceased were part of the ritual. Also elf blót was closely connected to the family.[61]

Wight worship[edit]

Land wights were unnamed collective entities. They were protective deities for areas of land and there were many religious rules for how to deal with them to avoid conflicts. This was used by Egil Skallagrimson. When he was driven from Norway into exile in Iceland, he erected a nithing pole (níðstang) to frighten the Norwegian land wights and thus bring bad luck to Norway as revenge for the Norwegian king's treatment of him. According to the saga the cursing pole consisted of a gaping horse's head mounted on top of a pole which he drove into the ground at the beach.[5]

In the Viking Age, women are likely to have played the main role in the wight faith. This faith included sacrifices of food and drink on certain locations either near the farm or other places like waterfalls and groves where wights were believed to live. During Christianisation the attention of the missionaries was focused on the named gods; worship of the more anonymous collective groups of deities was allowed to continue for a while, and could have later escaped notice by the Christian authorities. The wights also lived on in folklore as nixies and tomter.[62]

Types of rituals[edit]

Far from all types of Norse pagan rituals are known in detail. Below is an introduction to most known types of rituals.


The Dísablót, by August Malmström.

Main article: Blót

The Blót was an important type of ritual in the public as well as the private faith. The word blót is connected to the verb blóta, which is related to English bless. In the Viking age the main meaning of the word had become to sacrifice.


Main article: Seiðr

In academia Seid was traditionally written about in a degrading fashion and considered magic rather than religion. This is connected to the general disparagement of magic in the Christian medieval sources, such as the sagas. Seid was an element of a larger religious complex and was connected to important mythological tales. Freyja is said to have taught it to Odin. Thus Seid is today considered as an important element of Norse religion.[63] It is hard to determine from the sources what the term meant in the Viking Age but it is known that Seid was used for divination and interpretation of omens for positive as well as destructive purposes.[64]


Main article: Runes

The sources mention runes as powerful symbols connected to Odin, which were used in different ritual circumstances.

Sources on Norse paganism and their interpretation[edit]

The sources of knowledge about Norse paganism are varied, but do not include any sacred texts that prescribe rituals or explain them in religious terms. Knowledge about pre-Christian rituals in Scandinavia are composed mainly from fragments and indirect knowledge.[65] For instance the mythological eddas tell almost nothing about the rituals connected to the deities described. While the sagas contain more information on ritual acts, they rarely connect those to the mythology. All these texts were written in Iceland after the Christianisation and it is likely that much knowledge about the rituals had by then, been lost. The mythological tales survived more easily, and the information found in them is probably closer to pagan originals.[66]

An example of how sagas have been used as indirect sources for religious practice is Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla. For instance, in the first part of the tale of the Norwegian kings he tells about the rituals Odin instituted when he came to the Scandinavian peoples. This account is likely to describe rituals in the Odin faith. According to Snorri, Odin required that a sacrifice be held for a good year at the beginning of winter, one for rebirth at mid-winter and one for victory in the summer. All dead were to be cremated on a funeral pyre together with all their belongings and all cremated in this way would join him in Valhalla, together with their belongings. The ashes were to be spread either at sea or on the ground. This is similar to other written and archaeological sources on burial customs, which thus substantiate each other. Graves are the most common archaeological evidence of religious acts and they are an important source of knowledge about the ideas about death and cosmology held by the bereaved. This material is very useful in forming a general view of the structural relations and long-time developments in the religion. By comparing it to other archaeological findings and written sources, new perspectives can be formed.[67]

Another source is found in toponyms. In recent years, research has shed new light on pagan rituals, among other things, by determining the location of pagan shrines. The name of a location can reveal information about its history. The name of the city Odense, for instance, means Odin's (shrine), and the name Thorshøj, which can be found in several places in Norway, means "Thor's hof" (temple).[66] The basis point for the interpretation of placenames is that they were not just practical measures people used to make their way but also constituted a symbolic mapping of the landscape. Thus toponyms can contribute with knowledge about the culture of previous societies for which there are no other sources.[68] Toponyms tell about which deities were connected to the place and worshipped there, and names for holy places can be found, for instance, in the suffixes -vé, -sal,-lund, -hørg and -hov or -hof. One of the most common terms was , meaning an area that was consecrated and thus outside the sphere of the profane and where special rules applied.[69] The distribution of toponyms in middle Sweden containing the names of the deities Freyr and Freyja may be a trace of a prehistoric sacral kingdom in the Mälaren region associated with the two fertility deities and the idea of a sacred marriage.[70] There are difficulties involved in the use of toponyms, since words often have both a sacral and a non-sacral meaning; for instance the word hørg can mean stone altar as well as stony soil.[68]

Many images can also be interpreted as depictions of ritual acts. For instance, the bracteates from the Germanic Iron Age can be interpreted as depictions of rituals connected to the belief of Odin, such as seid and magic.[71]

However, in principle, material remains can only be used as circumstantial evidence to understanding Norse society and can only contribute concrete knowledge about the time's culture if combined with written sources.[72] For instance, the written sources point to the existence of religious specialists within the public faith. The titles of these specialists have been found on rune stones, thus confirming their position within society.

Several tales from the sagas contain remains of pre-Christian rituals. Often the stories are not of a religious nature but include singular incidents that reflect religious life. An example is Snorri's account of how the Christian king of Norway, Haakon the Good, tried to avoid taking part in the pagan feasts. It was traditionally one of the king's duties to lead a blót feast each fall. At this feast, Haakon refused to eat the sacrificed horse meat that was served, and made the sign of the cross over his goblet instead of invoking Odin. After this incident the king lost many of his supporters, and at the feast the following year, he was forced to eat the sacrificial meat and was forbidden to bless his beer with the sign of the cross.[73] This account is often used as evidence of the ruler's role as a religious leader. However, it is an important point that medieval sources have to be understood according to the environment they were written in. For instance Margaret Clunies Ross has pointed out that the descriptions of rituals appearing in the sagas are recycled in a historicised context and may not reflect practice in pre-Christian times. This can be seen by their often being explained in the texts rather than just described. From this she deduces that the readers were not expected to have direct knowledge of pagan rituals.[74] They are also explained in terms of Christian practice; for example a hlautteinn used for sprinkling participants in a blót being described as "like an aspergillum".


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  1. ^Steinsland (2005) p. 268
  2. ^Steinsland (2005) p. 347
  3. ^Roesdahl (1998) pp. 35-36
  4. ^Steinsland (2005) p. 265
  5. ^ abcKofod & Warmind (1989) p. 66
  6. ^Sigurdsson (1993) pp. 133-136
  7. ^ abKofod & Warmind (1989) p. 38
  8. ^Hansen, Lars Iver (1999) pp. 105
  9. ^Näsström (1999) p. 161
  10. ^Steinsland (2005) p. 301
  11. ^Brink, Stefan (1999) p. 46
  12. ^Ellis Davidson (1990) p. 121
  13. ^Ellis Davidson (1990) p. 97
  14. ^Crumlin-Pedersen (1994) pp. 143
  15. ^Ellis Davidson (1990) p. 135
  16. ^Kofod & Warmind (1989) p. 48
  17. ^Steinsland (2005) pp. 292-293
  18. ^Ellis Davidson (1990) p. 95
  19. ^Jørgensen (1994) p. 139
  20. ^ abSteinsland (2005) p. 269
  21. ^Brink, Stefan (1999) pp. 12-13
  22. ^Jørgensen (1994) pp. 136-137
  23. ^Steinsland (2005) pp. 271-272
  24. ^Steinsland (2005) p. 284
  25. ^Brink, Stefan (1999) p. 36
  26. ^Brink, Stefan (1999) p. 20
  27. ^Steinsland (2005) pp. 285-288
  28. ^Brink, Stefan (1999) p. 37
  29. ^Steinsland (2005) pp. 296-298
  30. ^Brink, Stefan (1999) pp. 27-30
  31. ^Brink, Stefan (1999) p. 18
  32. ^Brink, Stefan (1999) pp. 23-26
  33. ^Brink, Stefan (1999) p. 32
  34. ^Gräslund (1999) p. 57
  35. ^Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, English translation by F. J. Tschan, Columbia University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-231-12575-5
  36. ^Brink, Stefan (1999) pp. 19-20
  37. ^Brink, Stefan (1999) pp. 16-20
  38. ^ abGräslund (1999) p. 67
  39. ^Gräslund (1999) p. 63
  40. ^Alkarp, Magnus; Price, Neil (2005), "Tempel av guld eller kyrka av trä? Markradarundersökningar vid Gamla Uppsala kyrka."(PDF), Fornvännen, Swedish National Heritage Board, 100: 261–272, ISSN 1404-9430, retrieved 19 May 2011
  41. ^Brink (1999) p. 37
  42. ^ abKofod & Warmind (1989) p. 40
  43. ^Steinsland (2005) p. 280
  44. ^Brink, Stefan (1999) p. 15
  45. ^Brink, Stefan (1999) p. 25
  46. ^Steinsland (2005) p. 281
  47. ^Brink, Stefan (1999) pp. 28-30
  48. ^Steinsland (2005) p. 299
  49. ^Steinsland (2005) pp. 300-301
  50. ^Steinsland (2005) p. 264
  51. ^Steinsland (2005) pp. 327-328
  52. ^Ellis Davidson (1990) p. 155
  53. ^Ellis Davidson (1990) p. 80
  54. ^Steinsland (2005) pp. 329-330
  55. ^Steinsland (2005) p. 328
  56. ^Steinsland (2005) pp. 334-336
  57. ^ abClunies Ross (1994) p. 92
  58. ^Steinsland (2005) p. 336
  59. ^Steinsland (2005) pp. 336-337
  60. ^Steinsland (2005) p. 342
  61. ^Steinsland (2005) pp. 344-345
  62. ^Steinsland (2005) p. 352
  63. ^Ellis Davidson (1990) p. 119
  64. ^Grambo (1991) p. 133
  65. ^Steinsland (2005) p. 64
  66. ^ abSteinsland (2005) p. 270
  67. ^Lagerlöf (1991) pp. 207-209
  68. ^ abHolmberg (1991) p. 149
  69. ^Bæksted (1994) p. 109
  70. ^Hyenstrand, Åke (1999) p. 129
  71. ^Ellmer p. 191
  72. ^Brink, Stefan (1999) p. 12
  73. ^Hakon the Good's Saga
  74. ^Clunies Ross (1994) p. 86

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Viking Dead

Viking Dead

Despite scant written evidence, we have a pretty good idea of what the Norse seafarers would do with their dead. This is mainly thanks to archaeological digs, which reveal the burial rituals so important to Viking culture. Much like our own society, the dead were either buried or cremated. The latter would involve large pyres, which would take many hours to build, while the burials could be immensely ambitious affairs, sometimes involving entire ships.

One of the most famous of the Viking ship burials is the Oseberg ship, which was discovered in the early 20th Century, embedded within a mount in a farm in Norway. Thought to have been originally buried in the soil in the 9th Century, the ship contained two female skeletons - presumably women of high-ranking status in Viking culture, if the sheer wealth of "grave goods" is any indication.

The burial included numerous ornaments, as well as the remains of several horses, dogs and even cows, all of which had been buried alongside the humans. One particularly tantalizing question is whether one of the two women was actually sacrificed to accompany the other into the afterlife. This was an act the Vikings certainly weren't squeamish about...

Did the Vikings really commit acts of human sacrifice? It's been a controversial question throughout history. One apparent witness from the Viking age, a clergyman called Thietmar of Merseburg, gave an ominous description of how the Norse warriors "offer to their gods 99 men and just as many horses, dogs and hens or hawks, for these should serve them in the kingdom of the dead".

For a long while, his writings, along with the very similar testimony of a monk called Adam of Bremen, were dismissed as Christian hatchet jobs, intended to denigrate and vilify the Vikings as bloodthirsty pagan savages. However, archaeological evidence does suggest human sacrifices were indeed performed - sometimes even involving children. There's also a famous account by Ahmad ibn Fadlan, a respected Islamic scholar who mingled with the Vikings, and who described the ritual around a Viking elder's death. It involved a slave girl being intoxicated, compelled to have sex with several men and then slaughtered with a dagger, so as to accompany her deceased master into the next life.

Possibly the grisliest of alleged Viking rituals was the "Blood Eagle", which - according to certain accounts - was a particularly flamboyant form of ritualised killing, conducted as a bloody homage to the god Odin. According to legend, the Blood Eagle involved laying the enemy face down, then tearing his back open, hacking open the rib cage and pulling out the lungs to form grotesque "wings".

But was the Blood Eagle a genuine, historic ritual, or merely a juicy horror story of Viking folklore, depicted in the Old Norse sagas and then unfairly taken as literal truth by Christian scholars eager to see the Vikings in the worst light possible? Historians have disagreed on the question - some believe it definitely was real, others that it's pure fiction. The truth may even be somewhere in between, with a genuine murder ritual perhaps having been depicted in an exaggerated, more sensational way by chroniclers.

The Vikings also developed rituals to deal with their equivalent of "zombies". These creatures were known as draugar, and - like the zombies of contemporary Western pop culture - were reanimated corpses which stank of death and decay. However, unlike our modern-day zombies, these fearsome entities were also capable of changing form, passing through solid objects, haunt people's dreams and drive them insane.

To prevent the dead from turning into draugar, a ritual burial was required with the feet of the corpse impaled with needles to stop the undead creature from walking. Curiously, a pair of iron scissors was also to be placed on the corpse's chest, to prevent transformation from an ordinary corpse into a terrifying undead stalker.


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