Welcome back, History Fans. We’ve had some major setbacks here at History Books, which will explain our long absence. Unfortunately the folks at the University of Iceland didn’t seem to think I had what it takes! Maybe they thought they could kill my spirit, quell my passion, and smother my desire. They thought wrong. After taking a couple months off to finish Mockingjay (kinda sucked) and to start my second trip through LOST (what a dumb idea), I really just bummed around. Once May came around, however, I decided that was enough moping and that it was time to get back to work. I promptly ordered the wonderfully comprehensive book, The Viking World, edited by Stefan Brink, which is on the preparatory reading list for the University of Iceland (suck it). The book contains a lot of fascinating information, but for today, we are going to focus on our old favorite subject: religion.
I am going to skip over the mythology. The stories of the gods are extremely fun and highly instructive when it comes to understanding the Viking worldview. But we’ve dealt with the mythology, and today we are more interested in the particulars. The how and why, the when and where. Loki tricking Baldr then killing the poor guy doesn’t really provide much instruction for everyday life. The mythology was well known, spoken orally, and is probably much more metaphorical than we give it credit for, including a wonderful theory from Gro Steinsland about the mythology of pagan rulership in relation to gods and giants. But we want to stick to the framework of how the religion might have functioned.
The religion of the Vikings is difficult to reconstruct. For one, the archaeological record is sparse. Besides a handful of objects, place names, and a couple of runes, there is virtually nothing left from the Viking Age or pre-Viking Age religious rituals. Instead, we are forced to rely on written sources, most of which were written during the Christian era in Iceland. These of course bring up many questions. How did the Christian beliefs of the writers like Snorri Sturluson affect their retrospective views of their ancestral religion? Can we trust them to cover certain things up, or worse, exaggerate in order to make Christianity that much better? This is almost certainly the case with Adam of Bremen (though probably not intentional) and with Snorri’s Ynglinga Saga. Enough nuggets seep through the sources and the sagas that can be checked by the archaeology record so that we can build enough of an idea of what the pagan religion may have looked like.
It is important to note here that the Old Norse language did not have a word for “religion.” In this culture, their religious actions and beliefs existed side by side with their social lives. In fact one probably did not exist without the other. Their religion was part of their everyday lives. Which is not to say that they were fanatics or extremists within their religion. Instead, I think that the religion relied heavily upon the societal norms, which in turn were probably born out of religious beliefs. A good example from the etymology is the word “godi.” In Iceland, this word referred to a chieftain, which was a social occupation. However, the word also implies a religious affiliation. There is strong evidence that before the conversion to Christianity, the chieftains also had religious responsibilities, whether in holding celebration feasts or even overlooking specific ceremonies and rituals.
This idea of the higher status society members performing religious rites is consistent through the sagas. A very good example that Snorri gives us is of King Hakon Sigurdsson who, at a banquet, is expected to take part in the ceremonial rituals which include toasts to the gods and serving his men out of a specific beaker. Because there are no specific references to priests or any other specific religious figures, it is widely accepted that the rulers (kings, earls, chieftains) as well as prominent farmers took on religious roles on top of their everyday occupations. There does not seem to be any Viking Age equivalent to the Christian clergy. This is mainly due to how well organized Christianity is and how loose the Norse belief system seems to have been. There is evidence from Iceland that churches built on farmers’ land were taken care of by those who owned it. Likewise, certain people might accrue titles such as “protector of the sanctuary.” Again, the line between social and religious is very blurred.
The gods that were worshipped are well known, at least by name. Odin, Thor, Frey, Freya, all topped the pantheon of the Norse gods. And yet many more gods are mentioned within the mythology but have little to no significance in the archaeological record. On the other hand, there are almost certainly place names and references to deities otherwise unknown to the written records. What is truly amazing is that no god seems to have been worshipped in abundance over another. Preference seemed to rely heavily upon geography and class. Odin was certainly more of the cerebral god, whose expertise including war tactics and poetry. The higher class of chieftains and warriors might have been more inclined to attach themselves to Odin, while the farmers and sailors might lean more towards Thor who controlled the weather and worked more with his muscles than with his brain. Still in other places, the fertility god Frey might be preferential, asking for his blessings upon a harvest. Without an institution like that of Christianity, the pagan religion appears widely dispersed, disorganized, and more like separate cults than a unified belief system. I believe that the entire thing seems pretty circumstantial. While many individuals and families probably attached themselves to a cult of a specific god, there is no evidence that they didn’t refer to another god when a different need presented itself. This is backed up by the opportunistic Viking activity in England and Europe, as well as the burial patterns which will be discussed below.
So what did worship look like? We have a couple vivid descriptions from Adam of Bremen and from Ibn Fadlan, both of which are suspect. Adam paints us the famous bloody scene of the temple in Uppsala where there are hundreds of dead animals and humans hanging from trees. With inconclusive evidence that there was ever a temple like that in Uppsala, Adam’s account has to be taken with a grain of salt. Were there ever temples? Could Adam have heard a story and reconstructed a familiar Christian church but with pagan properties? Who knows! Ibn Fadlan gives us a more realistic story of some Swedish merchants building a sort of idol on a pole and offering food at the base with the request of good trading. After they were done at a market, they would return and offer a thanks offering. Many small idols have been found throughout Scandinavia, including some of my favorites of Frey with a giant dong (he was a fertility god)! To further affirm Ibn Fadlan’s story are the many “cult sites” where there have been large deposits of goods, jewelry and weapons, most likely sacrifices.
Frey full torqued (Kooks at the Pagan Family)
Earlier I mentioned that there wasn’t a word for religion in Old Norse. The closest term that could be used is forn sidr which means “ancient custom” or seidr, which is translated as spell or enchantment...in other words MAGIC! And for those of you who enjoy the Wheel of Time series, the saidar used by Aes Sedai is very similar and more than likely this is where Robert Jordan got some of his ideas. Odin was known as a sorcerer, and there are many accounts of sorcery and magic throughout the myths and the sagas. Interestingly, and in line with Robert Jordan’s novels, men who used seidr were usually looked up as being shameful. Women used it often, and many were seers and fortune tellers. One theory as to why men were mocked for using magic is that there was a belief that you had to receive a certain amount of magic in order to communicate. Magic, religion and sexuality were all interconnected. A woman could receive sexually and therefore in the context of seidr. Men were to give, i.e. their ding dongs, and so using seidr gave off connotations of homosexuality which was a huge no-no back in the Viking Age.
Burial sites have given us the most information pertaining to the Viking Age religion, at least when it comes to death and the afterlife. A very telling passage from Snorri at the beginning of Ynglinga Saga explains that a person should be buried with whatever he or she might want or need for the afterlife. In fact, you can just bury stuff in the ground before you die, and it will be yours when you get to Valhalla! Some people use this passage to explain the many hoards of silver and coins found across Scandinavia. But there must be some truth to Snorri’s claim. The graves excavated have found everything from tools and money to executed slaves and horses to ships and wagons. Yet while this theme of being buried with one’s goods and possessions is consistent not only in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden but also the Viking graves found across their sphere of influence, the nature of the graves vary widely. Cremation was the norm for the pre-Viking age and continued throughout many areas, but many inhumation graves are found in so many different ways. Some are buried in ships, some buried sitting in chairs. Some were facing north, some dressed for a journey in their sleds, while others had riches and silks occupying their graves. Some had chambers, others were set in crude boxes. The wide variety of burial rites again confirms that religious beliefs were just as varied. Some island cultures had their own burial customs which probably reflected their own unique religion under the umbrella of the Norse mythology. Even the famous Osberg ship was a highly unique case! Originally a burial mound was built over the middle of ship while the front stuck out and was accessible for the community at large! It was later completely covered, but it leaves a certain spooky doubt: what role did these graves and burial sites play within the community where there is evidence of use and intrusion?
Here is a goofy reenactment of a Viking burial (Lore and Saga)
There are so many questions that will never be addressed about the religion of the Viking Age. For instance, there is a reference to a ceremony or sacrifice to the elves. Were these merely seen as spirits? Did the Norse actually believe in little woodland creatures? We can only speculate, though it is difficult now that elves, trolls, and the magic itself have been adopted by popular literature and have probably lost their true meaning. Not that I’m complaining. I love that stuff!
And so we keep researching, History Fans. Maybe one of the sagas will mention a place or an event that can open up a whole new perspective of how the Vikings worshipped or lived out their beliefs. And then those jerks in Iceland will be sorry they crossed us!!