The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia





Contents :


Chapter One - The Great Gods: Thor and Odin

Chapter Two - The Remaining Gods and Other Objects of Worship

Chapter Three - Temples and Images

Chapter Four - Ceremonies and Ministers of Religion



The native religion of the ancient Scandinavians was in its main features only a special form of that common to all the Germanic peoples, and this again was only a particular development of primitive beliefs and practices characteristic of the whole Aryan race. It is impossible to say how far back in time the special Germanic and Scandinavian developments of this religion may go, and of their earlier stages we have absolutely no knowledge beyond what may be doubtfully reached by the methods of comparison and inference. Even of the later stages our information is much more scanty than might be expected. Among the Goths, the southern Germans, and the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, paganism gave way to Christianity at so early a period, that very few details relating to it have been recorded by the civil or religious historians of these peoples; they were indeed more inclined to supress than perpetuate any lingering knowledge of this kind. The absense of such information is a great bar to the proper understanding of many points in Scandinavian religion, which, instead of being thus illuminated from without, has continually been forced to throw light on the heathen worship of the other Teutonic peoples.

As to the Scandinavian peoples themselves, it is only from a comparatively late period in the history of Europe that we have any real knowledge of them. They first became notorious at the close of the eighth century, when their unexpected piratical descents on Britain and France alarmed Western Christendom. Early in the ninth century the Saxon monk Ansgar ventured upon missionary enterprises into Scandinavia, at that time entirely a heathen region, and on two occasions reached the court of the Swedish king. About the middle of the same century Christianity began to make way in Denmark, which in another fifty years or so had become in the main a Christian land. During the tenth century the new faith began to make itself felt in Norway, but did not finally overcome the old religion until the beginning of the eleventh: in Iceland, which had been colonised from Norway, the adoption of Christianity took place somewhat suddenly in the year 1000. Sweden for the most part still remained heathen, and did not fully accept the new religion until the twelfth century.

During these three centuries we have very little outside evidence as to the character of the religion professed by any of the Scandinavian peoples, and our knowledge of the beliefs and practices of northern heathenism is for the most part derived from native sources of a later date. These, while in some respects copious enough, by no means give all the information that could be desired, and on some important points their evidence is either scanty or very unsatisfactory. The deficiencies are to a large extent disguised, at first sight, by the fact that we possess abundant information as to Scandinavian mythology. Not only do the poems of the skalds (from the close of the ninth century onwards) abound in mythological allusions, but there also exists a systematic account of the subject in the work of Snorri Sturluson, commonly known as the 'Prose Edda,' written in Iceland about the year 1220. For the facts relating to the actual religion, on the other hand, we have to depend on the few pieces of outside evidence, and on fairly numerous, but not always reliable, statements in the biographical and historical prose writings commonly grouped together under the name of 'Sagas.' These works, based on oral tradition of a very full and often very accurate nature, were written in Iceland during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and most of them are separated by more than a century and a half from the period of time to which they relate. As the authors were in every case Christians, and many of them were ecclesiastics, it is obvious that the late evidence thus afforded us is not to be absolutely relied upon. On the other hand, the tenacity of Icelandic tradition, the continuous interest in the poetic mythology, and the absense of any fanatical hatred of the old heathenism, make it possible to accept, with due reservations, many of the statements made in these writings. It is unfortunate, however, that Iceland alone of all the Scandinavian countries developed a literature of this kind. The result is that the information thus preserved relates for the most part only to Iceland itself and its mother-country, Norway. The heathen period in Denmark was so remote, and Sweden itself so slightly connected with Iceland, that comparatively little is recorded of either, although Sweden was still heathen when Icelandic literature began. This is the more to be regretted, as a fuller knowledge of the precise form which the old religion had in Denmark and Sweden would in all probability solve some problems which are now obscure.

In the following account of the ancient Scandinavian religion, an attempt has been made to exhibit what is really known of the religious beliefs and practices of the people as distinct from the mythological fancies of the poets. With the evidence which we possess, it is impossible to determine how far the latter ever formed any part of a real popular relgion: in some respects there seems to be a decided opposition between the two. The mythology, as it is found in the old poems and in the Prose Edda, has been the subject of much learned speculation, and various theories as to the original functions of the different gods and goddesses have from time to time been advanced, and have met with more or less acceptance. Much has also been written on the question how far the original conceptions had been modified under classic and Christian influences even before Christianity was finally accepted in the north. All discussion of these matters is here omitted in favour of a more direct investigation into the purely religious aspect of the old faith, so far as the existing materials admit of this.

Chapter 1

The Great Gods: Thor and Odin


In common with the other Aryan races, the ancient Scandinavians recognised, as the basis of their religion, certain supernatural, usually unseen, powers ruling the world and exercising an influence on the affairs of mankind. In the ideas which prevailed as to the nature of these powers certain correspondences can be clearly traced in the various Aryan religions, in spite of the fact that our knowledge of them dates from widely different periods of history. Even the Romans, when they came into contact with the Germanic races, noticed some of the similarities, and applied the names of several of their own deities to the corresponding figures among the barbarian gods. When closer intercourse between Roman and German had established itself, the result of these equations was made prominent in the names adopted by the latter for the days of the week, several of which, in most of the Germanic tongues, still bear witness to the old religion of the race. Thus the counterpart of the Roman Mars was found in the god Tiw, and consequently dies Martis was rendered by forms now represented in English by Tuesday. In the same way the Roman Mercurius, Jupiter, and Venus were identified with the Germanic gods called by the English Wden, Thunor, and Frg, whence the names of Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. In making these equations, of course, neither German nor Roman did more than consider the most obvious points of resemblance between the deities; how close the correspondence actually was in each case it is impossible to say, as we know so little of the precise form which the native religion had among the southern Germans. It is only to a certain extent that the details suggested by these translations of the Roman names are supported by the evidence from the Scandinavian side, but it is extremely probable that some of the more striking discrepancies are due to difference in time as well as in place and people.

The three gods and the goddess whose names are thus commemorated in the days of the week hold also a prominent place among the Scandinavian deities, where they appear under the names of Ty (Tr), Odin (Oinn), Thor (rr), and Frigg. But while Odin and Thor actually hold the place which they might be expected to occupy as objects of worship, the warlike deity Ty has apparently become of secondary importance. This is indicated not only by the native Scandinavian evidence, but also by what can be gleaned from external sources. In an Old English sermon (1) by the Abbot lfric, about the year 1000, the mention of some of the Roman deities leads the preacher to introduce the corresponding Danish names. Jove or Jupiter, he says 'was called Thor among some peoples, and him the Danes love most of all.' Mercury, too, 'was honoured among all the heathens, and he is otherwise called Othon in Danish.' Of Ty there is no mention, although Mars is one of the Roman deities specified by name. In another homily by lfric there is the same identification of Thor and Odin, along with 'the foul goddess Venus, whom men call Frigg,' but here also Ty is ignored.

More than merely negative evidence, however, is supplied by another outside source, which is the leading contemporary account of Scandinavian religion, viz. that given by the German historian, Adam of Bremen (about the year 1075), in his description of the great temple of the Swedes at Upsala, and of the gods worshipped there. Here he writes, 'the people venerate the statues of three gods, so placed that the most powerful of them, Thor, has his seat in the middle of the bench. On either side of him Wodan and Fricco have their places. Of these the significations are as follows. Thor, they say, presides in the air, and governs thunder and lightning, winds and rains, fair weather and crops. The next, Wodan, that is "Fury," carries on wars and gives men valour against their enemies. The third is Fricco, bestowing peace and pleasure upon mortals.' The image of Wodan, he adds, resembled that of the Roman Mars; that of Thor suggested Jupiter, while Fricco was represented in a form resembling the minor deity Priapus.

The god here called Fricco was known to the Scandinavians themselves by the name of Frey (Freyr), and that the triad thus specified by Adam were in fact the chief deities worshipped in the later stages of Scandinavian religion is abundantly proved by the native evidence. The identification of Odin with Mars in place of Mercury is also in full accordance with the later beliefs: in other words, Odin has taken the place of Ty as the chief war-god. Whether this was the main reason for the admission of Frey as third member of the supreme triad is uncertain, the earlier position of this god being altogether unknown. Thor, it will be noticed, still retains his place as the counterpart of the Roman Jupiter, and stands between the other two gods, as being the most powerful. The precise relationship, however, between Thor and Odin is not by any means so simple as this statement would suggest, and forms indeed one of the most difficult questions connected with the subject. This will be most clearly brought out by a detailed account of the relative place assigned to each of them in religious practice on the one hand, and in mythological accounts on the other; and the most correct impression of the facts will probably be obtained by dealing first with Thor.

The pre-eminence assigned to this god by lfric and Adam of Bremen is quite in accordance with what can fairly be inferred from the native historical sources. A considerable number of passages in the sagas yield combined proof that by the people at large Thor was regarded as the chief deity, at least in Norway and Iceland: for Sweden and Denmark the evidence is less conclusive, but seems to point in the same direction. It is of great significance, for example, that in all the Scandinavian countries the name of Thor is the one which is most frequently used as a formative element in the names of persons (such as Thor-kell, Stein-thor), and these were evidently quite as common in Sweden and Denmark as in Norway and Iceland. On the other hand, the name of Odin is scarcely ever employed, only one or two instances being found among the Danes and Swedes. Names with Frey-as their first element are more frequent, but are in small proportion compared with those in Thor-. In Danish and Swedish place-names, too, the predominance of Thor is very marked, although Odin and Frey are better represented here than in the case of the personal names. In Norway and Iceland place-names of this kind are rare, but Thorsness and Thorsmark occur in the latter country. The frequency with which Thor's hammer (see below) is represented on Danish and Swedish runic monuments, and the occurrence on ancient Danish stones of the formula 'May Thor hallow this monument' (or 'these runes'), also indicate that the position of the deity was much the same among all the branches of the Scandinavian people. In Denmark, too, there are distinct traces of a tendency to hold local assemblies on the day named after the god; in Iceland this was the day on which the famous Al-thing (the legal and legislative assembly of the whole people) began every year, ten weeks after the first day of summer, and in Norway the great law-assembly of the western districts also began its meetings on a Thursday.

For Norway and Iceland there is a considerable amount of more direct evidence than this. In several of the Icelandic historical writings it is expressly stated that some of the leading colonists had a special regard for Thor and his worship. Of one who came from the island of Mostr, on the south-western coast of Norway, it is told that he had the custody of Thor's temple there, and was a 'great friend' of the god, on which account he was called Thorolf (= Thor-wolf). This Thorolf fell out with King Harald, and went to inquire of Thor, 'his loving friend,' whether he should make terms with the king or leave the country. The oracle directed him to go to Iceland. He pulled down the temple, and took with him most of the timber, as well as the earth from under the pedestal on which Thor had been seated. On coming to Iceland, he threw overboard the two chief pillars of the temple, on one of which the image of Thor was carved, and declared he would settle wherever Thor made these come ashore. After landing on the south side of Broadfirth, they found that Thor had come ashore with the pillars on a headland, to which they then gave the name of Thor's-ness, while a river in the neighbourhood was also named after the god. When this Thorolf had a son in his old age, he gave him to his friend Thor, and called him Thorstein. Thorstein also gave his own son to Thor, 'and said he should be a temple-priest, and called him Thorgrim.' Another son of Thorolf's sacrificed to Thor, that he might send him pillars for his house, 'and gave his son for this,' which probably means that he also dedicated his son to the god, though one account appears to imply that he actually offered him in sacrifice.

Of another settler, Helgi the Lean, who was brought up in Ireland, it is stated that when he came in sight of Iceland, he inquired of Thor where he should land; the oracle directed him to Eyafirth, and would allow him to go nowhere else. Before they came in sight of the firth, Helgi's son asked him whether he would have obeyed Thor's directions if he had sent him to winter in the Arctic Ocean. Yet Helgi was not absolutely devoted to Thor, as he also believed in Christ, and even called his Icelandic homestead by the name of Christness. It was to Thor, however, that he turned for aid in sea-faring and difficult enterprises, and in all matters that he considered to be of most importance.

Thorolf and Helgi were not the only settlers who allowed Thor to fix the place of their habitation in Iceland, and one in the south of the island also consecrated all his land to Thor and called it Thor's-mark. The tendency to appeal to Thor for help in time of need is further illustrated by an incident recorded as having taken place during the Wineland expedition of 1007-8. The explorers were in great straits for want of food, and had prayed for help, which seemed long in coming. One of the party, named Thorhall, was found by the others on the peak of a cliff, looking up to the sky, and muttering something, besides making strange gestures of which he would give no explanation. Shortly afterwards a whale came ashore, and Thorhall said, 'The red-bearded one was stronger now than your Christ. I have got this for my poetry that I made about Thor. He has seldom failed me.'

This contrasting of Thor with Christ is a trait which appears in other narratives, and is significant of the place which the god held in the old relgion. In the struggle between heathenism and Christianity in the Scandinavian countries it is usually Thor, the red-bearded one, who is the champion of the primitive faith and its most powerful representative. The cases in which Odin takes this place have a much more legendary character, and are more likely to be due to later invention. It was Thor whom the believers in the old faith expressly put forward as a rival to the God of the Christians. In the early part of the eleventh century, when King Olaf Haraldsson was doing his utmost to christianise Norway, the following words are represented as having been spoken by a powerful chief named Gudbrand: 'There is come hither a man named Olaf to offer us another faith than the one we had, and to break all our gods in pieces, and he says that he has a greater and mightier god. It is a marvel that the earth does not open under him when he dares to say such things, and that our gods let him go any further. I expect, if we carry Thor out of our temple where he stands, and where he has always stood by us, that as soon as he looks on Olaf and his men, then his god and himself and his men will melt away and come to naught.' So also when Thangbrand the priest went to Iceland on his missionary enterprise in 997, he met a woman who preached heathendom to him at great length, and asked him, 'Have you not heard that Thor challenged Christ to single combat, and He dared not fight with Thor?' When Thangbrand's ship was destroyed by a violent storm, it was to Thor that the credit of the accident was assigned.


1. Based upon the Latin discourse De correctione rusticorum, by Martin of Bracara, who died in 580.

Chapter 2

The Remaining Gods and Other Objects of Worship

The third god mentioned by Adam of Bremen as worshipped at Upsala is (Fricco or) Frey, a name which appears to be identical with the Teutonic word represented in Old English by fra, lord or king. Adam's statement is fully confirmed by the Icelandic sources, and there are also general references to the prevalence of the cult in Sweden. (1) In a somewhat legendary source it is even stated that an image of Frey, which was worshipped at Thrandheim in Norway, had been sent there from Sweden. The story of Gunnar Helming also makes mention of an image of Frey in Sweden which was carried about the country, and to which sacrifices were offered, but the value of the statement is very doubtful. Saxo Grammaticus, speaking of a sacrifice of black oxen offered to Frey by the mythical hero Hading, adds that this had continued to be a yearly custom, and 'the Swedes call it Frblod,' i.e. Frey's sacrifice. The frequent occurance of Frey- in Swedish (and Danish) place-names has been already mentioned, and indicates the prevalence of the cult in both of these countries.

The worship of Frey, however, must also have been very popular in Norway, from which it passed to Iceland with the early settlers. As late as 998 the men of Thrandheim are represented as refusing to break their image of Frey at the command of King Olaf, 'because we have long served him and he has done well by us. He often talked with us, and told us things to come, and gave us peace and plenty.' At the great festivals it was customary to drink to Frey (along with Njrd) in order to secure peace and prosperity. A talisman on which the image of Frey was 'marked in silver' is mentioned as having been owned by one of the petty kings of Norway about 872; this was given by King Harald to Ingimund, and tradition associated it in a mysterious way with the place where the latter finally settled in Iceland.

In Iceland itself the traces of a popular cult of Frey are very clear, and more than one prominent person mentioned in the sagas bears the title of Freys-goi, or 'priest of Frey.' Of one of these, Thorgrm, brother-in-law of Gsli Srsson, the saga says that 'he intended to hold a festival at the beginning of winter, and greet the winter, and sacrifice to Frey.' When Thorgrm was murdered, and had been laid in a grave-mound, it was noticed that the snow never lay on the south or west sides of the mound, and the ground never froze there: 'and it was supposed that he was so highly esteemed by Frey for the offerings he made to him, that the god did not wish it to freeze between them.' Great attachment to this deity also appears in the story of Hrafnkel, who loved no other god more than Frey, and gave to him joint possession with himself of all his most valuable things. Among these was a horse, which on that account bore the name of Freyfaxi. Another Freyfaxi belonged to Brand in Vatnsdal, and most people believed that he had a religious reverence for the horse. Horses owned by Frey are also mentioned as existing in Thrandheim in the days of Olaf Tryggvason (about 996).

At Eyafirth in Iceland there was a temple of Frey, which is mentioned several times in the saga of Vga-Glm. Thorkel, says the story, went to Frey's temple, taking with him an old ox, and addressed the god thus: 'Frey,' said he, 'you have long been my confidant, and have received many gifts from me, and repaid me well. Now I give you this ox, so that it may come to pass that Glm will leave this land as much under compulsion as I do now. And show me now some token whether you receive this or not.' Thereupon the ox bellowed, and fell down dead, and Thorkel then believed that Frey had accepted his gift. The saga also mentions that Frey would not allow outlaws to make his temple there a sanctuary. Glm himself afterwards had a dream that many men had come there to see Frey. He asked who they were, and they said, 'We are your departed kinsfolk, and are making intercession with Frey that you may not be driven away from this ground; but Frey answers shortly and angrily, and recalls the ox that Thorkel gave him.' Then Glm awoke, nd had less liking for Frey all the rest of his life.

According to the mythological accounts, Frey was the son of Njrd and brother of Freyja. he had great personal beauty in addition to his divine powers. 'He rules over rain and sunshine and the produce of the earth, and it is good to call on him for peace and plenty. He also has power over the prosperity of men.' He was believed to own the ship Skblanir, and to ride on the boar Gullinbursti (Golden-bristle). This association of Frey with the boar appears also in the following passage of one of the mythical sagas (Hervarar Saga): 'King Heidrek sacrificed to Frey; he should give to him the largest boar that could be got. They considered it so holy, that over its bristles they took an oath about all important matters. That boar was sacrificed by way of an atonement; on Christmas eve it was led into the hall before the king, and men then laid their hands on its bristles and made their vows.' In another and earlier mention of the snargltr (boar of atonement), however, it is not stated that the practice was connected with the cult of Frey, and in the absence of direct historical evidence the reality or significance of the rite remains doubtful.

As mentioned above, the mythology regarded Frey as the son of Njrd (Njrr), a god of whom very little is really known. It has been supposed that the Nerthus, mentioned by Tacitus as being worshipped in common by a number of Germanic tribes, is the same as Njrd, but the fact that Tacitus speaks of Nerthus as a goddess and explains the name as meaning Mother Earth, makes the identification a very doubtful one. According to Snorri, Njrd 'rules over the course of the wind and calms the sea and fire. He is to be called on for voyaging and fishing. He is so rich and wealthy that he may give lands and treasure to whom he will.'

The worship of Njrd in Sweden and Norway is implied in the fact that places named after him are found in certain parts of these countries. When he is mentioned in the Icelandic writings, it is usually in conjunction with Frey. The practice of drinking the second toast to Njrd and Frey 'for peace and plenty' has been already mentioned. In the old heathen form of oath, taken by suitors and others at the legal assemblies, the deities invoked were 'Frey and Njrd and the Almighty God' (probably Thor). The two names are also combined by Egil in a verse (of 934) in which he prays that Frey and Njrd may be angry with King Eirk, while in one of his poems (about 962) he refers to them as the givers of wealth. With this may be compared the proverbial expression 'as rich as Njrd,' which occurs in old Icelandic. In one of Hallfred's verses (of 996) Frey and Njrd, Odin, Thor, and Freyja, are all mentioned together in contrast with God and Christ: in another (of the same time) the poet says, 'I am forced away from Njrd's offspring and made to pray to Christ.' These passages are sufficient to show that the cult of Njrd was closely connected with that of Frey, and make it probable that he was a deity of some importance even in the popular religion, but at best he remains a somewhat vague figure among the Scandinavian gods.

Of the remaining gods known to us from the mythology there are only the faintest traces in the historical sources. Even the original war-god Ty was so completely supplanted by Odin, that no distinct evidence is to be found for his worship in any part of Scandinavia, although Snorri describes him as 'the bravest and stoutest-hearted of the gods,' who had a great share in deciding the victory in battle; 'on him it is good for men of valour to call.' His name was, however, retained in poetic appellations of men (sometimes even of Odin), and was used in the epithets t-hraustr for a very brave man, and t-spakr for a clever one.

Still more uncertain is the question how far such deities as Heimdall, the wakeful warder of the gods, Bragi, the special god of poetry, and some others, really held a place in ordinary religious belief as distinct from the myth-creating fancy of the poets. Even such a striking mythological figure as the peace-maker Baldr, the most beautiful and lovable of all the gods, is strikingly ignored in all historical references to the old worship (the statements in Frithjof's saga being of no value in this respect). This is also the case with nearly all the goddesses, not excepting Frigg herself, the wife of Odin, the mother of Baldr, and the highest of them all, according to Snorri. It would appear, however, that Frigg had to some extent retired into the background before another goddess Freyja, the sister of Frey. We have already seen that when the days of the week received their Germanic names it was Frigg who was equated with the Roman Venus; but in the Scandinavian mythology it is Freyja, not Frigg, who is the goddess of love. Snorri describes Freyja as riding in a chariot drawn by two cats, 'and wheresoever she rides to battle, she has half the slain and Odin the other half.' This association of Freyja with Odin, which seems to imply that Frigg was almost on the point of being displaced by a rival goddess, also appears in the verse for which Hjalti Skeggjason was found guilty of blasphemy. It is implied, too, in a passage in Egil's saga, in which Thorgerd is represented as saying, 'I have had no supper, and will have none, until I come to Freyja. I know no better counsel for myself than my father's: I will not live after my father and brother.' The fact, too, that in the mythical sagas Freyja is almost the only goddess mentioned, indicates that her name had been remembered as one of special note in the old religion.


1. Compare the vow of Hallfred and his companions mentioned on p. 19.

Chapter 3

Temples and Images

In common with other peoples, the ancient Scandinavians erected special buildings in which to worship their gods, and in which their images were placed. These temples (called hof, goa-hof, goa-hs, and blt-hs) must not be thought of as in any way comparable to those erected by the more cultured Aryan races, such as the Greeks and Romans. It is true that Adam of Bremen describes that at Upsala in Sweden, which he calls nobilissimum templum, as being 'all of gold,' while a note to the passage says that it was surrounded by 'a golden chain hanging on the pinnacles of the building, and seen glittering afar by those who approach the place'; but it is very doubtful how far this description is trustworthy. In any case the Upsala temple would naturally be much superior to those in less central localities; from other indications it appears to have been specially well endowed with landed and other property. Unfortunately there is no evidence from which any general idea of the heathen temples in Sweden and Denmark can be obtained. In Norway they were, like the ordinary houses, constructed of timber, and in many cases were probably of small size and insignificant appearance. Mention has already been made of the temple of Thor in the island of Mostr, which Thorolf took down and carried off to Iceland when he went to settle there. The same thing is told of Thorhadd, who was priest of Mrin in Thrandheim; he also took down the temple, and carried with him the temple-mould and the chief pillars. Some of the building, no doubt, may have been more imposing, and even to some extent furnished with costly ornaments. When Olaf Tryggvason gave orders to burn down Earl Hkon's temple at Hladir, 'he made them take all the treasure and ornaments out of the temple and off the images of the gods.' A large gold ring was also removed from the temple door, but it afterwards proved to be only brass internally. It may also be noted that various accounts of temples speak of them as being lighted by glass windows 'so that there was no shadow anywhere in them.' Beside the great temple at Upsala there was a sacred grove, and the evidence of place-names shows that similar groves existed elsewhere in Sweden and Denmark: as regards Norway and Iceland there is no positive information on this head.

Of the temple which Thorolf erected at his Icelandic home on Thorsness an interesting description is given in Eyrbyggja Saga, which is thus the chief source for what knowledge we have on the subject. It is described as a great house, with doors on the side-walls, nearer to one end of it than the other. In from these doors stood the chief pillars, and in these there were nails, which were known by the name of regin-nails (regin was one of the names for the gods, but its precise meaning here is not certain). The part of the building lying inward from these pillars was a great sanctuary. At the inner end there was a smaller building 'of the same form as the choir in churches is now'; and here, in the middle of the floor, stood a pedestal of the nature of an altar. On this lay a ring weighing two ounces, on which all oaths had to be sworn. It was the duty of the temple-priest to wear this ring on his hand at all assemblies. On the pedestal stood also the sacrificial bowl (hlautbolli), and in this were placed the sacrificial twigs (hlaut-teinar), by means of which the blood of the sacrifice (hlaut-bl) was sprinkled upon those present at the ceremony. 'This was the blood from those animals that were offered to the gods.' Round about this altar the images of the gods were arranged. All those living in the district had to pay toll to the temple, and were bound to attend the temple-priest on all expeditions, 'as thingmen are now bound to attend their chiefs.' On the other hand, the priest had to keep up the temple and not allow it to fall into decay, and to hold in it the sacrificial feasts.

In the late and fictitious Kjalnesinga Saga there is given a similar description of a temple, which may possibly have some basis in local tradition. It is described as having been a hundred and twenty feet long, and sixty broad. At the inner end was a circular annex, the shape of which suggested a cap or hood; this had windows, and was hung with tapestry. Thor was the chief god there, and stood in the middle, with the other gods on each side of him. In front of them was an altar with an iron plate on the top, on which a fire was kept constantly burning: 'the called that hallowed fire.' The silver ring on which oaths were sworn, and the bowl for the sacrifical blood, are also mentioned, but the account of them may be derived from the passage in Eyrbyggja Saga already quoted.

In a much more reliable source, Landnmabk, there occurs the following passage relating to the ring and its use. 'A ring of two ounces or more in weight had to lie on the altar in each chief temple. Each priest had to wear the ring on his arm at all assemblies over which he himself presided, having previously reddened it in the blood of the animal which he himself had sacrificed there. Every man who required to do legal business at a law court had first to take an oath on that ring, and name two or more witnesses. "I name [M. and N.] witnesses herein," he had to say, "that I take an oath on the ring, a lawful oath, ---so help me Frey and Njrd and the Almighty God, as I shall pursue (or defend) this suit, or bear witness, or give verdict or judgment, according to what I know to be most right and true and in accordance with the law."' In general agreement with this is the account given in Vga-Glms Saga: 'That man who was to take a temple-oath took in his hand a silver ring which was reddened in the blood of the sacrificed ox, and which had to weigh not less than three ounces.' In taking the oath, Glm is represented as using the words, 'I take a temple-oath on the ring, and I say to the god,' etc. ; here the names of Frey and Njrd are omitted. (1)

While Iceland was being colonised from Norway, the place and number of the temples would depend on the religious zeal of the settlers in the various districts, but when a fixed constitution was adopted in the year 930 special regulations were made with reference to this. 'The land was divided into quarters, and there were to be three places of assembly in each quarter, and three chief temples in each assembly-district. Men who were noted for intelligence and just dealing were selected to have charge of the temples; these had to appoint the law-courts at the assemblies, and to superintend the legal proceedings there. Each man had to give toll to the temple, as they now give toll to the church.' References to the payment of this tax are not infrequent in the sagas, and one of the results of the preaching of Christianity by Thorvald and Bishop Frederic in 981-985 was that in the north of Iceland 'many men abandoned sacrifices and broke their idols, and some would not pay the temple-tax.' We also meet with such remarks as, 'the men of Geitland had to maintain half of the temple along with Tungu-Odd.' The chief temples were thus legally endowed religious buildings, but it would appear that there were others which were the private property of individuals, and no doubt many of those which were entitled to legal support were originally erected by the more prominent of the settlers. An interesting case of temple endowment is that recorded of Grm Geitskor, who travelled over all Iceland to find the most suitable spot for holding the yearly assembly. For his trouble he received a 'penny' from every man in the island, and this money he gave to the temples. One of the early settlers in the east of Iceland is recorded as having taken formal possession of an unoccupied piece of land for the behoof of a temple which he had built there.

As has already been mentioned, the inner part of the temple was more particularly the sacred place, where stood the altar and the images of the gods. The main part of the building served as a kind of hall, in which were held the entertainments which followed upon the sacrifices, and at which the flesh of the slain animals was eaten. As in the ordinary halls, there were fires in the middle of the floor and seats down each side. In some of the sagas dealing with prehistoric times in Sweden mention is made of a dsar-sal (in connection with the worship of the dsir: see p. 33). What relation this had to the usual temple is not clear: it has been supposed to be no more than another name for the temple-hall, but this is not at all certain.

The temple being a holy place, there were naturally certain restrictions attached to it, of which a prominent one was that no weapons were to be taken inside it. This is clearly illustrated by an incident in Vatnsdla Saga, where Ingimund enters the temple first, and Hrafn the Norwegian follows him, wearing his sword. Then Ingimund turned to him, and said, 'It is not the custom to carry weapons in the temple, and you will come under the wrath of the gods unless you make amends for it.' Then Olaf Tryggvason entered the temple of Mrin in Thrandheim, he carried a gold-mounted staff, but his own men and those belonging to the district were weaponless.


1. In the ceremony of entering into 'foster-brotherhood,' each person swore to avenge the other, 'and    named all the gods as witnesses.'

Chapter 4

Ceremonies and Ministers of Religion

With regard to the rites of the old Scandinavian religion a considerable amount of information has been preserved, although mainly relating to one part of the subject, the offering of sacrifice. It is clear that this was the central feature in the worship of the gods, and the great means towards propitiating their favour or averting their displeasure. Hence the verb blta, which was the distinctive word for worshipping the heathen gods, very frequently (if not usually) implies the accompaniment of sacrifice; and the noun blt similarly means either the act of worship or that of sacrifice. In the case of the verb, the object of worship stands in the accusative case, the thing sacrificed in the dative, the original sense being 'to worship (the gods) with something.' In this killing of living things as an offering to the divine powers lay one of the most obvious differences between the old religion and the new, and it is consequently one which holds a prominent place in the accounts of the struggle between heathenism and Christianity. One of the first objects aimed at by the kings who adopted the new faith was the suppression of the practice in every form, while the adherents of the old religion clung to it tenaciously as long as they could. Even after Christianity was the established religion of Norway, it was still thought necessary to remind the people that all blt were forbidden, whether to 'the heathen gods, mounds, or sacred cairns.' Here and in other passages where the word is similarly employed, it may be assumed that sacrifices are to be thought of as an essential part of the heathen worship.

Sacrifice might be offered either by individuals on their own account, or by some prominent man on behalf of the community. It was, indeed, the duty of the latter to 'keep up the sacrifices,' on which the public peace and prosperity were believed largely to depend. The king as head of his people was essentially bound to maintain this religious rite, and the adoption of Christianity by the Norwegian kings naturally brought them into direct collision with the national feeling on this point. When King Hkon in 952 proposed that his subjects should worship Christ, give up the heathen gods and the sacrifices to them, and keep holy each seventh day, he was met by the reply that they desired him rather to follow the custom of his father, and 'sacrifice for peace and plenty to them.' On the other hand, the importance attached to the practice by the more religious among the people is shown in the case of Loft the Old, who emigrated to Iceland from Gaular in Norway. He 'went abroad every third summer on his own account and that of his uncle Flosi, to sacrifice at that temple in Gaular of which his mother's father, Thorbjrn, had been the custodian.'

The extent to which the common people shared in the expense attendant on such sacrifices seems to have varied according to circumstances. In some cases the offering was a collective one; in others some great man showed his wealth and munificence by providing it entirely from his own resources. Probably the latter course was somewhat exceptional, as Snorri says of Earl Sigurd that 'he did a thing that was widely famed: he made a great sacrificial feast at Hladir, and stood all the expense of it himself.' This he confirms by citing a verse from a poem in praise of Sigurd, composed by the Icelandic poet Kormak. Otherwise, he states, 'it was the old custom, when there was to be a sacrifice, that all the householders should come to the place where the temple was, and bring there the provisions they would require while the festival lasted.' According to Adam of Bremen, too, the great festival which was celebrated every nine years at Upsala was maintained by contributions from the whole Swedish people, and attendance at it was compulsory; even those who had adopted Christianity were only exempted on payment of a fine. The national character of the festival is also certified by Snorri, who calls it the 'chief blt,' and says it was held to obtain peace and victory for the Swedish king.

The actual sacrifice consisted in the killing of various animals, usually oxen, horses, sheep, or swine, but on special occasions even human beings were offered to the gods. At the great Upsala festival, according to Adam's account, nine male animals of each kind were offered, as well as men; and a Christian eye-witness reported having seen seventy-two carcases of slaughtered men and beasts (dogs and horses) suspended together from the trees of the sacred grove adjoining the temple. Whether this custom of hanging up the bodies of the offerings was practised elsewhere in Scandinavia is unknown, but the connection between Odin and death by hanging makes it probable that it was more widely known than appears. In Denmark also human victims were offered along with animals; according to Thietmar's chronicle the great gathering in this country took place at Lejre (near Roskilde in Sjlland) every nine years, in the month of January. The sacrifice here consisted of ninety-nine men and as many horses, dogs, and cocks (the latter being offered in place of hawks). How the victims were selected or obtained is not stated; but it is probable that they were usually captives taken in war, criminals or thralls. In Sweden, indeed, strangers appear to have run some risk of being selected as victims; in 997 the Icelandic poet Hallfred nearly met with this fate. In early times, however, the Swedes were credited with having burned one of their kings in his own house as an offering to Odin, in order to dispel a famine which they believed was due to his slackness in maintaining the sacrifices. One of the early kings was also reported to have offered up nine of his sons in succession to Odin, to obtain long life for himself. In an account of the heathen period in the isle of Gotland, which is given in Guta Saga, it is said that 'they sacrificed their sons and daughters and their cattle. All the land had its highest sacrifices with folk (=human beings), as also had each third (of the country) by itself; but the smaller districts had lesser sacrifices with cattle.'

In Norway and Iceland human sacrifices appear to have been more exceptional, and only resorted to in extreme cases. The usual nature of the victims is clearly indicated by the words assigned to King Olaf Tryggvason in 998, when he found his subjects obstinate in their determination to hold the midsummer blt. He then threatened 'to make it the greatest kind of sacrifice that is inuse, and offer up men; and I will not choose thralls or criminals, but will select the most distinguished men to give to the gods.' At the very crisis of the conflict between paganism and Christianity in Iceland, in the year 1000, the adherents of the old religion resolved to sacrifice two men out of each quarter, and 'called upon the heathen gods not to let Christianity overrun the country.' Then Hjalti and Gizur held a meeting of the Christians, and said that they wold also make an offering of as many men. 'The heathens,' they said, 'sacrifice the worst men, and cast them over rocks or cliffs; but we shall choose the best men, and call it a gift for victory to our Lord Jesus Christ.' Various methods appear to have been in use besides that mentioned here; at Thorsness, in the west of Iceland, tradition long pointed out the 'doom-ring,' in which men had been adjudged for sacrifice, and the stone within it---called Thor's stone---on which they were killed by being broken, ' and the stain of blood is still to be seen on it.' Another source seaks of human victims as having been sunk in a fen close to the temple on Kjalarness, which is supported by Adam of Bremen's statement that near the temple of Upsala was a fountain in which 'a living man' was immersed. A 'sacrificial pit' is also mentioned in Vatnsdla Saga, where one Thorolf was believed to sacrifice both men and cattle. That in exceptional cases the victim may have been of higher standing than the thrall or criminal is possible enough; as late as 985 Earl Hkon in Norway is credited with having given his young son as an offering to Thorgerd, when he prayed to her for victory over the vikings of Jmsborg. In other cases, such as that of Hallstein, who 'gave his son to Thor' in order that the god might send him pillars for his house, the language is ambiguous, and may imply dedication rather than sacrifice. When the sacrifice consisted of animals which might be used for human food, it was apparently only the blood which was regarded as belonging to the gods. To this was given the name of hlaut, and it has already been stated (p. 41) that special bowls were kept to receive it in. It was then smeared or sprinkled by means of twigs, not only upon the altars and the walls of the temples (both outside and in), but also upon the assembled people. The flesh was then boiled in large pots over the fires which burned in the middle of the temple, and was eaten by the worshippers, after being consecrated by the chief man present. A prominent feature, at least of the more important festivals, was the use of horse-flesh for this purpose---a practice so intimately associated with heathenism that its abandonment was strictly prescribed to those who accepted Christianity. This appears in the strongest light in the case of Hkon the Good, who was finally forced to appease his heathen subjects by eating some pieces of horse-liver. In Iceland, however, it was permitted for a few years after the new faith was publicly adopted.