The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia
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
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.
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
Wóden, Thunor, and Fríg, 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 (Týr),
Odin (Oðinn), Thor (Þórr), 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 Ælfric, 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 Ælfric 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 Ælfric 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.
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 fréa, 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 Fröblod,' 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 Njörd) 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-goði, or 'priest of Frey.' Of one of these,
Thorgrím, brother-in-law of Gísli Súrsson, the saga says that 'he intended to
hold a festival at the beginning of winter, and greet the winter, and sacrifice
to Frey.' When Thorgrím 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 Víga-Glúm.
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 Glúm 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. Glúm 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 Glúm awoke, nd had less liking
for Frey all the rest of his life.
According to the mythological accounts,
Frey was the son of Njörd 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 Skíðblaðnir,
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 sónargöltr (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
As mentioned above, the mythology
regarded Frey as the son of Njörd (Njörðr), 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 Njörd, 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, Njörd '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 Njörd 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 Njörd 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 Njörd 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 Njörd may be angry with King Eirík, 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 Njörd,' which occurs in old Icelandic.
In one of Hallfred's verses (of 996) Frey and Njörd, 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 Njörd's offspring and made
to pray to Christ.' These passages are sufficient to show that the cult of Njörd
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 tý-hraustr for
a very brave man, and tý-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.
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, goða-hof,
goða-hús, and blót-hús) 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 Mærin 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 Hákon'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-blóð) 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, Landnámabók,
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 Njörd 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 Víga-Glúms
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, Glúm 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 Njörd 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 Grím 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 dísar-sal (in connection with the worship of the dísir: 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
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 Vatnsdæla 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 Mærin 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.'
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 blóta, which was the distinctive word for worshipping the heathen gods, very frequently (if not usually) implies the accompaniment of sacrifice; and the noun blót 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 blót 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 Hákon 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, Thorbjörn, 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
blót,' 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 Sjælland) 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 blót. 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 Vatnsdæla 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 Hákon 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 Jómsborg. 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 Hákon 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.