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THE UNIVERSITY OF ABERDEEN

The Religious Roles in pre-Christian Scandinavia

Dissertation in History

Marketa Chvalkovska

25.4.2013

The Table of Contents

Introduction

p. 2

Methodology

p.

3

The Cult of the Dead

p.

5

The Land Spirits

p.

8

The Goðar

p. 10

The Þulr

p.

17

The Kings

p.

19

The Völur

p.

23

Conclusion

p.

28

Bibliography

p.

30

2

Introduction

The religion and history are the two key assets that that shape any society. The two undercurrents

influence the world views, the fears and aspirations, as well as the practicalities of everyday life. In

oral societies these two assets are mixed together as the history becomes part of the mythology and

the mythology is incorporated into history. In the very heart of the religion are those who

communicate the values, ideals and metaphysical truths to the wider population and perform the

rites needed to ensure the divine support of human needs. Most of the cultures throughout the

history had appointed priests whose only concern was to look after this spiritual level of people’s

lives. But Scandinavia before the coming of Christianity did not have any special cast that would fit

our definition of ‘a priest’. And yet there was rich mythology and there is written, archaeological and

onomastic evidence for cultic practices. The Old Norse mythological tales and all sorts of beings the

people believed in are well known and readily available from medieval manuscripts. But the reality

of the religious practice is a more complicated issue as it is rarely mentioned in the written sources.

The evidence is so scattered and vulnerable to interpretation that it is not easy to retrieve even a

basic picture.

The main idea behind this work is to present an overview of the social roles within the Old Norse

belief system that had religious or spiritual connotations. The area concerned is the Viking homeland

that is the present day countries of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland, with some examples

drawn from the Scandinavian outposts such as Greenland or England. The time frame focuses on the

period of the so called Viking Age that is roughly between 8 th and 11 th centuries. The questions that

are attempted to be answered here are: what were the main religious roles? Who were the people

performing them? What were their responsibilities? How were they perceived by the rest of their

community? By focusing more on the practicalities of the religion than on the ideology the everyday

life becomes more imaginable. And by bringing the answers together in one work the society

emerges in more complex and rounded way then by discussing them separately.

3

Methodology

While discussing this topic there is an absolute need for a multidisciplinary approach if we want to

get close to the reality as much as possible. The evidence used in this work comes from written

sources, archaeological excavations, toponymy and philology. All of them have their advantages and

disadvantages and by comparing them the valuable insights can be retrieved. 1

The written sources used here are mainly of three kinds. The first one, are the contemporary runic

inscriptions, mostly in a form of rune stones. The main advantage of the inscriptions is that they

come from the period discussed and were produced by the people who were part of the Old Norse

religion. Unfortunately, the inscriptions are usually very short, sometimes the meaning is unclear

and therefore the scholarly translation and interpretation of a single sentence can vary. All the

citations from the runic texts used in this work are presented in the West dialect of the Old Norse

language and not in the way in which they appear on the rune stones in order to retain some level of

linguistic consistency. The second kind of written source is the skaldic poetry which is contemporary

as well but has similar issues with the interpretation of the meaning as the rune stones. The third

kind of written sources are the medieval Icelandic sagas that were produced during 13 th and 14 th

century. The value of the sagas from the historical point of view has been widely discussed since the

19 th century. The main points to bear in mind, while dissecting the information from the corpus of

the saga literature, is that they are describing events that happened several centuries earlier and

that the narrative had been transmitted orally. 2 The perspective obtained here is only of Western

variation of the Scandinavian religion and says nothing about the practices elsewhere, for example in

1 Raudevere, Catharina, Schjødt, Peter Jens, ‘The Study of Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions: Trends and Perspectives’ in More than Mythology: Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2012), pp. 7 12, p. 7

2 Lönnroth, Lars, ‘The Icelandic Sagas’, in Brink, Stefan, Price, Neil (eds.), The Viking World (London: Routledge, 2012), p. 305

4

Denmark. 3 Moreover, the saga authors were Christian which makes them highly biased towards the

heathen belief.

The problem with archaeology when studying religion is that it gives us objects but their meaning

and use needs to be interpreted. When excavating a sacred place or a burial it reveals only things

that are left after the rituals took place. The reconstruction of the activities that were conducted

there depends on the imagination of the person who is interpreting them.

The study linguistic evidence, such as terminology related to the cultic practices, is tricky in a sense

that it relies on the comparison with similar evidence from different cultures and the meaning of a

particular term does not have to necessarily mean the same although they derive from the same

root. And even within one culture the meaning of the words can change over time.

In general, the nature of the Old Norse religion was not unified. There are some concepts that were

common in the area discussed but the everyday practice varied widely in time and space due to

presence of different influences. Therefore this work tries to root all the evidence carefully in a

certain place and time. The specific interpretations of the archaeological evidence should not be

taken as facts that can be freely applied to any Viking community within or outside Scandinavia.

They may be valid only for the one given community and the neighbouring settlement or a

generation later the practice might have been slightly different.

3 Nordberg, Andreas, ‘Continuity, Change and Regional Variation in Old Norse Religion’ in More than Mythology: Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions (Lund:

Nordic Academic Press, 2012), pp. 119 151, p. 123

5

The Cult of the dead

The worship of the dead was prominent in all strata of the Scandinavian society. The more important

the deceased was during his life the more people would bring him offerings after his death. Burial

mounds next to the farms throughout Scandinavia sheltered dead ancestor who founded the farm.

They were actively worshipped by his descendants living on the said farm. The main figure in the

rituals honouring the dead was the head on the household. He was the one who presented the

offerings to the dead forefathers at specific times of the year in order to ensure good harvest and

prosperity of the farm. 4 For people who were entirely dependent on the products of their own farm

in terms of food, the fertility of their land was a key factor in their survival. And the head of the

household was responsible for ensuring good relationship with the dead who directly influenced the

harvest and wellbeing of domestic animals. The Ynglinga saga that was composed by Snorri

Sturluson at the beginning of the 13 th century and based on Viking Age poem Ynglingatal mentions

commemoration of the dead. In chapter 8, Snorri describes what memorial acts were held in Sweden

in pre-Christian times:

‘For notable men burial mounds were to be thrown up as memorials. But for all men who had shown great manly qualities memorial stones were to be erected; and this custom continued for a long time thereafter. A sacrifice was to be made for a good season at the beginning of winter, and one in midwinter for good crops, and a third one in summer, for victory.’ 5

The dead were worshipped at ‘landdísasteinar’ that translates as ‘stones of the land spirits’.

According to the tradition the grass was never to be cut there and the children were not allowed to

play there under any condition. 6

The dead in the mounds functioned as a protective forces over the farm and they were closely

attached to the environment. These house-spirits are referred to as ‘nisse’, ‘gardvord’, ‘rudningskarl’

4 Gunnell, Terry, Hof, Halls, Goðar and Dwarves: An Examination of the Ritual Space in the Pagan Icelandic Hall’ in Cosmos 17 (2001), pp. 3-36, p. 13- 14

5 Sturluson, Snorri, Hollander, Lee M. (trans.), Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), p. 12

6 Davidson, Hilda Ellis, The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1993), p. 113

6

or ‘tomte’. ‘Nisse’ is attested only in Norway, Sweden and Denmark and they seem to represent

founder of the family. They do not appear in Iceland because the Icelanders had their founding

ancestors in mainland Scandinavia and there are no burial mounds either.

In this case they were

substituted by other land spirits who eventually played the same role as the dead. 7

Apart from the ensuring fertility the worship of the dead ancestors confirmed the inherited right to

occupy the farm. The burial mound on the soil belonging to the farm was a marker of ownership of

the land by the person buried in there and his descendants. The family rituals that took place in

order to honour the dead in the mound repeatedly expressed the landholder’s rights in times where

no written documents were available to validate his claims. In an oral society it was necessary to

maintain the traditions and have such markers of continuity in order to be able to identify ones place

within the community. 8

The distinctive local chieftains after their death influenced much larger area than their own family

farm land. The extent of their power as deceased can be compared to the one they held when they

were alive. And the same can be argued for kings whose role will be discussed in section on kings.

The dead chieftains were honoured in the halls. The ceremony included praise poetry for the

ancestors composed and recited by a skald. These eulogies were supposed to keep the dead

occupied by drinking in Valhalla so they were less likely haunt the living. 9 The seating hierarchy,

precise wording at correct time were both essential during these memorial sessions. 10 It is likely that

drinking in honour of the significant ancestors was part of the seasonal feasts as it is mentioned in

7 Gunnell, ‘Ritual Space in the Pagan Icelandic Hall’, p. 14

8 Raudvere, Catharina, ‘Fictive Rituals in Völuspá: Mythological Narration between Agency and Structure in the Representation of Reality’ in Raudvere, Catharina, Schjødt, Jens Peter (eds.), More than Mythology: Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2012), pp. 97-117, p. 114

9 Jackson, Peter, ‘The Merists and Limits of Comparative Philology: Old Norse Religious Vocabulary in a Long- Term Perspectivein Raudvere, Catharina, Schjødt, Jens Peter (eds.), More than Mythology: Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions, Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2012), pp. 47-64, p. 61 10 Raudvere, ‘Fictive Rituals, p. 104

7

Hákonar saga Goða, chapter 14. 11 In sagas the memorial toast was called ‘minni’ but there are some

doubts whether it is an original pre-Christian custom or whether it was imported from Germany at

the time of the sagas’ composition. 12

It has been suggested that part of the tradition was a procession or ride around the burial mounds

and bringing offerings. Written source for this is description in the Ynglinga saga, chapter 10, where

people kept bringing offerings to Freyr after his death so he would provide good seasons. The

offerings were presented to Freyr in his burial mound that was kept partly open for these

purposes. 13 Archaeological excavations surprisingly support the late account. It has been proved that

the early 9 th century ship burial at Oseberg (Vestfold, Norway) was for some period of time covered

by a mound only to its half. Therefore the place would be accessible for anyone who wanted to

perform rituals or bring sacrifices. The bodies and objects within the mound had been moved several

times which suggests that some form of activity continued at the site after the dead had been

deposited there The same features have the burials at Valsgärde near Gamla Uppsala, Sweden,

already from the 6 th century; Hedeby in Southern Jutland, Denmark; and both early 7 th century

mounds at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, England. It is not entirely clear if these open mounds were revisited

or if the burial ritual themselves were going on for several months. 14

11 Sturluson, Heimskringla, p. 107

12 Simek, Rudolf, Dictionary of Northern Mythology (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2007), p.217

13 Sturluson, Heimskringla, p. 14

14 Price, Neil, ‘Mythic Acts: Material Narratives of the Dead in Viking Age Scandinavia’ in Raudvere, Catharina, Schjødt, Jens Peter (eds.), More than Mythology: Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre- Christian Scandinavian Religions (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2012), pp. 13-46, p. 30-31

8

The Land Spirits

The worship of various kind of land spirits is another cultic form tied closely to the life at the

Scandinavian farm. The exact nature of the land spirits is not very clear and they occur in the saga

literature and poems under various names. In Icelandic law code, the spirits protecting the island as

such are referred to as ‘landvætir.’ 15 Another general term is ‘landdísir’ that may include spirits of

the dead, ‘álfar’, generally translated as ‘the elves’, or ‘dvergar’ (the dwarves) but not necessarily at

different places in different times.

As the dead, the land spirits were responsible for the fertility of the farm land and general well

being of domestic animals and therefore of the whole family. The head of the household was

supposed to perform the rituals to please the land spirits and to ensure their support.

The sacrifices for the dísir were called ‘dísablót’ and they were conducted on the farm land or within

the household during the winter to bring the prosperity of a specific place in an upcoming season. 16

Sacrifices to the álfar were called ‘álfablót’ and they appear in several sources but its nature is very

purpose in each of them. First there is a contemporary poem called ‘Austrfaravísur’ composed by

Christian poet Sigvatr Þórðarson around 1020. He complained that while he was travelling through

Götaland in Sweden he was not allowed for several nights to enter inside any farm house as for the

álfablót was being celebrated by the local families 17 :

‘At dark to Hof we drifted. Door were barred; so outside stood I, knocking, and stoutly stuck my nose in, plucky. Gruffly answer they gave us:

“Get you gone!” And threatened us all: ‘t was heathen-holy. To hell with all those fellows!

15 Simek, Dictionary, p. 186

16 Raudevere, Catharina, ‘Popular Religion in the Viking Age’, in Brink, Stefan, Price, Neil (eds.), The Viking World, (London: Routlegde, 2012), pp. 235 243, p. 240

17 DuBois, Thomas A., Nordic Religions in the Viking Age (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), p. 51

9

Then he went to another farm. There the woman of the house stood in the doorway and told them they could not come in there, saying that they had the sacrifice to the elves there. Sigvat spoke this verse:

“Wreak this wrath will Óthin, wretch,” said a witchlike gammer. “Keep out.” quoth she, “nor further come; for we are heathen.” “Also,” this ancient beldame added, she who forbade me foot to set in, the slattern, “sacred to elves we are making.”’ 18

The poet, unfortunately, does not relate what was the meaning or purpose of this particular ritual.

Some similarities can be found in the Þiðranda þáttr ok Þórhalls where Þiðrandi is advised by a seer

not to leave the house during the harvest feast at the beginning of the winter. He decides to leave

anyway in the middle of the night and is killed by dísir. 19 Kormáks saga, chapter 22 20 , tells us about

events taking place during the 10 th century and it describes álfablót as a healing ritual performed by

a ‘spákonna’, that is a woman trained in witchcraft.

On the other hand in Ynglinga saga, chapter,

álfablót refers to celebration of the deceased ancestors at Uppsala, Sweden.

18 Sturluson, Snorri, Hollander, Lee M. (trans.), ‘Saint Óláf’s Saga’ in Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway, pp. 245 - 537, p. 336-7 19 Anon., Jones, Gwyn (trans.) ‘Thidrandi whom the goddesses slew’ in Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 158 162, p. 160 - 161

20 Anon., Collingwood, W.G., Stefansson, J. (trans.), ‘The Saga of Cormac the Skald’, http://sagadb.org/kormaks_saga.en (22/3/2013)

10

The Goðar

From the literary and archaeological evidence that we can gather today it seems like goðar (sg. goði)

were the major figures in religious life of the Viking Age Scandinavians. Within their communities

they functioned as chieftains as well as priests. The individuals holding this title are prominent in

medieval Icelandic sagas and appear in contemporary runic inscriptions all over Scandinavia.

The oldest piece of evidence of existence of goði is an inscription on a rune stone in Nordhuglo,

Norway (Runadata: N KJ65) 21 from 5 th century. Although, there are various readings of the text as a

whole, most of the scholars interpret the word ‘guðija’ as an older version of ‘goði’ and they

translate it as ‘a priest’. 22 From this single inscription it is not possible to draw conclusions about the

nature of this office or its spread around Scandinavia during the Migration period.

On the other hand, at the beginning of the Viking Age goðar were known on Danish island of Fyn.

The Helnæs runestone (Runadata: DR 190) 23 dated between AD 750 and AD 900 was placed by

Hróðulfr who titles himself ‘nœra goði’ that translates as ‘priest of the Nes-dwellers’. 24 He was

apparently no wandering wise man but he was attached to established community of people in

specific place that is people living in Nes. Secondly, Hróðulfr erected the stone in memory of his

nephew Guðmundr which shows that he was part of community’s social life as well as their religious

leader.

21 Samnordisk runtextdatabas, Uppsala universitet, http://abdn.ac.uk/skaldic/db.php?if=srdb&table=mss&id=21865 (13/3/2013)

22 Runenprojekt, Kiel Universität, http://www.runenprojekt.uni-

23 Samnordisk runtextdatabas, Uppsala universitet, http://abdn.ac.uk/skaldic/db.php?if=srdb&table=mss&id=19014 (13/3/2013)

24 Samnordisk runtextdatabas, Uppsala universitet, http://abdn.ac.uk/skaldic/db.php?if=srdb&table=mss&id=19014 (13/3/2013

11

Early 10 th century Glavenstrup runestone(Runadata: DR 209) 25 brings some more details about goðar

on Fyn. It was placed in memory of ‘Alla Sǫlva, goða véa, liðs heiðverðan þegn’ that is ‘Alli the Pale,

priest of the sanctuary, honourable thegn of the retinue’. Alli was not only tied to the community he

was also responsible for their holy place called ‘vé’. Furthermore, he was a secular leader in charge

of a war band. The runes were carved by his subject Sóti ordered by Alli’s wife and sons. This rune

stone is the very first written evidence of the basic characteristics of goði’s office as it is portrayed in

later sagas. On one hand, priest that takes care of a sanctuary and on the other hand, chieftain with

his own family, servants and armed followers.

There are two terms connected with ‘vé’ keepers: ‘visæti’ that can be translated as ‘he who sits in

the ’, and ‘vivaldi’ that is ‘the one who rules over the ’. 26 was an outdoor location that was

marked off by a sacred

rope

called

vébond. 27 On

Oklunda stone

in Östergötland, Sweden

(Runadata: Ög N288) 28 from the 9 th century is attested that these sanctuaries could provide asylum

for runaway criminal offenders. Special place of the sanctuaries within 9 th century provincial laws of

Sweden can be further demonstrated on Forsa rune ring from Hälsingland, Sweden (Runadata: Hs 7).

The recently revised reading of a single rune in the inscription gives us the first written law-code. The

text names fines for neglect of the restoration of the sanctuary. 29 The fine in oxen and silver was

supposed to be presented to the staff of the sanctuary and the property of those who refuse to do

so could be suspended.

The archaeology can help our understanding of ritual activities that took place in these sanctuaries.

A was excavated on an island of Frösö in Jämtland, Sweden. Under the present day church was

found a stump of a birch tree with great number of cremated offerings of domestic and wild animals,

25 Samnordisk runtextdatabas, Uppsala universitet, http://abdn.ac.uk/skaldic/db.php?if=srdb&table=mss&id=19034 (13/3/2013)

26 Andrén, Anders, ‘Behind Heathendom: Archaeological Studies of Old Norse Religion’ in Scottish Archaeological Journal vol.27(2), pp.105-138, p. 118

27 Andrén, ‘Behind Heathendom’, p. 110

28 Samnordisk runtextdatabas, Uppsala universitet, http://abdn.ac.uk/skaldic/db.php?if=srdb&table=mss&id=15919 (13/3/3013)

29 Williams, Henrik, ‘Runes’ in Brink, Stefan, Price, Neil (eds.), The Viking World (London: Routledge, 2012)

12

including rare bear sacrifices.

According to radioactive carbon analysis the offerings were placed

during 9 th and 10 th centuries. 30 The site was known in the 10 th century as an assembly place and was

a property of a nearby farm called Hov. The place names ‘Frösö’ and ‘Hov’ further support the

connection of this complex with regional religious activity. ‘Frösö’ translates as ‘the island of Freyr’

and ‘Hov’ is a common place name element meaning ‘temple’. 31 In comparison with the sagas and

other evidence it is not difficult to imagine that a goði lived with his household on the Hov farm,

performing animal sacrifices for the people of the area at certain times of the year and holding

assemblies when needed.

In Eyrbyggja saga Þorgrímr was dedicated to Þórr and held the title of ‘hofgoði’ that is the ‘temple

priest’ at Helgafell, Iceland. 32 It clearly associates with religious role of goðar with a hof. It appears

in plenty of place names all over Scandinavia and the Germanic territories in Central Europe from

the 5 th century onwards. They are thought to be of high religious a social significance for their

region.

In

Sweden

(Lunda,

Södermanland;

Uppåkra,

Skåne;

Borg,

Östergötland)

Norway

and

Denmark (Gudme, Fyn; Lejre, Sjælland; Tissø, Sjælland) it may have been connected with separate

cult houses within central complexes. 33 One of the markers of the cult activities in those places are

finds of gold foils called ‘guldgubbar’ that may symbolize the holy marriage between the god Freyr

and giantess Gerdr. 34

On the other hand in Iceland it seems to indicate a farm with special religious function. 35 Thorough

archaeological examination of farm at Hofstaðir, Northern Iceland, gave us the evidence from which

the nature of the ritual activity at the place can be reconstructed. The hall was 38m long and was

30 Andrén, ‘Behind Heathendom’, p. 110

31 Lucas, Gavin, McGovern, Thomas, ‘Bloody slaughter: Ritual decapitation and display at the Viking settlement of Hofstaðir, Iceland’, European Journal of Archaeology, vol. 10(1), 2007, pp.7-30, p. 15

32 Sundquist, Olof, ‘’Religious Ruler Ideology’ in Pre-Christian Scandinavia’ in Raudvere, Catharina, Schjødt, Jens Peter (eds.), More than Mythology: Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2012), pp. 225 261, p. 242

33 Gunnell, ‘Ritual Space in Pagan Icelandic Hall’, p. 4

34 Gräslund, Anne-Sofie, ‘Material Culture of Old Norse Religion’, in Brink, Stefan, Price, Neil (eds.), The Viking World, (London: Routlegde, 2012), pp. 249-256, p. 255

35 Gunnell, Terry, Hof, Halls, Goðar and Dwarves: An Examination of the Ritual Space in the Pagan Icelandic Hall’ in Cosmos 17 (2001), pp. 3-36, p. 8

13

deserted in mid-11 th century 36 but before that it had witnessed repeated cattle sacrifice probably

accompanied by community meetings and feasting. During the winter only the goði and his

household occupied the farm but during the summer months much larger number of people stayed

there to take part in the ritual activity. A bull or a cow in their prime were slaughtered in a very

specific way, first the animal was stunned by a blow between its eyes and then its throat was cut in

order to produce maximum blood and drama. 37 The blood was probably used for reddening of a

‘hörgr’ that is ‘an altaror an idolin Old Norse. 38 Afterwards the head was displayed on the outside

wall of the farm and it was left there until the place was abandoned. The display was an important

part of the ritual that represented tradition and the connection between past and present. 39

Surprisingly similar practice is attested from the Danish port of Hedeby where the dead bodies of

animals were exhibited outside the house after a sacrificial ritual. 40 Archaeologists found 23 cattle

heads stored inside the farm that show signs of such an exposure. One sheep was found that is

thought to play part in a ritual that terminated all the heathen activities of the place around the

same time a church was build just 140 metres away. 41

The animal sacrifice was probably the most important task of a goði as religious leader. It occurred

either as a part of seasonal festivals or at the time of need or danger. The seasonal feasts were

public rituals that probably had similar underlying ideas and forms all over Scandinavia but were

adjusted in different regions and time periods. 42 The two basic features of sacrificial rituals were

reddening the altar and feast prepared from the meat of the sacrificed animals. 43 One the early

evidence of the fertility ritual including animal sacrifice is thought to be Stentofen Stone, Skåne,

36 Lucas & McGovern, ‘Bloody slaughter’, p. 25

37 Lucas & McGovern, ‘Bloody slaughter’, p. 23

38 Simek, Dictionary, p. 272

39 Lucas & McGovern, ‘Bloody slaughter’, p. 24

40 DuBois, Nordic Religions, p. 51

41 Lucas & McGovern, ‘Bloody slaughter’, p. 25

42 Hultgård, Anders, ‘ The Religion of the Vikings’ in Brink, Stefan, Price, Neil (eds.), The Viking World (London:

Routlegde, 2012), pp. 212-218, p. 215

43 Simek, Dictionary, p. 272

14

Sweden (Runadata: DR 357) 44 from 9 th or 10 th century.

as

a

local

chieftain 45 ,

‘gaf

j[ar]’

that

is

‘gave

a

Hathuwulfar, who was indentified by scholars

fruitful

year’

by

sacrificing

niuhaborumz

niuhagestumz’ that is ‘nine bucks, nine stallions’. It suggests that he was the one who knew the

correct procedures that needed to take place in order to establish the communication between the

god

and

the

relationship. 46

community.

The

sacrificed

animals

were

one

of

the

physical

markers

of

this

Snorri Sturluson in the Hákonar saga goða provides a description of a mid-winter feast as it was

supposed to be celebrated in mid-10 th century Trondheim by earls of Hlaðir:

‘It was ancient custom that when sacrifice was to be made, all farmers were to come to the heathen temple and bring along with them the food they needed while the feast lasted. At this feast all were to take part in drinking of ale. Also all kinds of livestock were killed in connection with it, horses also; and all the blood from them was called hlaut {sacrificial blood}, and hlautbolli, the vessel holding the blood; and hlautteinar, the sacrificial twigs {aspergills}. These we fashioned like sprinklers, and with them were to be smeared all over with blood the pedestals of the idols and also the walls of the temple within and without; and likewise the men present were to be sprinkled with blood. But the meat of the animals was to be boiled and to serve as food at the banquet. Fires were to be lighted in the middle of the temple floor, and kettles hung over them. The sacrificial beaker was to be borne around the fire, and he who made the feast and was chieftain, was to bless the beaker as well as the sacrificial meat. Óthin’s toast was to be drunk first that was for victory and power to the king – then Njorth’s and Frey’s, for good harvests and for peace. Men drank toasts also in memory of departed kinsfolk that was called minni {memorial toast}.’ 47

In order to provide enough food and drink for the religious feasts the goðar we allowed to extract

tribute or taxes from the neighbouring settlements. In Eyrbyggja saga, the goði Thorolf gets the

right to demand taxes as soon as he establishes his temple at Hofstad. 48

44 Samnordisk runtextdatabas, Uppsala universitet, http://abdn.ac.uk/skaldic/db.php?if=srdb&table=mss&id=15227 (13/3/2013)

45 Andrén, ‘Behind heathendom’, p. 118

46 DuBois, Thomas A., ‘Diet and Deities: Contrastive Livelihoods and Animal Symbolism in Nordic Pre-Christian Religion’ in Raudvere, Catharina, Schjødt, Jens Peter (eds.), More than Mythology: Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2012), pp. 65 96, p. 70

47 Sturluson, Snorri, Heimskringla, p. 107

48 Anon., Pálsson, Hermann (trans.), Eyrbyggja Saga, (London: Penguin, 1989), p. 29

15

A special attribute of a goði was so called ‘oath ring’ that was kept in a hof and all the oaths had to

be

sworn

upon

this

ring

in

order

to

be

valid.

The

oath

or

temple

ring

is

mentioned

in

Droplaugarsonar saga, Kjalnesinga saga, Víga-Glúms saga, Þorsteins Þáttr uxafóts, Þórðar saga

hreðu and Landnámabók. 49 The best known description comes from Eyrbyggja saga:

‘Inside the main temple was a structure built much like the choir in churches nowadays, and in the middle a raised platform like an altar. On this platform lay a solid ring weighing twenty ounces, upon which people had to swear all their oaths. It was a business of the temple priest to wear this ring on his arm at every public meeting.’ 50

The last remark could be interpreted as that the oath-ring was a symbol of goði’s office. It could be

in a form of a large finger-ring (about 50 grams) or a bracelet as described above in Eyrbyggja saga

(twenty ounces is about 550 grams) or in an entry for AD 876 in the Ango-Saxon Chronicle. 51 The

Landnámabók states that the ring was supposed to be made of silver and reddened by a blood of an

ox that was sacrificed by a goði who was as well personally responsible for the ring. 52 The credibility

of the saga accounts is further supported by Eddic poems Atlakviða, verse 30 and Hávámál, verse

110. In Atlakviða the mythic hero Atli swears an oath to another person on a ring dedicated to god

Ullr 53 and in Hávámál it is the god Oðinn himself who swears an oath upon a sacred ring. 54 As the

Eddic poems are supposed to survive from the pagan times the scholars give them more value as a

source than to the medieval sagas. It has been suggested that the above mentioned Forsa rune ring

that has 43cm in diameter had the function of an oath ring as well. 55

One of the duties of a goði as a chieftain was to organize ‘þing’ that is an assembly and judge

offenders there. Various sagas show that they were highly ritualized and many acts had direct

connection with the word of gods. The assemblies were held in or near a sacred place either a

or a hof or a burial mound.

49 Simek, Dictionary, p. 312

50 Eyrbyggja Saga, p. 29

51 SImek, Dictionary, p. 312

52 Gunnel, ‘Hof, Halls, Goðar and Dwarves’, p. 11

53 Anon., The Poetic Edda, trans. Larrington, Carolyne (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 214

54 The Poetic Edda, p. 110

55 ‘The Frosa Rune Ring – the earliest written law in Scandinavia’, http://www.archeurope.com/index.php?page=forsa-rune-ring (20/3/2013)

16

At least in Iceland the title could be handed over from father to son or to other kinsmen. 56 This event

is specifically mentioned in two sagas, the Eyrbyggja saga and the Hrafnkels saga. The Eyrbyggja

saga was written mid-13 th century and is dealing with events taking place in 10 th century in

Snæfellsness peninsula in Western Iceland. Hrafnkels saga is thought to be written in late-13 th

century, describes events in 10 th century as well and Hrafnkel’s farm lies in East Iceland. First,

Hrafnkel had handed over the authority of goði to his brother before he went abroad. 57 He did not

receive it back automatically on his return and had to wait for his brother to give it back to him in

correct procedure. 58 At the end of the saga, after Hrafnkel’s death the priesthood is shared by two of

his sons, each of them with their own seat. 59 It is likely that this account reflects real principles if we

consider the priesthood rather as a part of a chieftain’s job than as a vocation as such.

56 Sundquist, ’Religious Ruler Ideology’, p. 242

57 Anon., Jones, Gwyn (trans.), ‘Hrafnkel the Priest of Frey’ in Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas (Oxford:

Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 103 5858 ‘Hrafnkel’ in Jones, p. 106

59 ‘Hrafnkel’ in Jones, p. 124-5

17

The Þulr

An Old Norse term ‘þulrindicates an individual who was an expert on the oral tradition. The term

‘þulr’ itself is largely translated as a speaker’ 60 , other meanings can be ‘wise man’, ‘sage’, ‘pagan

priest’ 61 , ‘poet’, ‘see’ or ‘cult speaker’ 62 . It derives from Old Norse word ‘þulur’ (sg. þula) that is a

term for Old Norse mnemonic poems used to preserve knowledge and poetic vocabulary in the oral

society. 63 He was present at king’s court or in goði’s drinking hall during feasts and festivals. He

recited the mnemonic poems and performed the mythological tales as dramas. We have some

evidence available that shows us where, what and how were the þulur performing.

Place names such as Tullhög in Skåne, Sweden or Tulshøj in East Jutland, Denmark combine ‘þulr’

and ‘haugr’. ‘Haugr’ in Old Norse means ‘a hill’ or it can be used for ‘a burial mound’. It has been

suggested that he recited eulogies and tales on the burial mounds as a part of ceremonies held in

connection with the cult of the dead. 64 The Snodelev runestone in Eastern Sjælland, Denmark

(Runadata: DR 248) 65 names Gunnvaldr as ‘þular á Salhaugum’ that is ‘reciter of Salhaugar’.

Salhaugar contains again element ‘haugr’ for a burial mound and ‘sallr’ that means ‘hall’. 66

The cryptic inscription on the Rök Stone in Östergötland, Sweden (Runadata: Ög 136) 67 from 9 th

century is thought to be composed either by goði 68 or þulr 69 . Either way it gives us a hint of

repertoire of a person who was supposed to keep and pass on the knowledge of gods and ancient

heroes. In form of prosaic or poetic phrases it lists at least eight tales that seem to refer to history,

60 Andrén, ‘Behind Heathendom’, p. 118

61 Sundquist, Olof, ‘The Hanging, the Nine Nights and the “Precious Knowledge” in Hávamál 138145: The Cultic Context’ Heizmann, Wilhelm, Böldl,Klaus, Beck, Ieinrich (eds.), Analecta Septentrionalia (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009), pp. 649-668, p. 660

62 Simek, Dictionary, p. 331

63 Simek. Dictionary, p. 332

64 Andrén, ‘Behind Heathendom’, p.118

65 Samnordisk runtextdatabas, Uppsala universitet, http://abdn.ac.uk/skaldic/db.php?if=srdb&table=mss&id=19071 (2/4/2013) 66 Sundquist, ‘The Hanging’, p. 660

67 Samnordisk runtextdatabas, Uppsala universitet, http://abdn.ac.uk/skaldic/db.php?if=srdb&table=mss&id=15196 (2/4/2013)

68 DuBois, Nordic Religions, p. 65

69 Andrén, ‘behind Heathendom’, p. 118

18

ancient heroes or mythology. Unfortunately, there is no evidence for detailed content of these

stories. 70

Old English version of þulr is ‘þyle’ and it appears in Béowulf as a spokesman of the King Hrothgar.

He is stripped of all the religious connotations and functions as a public orator and the main officer

at the court. 71

But it would be wrong

to assume that it was the

case

in other

parts of the

Scandinavian

world

as

well.

It is likely that some of the performances were in form of dramas including masks, movements and

change of voice. Use of masks is already pictured on helmet plate from 7 th century found in

Torslunda that is ‘Thor’s grove’ on the island of Öland, Sweden. 72 A woman wearing animal skin is

depicted on Oseberg tapestry, early 9 th century, Vestfold, Norway. In 10 th century ship from Hadeby,

Denmark, we discovered fragments of two masks. 73 Terry Gunnell argues that that some of the Eddic

poems, such as Lokasenna, Hávamál , Grímnismál and others are written in a way that would fit the

theatrical presentation. They are written not as a narrative but as a monologue or a dialogue of

mythological figures. It that case the þulr would impersonate the particular god and speak his voice

for the time the play lasted. 74

70 Price, ‘Mythic Acts’, p. 37

71 Sundqvist, ‘The Hanging’, p. 660

72 Price, Neil, The Viking Way (Uppsala: Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, 2002), p. 372

73 Price, The Viking Way, p. 171

74 Gunnell, Terry, ‘The Performance of Poetic Edda’ in Brink, Stefan, Price, Neil (eds.), The Viking World (London: Routlegde, 2012), pp. 299 303, p. 301

19

The Kings

The settlement at Gamla Uppsala was an important centre for the Uppland region in Sweden since

the 3 rd century onwards. In the beginning of the Viking Age it would be one of the many petty

kingdoms, but from this one the kings of Sweden eventually emerged and that is why we have

medieval written sources concerning this place available as well. 75 The two main sources for the

religious activity in this place are the Ynglinga saga and the famous account of Adam of Bremen in

the

Book

IV

of

Gesta

Hammaburgensis

Ecclesiae

Pontificum 76 .

Although

Adam’s

account

is

contemporary, there are many serious issues with its trustworthiness and the text should not be

taken at its face value. This topic has been widely discussed in the past and therefore for the

purposes of this work the focus is going to be on the details that are likely to be accurate after the

comparison with other sources.

The Ynglingatal and subsequently the Ynglinga saga were composed in order to demonstrate the

divine origin of the Ynglingar. It claims that they were the descendants of the god Yngve who was

identified with the god Freyr. It represents one of the tactics that were used by the noble families in

order to enhance their status and strengthen their right to rule. 77 The same strategy was applied by

the earls of Hlaðir based in Trondheim, Norway, who believed to descend from the god Oðinn

himself. 78

The kings in Scandinavia were expected to take active part in seasonal sacrificial feasts. It is

described for example in the Ynglinga saga, Adam’s Gesta, Hákonar saga Goða and Ólafs saga

Helga. The first two sources concern practices held in Uppsala, the letter ones narrate about events

in Norway. It may suggest that this principle was common for the kingship in at least these two

areas. In the Ynglinga saga, chapter 29, the legendary Swedish king Athils

75 Gräslund, Bo, ‘Gamla Uppsala during the Migration Period’ in Rribeg, Gunnel (ed.), Myth, Might and Man:

Ten essays on Gamla Uppsala (Stockholm: Riksantikvarieämbetets förlag, 2000), pp. 7 12, p. 7

76 Adam of Bremen, Tschan, Francis J., Reuter, Timothy (trans.), History of the Archbishops of Hamburg- Bremen, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 207 -208

77 Sundqvist, ‘Religious ruler ideology’, p. 234

78 Sundqvist, ‘Religious ruler ideology’, p. 240

20

‘attended [at Uppsala] the sacrifice to the Dísar and rode his horse about the hall of the goddess [Freya].’ 79

Further on, in chapter 34, is Uppsala described as

‘the place of assembly for all Swedes. Great sacrifices were held there, and many kings came to attend them. They were held in mid-winter.’ 80

In Hákonar saga goða mid-10 th century Christian king Hákon of Norway is required to participate at

such a feast in Hlaðir (Trøndelag, Norway) at the beginning of winter. Sigurð, earl of Hlaðir tries to

appease his subjects when king Hákon refuses to participate in the ritual. The farmers expect the

king to perform the prescribed actions as his forefathers did so the ritual would be valid and would

have some effect.

‘[

]

and so it came that the king occupied his high-seat on this occasion.

But when the beaker was served, Earl Sigurth proposed a toast, dedicating the horn to Óthin, and drank to the king. The king took the horn from him and made the sign of the cross over it.

Then Kár of Grýting said, “Why does the king do that? Doesn’t he want to drink of the sacrificial beaker?”

Earl Sigurth made answer, “The king does as all do who believe in their own might and strength, and dedicated his beaker to Thór. He made the sign of the hammer over it before drinking.” People said no more about it that evening. Next day when people had seated themselves at the tables, the farmers thronged about the king, saying that now he must eat the horse meat. That, the king would not do under any condition. Then they asked him to drink the broth from it. He refused to do that. Then they asked him to eat drippings from it. He would not do that, either, and they came near to making attack on him. Earl Sigurth said he would help them come to an agreement, asking them to cease their turmult; and he asked the king to gape with his mouth over the handle of the kettle on which the smoke of the broth from the horse meat had settled, so that the handle was greasy from it.’ 81

No wonder that farmers of Trondelag were upset because their good harvest was dependant on the

king making the traditional sacrifice. 82 People believed that in case that the king would not

participate on the fertility ritual the land might go barren, the weather might be unfavourable or

79 Sturluson, Heimskringla, p. 33

80 Sturluson, Heimskringla, p. 36

81 Sturluson, Heimskringla, p. 110-111

82 Sturluson, Heimskringla, p. 109

21

their crops might suffer some devastating disease. For that reason the king could be even deposed. 83

Possibly a similar belief was held in Uppland, Sweden if we take in consideration an account in

Ynglinga saga, chapter 43:

‘There came a very bad season and famine. They laid the blame for that on the king, as the Swedes are wont to ascribe to their king good seasons and bad. King Óláf was but little given to offer sacrifices. The Swedes were ill-pleased at that and believed it was the cause of the bad harvests. They collected a host and moved on King Óláf. They surrounded his hall and burned him inside, giving him to Óthin and sacrificing him for good crops. That was by Lake Vænir.’ 84

This passage might be Snorri’s misinterpretation of the poem Ynglingatal that can be understood as

that the king was burned after his death and not as a sacrifice. 85 On the other hand the story is very

similar to the one in chapter 15 in the Ynglinga saga that clearly corresponds in its sense with

Ynglingatal verse 8. 86 Therefore even if we dismiss the above cited account of King Athils as

unreliable we still have to deal with King Dómaldi from chapter 15.

The kings played a key role in the fertility rituals even after death. They were incorporated into the

cult of the dead but with the possibility to influence not only the lives of their living descendants but

of the whole country. Therefore sacrifices were made for the dead kings as we learn from several

sagas in Heimskringla, such as Ynglinga saga, chapter 10. 87

Scholars like Henrik Schück attempted to indentify Old Norse kingship with the trans-cultural

concept of the sacral kingship. The idea of sacral kingship was first formulated by Sir J. G. Frazer at

the end of 19 th century.

The key aspects were that the king possessed supernatural powers as he

was the embodiment of a solar deity and its priest at the same time. Via this connection he was tied

to the annual cycle of the nature and the death and rebirth of the sun god. He was joined with the

fertility goddess in sacred marriage, so called hieros gamos. 88 Some of the examples that were put

83 Sundquist, Olof, ‘Cult leaders, rulers and religion’ in Brink, Stefan, Price, Neil (eds.),The Viking World, (London: Routlegde, 2012), pp. 223 226, p. 225

84 Sturluson, Heimskringla, p. 44-45

85 Simek, Dictionary, p.270

86 Sturluson, Heimskringla, p. 18-19

87 Simek, Dictionary, p. 270

88 Sundqvist, ‘Religious Ruler Ideology’, p. 225

22

forward in this section support this idea. First of all, some the royal houses traced their origins to the

divine ancestors. Second, the abilities of the king and his actions were believed to directly influence

good seasons, fertility of the land and the health of his subjects. He possessed special power called

‘kings’s luck’ that allowed him to bestow blessings. 89 This belief sometimes went beyond the life of a

king and he was worshipped after his death in order to keep influencing the country in a positive

way. Third, the king was crucial figure during the public festivals that he organized and actively

participated in the rituals, sacrifices and feasting.

The ideology of the religious nature of kingship was never uniform in Scandinavia at any given time.

One of the

reasons is that there were so many

variations of the religion itself due to oral

transmission and many influences that were localized. That is one of the reasons why the concept of

sacral

kingship

environment. 90

has

been

challenged

as

not

applicable

as

single

89 Sundquist, ’Religious Ruler Ideology’, p. 226

90 Sundqvist, ‘Religious Ruler Ideology’, p. 227

23

ideology

in

such

diverse

The Völur

The völur create a special category among the religious practitioners in Viking Age Scandinavia. The

term refers to wandering seeresses and those who practice seiðr that is the northern magic. The

word ‘völva’ (pl. 'völur’) translates as ‘staff bearer’ as staff was one of the main attributes of these

women. Other frequently used terms used in saga literature are ‘spádís’ or ‘spákonna’, that is

‘female diviner’;

or ‘seiðkonna’, that is ‘seið woman’. All together there are about 40 words

indicating people connected with magic, but most of them relate to a female. 91 That is the first

indication that this part of the religious life and practices was dominated by women.

The abilities of völur are described in Yngliga saga, chapter 7:

‘Óthin had the skill which gives great power and which he practised himself. It is called seith {sorcery}, and by means of it he could know the fate of men and predict events that had not yet come to pass; and by it he could also inflict death or misfortunes or sickness, or also deprive people of their wits or strength, and give them to others. But this sorcery is attended by such wickedness that manly men considered it shameful to practice it, and so it was taught to priestesses.’ 92

There is a direct connection between völur and the god Óðinn, who was considered to be the master

of magic, among other things. They were not his worshippers but more or less his equals. It can be

demonstrated on Eddic poems Völuspá, verse 1 93 , and Baldrs draumar 94 . In both of these poems

Oðinn in the one, who seeks the service of a prophetess in order to gain the hidden knowledge. The

völur did not communicate with the world of gods but with more universal word of the spirits and

other beings who managed destiny and health. They did not possess the knowledge of all those

things but they were able to channel it from the spirit world in the altered states of mind in a similar

way that shamans do. 95

91 Price, The Viking Way, p. 126

92 Sturluson, Heimskringla, p. 11 93 The Poetic Edda, p. 4

94 The Poetic Edda, p. 243 - 245

95 Price, Neil, ‘Sorcery and Circumpolar Traditions in Old Norse Belief’, in Brink, Stefan, Price, Neil (eds.), The Viking World (London: Routlegde, 2012), pp. 244 248, p. 248

24

From this account it can be summarized that there were two main functions of völur in the society.

The first one was as a master of divination and fortune telling. The second one was as a master

healer völva was the one who knew all the herbs and their usage as well as mind altering drugs

that she would normally use to foretell the future. It might have been this knowledge that made the

people respect her and believe that she could take their lives or sanity and restore it in others.

There is no evidence that there were any social restrictions as to who would be allowed to invite

völva to their house in order to perform seið. On the other hand, only women were supposed to

carry out the job itself. Neil Price suggested that the explanation may lie in connection between seið

ritual and sexual act. The key is the passive role of women in sexual act as well as is passive the role

of völur in seið practice. For men the passive role in practicing seið would imply homosexuality that

was unacceptable in Scandinavia at the time. 96

The best description of völva’s dress and tools appears in the Eiríks saga Ruaða:

‘[

the hem; she had glass beads about her neck, and on her head a black lambskin hood lined inside with white catskin. She had a staff in her hand, with a knob on it; it was ornamented with brass and set around with stones just below the knob. Round her

middle she wore a belt made of touchwood, and on it was a big skin pouch in which she kept those charms of hers which she needed for her magic. On her feet she had hairy calf-skin shoes with long thong-ends big knobs of lateen. She had on her hands catskin gloves which were white inside and hairy.’ 97

she was wearing a blue cloak with straps which was set with stones right down to

]

The overall impression is that of wealthy woman in high-quality and therefore costly dress and

precious jewellery. In Hrólfs saga Kraka, that probably comes from the 13 th century and relates

events that happened in 6 th century Denmark, is mentioned that the prophetess got paid for her

services in a form of a golden ring. 98 It would be misleading to assume that the information is

entirely accurate. It is more likely that it reflects much later reality of Iceland or Norway than

Migration Age Denmark.

96 Price, ‘Sorcery in Old Norse belief’, p. 247

97 Anon., Jones, Gwyn (trans.), ‘Eirik the Red’ in Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 126-157, p. 134

98 Anon., ‘King Hrolf and his champions: The Story of Frothi’ in Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas, ed. by Jones, Gwyn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 221 - 233, p. 228

25

This account can be compared with archaeological finds in order to assess the medieval imagination

of the saga author and the reality of Viking Age Scandinavia. So far there were found around forty

burials that may belong to somebody who practised magic. They were identified as such for

containing a staff or according to unusual mortuary practice. 99 The most interesting examples are

from Fyrkat in Northern Jutland, Denmark 100 ; and Birka in Lake Mälaren, Sweden 101 . The famous

splendid Oseberg ship burial from Vestfold, Norway that contains bodies of two women might fall

into this category as well. 102 For women, the burials contain unusually rich grave goods from

imported glass beads to silver embroidered silk in Birka chamber grave (Bj. 845) from the mid-10 th

century 103 or even gold threads in Fyrkat from the end of the 10 th century 104 . The lavishness of the

burial stands out especially in case of Fyrkat where the völva’s grave is the richest one of all in the

area although at least some of the other burials belonged to members of king’s retinue who

occupied royal fortress at Fyrkat. 105 These finds point out to a person who was well respected and

who had considerable influence in the society.

The staff, wand or divination rod were the main tools of a völva. Further saga evidence supports the

description in the Eiríks saga Ruaða. The seeresses with staffs appear in Vatsnadæla saga, chapter

44 106 , written in late 13 th or early 14 th century and describing events taking place in 10 th century in

Northern Iceland; and Laxardæla saga, chapter 56, 107 from mid-13 th century and taking place again

in 10 th century in Northern Iceland. The staffs or their fragments were excavated from around 25

Scandinavian graves dating from 8 th to 10 th century in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland as well

99 Price, Neil, The Viking Way, p. 127

100 Price, The Viking Way, p. 149

101 Price, The Viking Way, p. 132

102 Price, The Viking Way, p. 159

103 Price, The Viking Way, p. 140

104 Price, The Viking Way, p. 154

105 Price, The Viking Way, p. 157

106 Anon., Wawn, Andrew (trans.), ‘The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal’ in Smiley, Jane, Kellogg, Robert (eds.) The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, (London: Penguin, 2001), pp. 185 269, p. 263

107 Anon., Kunz, Keneva (trans.), ‘The Saga of the People of Laxardal’ in Smiley, Jane, Kellogg, Robert (eds.) The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection (London: Penguin, 2001), pp. 270 435, p. 419

26

as Ireland, Russia and Isle of Man. 108 In practice, the prophetess’ were believed to use the staff to

spin-out their souls in order to communicate with the spirits. Another way of interpreting the staff is

that it was a phallic symbol used in a simulated sexual act during the seið ritual. 109

The Eiriks saga Ruaða continues by relating the ritual which took two nights:

‘Master Thorkel took her by the hand and led her to the seat which had been made ready for her. Thorkel then asked her to run her eyes over the household and herd and likewise the home. She had little comment to make upon anything. During the evening tables were brought in, and what food was prepared for the seeress must now be told of. There was porridge made for her goat’s beestings, and for her meat of the hearts of all living creatures that were available there. She had a brass spoon and an ivory- handled knife mounted with a double ring of copper, and with its pint broken off.’ 110

The special seat was another important feature of a völva’s performance. Her high seat or a platform

was called seiðhjallr and is mentioned as well in Hrólfs saga Kraka 111 and several other sources

mention a special sitting place above all other people present but some of them under different

term. As the prophetesses did not have any static place where they performed their magic, this

platform was built only for the time of her visit to the farm and dismembered when she left. 112

From the archaeological perspective there are two kinds of evidence that suggest that the saga

description is accurate. Firstly, there are graves that include object associated with magic and

moreover the bodies were buried in a seated position bound to a chair, such as in the above

mentioned grave in Birka (Bj. 843). 113 Secondly, there are several examples of pendants in a shape of

a chair, usually made from silver. One such a pendant was recovered from the extraordinary grave at

Fyrkat. 114

108 Price, The Viking Way, p. 203

109 Price, ‘Sorcery in Old Norse Belief’, p. 245

110 ‘Erik the Red’, p. 135

111 ‘King Hrolf and his champions’, p. 227

112 Price, The Viking Way, p. 162 - 163

113 Price, The Viking Way, p. 133

114 Price, The Viking Way, p. 164

27

After the feast, followed so called útiseta which translates as ‘sitting out’. The performer was sitting

in solitude and meditating about the issues presented to her by the host. 115 She was being consulted

mainly in the time of need or danger by a single person or a family as well as by a community leader

on behalf of the whole area or by kings concerned about their realm. 116 It is possible that at this

point the völur used the mind altering drugs in order to gain the insight and communicate with the

spirits. In the Fyrkat grave were found seeds of henbane (lat. Hyoscyamus niger) and cannabis (lat.

Cannabis sativa) has been excavated from the Oseberg ship burial. 117

According to the saga, only on the second night of the came a public ritual, that actively involved the

audience as well. The answers that the seeress obtained during the útiseta had to be interpreted

and delivered with maximum drama. The use of correct words and phrases was essential, the same

that was true for the rituals lead by goðar or the performances of þulr. The ritual could involve

chanting of specific incantations. In Eirík saga Ruaða the prophetess requires a specific incantation

to be delivered by one of the women in the hall otherwise the ritual would be incomplete and

therefore of no use. 118 By looking at the Völuspá and Baldrs Daumar the people present may have

taken part in the ritual by repeating specific phrases at appointed moments and urging her to reveal

the prophecy.

115 Raudevere, ‘Fictive Rituals’, p. 107

116 Price, ‘ Sorcery in Old Norse belief’, p. 247

117 Price, The Viking Way, p. 205

118 Raudevere, ‘Fictive Rituals in Völuspá’, p. 103

28

Conclusion

The main figures who performed the religious functions in Scandinavia during the Viking Age were

identified as the head of the household, goði, Þulr, king and völva.

The head of the household played the key role in the worship of the dead ancestors and the land

spirits. Both of these kinds of supernatural beings were believed to have power over the prosperity

of the farm, including the fertility of the land, good weather and health of the crops and animals.

The main responsibility of the farm owner was to ensure the good relationship with these beings in

order to bring about good seasons and therefore the survival of the family. That was achieved by

sacrificial toasts to the dead during the seasonal feasts or by offering sacrifices to both dead and

land spirits at the places connected to them, such as the burial mounds. Although the religious

authority of the household owners did not exceed the boundaries of his farm in his micro cosmos he

was for the most of the time the most important figure in terms of religion.

The goðar combined the functions of the secular leader of the community and a priest. As a priest

he was responsible for organizing seasonal festivals to honour the gods where the people of the

whole area would be present. The festival included animal sacrifices followed by feasting and

drinking as well with the religious connotation. The rituals themselves were performed by the goði in

an outdoor holy place called ‘vé’ that was sacred at all times and even protected by early provincial

laws. The other possibility was in the hof, that could refer either to a specialized cultic building

within a central place complex or to a chieftain’s hall. The letter case seems to be

a later

development that took place mainly in Iceland and meant that the hall that had for the most of the

time secular function turned at appointed times into a temple that hosted public rituals. At the same

times the goði would transform from a chieftain into a priest. The symbol of his office was the oath

ring that he was supposed to wear at these occasions and all the oaths had to be sworn on that ring.

All the aspects of his role as the chieftain, such as ensuring the peace, successful war campaign,

feeding his people and maintaining the justice, were reflected in his role as a priest.

29

The þulr were the keepers of knowledge. They knew the mythological tales, the narratives of the

ancient heroes and the mnemonic poems. Their main duty was not only to remember those but to

perform them in public during sacrificial festivals held by goðar or kings or at other social occasions.

The repertoire was variable depending on the preferences of the audience. Some of the pieces were

recited. Others could have been presented in a dramatic form and thus allowing their audience to

stand face to face to their gods and heroes. In some places they may have taken part in the

memorial rituals for the dead by reciting the praise poetry to honour the individuals.

The kings were playing similar role as the goðar but in larger scale. They were as well hosting the

seasonal festivals to bring about prosperity of the land, such as the ones in Uppsala, Sweden. The

other option was that they were present at the festival held by one of his subject. Either way it was

essential for the people that their king actively participated in these fertility rituals. Part of the king’s

authority derived from this arrangement. If the seasons were bad or the king refused to be involved

in the sacrifices in a proper way he could be facing some serious social unrest. The other part of the

king’s right to rule, from the religious point of view, was rooted in his association with divine powers.

Some of the Scandinavian leading houses claimed to be descendants of the gods.

The völur or the prophetesses were the only religious role that was attributed specifically to women.

They specialized in a form of magic called ‘seið’ that included divination and healing. They were

spiritual guides who were called to a farm in the time of need in order to reverse the bad situation

by obtaining the secret knowledge. The seið ritual was elaborate with specific seating arrangements,

sacrificial feast, use of mind altering drugs, chanting and participation of the audience. They were

highly regarded within the society and their customers were ready to pay well for their services.

These seem to be the basic templates for the religious roles in the pre-Christian society in

Scandinavia. However, when discussing any specific cases the interpreter needs to be aware of the

mutations that were present within the belief system itself and therefore in the way these believes

were put into practice.

30

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