The Viking Gods: Norse beliefs, sources and sagas

Sources:

The Elder Edda / Poetic Edda – In 1643, the Bishop of Skaholt in Iceland discovered a manuscript called the Codex Regius, thought to have been written in 1270 and consisting of 29 mythical and heroic poems. This collection is known as the Saemunds Edda. A few other poems of the same type were subsequently discovered, notably a group of six in the Arnamagnaean Codex. Five of these poems are repeated in the Codex Regius, and one, Baldrs Draumar, doesn’t. The Elder Edda, or the Poetic Edda is the title for this collective of 34 poems. The poems are by different authors, in different places at different times, so some of them have contradictions and inconsistencies.
Within these is the poem Volsupa, (the Sybil’s Prophecy) is a powerful account of how the world was created, how it moved from a Golden Age to an age of strife, and how it had to end in total destruction before a new age of innocence and the beginning of a new cycle of time.

Scaldic poems – are more intricate in form, they contain kennings, or alliterations, internal rhyme and generally the intricacies do not translate fully.
Some are known as ‘Shield Poems’ and describe the designs on the four quarters of a shield.
The importance of these poems is in their use of condensed metaphors which are rooted in myth which would have been widely known. Gold is referenced as ‘Frejya’s Tears’ because the goddess wept tears of gold.

Prose Edda – Written by Snorri Sturlson (1179-1241). He wrote several great literary works, as well as being a political leader, landowner, historian, critic and poet. Sturlson was a Christian and an antiquarian, so this must be kept in mind when reading his work. The Prose Edda was written in 1220, in reaction to the eroding of the old skaldic techniques as a result of the democratic adoption of Christianity and exposure to new European literary modes. It represents Icelandic versions of the myths, and sometimes pokes good-natured fun at the gods. It includes rules of poetic diction, quotes from scaldic poems, displays familiarity with the myths in the Elder Edda and one section, the Glyfaginning, consists of retellings from the myths.

Gesta Danorum – written by Saxo Grammaticus around 1215. Consists of sixteen volumes and records the Danish history from prehistoric times. The first nine books are a confused mix of myth, legend and religious practice. He knew variants of the myths recorded by Snorri, but his writing style differs in that his holds bitter contempt for the gods and their actions. The primary source for the Danish and West Norse traditions.

Icelandic Sagas – of which there are about 700… primarily written in the thirteenth century by known and unknown authors, they consist of historical biographies, accounts of legendary heroes, accounts of exploration and settlement, and family sages, which can cover the feuds, friendships, alliances and arguments of a family over several generations, generally during Iceland’s Heroic Age, around 1000 AD. Through these are gained details of pre-Christian religious practice

Other Historians – Tacitus was the first to write about the Germanic religions within the Roman Empire in Germania written at the end of the first century AD.
Ibn Fadlan wrote a detailed account of his encounters with the Rus in the tenth century, including an account of a ship burial.
In the eleventh century, Adam of Bremen wrote of Swedish paganism, including the temple of Thor, Freyr and Odin at Uppsala.
The Landnamabok in the thirteenth century (Book of Settlements), a survey of Iceland, contains a significant amount of religious practice and laws pertaining to pre-Christian society.

The literary structure of the myths:

The majority of myths are dramatic narratives, but are also episodes in a slow developing story arc.
First Odin and his brothers create the worlds and their inhabitants, there follows a time of peace. Snorri describes this as a Golden Age, not only because it is pure, but also because the halls, utensils and sanctuaries were made of gold.
The Golden Age ends with a war between the Aesir gods and the Vanir. When it becomes clear that no one side will prevail, a truce is called and leaders are exchanged. The Aesir and Vanir live in peace for a time, but soon the antagonism of the gods and giants, and the ambivalence of Loki begins again.
A giant masquerading as a mason visits Asgard, home of the gods. He tricks the gods into wager involving Freja, the sun and moon, but Loki’s cunning prevails. The citadels walls, shattered during the war with the Vanir are restored in the bargain.
Then there are a number of myths in which the gods and giants flex muscles against each other, initially worsted (sometimes because of Loki’s double dealing) the gods come off best in the end (sometimes because Loki is pressured into righting the situation). Odin journeys to the world of the giants, Jotunheim, to win the sacred mead of poetry; Loki follows his footsteps to retrieve Idun and her golden apples; in hilarious burlesque, Thor and Loki travel together to Jotunheim dressed as bride and bridesmaid in order to retrieve Thor’s hammer. In all three the gods achieve their aims and giants are killed.
The gods also sustain losses, the wise Kvasir is murdered by dwarves and his blood is the main ingredient of the mead of poetry; Odins son Tyr sacrifices his right hand in order to bind the wolf Fenris and in a myth told beautifully by Sturlson, Thor suffers a considerable loss of face when he visits the court at Utgard-Loki
Running parallel to the theme of antagonism is that of friendship and love. Two gods, Njord and Freyr, marry Giantesses, and Thor and Odin have a number of giant mistresses. The giantess Grid, lends Thor her belt, gloves and staff which enables him to get rid of the giant Gerriod and his two daughters.
The theme of sexual attraction between beings of different worlds also pervades. Four dwarves buy the body of Freyja for four nights, the human Svipdag searches for and finds Menglad, a figure with one foot in Asguard and one in Jotunheim; Odin, quick to boast of his many conquests is frustrated by a human girl, Billings daughter; the dwarf Alvis journey to claim Thors daughter Thrud as his bride is thwarted when the sun rises and he is turned into a block of stone.
There is humour in the early part of the cycle, which comes to an end with the visit of Thor to the giant Gerriod. In this myth the giants are bent on destroying Thor and the other gods, but the greatest threat is revealed as coming not from the giants, but from Loki.
In the most famous of the myths, the god Baldur is killed by a mistletoe dart and his return to the world of the living is denied by a cynical giantess who will not cry for his return. Loki’s is the hand that guides the dart and he is also the giantess. Loki subjects the gods to vitriolic abuse, he is pursued and fettered. The forces of evil cannot be contained and Odin has already seen the destiny of the gods, giants, men and dwarves and all creation to fight and destroy one another at Ragnarok. Odin has also learned that a new cycle of time and life will begin after Ragnarok. Balder, several other gods and two humans will survive and return to Asgard, so even the end contains a beginning.

Through this cycle are other myths which are of a different structure. They are pauses in the development of the main story to impart mythical knowledge. Although their stories are often difficult to follow, and the narratives are basic, they are actually litanies, the condensation of a number of facts and figures put into the least number of words possible to aid their remembrance. Three of these reflect Odin’s unceasing search for knowledge. ‘Lord of the Gallows’ sees Odin sacrifice himself to gain nine magic songs, runes and eighteen magic charms. In ‘Lay of Vafthrudnir’ he pits his knowledge against that of a giant, and ‘The Lay of Grimnir’ sees him revealing facts about the layout and inhabitants of the mythical universe to the boy prince Agnar.
Two flyting poems – contests of abuse- also give valuable details about the gods. In the ‘Lay of Harbard’, Odin disguised as a ferryman and Thor, anxious to get home, fling taunts at each other across a river, and in ‘Loki’s Flyting’ Loki savages gods in turn with gratuitous insults.
Five myths tell specifically of the traditions of the human world, the ‘Song of Rig’ describes the social structure of the Norse world. The ‘Lay of Lodfafnir’ lays down social conduct rules and the ‘Lay of Alvis’ is a list of synonyms, a mnemonic for poets from the mouths of a god and a dwarf. ‘Gylfi and Gefion’ describes how Sweden and Denmark were given their present shape and lastly ‘Hyndlas Poem’ is a catalogue of many legendary heroes known to the Norsemen.

The Norse Gods

The Norse world and its gods are unique to Northern Paganism, other pantheons have leaders such as Zeus or Krishna but none quite like Odin, Likewise there are tricksters such as Hermes and Legoba, but none exactly as Loki. Always eager to feast and carouse, the Viking gods conspire and compete with each other and their enemies in a series of wild episodes. The myths mirror a human sphere dominated by climate and terrain, telling of massive elemental forces against which the gods must pit their wits and strength.
Formidable giants posed a particular threat to the gods, providing a constant antagonist.

The Vanir are primarily deities of fertility, watching over land and sea, whilst the Aesir presided over war, magic and the sky.

Asguard,the home of the gods was originally inhabited by a group called the Aesir alone, with the Vanir living in the realm of Vanheim. The two groups fought a long and bloody war, after which both sides exchanged individuals and members of the Vanir came to live in Asguard.

The most important of the Vanir who came to settle were Njord, god of the sea, and his two children Frey and Frejya. Those given in return were Honir and Mimir, Honir was offered post of chieftain but could not or would not make decisions without Mimir, so the Vanir considered him a poor leader, and decapitated Mimir, sending the head back to Odin.
Here follows short descriptions of some of the major gods of the Norse Pantheon, ending with information about the Temple at Uppsala.

Odin, God of War and Magic

Odin the Wanderer - Georg von Rosen

Odin the Wanderer - Georg von Rosen

Perhaps the most complex of the Norse Gods, presented in the sources as the foremost of the Norse pantheon and known most commonly as the Allfather. Not a benevolent Father God, but fickle as he is powerful, treacherous as he is generous, and although respected and worshipped, he is never entirely to be trusted.
Often portrayed as having only one eye and wearing a wide brimmed hat to cover his face, he travels the human world giving inspiration, knowledge, victory in battle and prophecy

He goes under many different names, with a list of more than 50 being given by Snorri, including:

Valfodr – Father of the Slain                                   Hangagud– God of the Hanged
Haptagud – God of Prisoners                                Farmagud – God of Cargoes
Harr – The High One                                                 Grimr – The Masked One
Svipall – The Capricious One                                Hnikarr– the Inflamer
Glapsvidir – Swift Tricker                                     Sigfodr – Father of Victory
Blindi – the Blind One                                             Baleygr – Shifty Eyed
Gondlir– One with a Magic Staff                         Yggr – Terror

He was also a master of magic and shape changing, his one missing eye pledged in payment for a drink from the Well of Mimr, said to provide inspiration and knowledge of the future to the drinker. It is said that he only spoke in verse, and could give the gifts of poetic ability and inspiration.
Odin was also known as Lord of the Spear – those killed by it became part of his warriors in Asgard. Bodies that were sacrificed to Odin have been recovered from peat bogs hanged or killed with a spear. This can be evidenced in Gautreks Saga, where efforts of Starkad to cheat Odin out of his requested sacrifice is thwarted by Odin himself.
Adam of Bremen, in his History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen also described the bodies of men and animals hanging in the trees near the temple at Uppsala, where a festival was held every nine years in honour of the gods.  There are many stories which illustrate the volatile nature of Odin’s support for his favourite kings and princes. He would give them magic weapons, yet he could cause any of them to die unnecessarily so that the slain warrior would join him in Valhalla and be available to support him at the final destruction of the world. Sigmund the Volsung receives a magnificent sword from him, yet during Sigmund’s last battle Odin deliberately shatters the sword, the battle turns and Sigmund is killed.

Odin taught Hadding how to array his troops on the field; Odin appears throughout Haddings life, to rescue him, give him strength and spells to break his bonds. Odin prophesied that Hadding would only die at his own hand; eventually the hero did hang himself, a fitting end for a worshipper of Odin.

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Wotan and Woden 

By the time of the Romans, the Germans already had a protective deity, Wotan who was invoked for success in battle and displayed a sinister and fickle nature. The first century Roman writer Tacitus describes a German god, Wotan, and places him as the chief god of the Germanics to whom sacrifices were made. Wotan was god of the dead and battles, and was associated with the spear, wolf and raven. He was regarded as the primogenitor of kings, and also had connections with the economy in his names of ‘Mercator’ or ‘Negotiator’

In pagan England, Woden was patron of kings and princes, the god of war and magic. The Anglo Saxon royal dynasties looked on Woden as their divine ancestor and traced their lineages to him.

 

The secret of arranging troops was also given by Odin to Harald Wartooth, King of the Danes and pledged that he too would never be harmed by wounding. In return Harald promised Odin all the souls of those he killed in battle. Odin granted the king victory for most of his life, then turned against him in his old age. Odin bread enmity between Harald and his nephew King Hring, and caused a war. During this he betrayed Haralds secret formation to his enemy. As Harald drove across the battlefield, he realised that Odin had taken the place of his charioteer, he begged for one more victory, but Odin threw him from the chariot and slew him.

Odin’s animals

There are five animals with which Odin is associated, two wolves Geri and Freki, who commonly sit at his feet, two ravens Huginn and Muninn (thought and memory) who are sent out into the world every day to bring him reports of happenings, and an eight legged stallion, Sleipnir, an offspring of Loki and the fastest of all horses.

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Odin on Sleipnir

Odin on Sleipnir

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A depiction of Odin entering Valhalla riding on Sleipnir from the Tjängvide image stone.

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Odin with ravens and weapons

Odin with ravens and weapons

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Odin with his ravens and weapons (MS SÁM 66, eighteenth century)

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Hávamál

In Rúnatal, a section of the Hávamál, Odin is attributed with discovering the runes. He was hung from the world tree, Yggdrasil, while pierced by his own spear for nine days and nights, in order to learn the wisdom that would give him power in the nine worlds. Nine is a significant number in Norse magical practice (there were, for example, nine realms of existence), thereby learning nine (later eighteen) magical songs and eighteen magical runes.
One of Odin’s names is
Ygg, and the Norse name for the World Ash —Yggdrasil—therefore could mean “Ygg’s (Odin’s) horse”. Another of Odin’s names is Hangatýr, the god of the hanged. Sacrifices, human or otherwise, in prehistoric times were commonly hung in or from trees, often transfixed by spears

The sacrifice of Odin (1895) Lorenz Frolich

The sacrifice of Odin (1895) Lorenz Frolich

The actions and deeds of Odin appear in many sagas, in the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, the Poetic Edda, the Skáldskaparmál, the sagas of the Icelanders and others.

 

Odin after the Vikings

The last battle where Scandinavians attributed a victory to Odin was the Battle of Lena in 1208. The former Swedish king Sverker had arrived with a large Danish army, and the Swedes led by their new king Eric were outnumbered. Odin then appeared riding on Sleipnir and he positioned himself in front of the Swedish battle formation. He led the Swedish charge and gave them victory.
The Bagler sagas, written in the thirteenth century concerning events in the first two decades of the thirteenth century, tells a story of a one-eyed rider with a broad-brimmed hat and a blue coat who asks a smith to shoe his horse. The suspicious smith asks where the stranger stayed during the previous night. The stranger mentions places so distant that the smith does not believe him. The stranger says that he has stayed for a long time in the north and taken part in many battles, but now he is going to Sweden. When the horse is shod, the rider mounts his horse and says “I am Odin” to the stunned smith, and rides away. The next day, the battle of Lena took place. The context of this tale in the saga is that a peace-treaty has been signed in Norway, and Odin, a god of war, no longer has a place there.

 

 

 

 

 

Thor: God of Thunder

Thors battle against the Giants (1872) Marten Eskil Winge

Thors battle against the Giants (1872) Marten Eskil Winge

Thor (Old Norse: Þórr) is the red-haired and bearded god of thunder in Germanic mythology and Germanic paganism, and its subsets: Norse paganism, Anglo-Saxon paganism and Continental Germanic paganism. The god is also recorded in Old English as Þunor, Old Saxon as Thunaer, as Old Dutch and Old High German: Donar, all of which are names deriving from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic name *Þunraz.

Most surviving stories relating to Germanic mythology either mention Thor or center on Thor’s exploits. Thor was a much revered god of the ancient Germanic peoples from at least the earliest surviving written accounts of the indigenous Germanic tribes to over a thousand years later in the late Viking Age.

Thor’s battle against the giants Thor was appealed to for protection on numerous objects

(1872) by Mårten Eskil Winge. found from various Germanic tribes. Miniature replicas of Mjolnir, the weapon of Thor, became a defiant symbol of Norse paganism during the Christianization of Scandinavia.

Thor owns a short-handled hammer, Mjolnir, which, when thrown at a target, returns magically to the owner. His Mjolnir also has the power to throw lightning bolts. To wield Mjolnir, Thor wears the belt Megingjord, which boosts the wearer’s strength and a pair of special iron gloves, Járngreipr, to lift the hammer. Mjolnir is also his main weapon when fighting giants. The uniquely shaped symbol subsequently became a very popular ornament during the Viking Age and has since become an iconic symbol of Germanic paganism.

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Mjollnir from Oland, Sweden

Mjollnir from Oland, Sweden

Drawing of an archaeological find from Öland, Sweden of a gold plated depiction of Mjolnir in silver.

Thor gave his name to the Old English day Þunresdæg, meaning the day of Þunor, known in Modern English as Thursday. Þunor is also the source of the modern word thunder.

“Thor’s Day” is Þórsdagr in Old Norse, Hósdagur in Faroese, except for Suðuroy, where it’s called Tórsdagur, Thursday in English, Donnerstag in German (meaning “Thunder’s Day”), Donderdag in Dutch (meaning Thunder day), Torstai in Finnish, and Torsdag in Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian.

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Loki

Loki 1

Loki 1

The most unpredictable and certainly the most dangerous god in the Northern pantheon was Loki. His activities ran from the merely mischievous to the blatantly malicious. Supremely clever, Loki ensnared everyone in complicated problems, to which he always supplied a remedy – through his solution often engendered even greater troubles.
Loki was fair of face, and took many lovers, despite his constant criticism of goddesses who did the same. He had some unusual children, including the huge wolf borne from Loki’s brief dalliance with a giantess. Loki was the father (and in few instances the mother) of many creatures, men and monsters. Having liaisons with giantesses was nothing unusual for gods in Norse mythology – both Odin and Freyr are good examples.

Loki 2

Loki 2

In Norse mythology, Loki is a god or jötunn (giant), or both. Loki’s relation with the gods varies by source. In the poem Þrymskviða Loki engineers the method by which Thor’s stolen hammer can be retrieved, seemingly on the gods side, however in Reginsmál, his actions cause the entire saga of Sigurd to unfold, resulting in the heroes death. He often gets heroes and Gods well into trouble, and then out of it again with his trickery.
The poem Lokasenna (Old Norse “Loki’s Quarrel”) centers around Loki flyting with other gods; Loki puts forth two stanzas of insults while the receiving figure responds with a single stanza, and then another figure chimes in.

 

Loki 3

Loki 3

It is Loki who begins the chain of events that leads to the destruction of the gods. He does this by causing the death of the beautiful Baldr, Frigg’s son, who in his goodness and perfection embodies the attainment of every desirable quality. Baldr’s death plunges all of Asgard into mourning. Yet Loki feels no remorse, and in fact relishes every opportunity to exert his contrary nature.
Loki was chained to three large boulders; one under his shoulders, one under his loins and one under his knees. A poisonous snake was placed above his head. The dripping venom that lands on him is caught by Sigyn in a bowl. But every now and then, when the bowl is filled to the brim, she has to leave him to empty it. Then the poison that falls on Loki’s face makes him twist in pain, causing earthquakes.
After Frigg had gone to great lengths to bring Baldr back to the land of the living by asking all beings to weep for his return, Loki (in the guise of an old female giant) steadfastly refused to shed a single tear for the slain god. Thus Baldr was consigned to the realms of the dead, under the governance of Lady Hel.  This loss of innocence represented by Baldr’s death is the act that triggers Ragnarok, the end of all things. Ragnarok begins with famine and darkness and bitter cold – a winter lasting three entire years.

 

Tyr

Tyr and Fenris

Tyr and Fenris

Týr is the god of single combat, victory and heroic glory in Norse mythology, portrayed as a one-handed man. In the late Icelandic Eddas, he is portrayed, alternately, as the son of Odin (Prose Edda) or of Hymir (Poetic Edda), while the origins of his name and his possible relationship to Tuisto (see Tacitus‘ Germania) suggest he was once considered the father of the gods and head of the pantheon. Tuesday is in fact “Tyr’s Day.” This is because the Anglo-Saxons at that time pronounced Tyr’s name as “Tiw” thus giving his name to the 2nd day of the week.
Corresponding names in other Germanic languages are
Gothic Teiws , Old English Tīw and Old High German Ziu, all from Proto-Germanic *Tîwaz. The Old Norse name became Norwegian Ty, Swedish Ti, Danish Tyr, while it remains Týr in Modern Icelandic and Faroese.
According to the
Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, at one stage the gods decided to shackle the wolf Fenrisulfr (Fenrir), but the beast broke every chain they put upon him. Eventually they had the dwarves make them a magical ribbon called Gleipnir. It appeared to be only a silken ribbon but was made of six wondrous ingredients: the sound of a cat’s footfall, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, bear’s sinews (meaning nerves, sensibility), fish’s breath and bird’s spittle. The creation of Gleipnir is said to be the reason why none of the above exist. Fenrir sensed the gods’ deceit and refused to be bound with it unless one of them put his hand in the wolf’s mouth.
Tyr, known for his great honesty and courage, agreed, and the other gods bound the wolf. After Fenrir had been bound by the gods, he struggled to try and break the rope. When the gods saw that Fenrir was bound they all laughed, except Tyr, who had his right hand bitten off by the wolf. Fenrir will remain bound until the day of Ragnarök. As a result of this deed, Tyr is called the “Leavings of the Wolf”.

Frey

Frey

Frey

Freyr (sometimes anglicized Frey, from *frawjaz “lord”) is one of the most important gods of Norse paganism. Freyr was highly associated with agriculture, weather and, as a phallic fertility god, Freyr “bestows peace and pleasure on mortals”. Freyr, sometimes referred to as Yngvi-Freyr, was especially associated with Sweden and seen as an ancestor of the Swedish royal house.  In the Icelandic books the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, Freyr is presented as one of the Vanir, the son of the sea god Njörðr, brother of the goddess Freyja. The gods gave him Álfheimr, the realm of the Elves, as a teething present. He rides the shining dwarf-made boar Gullinbursti and possesses the ship Skíðblaðnir which always has a favorable breeze and can be folded together and carried in a pouch when it is not being used. He has the servants Skírnir, Byggvir, and Beyla.
The most extensive surviving Freyr
myth relates Freyr’s falling in love with the giantess Gerðr. Eventually, she becomes his wife but first Freyr has to give away his magic sword which fights on its own “if wise be he who wields it”. Although deprived of this weapon, Freyr defeats the giant Beli with an antler. However, lacking his sword, Freyr will be killed by the fire giant Surtr during the events of Ragnarök.
That Freyr had a
cult at Uppsala is well confirmed from other sources. The reference to the change in sacrificial ritual may also reflect some historical memory. There is archaeological evidence for an increase in human sacrifices in the late Viking Age though among the Norse gods human sacrifice is most often linked to Odin. Another reference to Frø and sacrifices is found earlier in the work, where the beginning of an annual blót to him is related. King Hadingus is cursed after killing a divine being and atones for his crime with a sacrifice.

Siquidem propitiandorum numinum gratia Frø deo rem divinam furvis hostiis fecit. Quem litationis morem annuo feriarum circuitu repetitum posteris imitandum reliquit. Frøblot Sueones vocant. Gesta Danorum 1, Olrik’s edition

[I]n order to mollify the divinities he did indeed make a holy sacrifice of dark-coloured victims to the god Frø. He repeated this mode of propitiation at an annual festival and left it to be imitated by his descendants. The Swedes call it Frøblot. Gesta Danorum 1, Fisher’s translation

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Freyja

Freyja

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Freyja

Freyja (sometimes anglicized as Freya is a goddess of love and fertility, and the most beautiful and propitious of the goddesses. She is the patron goddess of crops and birth, the symbol of sensuality and was called upon in matters of love. She loves music, spring and flowers, and is particularly fond of the elves.  In the Eddas, Freya is portrayed as a goddess of love, beauty, and fertility. Blonde, blue-eyed, and beautiful, Freyja is described as the fairest of all goddesses, and people prayed to her for happiness in love. She was also called on to assist childbirths and prayed to for good seasons. Goddess of sex, battle, and pleasure, most beautiful and desirable of the goddesses, Freyja was sister to the male fertility god Frey. Freyja had unusual parity with Odin, for they divided the heroic dead amongst themselves. Half went to live eternally in Odin’s hall, and half in Freyja’s hall Sessrumnir- and the goddess got first pick.  Frigg and Freyja are the two principal goddesses in Norse religion, and described as the highest amongst the Asynjur. Freyja is the goddess most honoured after or along with Frigg, and her worship seems to have been even the more prevalent and important of the two. In the Droplaugarsona Saga, it is described that in a temple at Ölvusvatn, Iceland, statues of Frigg and Freyja have been seated upon higher thrones opposite those of Thor and Freyr. These statues were arrayed in drapery and ornaments of gold and silver.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frigg

As the wife of Odin, Frigg is one of the foremost goddesses of Norse mythology. She is the patron of marriage and motherhood, and the goddess of love and fertility. In that aspect she shows many similarities with Freya, of whom she possibly is a different form.  She has a reputation of knowing every person’s destiny, but never unveils it. As the mother of Balder, she tried to prevent his death by extracting oaths from every object in nature, but forgot the mistletoe. And by a dart made from mistletoe Balder died.

Frigg spinning the clouds

Frigg spinning the clouds

“Frigga Spinning the Clouds” by J. C. Dollman.

As Woden/Odin gave his name to Wednesday, and Thunor/Thor to Thursday, so Frigg is remembered in Friday. Frigg was the direct daughter of Fjorgyn, the Goddess of Earth. She kept her own hall, called Fensalir. Women prayed to her for children and prayed again for safe labor and delivery.  Frigg is the highest goddess of the Æsir, while Freyja is the highest goddess of the Vanir. Many arguments have been made both for and against the idea that Frigg and Freyja are really the same goddess, avatars of one another. Some arguments are based on linguistic analysis, others on the fact that Freyja wasn’t known in southern Germany, only in the north, and in some places the two goddesses were considered to be the same, while in others they were considered to be different. There are clearly many similarities between the two: both had flying cloaks of falcon feathers and engaged in shape-shifting, Frigg was married to Odin while Freyja was married to Óðr, both had special necklaces, both had a personification of the Earth as a parent, both were called upon for assistance in childbirth, etc.
There is also an argument that Frigg and Freyja are part of a
triad of goddesses (together with a third goddess such as Hnoss or Iðunn) associated with the different ages of womankind. The areas of influence of Frigg and Freyja don’t quite match up with the areas of influence often seen in other goddess triads. This may mean that the argument isn’t a good one, or it may show something interesting about northern European culture as compared to Celtic and southern European culture.

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Heimdall

 

Heimdall 1

Heimdall 1

Heimdall is the god of light, the son of nine mothers (variously given as the daughters of Geirrendour the Giant or of Aegir). He was born at the end of the world and raised by the force of the earth, seawater and the blood of a boar.  Because of his shining, golden teeth he is also called Gullintani (“gold tooth”). Heimdall carries the horn Gjallar.
He is the watchman of the gods and guards Bifrost, the only entrance to Asgard, the realm of the gods. It is Heimdall’s duty to prevent the giants from forcing their way into Asgard. He requires less sleep than a bird and can see a hundred miles around him, by night as well as by day. His hearing is so accurate that no sound escapes him: he can even hear the grass grow or the wool on a sheep’s back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the final conflict of Ragnarok he will kill his age-old enemy, Loki, but will die himself from his wounds. As the god Rig (“ruler”), Heimdall created the three races of mankind: the serfs, the peasants, and the warriors. It is interesting to note why Heimdall fathered them, and not Odin as might be expected. Furthermore, Heimdall is in many attributes identical with Tyr.

 

Heimdall 2

Heimdall 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Temples and Worship

The temple at Uppsala

The Temple at Uppsala was a religious center in Norse paganism once located at what is now Gamla Uppsala (Swedish “Old Uppsala”), Sweden attested in Adam of Bremen‘s 11th century work Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum and in Heimskringla, written by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century. Theories have been proposed about the implications of the descriptions of the temple and the findings (or lack thereof) of the archaeological excavations in the area.

Temple at Uppsala

Temple at Uppsala

A woodcut depicting the Temple at Uppsala as described by Adam of Bremen, including the golden chain around the temple, the well and the tree, from Olaus MagnusHistoria de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (1555).

Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum

In Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, Adam of Bremen provides a description of the temple. Adam records that a “very famous temple called Ubsola” exists in a town close to Sigtuna. Adam details that the temple is “adorned with gold” and that the people there worship statues of three specific gods that sit on a triple throne. Thor, whom Adam refers to as “the mightiest”, sits in the central throne, while Wodan (Odin) and Fricco (Freyr) are seated on the thrones to the sides of him. Adam provides information about the characteristics of the three gods, including that Fricco is depicted with an immense erect penis, Wodan in armor (“as our people depict Mars“, Adam notes) and that Thor has a mace, a detail which Adam compares to that of the Roman god Jupiter. Adam adds that, in addition, “they also worship gods who were once men, whom they reckon to be immortal because of their heroic acts […].”
Adams says that the three gods have a priest appointed to them each who offer up sacrifices to the deities from the people. If famine or plague occurs, a sacrifice is made to Thor; if there is war, a sacrifice is made to Wodan; if a marriage is to be held, a sacrifices is made to Fricco. Adam continues that “every nine years there is a communal festival of every province in Sweden held in Ubsola; and (what is crueller than any punishment) those already converted to Christianity have to buy themselves off from the ceremonies.”
Later in the account Adam states that when a marriage is performed a
libation is made to the image of Fricco. Historians are divided on the reliability of Adam’s account. While he is close in time to the events he describes he has a clear agenda to emphasize the role of the Archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen in the Christianization of Scandinavia. His timeframe for the Christianization of Sweden conflicts with other sources, such as runic inscriptions, and archaeological evidence does not confirm the presence of a large temple at Uppsala. On the other hand, the existence of phallic idols was confirmed in 1904 with a find at Rällinge in Södermanland.
Adam describes that near the temple stands
a massive tree with far-spreading branches, which is evergreen both in summer and winter. At the tree is also a spring where sacrifices are also held. According to Adam, a custom exists where a man, alive, is thrown into the spring, and if he fails to return to the surface, “the wish of the people will be fulfilled.”
Adam writes that a golden chain surrounds the temple that hangs from the gables of the building. The chain is very visible to those approaching the temple from a distance due to the landscape where the temple was built; it is surrounded by hills, “like an ampitheatre.” The feasts and sacrifices continue for a total of nine days, and during the course of each day a man is sacrificed along with two animals. Therefore, in a total of nine days seventy-two sacrifices occur, and, Adam notes, these sacrifices occur “about the time of the spring equinox.”

Heimskringla

In the Ynglinga saga compiled in Heimskringla, Snorri presents a euhemerized origin of the Norse gods and rulers descending from them. In chapter 5, Snorri that the æsir settled in what is now Sweden an built various temples. Snorri writes that Odin settled in Lake Logrin, “at a place which formerly was called Sigtúnir. There he erected a large temple and made sacrifices according to the custom of the Æsir. He took possession of the land as far as he called it Sigtúnir. He gave dwelling places to the temple priests.” Further, Snorri writes that, after this, Njörðr dwelt in Nóatún, Freyr dwelt in Uppsala, Heimdall at Himingbjörg, Thor at Þrúðvangr, Baldr at Breiðablik and that to everyone Odin gave fine estates.
In chapter 10, after Njörðr has died, his son Freyr comes to power and “he was called the king of Swedes and received tribute from them.” Freyr’s subjects loved him greatly, and he was “blessed by good seasons like his father.” According to the saga, Freyr “erected a great temple at Uppsala and made his chief residence there, directing it to all tribute due to him, both lands and chattels. This was the origin of the Uppsala crown goods, which have been kept up ever since.”

Archaeological record

In 1926, Sune Lindqvist conducted archaeological investigations in Gamla Uppsala that led to discoveries of postholes beneath the church in Gamla Uppsala. These postholes may be lined up with the result of concentric rectangles, and subsequently various attempts at reconstructions of the temple have been attempted based on this discovery.
Archeologists Neil Price and
Magnus Alkarp are among those who dispute the 1926 interpretation: “Though still maintained today in school textbooks and elsewhere, this conclusion is clearly erroneous as the postholes can be shown stratigraphically to belong to several different phases of construction.” Using ground penetrating radar and other geophysical methods, Price and Alkarp found the remains of what they interpreted as a wooden construction located directly under the northern transept of the medieval cathedral, and two other buildings, one of them a Bronze Age building, and the other possibly a Viking-age feasting hall.

Theories

Rudolf Simek says that, regarding Adam of Bremen’s account of the temple, “Adam’s sources for this information are of extremely varying reliability, but the existence of a temple at Uppsala is indisputed.” Simek says that details of Adam’s accounts have been cited as potentially influenced by the description of Solomon’s Temple in the Old Testament. Simek notes, at the same time, similar chains as described by Adam appear on some European churches dating from the 8th to 9th centuries, although the description of the temple chain having been made of gold may be an exaggeration. Simek says that the numerous attempts at reconstructing the temple based on the postholes may over estimate the size of the temple, and that notes that “more recent” research indicates that the size of the 11th century temple likely adjoined the choir of the church standing there today, while the postholes discovered by Lindqvist may instead point to an earlier, burnt down temple at the same site.
Andy Orchard states that “it is unclear to what extent
Adam of Bremen‘s description has a basis in historical fact rather than lurid fiction” yet that Adam’s account contains “a good deal of useful information (as well as considerable speculation).” Orchard points out that Adam’s description of the temple has often been questioned “on several levels” and that Thietmar of Merseburg produced a considerably less detailed but similar account of sacrifices held in Lejre, Denmark earlier in the 11th century. Orchard says that archaeological digs in the area “have failed to reveal anything on the scale proposed for the temple” yet that three burial mounds at the location reveal the importance of the site

Further reading

Batey, C Clarke, H, Page RI and Price, NS 1994 Cultural Atlas of the Viking World Time-Life Books
Crossley-Holland, K 1993 The Penguin Book of Norse Myths Penguin Books Limited
Davidson, HR Ellis 1964 Gods and Myths of Northern Europe Penguin Books Limited
Davidson, HR Ellis 1984 Pagan Scandinavia Hamlyn
Davidson, HR Ellis 1993 Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe Routledge
Graham-Campbell, J 2001 The Viking World Frances Lincoln Limited
Magnusson, M 1976 Viking: Hammer of the North Orbis
Owen, GR 1981 Rites and Religions of the Anglo Saxons David and Charles
Page, RI 1995 Chronicles of the Vikings British Museum Press
Page, RI 1993 Norse Myths British Museum Press
Simek, R 1993 Dictionary of Northern Mythology Boydell and Brewer
Todd, M 1992 The Early Germans Blackwell
Turville-Petre, EOG 1964 Myth and Religion of the North Weidenfield
1997 Sagas of the Norsemen; Viking and German Myth Duncan Baird Publishers

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