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Pre-Christian Scandinavia: When the Christians Came

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Up to this point, we’ve looked at some of the modern attitudes toward the jötnar, archaeological evidence of religion in Scandinavia, and an interpretation of that evidence as it relates to the jötnar. Today I want to turn toward some of the literary evidence, beginning with Adam of Bremen, whose writings predate Snorri Sturluson’s by approximately 125 years. His is among the most important writings regarding the religion of the Vikings and includes an account of the temple in Uppsala, written c. 1075 A.D.

In his famous description of the temple of Uppsala and the rituals that occurred there, Adam of Bremen describes a temple which housed pagan idols where, every nine years, the kings of the land were to gather to pay homage to the gods and all their people were to send gifts of offering and sacrifice. No one, he noted, was exempt from this duty. During this time a sacrifice was made consisting of nine “of every living thing which is male…with the blood of which it is customary to placate gods of this sort. The bodies they hang in the sacred grove that adjoins the temple. Now this grove is so sacred in the eyes of the heathens that each and every tree in it is believed divine because of the death or putrefaction of the victims.” He does, however, go on to relate how this information was passed on to him second hand, namely by “a Christian seventy-two years old” who had witnessed the sacrifice, a detail which reminds us that Adam of Bremen never himself witnessed these rituals or laid eyes upon the temple. Furthermore, we are made to understand that some portion of what was related back to him was not, in fact, preserved in his writings, as he states: “…the incantations customarily chanted in the ritual of a sacrifice of this kind are manifold and unseemly; therefore, it is better to keep silence about them.” (1)

Of course, by the time of Adam of Bremen’s writing, Christianity had a solid presence in Scandinavia. In fact, a great number of the stories he writes in regards to paganism in Scandinavia are stories about Christians fighting the evils of paganism either by attempting to convert the people, destroying idols and places of worship, or simply plotting to do so. It is reasonable to assume that “the temple, priests and statues may all have been influenced by Christian worship, for they are not known from earlier sources” (2) and evidence of the existence of temples in pagan Scandinavia remains scant to nonexistent.

Nonetheless, aside from place-names, which can point us to cult places and locations where certain gods were popular among the locals, (3) we have little evidence outside of Adam of Bremen’s account about what religious ceremonies and rituals in the Viking era looked like. This makes his account incredibly valuable though we must read it with a reserved and skeptical eye because 1) Adam of Bremen never himself visited or laid eyes on the temple at Uppsala. His account is based on the stories of those who had. Furthermore, 2) his bias as a member of the Christian clergy undoubtedly colored his perception of these ceremonies and rituals and therefore colored his descriptions of them (as is evident where he chooses to omit details about the rituals).

What kinds of conclusions can we then draw from Adam of Bremen’s account? It seems reasonable to assume that the pagan religion of the people of Scandinavia was relatively malleable and capable of adaption if, as Roesdahl suggests, the building of the temple and the incorporating of priests was, indeed, because of contact with Christianity. Likely because the pagan religion was a polytheistic one there was little-perceived threat from the appearance of the Christian god, as the existence of this god and the fact that he was worshipped by these newcomers would not have drastically altered their view of the world in terms of religion and their own relationship to the divine—if there are a plethora of gods, after all, why should one more be so surprising?

From Adam of Bremen’s account, we further know that the use of idols was practiced by the pagans of Scandinavia—something which can be corroborated by archaeological evidence—and that sacrifices of life and blood were performed in the presence of these idols to pay homage to the gods they represented. Archeological evidence of various kinds of sacrifice in the pagan religion of Scandinavia has been found throughout the land, including the so-called “Bog People” in Denmark, which “appear to reveal…the presence of a religion devoted to fertility, in which humans were sacrificed to secure an abundant harvest.” (4) Though very little if any evidence has been found at Gamla Uppsala to support Adam of Bremen’s assertions of sacrifices which included humans, this cannot be discounted entirely given the incontrovertible evidence that human sacrifice was practiced elsewhere in pagan Scandinavia.

In addition to offering up blood to the gods, we also know that practitioners offered up incantations to accompany their sacrifice, though once again what those incantations are must be relegated to the realm of theory and imagination.  Because of Adam of Bremen’s refusal to record them due to their “unseemly” nature, we know these incantations run counter to his own Christian faith. This doesn’t, however, tell us overly much as this could simply be a reflection of the unseemliness of the worship of “false gods” in his eyes, or it could allude to incantations relevant to fertility, and perhaps the sexuality inevitably involved in matters of fertility. Adam of Bremen could have chosen to exclude these “unseemly” incantations for any number of affronts to the Christian religion which the pagan religion might have committed in such incantations, and it is impossible to know which of Christianity’s laws were broken or in what way those laws were being broken in these incantations without having access to them.

Depictions on various runestones together with Adam of Bremen’s account of the activities at the temple of Uppsala and others like it give us an idea of what religious practice may have looked like in Scandinavia both during the time of conversion and the time shortly preceding conversion. Aside from telling us that the people engaging in these practices believed that they could please the gods to achieve some worldly purpose, the practices themselves don’t shed much light on the beliefs. To learn more about the beliefs themselves, we will turn in the next post to records of the myths of pagan Scandinavia, the most important of which being Snorri Sturluson’s 13th century The Prose Edda (5) along with the works upon which Sturluson based his Edda. These are the most known and most heavily relied upon sources for the majority of modern heathen practitioners, so stay tuned for a close reading of them.


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(1) Adam of Bremen. History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen. Trans. Francis J. Tschan. Columbia University Press: New York. 2002. Pps 207-208.

(2) Roesdahl. pp 152

(3) Roesdahl, pp 18

(4) Nordstrom. Pp 9

(5) Roesdahl. Pp 148

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