Religious Beliefs and Burial Customs

Religious Beliefs and Burial Customs


In the great poems of the Elder Edda, particularly Voluspa (‘The Sibyl’s Prophecy), and in Gylfaginning (‘The Delding of Gylfi’), where the Christian writer Snorri Sturluson, drawing on a number of sources, recreates the religious beliefs of his pagan ancestors, Icelandic literature gives us a splendid and highly-coloured picture of the old religion of Scandinavia. It is not a simple and terse account of noble beliefs. On the contrary. Ancient myths, tales, and traditions of widely different sorts and places of origin, beliefs and ways of thought both old and new, native and foreign, are all combined by Snorri’s great sense of composition and story-telling into an imposing whole. We are told of the creation and the ultimate end of the world, the battles of the gods and the giants, and the Norse pantheon, with its two categories of gods: the Asir and the Vanir. In the centre lies the home of the gods, Asgard, where the mighty Odin has his great hall Valhalla with its 640 doors, and his throne Hlidskjalf from which he can survey all creation. This heaven of gods is separated from the earth by the bridge Bifrost, the trembling rainbow; the disc of the earth is surrounded by the great ocean, home of the Midgard serpent, and on its farthest shore lie the mountains of the giants, Jotunheim, where stands their citadel Utgard. Beneath the disc of the earth lies Hel, the land of the dead.

What we learn about the great ash-tree Yggdrasil, itself a world of good and evil, of joy and sorrow, sounds like a song from a completely different world. Yggdrasil is gigantic; its crown reaches the sky, its branches cover the earth, its three roots stretch out to Hel, to Jotunheim and beneath Midgard, the home of mortals. At the foot of Yggdrasil are two wells, one belonging to Mimi, god of wisdom, the other to Urd, goddess of destiny. In the branches of the tree sits the eagle, and between its eyes perches a hawk, bleached by weather and wind. A serpent gnaws at the root of the tree, and between it and ht eagle a chattering squirrel runs to and fro carrying words of evil. four deer nibble away at the young shoots of the tree, and its sides are rotting away. ‘The ash-tree Yggdrasil suffers and endures more than men realize!’ But the Norms give solace and renewal at Urd’s well, from which they pour water daily on Yggdrasil so that it shall not wither. The bees are nourished by Yggdrasil’s honey-dew. At a holy place by Urd’s well the gods meet for their Thing, and here live the three highest of the Norms, the goddesses of past, present, and future, who are called Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld. In the centre of the world above the humans are the abodes of the gods, where live the two races of gods, the Asir and the Vanir. We shall return later to this Nordic pantheon; meanwhile let us look briefly at the Nordic conception of the end of the world – Ragnarok.

Nothing lasts for ever, and when the gods have fulfilled their destiny the end of all things will arrive. This is the event so graphically related in Voluspa and in Snorri’s tale. The first sign of the approaching end will be the coming of dreadful and horrible events and desperate desires – ‘swords-time’, ‘wolf-time’, fratricide, and incest. The cocks will crow in Odin’s hall, in Hel, and in the sacrificial groves. Horror and eeriness grow. It is the time of the giant monsters; the hound of Hel, Garm, will howl, the wolf Fenri is freed from his chains, and its jaws stretch from earth to heaven. The Midgard serpent will whip the ocean into foam and spew venom upon the earth. The giant Hrym will cross the seas in his ship Naglfar, built from dead man’s nails, and the sons of Muspel will sail forth with Loki as their leader. The tree Yggdrasil will tremble, the sky split asunder, the rocks roll down; in Jotunheim there will be rumbling, the dwarfs will whimper. Odin will be on the watch, Heimdal will blow his horn, the bridge Bifrost will break, and the giant Surt will advance, sprouting fire. Then will come the final battle between gods and monsters. The wolf Fenri devours Odin, but is then slain by his son, Vidar, who smashes the brute’s jaws with his heavy shoe. Thor kills the Midgard serpent, but after walking nine paces fall dead, poisoned by its venom. Ty and the hound Garm kill each other; so do Heimdal and Loki, Surt kills Frey and burns up everything with his flames. The sun turns black; the stars disappear. Yet hope survives; the earth rises again from the ocean. The two guiltless Asir gods, Baldr and Hod, return;  and in the golden hall, Gimli, the sinless lives on. The eagle flies again above the thundering waterfall, the sun shines once more upon a newborn world. Although Christianity is not named, this tale implies the emergence of a new triumphant faith for a newly created humanity. It is a drama of death and resurrection.


Nordic religion, like the Egyptian, Greek, and Romans, was polytheistic. There were numerous gods, each governing a particular human need or action. In this hierarchy the gods varied considerably in power and status; some were at the height of their power, others apparently were aged and half forgotten; some stood high in the table of precedence, others were secondary figures. Let us look here at the principal deities in Asgard.



Supreme among them is Odin: a magnificent, dominating, demonic, and sadistic figure. He is consumed by his passion for wisdom; for its sake he sacrifices an eye, even hangs himself. Pitiless, capricious, heartless, he is the god of war and the slain warriors. He owns the spear Gungni, the self-renewing gold ring, Draupni, the fleet eight-footed horse, Sleipni. He is guarded by his two wolves and is brought news from everywhere by his two ravens. He communes with the head of the wise decapitated Mimi, he finds the runes and knows their secret power. He hunts by night, with his retinue, though mountains and woods; he appears to the doomed and on the battlefield as a tall one-eyed figure clad in a long cape and wearing a broad-brimmed hat. Odin is also the god of skalds: he governs the mystic ecstasy, the great pathos, the passion of the soul. He knows witchcraft and sorcery; he can fathom the soul’s subtleties. He is the god of the great ones, an aristocrat, a dangerous god. He is sometimes called Universal Father, and justly, in so far as he takes the chair among the deities; but we must not take the words ‘Universal Father’ as denoting paternal tendencies and sympathy; with this meaning they do not apply to Odin. His human clientele consists of kings, earls, chieftains, magicians, and poets. The warriors who die in battle dedicated to him are carried by the valkyries to Valhalla, where they are enrolled in his immense corps, the einherjar, who will be at Odin’s back at Ragnerok. To achieve his aim of gaining all wisdom and knowledge of all mysteries Odin stops at nothing in the way of deceit, cunning, and treachery, and if he is hard to others so also is he to himself. His characteristics cover a wide range: from cold cynicism to Dionysian enthusiasm, from ferocity to ecstasy.


Between Odin, greatest and most profound of the Nordic deities, and the next of the Asir, the powerful red-bearded Thor with his goat carriage and mighty hammer, there is a considerable gap. Odin is the god of the great, while Thor is the god of the common man. The humour which is lacking in the descriptions of Odin is suitably prominent in the accounts of Thor.

Numerous legends and anecdotes are recounted of Thor the strong and faithful protector of the Viking peasant, and the superb fighter who finds no lack of targets for his hammer among the giants. When he races across the clouds with his team of he-goats, the thunder rumbles, and when he goes forth with his hammer, Mjollni, in his hand, he is irresistible. He does not practice cunning and stratagems, and although he is often outwitted by the tricks of the giants he always wins in the end. The Northerners invented many vivid stories of his deeds: he wrests the great beer cauldron from the giants; he wins back the stolen hammer; fishes for the Midgard serpent; encounters strange adventures with Utgardaloki, king of the giants, whom he visits accompanied by the clever, but in this case rather helpless, Loki.

Thor was quick-tempered, but equally easily pacified. The Viking peasant understood and appreciated him. He was not merely the subject of entertaining tales round the fire in the evening; he was the helpful deity who made the crops grow, the god of agriculture (except perhaps in Norway). For this reason, because he was so involved in the daily life of the people, he seemed more real and important to the peasants than Odin himself. This is illustrated by the fact,  related by Adam of Bremen, that it was Thor’s effigy, not Odin’s, which stood in the central position in the temple at Uppsala where the three principal gods, Odin, Thor, and Frey, were worshipped. Thor was also called upon at weddings to bless the bride with fertility, and it is he and not Odin who is invoked on the rune-stones to consecrate the runes. When in late Viking times a symbol was needed to resist the potency of the Cross, the Vikings chose the hammer of Thor not the spear of Odin. Thor was, finally, a more popular deity than Odin – his favour was sought not only by the farmer but by the blacksmith, the fisherman, the sailor; he was closer to the ordinary man than was the complex, unapproachable, and violent Odin.



Ty is a deity less clearly defined than the other two. We hear he is brave and virtuous, that he loses a hand when the wolf Fenri is bound, and that at Ragnarok he fights with Garm, the hound of Hel. Norse sources tell little more of him.

These three Asir, Odin, Thor, and Ty, are by no means newcomers to the Germanic pantheon. All of them are mentioned, under Roman names, in Tacitus’s famous book about the Germanic peoples, written about 100 A.D., where Mercury, Hercules, and Mars correspond respectively to Odin, Thor, and Ty, and where Mercury is said to be the principal Germanic god and the only one to whom human sacrifices are made. Mercury (and the Greek Hermes as well) has it in common with Odin to be guide of the dead, to wear a mantle and a broad hat, and to carry a stick (or spear). Beyond this, however, there is not very much resemblance between them; Mercury does not display the savagery so characteristic of Odin – an attribute derived by some scholars from the proximity of the East Germanic peoples to those wild Asiatic hordes which poured into Europe during the migration period. This Mongolian type of Odin may have travelled first to Sweden, and then to the rest of Scandinavia with the Gothic cultural connexions that linked the Black Sea to the Baltic. To compare Thor with Hercules is acceptable to a point, but does not account for the thunder or the hammer; Thor must have been an ancient god of agriculture and a thunder and rain god as well. Ty, again, is only the partial counterpart of Mars; his Norse name, Tyr, Tir, or Ti, is cognate with the Latin Jupiter, the Greek Zeus, and the Indian Dyaus. He is really an archaic, later dethroned, King of Heaven. How old this trinity was among the Germanic peoples it is not possible to say (perhaps not very old); Caesar, as is well known, observed that the Germanic races worshipped natural forces – fire, the sun, and the moon. The Germanic peoples called days of the week after these gods: Tuesday (Ty), Wednesday (Odin), Thursday (Thor).


A special place within the circle of the gods is taken by Baldr, the son of Odin and Frigg. Snorri tells of him this famous story: how the genial and friendly god met his tragic death from the arrow of mistletoe shot by his blind and innocent brother; how he was laid on the funeral pyre, how all nature lamented; how the gods tried to liberate him form Hel but were prevented by the machinations of the wicked Loki. The figure of Baldr is unique in Norse mythology and an enigma which scholars have not yet solved. Some suggest Christian influence from the legends of the Middle Ages; others observe similarities to Oriental myths of the god of fruitfulness, for whose death Nature weeps and laments; but these comparisons fail to account for the fact that in the Baldr myth the expected theme of resurrection is totally absent. The medieval Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus also tells the story of Baldr, but his material is quite different from Snorri’s, and is not of great interest. Compared with the trinity of Odin, Thor, and Ty, Baldr is a very young deity.

Viking are derives at least one of its themes from the Baldr myth – that of how the gods, trying to launch the heavy funeral ship on to the sea, have to send to Jotunheim for the witch Hyrrokkin, who comes riding on a wolf, with an adder for a bridle, and pushes the funeral ship into the water with a violence which shakes the earth and angers Thor. This event is depicted on a sculptured stone dated about 1000, from Skane. It shows the riding giantes, wearing a shift and a pointed hat, her snake tongue hanging out, the adder used as a bridle for her magnificent wolf which gallops along with jaws open, ears pointed, and a long tasselled tail. That vivid picture can be of no one but Hyrrokkin.


Heimdal is the god with the war-horn which sounds at Ragnarok. He is keen-eyed, vigilant, and alert, the watchman of the gods and the guardian of the bridge Bifrost. Voluspa calls human beings ‘Heimdal’s sons’, and Heimdal is the wandering god who, in Rigspula, creates the three classes of society. He and Loki, old enemies, kill each other at Ragnarok. Apart from that, Heimdal is not very well defined in the circle of Norse gods.


the god of hunting is Ull, who excels at archery and at skiing. His status in the hierarchy is even more obscure than Heimdal’s; there are no myths about him, and in late Viking times he remains very much a nonentity. However, his name forms an element in certain Scandinavian place-names, the evidence suggesting that he was known and worshipped in southern Norway and central Sweden; but not in Denmark. The general conclusion is that by Viking times Ull was an old deity well on his way to oblivion.


Among the gods we meet are three who do not belong to the Asir but to a different and apparently older race of gods called Vanir, representatives of a religion which in the Viking period was losing ground to that of the Asir. These three were Njord, Frey, and Freyja. According to Snorri the two races of gods came to terms after a battle and gave each other hostages. The three Vanir hostages who went to live in Asgard were those named above, and all three were deities of growth, conception, fertility, and sexual life. In other words old fertility gods, whom the Asir did not succeed in replacing.

Njord was the eldest of the three; in fact on his sister he begot Frey and Freyja. In the myths he is married to Skaldi, a giantess who liked to live in the mountains, whereas Njord preferred the shores and sea. He is the ruler of the winds and the god of seafaring people; he also gives wealth. The name Njord is cognate with the Nerthus whom Tacitus names as the north-west Germanic goddess (not god) of fertility. A confusion of sexes like this is no rarity in the history of religion. There is undoubtedly some connexion between Njord and Nerthus, and it is worthy of note, in passing, that (as Wessen has pointed out) Swedish place-names ending in -njard are feminine. Tacitus calls Nerthus ‘Mother Earth’; she dwells in a grove ‘on an island in the ocean’. Each spring she is driven by her priest around the island, with great ceremony, in a consecrated covered carriage drawn by oxen, and is everywhere received with the greatest delight. Weapons are laid aside and feasting is universal. Returned after the ceremonial visit, her carriage and the linen too are washed in secret in a lake by serfs, who, their task finished, are summarily drowned. Archaeologists are inclined to think, as we shall see again later, that this goddess of the Roman Age, this earth-goddess promoting fertility, existed in much earlier times in Scandinavia, probably as far back as the Bronze Age.

The strongest and most celebrated of the three Vanir in Asgard was Njord’s son, Frey, the god of sexual intercourse, whose statue in the temple at Uppsala was distinguished by a gigantic phallus. He appears to have inspired particular devotion in Sweden, as evidenced by erotic statuettes and amulets, and by the tradition of carriage processions in the style of Nerthus. He was apparently popular also in Iceland, in Trondelag, and in Denmark. This god of fecundity and growth, rain and sunshine, is attended in Asgard by his sacred pig, Gullinbursti. There is a famous myth of Frey’s passionate love for the giant’s daughter, Gerd of the white arms. The worship of Frey may have reached Norway and Iceland from Jamtland, in whose central lake, Lake Stor (Storsjon), lie the islands of Norderon and Froson (Njord’s island and Frey’s island). In Iceland Frey is sometimes called ‘the Swedish god’ (Sviagod).

The third of the Vanir is Freyja, Frey’s sister and in every way his female counterpart. His name means ‘lord’, hers ‘lady’. A goddess of love and fertility, she has in the Edda the reputation of being easy with her favours; for example, she is accused by Loki of being the willing paramour of gods and elves, and she is said to have bought her magnificent necklace, the men Brisinga, from four dwarfs at a disreputable price. She, too, possess a carriage, but hers is drawn by cats (cf, the lion-drawn carriage of Cybele). Barren women invoked her blessing, and she was the death goddess not only of all women, but also of half the warriors slain in battle.

These three Vanir deities were no doubt very ancient gods; older than Odin and Thor, older even than Ty. The question arises; what gods did they dispossess when, possibly during the last few centuries B.C., they came to the Germanic peoples? The latter doubtless had their Nature gods, as Caesar noted, and it may be supposed that they also worshipped their old gods from the Bronze Age. We know from Bronze Age archaeological finds and rock drawings that they worshipped a god with large hands and bristling fingers, sometimes armed with an axe, who appears to have been the god of thunder; that they worshipped also a naked goddess adorned with a necklace, and a goddess seated in a carriage. The latter is evidenced in Early Iron Age discoveries – e.g. the carriage with women’s belongings in it found at Dejbjerg in west Jutland. This carriage-driving goddess is possibly the same as Nerthus who, if the supposition is correct, must have derived from the Bronze Age. It is reasonable to surmise, in that case, that the naked goddess was a forerunner of Freyja. This cannot be accepted as certain, but it encourages the conclusion that the Asir, originated back in the Bronze Age, at least 500 years B.C.


The last of the Asir in Asgard is Loki, half god and half devil, next to Odin the most singular and strange god. He is offspring of a giant and in many ways a split personality. Though a giant’s son and married to a giantess. Angrboda, by whom he has three fearful monsters, the Midgard serpent, the wolf, Fenri, and Hel, he lives with the Asir and at one point became blood-brother of Odin, whose complex personality in many ways matches his own. Loki relishes satire but has no sense of humour; he is cunning and deceitful and lacks all capacity for friendship; his stinging words can hurt and strike, and his attacks on practically all the gods and goddesses are invariably vicious and cruel; he is always animated by self-interest.

Both the Edda and Snorri harp upon his unpleasant character and his perpetual malice. He is a sexual freak too, capable of giving birth to such oddities as Odin’s eight-footed horse, Sleipni. Of his many misdeeds the most notorious is his instigation of the killing of Baldr – the crime which finally determines his fate. He tries to escape by changing himself into a salmon, but the Asir capture him and fetter him to a rock underneath a serpent dripping poison. His second wife, Sigyn, manages to catch the venom, but whenever she misses a drop his trembling makes the earth quake. In this plight he survives until Ragnarok when after getting free and joining forces with the enemies of the Asir, he and Heimdal kill each other. In modern jargon Loki would be reckoned the psychopath among gods; on the basis of his feud with the gods, he has been compared with Promethus and Satan: but he has none of the splendid defiance of the first named, and none of the fallen Lucifer’s secret longings. He loves evil for its own sake; has a sharp eye for the vulnerable qualities of his enemies; and so nourishes his evil nature as to develop in himself every hue and aspect of sin. His weakness is his passion to see how deeply he can commit himself to evil without paying the price – and at last he goes too far and brings down catastrophe upon himself. In the viking nature there must have been characteristics which account for the pleasure they took in the personality of this bizarre deity. Nations get the gods they deserve. Loki has features in common with the Mephistopheles of the Middle Ages – thus far one can point out a connexion with Christianity. Loki is not as old a figure as Odin, Thor, and Ty, and by no means as old as the Vanir. He is not truly a god at all, in the sense of being a figure whom men are impelled to worship. Rather is he a product of mythological speculation.


Scandinavian place-names provide clues to the identity of the gods worshipped in various localities. Odin was known over a wide area, since place-names embodying his name (Incidentally, Swedish place-names ending in -tuna are never found in combination with the name of Odin) are scattered throughout the Norse lands, except Iceland. The name Thor is common over the whole of Scandinavia, including Iceland. In Norway and Sweden Thor often appears in combination with such elements as -hof  (‘temple’); but this is not the case in Denmark, where his name is commonly associated with lundr (‘grove’). In Norway Thor is never linked with an agrarian element such as -akr (‘field’) or -vin (‘meadow’), which suggests that here he was not such an agrarian deity as in Denmark and Sweden, nor in Iceland is Thor found with agrarian endings. Ty or Ti seldom appears in Norwegian or Swedish place-names, but is common in Denmark. Baldr’s name turns up sporadically in all the Norse countries; and Heimdal’s so infrequently as to lead to the conclusion that he enjoyed no cult at all. Ull is incorporated in many place-names in Norway and eastern Sweden, but not in Denmark. The names of the three Vanir, Njord, Frey, and Freyja, are widespread: all three are abundant in Norway and in eastern Sweden as far north as Jamtland. In Denmark Njord appears in place-names on Zealand and Fyn; Frey and Freyja also appear in these two islands as well as in southern Jutland. Judging from the place-names, Loki, like Heimdal, enjoyed no cult at all. In many places the word ‘god’ or ‘holy’ is used instead of any individual god.

These place-names often have as second element the object which is consecrated to the god. Endings such as -hov or -hof show that he had a house or temple; -harg or -tuna signifies his place of sacrifice; -hylde the base of an idol; -vi the god’s fenced-in sanctuary; -ager his cultivated field. Or the god’s name may be linked with some natural object associated with him – a grove, hill, rock, lake, spring, bay, island, etc.


Little is known about the forms of worship of these deities, or about their temples, although both archaeological and literary sources give some information. The most famous literary source is Adam of Bremen’s famous description of the most renowned temple of the north, that at Old Uppsala, still flourishing when he wrote around 1070, as the centre of paganism and strong resistance to Christianity. Here is his account of it:

These people have a celebrated sanctuary called Uppsala, not very far from Sigtuna and Birka. In this temple, entirely covered with gold, are three idols which the people worship: Thor, as the mightiest god, has his throne in the centre of the hall, and Odin and Frey are on either side of him. Their fields of action are the following: Thor, it is said, rules the air – thunder, lightning, storm, rain, fine weather, and the crops. The second, Odin [i.e. fury], is the god of war who inspires men with courage to fight their enemies. The third is Frey, who gives mankind peace and sensuous pleasures. his idol, therefore, they endow with a mighty phallus. Odin is represented as armed, in the fashion of Mars; the sceptred Thor resembles Jupitor. Sometimes these people also elevate men to the status of deities, and endow them with immortality as a tribute to some great achievement of theirs – the reward, according to St Ansgar’s biography, which was bestowed upon King Eric.

Attached to the gods are priests who offer the people’s sacrifices. If sickness or famine threaten they sacrifice to the idol Thor; if war, to Odin; and if a wedding is to be celebrated they sacrifice to Frey. There is also a festival at Uppsala every nine years, common to all the provinces of Sweden. Attendance at this event is compulsory and it is the universal practice for kings and peoples and everyone to send offerings to Uppsala and – a cruel thing – those who have become Christians may secure exemption on payment of a fine. The sacrifice on this occasion involves the slaughter of nine males of every creature, with whose blood the gods are placated. The bodies are hung in a grove near the temple, a sanctuary so holy that each tree is regarded as itself divine, in consequence of the death and decay of the victims. Dogs and horses hang there beside human beings, and a Christian has told me that he has seen as many as seventy-two carcases hanging there side by side. By the way, it is said that the songs sung during the ceremony are numerous and obscene, so that it is better to say nothing about them.

Some later additions to this account run hus:

Near this temple stands a huge tree, which stretches out green branches in summer and winter alike; what species nobody knows. There is also a spring there at which pagan sacrifices take place. A living man is plunged into it, and if he does not reappear it is a sign that the people’s wishes will be fulfilled.

And further on:

A chain of gold surrounds the temple, hanging over the roof and greeting visitors from afar with its brightness, for the temple lies in a plain, as an amphitheatre surrounded by mountains.

A rather older literary source, the German Thietmar of Merseburg (c. 1000), describes a sacrificial feast held every nine years in January at Lejre on Zealand. Here, says Theitmar, in front of the people, ninety-nine human beings and ninety-nine horses, to say nothing of dogs and cocks, were sacrificed to the gods in order to protect the people against evil powers and atone for its sins. it is not clear whether this feast occurred during the time of the Vikings, or before.

A pagan sacrificial feast was called a blot. Snorri describes those held at Lade, in Trondelag: All the peasants had to attend, bringing beer and horseflesh. The walls of the temple were daubed outside and in, with the blood of the horses, and the flesh was cooked in fires built upon the floor of the temple and dedicated to Odin, Njord, Frey, and the minor god Bragi before it was eaten. There is a famous story that the peasants of Trondelag forced the Christian King Hakon the Good to participate in such a feast, which he did only in part and with reluctance.

Not only the major gods but also the lesser deities, the disir and alfar were celebrated with sacrifices. The disir were mysterious female beings, related possibly to the fylgjur and the valkyries, and perhaps connected with Freyja in her capacity as goddess of the dead. It was wise to keep in with the disir, and to remember them with sacrificial gifts, for they could foretell death and had also certain protective powers over houses and crops. The disir were not always friendly powers, and it was important to treat them with a certain awe and respect, rather as one would respect the dead. In Viking times the disir were worshipped at Uppsala at a large winter feast held in February at full moon. The alfar, or elves, were low-grade deities, not strictly gods at all, but figures who were worshipped within the home because of their protective powers. Sighvat, a Christian, who was skald to St Olaf, describes in his poem Austrfararvisur how he went to heathen Sweden and at night reached a closed house. From inside they answered his knocking by crying out that they were engaged in holy practices. ‘Come no nearer, you miserable fellow,’ exclaimed the woman. ‘I fear Odin’s wrath, we worship the ancient gods.’ ‘This wicked woman,’ Sighvat writes, ‘who would drive me away like a wolf, said she was preparing for alfablot,’ On such occasions there was no scope for the traditional Nordic hospitality.

Another species of invisible beings who frequented human habitations and with whom it was well to be on good terms, were the vattir, and further down the scale still, trolls and goblins, but these things were not actually worshipped.

A remarkable example of the survival in a remote area of a primitive cult is related in a tale called Volsapattr – ‘the story of Volsi’. The scene is a lonely farm in northern Norway on which lived the farmer and his wife, their son and daughter, and their thrall and his wife. Volsi is the name given to the penis of a horse, carefully preserved in herbs by the wife and kept wrapped in a linen cloth. Every night the six of them pass this object from hand to hand,addressing it in short verses while doing so. This ceremony becomes their nightly habit until St Olaf and some travelling companions unexpectedly arrive on the scene, fling the pagan phallus to the dog, and teach Christianity to the benighted family. Such a medley of sexuality and magic was no doubt far from exceptional among the primitive Scandinavian peasants.


Scattered through literature are references to heathen temples, sanctuaries, and sacrificial feasts, besides the accounts already quoted: Snorri’s of the Trondelag blot, Adam of Bremen’s of the temple at Old Uppsala, and Thietmar’s of sacrifices at Lejre. The last, incidentally, can be related to the story in Beowulf of King Hrothgar’s hall, called Heorot (‘hart’) in Lejre; and both are, no doubt, somewhat older than the Viking Age. What evidence, however, can archaeology offer of the temples, sanctuaries, or enclosed holy places? It is scanty, it must be admitted, and certainly not sufficient to enable reconstructions to be made. A good example is Ejnar Dyggve’s excavation under the choir of the Romanesque Church at Jelling (This is, of course, the setting where two great mounds and two royal rune-stones stand) in south Jutland. Here Dyggve found the remains of a stave-church with a rectangular apse in the east, four great roof-posts forming a square in the middle of the church, and at the western end an open space enclosed by stones. He also found traces of a still older wooden building – the remains of a floor made of clay through which a great supporting beam had been embedded.

The first of those two finds is believed to be the church which King Harald Bluetooth built after his conversion to Christianity, while the older building is generally considered the remains of the heathen temple of his father Gorm. Sune Lindqvist similarly found traces of a temple below the stone at Old Uppsala, though these were insufficient to justify the reconstruction of the famous temple which he has made. The remains are yet to be discovered which will provide us with the shape and plan of a heathen temple. Why are they sought for under the stone churches of the Middle Ages? The reason is that these are often found to have been built over older churches which, in their turn, may be presumed to have been put up on top of demolished heathen temples. In Iceland, certain long-houses with special end sections (for idols?). At Jelling about ten years ago Dyggve identified a large triangular area, which had been surrounded by upright stones, presumably a ve or holy place. Similar enclosed triangular areas have been located by him elsewhere in Denmark. We shall return later in some detail to the difficult problem of interpreting the Jelling finds – mounds, ve, temple, stave-church, and rune-stones.


The Viking attitude towards death is to some degree disclosed through grave-finds. Hundreds of Viking graves have been unearthed (though fewer in Denmark and Jutland than in Norway and Sweden); but, far from presenting a uniform impression of the Viking idea of the after-life, they reveal a great complexity and variety of practice and belief. Both burial and cremation occur; burial occurred sometimes in large wooden chambers, sometimes in modest coffins; in a big longship or in a little boat, or sometimes in a symbolical boat made of stones or in a carriage. There are graves under huge mounds, and  grave under ordinary flat fields, the grave-goods are sometimes rich, sometimes poor, and sometimes completely absent. There are two main reasons for such wide variation of practice. The first is that in pre-Viking – Merovingian – times burial customs varied between the three Northern countries and variations continued into the Viking period. The second reason is that the Viking religion was very indefinite in its doctrine about life after death. But let us consider these two points more closely.


In Denmark in Merovingian times the tendency developed to provide only symbolic sacrificial offerings and grave-goods. Fragments of objects or symbolic miniatures were often used instead of genuine ones. In Norway and Sweden, on the other hand, this tendency was much rarer, and it was a frequent custom to leave rich and or precious deposits with the dead. Another difference was that in Merovingian times in Norway and Sweden it was common to bury the dead man in his boat – whilst this practice was practically unknown in Denmark. In Sweden and Norway there are many traces of seventh and eighth-century boat-burials; even when the boat was burned or has rooted away there are the tell-tale rivets to confirm that it existed. There is every reason to believe that these basic difference existing in the Scandinavian countries in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, were maintained throughout the Viking era – in spite of the fact that during this period lavish and richly decorated graves occasionally appeared in Denmark.

One aspect of the Danish fashion for symbolic objects in burial occurs in Sweden and Norway – in boat-burials. There was probably a practical reason for this: a boat could not be spared, and so the dead man was put into a symbolic boat formed by an arrangement of stones. The impact of Christianity was a further factor in creating this complexity of Viking habits, for Christianity forbade the practice of cremation, and required a simple earth or wooden grave orientated east-west, and devoid of grave-goods. Christian practices are traceable in Denmark and Norway in the late Viking period, but hardly at all in Sweden, which was about a hundred years behind the other two countries in adopting the faith (after 1100). As regards cremation, in the Merovingian period this was much commoner in Sweden and Norway than in Denmark; but, just as cremation was not entirely unknown in Sweden and Norway. In Norway there are many graves of Merovingian date, and Viking Age ship-burials where the corpses were buried without cremation. It would be untrue, therefore, to assume that cremation in itself denotes a particular religion. There are no hard and fast rules about Scandinavian funeral practices; numerous factors determined the methods adopted – local customs, wealth, social status, and the relative importance of Christian or pagan religion.

Pagan traditions themselves, moreover, were by no means unanimous in this matter. What did the ancient family religion and the belief in the Asir teach about life after death? Where did the dead go? These questions were beyond most Vikings. The mythology recorded in the Eddie poems and in Snorri asserts that warriors slain in battle went either to Odin’s Valhalla or Freyja’s fortress. To the latter, also, went the women who died. Criminals, outlaws, and cowards presumably all went to Hel. How far did the Vikings really believe this? We can never know for certain, but it is customary among people who accept polytheism for the individual to select one god from the pantheon and entrust his fate entirely to the chose deity. If this was not the case, what happened to all the people who were not criminals, warriors, or women; where did they go?

So much for the teachings of formal religion. Also a strong hold on the mind and spirit of the Viking was the religion of the family. The family unit was indispensable in death as well as life: as after all it was the family which built and preserved the grave mound, or cemetery, however the dead was disposed of. Here the family kept its dead, and here in a sense they lived on, even if they visited Valhalla or Heaven in between. Or the dead might live on within a holy mountain or hill near the ancestral farm. The dead were always with the family, and for that reason it was a family obligation always to maintain the grave or the burial mound in good order so that the departed would never feel so forsaken as to be obliged to become vengeful ghost. A walker-after-death was terrible and dangerous, and the only course open to the relatives would be to break open his grave and kill him a second time. A. W. Brogger believes that many of the grave entries which archaeologists have noted may be explained in this way: they were not always mere looting. A single explanation, covering all the different types of Viking burial, cannot be given, for the Vikings did not have a fixed, clear, generally accepted theory of the nature of the after life. This is why there are so many variations even within a single type of burial.

Consider, for example, the ship-burials of the high-born Vikings. After his death, the king or chieftains is enthroned in his vessel. What determines the next step? Is he to be cremated? Is the ship to be burned? Should a burial chamber be constructed within the ship? The answer to such questions must have been conditioned by what was considered to be the purpose of the burial. Would the deceased come sailing into the next world in his own vessel? Or was the main object to inter him in a suitable burial chamber, and to regard the ship only as grave-goods (as for example, in the ship-burial at Hedeby-Slesvig, where the ship stood upright on its keel above the deep burial chamber). On the other hand, the only known Danish ship-burial, at Ladby on Fyn, implies that the dead nobleman buried in it was to sail his vessel towards the south and the sun, to Valhalla, as the ship’s anchor was stowed in the bows ready to be dropped when he reached his destination. A third variation is found in the case of the Norwegian Oseberg ship, whose stem was moored by a cable to a boulder, so that the dead person was regarded as safe in harbour until some distant day of departure to another world. Of the unburnt ship-burials the three great Norwegian examples, Tune, Gokstad and Oseberg, have preserved their ships. In the single danish example, Ladby, only the lines of the ship remain in the earth.

The second form of interment for Scandinavian nobles was in a great wooden burial chamber, sometimes (like the ship-graves) covered with a huge mound of earth, sometimes laid under a flat field. The corpses were not cremated, and ate often accompanied by their horses, dogs, weapons, and tools.

The common Danish type of grave (also found quite often in Norway) is the simple earth one in which the warrior is buried unburned with his weapons, and the women with her jewellery. Corresponding to them in Sweden and Norway are cremation graves with or without a boat and with or without a low barrow; symbolic patterns of stones (boat-shaped, oval, or triangular) in the surface over the graves are very common. One interesting variant, from the fort of Fyrkat in Jutland, is that of a woman laid out in a carriage (similar in construction to the one found in the Oseberg ship) placed in the earth grave: a ritual which suggests that she was imagined to be riding to her final destination.


Three major Viking burial places have been located in Scandinavia at Birka, Hedeby, and Lindholm Hoje. At Birka, in eastern Sweden, about 2,500 graves have been identified in various places round the town, and a thousand or so of these were examined by the archaeologist Stople in the 870s and 1880s. The graves are of a wide variety of types: there are burials, and cremation graves, some with rich grave-goods, other poor. In the late burial chambers where the dead were not cremated the corpses are usually men, and they were laid there with their weapons, riding gear, food and drink, horse and dog – and sometimes with a woman as well, a wife or a serf. The greatest living specialist on Birka, Holgar Arbman, has noted a peculiar burial chamber in which lay two women, one richly attired and the other lying in a strange, twisted position. He infers that the dead mistress was buried with a serf who died from suffocation in the burial chamber, and he cites Ibn Rustah’s evidence. Most of the women in Birka, with this exception were buried in simple wooden coffins. There are many cremation graves in Birka, and these often contain traces of a boat given to the dead man as grave-goods. Christian influence is also extensive at Birka, evidenced partly by the absence of grave-goods in some graves, and partly by the occasional presence in graves of small crosses corresponding to the pagan hammers of Thor. With the tolerance which seems so characteristic of the Vikings, the Christian cross and the hammer of Thor are found in the same grave, as though these ancient people wished to secure the favour of both gods, disregarding the rivalry between them.

At Hedeby, in south Slesvig, the graves are found mainly inside the city walls, not outside as at Birka. Two cemeteries have been excavated, both in the south-west part of the city. The more northerly of these contained a large number of wooden coffins lying east-west; the southern cemetery, on the other hand, contained few graves, all of them burial chambers. There were no signs of cremation at either, and they contained both men’s and women’s bodies. In the coffin cemetery there were no grave-goods with most of the bodies; but some of the men had their weapons with them, and quite a lot of the women were buried with their possessions. The burial chambers were more richly furnished: the men sometimes with shields, spears, a wooden bucket, or bronze bowl, and the only woman there with her ornaments, knives, and keys. The coffin cemetery at Hedeby, which dates from the early ninth to the mid eleventh century, contains about 3,000 graves, of which 350 have been examined; it was the main burial place of the town. The other cemetery was small (only ten graves examined); it dates from c. 900 and was probably established by the Swedish conquerors of the city; its graves show close relationship to the chamber graves at Birka, although they are not so richly furnished.

Christian influence is difficult to observe in the Hedeby graves; even in the coffin cemetery the oldest graves (which face east-west) are thought to be older than the first arrival of Christianity in south Slesvig. Moreover, unburnt burials with scanty grave-goods are found in Denmark from the eighth century, long before  the advent of Christianity in the north.

The third large Viking cemetery is at Lindholm Hoje in northern Jutland, north-west of Aalborg’s sister town of Norre Sundby. Here, on a large hill partly covered with shifting sand, have been found: (a) a settlement-site dating from 400 to 800; (b) a burial place, south of the settlement, partly covered by the sand, and dating from between 650 and 1000; (c) a village, dating from 1000 to 1100, built partly on top of the sand-buried cemetery. Archaeologists have excavated large areas of the cemetery and found nearly 700 graves, most of them cremation graves. Th, Ramskou, who was in charge of these excavations, gives the following descriptions of the cemetery;

The cremation graves ate all alike, whether surrounded by stones or not. The burning of the bodies had evidently not taken place in the actual graveyard, but elsewhere, in a place still unknown to us, and the grave-goods – such as ornaments, glass beads, knives, spindles, whetstones, wooden boxes, draughtsmen, a dog, a sheep, and (more rarely) a horse and a cow – had been burned with the bodies. The ashes from the funeral pyre are taken to the cemetery, spread on a piece of ground about a yard across (a ‘cremation-spot’), and covered with a thin layer of earth. A sacrificial vessel might be placed on top of the graves.

Many of these graves are surrounded by pattern of stones in various shapes- oval, round, square, or triangular. Most interesting of these are the pointed oval shapes, the so-called ‘boat-shapes’. The notion behind this was evidently to provide the dead with a symbolic vessel, a representation of the ship instead of the ship itself which was too valuable to be spared from practical use. For this reason it seems unlikely that a real ship was burned on the funeral pyre. Ramskou has concluded from his examination of the Lindholm Hoje graves, that these stones arrangements were treated with scant piety by the community, and that the stones were usually removed to be used for another burial. It was only at the burial that these symbolic stones assumed any significance; once their symbolic purpose was served, and the spirit of the dead had begun its journey, the stones were of no further importance. A considerable number of ordinary unburned burials have also been found at Lindholm Hoje. Seldom are weapons found within them (or in the cremation graves), and there is no reason to assume Christian influence on the burial customs. One interesting feature of this site is that the eleventh-century village partly built on top of the graveyard had contained rectangular as well as elliptical houses of the Trelleborg type; more important still, it disclosed, for the first time in the history of Danish village-building, an example of the four-element farm plan.

Last but not least, there are the Viking graves at Jelling, in south Jutland. In the tenth century this was the seat of the powerful dynasty from which came Gorm, Harald Bluetooth, Swein Forkbeard, and Cnut the Great. In Jelling there is a whole complex of archaeological monuments: (a) two large earth mounds lying respectively north and south of the Romanesque church; (b) two rune-stones, one raised by the pagan Gorm for his queen Thyri, and one set up by the Christian Harald for his parents, Gorm and Thyri; (c) the remains of two wooden buildings beneath the choir of the present Romanesque church, one of them probably Harald;s church and beneath it Gorm’s heathen temple; (d) the remains of a large triangular enclosure, formed of large, unmarked stones (bautasteinar), a ve or pagan sanctuary. Excavation of the two earth mounds has revealed in the northern one a large wooden double burial chamber, which had been broken into and pillaged of almost everything, including the skeletons. The southern one was found to be a cenotaph (i.e. a memorial without a grave), which, however, contained a curious symbolic ‘building’ of slender branches, and on top of which were the remains of what seems to have been a watch-tower. This mound covered the southern end of the above-mentioned ve or sanctuary, which was thus partly destroyed when the mound was built.

The chronological order of these Jelling remains and of the events connected with them can be given with some confidence. First came Gorm’s ve, and associated with it the northern mound, the heathen temple, and the rune-stone set up to Queen Thyri. The next is Harald Bluetooth’s  contribution, including the introduction of Christianity and the destruction of the heathen elements; his stave church is built on the site of the heathen temple; a new mound (the southern one) is built on part of the pagan ve; the remains of Gorm and Thyri are taken from the northern grave chamber to the Christian church (translatio), and Harald’s great Christian rune-stone is erected to his parents between the two mounds. The final development is the building of the now standing Romanesque church, so constructed that the square choir stands on the spot formerly occupied by the temple and thereafter by the stave church. we owe this disentanglement to the Danish archaeologist Ejnar Dyggve, who discovered, among other things, the triangular ve, examples of which he had also found elsewhere in Denmark. However, certain obscurities about this Jelling site remain. Why, for example, did the Christian King Harald build so heathen a memorial as a mound (the southern one), and whom does it? Another puzzle is the symbolic pattern of branches inside the mound. Cenotaphs are not unknown in the Viking period: there is the case of the greatest mound known in Norway, Raknehaugen, which also proved to contain no grave. Jelling is Denmark’s greatest burial monument from Viking times; and King Harald’s rune-stone is memorable for the last words of the inscription, ‘and he made the Danes Christians’, a glorious record of Christianity’s official victory in Denmark.


It is reasonable to inquire to what extent viking graves have been found outside Scandinavia. It would be strange if we did not encounter them in either eastern or western Europe; and of course we have found them both in Russia, where large cemeteries have been excavated, and also in western Europe, where thirty years ago Norwegian archaeologists, directed by Haakon Shetelig, undertook a systematic examination of museums and collections with the object of establishing roughly the number of Viking graves known in the west. The result of this research is given here only briefly; In Scotland and the small islands off its west coast thirty Norwegian Viking graves have been found, none of them were boat-graves. The Hebrides and Orkneys provide us with about the same number of this kind, again mostly women’s. One boat-burial had been found in the Orkneys. The Shetlands produced a couple of women’s graves, neither of them cremations. In Ireland the main location of Viking graves is on a large destroyed site near Dublin (Kilmainham and Islandbridge). Here have been found forty swords, thirty-five spearheads, twenty-five shield-bosses, a few axes and arrowheads, and such women’s article as ornaments, spindles, and keys. Other  finds in Dublin produced eight swords, seven spearheads, and a few shield-bosses and arrowheads. Outside Dublin area two men’s graves and two women’s have been found – all of them without trace of cremation. The Isle of Man has produced ten non-cremation graves, all of men; England sixteen similar graves, three of women.

In Continental western Europe only a few graves are known: a man;s (unburnt) at Antum near Groningen in Holland; a woman’s, also unburnt, at Pitres in Normandy; and a cremation ship-burial in the Cruguel mound on the Ile de Groix off southern Brittany, opposite Lorient. This is the only known Viking cremation grave in western Europe. The race and sex of those who were buried in graves can be determined by the objects placed in these graves, but it is of course only possible to say that they are Scandinavian rather than Scottish, Irish, Anglo-Saxon, or Frankish; it is not possible to differentiate between Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish graves abroad, because their weapons, tools, and ornaments are so much alike. To a certain degree the nationality is suggested by the known spheres of interest of the Viking countries; in this way the Viking graves in Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, and north-west England are  likely to be Norwegian; those in the Danelaw and in eastern and southern England, Danish; those in northern England and France either Norwegian or Danish. This does not exclude the possibility that some of the graves may have been Swedish, but it is not possible to prove it.

In eastern Europe it can be similarly assumed that Viking graves are predominantly Swedish. In contrast to those in the west, the Viking graves in Russia usually show signs of cremation. To the south and south-east of Ladoga are several large mounds (of the ‘Volkhov’ type) covering cremation graves, and besides these there are hundreds of smaller mounds (‘Finnish’ type), some containing unburned burials and others cremation graves. Most of these graves, of both types, are without doubt relics of the Swedish Vikings. Farther south in Russia, at Yaroslav, north-east of Moscow, there are two large mound-cemeteries containing both cremation and non-cremation graves, the contents of which have strong Nordic characteristics. In the province of Vladimir, east of Moscow, there are very large cemeteries also, but here the Nordic elements in the graves are much less evident and indicate no more than a modest Swedish influence upon a Slav environment. Novgorod, in western Russia, seems to have been essentially a Slav town, and there are few Scandinavian finds there; but the situation is different south at Smolensk, Chernigov, and Kiev. West of Smolensk, at Gnezdovo, is Russia’s largest prehistoric burial place, containing over 3,000 mounds. Several hundred of these were examined by Russian archaeologists in the 1870s and 1880s, and a further forty in 1949. Cremation was the most frequent burial custom, and the objects buried with the dead varied a great deal in quantity. The Russian scholar Avdusin regards this burial place as partly – perhaps mainly – Slav, but with numerous Swedish elements. The Swedish archaeologist, Holgar Arbman, on the other hand, deduces, from the fact, that most of the contents of the graves are Swedish, that it was the tenth-century cemetery of a large Swedish colony of warriors and merchants, which seems logical; the presence of Slav elements is not very surprising in a colony set in the middle of Slav territory.

In and around Chernigov, north-east of Kiev, are many more rounds. The largest, about 30 feet/9.1m by 120 feet/36.5m, called ‘Tjernaja Mogila’, was excavated in the 1870s, and proved to contain in its centre an unburned wooden burial house in which were the skeletons of two men and a woman, surrounded by a quantity of objects, some Swedish (including a sword), but mainly Slav and Persian. The clothes, too, and a conical helmet, were Slav. Another large mound on this site, dated to the tenth century, proved to contain a similar unburned burial. Such graves as these may very well have been made for Swedish noblemen who had become partly assimilated into their Slav environment, for the clothing (as Arbman points out) bears a close resemblance to that described below by Ibn Fadlan as being used in the burial of a certain Swedish chieftain. The Swedish Rus appear to have become more and more influenced by Slav dress and equipment the farther south they went. Finally a number of tenth and eleventh-century graves, men’s and women’s, have come to light at Kiev, mostly unburned burials, and again indicating in the funeral objects a degree of assimilation between Swede and Slav.

In Poland too, there are some traces of Slav-influenced Swedish Vikings, Near Lodz, at Lutomiersk, under a Jewish cemetery, were found 125 graves, mainly unburned , and consisting, as a rule, of deep wooden chambers, some of them containing rich grave-goods (such as riding gear) of mixed Scandinavian, Slav, and Dnieper-Swedish origin. On the whole, these remains date from the early parts of the eleventh century.

What archaeologists have discovered about Viking graves and burial customs in eastern Europe strengthens our general impression of shifting and vague beliefs about death and after-life. Literary sources too can throw some light on the subject. There is a contemporary eyewitness account of a Swedish ship-burial and cremation, which took place by the river Volga in 922. The narrator is the Arab ambassador, Ibn Fadlan, who writes:

I had been told that when their chieftains died cremation was the least part of their whole funeral procedure, and I was, therefore, very much interested to find out more about this. One day I heard that one of their leaders had died. They laid him forthwith in a grave which they covered up for then days till they had finished cutting-out and sewing his costume. If the dead man is poor they make a little ship, put him in it, and burn it. If he is wealthy, however, they divide hie property and goods into three parts: one part for his family, one to pay for his costume, and one to make nabid [probably a Scandinavian type of beer] which they drink on the day when the slave woman of the dead man is killed and burnt together with her master. They are deeply addicted to nabid, drinking it night and day; and often one of them has been found dead with a beaker in his hand. When a chieftain among them has died, his family demands of his slave women and servants: ‘Which of you wishes to die with him?’ Then one of them says: ‘I do’; and having said that the person concerned is forced to do so, and no backing out is possible. Even if he wished to he would not be allowed to. Those who are willing are mostly the slave women.

So when this man died they said they said to his slave women: ‘Which  of you wants to die with him?’ One of them answered, ‘I do.’ From that moment she was put in the constant care of the two other women servants who took care of her to the extent of washing her feet with their own hands. They began to get things ready for the dead man, to cut his costume and so on, while every day the doomed woman drank and sang as though in anticipation of the joyous event.

When the day arrived on which the chieftain and his slave woman were going to burnt, I went to the river where his ship was moored. It had been hauled ashore and four posts were made for it of birch and other wood. Further there was arranged around it what looked like a big store of wood. Then the ship was hauled near and placed on the wood. People now began to walk about talking in a language I could not understand, and the corpse still lay in the grave; they had not taken it out. They then produced a wooden bench, placed it on the ship, and covered it with carpets of Byzantine dibag. Then came an old woman whom they called ‘the Angel of Death’, and she spread these cushions out over the bench. She was in charge of the whole affair from dressing the corpse to the killing of the slave woman. I noticed that she was an old giant-woman, a massive and grim figure. When they came to his grave they removed the earth from the wooden frame and they also took the frame away. They then divested the corpse of the cloths in which he had died. The body , I noticed, had turned black because of the intense frost. When they first put him in the grave, they had also given him beer, fruit, and a lute, all of which they now removed. Strangely enough the corpse did not smell, nor had anything about him changed save the colour of his flesh. They now proceeded to dress him in hose, and trousers, boots, coat, and a mantle of dibag adorned with gold buttons; put on his head a cap of dibag and sable fur; and carried him to the tent on the ship, where they put him on the blanket and supported him with cushions. They then produced nabid, fruit, and aromatic plants, and put these round his body; and they also brought bread, meat, and onions which they flung before him. Next they took the dog, cut it in half, and flung the pieces into the ship, and after this they took all his weapons and placed them beside him. Next they brought two horses and ran them about until they were in sweat, after which they cut them into pieces with swords and flung their meat into the ship; this also happened to two cows. Then they produced a cock and a hen, killed them, and threw them in. Meanwhile the slave woman who wished to be killed walked up and down, going into one tent after the other, and the owner of each tent had sexual intercourse with her, saying: ‘Tell your master I did this out of love for him.’

It was now Friday afternoon and they took the slave woman away to something which they had made resembling a door-frame. Then she placed her legs on the palms of the men and reached high enough to look over the frame, and she said something in a foreign language, after which they took her down. And they lifted her again and she did the same as the first time. Then they took her down and lifted her a third time and she did the same as the first and the second times. Then they gave her a chicken and she cut its head off and threw it away; they took the hen and threw it into the ship. Then I asked the interpreter what had she done. He answered: “The first time they lifted her  she said: “Look! I see my father and mother.” The second time she said: “Look! I see my dead relatives sitting around.” The third time she said: “Look! I see my master in Paradise, and Paradise is beautiful and green and together with him are men and young boys. He calls me. Let me join him then!”

They now led her towards the ship. Then she took off two bracelets she was wearing and gave them to the old woman, ‘the Angel of Death’, the one who was going to kill her. She next took off two anklets she was wearing and gave to the daughters of that woman known by the name ‘the Angel of Death’. They  then led her to the ship but did not allow her inside the tent. Then a number of men carrying wooden shields and sticks arrived, and gave her a beaker with nabid. She sang over it and emptied it. The interpreter then said to me, ‘Now with that she is bidding farewell to all her woman friends.’ Then she was given another beaker. She took it and sang a lengthy song; but the old woman told her to hurry and drink up and enter the tent where her master was. When I looked at her she seemed completely bewildered. She wanted to enter the tent and she put her head between it and the ship. There the woman took her head and managed to get it inside the tent, and the woman herself followed. Then the men began to beat the shields with the wooden sticks, to deaden her shouts so that the other girls would not become afraid and shrink from dying with their masters. Six men entered the tent and all of them hid intercourse with her. Thereafter they laid her by the side of her dead master. Two held her hands and two her feet, and the woman called ‘the Angel of Death’ put a cord round the girl’s neck, doubled with an end at each side, and gave it to two men to pull. Then she advanced holding a small dagger with a broad blade and began to plunge it between the girl’s ribs to and fro while the two men choked her with the cord til she died.

The dead man’s nearest kinsman now appeared. He took a piece of wood and ignited it. Then he walked backwards, his back towards the sip and his face towards the crowd, holding the piece of wood in one hand and the other hand on his buttock; and he was naked. In this way the wood was ignited which they had placed under the ship after they had laid the slave woman, whom they had killed, beside her master. Then people came with branches and wood; each brought a burning brand and threw it on the pyre, so that the fire took hold of the wood, then the ship, then the tent and the man and slave woman and all. There-after a strong and terrible wind rose so that the flame stirred and the fire blazed still more.

I heard one of the Rus folk, standing by, say something to my interpreter, and when I inquired what he had said, my interpreter answered: ‘He said: “You Arabs are foolish.” ‘ ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Well, because you throw those you love and honour to the ground where the earth and the maggots and fields devour them, whereas we, on the other hand, burn them up quickly and they go to Paradise that very moment.’ The man burst out laughing, and on being asked, he said: ‘His lord, out of love for him, has sent this wind to take him away within the hour!’ And so it proved, for within that time the ship and the pyre, the girl and the corpses had all become ashes and then dust. On the spot where the ship stood after having been hauled ashore, they built something like a round mound. In the middle of it they raised a large post of birch-wood on which they wrote the names of the dead man and of the king of the Rus, and the the crowd dispersed.

Ign Fadlan was a sharp observer and a good narrator, who gives the impression of not being prone to exaggeration. I see no reason to disbelieve his eyewitness account or the interpretations he put on what he witnessed. One significant piece of information he provides is that the Vikings built a memorial mound, a cenotaph, and gave it runic inscription on a piece of wood, suitable stones evidently not being available in the vicinity. It was apparently thought right that the dead man, although in Paradise, should have a place of his own on earth. Similarly empty memorial mounds are known in the Viking homelands as we have seen.

Some time after Ibn Fadlan, about the middle of the tenth century, another Arab writer, Ibn Rustah, has this to say about the Rus;

When one of their notable dies, they make a grave like a large house and put him inside it. With him they put his clothes and the gold armlets he wore and, moreover, an abundance of food, drinking bowls, and coins. They also put his favourite wife in with him, still alive. Then the grave door is sealed and she dies there.

this comment fits in with the archaeological evidence of the Birka grave mentioned above; and also of the grave mound at Chernigov.


The various burial rites of the Vikings reveal just how vague and complex were their religious beliefs. In due course those beliefs were bound to be supplanted by the clarity of the Christian faith. A religion which offers the common man vague and contradictory concepts of the after-life is not a potent one and this is the case with all polytheistic faiths. The belief in the Asir with its many gods was doubtless tolerant of foreign influences, and if one more god was offered the Vikings, such as ‘the White Christ’, they saw no reason why they should not, so to speak, give him a trial along with the others. When St Olaf ordered the Viking Gaukathori to adopt Christianity, the man philosophically replied. ‘If I must believe in god it is no worse to believe in the White Christ than any other . . .’ – a remark which may, however, merely mean that Gaukathori was an atheist. A better example, therefore, is Helgi the Lean. In Landnamebok it is said of him that ‘he was very mixed in his faith; he believed in Christ, but invoked Thor in matters of seafaring and dire necessity’. The Asir religion was an aristocratic one, and had little to give the ordinary man by way of an after-life. And consequently in the end he turned to the purposeful monotheism of Christianity, with its hope and help for all. So Christianity triumphed.

Yet this new faith did not affect a rapid conquest. When the Viking period began, about 800, the whole of the North was pagan. It took 150 years to bring Denmark to Christianity, 200 for Norway and Iceland ,and more than 300 years for Sweden. Why did it take so long for the well-organized Roman Church – with its powerful missionary activity and its tactical wisdom in seeking always to convert first of all the upper ranks of society – to supplant the easy-going dynasty of the Nordic gods? The answer is that the real strength of the old religion resided in such traditional elements as the fertility rites and practices. A change of gods at the summit of society might occur easily enough; but lower down the scale there was a natural resistance to any new religion which sought to interfere with old religious habits and observances, based on experience of life’s needs and the whole of existence, dating back thousands of years. Any changes at this level of society took a long time; and indeed the acceptance of Christianity in the North, as in the rest of Europe, only began to make real progress as and when Christianity took over old superstitions and usages and allowed them to live under a new guise.


In Denmark the development of Christianity began when, in 823, Archbishop Ebo of Reims was charged by the Emperor and the Pope to convert the heathen land of Denmark. The first real success was not until 826, when the Jutish pretender to the throne, Harald, was converted by the Emperor, Louis the Pious, and the Frankish monk Ansgar, Very little came of this, as soon both Harald and Ansgar were banished. It was not until several years later , in 849, when Ansgar was Archbishop of Hamsburg, with his see at Bremen, that real progress began, during the reign of Harik the Elder and his successor Harik the Younger at Hedeby. Ansgar was permitted to build a church at Hedeby (the remains of which have not yet been found); and after a brief interlude of anti-Christian sentiment about 854 – during which the heathen Earl Hovi, after Harak the Elder’s death, closed the church – Christianity revived and made good progress under Harak the Younger. Many people were baptized; many other accepted the prima signatio of the cross, as a preliminary to baptism, and another church was built, at Ribe.

The kings themselves, however, held back. Neither of the Heriks was baptized, despite an urgent appeal from the Pope (sent on Ansgar’s initiative in 864) in such terms as: ‘Desist from worshipping false gods and serving the devil, for your gods are made with human hands and are deaf, dumb, and blind. What salvation can they bring you, they who being senseless cannot save themselves?’ These exhortations were frequent. In 723 Boniface, the missionary of Germany, was told by Bishop Daniel of Winchester to use the following argument in reasoning with a heathen: the old pagan gods are themselves born and created, but who created the world before they came into existence? – And the monk Hucbald (c 900) used in exhortation of which the purport was : ‘God has created us, not we ourselves; but the idols you revere are made of gold, silver, copper, stone, or wood; they do not truly live, nor move, nor feel, because they are made by mankind and cannot help others or themselves.’

Ansgar died in 865, and apart from the forcible conversion of the Swedish king Gnupa, at Hedeby, by the German conquerors, little is heard of the progress of Christianity in Denmark for about a century. In 960, however, occurred the episode – related by a contemporary, the Saxon Widukind – of the priest Poppo, whose valiant effort converted Harald Bluetooth to Christianity. The Danes admitted, says Widukind, that Christ was a god, but asserted that other gods were greater, their signs wonders mightier. No said Poppo; God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost were the one God: the rest were merely idols. King Harald (‘Keen to listen but slow to utter’) asked Poppo if he would subject this bold assertion to God’s own judgement. Poppo immediately agreed, and the next day the king had a bar of iron made red hot and told Poppo to hold it as a token of his faith. Poppo took the glowing bar and carried it about for as long a time as the king wanted, whereafter he showed his undamaged hand and convinced all the bystanders. The king was convinced and determined from now on to acknowledge Christ as his only God. The Greater Jelling rune-stone bears an inscription which shows that Harald regarded himself as responsible for introducing Christianity into Denmark. His son, Swein Forkbeard, conqueror of England, proved an indifferent Christian, but Swein’s son, Cnut the Great, was ardent in the new faith. By the eleventh century Christianity had taken firm root in Denmark, and King Swein Estridsson (1047-76) devoted his long reign to trying to liberate the young Danish church from the domination of the German bishopric at Bremen, an achievement which did not, in fact, occur until later. In general it may be asserted that Christianity was established in Denmark with effective assistance from the monarchy, but not by royal compulsion.


In Norway the first Christian king was Hakon the Good, son of Harald Finehair. He died in 960, about the same time as Poppo achieved his spectacular miracle, but Hakon’s personal belief by no means implied that Norway had been converted to the faith. He had been educated by the Anglo-Saxon king, Athelstan, and he brought the new religion to Norway from England. The people protested and rejected hakon’s missionaries, and the king was either not strong enough to compel conversion or too wise to want; indeed, when he died, he was given a heathen funeral. His successor, Harald Greycloak, laboured diligently (according to Snorri) for Christianity, but without notable success, and Norway’s next ruler, Earl Hakon of Lade (975-95), was a confirmed heathen and a devotee of Thor. Norway’s conversion was brought about finally by the two Olafs, Olaf Tryggvason (995-1000), and St Olaf (1014-30), whose persuasive efforts were violent and cruel. It is characteristic that Olaf Tryggvason, wanting to abuse the Swedes before the battle of Svold (where he met hos death), derided their heathen condition and advised them to stay at home and lick their sacrificial bowls. In the fifteen years after his death, when western Norway had been converted to Christianity by his terrorist methods, the rulers were Hakon of Lade’s two sons, Eric and Swein. Both were Christians, but they were tolerant enough to allow others to go their own heathen ways. It was not until St Olaf assumed power that this tolerance vanished; under his hard hand the whole of Norway was converted, and Olaf became the saint that the young Norwegian church so desperately needed. In Iceland the conversion was swift. Missionary activities began seriously in 981 with Thorvald the Far-Travelled; and in the year 1000 Christianity became legally the faith of the country.


In Sweden Ansgar led the Christian mission to Birka in 829 after a perilous journey in which he was nearly killed by pirates. He was well received by King Bjorn at Birka, and permitted to build a church, and after he had worked two years there, during which period the young Swedish church was incorporated into the Roman ecclesiastical system, he became bishop of Hamburg, with rights of jurisdiction over the Birka community. such rights, however, were nothing but mere formalities; the Birka ‘church’ was weak and no serious impact was made, not even when Ansgar revisited the place in the middle of the century. The pagan religion remained intact. Later on, in the 930s, a further mission was dispatched, again from Hamburg, under Archbishop Unni, but this, also, was only an interlude. Thus at the beginning of the eleventh century, when Denmark and Norway had gradually accepted Christianity, Sweden was still a completely heathen country. The battle to convert Sweden now developed in earnest, and during the next hundred years its many Christian neighbours made strenuous efforts to bring about this change in Sweden. One of these neighbours was the north German Church centred on Hamburg – Bremen; another was the English Church which was active in Sweden as a consequence of the Danish conquest of England; and similar influences were brought to bear from Norway, Denmark, and France, and even from the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia, Swedish paganism, however, proved a powerful enemy, and the battle swayed back and forth during the eleventh century. Adam of Bremen, in the 1070s, painted a gloomy picture of the persistent paganism. The great heathen temple at Old Uppsala, described by him, was still the citadel of the pagan Nordic religion, and indeed a base from which strong counter-attacks were launched upon Christianity. Yet several Swedish kings supported the Christians – Olaf Skotkonung, Onund Jacob, Emund, Stenkil – and under the first of these a bishopric was established from Hamburg-Bremen, at Skara in Vastergotland. Christian words and expressions on Swedish rune-stones reveal the slow penetration of Christianity, and in 1066 a special drive was planned by two bishops – Egino of Skane and Adalward the Younger of Sigtuna – including the proposal to demolish by force the heathen temple at Old Uppsala. King Stenkil sympathized but would not permit this forceful evangelism, and when he died in 1066 the heathens retaliated by driving out the Bishop of Sigtuna. The bishopric of Skara was vacant, and heathenism remained strongly entrenched not only in Uppland but also in Gotland and Smaland. By the end of the century we hear of the banishment of the Christian king Ingi and the domination of the pagan Blot-Swein – although this position was subsequently reversed. conditions in Sweden at the beginning of the twelfth century were described by the Anglo-Danish monk, Alnoth of Canterbury, in these words:

As long as things go well and everything is fine, the Sviar and Gautar seem willing to acknowledge Christ and honour him, though as a pure formality; but when things go wrong – bad harvests, drought, tempests and bad weather, enemy attacks, or outbreaks of fire – they persecute the religions which they seem nominally to honour, and they do this not only in words but also in deeds; then they revenge themselves on the Christians and seek to chase them completely out of their country.

This picture characterizes the closing chapter of the religious was in Sweden. The temple at Uppsala probably disappeared early in the twelfth century. At the same time the Swedish Christian church came under the authority of the Danish archbishop of Lund, in Skane, and in this way passed from the control of the German bishops. It is surprising that Christianization took so long, for it was a foregone conclusion that the dynamic and purposeful monotheism from the south would prevail over the stagnant polytheism of the north. Yet the long it took to prevail serves to remind us not to minimize the power of this ancient polytheism which remained capable of, at least sporadic recovery and reassertion. There is much weight in the conclusion some scholars emphasize: namely, that it would be relatively easy for Christianity to prevail over Nordic religious beliefs; but far more difficult to overcome the complex culture beneath that religion – a culture so rooted in ancient fertility magic- and even more difficult to substitute an ethical formula about loving your neighbours for the Nordic concepts of honour and family.