Vikings, lecture 4


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Vikings, lecture 4

  1. 1. The Religious Beliefs, Cults and Rituals in Scandinavia, ca. AD 600 – AD 900
  2. 2. The Principal Deities The pagan pantheon in the Nordic lands during the Viking Age contained many deities, but not all of them were the object of devotion The principal deities belonged to two one of two groups: Æsir and Vanir These groups were at war with one another but had reconciled and lived together Some of the deities were popular throughout Scandinavia, whereas the popularity of others were restricted to only certain areas or indeed even certain social classes or professions
  3. 3. Distribution of Different Cults  The popularity of different cults varied from region to region  It is assumed—because of mythical allusions, royalty lists that trace their descent from deities, place-name evidence and archaeological finds—that the Æsir were worshipped in the west and the Vanir in the east of Scandinavia  A distribution map representing the prevalence of the different cults, based chiefly on place-name analysis and runic inscriptions where these occur in significant numbers, does tend to corroborate this assumption  Nevertheless, we must bear in mind that some cults seem to be primarily associatedThe red indicates those regions where the with certain social classes or professionsworship of the Æsir was most prevalent, and therefore their distribution mightwhereas the blue indicates those regions wherethe worship of the Vanir was predominant. The represent the consolidation of politicalpurple signifies those regions were both the power or specialist economic pursuitsÆsir and Vanir were popular
  4. 4. The Æsir The Æsir are a group of deities which contain some of the most prominent gods of the Nordic pantheon such as Odin, Frigg, Thor, Baldur and Tyr In the Old Norse language, the singular of a member of the Æsir is áss (feminine singular ásynja, feminine plural ásynjur) Some linguistic scholars associate this word with the names of wooden beams and the concept of World Pillars holding the world aloft and thus with celestial or sky deities This has parallels with the A depiction of sacrifices hanging Hellenistic pantheon and others of from a tree, perhaps evoking the deity the Indo-European tradition Odin hanging on Yggdrasil in his quest for wisdom
  5. 5. Gylfaginning  The Gylfaginning comprises the first section of Snorri Sturlusons Prose Edda, following the prologue  It means The Tricking of Gylfi, where Gylfi is a Swedish king that is tricked by a goddess and brought to a palace where he is asked questions and is told a series of tales which he relates upon his arrival home  Many translations of the Prose Edda are available, some very good examples being online and therefore free to access  Here we will summarise the mythsThe tricking of Gylfi, depicted in an and statements concerning theIcelandic manuscript Æsir
  6. 6. The Members of the Æsir The members of the Æsir enumerated in Gylfaginning are the following: Odin, Thor, Baldur, Freyr, Freya, Njord, Tyr, Bragi, Heimdall, Hoder, Vidar, Ale, Ullr, Forseti, Frigg, Saga, Eir, Gefjon, Fulla, Sjöfn, Lofn, Var, Vör, Syn, Hlin, Snotra, Gna Some of these are known only as names, being poorly developed in any of the mythical cycles that remain to us This does not necessarily mean that they were insignificant: the majority of what we know about the Nordic pantheon derives from West Norse sources and this may indicate the unimportance of these deities in this part of Scandinavia A figurine of the deity Odin, found at Lindby in southern Sweden
  7. 7. The Vanir  In Nordic myth, the Vanir (singular Vanr) are a group of gods associated with fertility, wisdom, and the ability to see the future  The Vanir are one of two groups of gods (the other being the Æsir) and are associated with the location Vanaheimr  After the Æsir–Vanir War, the Vanir became a subgroup of the Æsir and subsequently, while the Vanir retain original group association in the myth, they are also referred to as Æsir  The Vanir are attested in the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda and Heimskringla  The Vanir are only attested in these OldThe ship figured prominently in themyths of the Vanir and was Norse sources, unlike the Æsir, who areassociated with mortuary ritual. This attested widely in among the Germanicexample from Ladby in Denmark peoplesmight reflect the cult of Freyr
  8. 8. The Members of the Vanir All sources describe the deities Njörðr, Freyr, and Freyja as members of the Vanir An Euhemerized prose account in Heimskringla adds that Njörðrs sister— whose name is not provided—and Kvasir were Vanir In addition, Heimskringla reports a tale involving king Sveigðirs visit to Vanaheimr, where he meets a woman names Vana and the two produce a child named Vanlandi, meaning Man from the Land of the Vanir While not attested as Vanir, the gods Heimdallr and Ullr have also been theorized as potential members of the group. In the Prose Edda, a name listed for boars is Van-child A figurine of Freyr from Rällinge, Lunda in Södermanland
  9. 9. Lesser Entities  In addition to the deities described in the mythical cycles, there were lesser spiritual entities  Some of these were malevolent, whereas others could be helpful if propitiated through ritual  Examples of some of these lesser entities are the Valkyries, trolls, ghosts, giants, elves, faeries, and spirits inhabiting mounds, wetlands, etc.  All of these figured in the ritual and religious life of those residing in Scandinavia through the pagan era but also well into the Medieval era  Some practices could still beAn amulet depicting a Valkyri, found encountered in relatively modernat Birka, Björkö, Sweden folk beliefs
  10. 10. Studying the Religious Beliefs of the Viking Age Archaeological, Literary, Mythical and Place-Name Research
  11. 11. The Icelandic Sagas As mentioned earlier, most of our information concerning the religion of the Viking Age is afforded by the Icelandic sagas All of these were composed between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries by Christian clerics or scribes, and therefore introduce biases into the writings Moreover, some of the traditions must have only been vaguely recalled and most probably elements of the myths were misunderstood and subject to rationalisation or revision to render them more intelligible Finally, there is the West Norse bias in the mythical cycles and these myths and their structure might not have been shared throughout Scandinavia
  12. 12. The Principal Sources  The principal sources concerning religion are found in the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, Völuspá and Heimskringla  All of these are compositions of roughly the thirteenth century, but they undoubtedly preserve older passages  Incidental remarks to religious practices and beliefs are found in other sagas, such as Egils Saga and Gíslis Saga, but these are woven intoOdin holds bracelets and leans on his narratives for dramatic effectspear while looking towards the völva in so it is difficult to assess howVöluspá. Engraving by Frølich in the genuine these accounts mighttranscription of the poem Völuspá are or if they are merely literary embellishments
  13. 13. Heimskringla Heimskringla consists of several chapters, each one individually called a saga, which can be literally translated as tale The first of these is the most relevant to a study of myth, for it traces the prehistory of the Norwegian royal dynasty, tracing Odin, described here as a mortal man, and his followers from the East, from Asaland and Asgard, its chief city, to their settlement in Scandinavia The subsequent sagas are (with few exceptions) devoted to individual rulers, starting with Halfdan the Black, and ending with Magnus Erlingsson
  14. 14. Gesta Danorum  Gesta Danorum is a work of Danish history, by the 12th century author Saxo Grammaticus (Saxo the Literate)  It is the most ambitious literary undertaking of medieval Denmark and is an essential source for the nations early history. It is also one of the oldest known written documents about the history of Estonia and Livonia  The work incorporates myths concerning the origins of the Danish kings and traces their descent to deities such as Odin  Many myths are presented as history and there are suggestions of ritual in many stories, often referring to battle cults and so forth
  15. 15. The Prose Edda (or Younger Edda) The Prose Edda begins with a Euhemerised Prologue followed by three distinct books: Gylfaginning (consisting of around 20,000 words), Skáldskaparmál (around 50,000 words) and Háttatal (around 20,000 words) Seven manuscripts, dating from around AD 1300 to around AD 1600, have independent textual value The purpose of the collection was to enable Icelandic poets and readers to understand the subtleties of alliterative verse, and to grasp the meaning behind the many kennings that were used in skaldic poetry, but much of the subject matter concerns myth
  16. 16. The Poetic Edda (or Older Edda) The following poems are in the Poetic Edda:  Völuspá  Hávamál  Vafþrúðnismál  Grímnismál  Skírnismál  Hárbarðsljóð  Hymiskviða  Lokasenna  Þrymskviða  Völundarkviða  Alvíssmál
  17. 17. Völuspá The poem starts with the völva requesting silence from the sons of Heimdallr (human beings) and asking Odin whether he wants her to recite ancient lore. She says she remembers giants born in antiquity who reared her. She then goes on to relate a creation myth; the world was empty until the sons of Burr lifted the earth out of the sea The Æsir then established order in the cosmos by finding places for the sun, the moon and the stars, thereby starting the cycle of day and night A golden age ensued where the Æsir had plenty of gold and happily constructed temples and made tools. But then three mighty giant maidens came from Jötunheimar and the golden age came to an end The Æsir then created the dwarves, of whom Mótsognir and Durinn are the mightiest
  18. 18. Ragnarök  The seeress then reveals to Odin that she knows some of his own secrets, of what he sacrificed of himself in pursuit of knowledge. She tells him she knows where his eye is hidden and how he gave it up in exchange for knowledge. She asks him in several refrains if he understands, or if he would like to hear more  The seeress goes on to describe the slaying of Baldr, best and fairest of the gods and the enmity of Loki, and of others. Then she prophesies the destruction of the gods where fire and flood overwhelm heaven and earth as the gods fight their final battles with their enemies. This is the fate of the gods: Ragnarök. She describes the summons to battle, the deaths of many of the gods and how Odin, himself, is slain  Finally a beautiful reborn world will rise from the ashes of death and destruction where Baldr will live again in a new world where the earth sproutsCarvings of snakes and dragons abundance without sowing seed. A final stanzadestroying the world at Ragnarök, describes the sudden appearance of Nidhogg thenorth panel of Urnes Church dragon, bearing corpses in his wings, before the seeress emerges from her trance
  19. 19. Ritual and ArtEvidence of Ritual from Textual and Archaeological Sources
  20. 20. Rune Stones Rune stones add valuable information concerning myth through their dedications to deities, which offer independent confirmation of the traditions that we know through the literary sources Moreover, in Sweden, many are richly decorated and some of these panels depict mythical scenes Although some are certainly obscure, others are clearly intelligible through the traditions recorded in the sagas In addition to traditions regarding deities, heroic myths are also common
  21. 21. Altuna, Uppland  A good example of a mythical scene depicted on a rune stone is afforded by the specimen from Altuna, in Uppland  This records what is most likely the myth of Thor fishing, when he catches the Miðgarð serpent and nearly kills the beast with his hammer, before it escapes  Again, this provides independent confirmation of the traditions recorded in the sagas and therefore underscores how widely dispersed some of these tales were and how they the principal ones were most likely similar across Scandinavia
  22. 22. Tjängvide, Gotland An especially vivid mythical depiction occurs on the rune stone from Tjängvide in Gotland, which is now at the National Museum of Sweden in Stockholm This series of scenes seems to show a ship heading off to battle, with a panel above it showing slain men and a man riding an eight-legged horse being greeted by maidens carrying flasks of drink The eight-legged horse is undoubtedly Odins steed Sleipnir and this scene represents a warrior being received in Valhöll after his death in battle The corpse in the scene likely represents the warrior slain in battle, which is situated above the painting of Sleipnir
  23. 23. Ornaments  In the latter half of the Viking Age, when Christianity was asserting itself, it became common for Scandinavians to begin wearing amulets depicting Thors hammer  This was probably an imitation of the Christian custom of wearing a cross  Numerous moulds have been found in Scandinavia and in places of Scandinavian settlement for the hammers, and some of them were also used to produce Christian crosses  No other symbol from the pagan tradition was worn like this, and this possibly represents the popularity of the cult of Thor
  24. 24. Priests & Ritual CentresThe Structure of Worship and Cult Centres
  25. 25. Common Worship Periodic sacrifices and communal worship occurred throughout the landscape Sometimes these were dedicated to lesser deities or tutelary spirits associated with families, districts or perhaps even an individual These lesser deities or spirits were known as dísir (singular dís) and their festivals and sacrifices were called dísablót This was probably the most common form of worship, which is notoriously difficult to detect through the archaeological record as it leaves little unequivocal trace except when votive offerings occur
  26. 26. Natural Features  Some of the worship probably focused on statuettes or figurines standing outside  Examples of these may have been recovered by archaeologists near bog deposits, thus showing a continuity in some ritual practice over the late Iron Age-Viking Age  Especially significant locations in the landscape were groves (lundr), cultivated ground (akr), mounds (haugr), islands (ey), ridges (áss) and prominent rocks (berg)  Those presiding over these rituals were probably headmen and women of the community
  27. 27. Relationship to Settlement The local religious sites must have been situated in the immediate vicinity of the settlements Examples of this have been encountered at places such as Tissø on the island of Sjælland in Denmark This site was a rich trading settlement with large long houses, but there was an associated ritual structure adjacent to the biggest structure and nearby lay the lake of Tissø, which derives its name from the deity Tyr and has also afforded quantities of votive deposits from the Iron Age and the Viking Age
  28. 28. Priests and Priestesses  Most of the rites, as mentioned already, were probably carried out by the chieftain of the settlement  These have been described as secular priests described in Iceland as goði (the feminine is gyði)  The main rite was blot and was usually sacrificial, involving the killing of an animal (sometimes even humans) and the destruction of artefactsReconstruction of the ritual  Usually they were followed bystructure found at Uppåkra in communal feasts of eating andSweden. Rites and rituals officiated drinking, but those pertaining toover here must have been done by fertility sometimes wereprofessional priests or priestesses accompanied by sexualrather than by local chieftains licentitiousness
  29. 29. Convivial Meals It appears that the animals sacrificed in such a fashion were cooked in pits lined with hot stones, which are not common outside of sites that we associate with ritual activity In addition to this, there are buildings that may have ritual significance such as that found at Tissø that were known as hof Many of these, such as the Icelandic examples of Hofstadir and Mýrvatn, contain such cooking pits This may permit us to infer that Figure of the deity Odin from meat was cooked in a special way Uppåkra in Sweden for cult meals
  30. 30. Hörgr  An older and more widespread name associated with ritual practises is hörgr, which has a primary meaning of a pile of stones  These stone piles were chiefly cairns and the significance of them extends back into the Iron Age and even the Bronze Age  Another sacred site is denoted by the word vé, and it appears that this also indicates a site in the open rather than an enclosed building represented by hof  Large temples are known from only an handful of sites, usually associated with royal centres
  31. 31. Temples We know little about the temples in Scandinavia, but there are suggestions that they were associated with royal sites and therefore often gave prominence to certain deities that were widely worshipped by the aristocracy In Denmark and southern Sweden, the main cult centres appear to have been dedicated to Odin This is deduced through place- names and suggestions from the mortuary record which suggest that there was a mortuary rite associated with an equestrian warrior class
  32. 32. Gamle Uppsala