Snorri´s Ancestral Stories about the “Men from Asia”

In Snorri Sturluson´s Prologue to the Prose Edda, as well as in his Ynglinga saga [the first chapter of Heimskringla, the Sagas of the Norwegian Kings], this Medieval Icelandic historian claimed that the Aesir, gods of the Norse pagan pantheon, in reality were ancestors from Asia who had once entered North-Western Europe and whose language, religion and societal structure came to dominate the northern lands.

In this article, I will provide you with the full texts in English translation, but firstly, an introduction to explain these texts better.

What Sources Did Snorri Have For His Ancestral Origin Stories?

Snorri did not invent these stories out of the blue. He based them on old poems about the origins of certain royal and noble lineages in Scandinavia, origin stories transmitted, celebrated and preserved by the members of these lineages themselves. These were the tales of the ancestral origins of great pagan royal lineages in Scandinavia who had long since claimed descent from the gods.

  • The noble lineages of the Háleygir and the Thronds of northern Norway, for example, claimed to be descended from Sæming, the son of Óðinn and Skaði.
  • The Skioldunga lineage that once ruled in Denmark, claimed descent from Skiold/Scyld, who in some sources was the son of Óðinn, and who was married to the goddess Gefion/Gefn [which is listed as one of the many names for Freyia].
  • The Ynglinga lineage, that once ruled in Uppsala and later came to rule in Norway, claimed descent from the god Freyr and the iotunn woman Gerðr.

The Ancestral Stories were a Part of Pagan Lore

Obviously, these tales of divine descent were important to the ruling clans of the Scandinavian tribes.

  • Firstly, they served to legitimize the ruling power of these lineages.
  • Secondly, they were a part of the mythology of the cult of Sacred Marriage in connection to kingship; the divine king had to marry a tribal fylgja/goddess in order to be inaugurated.
  • The stories fit neatly in with the fact that pagan people tended to worship some of their ancestors as if they were divine beings.

As such, origin stories involving the gods playing a role as human ancestors were a vital part of the official pagan cults of Scandinavian tribes.

They were not just invented by Snorri or other medieval chroniclers of history, as some have erroneously suggested.

They were not just a Christian invention meant to discredit the gods; they were very much a part of pagan lore, existing side by side with other myths in which the gods are clearly supernatural beings or even allegories of higher spiritual mysteries.

When Snorri told these stories, he may have added some [we know he added some] details and perspectives that made these stories fit better into a general Christian, Medieval worldview, and he may have emphasized the role of gods as human ancestors in order to take out a perceived threat to the new religion, but he certainly did base these stories on lore that he had heard and knew; lore that had been passed down through the generations.

This is why I think we, who are interested in pagan Norse lore, should take Snorri´s origin stories seriously even if we cannot vouch for all the geographical or personal or historical details. We do not have to (and should not!) blindly believe that Óðinn was in fact a man who traveled from the east – but we can recognize that some of our pagan ancestors certainly believed so, and that in reality, the Indo-European prototypes of Óðinn [alongside many other prototypes to Norse gods and the religion of the pagan Norse] originally came into northwestern Europe with migrations of people who came out of Asia – because they did.

And If you look at the structure of the stories, the general movement being described, you will start to see overwhelming similarities to a huge era of migration which actually did take place in European prehistory some 5-4000 years ago, an era of upheaval and change that actually led to the forming of a proto-Norse culture alongside many other cultures of Indo-European type. This is too interesting a coincidence to be overlooked, and there is good reason to believe that the lore of such past movements and migrations actually was a part of the Norse pagan worldview, even if Snorri may have added a little here and there.

Troy, Thrace or Dón River People

In both stories, Snorri claimed that the Aesir were “Men from Asia” who lived around the Black Sea area, but he seems to have had different sources as to whether they came from the southern or northern side of the Black Sea.

  • In the Prose Edda, Snorri claimed that the Aesir came from Troy [in Anatolia, today´s Turkey] and that they also had close connections to Thrace [Bulgaria mostly]
  • In the Ynglinga saga, he claimed that they were rather from the northern side of the Black Sea, but to the east of the river Dón, which provided the border between Europe and Asia.

Aesir

Interestingly, both of the areas proposed were among the first areas settled by Indo-European people when they began migrating from their original homes of the mountains and steppes of West-Central Asia.

  • In Anatolia, their descendants became Hittites, Lydians and other Indo-European Anatolian peoples of the Bronze Age. Beginning as pastoral barbarian nomads, they adopted the civilized systems of people who already lived there before, and learned, among other things, how to write. Most of this did not happen until about 3.500 years ago [1.500 BC].
  • In Thrace, to the south of the Danube river, a mysterious, non-literate, barbarian Indo-European people came to be known as “Thracians” from around 2.700 years ago [700 BC].
  • To the northeastern side of the Black Sea, however, we know of a much older, more primitive Indo-European shepherding folk that we call the Jamna/Yamnaya, and who we now know constituted most of the people who were responsible for a massive migration from the southeast into northwestern Europe, beginning 5.000-4.000 years ago [3.000-2.000 BC], a long while before any of these groups became famous in Anatolia and Thrace.

Another interesting detail in Snorri´s story about the Don river Asians is the fact that they met a very powerful culture as soon as they crossed the river Don; the Vanir.

There was in fact a powerful culture existing on the western [European] side of the Don at the same time as the Jamna lived on the eastern [Asian] side; a culture that we today call the Cucuteni. The Cucuteni lived between the Don and the Danube rivers and had lasted for an incredible 2.000 years without interruption or any signs of warfare, and were a part of the Neolithic cultural complex known as “Old Europe“.  Old Europe consisted of several Neolithic village cultures situated in the eastern and southern parts of Europe from between 10.000 and 5.000 years ago (BP), that is, from between 8.000 and 3.000 BC. These cultures shared a symbolic language much focused on the female body and shape-changing themes, they were sedentary with large villages connected through trading routes, and could actually have been called a civilization depending on how that term is interpreted. They appear to have known very little hierarchy (“egalitarian”), were deeply religious or spiritual, and remarkably woman-friendly, and their most important deity was probably a goddess. 

Moving further west (Iberia) and north (Scandinavia), we see a Megalithic culture spreading during the same time as “Old Europe” existed, a culture that differed somewhat from their contemporaries of “Old Europe”, but which also shared many symbols and themes. Both cultures had largely sprung out of the Ice Age and Mesolithic cultures of Europe with added input from the Middle East at the start of the Neolithic, and both existed side by side with older hunter-gatherer cultures.

All three types of ancient European cultures were seriously challenged by migration waves from the east (West Asia) happening between 4.000-3.000 years ago (2.000-1.000 BC), when Indo-European shepherds from the steppes and mountains of the Caucasus and Caspian Sea area began moving westwards. The Cucuteni would have been the first to encounter these shepherds, and within 500-1.000 years, all the Old European and Megalithic peoples had changed radically into far more warlike, hierarchic and patriarchal cultures than they had been before, and in most places their languages were changed so drastically as to become members of the Indo-European language family. This also happened in Asia; similar groups of Indo-European shepherds moved south across the Caucasus and entered Anatolia, Iran, Pakistan and India.

Aesir and Cucuteni

Snorri as a Source to Pagan Lore

First of all, let us briefly present Snorri Sturlusson [1179-1241], our main source to pagan ancestral lore in Scandinavia.

Snorri was an Icelandic scholar, chief, historian and poet whose greatest legacies are the many sagas he wrote about ancestral lineages and kings of Norway as well as his Prose Edda, which basically sums up almost all the pre-Christian mythological material that had survived in folklore and in a body of Norse poetry known as Skaldic and Edda poetry. His Prose Edda is also a way of explaining the metaphorical, allegorical nature of Norse, pre-Christian poetry. Because of Snorri´s hard work, we are able to decipher and understand this ancient form of poetry, and because of his work, we know almost everything there still is to know about Old Norse mythology. Almost anything you know about Norse myths is thanks to Snorri Sturluson.

On what basis did Snorri know so much about pre-Christian mythology? By the year 1100, Old Norse paganism [Heiðindómr] had been conquered and suppressed by the Medieval, Catholic Church [Kristinndómr]. Even by then, paganism had been seriously challenged and probably changed a bit for more than a hundred years already. In the year 1000 AD, 50% of the Icelandic parliament voted for Christianity to be the official religion of Iceland, and after a deal of consideration, it was decided that the new religion should be the new official, public religion of the country, but the 50 % who wanted to continue worshipping the old gods were allowed to do so for another hundred years. In Norway, Christianity became strong after the 1030s while in Sweden, the Temple of Uppsala was destroyed and replaced by a church during the 1080s. Paganism was not outlawed in Iceland until about a hundred years after Christianity became the official religion, around 1100.

Snorri Sturluson, however, was born in 1179, a whole generation after paganism had been outlawed in all the Norse-speaking countries.

However, oral traditions were still strong, and Icelanders (perhaps due to descending from Norwegian exiles) took a deep interest in their past and their roots even back then. As soon as some Icelanders learned to write with Latin letters on leather manuscripts, they started to write down their countless stories of their ancestors – in their own language. They were conscious about showing the world that there was more to their past than just being robbers and bandits, and they still took some pride in their mythological, poetical traditions; even during the 11th century, pagan poetry was written down – manuscripts that Snorri had access to.

Additionally, Snorri and his peers could still speak to old people who remembered parents and grandparents who had been pagan, as he says in his introduction to the Heimskringla;

Ari also learned a lot from Turið, daughter of Snorri Góði [a Góði was the title of a pagan lawman and priest]; she was wise, and she remembered Snorri her father, and was about 35 years old when Christianity came to Iceland, and he died a year after the death of Ólaf the Holy.”

Ari was one of Snorri´s predecessors whose written works have been lost, but which were available to Snorri Sturluson. Ari had learned ancestral lore from Turið and other old people; Turið had learned from her father, who had been a pagan priest and lawman and remembered both the time before and after the conversion. As such, Snorri is a pretty good source to what the most knowledgeable and knowledge-seeking people of his time could still know about the recent, pagan past, a lore that was still very much alive during his lifetime. In his Prose Edda, which he wrote in 1225, he commented that “young people” are beginning to forget the myths that are basic to Norse poetry. This means that when he grew up, people were still very familiar with these myths.

Ancestral Lore of the Prose Edda [the Prologue]

I will skip the very first paragraph of Snorri´s Prologue, as it begins with a typical, Medieval, Christian take on everything non-Christian; claiming that, as people spread across the globe after the Exodus, they “forgot” the one true God – an explanation of pagan beliefs. This is clearly an addition to whatever may have been an original pagan ancestral story.

There are probably several other details that have been added with the expanding Medieval worldview that Snorri had also grown up with, but if we start to look at the structure of the story, it may still, I believe, actually be reflecting some ancient stories of real, prehistorical migrations that actually did lead to the beginning of Germanic and other Indo-European religious traditions. From the next paragraph, I shall render the entire story in full [in English translation]:

The Earth Goddess as Ancestral Mother

“One thing they wondered and pondered over: what it might mean, that the Earth [Jǫrð] and the beasts and the birds had one nature in some ways, and yet were unlike in manner of life. In this was their nature one: that the Earth was cleft into lofty mountain-peaks, wherein water spurted up, and it was not needful to dig longer for water there than in the deep valleys; so it is also with beasts and birds: it is equally far to the blood in the head and the feet.

Another quality of the Earth is, that in each year grass and flowers grow upon the Earth, and in the same year all that growth falls away and withers; it is even so with beasts and birds: hair and feathers grow and fall away each year.

This is the third nature of the Earth, that when she is opened and dug up, the grass grows straightway on the soil which is uppermost on the Earth. Boulders and stones they likened to the teeth and bones of living beings.

Thus they recognized that the Earth was quick, and had life with some manner of nature of her own; and they understood that she was wondrous old in years and mighty in kind: she nourished all that lived, and she took to herself all that died. Therefore they gave her a name, and traced the number of their generations from her.

The same thing, moreover, they learned from their aged kinsmen: that many hundreds of years have been numbered since the same Earth yet was, and the same Sun and stars of the heavens; but the courses of these were unequal, some having a longer course, and some a shorter.”

The Ancestors Figured Out the Idea of a Higher God

“From things like these the thought stirred within them that there might be some governor of the stars of heaven: one who might order their courses after his will; and that he must be very strong and full of might. This also they held to be true: that if he swayed the chief things of creation, he must have been before the stars of heaven; and they saw that if he ruled the courses of the heavenly bodies, he must also govern the shining of the Sun, and the dews of the air, and the fruits of the Earth, whatsoever grows upon her; and in like manner the winds of the air and the storms of the sea. They knew not yet where his kingdom was; but this they believed: that he ruled all things on Earth and in the sky, the great stars also of the heaven, and the winds of the sea. Wherefore, not only to tell of this fittingly, but also that they might fasten it in memory, they gave names out of their own minds to all things.

This belief of theirs has changed in many ways, according as the peoples drifted asunder and their tongues became severed one from another. But all things they discerned with the wisdom of the Earth, for the understanding of the spirit was not given to them; this they perceived, that all things were fashioned of some essence.”

Medieval  Geography

“The world was divided into three parts: from the south, extending into the west and bordering on the Mediterranean Sea,–all this part was called Africa, the southern quarter of which is hot, so that it is parched with the sun.

The second part, from west to north and bordering on the ocean, is called Europa or Eneá; its northern part is so cold that no grass grows upon it, and no man dwells there.

From the north and all down over the eastern part, even to the south, is called Asia. In that region of the world is all fairness and pride, and the fruits of the Earth’s increase, gold and jewels. There also is the centre of the Earth; and even as the land there is lovelier and better in every way than in other places, so also were the sons of men there most favored with all goodly gifts: wisdom, and strength of the body, beauty, and all manner of knowledge.”

The Trojans, Thor and Síf

“Near the Earth’s centre was made that goodliest of homes and haunts that ever have been, which is called Troy, even that which we call Turkland. This abode was much more gloriously made than others, and fashioned with more skill of craftsmanship in manifold wise, both in luxury and in the wealth which was there in abundance.

There were twelve kingdoms and one High King, and many sovereignties belonged to each kingdom; in the stronghold were twelve chieftains. These chieftains were in every manly part greatly above other men that have ever been in the world. One king among them was called Múnón or Mennón; and he was wedded to the daughter of the High King Priam, her who was called Tróán; they had a child named Trór, whom we call Thor [the Thunder god, always present in all Indo-European religions as a very important ancestral god].

He was fostered in Thrace by a certain war-duke called Lóríkus; but when he was ten winters old he took unto him the weapons of his father. He was as goodly to look upon, when he came among other men, as the ivory that is inlaid in oak; his hair was fairer than gold. When he was twelve winters old he had his full measure of strength; then he lifted clear of the Earth ten bear-skins all at one time; and then he slew Duke Lóríkus, his foster-father, and with him his wife Lórá, or Glórá, and took into his own hands the realm of Thrace, which we call Thrúdheim.

Then he went forth far and wide over the lands, and sought out every quarter of the Earth, overcoming alone all berserks and giants, and one dragon, greatest of all dragons, and many beasts. In the northern half of his kingdom he found the prophetess who was called Sibyl, whom we call Sif, and wedded her. The lineage of Sif I cannot tell; she was fairest of all women, and her hair was like gold.

Their son was Lóridi, who resembled his father; his son was Einridi, his son Vingethor, his son Vingener, his son Móda, his son Magi, his son Seskef, his son Bedvig, his son Athra (whom we call Annarr), his son Ítermann, his son Heremód, his son Skjaldun (whom we call Skjöld), his son Bjáf (whom we call Bjárr), his son Ját, his son Gudólfr, his son Finn, his son Fríallaf (whom we call Fridleifr); his son was he who is named Vóden, whom we call Óðinn: he was a man far-famed for wisdom and every accomplishment. His wife was Frígídá, whom we call Frigg.”

Of Óðinn

“Óðinn had second sight, and his wife also; and from their foreknowledge he found that his name should be exalted in the northern part of the world and glorified above the fame of all other kings. Therefore, he made ready to journey out of Turkland, and was accompanied by a great multitude of people, young folk and old, men and women; and they had with them much goods of great price. And wherever they went over the lands of the Earth, many glorious things were spoken of them, so that they were held more like gods than men. They made no end to their journeying till they were come north into the land that is now called Saxland; there Óðinn tarried for a long space, and took the land into his own hand, far and wide.

In that land Óðinn set up three of his sons for land-wardens.

One was named Vegdeg: he was a mighty king and ruled over East Saxland; his son was Vitgils; his sons were Vitta, Heingistr’s father, and Sigarr, father of Svebdeg, whom we call Svipdagr.

The second son of Óðinn was Beldeg, whom we call Baldr: he had the land which is now called Westphalia. His son was Brandr, his son Frjódigar, [whom we call Fródi], his son Freóvin, his son Uvigg, his son Gevis [whom we call Gave]. Óðinn’s third son is named Sigi, his son Rerir. These the forefathers ruled over what is now called Frankland; and thence is descended the house known as Völsungs. From all these are sprung many and great houses.”

Óðinn´s Journey to the North

“Then Óðinn began his way northward, and came into the land which they called Reidgothland; and in that land he took possession of all that pleased him. He set up over the land that son of his called Skjöld, whose son was Fridleifr;–and thence descends the house of the Skjöldungs: these are the kings of the Danes.

And what was then called Reidgothland is now called Jutland.

After that he went northward, where the land is called Sweden; the king there was named Gylfi. When the king learned of the coming of those men of Asia, who were called Æsir, he went to meet them, and made offer to them that Óðinn should have such power in his realm as he himself wielded. And such well-being followed ever upon their footsteps, that in whatsoever lands they dwelt were good seasons and peace; and all believed that they caused these things, for the lords of the land perceived that they were unlike other men whom they had seen, both in fairness and also in wisdom.”

Aesir Prologue 2

Óðinn´s New Order

“The fields and the choice lands in that place seemed fair to Óðinn, and he chose for himself the site of a city which is now called Sigtún. There he established chieftains in the fashion which had prevailed in Troy; he set up also twelve head-men to be judges over the people and to judge the laws of the land; and he ordained also all laws as, there had been before, in Troy, and according to the customs of the Turks.

After that he went into the north, until he was stopped by the sea, which men thought lay around all the lands of the Earth; and there he set his son over this kingdom, which is now called Norway. This king was Sæmingr; the kings of Norway trace their lineage from him, and so do also the jarls and the other mighty men, as is said in the Háleygjatal.”

A New Language

“Óðinn had with him one of his sons called Yngvi, who was king in Sweden after him; and those houses come from him that are named Ynglings. The Æsir took wives of the land for themselves, and some also for their sons; and these kindreds became many in number, so that throughout Saxland, and thence all over the region of the north, they spread out until their tongue, even the speech of the men of Asia, was the native tongue over all these lands.

Therefore men think that they can perceive, from their forefathers’ names which are written down, that those names belonged to this tongue, and that the Æsir brought the tongue hither into the northern region, into Norway and into Sweden, into Denmark and into Saxland. But in England there are ancient lists of land-names and place-names which may show that these names came from another tongue than this.”

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As we can see, Snorri here offered a Medieval explanation of the spread of the Indo-European language family a long time before there even was such a concept; his take was clearly based on his studies of history and language and was not at all far from the historical truth. For more on the Indo-European spread into Europe, go here.

bC

Now to the other Ancestral Origin Story. In his Ynglinga saga, Snorri tells the tale of how the Aesir came to Scandinavia via Russia and Saxland [Sachsen] and introduced their new religion and societal system.

Incidentally, this story also provides one of our most important written sources to Óðinn as a seið-man and shaman.

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Ynglinga Saga or The Story of the Ynglinga Family from Óðinn to Halfdan the Black

1. OF THE SITUATION OF COUNTRIES.

“It is said that the earth’s circle which the human race inhabits is torn across into many bights, so that great seas run into the land from the out-ocean. Thus it is known that a great sea goes in at Nörvasund [“The Narrow Strait” = Gibraltar], and up to the land of Jerusalem.

From the same sea a long sea-bight stretches towards the north-east, and is called the Black Sea, and divides the three parts of the earth; of which the eastern part is called Asia, and the western is called by some Europa, by some Enea.  Northward of the Black Sea lies Swithiod the Great, or the Cold [=Siberia/Russia].

The Great Swithiod is reckoned by some as not less than the Great Serkland [The Islamic Caliphate with base in Baghdad]; others compare it to the Great Blueland [Africa].  The northern part of Swithiod [Siberia] lies uninhabited on account of frost and cold, as likewise the southern parts of Blueland [Africa] are waste from the burning of the sun.

In Swithiod [Siberia] are many great domains, and many races of men, and many kinds of languages.  There are giants, and there are dwarfs, and there are also blue men [dark-skinned people], and there are any kinds of stranger creatures.  There are huge wild beasts, and dreadful dragons.  On the south side of the mountains which lie outside of all inhabited lands runs a river through Swithiod, which is properly called by the name of Tanais [Don], but was formerly called Tanaquisl, or Vanaquisl, and which falls into the Black Sea.

The country of the people on the Vanaquisl [Don river] was called Vanaland, or Vanaheim; and the river separates the three parts of the world, of which the eastermost part is called Asia, and the westermost Europe.”

Aesir2

 

2. OF THE PEOPLE OF ASIA. [The New Religion of the Aesir/Vanir]

“The country east of the Tanaquisl [Don river] in Asia was called Ásaland, or Asaheim, and the chief city in that land was called Ásgarðr.  In that city was a chief called Óðinn, and it was a great place for sacrifice.  It was the custom there that twelve temple priests should both direct the sacrifices, and also judge the people.

They were called Diar, or Drotner, and all the people served and obeyed them.  Óðinn was a great and very far-travelled warrior, who conquered many kingdoms, and so successful was he that in every battle the victory was on his side.  It was the belief ofhis people that victory belonged to him in every battle.  It was his custom when he sent his men into battle, or on any expedition, that he first laid his hand upon their heads, and called down a blessing upon them; and then they believed their undertaking would be successful.  His people also were accustomed, whenever they fell into danger by land or sea, to call upon his name; and they thought that always they got comfort and aid by it, for where he was they thought help was near. Often he went away so far that he passed many seasons on his journeys.”

3. OF ÓÐINN’S BROTHERS.

“Óðinn had two brothers, the one called Ve, the other Vili, and they governed the kingdom when he was absent.  It happened once when Óðinn had gone to a great distance, and had been so long away that the people Of Asia doubted if he would ever return home, that his two brothers took it upon themselves to divide his estate; but both of them took his wife Frigg to themselves.  Óðinn soon after returned home, and took his wife back.”

4. OF ÓÐINN’S WAR WITH THE PEOPLE OF VANALAND.

“Óðinn went out with a great army against the Vanaland people; but they were well prepared, and defended their land; so that victory was changeable, and they ravaged the lands of each other, and did great damage.  They tired of this at last, and on both sides appointed a meeting for establishing peace, made a truce, and exchanged hostages.

The Vanaland people sent their best men, Njǫrðr the Rich [in mythology, he was the god of winds and waves], and his son Freyr [in mythology, he was the god of growth, sex and fertility, cultivated nature and government/order].

The people of Ásaland sent a man called Hænir [in mythology, he was the god who gave the gift of thought to men and women], whom they thought well suited to be a chief, as he was a stout and very handsome man; and with him they sent a man of great understanding called Mímir [“Memory” – in mythology, he is the giant who guards the well of Memory].

On the other side, the Vanaland people sent the wisest man in their community, who was called Kvasir [in mythology, he is the embodiment of divine wisdom].

Now, when Hænir came to Vanaheim he was immediately made a chief, and Mímir came to him with good counsel on all occasions.  But when Hænir stood in the Parliaments or other meetings, if Mímir was not near him, and any difficult matter was laid before him, he always answered in one way –

“Now let others give their advice”;

so that the Vanaland people got a suspicion that the Ásaland people had deceived them in the exchange of men. They took Mímir, therefore, and beheaded him, and sent his head to the Ásaland people.

Óðinn took the head, smeared it with herbs so that it should not rot, and sang incantations over it.  Thereby he gave it the power that it spoke to him, and discovered to him many secrets.  Óðinn placed Njǫrðr and Freyr as priests of the sacrifices, and they became Diar of the Ásaland people.

Njǫrðr’s daughter Freyia [in mythology, she is the goddess of fate, death, seið (magic, shamanism, oracular divination), love, wild nature and initiation mysteries) was priestess of the sacrifices (blótgyðja), and she was the one who first taught the Ásaland people the art of seiðr, as it was in use and fashion among the Vanaland people.

While Njǫrðr was with the Vanaland people he had taken his own sister in marriage, for that was allowed by their law; and their children were Freyr and Freyia.  But among the Ásaland people it was forbidden to intermarry with such near relations.”

[It has been speculated that Njǫrð´s unnamed and forgotten sister/wife may have been identical to the goddess Nerthus described as the mother goddess of the Germanic Suebi tribes of the Iron Age. “Nerthus” is a Latinized form of a Germanic name that may have been Njerðr or Njórunn – a feminine variant of the masculine name Njǫrðr. Unless it was true as Snorri claimed,  that the three Vanir gods were adopted into the Aesir pantheon, while the older goddess was left behind with her native people, this is probably the case].

Aesir spread in Scandinavia Ynglinga saga

5. ÓÐINN DIVIDES HIS KINGDOM: ALSO CONCERNING GEFION.

“There goes a great mountain barrier from north-east to south- west, which divides the Greater Swithiod from other kingdoms [the Caucasus]. South of this mountain ridge it is not far to Turkland, where Óðinn also had great possessions.

In those times the Roman chiefs went wide around in the world, subduing to themselves all people; and on this account many chiefs fled from their domains.  But Óðinn having foreknowledge, and magic-sight, knew that his posterity would come to settle and dwell in the northern half of the world.

He therefore set his brothers Vé and Víli over Ásgarðr; and he himself, with all the gods and a great many other people, wandered out, first westward to Garðariki [Russia], and then south to Saxland.

He had many sons; and after having subdued an extensive kingdom in Saxland, he set his sons to rule the country.  He himself went northwards to the sea, and took up his abode in an island which is called Odense [Óðinn´s Ey = “Odin´s Island”] in Fyn [Funen].

Then he sent Gefion [in terms of the Norse language, Gefion (“The Provider”) is identical to Gefn, who was listed as one of the many names for Freyia. She was now an Aesir goddess of Vanir origin] across the sound to the north to discover new countries; and she came to King Gylfi, who gave her a ploughgate of land.  Then she went to Jotunheim, and bore four sons to a giant, and transformed them into a yoke of oxen.  She yoked them to a plough, and broke out the land into the ocean right opposite to Óðinns.  This land was called Zealand, and there she afterwards settled and dwelt.

Skjold, a son of Óðinn, married her, and they dwelt at Lejre (Hleiðargarðr). Where the ploughed land was is a lake or sea called Great Lake.  In the Swedish land the fjords of Great Lake (Mälaren) correspond to the nesses in Zealand” [Snorri must have gotten this part of the legend wrong; The only Swedish lake that could possibly have looked like it could have been the water version of Zealand, and thus inspire this sort of legend, is the far bigger lake Väneren, possibly meaning “Vanir Lake”].

Aesir abode

 

Bragi the Old sings thus of it: —

     "Gefion from Gylfi drove away,
     To add new land to Denmark's sway --
     Blythe Gefion ploughing in the smoke
     That steamed up from her oxen-yoke:
     Four heads, eight forehead stars had they,
     Bright gleaming, as she ploughed away;
     Dragging new lands from the deep main
     To join them to the sweet isle's plain.

Now when Óðinn heard that Parliaments were in a prosperous condition in the land to the east beside Gylfi; he went thither, and Gylfi made a peace with him, for Gylfi thought he had no strength to oppose the people of Ásaland.

Óðinn and Gylfi had many tricks and enchantments against each other; but the Ásaland people had always the superiority.

Óðinn took up his residence at the Great Lake (Mälaren) lake, at the place now called Old Sigtun. There he erected a large temple, where there were sacrifices according to the customs of the Ásaland people.  He appropriated to himself the whole of that district, and called it Sigtun.  To the temple priests he gave also domains.  Njǫrðr dwelt in Noatun, Freyr in Upsal, Heimdal in the Himinbergs, Thor in Thrudvang, Balder in Breidablik; to all of them he gave good estates.”

6. OF ÓÐINN’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS.

“When Óðinn of Ásaland came to the north, and the Diar with him, they introduced and taught to others the arts which the people long afterwards have practiced.  Óðinn was the cleverest of all, and from him all the others learned their arts and accomplishments; and he knew them first, and knew many more than other people.  But now, to tell why he is held in such high respect, we must mention various causes that contributed to it.

When sitting among his friends his countenance was so beautiful and dignified, that the spirits of all were exhilarated by it, but when he was in war he appeared dreadful to his foes.  This arose from his being able to change his skin and form in any way he liked.  Another cause was, that he conversed so cleverly and smoothly, that all who heard believed him.  He spoke everything in rhyme, such as now composed, which we call skaldskáp(bard-craft/poetry).

He and his temple priests (Hófgóðar) were called song-smiths (ljóðasmíðir), for from them came that art of song into the northern countries.

Óðinn could make his enemies in battle blind, or deaf, or terror-struck, and their weapons so blunt that they could no more but than a willow wand; on the other hand, his men rushed forwards without armor, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild bulls, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon themselves.  These were called Berserker.”

7. OF ÓÐINN’S FEATS.

“Óðinn could transform his shape: his body would lie as if dead, or asleep; but then he would be in shape of a fish, or worm, or bird, or beast, and be off in a twinkling to distant lands upon his own or other people’s business.

With words alone he could quench fire, still the ocean in tempest, and turn the wind to any quarter he pleased.  Óðinn had a ship which was called Skidbladnir, in which he sailed over wide seas, and which he could roll up like a cloth.

Óðinn carried with him Mímir’s (Memory´s) head, which told him all the news of other countries.  Sometimes even he called the dead out of the earth, or set himself beside the burial-mounds; whence he was called the ghost-sovereign (draugardrótinn), and lord of the hanged (hangadrottin).

He had two ravens, to whom he had taught the speech of man; and they flew f)ar and wide through the land, and brought him the news.  In all such things he was pre-eminently wise.

He taught all these arts in Runes, and songs which are called galdrar (incantations), and therefore the Ásaland people are called incantation-smiths (galdrasmiðir). 

Óðinn understood also the art in which the greatest power is lodged, and which he himself practiced; namely, what is called seiðr (A Norse form of magic, oracular divination, witchcraft, shamanism).

By means of this he could know beforehand the predestined fate of men, or their not yet completed lot; and also bring on the death, ill-luck, or bad health of people, and take the strength or wit from one person and give it to another. But after such witchcraft followed such weakness and anxiety, that it was not thought respectable for men to practice it; and therefore the priestesses were brought up in this art.

Óðinn knew finely where all missing cattle were concealed under the earth, and understood the songs by which the earth, the hills, the stones, and mounds were opened to him; and he bound those who dwell in them by the power of his word, and went in and took what he pleased.  From these arts he became very celebrated.  His enemies dreaded him; his friends put their trust in him, and relied on his power and on himself.  He taught the most of his arts to his priests of the sacrifices (blótgóðar), and they came nearest to himself in all wisdom and witch-knowledge.  Many others, however, occupied themselves much with it; and from that time seiðr spread far and wide, and continued long.

People sacrificed to Óðinn and the twelve chiefs from Ásaland, and called them their gods, and believed in them long after.  From Óðinn’s name came the name Audun, which people gave to his sons; and from Thor’s name comes Thore, also Thorarinn (“The Thunder Warrior”); and also it is sometimes compounded with other names, as Steinthor, or Hafthor, or even altered in other ways.”

8. ÓÐINN’S LAWGIVING.

“Óðinn established the same law in his land that had been in force in Ásaland.  Thus he established by law that all dead men should be burned, and their belongings laid with them upon the pile, and the ashes be cast into the sea or buried in the earth.  Thus, said he, every one will come to Valhalla with the riches he had with him upon the pile; and he would also enjoy whatever he himself had buried in the earth.

For men of consequence a mound should be raised to their memory, and for all other warriors who had been distinguished for manhood a standing stone; which custom remained long after Óðinn’s time.  On winter day there should be blood-sacrifice for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop; and the third sacrifice should be on summer day, for victory in battle.  Over all Swithiod the people paid Óðinn a scatt or tax — so much on each head; but he had to defend the country from enemy or disturbance, and pay the expense of the sacrifice feasts for a good year.”

9. OF NJǪRÐR’S MARRIAGE.

“Njǫrðr took a wife called Skaði; but she would not live with him and married afterwards Óðinn, and had many sons by him, of whom one was called Sæming; and about him Eyvind Skaldaspiller sings thus: —

     "To Asa's son Queen Skaði bore
     Sæming, who dyed his shield in gore, --
     The giant-queen of rock and snow,
     Who loves to dwell on earth below,
     The iron pine-tree's daughter, she
     Sprung from the rocks that rib the sea,
     To Óðinn bore full many a son,
     Heroes of many a battle won."

To Sæming, Earl Hakon the Great reckoned back his pedigree.  This Swithiod they called Mannheim, but the Great Swithiod they called Godheim; and of Godheim great wonders and novelties were related.”

*****

What follows then is an anecdote of how the gods, one after the other, die, how they are buried, and how people began to worship them as gods ever after. I have related this part in another article about The Temple of Uppsala.

Eventually, only Freyia is still alive of the gods, and she continues the rituals, and before the story of Freyr´s descendants, the Ynglingar, really begins, the first part about the Aesir/Vanir gods concludes;

***

“When it became known to the Swedes that Freyr was dead, and yet peace and good seasons continued, they believed that it must be so as long as Freyr remained in Sweden; and therefore they would not burn his remains, but called him the god of this world, and afterwards offered continually blood-sacrifices to him, principally for peace and good seasons.”

***

What is really being told here, is the genesis of a religion. We do not know to what extent Snorri based his knowledge on real ancestral stories, and to what extent he figured it out (or imagined) on his own, based on the general Medieval higher education of his time.

But we do know that the story has an underlying, basic structure echo; a story that perfectly fits the slow but steady, millennium-long expansion of the Indo-European Jamna people into Europe by way of Cucuteni territory, while other Indo-European groups went south into Iran and Anatolia.

And if that parallel echo is not purely coincidental, then what we may have in Snorri´s work is whatever pieces then remained of an ancestral legend reaching back thousands of years, and which, truthfully or not, attempts to explain the origin of their own religion.

Most religions have that sort of origin myth.

*

Article About Ancient European Migrations here.

Gefion_Fountain_-_front_view.jpg

Gefion and her bulls – Danish statue

 

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After the Ice – Maps of Early European Migrations

During the last Ice Age, the Paleolithic cultures of Europe were naturally barred from the Asian part of the Eurasian continent by the large ice sheets, the Ural mountains, a Caspian Sea three times larger than what it is today, the Caucasus mountains and the Black Sea which poured into the Meditterranean with a much broader flow. Only through Anatolia (Turkey) and through small paths south of the Urals could people enter, and enter they did in three major waves; one happening 50.000 years ago, another 35.000 years ago, and the last, a mere 20.000 years ago.

More or less half of all Europeans today descend directly from these first Ice Age Europeans, and we all carry about 50 % of their DNA. The rest stems from later migrations into Europe, particularly the Indoeuropean kind.

Of languages, it is possible that Proto-Uralic (the ancestor of Finnic and Ugric languages such as Hungarian) was a part of the easternmost European languages of the Ice Age. It is also possible that Basque descend from a proto-Iberian language.

On the Asian side of the Urals/Caucasus were people who may have been Proto-Indoeuropeans. Proto-Turks also lived much further east than most of them do today. To the southeast were people who may have been Proto-Sumerians, and others who spoke Proto-Afro-Asiatic languages (the ancestors of Old Egyptians and Semitic languages).

After the Ice Migrations during

Here is a map picturing the cultural regions associated with particular language families and their origins (the “Proto-language”).  It is unknown exactly what languages were spoken in Europe prior to the Indoeuropean expansion because these languages went extinct eventually. All European languages possess words and forms descended from these extinct languages, as they blended with the new languages that were to come later.

Doggerland was a piece of land between England and Denmark/Norway that emerged after the ice sheets receded, but which then got flooded. The Doggerland people were among the earliest migrants into Scandinavia after the Ice Age, just as they were among the first to settle Brittannia.

After the Ice Language groups

The next map shows from what regions the first Scandinavians emerged:

  1. The Ice Age Iberian culture that had survived after the Magdalenian culture got dispersed into several tribes. People from Iberia migrated first into the new land that had emerged from the ice, Doggerland, and from then into Denmark and Norway.
  2. The Danube river culture
  3. The Balkan/ Don river culture
  4. Uralic culture with added genomes from East Asia (Proto-Mongolian).

In all modern Scandinavians, there are some traces of each of these ancestors. The East Asian input is particularly evident among the Sámi, as it is among other Finno-Ugric groups such as the Samoyedic peoples of Siberia.

After the Ice Age migrations

During the Neolithic,  many different and quite expansive, stable and long-lasting cultures emerged in Europe. This happened just as the Indoeuropean Jamna/Yamnaya culture group emerged just to the east of the border between Europe and Asia, north of the Black Sea and the Caucasus.

While the European Neolithic peoples were largely sedentary, agricultural and remarkably peaceful compared to later eras, the Indoeuropean Yamnaya was a shepherding, nomadic culture just like their Semitic neighbours to the south of the Caucasus, and just as the latter would challenge the early civilizations of the Middle East and North Africa, so the Indoeuropeans would challenge the cultures of Old Europe and of the Indus Valley civilization. People who lived further to the north in Scandinavia and Finland remained hunter-gatherers for a long time still.

After the Ice Neolithic cultures

The next map shows the Indoeuropean expansion through archaeology; how the Yamnaya culture expanded and influenced a new culture that was to dominate in Northern Europe, often called the Beaker Bell culture, the Corded Ware culture, or the Battle Axe culture. These were the people who eventually brought the Indoeuropean language structure into Scandinavia and many other places in Europe.

After the Ice migrations

The next map shows the expansion of Indoeuropean language branches into Europe, Iran, Pakistan and India (at the cost of what had been before). For the most part, the Indoeuropeans adopted any cultural system that they encountered; In southeast Europe and Asia, they simply took over the previous civilizations; in northwestern Europe they made do with the somewhat more barbarian forms of life that they found there, and which they were used to. They took dominating positions, married the local women and influenced language and religion and societal structure, to what degree appears to have varied depending on the strength of the previous culture that they tried to dominate.

Some of the Indoeuropan brances are now extinct, such as the Anatolian. Many Indoeuropean groups moved into Anatolia (present day Turkey), and spoke “Anatolian” languages, but these went extinct as their cultures crumbled and gave way to Turkic peoples who came later. The majority of European languages today, as well as a great number of Asian languages such as Hindi, Urdu and Iranian, are Indoeuropean of origin.

After the Ice Indoeuropean migration

The main branches of the Indoeuropean language family.:

  • Indo-Iranian
  • Anatolian (extinct)
  • Albanian
  • Hellenic
  • Italic
  • Celtic
  • Germanic
  • Slavic
  • Balto-Slavic

 

The Temple of Uppsala

The Royal Mounds of Uppsala

Old Uppsala is situated a few kilometers north of the modern city of Uppsala in Sweden,  not far from another Old Norse site, Old Sígtuna. It is famous for having been an important pagan cultic center, and for its three great burial mounds that are astronomically aligned and oriented towards important ritual dates. No one knows exactly what purpose these mounds served, but their orientation fits exactly into a tradition of astronomical alignment in Swedish passage graves and burial mounds that reaches back to at least 3300 BC.

Uppsalaa

The mounds of Uppsala, like Swedish passage graves, are oriented towards where the sun sets on the 3rd of November and the 8th of February. The Pagan new year happened after the first new moon after the 21st of October, so that the first full moon of the new year would happen around the 4th of November. Three lunar months later, on the 8th of February, the sun would again set in the direction to which the mounds were oriented. Three lunar months later, on the 29th of april, the sun would rise in the exact opposite direction. All the dates were connected to important Pagan festivals, among them the annual  nine-day celebration of the dísir (goddesses), whose associated market is still held today.

The present mounds in Uppsala, however, are dated only back to the sixth century AD. However, they appear to have been constructed on top of much older sanctuaries.

There are two opposing but ancient traditions, possibly based on much older, oral traditions about these mounds. In one of the traditions, the mounds belong to the Aesir gods. In another, they belong to three famous kings of the Ynglinga lineage.

Neither of these traditions have been confirmed by archaeological finds, so their true, original meaning may be lost to us. But folklore and legend have lives of their own and are as much a part of the history of Uppsala as the forgotten people who were actually buried in the great mounds.

The Mounds of the Gods

Royal_Mounds_of_Gamla_Uppsala_(by_Pudelek)_02.JPG

One of the two traditions is a long-lived folkloristic myth about the three mounds containing the remains of the three most popular, pagan Norse gods; Odin, Thor and Freyr. This folklore is based on a very old tradition found in the saga literature where the Aesir gods originally were human ancestors, or perhaps gods who once walked the earth like human beings. 

The opinion that the pagan gods had once been human ancestors prevailed in Medieval Europe. It may have been based on earlier, pagan oral traditions about ancient migrations which actually did happen (because they did, and is the reason why so many European languages belong to the Indoeuropean family), and it may have been based on an actual observation: that the pagans tended to worship their own human ancestors as gods.

In his Gesta Danorum (The History of the Danes), Saxo wrote:

“At this time there was one Odin, who was credited over all Europe with the honor, which was false, of godhead, but used more continually to sojourn at Uppsala, and in this spot…he vouchsafed to dwell with somewhat especial constancy…Also Frey, the regent of the gods, took his abode not far from Uppsala, where he exchanged for a ghastly and infamous sin-offering the old custom of prayer by sacrifice, which had been used by so many ages and generations. For he paid to the gods abominable offerings, by beginning to slaughter human victims.”

 

Of the origins of Sígtuna and Uppsala as the seat of the Aesir ancestors, Snorri wrote in his Ynglinga saga:

OF ODIN

“Odin took up his residence at the Mälaren lake, at the place now called Old Sigtun.There he erected a large temple, where there were sacrifices according to the customs of the Asaland people. He appropriated to himself the whole of that district, and called it Sigtyn. To the temple priests he gave also domains….  He (Odin) taught most of his (magical) arts to his priests of the sacrifices, and they came nearest to himself in wisdom and witch-knowledge. Many others, however, occupied themselves much with it, and from that time witchcraft spread far and wide, and continued long. People sacrificed to Odin and the twelve chiefs from Asaland, and called them their gods, and believed in them long after….Odin established the same law in his land that had been in force in Asaland…

“For men of consequence, a mound should be raised to their memory, and for all other warriors who had been distinguished for manhood a standing stone; which custom remained long after Odin’s time. On winter day there should be blood-sacrifice for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop; and the third sacrifice should be on summer day, for victory in battle. Over all Swithiod the people paid Odin a scatt or tax — so much on each head; but he had to defend the country from enemy or disturbance, and pay the expense of the sacrifice feasts for a good year.”

“Odin died in his bed in Swithiod; and when he was near his death he made himself be marked with the point of a spear, and said he was going to Godheim, and would give a welcome there to all his friends, and all brave warriors should be dedicated to him; and the Swedes believed that he was gone to the ancient Asgaard, and would live there eternally. Then began the belief in Odin, and the calling upon him. The Swedes believed that he often showed to them before any great battle. To some he gave victory; others he invited to himself (by making them die in battle); and they reckoned both of these (both winning and dying) to be fortunate.”

“Odin was burnt, and at his pile there was great splendour. It was their faith that the higher the smoke arose in the air, the higher he would be raised whose pile it was; and the richer he would be, the more property that was consumed with him.”

 OF NJORD.

“Njord of Noatun was then the sole sovereign of the Swedes; and he continued the sacrifices, and was called the drot or sovereign by the Swedes, and he received taxes and gifts from them. In his days were peace and plenty, and such good years, in all respects, that the Swedes believed Njord ruled over the growth of seasons and the prosperity of the people. In his time all the diar or gods died, and blood-sacrifices were made for them. Njord died on a bed of sickness, and before he died made himself be marked for Odin with the spear-point.

The Swedes burned him, and all wept over his grave-mound.”

 FREY’S DEATH AND THE TEMPLE OF UPPSALA.

“Frey took the kingdom after Njord, and was called drot by the Swedes, and they paid taxes to him. He was, like his father, fortunate in friends and in good seasons.”

“Frey built a great temple at Upsal, made it his chief seat, and gave it all his taxes, his land, and goods. Then began the Upsala domains, which have remained ever since. Then began in his days the Frode- peace; and then there were good seasons, in all the land, which the Swedes ascribed to Frey, so that he was more worshipped than the other gods, as the people became much richer in his days by reason of the peace and good seasons.”

“His wife was called Gerd, daughter of Gymis, and their son was called Fjolne. Frey was called by another name, Yngve; and this name Yngve was considered long after in his race as a name of honour, so that his descendants have since been called Ynglinger.”

“Frey fell into a sickness; and as his illness took the upper hand, his men took the plan of letting few approach him. In the meantime they raised a great mound, in which they placed a door with three holes in it.”

“Now when Frey died they bore him secretly into the mound, but told the Swedes he was alive; and they kept watch over him for three years. They brought all the taxes into the mound, and through the one hole they put in the gold, through the other the silver, and through the third the copper money that was paid.
Peace and good seasons continued.”

OF FREYA AND HER DAUGHTERS.

“Freya alone remained of the gods, and she became on this account so celebrated that all women of distinction were called by her name, whence they now have the title Freya; so that every woman is called freya, or mistress over her property, and the wife is
called the house-freya. Freya continued the blood-sacrifices. Freya had also many other names.”

 

These old sagas  about the Aesir ancestors arriving from the southeast and introducing their language, their religion and their societal structure may reflect orally transmitted ancestral sagas of people who brought the Aesir/Vanir gods with them into Scandinavia.  On the other hand, these stories could also have served other purposes.

If we are to consider the attitudes of our two most important medieval chroniclers of pagan history, Snorri and Saxo, we could speculate that for Snorri´s part, presenting the gods as ancestors first could have been a good way of making the pagan gods and their myths acceptable to a Christian audience. We know that he had another, less outspoken agenda too; namely to preserve the knowledge of poetical metaphors in mythology to the point where we may “understand that which has been subtly composed”, as he suggested. In this way, the legends of the gods as ancestors served as a disguise.

Saxo, who displays a profound distaste for anything pagan, could have grasped at the chance to ridicule the people whom the pagans had so foolishly believed to be divine.

However, both of them based this approach to the gods on older traditions that we do not know, it appears that this way of looking at pagan lore was perfectly common. We also know that ancestral worship to the point where ancestors were sometimes perceived as gods or as identical to more famous gods of the pantheons, was common. Already in pagan times, the gods may have been perceived both as ancestors and as gods in their own right, both at the same time. The saga writers may simply have emphasized their aspects as ancestors rather than their importance as the gods of an earlier religion. In this way, they could freely write about both their myths and their ancestral legends.

It should be said that whereas  Snorri claimed that the gods had been buried in large mounds at Uppsala, he never directly identified the three large mounds of Uppsala as the ones belonging to the gods – that tradition has been a folkloristic belief. And Snorri also mentioned at least three Ynglinga kings who were “mound-laid” at Uppsala:

The Mounds of the Kings

Burial Mounds

Another legend says that the three mounds belonged to three of the greatest Ynglinga kings, a tradition that fits better with the actual age of these mounds. The kings in question were Aun, Adils and Egill, and the mounds were often called Aun’s MoundAdil’s Mound and Egil’s Mound.

According to the Ynglinga saga chapter 25, Aun the Old died of extremely old age without sickness, after his death he was “mound-laid” (interred into a barrow) at Uppsala.

In chapter 26, Aun´s son Egill became king of Svíthiód after him, and Snorri wrote;

“the king only lived a short while, and he is mound-laid in Uppsala.”

In chapter 28, Egill´s grandson Adils died of a fatal accident:

“King Adils was at the Dísablót (Sacrifice to the Goddesses) and rode his horse around the Dísarsal (The Hall of the Goddess); the horse stumbled beneath him, and the king fell forwards, his head struck a stone so hard his head broke and his brains ran out on the stone, this was his bane; he died at Uppsala and was mound-laid there.”

Excavations:

In 1874 the East and the West mound were first excavated, apparently showing only that those buried there had been influential and prominent people, but otherwise little is known about them. Another excavation in 1926 suggested the existence of large constructions. Modern archaeology has shown that there are traces of two different large constructions at Uppsala – one dating back to the Bronze Age, another that seems to be a Viking Age feasting hall.

The Eastern Mound – or “Odin´s Mound” – turned out to be the burial of a woman – or a woman and a man – rather than that of a king. The dead had been given precious objects, mostly of the domestic type, although a decorated helmet was found, and the walls had been decorated with bronze panels, showing among other things a dancing warrior. The Western Mound – or “Thor´s Mound” belonged to that of a warrior chieftain, and held the remains of the man himself, animals, among them a hunting falcon, and precious weapons.  The Middle Mound – or “Freyr´s Mound”, has not been excavated.

Since I wrote this piece, there have been new excavations at Uppsala. Information about the new research is soon to be published, and the “Gamla Uppsala Museum” already provides some information here.

 

The Historical Importance of Uppsala

People have lived at and been buried in Old Uppsala since the Bronze Ages. The area was scattered with burial mounds – originally almost 3000 mounds were counted. Today only 250 remain, the others having given way to farmland and quarries.  From the 3rd century AD onwards, we know that Old Uppsala was an important religious, economic and political center in Scandinavia. It was the residence of royalty, the Swedish kings being referred to as the “king at Uppsala”.

It was also the ancient location of the Swedish parliament or general assembly (the “Thing of all Swedes”), where all free men would gather to vote throughout the Viking Age.

The assembly was held in conjunction with a fair called Dísting (“The Assembly of the Goddesses”) and a pagan celebration called the Dísablót (“Sacrifice to the Goddesses”).

Moreover, it was the residence of a large temple shrouded in mystery. The Temple has been referred to by the name Uppsala (Upper Halls) in medieval texts, and in one description believed to be based on eyewitness accounts by terrified Christian visitors from Germany during the early 11th century, the gods worshipped in that temple was Odin, Thor and Freyr.

However, we also know of a building at Uppsala called the Dísarsalinn – “The Hall of the Goddess.” Interestingly, while the term Dísablót and Dísating clearly relates the word for goddess in genitive plural, the term Dísarsal applies the singular form of the word goddess.

This means that the Hall of the Dís concentrates on the one goddess, while the sacrifice and the parliament was dedicated to all the goddesses. That goddesses and other female supernatural beings appear as a collective is extremely common in Norse mythology, likewise it is common that one of the goddesses stands out to represent all of them. Even the word “dís” for goddess/ female supernatural being has an interesting link; it is etymologically derived from Old Indian Dhisana, a goddess of knowledge and wisdom guarding the sacred Soma, and who could either take the form of one single goddess, or else appear as countless different dhisanas.

We also know that Norse kings went through initiation rituals that included a ritual of Sacred Marriage, a symbolic marriage to the goddess of the land, and the goddess of the tribe (the tribal Fylgja/follower). The king needed the approval of the goddess, and his marriage to her also symbolized his “marriage” to the people. In the Saga of Hákon the Good, the people who had gathered at annual parliament in Norway threatened to “divorce” themselves from the king should he force his Christian faith upon them.

At the Annual “Sacrifice to the Goddesses”, before opening the general national Assembly, the king was expected to ride in a circle around the Hall of the Goddess – a procedure that was studied by everyone because any failure in this ritual conduct was seen as a bad omen. 

There is little doubt that Uppsala was a major cultic centre in pagan times, and after the great Temple was burned and destroyed by the Christian king Inge Steinkillson in 1087 AD, it became the site of a church and the Archbishopric of Sweden. The place itself appears to have been modelled on pagan mythological worlds.

 

Old Uppsala lies on the Fyrisvellir, or Fyris Wolds, a cultivated plain in the valley of the river Fyris. The name Fyris is derived from the Old Norse fyrva, which meant “to ebb”, referring to the marshes where people would have to leave their ships in order to walk to the Temple and the royal halls. In skaldic poetry, gold, which appears to be a metaphor for divine wisdom, was often referred to with the kenning “the seed of the Fyris Wolds”.

The Fyrisvellir is often referred to in old legends and sagas, mainly as a place of a few famous battles from the fifth century onwards. One of these legends relates the story of the love between Hagbard and Signy, a legend that in its structure follows a very typical Old Norse storyline where the hero or heroes fight with the brother of the heroine, and the battle takes place at the Fyrisvellir. The princess heroine represents a valkyrie who follows her beloved hero into death when her kinsmen decide to murder him. Hagbard, the hero, receives the “horn of death” – a poisonous mead – by the hands of his beloved´s mother, the queen, but sees through the guile and throws the mead into her face. He is later hanged, and Signy, the heroine, together with all her maidens, commit suicide by hanging themselves in a burning house. The legend concludes with Hagbard´s joy at his beloved´s faithfulness.

The story may seem insignificant, but it is not – it fits right into a whole body of stories – myths and legends – that deal in essence with initiation rituals that I have discussed in most of my work, particularly in The Maiden with the Mead. And this legend is one of the many legends that distinctly links the site of the Uppsala Temple with this ancient ritual structure in Old Norse mythology.

 

Temple of Uppsala

Adam of Bremen wrote of the temple at Uppsala in condemning manner; the problem with many medieval sources is the fact that Christian scholars were either genuinely apalled by pagan cults, or else sought to slander and smear them, but there are certainly many elements of truths in his account:

 

“At this point I shall say a few words about the religious beliefs of the Swedes. That nation has a magnificent temple, which is called Uppsala, located not far from the city of Sigtuna. In this temple, built entirely of gold, the people worship the statues of three gods.

A general festival for all the provinces of Sweden is customarily held at Uppsala every nine years. Participation in this festival is required of everyone. Kings and their subjects, collectively and individually, send their gifts to Uppsala; – and – a thing more cruel than any punishment – those who have already adopted Christianity buy themselves off from these ceremonies. The sacrifice is as follows; of every kind of male creature, nine victims are offered. By the blood of these creatures it is the custom to appease the gods. Their bodies, moreover, are hanged in a grove which is adjacent to the temple. This grove is so sacred to the people that the separate trees in it are believed to be holy because of the death or putrefaction of the sacrificial victims. There even dogs and horses hang beside human beings. (A certain Christian told me that he had seen seventy-two of their bodies hanging up together.) The incantations, however, which are usually sung in the performance of a libation of this kind are numerous and disgraceful, and it is better not to speak of them.”

In the scolia, there is an additional description:

“Near that temple is a very large tree with widespread branches which are always green both in winter and summer. What kind of tree it is nobody knows. There is also a spring there where the pagan are accustomed to perform sacrifices and to immerse a human being alive. As long as his body is not found, the request of the people will be fulfilled. A golden chain encircles that temple and hangs over the gables of the building. Those who approach see its gleam from afar off because the shrine, which is located on a plain, is encircled by mountains so situated as to give the effect of a theatre. For nine days feasts and sacrifices of this kind are celebrated. Every day they sacrifice one human being in addition to other animals, so that in nine days there are 72 victims which are sacrificed. This sacrifice takes place about the time of the vernal equinox.”

During the full moon that occurred between 28th of January and 26th of February, an important ritual would take place for nine days and nights, devoted to the dísir, the goddesses. There was a temple of the Dís, the Goddess, that served as a focal point of this ritual. It was a grand, public event and the kings and the chiefs were expected to partake in the ritual. We know very little of the ritual itself except that it included sacrifice and that the king was expected to consecrate the site by riding a circle around the Temple of the Goddess.

A dísting is still held in Sweden at Old Uppsala, an annual market named after the Pagan Disating, the Assembly of the Goddesses. Here, the aristocracy would meet to hold parliament, just like the gods of the myths held parliament at the Well of Origin, the abode of the fate-goddesses. The Assembly was held in conjunction with the Dísablót, the Sacrifice to the Goddesses, and there were celebrations and a grandpubliv fair or market associated with it – the latter tradition surviving unto this day.

Snorri describes the custom in his Heimskringla from 1225 AD:

“In Sweden, it was the old custom, as long as heathenism prevailed, that the chief sacrifice took place in Goe month at Uppsala. Then sacrifice was offered for peace, and victory to the king; and thither came people from all parts of Sweden. All the Assemblies of the Swedes, also, were held there, and markets, and meetings for buying, which continued for a week; and after Christianity was introduced into Sweden, the Assemblies and fairs were held there as before. After Christianity had taken root in Sweden, and the kings would no longer dwell in Uppsala, the market-time was moved to Candlemas, and it has since continued so, and it lasts only three days .”

 

There was a well-developed and prosperous society around the Uppsala Mounds during the Iron Age, the kings had their estate here and the Swedes gathered here to worship

Snorri wrote that Freyr had built the Temple of Uppsala as his abode. Freyr was the most important deity in Sweden, and said to be the ancestor of the royal lines there:

Freyr built a great temple at Upsal, made it his chief seat, and gave it all his taxes, his lands, and goods. Then began the Upsal domains, which have remained ever since. But after Freyr was buried under a cairn at Upsala, many chiefs raised cairns, as commonly as stones, to the memory of their relatives.

Snorri´s older contemporary, the Danish scholar Saxo Grammaticus, confirms the notion that Freyr was said to have established the center of Uppsala:

Also Freyr, the regent of the gods, took his abode not far from Uppsala, where he exchanged for a ghastly and infamous sin-offering the old custom of prayer by sacrifice, which had been used by so many ages and generations. For he paid to the gods abominable offerings, by beginning to slaughter human victims.

Saxo was, as one may notice, less than favorably inclined towards the Pagan gods. He continues to tell the story of the hero Starkad who came to Uppsala and was appalled:

“…because when stationed at Upsala, at the time of the sacrifices, he was disgusted by the effeminate gestures and the clapping of the mimes on the stage, and by the unmanly clatter of bells.”

As disgusted as Saxo was, we may read something valuable from his information – that there was at Uppsala a mime-stage. The mime stage means that it is possible that myths were played – reenacted – like in what could have been Mystery Plays. The actors or the participants appear to have been playing music, dancing or moving in a way that to an outsider of the New School of continental, Christianized machismo were “effeminate” and “unmanly”.

In some of my works I have discussed the transition of gender roles that seems to have played a part in the myths and perhaps also in the rituals. Initiates like Thor and Helgi and Odin, at least, would don the garments of women and pretend to be serving maids, witches or even brides in order to reach their goals. This was a powerful transcession of gender roles that was designed perhaps to humiliate, perhaps to challenge the self-importance of the initiate, or else in order to access some power that had to do with femininity.

If we take another look at what Adam of Bremen writes, we see another hint to Uppsala sanctuary being modeled as a stage:

Those who approach see its gleam from afar off because the shrine, which is located on a plain, is encircled by mountains so situated as to give the effect of a theatre.

What sort of stage? 

Near that temple is a very large tree with widespread branches which are always green both in winter and summer. What kind of tree it is nobody knows. There is also a spring there where the pagan are accustomed to perform sacrifices and to immerse a human being alive. As long as his body is not found, the request of the people will be fulfilled. A golden chain encircles the temple and hangs over the gables of the building.

In fact, the descriptions of Uppsala as a theater, as a stage, also suggest strongly that this stage was modeled after the mythical realms of the gods, of Ásgard at the Well of Origin.

Moreover, the temple is said to be all golden, surrounded by a golden chain that glimmers and shines and might be seen from afar. This is exactly how the Hall of the Maiden is described in the myths. It is also standing on a plain surrounded by mountains. In the myths we have seen how the heroes ascend mountains in order to see into the the great land. We learn about the Resplendid Fields, the Crystal Fields and so forth.

People travel far and wide to get to the temple, just as the initiates have to travel long distances to get there. The rituals last for nine days and nights, just as the initiation lasts for the same duration of time. There is a grove dedicated to a sacred tree and a lake which can only resemble the World Tree or the Tree of Memory and the Well of Origin. According to Adam of Bremen, the lake is used for a drowing sacrifice, which was the kind of sacrifice that have been connected with goddess worship at least since the Iron Age. Tacitur, writing in the first century AD described how people were sacrificed to the Great Mother of the Gods, Nerthus, by drowing in a lake. Snorri, in his Prose Edda, describes the Well of Origin as a place where anyone who lets themselves be submerged will come out transparently white and shining, transformed into a light being.

Moreover, three gods are associated with the temple. The three burial mounds at the site were said in folklore to belong to Odin, Freyr and Thor. Adam of Bremen also later identifies the idols of the three gods as belonging to Odin, Freyr and Thor, and that Freyr was, indeed, situated in the middle wearing a huge erect phallus.

The hanging rituals described bring to mind the fact that Odin was initiated by hanging on the World Tree, and that other initiates were facing death, sacrificing and even becoming the sacrifice themselves in order to reach the Underworld from which they would be resurrected. Brit Solli has suggested that the hanging ritual was real and that the hanging may have been undertaken in such a way that the initiate would not actually die, but rather reach a state of trance and ecstacy – a possible feat indeed. The chroniclers describe rituals that would lead to actual death, but then the chroniclers were Christians who did not actually know the true purpose or events of the rituals, and who would see it as their mission to show how terrible and disgusting the Pagan practice was.

It is interesting to note that the only animals Adam identifies are the horse and the dog – both creatures closely associated with the Underworld journey in the myths. Perhaps they were sacrifices so that their spirits would accompany the inititiate – or else the human sacrifice –  on their way?

If the Edda myths constituted, as I believe, the heritage of a Mystery Cult, then the cult itself could have had its great central seat at Upsala, where all the major themes of the quest for immortality shown in the myths could, indeed, be performed and reenacted.

Uppsala truls-arnvidssons-karta