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.
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
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.
“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:
“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.”
“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
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 Mound, Adil’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.”
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.
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.