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

What the Sagas tell us of the Consolidation of the Scandinavian Countries (and England)- a Summary

Scandinavian tribes

Once upon a time, the lands of Scandinavia were divided into many different tribes. In south-Jutland lived the Saxons and in North-Jutland the Angles, on Zealand and in Scania (south Sweden) lived the Danes, ruled by the clan of the Shieldlings (Skioldungar) who were descended from Shield, a son of the god Óðinn, and from Shield´s wife, the goddess Gefion Freyia. To the north of the Danes lived the large tribe of the Gautar, and by the Great Lake (Mälaren) there were several smaller tribes and one large, the tribe of the Svear.

Around 400 A.D., the tribe of the Danes expanded their territory into Jutland, forcing the Anglos and the Saxons further south. The Danes kept expanding, and while some of the Saxons settled even further south (in Sachsen), others joined forces with the Angles and migrated west across the sea, where they blended in and came to dominate the older Celto-Roman populations. Old Britannia became Anglo-Saxon England.

Danes and Migrations

(Note: The Anglo-Saxons did not replace the older Celtic and Celto-Roman population – they only came to dominate them. Brittannia was weakened after the Roman administration simply packed up and left; a large part of the original Celtic population no longer had their tribal traditions but had come to depend on Roman civilization and bureacracy. As the Anglo-Saxons arrived from Jutland, it was easy for them to dominate the peasant classes. The Anglo-Saxon chiefs set themselves up as overlords, and it was their language and their customs that came to dominate the British upper classes, their language that came to be employed by scribes and clerics. Many Britons were already converted to Christianity because the Roman Empire had converted, and the Anglo-Saxons were also converted at least by the 7th century. As the realm was converted to Christianity, the Christian scholars began to write in the language of the upper classes: Anglo-Saxon. This is why “Old English” (Anglo-Saxon, a variant of the Germanic/Proto-Norse language) became the new language of Brittannia, now called England after the Anglos. This does not mean that the Celtic populations vanished. Apart from the Welsh and Gaelic nations, they were largely subdued and came to adapt to the language and customs of the newcomers).

As England was born, so was Denmark; a realm consisting of Jutland, Zealand, Scania and all the smaller islands of this area. For a long time, they were ruled by the Shieldlings, but then different fractions rose and the tribe of Danes were divided into several smaller kingdoms. Before 700 A.D., descendants of the Shieldlings ruled only in Scania (south Sweden), while many other chiefs ruled the diverse Danish fractions.

Once upon a time, the Svear was just one of many other tribes who dwelled in what we today call Sweden. The Svear lived in Lake Valley, surrounding the Great Lake, Mälaren, and from then spread out to dominate the surrounding lands to the north of the Spirit Lake (Vätteren) and the Vanir Lake (Vänaren). Their land was called Svíthióð (Svea People) or Svealand, but as they expanded their territories, they started to call their reign Svearíki (Svea Reign).

SWEDEN2 (2)

The Svear were ruled by a royal dynasty, the Ynglingar, who claimed descent from the Vanir god Yngví Freyr and his Iötunn wife, Gerð Gymisdaughter. For at least twenty generations, the Ynglingar had ruled their tribe successfully from their seat in Uppsala. Like all Norsemen, the Svear moved by waterways, lakes and rivers, artificial canals and open sea.

One of their last and greatest kings, Ánund the Road Builder, inspired by the Classical idea that all roads lead to Rome, built roads through all the impenetrable forests of Svíthióð, all leading to Uppsala and to the thriving trading ports of Birch Island (Birka), Sígtuna and Telgja. Thus Svíthióð became the first Scandinavian country to enter civilization, followed by Denmark.

Ánund was a great and well-loved king. But he was succeeded by his son, Ingjald the Bad Ruler. Ingjald wanted to rule alone, and to conquer the surrounding tribes. He invited six kings from smaller kingdoms around the Great Lake (Mälaren). He had built a hall named The Hall of the Seven Kings, and invited the other kings to sit together in the seven High Seats to rule the land together. Five of the invited kings arrived and sat down in the hall. Then Ingjald had the Hall of the Seven Kings locked from the outside and burned it down.

Hugo Hamilton (1802-1871) Hall of the Seven Kings Burned by Ingjald

Ingjald burns the Hall of the Seven Kings – by Hugo Hamilton 

Thus Ingjald became sole ruler of Svearíki as it was then. Ingjald was greedy for more power, however, and set his eyes on Gautaland and Scania. But one of the kings whom he had invited to the Hall of the Seven Kings had seen through his deception and escaped.

His name was Granmar, the king of Southern Man´s Land. Granmar fled to Gautaland and met there with Högnir, the king of the Gauts, and sought alliance with him by marrying Högnir´s daughter, Hild. The couple had another daughter, Hildigunn, a very beautiful girl.

Hildigunn grew up in Gautaland beneath the constant threat of invasion from the Svea king. As Ingjald´s power grew, her father, Granmar, her grandfather, Högnir and her uncle Hildur decided that they needed another strong alliance.

In the Eastern Ocean (Baltic Sea), there were Vikings, large fleets of pirates ruled by Sea Kings who regarded themselves as Wolflings, descendants of Hrolf Kráki. Hildigunn´s powerful relatives sent emissaries out to these Vikings, who had so far never been invited to any noble home on account of being regarded as criminals and thugs, pirates as they were. The Vikings, curious at this strange invitation, accepted and arrived at the Gaut court, led by Hjörvarð the Sea King.

As soon as the Vikings had settled in the royal hall, Granmar sent his daughter Hildigunn to serve the Sea King, and the two of them fell in love immediately. Hjörvarð asked for Hildigunn´s hand in marriage, and her father Granmar formally asked her mother Hild if she agreed. She agreed and referred to her grandfather Högnir and her brother Hildur, who also agreed, on one condition; that Hjörvarð helped defend their lands against the Svear.

queen-wealhtheow-pledges-beowulf

Hjörvarð agreed to this term if his son to come by Hildigunn could become heir to the Gautar High Seat. Then, as a sacrifice to his people, Hildur Högnisson abdicated his right to the High Seat in favor of his sister´s daughter´s (Hildigunn´s) as yet unborn son.

Some years later, after Hildigunn had born a son, Hjörmund Hjörvarðsson, her father Granmar and her husband Hjörvarð were assaulted by Ingjald of the Svear and perished in a fire. But Hildigunn and her son lived safely with her grandfather Högnir and her uncle Hildur in Gautaland. Despite the death of Hjörvarð, Hildur honored his promise to leave the High Seat to Hildigunn´s son Hjörmund.

Meanwhile, Ingjald of the Svear sought alliance with Scania by offering up his daughter Ása to the Scanian king, Guðröð the Shieldling (Skioldung). The Shieldlings believed that they were descended from a son of Óðinn, Shield (Skiold), who had married the goddess Gefion Freyia, rulers of Zealand and ancestors to all Danes. Now, the Danes were divided into different fractions – some lived in Jutland, others in Zealand, while the ancient rulers of all Danes, the Shieldlings, had claimed their seat in Scania (south Sweden).

The Shieldlings of Scania believed that Ingjald wanted their help in subduing the Gautar and set one term: that Gautaland was to be divided in two and that the Danes could rule in East Gautaland while the Svear could rule the western part. Ingjald of the Svear agreed to this term and sent his daughter Ása to live with the Scanian king. But Ingjald´s daughter was not there to forge a new alliance – she was there to destroy the Shieldlings so that her father Ingjald could rule all the Swedish lands, including Gautaland and Scania. Ása caused conflict between Guðröð her husband and his brother Halfdan to the point where they killed each other. But Ása had not counted on Halfdan´s son, Ivarr.

Ivarr arrived with many men, and Ása had to flee back to her father in Uppsala. Ivarr allied himself now with the Gautar and all the other tribes that had felt suppressed by the Svear. All the other kings and princelings from all the other tribes now came together and chased Ingjald and his daughter away from Uppsala. When father and daughter understood that all was lost, they locked themselves within a hall and burned it down, thus they committed suicide.

200px-Ynglingesaga_23_Gerhard_Munthe

Ingjald and his daughter Ása – by Gerhard Munthe

Only Ingjald´s son, Ólaf, escaped from Uppsala. He was followed by many Svear and created a new land in Värmland, close to Alfheim (the area of present day Bohuslän and Østfold). His descendants were to marry into the royal families of the many free tribes of Norway, eventually settling in Vestfold, from where one descendant, Harald Hair-Fair, son of Halfdan the Black, came to be the first king to unite all the tribes of Norway beneath himself.

The entire history of the Ynglinga lineage (from their ancient reign in Uppsala to their becoming the first kings of Norway of the Viking Age) was recorded in Ynglingatál by the 9th century skald Thiódolf the Wise of Kvinir (in Blade Honer, he is the grandsson of our skald Thiódolf Griótgardsson and Zivah Hallgrimsdaughter). The story was later elaborated by Snorri Sturlusson in his Ynglinga Saga

*************

Back in Sweden, the non-Svear tribes had not finished celebrating their freedom from the Ynglinga clan and their Svear armies before they realized that Ivarr of Scania had no intention of giving back their lands and their freedom. Taking away their sovereignty and their royal status, Ivarr still honored the Gauts by allowing Hildigunn´s son by Hjörvarð the Sea King, Hjörmund, to become Earl of West-Gautaland. But Gautaland was now divided, and West-Gautaland came directly under Ivarr´s rule and his new seat in Uppsala.

It is not known who ruled in East-Gautaland, but in Blade Honer, the most powerful clan here was the Thunder Priest Lineage (Thorsgódir), descended from the tribe of Thunder Warriors that predated the arrival of the Gauts. 

With the help of his many tribal subjects, Ivarr re-conquered Denmark. Descended from the first king of all Danes, Skiold (Shield), Odin´s son, and his wife, the original Danish mother goddess Gefion Freyia, Ivarr managed to restore a united Denmark after centuries of division. He also became king of all the Swedish tribes.

As such, he became the greatest king Scandinavia had ever seen: a king of Denmark and Sweden together. His name was now Ivarr Rules Widely.

Ivar

Map showing the possible extent of Ivar Vidfamne’s realms. The kingdom of Ivar Vidfamne (outlined in red) and other territories paying him tribute (outlined in purple), as it may be interpreted from the stories about Ivar Vidfamne in the sagas

But Ivarr was the last of the Shieldlings, and had no surviving sons. Thus his daughter, Auð the Deep-Minded, was his sole heir and the female end to his line. As the female end of a great and divine royal dynasty, she could become mother to new dynasties.

Ivarr married his daughter, Auð, off to one of his new subjects, Rurik the Ring-Slinger, who had been the king of Hleiðargard in Zealand before Ivarr became High King. They had a son, Harald Wartooth.

But as Harald grew, and when Ivarr finally died, it became evident that Rurik had no intention of giving up the royal seat to his son by Auð: he wanted his sons by earlier marriages to take over both Svearíki and Denmark.

Auð and her son Harald traveled east to find a Sea King (a pirate king) who ruled large fleets of pirates.

His name was Ráðbarð the Sea King. Auð offered up herself in marriage to the pirate lord and promised that their son to come would rule all of Denmark if only her son Harald could rule all of Svearíki. Being the female end of her dynasty, any son of hers could rightfully claim such a legacy. Ráðbarð agreed, and with his fleet of Vikings, they overthrew Rurik and set Harald Wartooth to rule both Denmark and Sveariki.

Auð had another son by Ráðbarð, Randvér, who was now heir to Denmark although Harald Wartooth kept ruling as sole king of both realms until Randvér had grown and proven himself. Randvér died young and never became king, but left a son; Sígurð Ring

300px-Lorenz_Frölich_-_Harald_Wartooth

Harald Wartooth by Lorenz Frölich

Around 750 A.D., the Battle of Brávellir took place where Harald Wartooth lost his life. Then, Sweden and Denmark were consolidated as two separate kingdoms.

  • One of Harald´s sons or grandsons ruled Sweden after him
  • Sigurd Ring became king of Denmark.

“Denmark” included Vestfold and Alfheim in Norway, Scania and West-Götaland.

“Sweden” included East-Götaland, Gotland and the rest of Sweden as we know it.

“Norway” was still not a kingdom. But during the reign of Sigurd Ring, the Ynglinga kings worked to conquer or else marry into several smaller Norwegian kingdoms. Around the year 810, Halfdan the Black was born in Vestfold. After his mother Ása had his father killed (vengeance), he grew up with her in the kingdom of Agder, where she was from. From there, he began his conquest of the south-Norwegian kingdoms.

His son, Harald Hair-Fair, came to subdue all the tribes of Norway and became the first king of a united Norway.

Iceland became a nation when several royal and noble clans from Norway refused to bow the knee to a tyrant king and fled westwards to settle this previously quite empty island.

300px-Gudrodsson-68

Sources:

  • Read the entire Ynglinga saga online here.
  • Source to the Danish migration from Sweden and how they forced the Anglos and the Saxons to flee to Britannia (and made it into England) is found in Jordanes´ Getica (“The History of the Goths“) and may be read online here.
  • Skioldunga saga
  • Gesta Danorum (The History of the Danish People) by Saxo Grammaticus may be read online here.
  • Other saga sources are easily found in the many links to the particular persons and events that I have already linked to in the text.

 

 

 

 

 

The Hel Runes

XXIV (121)But after a short space of time, as Orosius relates, the race of the Huns, fiercer than ferocity itself, flamed forth against the Goths. We learn from old traditions that their origin was as follows: Filimer, king of the Goths, son of Gadaric the Great, who was the fifth in succession to hold the rule of the Getae after their departure from the island of Scandza,–and who, as we have said, entered the land of Scythia with his tribe,--found among his people certain witches, whom he called in his native tongue Haliurunnae. Suspecting these women, he expelled them from the midst of his race and compelled them to wander in solitary exile afar from his army. (122) There the unclean spirits, who beheld them as they wandered through the wilderness, bestowed their embraces upon them and begat this savage race, which dwelt at first in the swamps,-

Jordanes, Getica

In the Blade Honer series, a group of unordinary women called “the Hel Runes” feature with increasing prominence. From barely being mentioned in Book One, “The Hammer of Greatness“, they appear as mysterious figures acting behind the scenes in Book Two, “My Enemy´s Head“, before they make their first public appearance in Book Three, “The Hel Rune´s Claim“. However, only in Book Four, “A Twisted Mirror“, do we really learn who they are – priestesses of death and human sacrifice whose primary function is to deal with burials and dead bodies, taking the appearance of morbid witches and living like incarnations of the Norns on earth – in charge of the final Judgment, known in Old Norse sources as Nórna Dómr – “The Judgment of the Norns”.

On what historical sources have I built the Hel Runes?

Well, take a look at the quote above first. Jordanes wrote his Getica in Constantinople around the year 551 A.D. Here he wrote about the history of the tribe he had emerged from, the Goths, about how a large retinue of Götar (a tribal people from Götaland in south Sweden) moved south across the sea into the European continent from where they spread out during the Age of Migrations. Once in Europe, these northerners changed some of their customs as well as parts of their ancestral religion. Among them, says Jordanes, there were women called “Haliurunnae“, a title that includes the name Hel (the goddess of the dead/the world of the dead) and the word “rune”, meaning symbol, letter, secret, whisper or mystery. Obviously, these women were aquainted with the deeper mysteries of death.

Such a coven of women who specialized in the mysteries of death, a female priesthood, perhaps, was obviously brought from the homelands at the time of departure from Scandinavia – but once on the continent, one of the first Gothic kings, Filimer, had them expelled from the tribe. And this, concludes Jordanes, was the reason why the Goths were later invaded and subjected to the rule of the cruel Huns from the east – such was the revenge of the Hel Runes.

Searching for more knowledge about these women, I found another, even earlier source describing priestesses of human sacrifice among the migrating tribes of the Cimbri and the Teutones and the Ambrones who were the first migrating Iron Age Scandinavians to clash with the Roman Empire back in 113-101 B.C. What turned out to be the most shocking revelation to the Romans about these barbarian tribes, was the way their women and children accompanied their men on their military expeditions, and not the least the way some of these women acted after having won a battle:

“Their wives, who would accompany them on their expeditions, were attended by priestesses who were seers; these were grey-haired, clad in white, with flaxen cloaks fastened on with clasps, girt with girdles of bronze, and bare-footed; now sword in hand these priestesses would meet with the prisoners of war throughout the camp, and having first crowned them with wreaths would lead them to a brazen vessel of about twenty amphorae; and they had a raised platform which the priestess would mount, and then, bending over the kettle, would cut the throat of each prisoner after he had been lifted up; and from the blood that poured forth into the vessel some of the priestesses would draw a prophecy, while still others would split open the body and from an inspection of the entrails would utter a prophecy of victory for their own people; and during the battles they would beat on the hides that were stretched over the wicker-bodies of the wagons and in this way produce an unearthly noise.”

(Strabo: Geogr. 7.2.3, trans. H.L. Jones)

Scene from the Gundestrup Cauldron, Iron Age Denmark: A supersized woman accompanied by a dog (Hel-hound) throws warriors down into her cauldron.

Scene from the Gundestrup Cauldron, Iron Age Denmark: A supersized woman accompanied by a dog (Hel-hound) throws warriors down into her cauldron.

There is absolutely no reason to dismiss Strabo´s account, as what he describes only serves to explain a lot of archaeological evidence for exactly this sort of custom. The grim image of the priestesses of human sacrifice as an ancient and integral part of old Scandinavian culture only keeps repeating itself both in mythology, legendary material, as well as in a much later historical source by the Arab emissary Ibn Fadlan, who visited the Volga Rus vikings back i 921 A.D. and describes whiteclad priestesses who are, indeed, in charge of human sacrifice:

“When that man whom I have mentioned earlier died, they said to his slave-girls, “Who will die with him?” and one of them said; “I shall”. So they placed two slave girls in charge of her to take care of her and accompnay her wherever she went, even to the point of occassionally washing her feet with their own hands (…)

When the time had arrived for cremation, they pulled his longship ashore and put it on a platform of wood, and they made a bed for the dead chieftain on the ship. Then a crone arrived whom they called the “Angel of Death” and she spread on the couch the coverings we have mentioned. She is responsible for having his body sewn up and putting him in order and it is she who kills the slave girls. I myself saw her: a gloomy, corpulent woman, neither young nor old. (…) 

Thereafter, the thrall girl was taken away to the ship. She removed her bracelets and gave them to the old woman. Thereafter she removed her finger rings and gave them to the two slave-girls who had waited upon her, they were the old woman’s daughters. Then they took her aboard the ship, but they did not allow her to enter the tent where the dead chieftain lay. The girl received several vessels of intoxicating drinks and she sang and bade her friends farewell. (…)

The crone called the “Angel of Death” placed a rope around her neck in such a way that the eds crossed one another and handed it to two to pull on it. She advanced with a broad-bladed dagger and began to thrust it in and out between her ribs, now here, now there, while the two men throttled her with the rope until she died.”

Hel Rune

Thanks to Misha Noga for her interpretations of the Hel Rune

Dealing with death, human sacrifice, taking care of dead bodies (Ibn Fadlan noticed, for example, that the “Angel of Death” knew how to preserve a body for ten days and the body was still not stinking at all), and making prophecies based on the blood and entrails of victims – none of that leaves us with a very favorable impression of these ladies, and yet their gruesome image was vital to Old Norse religion both before and during the Viking Age. In many ways they resembled the grimmest aspects of Fate itself.

Death is the ultimate Fate, so it is not surprising that concepts of fate and death go hand in hand in Norse lore. In the Edda poem Fafnismál, Sigurd declares that all men must one day reach the shore of Hel and deal with nórna dómr – “The Judgment of the Norns”. In the Edda poem Sólarljód, we learn that the dead must sit for nine days in the “Chair of the Norns” where judgment on one´s life is passed before the soul may pass on to Heaven or wherever else.

We also learn that there are nine norns waiting for us in Hel:

Here are runes
that have been carved
by the nine daughters of Njǫrðr :
Ráðveig the oldest
and Kreppvǫr the youngest
and their seven sisters.

(SÓLARLJÓÐ – The Song of the Sun, st. 79)

Such imagery of frightful death-women abounds in Norse myths, and the myths often also reveals that such women are more powerful than any other powers in the universe, and that they are in possession of great and sacred knowledge. They may be courted for this knowledge if one has the courage to seek them – and only gods and heroes sometimes take that path. That these death-women are related both to Fate and Death is beyond doubt. They usually appear in a partiular number: 2, 3, 6, 9 or 12, or sometimes “three by nine” or similar variations. They may be described as norns, as valkyries, or as terrible ogresses. Whether they will be beneficial or not is up to the seeker – that they are dangerous is evident, sought only by the bravest.

I finish here with a quotation of the famous poem Darraðarljóð, where twelve valkyries weave a web of war out of human entrails, a symbolic reference to the Hall of Hel.

Darraðarljóð

Blood rains    from the cloudy web
On the broad loom    of slaughter.
The web of man    grey as armor
Is now being woven;    the Valkyries
Will cross it    with a crimson weft.

The warp is made    of human entrails;
Human heads    are used as heddle-weights;
The heddle rods    are blood-wet spears;
The shafts are iron-bound    and arrows are the shuttles.
With swords we will weave    this web of battle.

The Valkyries go weaving    with drawn swords,
Hild and Hjorthrimul,    Sanngrid and Svipul.
Spears will shatter    shields will splinter,
Swords will gnaw    like wolves through armor.

Let us now wind    the web of war
Which the young king    once waged. 
Let us advance    and wade through the ranks,
Where friends of ours    are exchanging blows.

Let us now wind    the web of war
And then follow    the king to battle
Gunn and Gondul    can see there
The blood-spattered shields    that guarded the king.

Let us now wind    the web of war
Where the warrior banners    are forging forward
Let his life    not be taken;
Only the Valkyries    can choose the slain.

Lands will be ruled    by new peoples
Who once inhabited    outlying headlands.
We pronounce a great king    destined to die;
Now an earl    is felled by spears.

The men of Ireland    will suffer a grief
That will never grow old    in the minds of men.
The web is now woven    and the battlefield reddened;
The news of disaster    will spread through lands.

It is horrible now    to look around
As a blood-red cloud    darkens the sky.
The heavens are stained    with the blood of men,
As the Valyries    sing their song.

We sang well    victory songs
For the young king;    hail to our singing!
Let him who listens    to our Valkyrie song
Learn it well    and tell it to others.

Let us ride our horses    hard on bare backs,
With swords unsheathed    away from here!

And then they tore the woven cloth from the loom and ripped it to pieces, each keeping the shred she held in her hands… The women mounted their horses and rode away, six to the south and six to the north.

 

darradar

THE “REAL” LAGERTHA OF OLD NORSE SOURCES

LAGERTHA IN SAXO GRAMMATICUS

Saxo Grammaticus, born around 1150 AD and dead by about 1220 AD, was a Danish contemporary to Snorri Sturluson and many other Icelandic authors of the 12th century who wrote in their own, Old Norse language.

Like his Icelandic contemporaries, Saxo set out to chronicle the pre-Christian legendary history of his people, the Danes. Unlike his Icelandic contemporaries, Saxo wrote his chronicle, Gesta Danorum (“The History of the Danes”), in Latin. Adding to his neglect of his native language, Saxo was not that much of a writer, partly because he was a zealous prude who did not actually like the culture whose history he was recording, and partly because  he wrote in a language that was not his native language and which was hardly spoken by anyone, but only used by the clergy.  Another negative influence was his obsessive need to interrupt his stories with preaching and laments about the immorality of pagans and especially about pagan women´s failure to be feminine enough for the new, Christian culture that was just about to be established.

Preaching laments aside, Saxo still appears to have recorded legendary material to the best of his ability, and provides in many way a good written source to ancient customs and beliefs, even when he morally denounces them, and even if his accounts were colored by his own interpretations. Had it not been for him, we would never have even heard of Lagertha.

There is also hardly a source to Old Norse times where the presence of warrior women is more prominent, for example, and today I want to provide you with one of his many stories about shield maidens, beginning with the now famous Lagertha, wife to Ragnarr Lóðbrok.

vikings7

LAGERTHA – A NORWEGIAN SHIELD MAIDEN

The name Lagertha/Ladgerda is a Latinized version of the original Old Norse Hlaðgerð. The only source to her life is found in Saxo. The story begins with her future husband, Ragnarr Lóðbrok, in Gesta Danorum chapter 9.

Ragnarr is the heir of a king called Ring, by all other accounts this would be the once famed Sígurð Hring who ruled Denmark during the age of Charlemagne.

Sígurð Hring was an historical king, known to the Franks as Sigfred or Anulo (Latin for “ring”), who appears to have sought peace with his neighbors, entertaining both Charlemagne and Widukind at his court during the Saxon wars. Being pagan and also offering asylum to Saxons who fled from Frankish oppression and force baptisms, he still managed to ward off any Frankish aggression until his death in 804 AD.

After Ring´s death, his relative “Gotrik” (Gudröd/Godofrid/Gudfred) assumed power. The Frankish Annals describe how “Gudfred” began launching a Viking fleet against the Franks. But just as the Franks panicked, observing hundreds of Danish ships at their shores, the fleet turned back because Gudfred had been murdered in the night. Gudfred may be identical to the king of Vestfold at the time, Gudröd Hunter King, who was also murdered in the night, and whose Norwegian realm was closely associated with Danevelde (Empire of the Danes).

tribes of Scandinavia

After Gudfred´s death in 810 AD, a son of Ring, Hemming, won the throne of Denmark, but the throne was also challenged by several surrounding men of power, and when Hemming died, the great Danevelde (Danelaw) of the time (pre-dating the Viking hold on Britain) was divided. We know from Frankish sources that Hemming died in 812 AD.

This is where our story begins.

Saxo explains how Ragnarr Lóðbrok, another son of Ring, was extremely young when he first proved his cleverness and wisdom to the Danish parliament. After Hemming´s death, he was elected king by the Zealanders, although Jutland had other noblemen to rule them. The Frankish Annals do not refer to Ragnarr at this time, but to other Danish chiefs fighting for power and seeking the Franks for alliances against their own. Since it is likely that Ragnarr was a historical person, it is more than likely that the Franks were simply not aware of him since they were dealing with Jutlanders, not Zealanders.

Whether the “real” Ragnarr was already engaged in foreign politics we do not know, but Saxo describes Ragnarr solely within a Scandinavian context, where he was a very young, democratically elected king from Zealand who, apparently, needed to start his career by proving his worth.

The opportunity to prove himself was raised when he heard of an outrage. Ragnar´s mother Alfhild was Norwegian, and Ragnar had relatives in Norway. At the time described, Norway had many different kingdoms and tribal lands, but Saxo gladly ignores that historical fact and speaks of “the king of Norway” as if there was only one. We do not know exactly what kingdom this king belonged to if he ever existed in real life, but in Saxos account, “the king of Norway” was called Siward. He was, apparently, a grandfather (or older relative) to Ragnarr on his maternal side.

Siward, the Norwegian king, was attacked by “Fro”, the king of the Swedes. Calling him Fro was probably a way of saying Freyr, since the kings of Sweden were supposedly descended from, and through inauguration they also became incarnations of the god Freyr.

This particular “Freyr” attacked Siward and slayed him (for unexplained reasons), and then proceeded to publicly humiliate and sexually abuse his kinswomen:

“(Freyr) put the wives of Siward´s kinsfolk in bonds in a brothel, and delivered them to public outrage. When Ragnar heard of this, he went to Norway to avenge his grandfather. As he came, many of the matrons, who had either suffered insult to their persons or feared imminent peril to their chastity, hastened eagerly to his camp in male attire, declaring that they would prefer death to outrage. Nor did Ragnar, who was to punish this reproach upon the women, scorn to use against the author of the infamy the help of those whose shame he had come to avenge. Among them was Ladgerda, a skilled amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All marveled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman.

Lagertha by Meredith Williams, 1913

Lagertha by Meredith Williams, 1913

Ragnar, when he had justly cut down the murderer of his grandfather, asked many questions of his fellow soldiers concerning the maiden whom he had seen so forward in the fray, and declared that he had gained the victory by the might of one woman. Learning that she was of noble birth among the barbarians, he steadfastly wooed her by means of messengers. She spurned his mission in her heart, but feigned compliance. Giving false answers, she made her panting wooer confident that he would gain his desires; but ordered that a bear and a dog should be set at the porch of her dwelling, thinking to guard her own room against all the ardor of a lover by means of the beasts that blocked the way.

Ragnar, comforted by the good news, embarked, crossed the sea, and, telling his men to stop in Gaulardale, as the valley is called, went to the dwelling of the maiden alone. Here the beasts met him, and he thrust one through with a spear, and caught the other by the throat, wrung its neck, and choked it. Thus he had the maiden as the prize of the peril he had overcome. By this marriage he had two daughters, whose names have not come down to us, and a son Fríðleif. Then he lived three years at peace.

The Jutlanders, a presumptuous race, thinking that because of his recent marriage he would never return, took the Scanians into alliance, and tried to attack the Zealanders, who preserved the most zealous and affectionate loyalty towards Ragnar. He, when he heard of it, equipped thirty ships, and, the winds favoring his voyage, crushed the Scanians, who ventured to fight, near the stead of Whiteby, and when the winter was over he fought successfully with the Jutlanders who dwelt near the Liim-fjord in that region. A third and a fourth time he conquered the Scanians and the Hallanders triumphantly.”

According to Saxo, Ragnarr “changed his love; and desiring Thora, the daughter of king Herrauð, to wife, Ragnarr divorced himself from Ladgerda; for he thought ill of her trustworthiness, remembering that she had long ago set the most savage beasts to destroy him.”

(Speculations: In his assessment of their relationship, Saxo assumes that Ragnarr, like any good medieval Christian, must have felt humiliated and bitter because of his wife´s initial reluctance and aggressive response to his advances (after having been force-prostituted before), and perhaps also because she failed to be submissive and feminine. However, Saxo appears to forget that his own story proceeds by describing how Ragnarr has to go through equally severe trials against vicious beasts in order to win his new bride, Thora Borgarhjört, and seems perfectly happy about that, never blaming his new wife for this.

Unlike Snorri, Saxo does not seem to have any idea of the mythical/religious context where having to go through severe trials and prove his worth was essential for a young prince if he was ever to win a royal bride. Saxo also forgets (or willfully ignore) the fact that Norse kings would often marry several wives at once, because they practiced polygamy in cases where marriages were equal to tribal alliances. If he had to divorce Ladgerda in order to marry a Swedish princess, this may have been a term set by the royal father and could probably only happen because Ladgerda was a commoner, and the princess would not accept equal rank with another wife of common origins.)

Later on in the story, Ladgerda reappears, however. The Jutes (from Jutland) and the Scanians once more tried to overthrow Ragnarr from his seat of power in Zealand.

“Meanwhile, the Jutes and Skanians were kindled with an unquenchable fire of sedition; they disallowed the title of Ragnar, and gave a certain Harald the sovereign power. Ragnar sent envoys to Norway, and besought friendly assistance against these men; and Ladgerda, whose early love still flowed deep and steadfast, hastily sailed off with her husband and her son. She brought herself to offer a hundred and twenty ships to the man who had once put her away.

And he, thinking himself destitute of all resources, took to borrowing help from folk of every age, crowded the strong and the feeble all together, and was not ashamed to insert some old men and boys among the wedges of the strong. So he first tried to crush the power of the Scanians in the field which in Latin is called Laneus (Woolly); here he had a hard fight with the rebels. Here, too, Iwar, who was in his seventh year, fought splendidly, and showed the strength of a man in the body of a boy.

But Siward, while attacking the enemy face to face, fell forward upon the ground wounded. When his men saw this, it made them look round most anxiously for means of flight; and this brought low not only Siward, but almost the whole army on the side of Ragnar. But Ragnar by his manly deeds and exhortations comforted their amazed and sunken spirits, and, just when they were ready to be conquered, spurred them on to try and conquer.

“Ladgerda, who had a matchless spirit though a delicate frame, covered by her splendid bravery the inclination of the soldiers to waver. For she made a sally about, and flew round to the rear of the enemy, taking them unawares, and thus turned the panic of her friends into the camp of the enemy. At last the lines of HARALD became slack, and HARALD himself was routed with a great slaughter of his men. LADGERDA, when she had gone home after the battle, murdered her husband…. in the night with a spear-head, which she had hid in her gown. Then she usurped the whole of his name and sovereignty; for this most presumptuous dame thought it pleasanter to rule without her husband than to share the throne with him.”

This is the last we hear of Lagertha, and all we actually know about her from old sources.

According to some scholars, the Lagertha character, by being a resident of Gaulardale, is a fictional character based on the Follower goddess, Thorgerd Holgabrud, of whom there are many more sources and accounts.

lagertimages

Historical Events and Characters Remembered in the Poetic Edda

 

Did Norsemen of the Viking Age remember their Iron Age history? To a certain extent, yes.

That Medieval Norsemen were extremely aware of, and concerned with, their own history is no secret – few other cultures of their time did such a great job recording the clan-, lineage- and tribal histories as Scandinavians did – in their own language – during the 12th- 14th centuries. I have already written an article about historical consciousness among Medieval Scandinavians here.

A lot of their history had already been transmitted orally for centuries, and in some cases we are even able to verify the stories. For example, “Sverris Saga” gives an account of how a warrior was killed and his body thrown into a well. A few years ago, the well – with the body – was found at exactly the location mentioned in the saga, with the exact dating.

Another saga tells the tale of how one Icelandic settler, Geirmund Heljarskinn, was the child of a Rogaland king and a “black” (dark-skinned) Siberian woman, and that he went to find another dark-skinned Siberian woman for himself before they both moved to Iceland. Modern DNA studies have shown that certain Icelanders today, who are able to trace their lineage back to this Geirmund and his Siberian wife, indeed do descend from Siberia through the maternal line.

Snorri Sturlusson´s 13th century Ynglinga Saga was based on a far older Scaldic poem known as Ynglingatál, composed by the Skald Thióðolf the Wise of Kvinir, who lived during the late 9th and early 10th centuries. That poem recounts the lives and deaths of the Ynglinga kings going back 30 generations. That great lineages traced their family histories back to mythical origins in a far past were a common tradition, and whereas the historical accuracies may be questioned, the importance of recording ones history was certainly there.

As stories were transmitted orally, they changed into legends with many mythical and fantastical elements. And yet, from what was left to us, we do keep finding traces of real history even in these ancient legends, some reaching back into the Roman Iron Age, or the so-called Age of Migration.

Attila the Hun

attilaIn the Poetic Edda, there are several heroic poems referring to events which took place and people who lived during the 3rd– 5th centuries A.D. One of the most famous persons who has been granted a position of importance in Edda poetry is Attila the Hun (406-453 A.D). In the Poetic Edda, his name has become Atli, a relatively common Norse name, and he is said to be the son of “Budli”, which is derived from the name of Attila´s father and brother; Bleda. He is said to be the king of the powerful and influential Huns, who lived to the east.

“The Huns were a nomadic people who lived in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia between the 1st century AD and the 7th century AD. As per European tradition, they were first reported living east of the Volga River, in an area that was part of Scythia at the time; the Huns’ arrival is associated with the migration westward of a Scythian people, the Alans. In 91 AD, the Huns were said to be living near the Caspian Sea and by about 150 had migrated southeast into the Caucasus. By 370, the Huns had established a vast, if short-lived, dominion in Europe. (…)

The Huns may have stimulated the Great Migration, a contributing factor in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. They formed a unified empire under Attila the Hun, who died in 453; their empire broke up the next year. Their descendants, or successors with similar names, are recorded by neighbouring populations to the south, east and west as having occupied parts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia approximately from the 4th century to the 6th century. Variants of the Hun name are recorded in the Caucasus until the early 8th century.” [1]

“Attila, frequently referred to as Attila the Hun, was the ruler of the Huns from 434 until his death in March 453. He was also the leader of a tribal empire consisting of Huns, Ostrogoths, and Alans among others, on the territory of Central and Eastern Europe.

During his reign, he was one of the most feared enemies of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires. He crossed the Danube twice and plundered the Balkans, but was unable to take Constantinople. His unsuccessful campaign in Persia was followed in 441 by an invasion of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, the success of which emboldened Attila to invade the West. He also attempted to conquer Roman Gaul (modern France), crossing the Rhine in 451 and marching as far as Aurelianum (Orléans) before being defeated at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains.

He subsequently invaded Italy, devastating the northern provinces, but was unable to take Rome. He planned for further campaigns against the Romans but died in 453. After Attila’s death his close adviser Ardaric of the Gepids led a Germanic revolt against Hunnic rule, after which the Hunnic Empire quickly collapsed.”[2]

The Huns and the Burgunds

gunnar

The events of the Edda in which Atli and the Huns feature have to do with an event which actually happened before the real Attila became king. In the Poetic Edda, Gunnarr is the king of the Burgunds, a Germanic tribe that may once have originated on the island of Bornholm (then “Burgundarholm”) south of Sweden, but which migrated until it reached the Rhinelands during the early Iron Ages. Gunnarr is described as earnest and passionate but somewhat weak of character. He is married to a Hunnish woman called Brynhild, a sister to Atli the Hun.

When Brynhild comes to live among the Burgunds, she discovers that her husband, Gunnarr, is not the actual ruling king of the Burgunds. That honor has obviously gone to his sister, Gudrún, and her husband, a Danish prince called Sigurd. Traces of matrilinear descent are frequent in the Edda heroic poetry, where princes must always move to other tribes and seek marriages with a female heiress in order to become kings, rather than inheriting the thrones of their fathers.  This could very well be a reflection of ancient practices which had changed by the time of the Viking Age. In fact, the Edda legend almost appears to explain exactly how this tradition changed:

Brynhild, loath to discover that her marriage with Gunnarr does not make her the queen of the Burgunds, because his sister, by matrilinear descent, is already the queen of the Burgunds, threatens to divorce Gunnarr unless he takes the throne himself, thus demanding that he betrays both his king and his own sister.

It appears that Gunnarr and his family are afraid of this divorce, because it could mean enmity with the powerful Huns. They move behind the back of the ruling queen and her ruling husband in order to kill him and usurp the throne. The dethroned queen, Gudrun, curses her brothers for their betrayal, and Brynhild is then so upset about her part in the betrayal and the slaying of a great man that she commits suicide, leaving the Burgunds to deal with her powerful brother alone after all.

The Burgunds find themselves in exactly the same dreadful position as they would have if Brynhild had divorced Gunnarr; they are now enemies to the all-powerful Huns, because Atli feels that they have caused his sister´s death. They seek the forgiveness of Gudrun, who has taken refuge in the wilderness after their betrayal and learned the arts of sorcery. Reluctantly, Gudrun agrees to offer herself up in marriage to Atli the Hun in order to save the peace and her people.

However, Atli the Hun is not content with this. He expected his new Burgund wife to come with a lot of treasure, but this treasure has been hidden. Inviting his brothers-in-law for a banquet, he slays them and all the Burgund warriors with them. Gunnar is the last to die – thrown into a pit of snakes where he plays the harp for them until he is finally killed.

If not necessarily accurate, the Edda story of the massacre of the Burgunds has its historical counterpart:

“In 406 the Alans, Vandals, the Suevi, and possibly the Burgundians crossed the Rhine and invaded Gaul. In 411 AD, the Burgundian king Gundahar or Gundicar [“Gunnarr”] set up a puppet emperor, Jovinus, in cooperation with Goar, king of the Alans. With the authority of the Gallic emperor that he controlled, Gundahar settled on the left or western (i.e., Roman) bank of the Rhine, between the river Lauter and the Nahe, seizing Worms, Speyer, and Strasbourg. Apparently as part of a truce, the Emperor Honorius later officially “granted” them the land. Olympiodorus of Thebes also mentions a Guntiarios who was called “commander of the Burgundians” in the context of the 411 usurping of Germania Secunda by Jovinus.

Despite their new status as foederati, Burgundian raids into Roman upper Gallia Belgica became intolerable and were ruthlessly brought to an end in 436, when the Roman general Flavius Aetius called in Hun mercenaries who overwhelmed the Rhineland kingdom (with its capital at the old Celtic Roman settlement of Borbetomagus, now called Worms) in 437. Gundahar was killed in the fighting, reportedly along with the majority of the Burgundian tribe.”[3]

The Death of Attila

Attila, Ruler of the Hunnic Empire 434 - 453, scene, his death in the wedding night with Ildico, wood engraving, 19th century, h

In the Poetic Edda, Gudrun of the Burgunds extracts a terrible vengeance. Beneath the guise of submission, she arranges for a funeral banquet for her brothers in which she serves the flesh of her her own two small sons with Atli to him and to all his men, and makes him eat their hearts and drink their blood unknowingly. Then she confronts him with his cannibalism. Due to her sorcery, the entire hall of the Huns falls asleep, and Atli, recognizing his defeat, goes to his bed where he lies passively awaiting as she picks up his sword and kills him with it. As he dies, he declares that he knew that Gudrun was a fierce woman, and now he has the proof of that.

In the Edda, Gudrun´s vengeance is celebrated. She is called “the last bride in armor”, as in, the last warrior woman to ever avenge her brothers with such ferocity. She is able to escape the Hunnish encampment and finds marriage again elsewhere. In real history, the death of Attila actually meant the end of the Hunnish empire and the liberation of the Germanic tribes after more than a century of subservience to the Huns, so this celebration of the woman who, according to legend actually slayed him and liberated her people, is understandable.

In the historical records, Attila´s death is described somewhat differently, but with clear parallels:

“The conventional account from Priscus says that Attila was at a feast celebrating his latest marriage, this time to the beautiful young Ildico [Hildigunde](the name suggests Gothic or Ostrogoth origins ). In the midst of the revels, however, he suffered a severe nosebleed and choked to death in a stupor. An alternative theory is that he succumbed to internal bleeding after heavy drinking, possibly a condition called esophageal varices, where dilated veins in the lower part of the esophagus rupture leading to death by hemorrhage.

Another account of his death was first recorded 80 years after the events by Roman chronicler Marcellinus Comes. It reports that “Attila, King of the Huns and ravager of the provinces of Europe, was pierced by the hand and blade of his wife”. The Volsunga saga and the Poetic Edda claim that King Atli (Attila) died at the hands of his wife Gudrun. Most scholars reject these accounts as no more than hearsay, preferring instead the account given by Attila’s contemporary Priscus. Priscus’ version, however, has recently come under renewed scrutiny by Michael A. Babcock.Based on detailed philological analysis, Babcock concludes that the account of natural death given by Priscus was an ecclesiastical “cover story”, and that Emperor Marcian (who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from 450 to 457) was the political force behind Attila’s death.”[4]

The Death of Svanhild

In the Poetic Edda, Svanhild is the beautiful daughter of Sigurd and Gudrun, whose grisly death at the hands of her jealous royal husband Iörmunrekkr (Ermanaric) was told in many northern European stories, including the Poetic Edda (Hamðismál and Guðrúnarhvöt), Prose Edda and the Volsunga Saga; the Norwegian Ragnarsdrápa; the Danish Gesta Danorum; and the German Nibelungenlied and Annals of Quedlinburg.

She was “the most beautiful of all women,” and was married to Ermanaric (Jörmunrekkr) the king of the Goths. She was accused of infidelity with the king’s son, Randver. Because of this Ermanaric had her trampled to death under horses. Her mother made her half-brothers Hamdir and Sörli exact revenge on her death, a story which is retold in Hamðismál and Guðrúnarhvöt, Bragi Boddason’s Ragnarsdrápa, in the Völsunga saga and in Gesta Danorum.

This legend also had its historical counterparts:

“Jordanes wrote in 551 AD that Ermanaric, king of the Gothic Greuthungi, was upset with the attack of a subordinate king and had his young wife Sunilda (i.e. Svanhild) torn apart by four horses. As revenge Ermanaric was pierced with spears by her brothers Ammius (Hamdir) and Sarus (Sörli) and died from the wounds. The Annals of Quedlinburg (end of the 10th century) relates that the brothers Hemidus (Hamdir), Serila (Sörli) and Adaccar (Erp/Odoacer) had cut off the hands of Ermanaric.”[5]

attila svanhild.jpg

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huns

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attila

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunther#History

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attila#Death

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Svanhildr

The Oseberg Grave Contents

The Oseberg Grave Contents – Interpretations

Summary/Article by Maria Kvilhaug

Sources:

Gunhild Røthe: «Osebergfunnet – en religionshistorisk tolkning» (The Oseberg Find – an Interpretation from the Perspective of the History of Religion) 1994, Hovedfagsoppgave i religionshistorie, Avdeling for Religionshistorie, Institutt for Kultur og Samfunnsfag, Universitetet I Oslo.

Short presentation of the Oseberg Find

The Oseberg ship burial was excavated during the summer of 1904 at the farm Oseberg close to Tønsberg in the county of Vestfold, Norway. Beneath a mound that originally had been six meters tall and 44 square meters, archaeologists found Norway´s to this date richest burial site. The mound had been built with grass turfs packed tightly together and disguised a ship with a burial chamber in the stern. The timber has revealed that the grave must have been constructed in 834 AD, concurring with the styles of art that fit with the era between 800-850 AD.

In the grave was found many wooden objects, the skeletal remains of two women, and bones from many different animals. There were at least 20 horses, 4 hounds, as well as cows, an ox and pigs. The animals had been beheaded and their remains were found both within and outside of the ship. The human remains were scattered close to an entrance made by grave robbers, made through the ship´s stem and into the burial chamber. There was a large bed at the prow in which the head of an ox had been placed. In the stem (burial chamber) there was a lot of kitchen equipment, among which were many containers, such as the famous “Buddha-bucket”, probably of British origin. There was also farming equipment and a practical kind of sledge. At the prom were found many driving vessels, such as the famous wagon and the two sledges, all richly decorated and probably used for ritual or other ceremonious occasions. There were also two tents, and many staves with carved symbols animal heads, many of which may have been used for framing the tents. The largest tent was 5,3×4,5 meters in diameter and 3,5 meters tall. There were also five decorated animal-headed pillars and several rattles.

For the most part, objects found in the stem/burial chamber appear to be personal items while objects in the prow appear to be ritual objects, but two of the animal-headed pillars were placed in the stem/burial chamber. In the stem/chamber were found 5-6 beds, 4 bed-stands, a chair, 3 chests, and tools for textile work. The remains of 4 weave-stools, 2 band-weaves, 2 brick-weaves, spindles, wooden planks for beating laundry, two nails of wood, clubs for beating linen, an iron scissors and fragments of other tools used for textile work. Along with the personal items were found combs, shoes, a wooden saddle, a small staff with a carved dog´s head, feathers from thick sleeping blankets and pillows, and parts of tapestries.

 

History of Interpreting the Oseberg Ship Burial

 

The Oseberg ship was excavated in 1904, only the year before Norway was finally released from its union with Sweden and became a nation with its own king. Since 1814, Norway had been sharing a king with Sweden and was the less powerful part of the Union. Before that, Norway had been a vassal to Denmark for more than four hundred years. The Oseberg ship therefore became a symbol of Norway as an independent national state with the dissolving of the Union in 1905. This naturally influenced early attitudes to the splendid find. It was as if Norway´s former glory, when it still had its own royal lineage, had been restored. As such, the Oseberg find became a national monument.

The Oseberg burial is different from other graves from the period in that the buried were two women. In other cases where we have found more than one body in a grave, it has always been a man and a woman together. Such double burials are known from Norwegian areas since the Roman Iron Age and may point to a Norwegian form of Suttee, where the widow is sacrificed to follow her husband into the next world. When we are speaking of Suttee, we will find grave-goods from both the masculine and the feminine spheres in equal measure, and the contents will show that both man and woman belonged to the same social class. In the cases where the grave only contains masculine equipment, we are likely seeing that a slave woman has followed her master into the grave.

In the Oseberg find, the opposite is the case; this is an all-female grave, and both the skeletons are female. The most common interpretation has been that the grave belongs to a powerful woman, the “queen” and her slave-woman. For a long the time, the only discussion of this matter was who of the women was queen and who was slave.

The remains of the women were found scattered around the break-in (grave-robber´s) entrance, but were put together by the archaeologists to reveal the remains of one woman aged between 60 and 70, strongly suffering from arthritis (leddgikt) and a spinal dysfunction that must have made her back crooked, and she stood no taller than 1.50 meters. Her skeleton is the best preserved of them all.

The second woman´s remains are not as complete as the other. She was aged between 30 and 40 years old. Her collar bone had been crushed and her skull had been smashed before she died.

Kristian Emil Schreiner argued already in 1909 that the youngest woman must have been the “queen” exactly because most of her skeleton is missing. This may be due to the grave robbers having robbed the jewelry that may have been fastened to the woman´s skeleton. Besides, the teeth of the younger woman shows sign of the use of a tooth-pick which according to Schreiner was used only by the higher social classes.

Other archaeologists believed that the older woman was the “queen” because the skeleton of the younger woman bear traces of violence, which could mean that she was sacrificed.

Gustav Gulberg suggested a third possible interpretation, namely that the two women were of equal social standing, but left it there, thinking it unlikely.

As Gunhild Røthe points out in 1994, the question these first interpreters discussed was who “she” was, and not who “they” were. The other question discussed was whether they could connect the burial to the Ynglinga lineage in Vestfold, as it was described by Snorri and before him Thióðolf Skald. Since the 1990s, new perspectives have been fronted, discussing the women (both of them) as members of a religious community of some kind.

The Oseberg Find as Queen Ása´s Mound – an Ynglinga Heritage

The fact that ships and boats were used for burials may have to do with an idea that the dead could travel across the sea to the other side of death. Håkon Shetelig was the first to analyze the Oseberg burial in light of other ship burials found in Vestfold, Karmay and Namdalen. Typical for all these finds is the way the mound has been built, the ship as a burial chamber, and the large amount of grave goods. He sees this custom in relation to the customs of high-standing families and which may be traced to the large king-burial mounds in Uppsala. He believes that the ship-burials in Norway are inherited from the Swedes through the influence of the Ynglinga kings in Norway and suggests that this kind of burial is to a great extent the burial custom of the Vestfold-kings.

The focus on ancient royalty led to a particular interpretation of the grave contents. The finery of everything was proof of the “queen´s” exquisite and noble taste, a refined woman taken out of an early 20th century salon culture who would keep a number of great artists and craftsmen in her court. The ship and its contents were used when the “queen” went for little trips much like rich people today do when they go yachting. The dog remains show that she liked to have dogs as pets, much like Queen Victoria. The Oseberg “queen” fitted right into contemporary high society.

In 1917, Anton Wilhelm Brøgger suggested that the grave had belonged to the very powerful Queen Ása of Agder, daughter of Harald Granraudi (Red Beard).

The Ynglinga saga gives us the story of Ása and her importance in the rise of a Norwegian nation:

The Vestfold king, Gudröd of the Ynglinga lineage, wanted to marry Ása of Agder, but was refused. Then he killed her father and brother, abducted fifteen year old Ása, raped her and forced her to marry him. Resourceful young Ása was not the kind of woman who would submit to such atrocities. First, she made Gudröds life so miserable he became an alcoholic who never dared return to his own house. When their son, Halfdan the Black, was about a year old, Ása had Gudröd killed, making her personal slave do the deed (which was a way of showing how lowly she regarded him). Now 18 years old, Ása returned to Agder and ruled there herself, raising her son Halfdan the Black until he was 18 and ready to take over.

Halfdan claimed his part of the Vestfold kingdom from his half-brother Ólaf, who was later known as Ólad Geirstad-Elf, said to hear the prayers of people who went to sit out on his grave. Halfdan the Black claimed many Norwegian kingdoms (there were some thirty of them) during his life and fathered the famous Harald Hair-Fair, who became king of all Norway.

Brøgger argued that the name of the place, Oseberg, derived from ON Ásasbergr – “Ása´s Mound”, and that the grave belonged to Queen Ása. This would prove that the Ynglinga saga is historically quite accurate. Thus the many burial mounds of Vestfold became monuments marking the beginning of the Norwegian kingdom, and all the mounds have been attempted analyzed in light of the saga, trying to show which kings had been buried where.

Other Interpretations – The Mound of the Gods

Sophus Bugge suggested that the name Oseberg would more likely be derived from ON Ásabergr – “The Mound of the Gods” (ása is genitive plural of áss, “god”). It is by no means certain one of the women in the grave is Ása, but a connection to the Ynglinga lineage is likely.

In 1943, the archaeologist Guttorm Gjessing analyzed the burial from an art- and religion-historical perspective. He showed that the horse played an important symbolic role in art and in religious life such as sacrifice. He believed the horse was connected to a Sun cult and drew connections to older Danish cults from the Bronze Age, and this cult again could be connected to a fertility cult where the horse symbolized the divine power that secured fertility in people and in the land. He regarded the Oseberg ship burial as one of the most important examples of a horse-cult in heathen times.

The horse is clearly associated with the god Freyr, who was also the most important god of the Ynglinga lineage. He pictures the Slagen valley (where Oseberg is situated) as a cultic center with the farm Bø as a royal seat, where the buried woman lived. He suggests that she was a Gyðja, a pagan priestess devoted to Freyr, and links to various written sources suggesting that the god Freyr was served on Earth by a high priestess (such as the story of Gunnarr Helming in Flateyiarbók, where the Freyr-priestess drove the image of the god around in a wagon, making a procession through the countryside. Such processions are also shown in the tapestries.

Gjessing was the first to front the objects of the Oseberg burial as parts of a religious cult. He thus agrees with Bugge that the correct interpretation of the name Oseberg is Ásabergr – The Mound of the Gods. Thus the most important question is not to ask WHO the woman is, but WHAT she was – or they were. According to Gjessing, she was a priestess of the horse-cult associated with the Freyr-cult.

Freyia´s Representative on Earth – Ingstad´s Interpretation

The archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad proposed a new thesis in 1982. She sticks to the interpretation “Mound of the Gods” and also to the notion that the burial was connected to the Ynglinga lineage. The royal connection is among other things proved by the fact that the clothes of one of the women were red and of very fine quality. Such clothes are always found in the clothes of people of very high standing. Literary sources suggest that red was used by royalty and clergy. Ingstad suggested that the woman was Queen Alfhild, Gudröd´s first wife and mother to Ólaf Geirstad-Elf, since she believed that Ása of Agder must have been despised as a murderer by the Vestfoldings. Queen Alfhild must have been the youngest woman in the grave.

Ingstad also asks whether the Queen might have been more than just a Queen. The taptestries must have been woven by the Queen herself and her handmaidens. The motifs may be connected to people and events in the Queen´s life. They also appear to show scenes of ritual suggesting a Freyia-cult, including a scene where nine men are hanged in a serpent grove, which Ingstad interprets as a sacrifice to Freyia. She describes the sacrifice as a sacred marriage or more precisely a death-wedding where the sacrificed are men and the recipient is a goddess. The presence of a man´s saddle in the grave is interpreted as the symbolic presence of King Gudröd.

The hollow, bamboo-like staff in the grave is also connected to heathen cult, perhaps symbolizing fertility. It appears that the staff has been winded with linen threads, and Ingstad points out that linen was associated with Freyia, one of whose names was Hærn (“Linen”). She sees the staff as a phallic symbol and the linen as a symbol of Freyia, the combination of these is a symbol of the death-marriage. The cult-wagon has many images of cats, and in Freyia mythology, her wagon is drawn by cats. The travel equipment and the sacred objects prove that these were objects used in a traveling Freyia-cult. Ingstad concludes that the woman of Oseberg was an incarnation of Freyia and that the Queen, Alfhild, and the priestess were one and the same. The divine status of the woman was explained with several unusual traits in the grave. The very place of the burial in a flat, bog-like place, all the beheaded animals and all the stones that had been thrown over the grave goods are connected to typical sacrifice more than to typical burials. Only the cultic function of the grave may explain why the burial took the shape of a sacrifice. As Ingstad herself concludes:

“There they (the women) should lie for all eternity, close to the sanctuary they had served in life, so that they may continue to influence peace and fertility in the valley. As in life, so in death.”

Sacred Marriage – Gunhild Røthe´s Interpretation

Gunhild Røthe begins her analysis by comparing the Oseberg find with a written description of a Rus/Norse burial at Volga from the year 921 AD by the Arab emissary Ahmad Ibn-Fadlan. There are some similarities and some differences between the two sources.

  1. Similarities

In both the Oseberg and the Rus cases, a ship has been drawn inland, on which a burial chamber is prepared. In the Oseberg burial, the burial chamber is a tent-like wooden construction. In the Rus burial, there is an actual tent serving as a burial chamber. Blue-berries, apples, grains, walnuts, hazel nuts and other plant seeds and 54 wild apples picked in the month of September (which must have been the month of the burial) are found in Oseberg, all contents paralleled in the Rus burial. The way the animals have been sacrificed with axe-blows to their top neck as well as the types of animals sacrificed are also identical in the two sources. Ibn-Fadlan´s description shows that the beheading of the animals was important to the purpose of reading omens. The wealth of clothes and decorative equipment is another parallel. The textiles were treated with beeswax and the dead were put to rest amidst great luxury in both cases. In Ibn-Fadlan´s description, the dead man lay in another grave for ten days while they prepared the funeral, and suggests that he was buried in a wooden coffin, where there was also a deal of grave goods. The Oseberg find similarly shows that the dead may have been preserved for months while the burial was prepared. The sacrifice of a slave woman is another very relevant similarity. The Rus burial describes a violent death to the (volunteering) slave woman, and the skeleton of the younger woman at Oseberg shows sign of violent impact as well. Only very high status people were buried with sacrificed servants.

  1. Differences – the burning

The greatest difference between the two graves is that the Rus grave is burned after the burial procedures. The Oseberg burial was not. Both burial customs existed side by side in Norway at the time. The Oseberg burial is a lot bigger and richer than the Rus burial, and the buried are women.

  1. Ibn-Fadlan´s description of the Rus as relevant to the Norse

Ibn-Fadlan is being told by his interpreter why they burn the dead and his ship: It is to enable the chief to enter “Paradise”, possibly a way of liberating the soul from the body, which is how Ibn-Fadlan understands it.

Ibn-Fadlan also describes how the slave-woman looks into the next world and describes it as fair and green, a similarity to how Valhall is described in Hákonarmál as græna heima goda – “The Green Abode of the Gods”. Her way of achieving the vision is similar to other descriptions from Norse sources – drinking, singing, dancing and finally being lifted up to look above a “gate-hinge” and into the other world. A gate hinge was very much a symbol of the entry into the afterlife in Norse sources.

The Rus slave woman is treated like a high-standing woman before she dies and drinks heavily before she has intercourse with the friends of the dead man. The theme of a death-wedding is very much present. Ingstad had already pointed out sacred marriage symbolism in the Oseberg grave. Professor Gro Steinsland has shown since the 1990s that the sacred marriage was a very important part of Norse “king ideology” where death and erotic alliances are very much interconnected.

Cult Objects listed by Røthe

  • The Rune Stave. A round birch stave, 2,5 meters long, 8 cm round in the middle and 2-3 cm in the end, broken in one end. On one end of the stave there is a carved ornament and runes reading “litiluism”. The ornament is identical to a Thor´s hammer symbol, used in Iceland as a magical sign. The runic inscription is difficult to decipher. Sophus Bugge has interpreted it as “lítil-viss (er) madr” – “Man knows little” or else “litill vissm” – “(Although) I am small I am wise”, or “litil vés m” – “I (who am) small am the sanctuary”.
  • The Ship. The ship was built more delicately than traditional Viking ships and probably meant for calm journeys inside the relative safety of the fiords. Myths show that the ship symbolized both death and fertility. We also know from other sources both written and archaeological (rock carvings etc) that ships could have a cultic function. Tacitus described a German “Isis-cult” where the goddess stood at the prow of a ship, and the temple of the goddess Nehalennia in Domburg, dating back the the 2nd century AD shows images of the goddess at the prow or stern of ships, or at the steer. In Solarljod, Frigg is said to steer the Ship of Earth, and there are many images of ships from the Bronze Age where rituals are being performed on these, particularly dedicated to the Sun goddess.
  • The Wagon. The Oseberg Wagon is the only wagon found from archaeological digs in Norway. It is 5 meters long, 2,5 meters broad and 1,2 meters tall. It was clearly not a practical wagon, and it was decorated with mythical scenes. It must have been a cult-wagon, a part of the processions shown in the Oseberg tapestries. The cat symbols suggest a link to Freyia, but there are several goddesses and gods who are described as wagon-driving. In Brennunjálssaga we are told that The image of Thor was placed in a wagon, a similar description is found about Thor´s image in Flateyiarbók, and also about Freyr. The image of the goddess Nerthus was drawn in a wagon according to Tacitus. In the Oseberg tapestries, wagons in the processions are often covered by a cloth, or else there are objects in the wagons that are covered. In Tacitus description, the goddess is covered by a cloth when she is drawn around during the ceremony.
  • The Large Bed. This bed was situated at the prow. The head of an ox had been placed in the middle. It was a double bed, made for two people. Røthe interprets the bed as made for a wedding, the sacred marriage ritual. A pagan wedding was only completed when witnesses observed the couple actually copulating in the bed, before which the marriage oaths and the agreements between the two clans were made “at the bedstand”. Røthe connects the bed to the ritual of the Sacred Marriage connected to a death wedding. References to making a bed or copulating in the grave are many in Norse sources.
  • Animal Head staffs.
  •  oseberg-viking-bed persian-blanket oseberg-woman oseberg_ship_head_post bronze-vessel-oseberg-ship-burial-mound-vestfold-norway 862ebebc03a453f604d6b9764736ce0f 14237765_1084029508299601_3496196795900851025_n 0eb0371afdc3ad805cc570c80a63a223_original oseberg-decoration-on-wagon oseberg-valknutr
    ca. 850 A.D. --- Oseberg Cart Carving --- Image by © Werner Forman/CORBIS

    ca. 850 A.D. — Oseberg Cart Carving — Image by © Werner Forman/CORBIS

    q50%20cong2 oseberg_buddha_suncross chest 4793707496_cdac28a101 220px-oseberg_tapestry_ii

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bearded Woman of Oseberg

osebergkvinnene

The sun turns black, | earth sinks in the sea,
The hot stars down | from heaven are whirled;
Fierce grows the steam | and the life-feeding flame,
Till fire leaps high | about heaven itself.

Völuspá (The Prophecy of the Witch) st. 57, Poetic Edda

536 AD: A volcanic eruption in Indonesia caused a global catastrophe. Even in Scandinavia did people experience the full blow of its aftermaths; the sun vanished from sight for three years – in its place were clouds of ash, a small Ice Age, famine and darkness, a winter lasting for three years. All this seems recognizable from Old Norse mythology, and it happened for real.

How did the people respond, asks the archaeologist Lena Fahre, whose lecture I went to see, what gave me some further inspiration for my books about the Oseberg women. Fahre emphasized the eruption and its consequences for Scandinavian culture; Just after this three year long winter – what the Norse referred to as “The Great Winter” (Fimbulvettr), Scandinavians, who had been used to a more pleasant and temperate climate than what now followed, began to perform large sacrifices and the building of great mounds.

The Oseberg Mound in Vestfold

The Oseberg Mound in Vestfold

Fast forward to 1904, when the great mound at Oseberg in Vestfold, Norway, was excavated. The archaeologists soon began to realize that they were about to dig out the Scandinavian equivalent of the grave of Tut Anch Amon – the greatest burial of the Viking Age. Grave robbers had removed the precious metals and jewelry, but even without these it was obvious that the grave belonged to a person so highly esteemed that one had to expect a great king, partly divine!

Great was the surprise, then, when the remains in the grave turned out to be two tiny old women. Quickly enough, the people back then decided that the burial must belong to that of Ása Haraldsdaughter of Agder, and her sacrificed handmaiden. This myth has lived on and is, despite thirty years of studies  showing that it could not be, still represented as fact at the Vikingship museum in Oslo, where the Oseberg ship is at display.

excavation_oseberg_ship_1904 excavation_oseberg_ship_2

 

 

 

 

 

Ása Queen was the daughter of Harald Granraudi (“Red Beard”), the king of Agder in western Norway. The king of Vestfold, Gudröd Hunter King, who also seems to have been a king or general of Denmark during the age of Charlemagne, launching an attack on the Franks in about 810 AD, wanted Ása for a wife, but her father refused his proposal. Then Gudröd came with an army, killed Harald and his son, and forcefully took Ása for a wife. She gave birth to Halfdan the Black around the year 810. Then she had her shoe-boy (an errand boy) murder her husband Gudröd, thus avenging her father and brother. According to the Frankish annals, Gudröd (Godofred) was murdered just as he arrived at the Frankish shores, and the Danish fleet saw this as a bad sign and did not attack that year. Ása returned to Agder where she ruled as queen and raised her son Halfdan. At the age of 18, Halfdan returned to Vestfold for his legacy, and came to father Harald Hair-Fair. The first archaeologists saw this as a national symbol: The grandmother of the man who united all the tribes of Norway in one kingdom for the first time ever had been given a great memorial.

Halfdan and Ása would have been contemporaries to the women who were buried at Oseberg, but all accounts show that Ása could not have died before 850 AD, and the Oseberg burial happened in the early autumn of 834 AD. Adding to that, it appears more and more obvious that both women held a high rank and that the second woman could not have been a simple servant maid. The rich contents of the grave lean more toward a religious cult than towards just royalty.

The grave consisted of a beautifully decorated oak-ship and a timbered burial chamber, one precious wagon, four sledges, picture tapestries, Persian blankets, 15 sacrificed horses, four dogs, one ox, and a lot of other items both practical and religious, and musical instruments. The ship itself had been constructed in the year 820 AD on the west coast of Norway, probably transported to Vestfold for the burial in 834 AD.

Persian blanket in the Oseberg burial

Persian blanket in the Oseberg burial

Oseberg tapestry replica

Oseberg Tapestry Replica

There are lots of things which could be said about this amazing, royal/religious/divine burial – but for now we shall focus on the two women who were laid there to rest, since DNA and other techniques now have been used to give us a far more detailed picture of their lives than we had before.

Who were they?

oseberg-viking-bed

The matrimonial bed Oseberg

The oldest Oseberg woman skeleton with the pieces of the youngest woman at her feet

The oldest Oseberg woman skeleton with the pieces of the youngest woman at her feet

The two women, one aged between 70 and 80, the second about 50 years old, appear to have been originally placed together in the large matrimonial bed. Six single beds were also present in the grave, and it is entirely possible that these beds were also occupied by bodies. But during a grave robbery which we know happened 130 years later, in the 960s, these bodies, if they were there, may have been removed. Attempts to remove the two remaining skeletons somehow failed; several pieces of the youngest woman were left behind with the oldest woman, whose remains are almost complete. All jewelry was removed, possibly accounting for the mess in which the remaining pieces of the youngest woman´s skeleton was found.

We know, now, that both women were strong and that they had worked hard physically. But the way they had maintained very healthy teeth, used toothpicks, and eaten well, we may guess that they had a high rank in their lives. They ate mostly meat and very little fish. The most recent studies are even able to place the women; we know now that they must have spent a lot of time living in the eastern parts of Agder, the same kingdom that was ruled by Ása Queen, and where we know that the Oseberg ship was built.

862ebebc03a453f604d6b9764736ce0f oseberg_buddha_suncross

One name we do have. On one of the precious buckets from Oseberg there is a runic inscription; “Sigrid owns (this bucket)”. Sigrid was a woman´s name and may have belonged to one of the women in the grave – whether it was one of the two we know of, or perhaps one of those who may have shared the grave, laid to rest in one of the single beds. This we do not know.

The Witch who Magically Transformed into a Man

14237765_1084029508299601_3496196795900851025_n-3

A Bearded Woman? Oseberg prow

 

The oldest woman in the grave, and the only one whose remains were almost complete, turned out to have been between 70 and 80 years old. She had suffered serious illness during her childhood and early youth. Then she may have moved on quite normally – but before reaching middle age, she began transforming.

She had a condition that we know as Morgagni Syndrome. It was a hormonal disease which caused some physical discomfort, which turned her bone structure very thick, probably she developed an indenture in her forehead, her jaws became broad, her shoulders massive, drowning her neck. Her voice became deeper, and her body hair grew – in fact she turned into a bearded woman. Her level of testosterone would have been as in a very masculine man.

Whatever inclinations she may have had before the condition changed her, she may very well have turned masculine in more ways than just appearance. Having been placed in a matrimonial bed together with another woman, archaeologists today must admit that they cannot outrule the possibility that the two women were a couple, although their relationship is completely unknown to us and could of course have many other possible explanations.

Archaeologists like Britt Solli have earlier pointed out the way this burial seems to belong to both the masculine and the feminine sphere, despite belonging to two women – a very unusual thing in Old Norse burials, although not unknown. Whenever the goods in a grave point to gender ambiguity, magic is usually involved.

There is also the issue of the possibility that at least six other people may have been buried with them. If they were women, they would have counted the magical number of eight, the exact number of main goddesses in Old Norse mythology.

Apart from being just 153 cm high, in an age where Scandinavian men could easily reach 180 cm, she would appear convincingly as if she was a woman who suddenly changed sex by some divine or magical decree.

To her contemporaries, the transformation must have seemed magical, even divine, and may actually account for her extreme importance. She may have already been a highly regarded person, a witch or a priestess, but this visible, apparent sex-change must have blown the minds of her contemporaries.

The oldest woman may have been the main character in this burial, the very heart of the ritual. She lived to a very old age for her time, and died of cancer – either ovarian or breast cancer, possibly a late result of her hormonal condition. Her back was crooked by the time of death, and she had suffered from a knee injury ten years before her death.

The Youngest Woman

Oseberg tapestry

Detail from Oseberg tapestry, a procession of women surrounded by serpents, floating above a Fly Agaric, carrying different items

The youngest woman in the grave was about 50 years old when she died. She had very healthy teeth and appears to have been healthy all over. A blow to her collar bone was for a long time considered evidence for how she may have been sacrificed. But now we know that this injury had begunto heal a long time before she died. The lack of skeleton pieces means that we do not know how she died. Since the oldest woman died of natural causes, it is very possible that the other(s) was (were) sacrificed as well, but we do not know.

The youngest woman was about 155 cm tall, quite short, but not uncommon for women of the Viking Age. The most interesting find about her, apart from having lived most of her adult life in east Agder, eating meat rather than fish, was that she had a maternal ancestry that was foreign. By mithocondrial descent, one of her direct maternal ancestors belonged to haplogroup U7. This maternal ancestry originated in the Black Sea area some 30 000 years ago and spread out – some came as far west as Germany, but most of the U7 descendants nowadays will be found in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka and western Siberia. This woman´s mother, or mother´s mother, or perhaps even far before that, would have been a foreigner from the east.

This fits well with my character Thordís, whose Baltic mother had a maternal ancestry from the Black Sea area.

Oseberg Burial

The Oseberg Burial

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ca. 850 A.D. --- Oseberg Cart Carving --- Image by © Werner Forman/CORBIS

ca. 850 A.D. — Oseberg Cart Carving — Image by © Werner Forman/CORBIS

850s --- Viking Oseberg Cart --- Image by © Werner Forman/CORBIS

850s — Viking Oseberg Cart — Image by © Werner Forman/CORBIS

850s --- Viking Oseberg Cart --- Image by © Werner Forman/CORBIS

850s — Viking Oseberg Cart — Image by © Werner Forman/CORBIS