Viking religion: gods, paganism, rituals and sacrifices
The place all good Viking warriors wanted to go, however, was Valhalla, a magnificent hall in Asgard for those who died in battle. There, it was believed, they would spend their days honing their fighting skills and, wounds magically healed, their nights drinking the best mead and feasting on the meat of an Eternal Boar.
The god Odin welcomed these warriors, for they would fight for him in Ragnarok – the preestablished end of the worlds, when the Sun will darken, the stars will disappear, the Earth will sink into the sea, and a great battle will take place between gods, giants and beasts.
So, with so little evidence, how do we know this Viking mythology? In addition to a number of sagas, the main text for providing a systematic explanation was Edda in prose by Icelandic Snorri Sturluson. It comprehensively covered the mythology from before creation until Ragnarok. Written in the 13th century, long after the Vikings had reached their peak – and therefore after Scandinavia’s conversion to Christianity, Snorri himself was indeed a Christian – it offers fascinating ideas, but should not be taken as a gospel.
“We cannot be absolutely sure that it was not covered with a judicious reinvention or influenced by Christian theology to some extent,” says historian Philip Parker.
The clash of their pagan beliefs with Christianity would forever change the concept of religion for the Vikings. Though viewed as pagan and barbaric by Christians, Viking decisions to target places like churches and monasteries were not driven by religion, but by knowing where undefended treasures were kept.
In fact, before the gradual movement towards conversion, they quickly understood the benefits of Christianity, according to Parker: “Sometimes they had a kind of symbolic conversion, called primsigning or “first signature”, where they had the sign of the cross made on them. This made them acceptable to engage in trade.
When did the Vikings become Christians?
With the raids and the exploration of other lands by the Vikings, they came more and more in contact with Christianity. At first, they showed a willingness to tackle the pitfalls of this religion to aid them in their trade – what is one more god for their pantheon anyway? – but as assimilation increased and generations passed, many Vikings converted.
Often, pagan beliefs could be incorporated, so that Ragnarok and the Day of Judgment merged. The coins found in York, for example, show the name of St. Peter next to Thor’s hammer.
As for Scandinavia itself, politics helped Christianity take hold. “There were missionaries at the start of the ninth century, but they’re not making much headway at all,” says Philip Parker. Instead, leaders began to convert – like Denmark’s Harald Bluetooth around 960 AD – for political reasons or to foster good relations with Christian nations.
By the mid-11th century, Christianity had established itself in Denmark and most of Norway, thanks to King Olaf Tryggvason.
Viking gods – 5 deities to know
The All-Father and ruler of Asgard, Odin was related to war, wisdom, magic, and poetry, among others. His desire for knowledge was such that he sacrificed one of his eyes for the perception of the world and the cosmos, and let himself hang from the world tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days and nights to understand the runes. .
The one-eyed Odin (or Woden, where the word “Wednesday” comes from) was often depicted with a broad-brimmed hat or cape so that he would not be recognized while roaming the human realm.
He rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir and owned two crows that spied for him. Odin would end up fighting the monstrous wolf Fenrir in Ragnarok.
God of thunder, lightning and storms, Thor was perhaps the most popular in the pantheon as he protected humanity and Asgard.
Odin’s red-bearded son boasted of such strength that he could fight giants – armed with his iron gloves, enchanted belt and, most importantly, his great hammer, Mjollnir, which could level mountains. . His hammer has become a ubiquitous symbol in Viking art and culture.
It is from his name that we get ‘Thursday’ (‘Thor’s Day’).
Goddess associated with love, sex, beauty, gold and magic, Freyja – Freyr’s sister – was greedy for pleasure and materialistic. She had the magnificent Brísingamen necklace and a cloak of falcon feathers that let her fly.
One of the few female deities in the Viking pantheon, her name means “Lady”. While half of the warriors killed in battle were selected by the Valkyries to join Odin in Valhalla, the other half went to the field chaired by Freyja, named Fólkvangr.
God of fertility, but also associated with the sun, prosperity and peace, Freyr, as the son of the sea god Njörd, belonged to the Vanir – one of the two races of gods at war, the other being the sir.
One of the most revered gods, especially in Sweden, he received offerings for a good harvest or virility. According to mythology, Freyr had a ship he could stow in his pocket and a sword that fought on its own, and he rode a golden boar made by the dwarves.
The trickster, a god associated with evil (and also fire), Loki was a shapeshifter, able to take the form of animals and people. But Loki could also be cruel with his pranks – leading to the death of a beloved god.
Loki tricked Freya, Balder’s mother, into revealing her son’s only weakness, the mistletoe, and then the blind god Höd threw a sharp mistletoe branch at him. In Ragnarok, Loki sides with the giants, but is killed in action.