Religion in the Viking Age

The Old Ways

    The Viking people's religion was as complicated as the Viking people's society. While the rest of Europe had converted to Christianity long before, many people in Scandinavia still held to their polytheist beliefs.

    There was no book of faith, although there were many myths relating the making of the world, the first humans, and the antics of the gods.1 There was no one person to focus the direction of the faith, or even a caste of priests; although the head of the house (or country) was responsible for holding any ceremonies for their folk, and there were people who specifically dedicated themselves to the worship of a particular deity and called themselves a 'gothi' or priest.2

    The Vikings believed in polytheism. That is to say that they believed in the existence of many deities, although they frequently chose one or two as particular patrons. It is with this reasoning, when visiting Christians tried to explain that they should erect their altars to Christ, the Vikings were perfectly happy to create additional space and set up an altar for Christ - right alongside Thor and Freyr.

    The Viking pantheon was as varied as the people. There was a god or goddess for everyone. If you were a farmer, or a sailor, a lawyer, or a drinker, a lover or a fighter there was a god who looked after you and to whom you might serve after death.3 And for the women also: it was said that 'No less holy are the Asyniur, nor is their power less.'4 Much less is known about these goddesses, most likely because most of the myths and the ceremonial accounts were written by men who would not have been privy to the women's view of life. The women had goddesses who ruled the home, or claimed half the fighters killed in battle, or who healed, or  a goddess of youth. There was even a goddess for unmarried women.5 The gods even behaved similarly to the Viking people, so they were easy to understand and to relate to.

    The popularity of some of these gods can be seen in surviving town names as well as by looking at the names used in the Viking Age. Thor appears to have been the most popular deity: governing farming, weather, navigation, lightning, and was seen as the protector of Man. His popularity is evident simply by looking in any saga and seeing that the majority of the names begin with the element Thor- (even for women). Freyr seems to be the next favored god, with the kingship of Sweden claiming their ancestry from this god who gave up his magical sword to marry the giantess Gerd. Odin was primarily worshiped by profession soldiers, thieves and the royalty.

    There are no records of "regular" ceremonies to worship these gods, although it seems that each person created their own special bond with their patron deity subject to their own rules of behavior and sacrifice. One priest dedicated a special horse to Freyr and none but the god or the priest was allowed to ride this horse on pain of death.6 There is no evidence to suggest that Freyr required this ownership of the horse, but that was a rule set up by that priest.

    In addition to the worship of various deities, the viking people also believed in an entire world of folk traditions and spirits. There were the spirits of the dead: female ancestors became honored as disir while male ancestors may have become the alfar or elves. There were the spirits of the land: the  Land Spirits of your farm as well as the Land Spirits of the country. King Eirik Bloodaxe was 'attacked' by Egil Skallagrimson when all the Land Spirits of Norway were sent astray, evicted, with the blame placed on the king.7These Land Spirits were also the reason why the famed dragon-heads of the war ships were required by law to be removed upon entering a friendly port lest the dragon head scare away the Land Spirits (and thus weakening the land) of the area.8

    There were three, sometimes four major holidays that were observed: Summer Nights, Winter Nights Yule and sometimes Midsummer. Summer Nights and Winter Nights, held in April and October, primarily observed the passage of seasons - there being only two main observable seasons that far north. Yule was the biggest celebration in the year. It comprised a festive mood in the isolating cold of winter, and honoring of those who have died, and the new year (a new sun = a new year) all rolled into one huge party. Midsummer was celebrated in some regions but not in others. Likewise celebrations to honor the ancestral women spirits (the Disir) were held at different times in different locations, and special ceremonies to honor specific deities were held at any time as appropriate.

The Coming of Christ

    Christianity began to show its effects on the Viking culture. Although the countries weren't officially Christian, many Vikings took up, or married into this new religion. The custom of wearing crosses prompted the custom of wearing Thor's Hammers. Many enterprising jewelers created molds to make both (although with two crosses to one hammer it may be evident who the majority of the customers were). Apparently the ubiquitous Thor's Hammer pendant was not popular until there was felt a need to show where one's allegiance lay.

    Interestingly, Christians were forbidden to traffic with non-Christians which made work very difficult for the merchants. Anyone who needed to be able to have dealings with as many people as possible, and didn't want religion to be a barrier became "Prime Signed".9 A priest made the sign of the cross over someone as a precursor to baptism, although actually being baptized was not required. The "signing" made them eligible to attend mass and have dealings with Christian shoppers - even if said person continued to follow their old gods. These people might also wear both a cross and a hammer to show their status. Some even considered themselves to be Christian - except when on the sea where they preferred to pray to Thor instead.10

    In England, as the Vikings settled in the Danelaw in the early 900s, they soon adopted many of the English ways including giving up their old gods and adopting the Christian religion instead.

    Denmark, in the late 900s, became the first of the Viking countries to become officially Christian. Harald Bluetooth, on a memorial stone to his parents, had drawn what is considered to be the oldest crucifix in Denmark along with the words "King Harald had this memorial made for Gorm his father and Thyre his mother. That Harald who won for himself all Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian."11
    Iceland adopted Christianity by democratic law at the national assembly in 1000 AD.

    One attempt at Christianize in Norway was made by Olaf Tryggvason in 999. Although many adopted the new faith, after Olaf died and since the next king was of the old faith, many of these folk reverted back to their old familiar traditions. Offended by this revisionism, Olaf "The Stout" Haraldson (later known as St Olaf) made it part of his mission, while conquering all of Norway for his own, to also accomplish the Christianization that his predecessor had attempted. The latter Olaf was more successful as he had the habit of killing or exiling (or just burning down the farm) any who didn't agree with his plans and his concept of Christianity.

    Sweden was the last of the Viking countries to change from the old traditions to the new Christianity - as late as the 1200s.

On Itha Plain met the mighty gods;
       shrines and temples they timbered high,
they founded forges to fashion gold--
       tongs they did shape and tools they made
    Voluspa: verse 7

Notes:
1. Many of the myths have collected into two books: The Elder Edda attributed to Saemund, and the Prose Edda attributed to Snorri Sturluson. These comprise not only stories about the creation of the world and the gods, but also how the world will end and a section of aphorisms relating to proper behavior through life.
2. The most renowned is Hrafnkeln Freysgothi, eponymous hero of the Hrafnkeln Saga.
3. Thor, Njord, Tyr and Forseti and Baldur, Heimdall, Frey, Odin
4. Snorri Sturluson, The Edda. "The Gylfaginning: pp21
5.Frigga, Freyja, Eir, Idunn, Fulla
6. Hrafnkelns Saga p38 (chapter 3)
7. Egils Saga p148 "and I direct this insult against the guardian spirits of this land, so that every one of them shall go astray, neither to figure nor find their dwelling places until they have driven King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild from this country."
8. Jacqueline Simpson. Everyday Life in Viking Age. NY: Dorset Press. 1987 p89
9. Else Roesdahl. The Vikings. NY: Penguin Books. 1992. p158-9
10. Helgi the Lean, H.R. Ellis-Davidson. Gods & Myths of Northern Europe.
11. From a memorial plaque across from the "great" stone at Jelling Denmark.

Bibliography:
Ellis-Davidson. H.R. Gods & Myths of Norther Europe. NY: Penguin Books. 1976
Graham-Campbell, James (ed) Cultural Atlas of the Viking World. Oxfordshire, England: Andromeda Oxford Ltd. 1994
.......................................................... The Viking World. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd. 1989
Graham-Campbell, James and Dafydd Kidd. The Vikings. London: Trustees of the British Museum. 1980
Hollander, Lee M (trans). the Poetic Edda. Austin TX: University of Texas Press. 1988
Jones, Gwyn. A History of the Vikings. NY: Oxford University Press. 1984
Margeson, Susan M. Eyewitness Books: Viking. London: Alfred A Knopf. 1994
Palsson, Hermann. Hrafnkelns Saga. NY: Penguin Books. 1971
Palsson, Hermann and Paul Edwards. Egils Saga. NY: Penguin Books 1976
Roesdahl, Else. The Vikings. NY: Penguin Books. 1992
Roesdahl, Else and David M Wilson. From Viking to Crusader.  Sweden: Nordic Council of Ministers. 1992
Simpson, Jacqueline. Everyday Life in the Viking Age. NY: Dorset Press. 1987
Sturluson, Snorri. The Edda. Everyman Press. 1995

©copyright 2004 Judy Mitchell
Information Courtesy of J. Mitchell