Viking Religion and Burial Rituals

Research Paper for Early Medieval Europe by Darci Clark

The Vikings had many different religious and burial rituals. Their belief system was polytheistic and today is considered a ‘non-doctrinal community religion’ since there was no set of specific beliefs or ritual practices.Even though the community as a whole recognized many gods, individuals could perform whichever rituals and worship only the gods which were relevant to their life or vocation. For example, even though Odin was one of the most important gods and was recognized by all members of the community, he was especially worshipped by kings and warriors.Archaeological and historical evidence of burial rituals indicates the Vikings used cremation and inhumation to dispose of their dead, but the grave construction, grave goods, and evidence of animal, and occasionally human, sacrifices was quite varied.

The Vikings were an oral society so the mythological stories of their gods were not written down until the medieval era. One of the best sources is The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson written in the 1220s. The Prose Edda contains stories of the Viking pantheon of gods from two families, the Æsir and the Vanir. The Æsir lived in Asgard and included the most important gods Odin, Thor, and Loki. The Vanir were fertility gods named Njord, Frey and Freyja.There was once a war between the Æsir, the gods of the sky, and the Vanir, the agricultural gods of the earth, but they eventually lived in harmony.

The most is known about Odin, the king of the gods, who was depicted as an old, one-eyed man and a great magician who advises and assists his favorite warriors. He was responsible for defending the world during the final battle of Ragnarok and was entrusted to bring the best warriors to his hall of the dead called Valhalla. Thor was Odin’s son and was the fighting god of thunder and rain. He was also a god of fertility and war but did not advise human warriors as Odin did. Loki was a trickster god who caused problems for Odin and Thor and led the opposing army against them at Ragnarok.In The Prose Edda, Snorri describes Ragnarok as a series of battles and natural disasters which led to the final battle culminating in the deaths of Odin, Thor, and Loki.

Odin from Manual of Mythology courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Odin from Manual of Mythology courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Vanir were the more traditional fertility gods who represented abundance and sexuality. Njord was the father of Frey and Freyja who were twin brother and sister. Viking women worshipped Freyja as a goddess of love, fertility, pleasure, and household prosperity. While Njord was known as the god of abundance and well being, Frey was associated with pleasure and the bounty of the earth.Although other gods and goddesses were mentioned in Viking mythology no evidence has been found of their role in religious practices. These other deities may have had a larger role in the original oral mythology, but their stories were probably lost before the medieval era when the myths were first written down.

In addition to worship of the gods the Vikings practiced ancestor worship. Dead ancestors were honored with food and gift offerings.Religious customs such as these were a fundamental aspect of daily life. Other cult activities included sacrifices and communication with the supernatural world. Divination and sorcery were performed primarily by women, but there are at least forty-five terms in Old Norse for male and female sorcerers. There is archaeological as well as literary evidence for magical practices called seidr. Sorcery staffs and other tools used in magical rituals have been discovered in graves. Charms, amulets, and even the mind-altering drugs henbane and cannabis have also been found. Seidr even had a place in warfare and was used to make impenetrable armor and weapons.

Viking warriors themselves also engaged in magical battle practices. Consultation of omens and ritual preparations were carefully followed to ensure success in battle. Weapons were marked with symbols for luck, strength, and courage in battle and sacrifices were made. The boar, bull and stallion were the sacrificial animals associated with battle magic.

Animal and human sacrifices were an important part of seasonal festivals. There is a well known account of human sacrifice at Old Uppsala in Sweden by Adam of Bremen from 1075. In the account he states:

“The sacrifice is of this nature: of everything living thing that is male,

they offer nine heads, four with the blood of which it is customary to

gods of this sort. The bodies they hang in the sacred grove that adjoins

the temple…Feasts and sacrifices of this kind are solemnized for nine

days. On each day they offer a man along with other living beings in

such a number that in the course of the nine days they will have made

offerings of seventy-two creatures.”

It is difficult to tell if this account by Adam of Bremen is entirely accurate. Some of the details offer a stereotypical view of pagan practices but others appear authentic. More than likely the total number of sacrifices was eighty-one instead of the seventy-two noted in the account. Accounting for the human sacrifices would indicate a total of nine sacrifices for each of the nine days. The sacrificial rites at Uppsala occurred at the beginning of spring and were likely made in honor of Odin to bring victory in the upcoming season. Another reason that Old Uppsala is an important cult site is because of three large burial mounds found there. It was said in Viking mythology that if a king or seer sat on one of these burial mounds they would gain wisdom.

There seems to be a difference of opinion between scholars as to who performed important religious rituals such as those held at Old Uppsala. Some scholars think there was a class of professional cult leaders (or “priests”) but others scholars state the evidence shows that religious rites were performed by the local ruler, either a king or an earl. Literary accounts mention the ruler blessing the sacrificial food and reciting ritual toasts to the gods. Other accounts tell the story of rulers who refused to perform the customary sacrificial rites. One tale of a Christian Swedish king tells how he was driven away and deposed by his own people when he refused to perform a sacrifice. That fact that kings were required to participate in religious rituals leads some scholars to theorize that the Vikings followed the practice of ‘sacral kingship.’ The concept of sacral kingship implied that kingship was a divine right and the king possessed supernatural powers and the ability to bring prosperity to his people. While the idea of Viking sacral kingship is just a theory there is no doubt that the king or local earl played an integral part in religious rituals.

In addition to important cult sites such as Old Uppsala, worship and offerings took place at many kinds of natural sites. Stone circles or raised stones could be constructed on hills and groves to enhance the religious aspects of the site for ritual purposes. Viking people believed in the existence of many spirits which dwelled in natural places. There is widespread evidence of offerings of tools, swords and even human remains at swamps and peat bogs. These may have been offerings to spirits in who lived in the bog or just a customary place to sacrifice to any god. Sacrifices took place on what is thought to be natural stone altars called hörgr in literary sources.

Sacrificial rites also played a part in Viking mortuary practices. Compared to other aspects of Viking religious practices, there is much more archaeological and literary evidence for mortuary rituals. In another work by Snorri Sturluson entitled, Heimskringla: Ynglingasaga, he states that Odin was responsible for determining Viking burial practices. It was Odin who insisted men should be burned on a pyre and then have their ashes buried or set out to sea. In addition if a man buried treasure or other valuable possessions he would be able to access those objects after his death. Vikings practiced both cremation and inhumation but the details of the burials differed greatly. It is not clear why there is such diversity in mortuary practices but it could be due to local traditions or social status. It is clear from settlement-burial correlations that not every member of a community was given a burial though. Slaves and other people of low status may account for some of the missing burials but definitely not for all.

The discrepancy in the burial records could indicate that some people were cremated and then their ashes were scattered instead of buried. Their remains also may have been disposed of by excarnation. Child burials have been discovered but not enough to account for the estimated number of children in a whole community. Some children that were perceived as unfit may have been abandoned and left to die of exposure which could explain a lower number of child burials. There is no evidence that children were used a sacrifices and abandonment may have been used to simply control the population.

Archaeological evidence shows the majority of Viking burials were cremations. The bodies were burned and then the grave, stone cairn or mound was raised over them. There are many variations in burial mound shape and height. Most mounds are circular and can be as much as 10 meters high. It is thought that objects which belonged to the deceased were intentionally broken then burned and interred with their owners. This may have been done to prevent theft by grave robbers, especially in the case of swords and knives. Many different types of grave goods have been discovered. In addition to swords and knives, jewelry, tools, household utensils, food and drink items, and even furniture were common finds. After the cremation human bones, and sometimes animal bones, were sorted, cleaned and placed back on the pyre in a bag, box or ceramic container. Archaeological evidence of post holes at some locations indicates at least cremation graves were marked.

The discovery of post holes can be explained by a literary account of a Viking ship burial for a local chieftain by an Arab traveler in the 10th century named Ibn Fadlan. He describes the ship being removed from the water followed by the building of a mound over the ship. His account then states that “they placed in the middle of it a large piece of birch on which they wrote the name of the man and the name of the King of the Rus.” The chieftain’s name was likely written on the piece of wood in runes but only the post holes remain once the wood deteriorated.

Still other cremation grave locations are marked by standing stones or groups of stones designed into various shapes, even in the shape of Viking ships. Graves marked by such multiple stone settings often contain multiple burials. Multiple burials have also been discovered in actual ship burials similar to the one described by Ibn Fadlan. One such burial was discovered in Oseberg, Norway in 1904. The buried wooden ship was even tethered to a boulder. This may have been a symbolic anchor to this world so the occupants would not be lost on a voyage to the Kingdom of the Dead. The occupants of the ship burial were two females now called the Oseberg ladies. Initial study of the remains was difficult at that time so they were reinterred in an aluminum casket in 1948. The Oseberg ladies were exhumed again in 2007 to undergo further scientific testing. While researchers in the early 20th century were able to learn more from the grave goods than the women who were buried with them, recent studies have given us a great deal of information on the Oseberg ladies themselves. One woman was approximately 70 years old and the other woman was about 50 years old. When the site was first excavated it was believed the burial must be an important or wealthy woman such as Äsa, the grandmother of the king that united Norway around 830 AD, due to the high quality grave goods found. Although the date seems to be accurate, new evidence indicates that at least one of the women was a Völva or priestess. Considering there were many cult objects found at the site, such as a rattle and a purse of cannabis seeds, there is a very strong possibility that the Oseberg ladies performed an important shamanic role in society.

Oseberg Viking Ship courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Oseberg Viking Ship courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Ship burials such as the one at Oseberg also contain evidence of large numbers of animal sacrifices. The Oseberg site shows evidence of twenty decapitated horses and other sites have yielded the remains of domesticated animals as well as exotic birds such as owls and peacocks. Ibn Fadlan’s account also mentions animal sacrifice:

“They then brought two mounts, made them gallop until they began to

sweat, cut them up into pieces and threw the flesh onto the ship. They

next fetched two cows, which they also cut up into pieces and threw on

board, and a cock and a hen, which they slaughtered and cast onto it.”

In addition to animal sacrifice there is strong evidence for human sacrifice in Viking burials. While some graves contain the remains of multiple individuals which may simply be family members, other sites contain clear evidence that people were sacrificed to accompany the main occupant of the grave. Members of both sexes have been discovered bound and killed by decapitation, stab wounds or hanging. Again Ibn Fa?l?n offers confirmation of this practice when he witnessed the voluntary sacrifice of a young slave girl who agreed to accompany her master in death:

“The crone called the “Angel of Death” placed a rope around her neck in

such a way that the ends crossed one another and handed it to two of the

men 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.”

 Ibn Fadlan’s account also details the ten-days of preparations prior to the sacrifices and ship burial. He speaks of the chieftain being placed in a temporary grave covered by a canopy for ten days while his funeral garments were made. A slave, either male or female, volunteers to die with the chieftain and is well taken care of in the days preceding the sacrifice. When ten days have passed the chieftain is exhumed and dressed in his new funeral garments. A couch is placed on the ship and the chieftain is laid upon it. Food and drink offerings are placed on the ship followed by the animal sacrifices. Finally the slave girl is raped by six men before she is sacrificed. The ship is then set on fire burning completely to ash in less than an hour. The mound is built over the remains and the burial ritual is completed.

The ten days of activity prior to the cremation are accompanied by feasting, drinking and sexual intercourse. It appears the entire community took part in the violent spectacles of Viking funerary drama. Even the animals were sacrificed in a particular way and not simply slaughtered. They seemed to have a ‘role to perform’ in the drama, such as the horses being galloped until they were sweating. Particular animal body parts were either thrown on the side of the ship or onto the deck indicating a specifically planned ritual. There is also evidence that funerary drama occasionally continued once the cremation and burial was complete. Evidence shows that the Oseberg ship burial was not fully covered by the original mound. Instead the prow and entire front of the ship with the entrance to the burial chamber was left uncovered. Assuming this part of the ship was left uncovered for a reason it is likely some funerary activities were performed there before the mound was eventually completed. Another burial ship site where a man, woman, and animals had originally been cremated even showed evidence that the ashes of the deceased were removed, separated and ritually reburied in new graves nearby.

Evidence of funerary drama can also be found in Viking chamber burials. These were complex inhumation burials of high-status individuals in a specially constructed underground chamber. The chamber was the size of a small square or rectangular room and was reinforced with wooden walls and a wooden raftered roof. Like other burial sites a mound was usually built over the top of the underground structure. It is thought the deceased were buried seated although the wooden chairs have deteriorated. The dead were likely tied to the chairs with thin iron chains to hold them in place. Why the dead were buried seated in this fashion is not known but there is a theory that it allowed the occupant to ‘watch over’ a certain area such as a town. Grave goods were laid out in front or placed in the hands of the deceased, possibly for use in the afterlife. Even weapons have been discovered carefully placed across the bodies of the dead or thrust into the walls of the underground chamber. These unique aspects of chamber burials seem to set the ‘stage’ for whatever funerary drama was performed at the time of internment.

Other variations on ship and chamber burials have also been discovered. In 2012 a double Viking ship burial dated to around 750 AD was discovered on the Estonian island of Saaremaa. Unlike the high status ship burial of the Oseberg ladies, these two ships were used simply as a mass grave for 40 male warriors. The site is a unique example of Viking burials because there are animal bones, likely from a funerary feast, but no evidence of typical sacrificial animals such as horses or dogs. The only grave goods were the warriors’ broken weapons and whatever personal possessions they had brought with them. The ships were not deliberately buried as was the custom, but were instead only covered with stones and sand. The survivors may have had to leave in a hurry and were unable to complete the burial ritual. This is the only site of this kind in the world.

Unlike the prevalence of chamber burials, simple inhumation graves were quite rare. Some bodies were buried in shrouds or makeshift coffins and have been found placed in a variety of different positions. Graves that contain bedding often placed the bodies in the ground as if they were sleeping. There are even some unusual graves where large stones were placed over the bodies of the deceased as if to stop them from leaving the grave. Simple inhumation graves also contain grave goods so they do not appear to be traditional Christian graves, although some scholars debate this fact.

There is no doubt that the Vikings had a great variety of religious and funerary practices. Religious belief was an integral part of their daily lives but their ritual practices varied based on local customs and personal needs. Their elaborate burial preparations and ceremonies brought the community together to honor their dead and ensure their needs were met in the afterlife. Although their sacrificial practices may seem unusually cruel to us today, they must have fulfilled an important requirement in Viking religious belief. Hopefully more archaeological evidence will shed light on the wide-ranging and fascinating burial practices of the Vikings.



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