Many historical Christian sources have emphasized the role of human sacrifice in Viking society and culture. Are these accounts based on truth or just exaggerated propaganda to besmirch a pagan people with different religious practices and beliefs?
Historical accounts or just Christian propaganda?
There is an old expression that history is written by the winners. However, somewhat strangely, there is a lack of recorded and written history from Viking societies during the Viking Age. This has meant that much of what we know about the Vikings has been passed down to us from the societies and peoples that they have terrorized.
There are two major accounts, both from Christian monks, which claim to show that the Vikings did indeed practice human sacrifice. However, it should be noted that these Christian scholars obviously had a political and religious agenda to try and portray the pagan Vikings in the worst possible light.
The first account comes from a German bishop, Theitmar of Merseburg, who wrote a lengthy chronicle of German history from 908 to 1018 CE. In one of the books of this chronicle, he describes how the Vikings met every nine years at Lerje, Zealand (in Denmark) to "offer to their gods 99 people, and just as many horses, dogs and hens or hawks, for these should serve them in the kingdom of the dead and atone for their evil deeds."
The German monk, Adam of Bremen, wrote a similar account of Viking sacrifice. He wrote, in 1072 CE, about the sacrificial tradition of Vikings in Uppsala, Sweden, at a temple to the Norse gods Odin, Thor, and Frey. He described how the Vikings met every nine years and that nine males of all living creatures (including humans) were sacrificed as part of ritualistic offerings.
Ibn Faldun's account
Ibn Faldun, the famous 10th century CE Arab traveler, explorer, and one of history's best travel writers, also wrote heavily about the Vikings' human sacrifices. Unlike the two German accounts, he actually traveled widely in Viking societies, especially in what is now Eastern Europe and Russia. He met Swedish Vikings (known as the Rus) on the Volga River.
In his seminal work, he describes a detailed description of the everyday life of these Volga Vikings. In this description, he details the ritual sacrifice of a young girl. He writes that "The men came with shields and sticks. She was given a cup of intoxicating drink; she sang at taking it and drank. The interpreter told me that she, in this fashion, bade farewell to all her girl companions. Then she was given another cup; she took it and sang for a long time while the old woman incited her to drink up and go into the pavilion where her master lay. I saw that she was distracted; she wanted to enter the pavilion but put her head between it and the boat.
Then the old woman seized her head and made her enter the pavilion and entered with her. Thereupon the men began to strike with the sticks on the shields so that her cries could not be heard and the other slave girls would not seek to escape death with their masters. Then six men went into the pavilion, and each had intercourse with the girl. Then they laid her at the side of her master; two held her feet and two her hands; the old woman known as the Angel of Death re-entered and looped a cord around her neck and gave the crossed ends to the two men for them to pull. Then she approached her with a broad-bladed dagger, which she plunged between her ribs repeatedly, and the men strangled her with the cord until she was dead."
That such a detailed description of ritualistic Viking human sacrifice has been passed down to us is perhaps the best-recorded evidence that it did indeed take place.
What does the archaeological evidence tell us?
Just west of Slagelse, on the Danish island of Zealand, lies one of seven known Viking ring castles. Excavated between 1934 to 1942 CE, the majority of artifacts were of a rather mundane everyday nature – pottery, needles, scissors, and weaving instruments.
Archaeologists, however, found an area that is believed to have been a sacrificial site used before the fortress was constructed in the early 980s CE. The site consists of five 3-meter squared pits filled with human and animal skeletons along with tools and precious jewelry. The human skeletal remains found were mostly of children aged between 4 to 7 years.
These pits were believed to have been wells – which the Vikings attributed important religious and symbolic significance too. In Norse mythology, Odin gained his wisdom from drinking at Mimir's well but had to sacrifice one of his eyes in exchange. Near the wells, a small room was also discovered where sacrificial rituals and procedures might have taken place before being thrown into the well.
Vikings believed in the importance of being on favorable terms with the Norse gods. Sacrifices were used to appease the gods. Photo: Stormseeker / Unsplash
The Blót sacrifice - appeasing the gods
A common belief amongst all Viking societies was the importance of being on favorable terms with the various Norse gods. One way to curry favor was to make a "blót" sacrifice. This was an exchange made to the gods in order to receive something in return – whether good luck in a battle, favorable weather conditions for crops, or fertility.
One of the best descriptions of a "blót" sacrifice has been passed down to us through the works of Snorri Sturluson. Written in the early 13th century CE, Sturluson's work, The Saga of Hakon The Good, features the most comprehensive and detailed description we have.
In this saga, he notes how Sigurd Håkonsson frequently made sacrifices. These were often animals, and their blood was used to splatter altar walls and cult participants. The meat was then cooked and eaten by all present, and beer was consumed, which had been ritualistically blessed. There is no mention of human sacrifice in this description, but this does not mean it did not happen.
The Christianization of Viking societies
Viking societies placed a huge amount of importance and significance on martial skill and honor. To die in battle was seen as a great honor, and it was considered shameful for men to live a long life and die of old age. Vikings often used conquered peoples as slaves, and many scholars believe that defeated warriors and foes may have sacrificed to the gods after a favorable battle.
The latter period of the "Viking Age" saw the rapid spread of Christianization throughout the Nordic region. By the beginning of the 12th century CE, Christianity had established a strong foothold amongst all former Viking societies. Furthermore, the Crusades were actually called to drive out paganism in Nordic and Baltic areas of Europe.
As Viking societies soon formed into the Kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Kievan Rus, human sacrifice was seen as sacrilegious and disappeared altogether.
The one question that scholars are yet to answer conclusively is not whether human sacrifice occurred in Viking societies but just how widespread it was? There is hope that with more archaeological and historical work to be done, this question may be answered one day.
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