The Old Norse religion has left an indelible legacy on humanity's cultural footprint with everything from the names of the days of the week to the magnificent Norse sagas to a plethora of modern Hollywood movies and everything in between.
1. Word of mouth
Technological change came very slowly to Scandinavia during Late Antiquity. Whilst many civilizations and cultures were expecting to work iron, the people located in the Scandinavian peninsula took a little longer.
The Iron Age, the last stage of prehistory (according to the Romans and Greeks anyway), was said to have started, in southern and eastern Europe, between 1000 – 800 BCE.
Unfortunately, Scandinavia was only indirectly connected to the vast trade networks and civilizational entrepots that saw this form of technology spread throughout the south.
The rate of technological progress was so slow that it took another three centuries for the working of iron to reach people in Scandinavia. Furthermore, it was only said to have ended by the time of the first Viking raid, in the late 8th century CE.
Like technological change, cultural progress was slow too. Whilst other civilizations had developed elaborate writing systems and alphabets, peoples in Viking societies were mostly illiterate and only developed comparatively simple runic alphabets.
As such, the oral transmission of information dominated until the adoption of Latin scripts towards the end of the Viking Age.
The Old Norse religion was a religion that relied heavily on memory, oral traditions, and transmission. It was never codified or written down, nor had any "divine revelations" in the forms of holy books, scriptures, or texts.
It was only with the arrival of Christian missionaries that some of the aspects of the Old Norse religion were written down.
Yet what little we think we know about the Old Norse religion comes from the quill of (pens weren't invented for another nine centuries or so) adherents of its existential enemy, Christians – who, of course, had a vested interest in portraying the worse side of the faith.
Everything else, unfortunately, was lost to the sands of time.
For adherents of the Old Norse religion, even gods were mortal beings. Illustration: The Viking Herald
2. Not such immortal souls
This is one of the most fascinating aspects of the Old Norse religion. Nearly all religions that exist today, or have existed, worship some sort or form of supernatural and eternal god/s.
Unlike the pantheons of gods in other religions, the Norse gods were not eternal and just, well, enjoyed almost abnormal long lives. They owe their longevity to the god Idunn and her magical (almost eternal) apples.
These eternal apples of youth are the source of many a story in the Norse sagas, mostly involving malfeasants, including Loki, trying to get their hands on them. All fail.
As the Vikings were responsible for some much violence, death, and misery (they were the early medieval period's premiere slavers par excellence), it should be no surprise that a strand of millennialism snuck into the religious beliefs.
For adherents of the Old Norse religion, not only were their gods not immortal, but their death was widely anticipated and storied.
The event of Ragnarök – the death and destruction of the gods, the nine universes and, yes, we mere humans – provides the setting for not only many great sagas and stories but as diverse art as an entire series of Wagnerian operas and a recent Hollywood Marvel movie.
Adherents of the Old Norse religion may have practiced human sacrifice. This is a tricky aspect to talk about with any sort of authority because the academic world is divided over this issue.
There is a wealth of uncovered archaeological evidence, mostly in the graves of high-placed and positioned Vikings, that shows that sacrificed humans provided part of the eerie grave goods buried deep below.
However, not every academic is sold on this aspect. Was it really an integral part of the religion as, say, it was for the Aztecs? Did the famous temple at Uppsala (if it even existed) run red with the blood of men, women, and children sacrificed to appease the gods?
Though the sagas are full of blood, horror, and violence, there are only allusions to human sacrifice with much more focus on an offering, called a blót. This may or may not have involved human sacrifice.
Furthermore, it was later Christian missionaries, and scholars, who described elements of sacrificial rites and practices, making their reliability extremely unreliable.
The best-known description of sacrifice, in the Old Norse religion, comes from Adam of Bremen, who wrote in the late 11th century CE. When describing the Norse temple at Uppsala, he wrote that,
"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 hung in a grove that 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..."
The archaeological record has provided us with some evidence of humans, and animals, ritually sacrificed, but the sort of gruesome and bloody scenes that Adam of Bremen described probably never happened.
There appeared to only be one religious center of worship for adherents of the Old Norse religion. Illustration: The Viking Herald
4. A breath of fresh air
Were adherents of the Old Norse religion some of the world's first environmentalists? There appeared to only be one religious center of worship, a temple, which was built in Uppsala, Sweden but demolished at the very end of the "Viking Age" in the 1080s CE.
This is the source of much historical debate as we have only one contemporary account of it, the aforementioned Adam of Bremen. Given that he was a Christian scholar, this account should be viewed with a great deal of skepticism. Nonetheless, adherents of the Old Norse religion have left us no great temples, sacrificial sites, or houses of worship.
A lack of building blocks, however, does not mean they didn't have any sacred sites. Modern historians agree that the religion placed a heavy emphasis on worshipping outside. The natural world was interconnected with religion and cosmology.
There are a plethora of accounts, as far back as the early 1st century CE, mostly from Roman sources, of northern Germanic peoples celebrating rituals and sacrifices in sacred groves. The Old Norse religion evolved from earlier Germanic pagan beliefs and continued the worship in nature.
Gods, deities, and spirits were said to, literally, live in the natural world, amongst trees, forests, and lakes. Trees especially had a considerable amount of religious and cosmological significance.
The great tree, Yggdrasill, was central to the Norse cosmological universe, said to be at the literal center of the nine universes. Not only did the followers of the Old Norse religion leave a very small carbon footprint their love of the natural world put them centuries ahead of their later Scandinavian environmental ancestors.
Is it any wonder that the Nordic region has some of the best environmental policies in the world?
5. Sagas, sagas, and more sagas
The rich literary traditions of the Norse sagas would, quite literally, be non-existent if it wasn't for the Old Norse religion. Whilst many sagas deal with legendary and semi-legendary people or events, many of the sagas tell the tall tales and exploits of many of the Norse gods and goddesses.
Mainly composed during the later medieval period, especially in 13th century Iceland, the sagas are a fascinating mix of what the Vikings called sidr (the old ways) and the "new" Christian religion.
As such, they mix Germanic legends and tales with hagiographies of Christian saints. From Odin to Saint Olaf and everyone in between, almost any person of note in Viking societies gets mentioned in this flowery prose and epic poetry.
Aside from the romances and adventures, the sagas are also some of the first examples of Nordic countries trying to tell their own stories. The Kings' Sagas, with the most famous being the Heimskringla, tell the history of some of the first legendary, semi-legendary, and historical kings of what are now the three Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
They are also a source of inspiration for modern-day moviemakers too. The recent film, The Northman, not only saw some of the most accurate depictions of some of the rituals and ceremonies of the Old Norse religion on the silver screen but was also indebted to sagas like Íslendingasögur (The Sagas of Icelanders), which helped ground the movie in some historical truth.
Most of the portals and doors of the stave churches feature lions, vines, or dragons, which were not symbols of the Christian faith. Illustration: The Viking Herald
6. Inspired architecture well beyond the Viking Age
The Old Norse religion did not just inspire literary works. Surely one of the best ways to see Norway is to drive around to see the 28 stave churches scattered throughout, mostly, the gorgeous countryside.
These churches, medieval Christian churches constructed entirely out of wood, are part of the intrinsic cultural fabric of Norway but were once common throughout north-western Europe, especially in the areas where peoples from Viking societies lived, traded, or raided.
In fact, one stave church, in Urnes, on the west coast of Norway, is of such beauty that it was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979.
Wonder inside these churches, and you will see firsthand the specter of the Old Norse religion in every finely carved detail, nook, and cranny in these Christian places of worship.
The elaborate wooden carvings and decorations feature a plethora of motifs, themes, and stories from the Old Norse religion. Two of the best examples are wooden engravings showing both Sigurd the dragon slayer and the slaying of Reign at Hylestad Stave Church.
Most of the portals and doors of the stave churches feature lions, vines, or dragons, which were not symbols of the Christian faith.
Furthermore, most of the churches were built in the 12th and 13th centuries, after the traditional end of the "Viking Age" and after the era when Scandinavia had been "Christianized."
The lingering traditions of the Old Norse religion have inspired some of the most magnificent examples of the working of wood in the world.
7. A mixture of old and new
The Old Norse religion was a synthetic and fluid system of belief. Stemming from older Germanic pagan practices, rituals, and beliefs, it evolved, in Viking societies, towards the very latter stages of the Nordic Iron Age (c. 500 BCE – 800 CE.)
Almost as soon as it appeared, Christian missionaries entered the Scandinavian peninsula, sent from the British Isles and what is now northern Germany.
Soon it began to be influenced by the new Christian faith. As such, the Old Norse religion was a religion that saw a fluidity of old and new traditions, influences, and practices.
Whilst many of the gods stemmed from Germanic paganism (Odin was, of course, the Germanic god Wodin...just with a Norse spin), as Christianity slowly permeated Viking societies, so too did the Old Norse religion.
Certain aspects of Jesus Christ, the Christian messiah, took on a very Viking spin. The Christian message was molded, by missionaries, to appeal to people in Viking societies.
They pointed out the similarity of relationships between Thor and Odin and Jesus and God, how the biblical Armageddon sounds very much like Ragnarök and depicted Jesus as a warrior god who will not only defeat evil and smite enemies but also give eternal power to Viking rulers and elites.
This synthesis of the Old Norse religion and Christianity is, in part, one of the reasons why it took until the 12 and 13th centuries CE for the entire process of the Christianization of Scandinavia to be "complete."
In fact, in many areas where Viking societies had flourished, especially the Baltic region, Christian crusades were launched against "pagans" as late as the 14th century CE.
This synthesis of the old and new, of Germanic paganism, Norse influences, and the Christian faith was often at odds in an era where religious orthodoxy and intolerance were the norm, especially in the Christian world.
Did you know that Friday is named after Freyja, the goddess of love, fertility, and death? Illustration: The Viking Herald
8. Thank God its Freyja-Day
One of the most practical aspects of the Old Norse religion is that it has helped form the names of days of the week...in English.
The vast pantheon of Norse gods, brought over during the Viking conquests and settlement of the British Isles, mixed with other Germanic influences to produce some days of the week.
These days replaced the Roman-inspired deities, which still provide the basis for many romance languages' names for the days of the week. The names of the week in English, however, pay homage to the British Isles's proud Viking history.
Sunday – named after Sunna, the Norse goddess of the sun.
Monday – pays homage to the Norse god of the moon, and Sunna's brother, Manni.
Tuesday – named after the Norse god of war, Tyr.
Wednesday – named after the Germanic god Woden, who, in the Norse religion, was called Odin.
Thursday – honors everyone's favorite Hollywood Norse character, the Norse god of thunder, Thor.
Friday – is named after Freyja, the goddess of love, fertility, and death.
The only day of the week that kept its Roman name was Saturday, named after Saturn. There is a theory that this was the day of washing and cleaning in Viking societies, so they decided to keep it as Saturn was also the Roman god of renewal.
9. It survives today!
Adherents of the Old Norse religion still walk among us today. Whilst the religion was famously an oral tradition and left us no great works of scripture or written spiritual guidelines, the past half-century has seen a surge in the neo-pagan religion of Ásatrú (Icelandic for "loyalty to the Æsir," one grouping of the Old Norse gods) in Iceland.
This new heathen religious movement has seen a boom since the 1970s and is now the sixth-largest religion on the island nation. The organization of this religion is based upon Viking Age structures, with one high priest (Allsherjargoði) overseeing the many priests (Goði) responsible for a congregation in a geographic area.
There is no missionary work or proselytizing (perhaps explaining part of its popularity, no one likes to be told why their belief system is morally wrong and another is superior), and all ceremonies are open to the public.
Each of these ceremonies normally revolves around a seasonal or solar event (the summer solstice, the winter solstice, the first day of spring, and the first day of winter) and is called a blót...with much less blood than the Viking version, though.
The current Allsherjargoði is even a paid public servant and has even helped organize several albums for the Iceland post-rock band Sigur Rós.
The Conversation has published a recent article on the current popularity of the Old Norse religion, myths, and legends, available to read here.
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