The temple played an important part in the mixing of church and state affairs and, according to recent archaeological findings, was perhaps the biggest structure north of the Alps before its destruction in the late 11th century.
The Old Norse religion
Most peoples in Viking societies believed in the Old Norse religion, sometimes referred to as Norse paganism. This religion can be traced back to when North Germanic peoples (modern-day Nordic peoples) separated from Germanic peoples sometime shortly before the "fall" of the (Western) Roman Empire, in the first few centuries CE.
The Old Norse religion was polytheistic, and their gods and goddesses were broadly divided into two warring groups: the Æsir and the Vanir. Thor, Odin, and Freya are perhaps the best-known gods and goddesses from this religion, but it was also full of mythical creatures too, including giants, elves, and spirits.
There were also various realms and realities that existed alongside the human world, with a world tree (Yggdrasil) at the center of Norse cosmology.
Religion was heavily centered on oral practices rather than codified texts. Powerful rulers – such as kings or chiefs – played an important part in the ritual practice of public acts of sacrifice. There was an element of shamanistic sorcery (Seiðr) practiced, too, and various types and forms of burial and cremation. The arrival of Christianity into the Scandinavian peninsula, from the 8th century CE onwards, would prove the death knell for this religion, and it eventually died out by the 12th century CE. Elements of it, however, live on in Scandinavian folklore, myths, and legends.
A temple at Uppsala: Adam of Bremen's account
An Old Norse religious temple was said to have existed in Uppsala during the very early medieval period. The best description that has been passed down through the ages is from Adam of Bremen's seminal work, Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum. This is one of the most important sources of medieval history in Northern Europe but also paints a fascinating portrait of the temple, rich in detail. It also goes into depth about the Norse practices and religious beliefs during this period, before the Christianization of Scandinavia.
His description of the temple is one of the most interesting and famous excerpts from the Gesta. He writes:
In this temple, entirely decked out in gold, the people worship the statues of three gods in such wise that the mightiest of them, Thor, occupies a throne in the middle of the chamber; Wotan and Frikko have places on either side. (…) Thor, they say, presides over the air, which governs the thunder and lightning, the winds and rains, fair weather [and] crops. The other, Wotan – that is, Fury – carries on war and imparts to man strength against his enemies. The third is Frikko, who bestows peace and pleasure on mortals. His likeness, too, they fashion with an immense phallus.
Adam of Bremen thus confirms the existence of a famous temple, close to a town called Sigtuna. Not only is this temple "adorned with gold," but there is a three-seated throne with Odin, Thor, and Freya, all represented in statute form. Furthermore, each God has a priest appointed to their religious worship. If, for example, there is a famine, then a sacrifice will be made to Thor, whilst sacrifices for marriage and war were made to Freya and Odin, respectively. Interestingly, there appears to have been a nationwide gathering at the temple every nine years, where a communal festival is held. A huge golden chain, visible for miles, was said to surround the temple and hang over its entrance.
Near the temple, is a giant tree, which remains evergreen throughout the year. This tree is the center of ritual worship as nine males of every species are killed, and their blood is offered up as a ritual sacrifice. Their bodies are hung up off branches. This sight was, for Adam of Bremen, rather disgusting due to the fact that this "divine" tree was full of rotten and decaying corpses. Finally, the temple was nestled between hills giving it a sunken appearance, like that of an amphitheater.
Part of a page of Adam of Bremen's Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum. Author: Adam of Bremen / Public Domain
Destroyed by a Christian king
Like all medieval sources, Adam of Bremen's account of the temple at Uppsala has, at best, questionable reliability. What is interesting, however, is the time period in which the Gesta was compiled and the temple was destroyed – both in the late 11th century. Scholars generally agree that the Gesta was completed by 1076 CE – though some minor additions may have been added before his death in the early 1080s CE.
This was exactly the time that Swedish King Inge the Elder was said to have destroyed the temple due to his devotion to the new Christian faith. Inge the Elder stands out only for his religious devotion to this new religion but also for his harsh treatment of the pagans under his rule. He is said to have founded the first abbey in Sweden.
Adam of Bremen's description of the temple is thus relatively contemporaneous. This puts it at odds with much of what we know about Viking societies, as they often arise from sources written hundreds of years later. However, it should be noted that Adam of Bremen's description of the temple has some similarities with King Solomon's Temple as found in the Old Testament of the Bible. There is no doubt that such comparisons were made to please his master, the Bishop of Hamburg-Bremen, and thus the Catholic Church, for whom the Gesta was compiled.
Is there any archaeological evidence?
There have been archaeological excavations going on in Gamla Uppsala for the best part of a century to try and uncover any remains of the temple. So far, only three burial mounds and some postholes have been uncovered. In 2013, with the help of ground penetrating radar, two lines of large wooden poles were discovered.
One of the lines is over a kilometer long and consists of 144 poles. If extrapolated, this would give the structure a huge circumference and make it, according to one article in the Uppsala Nya Tidning newspaper, "one of the biggest structures north of the Alps."
Regardless of how big the temple was, it was an important focal point for the worship of the Old Norse religion. It continues to excite the imagination of academics, archaeologists, modern-day pagans, and lovers of the Viking Era today.
For a look at a recent Viking-era temple discovery in Norway, visit The Sun's website here.
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