This northern branch of Germanic religion, developed from the 1st century BCE, was mostly transmitted through an oral culture. 

The act of prayer was how Vikings, as mortals, tried to transcend the human world to get direct contact with the great pantheon of Norse gods and goddesses.

READ MORE: Here's what you need to know about Norse mythology

What was "Norse Paganism," and did everyone living in Viking societies practice it?

Germanic paganism was a series of religious practices and beliefs that developed from the 5th century BCE onwards amongst Germanic peoples. 

A vital part of Germanic culture, it soon spread northward and developed into what scholars have called "Norse Paganism" or the "Old Norse religion" from the first few centuries CE. This northern branch saw a religion that was polytheistic with a belief in a pantheon of gods and goddesses.

Aside from these deities, a plethora of other magical entitles (from jötnar to dwarves) inhabit nine worlds (of which humans live on only one – Midgard) and several afterlife realms. 

Thanks, in part to the latest film adaption of the Marvel Thor comic books, Norse paganism has permeated into popular culture with Norse gods like Odin, Thor, and Loki (in their Hollywood form) commonly known.

Daily religious life involved a variety of ritual sacrifices (blót), both public and private. Remnants of huge pagan temples – often mentioned in the sagas – have been uncovered in Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. 

The most magnificent temple of Norse paganism, if we are to believe later medieval authors Adam of Bremen and Snorri Sturluson, was found at Uppsala in Sweden. Some archaeological evidence of this has been uncovered over the past century.

Was every Viking a pagan?

This northern branch of Germanic paganism, steeped in ritual sacrifice and worship, dominated the Viking's homeland in Scandinavia and the surrounding region. 

Yet Norse paganism was not the only religion that was practiced throughout areas where Vikings raided, roamed, or put down roots.

In the far north of what is now Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, the Samí had spiritual beliefs based upon shamanism and animism. Every intimate object – be it a deer or a rock – had an intimate soul.

In the Baltic region and Eastern Europe, where many Slav peoples lived, they also had their own form of paganism separate and different from Norse paganism.

Somewhat similar to the Christianization of Scandinavia, Christian missionaries set about proselytizing between the 7th to 12th centuries CE, with Kyiv becoming the center of Eastern Christianity in the Slavic world, second only to Byzantium further south.

It was, however, the Christian faith that was the dominant religion, in the Viking world, for much of the latter early medieval period. In fact, the start of the so-called "Viking Age" is usually signaled by a Viking raid on a Christian monastery on the English island of Lindisfarne in 793 CE.

Christianity and the Vikings

Further south, Christian missionaries had been flooding to Scandinavia from, at least, the very early 8th century CE. 

Some scholars have argued that the Christianization of Scandinavia, from the 8th to 12th centuries CE, was the driving force between a few separate and spare rural Viking communities transforming into the medieval kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

Though many peoples in Viking societies did convert to Christianity, it took generations before this conversion meant little more than a dip in the river. 

For many people, the Christian God was simply added to the pantheon of Norse gods, alongside Thor and Odin, and pagan spiritual practices and beliefs were to be found in Christian worship right up into the 13 and 14th centuries CE.

As the so-called "Viking Age" progressed, the Christianization of Scandinavia became a driving force for religious and spiritual activity in Northern Europe. 

Denmark was the first country to "become" Christian, with Viking king Harald Bluetooth converting in approx. 975 CE. Yet it would take over another century to establish an archdiocese there in 1104 CE, whilst Norway (1154 CE) and Sweden (1164 CE) would take even longer.

This synthesis of Christianity and paganism can best be exemplified in Lund. Where once the city housed a great pagan temple following the Christianization of Sweden, it would become the ecclesiastical center of the country. 

Once the temple was destroyed by King Inge the Eder in the 1080s, it wouldn't be long until the city had a new temple of (Christian) worship with Lund Cathedral – which is one of the country's most impressive and historically important - starting construction from the 13th century CE.

Worship of the Norse gods often involved rituals. Illustration: The Viking Herald

How did Vikings worship?

Aside from the growing influence of the Christian faith throughout the Viking Age, many peoples in Viking societies clung to their pagan beliefs. Scholars have pointed out that Norse pagans did not try and speak with prayers of repetition like those that practiced Christianity.

There was no conversational tone of prayer with any of the pantheon of Norse gods, whether Thor, Odin, or Freya, which was starkly different from how Christians prayed to their one God.

Worship of the Norse gods often involved rituals that included giving offerings, feasting (especially drinking!), praising (flattery, it seems, would get a Viking somewhere in the afterlife), or, most disturbingly, making sacrifices. 

Worshippers in Viking societies would often offer their blot to either the God/s or their ancestors and would involve an elaborate ceremony that normally ended with a great feast, including the drinking of mead.

Humans were the most precious sacrifice that could be made to please, or appease, the Norse gods. There has been archaeological evidence found at Trelleborg, in Demark, of a sacrificial site housing the remains of five humans, including children as young as 4.

The pagan temple at Uppsala, if we are to believe Adam of Bremen, was the scene of a gruesome communal festival every nine years. In it, nine males of "every living creature" were offered up for sacrifice, and the corpses hung on trees near the temple, including humans, horses, and dogs.

But what about "Viking prayers?"

The act of prayer, as we understand it today, is somewhat of a Christian invention. Norse pagans did try to communicate with the Norse gods, but not in the same way as Christians do. Often a god was called upon after an offering or sacrifice was made. An offering, commonly mead, was seen as a sign of devotion of the worshiper to that particular god.

Chanting and poems were also a huge part of Norse paganism. Odin was said to love poems, so there is a wide literature of Old Norse poems and dedications to the gods. In fact, one of the best accounts we have of Viking prayer is from the 10th century CE. Arab traveler, diplomat, and scholar Ibn Fadlan. Upon encountering a Rus trader praying for a good market, he observed:

"When the ships come to this mooring place, everybody goes ashore with bread, meat, onions, milk, and intoxicating drink and betakes himself to a long upright piece of wood that has a face like a man's and is surrounded by little figures, behind which are long stakes in the ground. The Rus prostrates himself before the big carving and says, "O my Lord, I have come from a far land and have with me such and such a number of girls and such and such a number of sables", and he proceeds to enumerate all his other wares. Then he says, "I have brought you these gifts," and lays down what he has brought with him, and continues, "I wish that you would send me a merchant with many dinars and dirhems, who will buy from me whatever I wish and will not dispute anything I say." Then he goes away.

A modern revival?

According to a 2014 Washington Post article, Iceland seems to be a flourishing center of modern-day Norse paganism. The article stated that the Asatru Association, founded in 1972, a small religious sect devoted to Norse gods, had as many as 2,400 worshippers in its ranks. 

With all things Viking suddenly being very much in vogue, thanks to Hollywood movies and Netflix series, it should be no surprise that Norse paganism is also growing in popularity.

As a final thought, let us offer up a modern-day interpretation of a Norse prayer to Odin (this is, after all, a little bit less messy than a human sacrifice…)
 "All father 
 Make me fast and accurate
 Let my blade strike true
 Make my arm swifter than any who would seek to destroy me,
 Grant me victory over foes and when my death comes
 Let my final thought not be "If I had only…"
 but rather let the Halls of Valhalla ring with my name
 and let me die atop a mountain top of enemy corpses"

For more on Viking religious beliefs, read an article on it from BBC History Extra here.

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