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The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia




Chapter 1

The Great Gods: Thor and Odin

In common with the other Aryan races, the ancient Scandinavians recognised, as the basis of their religion, certain supernatural, usually unseen, powers ruling the world and exercising an influence on the affairs of mankind. In the ideas which prevailed as to the nature of these powers certain correspondences can be clearly traced in the various Aryan religions, in spite of the fact that our knowledge of them dates from widely different periods of history. Even the Romans, when they came into contact with the Germanic races, noticed some of the similarities, and applied the names of several of their own deities to the corresponding figures among the barbarian gods. When closer intercourse between Roman and German had established itself, the result of these equations was made prominent in the names adopted by the latter for the days of the week, several of which, in most of the Germanic tongues, still bear witness to the old religion of the race. Thus the counterpart of the Roman Mars was found in the god Tiw, and consequently dies Martis was rendered by forms now represented in English by Tuesday. In the same way the Roman Mercurius, Jupiter, and Venus were identified with the Germanic gods called by the English Wden, Thunor, and Frg, whence the names of Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. In making these equations, of course, neither German nor Roman did more than consider the most obvious points of resemblance between the deities; how close the correspondence actually was in each case it is impossible to say, as we know so little of the precise form which the native religion had among the southern Germans. It is only to a certain extent that the details suggested by these translations of the Roman names are supported by the evidence from the Scandinavian side, but it is extremely probable that some of the more striking discrepancies are due to difference in time as well as in place and people.

The three gods and the goddess whose names are thus commemorated in the days of the week hold also a prominent place among the Scandinavian deities, where they appear under the names of Ty (Tr), Odin (Oinn), Thor (rr), and Frigg. But while Odin and Thor actually hold the place which they might be expected to occupy as objects of worship, the warlike deity Ty has apparently become of secondary importance. This is indicated not only by the native Scandinavian evidence, but also by what can be gleaned from external sources. In an Old English sermon (1) by the Abbot lfric, about the year 1000, the mention of some of the Roman deities leads the preacher to introduce the corresponding Danish names. Jove or Jupiter, he says 'was called Thor among some peoples, and him the Danes love most of all.' Mercury, too, 'was honoured among all the heathens, and he is otherwise called Othon in Danish.' Of Ty there is no mention, although Mars is one of the Roman deities specified by name. In another homily by lfric there is the same identification of Thor and Odin, along with 'the foul goddess Venus, whom men call Frigg,' but here also Ty is ignored.

More than merely negative evidence, however, is supplied by another outside source, which is the leading contemporary account of Scandinavian religion, viz. that given by the German historian, Adam of Bremen (about the year 1075), in his description of the great temple of the Swedes at Upsala, and of the gods worshipped there. Here he writes, 'the people venerate the statues of three gods, so placed that the most powerful of them, Thor, has his seat in the middle of the bench. On either side of him Wodan and Fricco have their places. Of these the significations are as follows. Thor, they say, presides in the air, and governs thunder and lightning, winds and rains, fair weather and crops. The next, Wodan, that is "Fury," carries on wars and gives men valour against their enemies. The third is Fricco, bestowing peace and pleasure upon mortals.' The image of Wodan, he adds, resembled that of the Roman Mars; that of Thor suggested Jupiter, while Fricco was represented in a form resembling the minor deity Priapus.

The god here called Fricco was known to the Scandinavians themselves by the name of Frey (Freyr), and that the triad thus specified by Adam were in fact the chief deities worshipped in the later stages of Scandinavian religion is abundantly proved by the native evidence. The identification of Odin with Mars in place of Mercury is also in full accordance with the later beliefs: in other words, Odin has taken the place of Ty as the chief war-god. Whether this was the main reason for the admission of Frey as third member of the supreme triad is uncertain, the earlier position of this god being altogether unknown. Thor, it will be noticed, still retains his place as the counterpart of the Roman Jupiter, and stands between the other two gods, as being the most powerful. The precise relationship, however, between Thor and Odin is not by any means so simple as this statement would suggest, and forms indeed one of the most difficult questions connected with the subject. This will be most clearly brought out by a detailed account of the relative place assigned to each of them in religious practice on the one hand, and in mythological accounts on the other; and the most correct impression of the facts will probably be obtained by dealing first with Thor.

The pre-eminence assigned to this god by lfric and Adam of Bremen is quite in accordance with what can fairly be inferred from the native historical sources. A considerable number of passages in the sagas yield combined proof that by the people at large Thor was regarded as the chief deity, at least in Norway and Iceland: for Sweden and Denmark the evidence is less conclusive, but seems to point in the same direction. It is of great significance, for example, that in all the Scandinavian countries the name of Thor is the one which is most frequently used as a formative element in the names of persons (such as Thorkell, Stein-thor), and these were evidently quite as common in Sweden and Denmark as in Norway and Iceland. On the other hand, the name of Odin is scarcely ever employed, only one or two instances being found among the Danes and Swedes. Names with Frey-as their first element are more frequent, but are in small proportion compared with those in Thor-. In Danish and Swedish place-names, too, the predominance of Thor is very marked, although Odin and Frey are better represented here than in the case of the personal names. In Norway and Iceland place-names of this kind are rare, but Thorsness and Thorsmark occur in the latter country. The frequency with which Thor's hammer (see below) is represented on Danish and Swedish runic monuments, and the occurrence on ancient Danish stones of the formula 'May Thor hallow this monument' (or 'these runes'), also indicate that the position of the deity was much the same among all the branches of the Scandinavian people. In Denmark, too, there are distinct traces of a tendency to hold local assemblies on the day named after the god; in Iceland this was the day on which the famous Al-thing (the legal and legislative assembly of the whole people) began every year, ten weeks after the first day of summer, and in Norway the great lawassembly of the western districts also began its meetings on a Thursday.

For Norway and Iceland there is a considerable amount of more direct evidence than this. In several of the Icelandic historical writings it is expressly stated that some of the leading colonists had a special regard for Thor and his worship. Of one who came from the island of Mostr, on the south-western coast of Norway, it is told that he had the custody of Thor's temple there, and was a 'great friend' of the god, on which account he was called Thorolf (= Thor-wolf). This Thorolf fell out with King Harald, and went to inquire of Thor, 'his loving friend,' whether he should make terms with the king or leave the country. The oracle directed him to go to Iceland. He pulled down the temple, and took with him most of the timber, as well as the earth from under the pedestal on which Thor had been seated. On coming to Iceland, he threw overboard the two chief pillars of the temple, on one of which the image of Thor was carved, and declared he would settle wherever Thor made these come ashore. After landing on the south side of Broadfirth, they found that Thor had come ashore with the pillars on a headland, to which they then gave the name of Thor's-ness, while a river in the neighbourhood was also named after the god. When this Thorolf had a son in his old age, he gave him to his friend Thor, and called him Thorstein. Thorstein also gave his own son to Thor, 'and said he should be a temple-priest, and called him Thorgrim.' Another son of Thorolf's sacrificed to Thor, that he might send him pillars for his house, 'and gave his son for this,' which probably means that he also dedicated his son to the god, though one account appears to imply that he actually offered him in sacrifice.

Of another settler, Helgi the Lean, who was brought up in Ireland, it is stated that when he came in sight of Iceland, he inquired of Thor where he should land; the oracle directed him to Eyafirth, and would allow him to go nowhere else. Before they came in sight of the firth, Helgi's son asked him whether he would have obeyed Thor's directions if he had sent him to winter in the Arctic Ocean. Yet Helgi was not absolutely devoted to Thor, as he also believed in Christ, and even called his Icelandic homestead by the name of Christness. It was to Thor, however, that he turned for aid in sea-faring and difficult enterprises, and in all matters that he considered to be of most importance.

Thorolf and Helgi were not the only settlers who allowed Thor to fix the place of their habitation in Iceland, and one in the south of the island also consecrated all his land to Thor and called it Thor's-mark. The tendency to appeal to Thor for help in time of need is further illustrated by an incident recorded as having taken place during the Wineland expedition of 1007-8. The explorers were in great straits for want of food, and had prayed for help, which seemed long in coming. One of the party, named Thorhall, was found by the others on the peak of a cliff, looking up to the sky, and muttering something, besides making strange gestures of which he would give no explanation. Shortly afterwards a whale came ashore, and Thorhall said, 'The red-bearded one was stronger now than your Christ. I have got this for my poetry that I made about Thor. He has seldom failed me.'

This contrasting of Thor with Christ is a trait which appears in other narratives, and is significant of the place which the god held in the old religion. In the struggle between heathenism and Christianity in the Scandinavian countries it is usually Thor, the red-bearded one, who is the champion of the primitive faith and its most powerful representative. The cases in which Odin takes this place have a much more legendary character, and are more likely to be due to later invention. It was Thor whom the believers in the old faith expressly put forward as a rival to the God of the Christians. In the early part of the eleventh century, when King Olaf Haraldsson was doing his utmost to christianise Norway, the following words are represented as having been spoken by a powerful chief named Gudbrand: 'There is come hither a man named Olaf to offer us another faith than the one we had, and to break all our gods in pieces, and he says that he has a greater and mightier god. It is a marvel that the earth does not open under him when he dares to say such things, and that our gods let him go any further. I expect, if we carry Thor out of our temple where he stands, and where he has always stood by us, that as soon as he looks on Olaf and his men, then his god and himself and his men will melt away and come to naught.' So also when Thangbrand the priest went to Iceland on his missionary enterprise in 997, he met a woman who preached heathendom to him at great length, and asked him, 'Have you not heard that Thor challenged Christ to single combat, and He dared not fight with Thor?' When Thangbrand's ship was destroyed by a violent storm, it was to Thor that the credit of the accident was assigned.


1. Based upon the Latin discourse De correctione rusticorum, by Martin of Bracara, who died in 580.

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