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The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia




Chapter 4

Ceremonies and Ministers of Religion

With regard to the rites of the old Scandinavian religion a considerable amount of information has been preserved, although mainly relating to one part of the subject, the offering of sacrifice. It is clear that this was the central feature in the worship of the gods, and the great means towards propitiating their favour or averting their displeasure. Hence the verb blóta, which was the distinctive word for worshipping the heathen gods, very frequently (if not usually) implies the accompaniment of sacrifice; and the noun blót similarly means either the act of worship or that of sacrifice. In the case of the verb, the object of worship stands in the accusative case, the thing sacrificed in the dative, the original sense being 'to worship (the gods) with something.' In this killing of living things as an offering to the divine powers lay one of the most obvious differences between the old religion and the new, and it is consequently one which holds a prominent place in the accounts of the struggle between heathenism and Christianity. One of the first objects aimed at by the kings who adopted the new faith was the suppression of the practice in every form, while the adherents of the old religion clung to it tenaciously as long as they could. Even after Christianity was the established religion of Norway, it was still thought necessary to remind the people that all blót were forbidden, whether to 'the heathen gods, mounds, or sacred cairns.' Here and in other passages where the word is similarly employed, it may be assumed that sacrifices are to be thought of as an essential part of the heathen worship.

Sacrifice might be offered either by individuals on their own account, or by some prominent man on behalf of the community. It was, indeed, the duty of the latter to 'keep up the sacrifices,' on which the public peace and prosperity were believed largely to depend. The king as head of his people was essentially bound to maintain this religious rite, and the adoption of Christianity by the Norwegian kings naturally brought them into direct collision with the national feeling on this point. When King Hákon in 952 proposed that his subjects should worship Christ, give up the heathen gods and the sacrifices to them, and keep holy each seventh day, he was met by the reply that they desired him rather to follow the custom of his father, and 'sacrifice for peace and plenty to them.' On the other hand, the importance attached to the practice by the more religious among the people is shown in the case of Loft the Old, who emigrated to Iceland from Gaular in Norway. He 'went abroad every third summer on his own account and that of his uncle Flosi, to sacrifice at that temple in Gaular of which his mother's father, Thorbjörn, had been the custodian.'

The extent to which the common people shared in the expense attendant on such sacrifices seems to have varied according to circumstances. In some cases the offering was a collective one; in others some great man showed his wealth and munificence by providing it entirely from his own resources. Probably the latter course was somewhat exceptional, as Snorri says of Earl Sigurd that 'he did a thing that was widely famed: he made a great sacrificial feast at Hladir, and stood all the expense of it himself.' This he confirms by citing a verse from a poem in praise of Sigurd, composed by the Icelandic poet Kormak. Otherwise, he states, 'it was the old custom, when there was to be a sacrifice, that all the householders should come to the place where the temple was, and bring there the provisions they would require while the festival lasted.' According to Adam of Bremen, too, the great festival which was celebrated every nine years at Upsala was maintained by contributions from the whole Swedish people, and attendance at it was compulsory; even those who had adopted Christianity were only exempted on payment of a fine. The national character of the festival is also certified by Snorri, who calls it the 'chief blót,' and says it was held to obtain peace and victory for the Swedish king. 

The actual sacrifice consisted in the killing of various animals, usually oxen, horses, sheep, or swine, but on special occasions even human beings were offered to the gods. At the great Upsala festival, according to Adam's account, nine male animals of each kind were offered, as well as men; and a Christian eye-witness reported having seen seventy-two carcasses of slaughtered men and beasts (dogs and horses) suspended together from the trees of the sacred grove adjoining the temple. Whether this custom of hanging up the bodies of the offerings was practised elsewhere in Scandinavia is unknown, but the connection between Odin and death by hanging makes it probable that it was more widely known than appears. In Denmark also human victims were offered along with animals; according to Thietmar's chronicle the great gathering in this country took place at Lejre (near Roskilde in Sjćlland) every nine years, in the month of January. The sacrifice here consisted of ninety-nine men and as many horses, dogs, and cocks (the latter being offered in place of hawks). How the victims were selected or obtained is not stated; but it is probable that they were usually captives taken in war, criminals or thralls. In Sweden, indeed, strangers appear to have run some risk of being selected as victims; in 997 the Icelandic poet Hallfred nearly met with this fate. In early times, however, the Swedes were credited with having burned one of their kings in his own house as an offering to Odin, in order to dispel a famine which they believed was due to his slackness in maintaining the sacrifices. One of the early kings was also reported to have offered up nine of his sons in succession to Odin, to obtain long life for himself. In an account of the heathen period in the isle of Gotland, which is given in Guta Saga, it is said that 'they sacrificed their sons and daughters and their cattle. All the land had its highest sacrifices with folk (=human beings), as also had each third (of the country) by itself; but the smaller districts had lesser sacrifices with cattle.'

In Norway and Iceland human sacrifices appear to have been more exceptional, and only resorted to in extreme cases. The usual nature of the victims is clearly indicated by the words assigned to King Olaf Tryggvason in 998, when he found his subjects obstinate in their determination to hold the midsummer blót. He then threatened 'to make it the greatest kind of sacrifice that is in use, and offer up men; and I will not choose thralls or criminals, but will select the most distinguished men to give to the gods.' At the very crisis of the conflict between paganism and Christianity in Iceland, in the year 1000, the adherents of the old religion resolved to sacrifice two men out of each quarter, and 'called upon the heathen gods not to let Christianity overrun the country.' Then Hjalti and Gizur held a meeting of the Christians, and said that they would also make an offering of as many men. 'The heathens,' they said, 'sacrifice the worst men, and cast them over rocks or cliffs; but we shall choose the best men, and call it a gift for victory to our Lord Jesus Christ.' Various methods appear to have been in use besides that mentioned here; at Thorsness, in the west of Iceland, tradition long pointed out the 'doom-ring,' in which men had been adjudged for sacrifice, and the stone within it---called Thor's stone---on which they were killed by being broken, ' and the stain of blood is still to be seen on it.' Another source speaks of human victims as having been sunk in a fen close to the temple on Kjalarness, which is supported by Adam of Bremen's statement that near the temple of Upsala was a fountain in which 'a living man' was immersed. A 'sacrificial pit' is also mentioned in Vatnsdćla Saga, where one Thorolf was believed to sacrifice both men and cattle. That in exceptional cases the victim may have been of higher standing than the thrall or criminal is possible enough; as late as 985 Earl Hákon in Norway is credited with having given his young son as an offering to Thorgerd, when he prayed to her for victory over the vikings of Jómsborg. In other cases, such as that of Hallstein, who 'gave his son to Thor' in order that the god might send him pillars for his house, the language is ambiguous, and may imply dedication rather than sacrifice. When the sacrifice consisted of animals which might be used for human food, it was apparently only the blood which was regarded as belonging to the gods. To this was given the name of hlaut, and it has already been stated (p. 41) that special bowls were kept to receive it in. It was then smeared or sprinkled by means of twigs, not only upon the altars and the walls of the temples (both outside and in), but also upon the assembled people. The flesh was then boiled in large pots over the fires which burned in the middle of the temple, and was eaten by the worshippers, after being consecrated by the chief man present. A prominent feature, at least of the more important festivals, was the use of horse-flesh for this purpose---a practice so intimately associated with heathenism that its abandonment was strictly prescribed to those who accepted Christianity. This appears in the strongest light in the case of Hákon the Good, who was finally forced to appease his heathen subjects by eating some pieces of horse-liver. In Iceland, however, it was permitted for a few years after the new faith was publicly adopted.


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