24 February 2015

The Religion of the Vikings

This article has been excerpted by Medievlists from a 2005 article of the same title from Viking Heritage Magazine. Unfortunately that excellent magazine is no longer published - I still miss the great archaeology that was regularly featured therein.

As always with any Medievalists post that I feature here, you can read the full article in the source publication, and I recommend that you do. The title link will get you there. (Ed.)

Choosing Heaven: The Religion of the Vikings
By Gun Westholm
Viking Heritage Magazine, Vol. 3 (2005)
Picture stone with snake motif from Martebo church. Photo Raymond Hejdström.
Introduction: When the Viking Age began in about 750 AD, Scandinavia was among the last of the heathen outposts in Europe along with the Baltic, Russian and Slavic areas east of the Elbe. Christianity had slowly spread from the Middle East, Egypt, the Roman Empire and the Byzantium area (4th century), to the realm of the Franks and, during the 6th century, further to England and Ireland. Parts of the Germanic area were Christianised during 7th century, and in the middle of 8th century the large Carolingian kingdom was created forming a cohesive Christian area from Italy in the South to the Slavonian region in North.

In Scandinavia belief in the Aesir gods was the prevailing religion before the Christian message slowly won territory during 11th century. Many believe that the religion of the Vikings arose as a unique phenomenon in northern Europe.

But the Aesir cult was a warrior religion that had several equivalents in both Europe and Asia, religions that had replaced other much earlier, peaceful beliefs with clear ties to agriculture and fertility. In these very old forms of religion, the chief god was often of the female sex – Mother Earth – and a good yearly crop and high yields from the livestock were the main purpose for worship.

Female goddesses dominated Europe’s and Asia’s religious beliefs until approximately 5000 BC, then a slow change seems to have begun. The fertile areas of the plains people were taken over by warlike nomads and cattle herders from the mountain regions. These tribes had male chief gods who honoured warring activities and warriors who had fallen in battle. Later on some of the war gods came to be called Zeus, Jahve and Odin.

Outside Scandinavia, Odin was called Wodan/Wotan among the Germanic tribes, Godan among the Langobardi and Woden in England. Both Woden and Donar – Thor – are mentioned as early as the 6th century on the continent. Odin and Zeus have many common qualities, as do their respective wives Frigg and Hera. There are also resemblances between other Aesir gods and the Greek gods of Antiquity.

17 February 2015

Medieval Texts Colour our Knowledge About Odin

As a follow-up to my previous blog on the Norse gods, here's an article from Denmark on the god Odin that you might find of interest. (Ed.)

Medieval texts colour our knowledge about Odin
June 20, 2012 - 08:31
Researchers disagree on the Viking Age conceptions of the god Odin. The source material is ambiguous and difficult to interpret.

Odin with his two ravens, Hugin and Munin (Illustration from a 19th century document. The Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland)

Today, the general conception of Odin is that of the one-eyed chief of the Norse gods. However, when it comes to the general conception that was prevalent in the Viking age, researchers disagree.
As there are no contemporary source texts to the pre-Christian religion, researchers need to use medieval sources. This has given rise to a multitude of interpretations.
The stories and texts that have been handed down from the Middle Ages are marked by the Christian way of thought that was characteristic of the time.
Because of this, it is exceptionally challenging for the researchers to estimate whether the information regarding the god can in fact be traced back to the Viking Age.
The different academic backgrounds of the researchers have also influenced the interpretations of the original Odin, as have the various research trends and methodologies that have come into play.
“Up until now, research history shows us that the method for understanding Odin has been wrong,” says Annette Lassen.
She holds a PhD in Norse Philology from the Department of Scandinavian Research at the University of Copenhagen and has recently published a book (available in Danish only) on the diverse representations of Odin found in medieval texts.
Up until now, research history shows us that the method for understanding Odin has been wrong.
Annette Lassen
In her analysis, she has reached the conclusion that researchers should weed out the Christian perception of Odin in order to arrive at the original conceptions of the god.
“Regarding medieval texts as a single, heathen text and extrapolating an image of Odin from this is not a viable option. The texts are very diverse,” she says.
Christian traditions have coloured the image of Odin
The medieval texts paint a picture of Odin. In the Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson’s (ca. 1178-1241) handbook for skalds, the Nordic chief deity is portrayed as a skaldic god.
Other texts present him as a war god, while others still depict him as a devilish figure.
Some sources know him as an immortal Father of the Universe, resembling the Christian God, while others see him swallowed by the wolf in Ragnarok, or dying from old age as an immigrant nobleman in Sweden. 
The texts vary, partly because they are drawing upon Christian traditions, and partly because the writers have different intentions with their texts.
“The description of Odin is tied in with the Christian model of interpretation employed by the writer,” she says.
Basing a thesis about the pre-Christian Odin on a series of elements from medieval texts about Odin presupposes an interest in whether those elements come from Christian ideas.
Annette Lassen
According to Lassen, there are a number of different Christian models of interpretation for dealing with heathenism, dating back to the early Church:
  1. The writer presents heathen gods as heroic figures who have been mistaken for gods by the heathens.
  2. The gods are described as demons. Demons could inhabit statues of the heathen gods, which were worshipped by the heathens.
  3. Heathen worship is described as a misinterpretation of Christianity. In the Biblical story about the tower of Babel, God prevents the builders from speaking to one another by dividing the original language into several different ones. According to the medieval version, the original and ‘true’ language (Hebrew) was forgotten and with it also the original and true God. In this way, the misinterpreted versions of the ‘true’ faith were spread.
A call for circumspection
According to Lassen, once the Christian way of thought has been identified, not much information is left about Odin in the old sources.
She says that while archaeologists and historians of religion may not necessarily agree with this, there is not likely to be anyone disagreeing that it is necessary to analyse the Christian additions, before starting to look into the original Viking Age conception of Odin.
“My aim with the book was to focus on the Medieval Odin figure, clarify the extent to which Christianity has shaped our ideas of heathenism and demonstrate that this calls for circumspection, but also to come up with a method that other researchers can use,” she says.
“Basing a thesis about the pre-Christian Odin on a series of elements from medieval texts about Odin presupposes an interest in whether those elements come from Christian ideas.
“That doesn’t mean that the myths about Odin are lost. The stories exist, and they are as entertaining and interesting as ever. It just turns out that they are a fascinating product of the meeting between heathenism and Christianity,” she says.
“Mythology is probably always like that. Something can always be added to it, and it never exists in any pure form.”
Country Denmark
Translated by
Iben Gøtzsche Thiele

05 February 2015

A Quick Guide to Norse Gods

The following excerpt from Medievalists.net contains a compilation of links to other articles that they have posted on Norse gods that I think you will find interesting. (Ed.)

The Norse pantheon includes some very interesting characters. This is a little guide to get you started about learning who these gods and goddesses were. The images are from manuscripts dating between the 16th to 18th centuries, among the earliest depictions we have these deities.

Learn more about the Norse gods: