The Northern Way

The Cult of Othin

Chapter 1

Page 1

The Cult of Othin in the North.

Allusions to sacrifices offered to Othin on the battlefield are frequent. These sacrifices however must be discussed together with other rites connected with the cult of Othin in time of war. Sacrifices under other circumstances are not unfrequently mentioned, but the god to whom the sacrifice was offered is not usually specified. In cases where it is distinctly stated that the sacrifice was offered to Othin, the victims are, so far as I am aware, always human. This however may be an accident as the number of examples is small. The most striking case is the sacrifice of king Vikar, which is recorded in Gautreks s. konungs c. 7 (F.A.S. III. p.31 ff.) and Saxo VI. p. 276 f. According to the account given in Gautreks Saga, Vikar's fleet was delayed by contrary winds. Having had recourse to divination, they find that Othin requires a man out of their company. The victim is to be chosen by lot and hanged. Selection by lot is therefore made throughout the host, and the lot falls on the king. After this the Saga goes on to the relate Starkaðr's vision in the forest (cf. p. 68 f.). At the conclusion of the discussion Hrosshársgrani (Othin) asks Starkaðr to reward him for the services which he has rendered him, and to this Starkaðr consents. Hrosshársgrani then says that he requires Vikar to be sent to him and instructs Starkaðr how this is to be done. He gives Starkaðr a javelin and tells him that this will appear to be a reed-cane. After this they return to the host, and the following morning the king's councillors meet to consider what is to be done. They all agree that the sacrifice should be carried out in form only, to which end Starkaðr proposes a plan. In the neighborhood was a fir tree and close by it a tall stump, over which a long thin branch hung down from the upper part of the tree. The servants were at the time preparing a meal, and had killed and cut up a calf. Starkaðr took some of the calf's entrails and, climbing on to the stump, pulled down the branch and tied the strings on to it. Then he said to the king, "Here is a gallows ready for you, O king, and I do not think it looks very dangerous." The king climbed on to the stump, and Starkaðr laid the noose round his neck and leaped down. Then he thrust against the king with his cane saying, "Now I give thee to Othin," and released the branch. The cane turned into a javelin and transfixed the king, the stump fell from beneath his feet, and the strings turned into strong withies; the branch flew back and sept the king into the tree-top, and there he died.

According to Ynglinga s. 29, Aun, king of Sweden, sacrificed to Othin for length of life, and obtained the answer that he should live so long as he sacrificed one of his sons every tenth year. In this way nine of his ten sons were sacrificed. Again, according to Ynlinga s. 47, there was a famine in the reign of Ólafr Trételgi, which the people attributed to the fact that Ólafr was not zealous in sacrificing. They therefore "burnt him in his house and gave him to Othin, sacrificing him that they themselves might have plenty." With this passage may be compared Hervarar s. ok Heiðreks konungs, c. 11, 12 (F.A.S. I. 451 ff.), which describes how a famine arose in Reiðgotaland during the reign of king Haraldr. It was found by divination that the famine could only be stopped by the sacrifice of the noblest youth in the land. It was unanimously agreed the Angantýr, son of Heiðrekr, was the person required. Heiðrekr took counsel to avoid this, and determined to offer the king with his son Halfdan and all their host as a sacrifice to Othin in place of his own son. He therefore attacked and slew them, and "had the temples reddened with the blood of Haraldr and Halfdan, and committed to Othin all the host that had fallen, as an offering for plenty in place of his son."

Besides these occasional sacrifices it is probable that sacrifices to Othin were offered also at certain fixed festivals, The heathen Scandinavians had three great annual sacrifices, which are thus described in Ynglinga s. 8: (1) í móti vetri til árs, at the approach of winter; (this sacrifice was) for plenty": (2) at miðirm vetri til gróðrar, "at midwinter for increase (of the crops)": (3) at sumri, þat var sigrblót, "at the beginning of summer; this was a sacrifice for victory." The first of these sacrifices was certainly connected with the worship of Frö; the second probably was that of Thor. It is probable also that the third of these sacrifices (sacrifice for victory) was associated with Othin. This is shown by the constant references to Othin as the giver of victory; by his name Sigtyr, "god of victory"; by sacrifices and vows made to Othin for victory in time of way, examples of which will be given in the following pages; lastly by the custom observed in the drinking of toasts, which is thus described in Hákonar s góða, c. 19: "It was customary first to drink Othin's toast for victory and for the glory of their king, and after that the toasts of Niordr and Frö for plenty and peace." Besides these annual festivals there were sacrifices on a great scale every nine years at Upsala and Leire, at which sacrifices of men together with various animals were offered. According to Schol. 137 to Adam of Bremen the sacrifice at Upsala took place about the spring equinox; it would coincide therefore with the annual sacrifice for victory. Consequently it is not unlikely that this sacrifice also was connected with the worship of Othin. At Leire indeed the corresponding sacrifice took place in January. It is possible however that the arrangement of the annual sacrifices in Denmark was not the same as in Norway and Sweden.

According to Adam of Bremen IV. 27 sacrifice was offered by the Swedes to Othin on the approach of war. It seems to have been at one time a common practice to sacrifice notable prisoners taken at war. In the account of the battle in Egils s. ok Ásmundar c. 8 (F.A.S. III. p. 379) it is stated that "all Ásmundr’s men had fallen and he was himself taken prisoner; it was then evening; they had decided to slay him on the morrow at Aran's tomb, and give him to Othin that they might themselves have victory; (gefa hann Óðni til sigrs sér). The same phrase is used in Orkn. saga c. 8, where it is related that Ragnar's sons captured Ella and put him to death by cutting the "blood-eagle" upon his back (cf. Ragnars s Loðbrókar, c. 18; Saxo IX p. 463). It is probable also that the hanging of captured enemies was regarded as a sacrifice to Othin. This custom is frequently mentioned, especially in stories which deal with the reign of Iormunrekr (cf. p. 17)

The dedication of an enemy's army to Othin before the commencement of a battle must have also been regarded as a sacrificial act. According to Eyrbyggia s. 44 it was the custom in ancient times to shoot a javelin over the enemy's army, in order to turn the luck in one's own favour. That this custom was connected with the cult of Othin is shown by the following examples: In Hervarar s. ok Heiðreks c. 18 (F.A.S. I. 501), before the battle between the Reiðgotar and Huns, Gizr rode up the Huns' army and said: "Your king is panic-stricken, your leader is doomed, ...Othin is wroth with you; ... may Othin let the dart fly according to my words." So also in Styrbiarnar þáttr c.2; Before his battle with Styrbiorn Eirekr went into Othin's temple and devoted himself to die after ten years, if he might obtain the victory; shortly afterwards he saw a tall man with a long hood, who gave him a cane and told him to shoot it over Styrbiorn's army with these words: "Ye all belong to Othin." This example is remarkable because the battle is a historical event and seems to have taken place about 960-970 (cf. Saxo x. p. 479). According to the Saga af Haralki Gráfeld c. 11, Eirekr died ten years after Styrbiorn's fall. With the phrase "Ye all belong to Othin" may be compared Saxo VII. p. 361, where it is stated that Haraldus (i.e. Haraldr Hilditonn, king of Denmark) had acquired the favour of Othin to such an extent that the latter granted him immunity from wounds in war. In return for this Haraldus "is said to have promised to Othin the souls which he ejected from their bodies by the sword."

According the Saxo VIII. p. 390 Haraldus repeated this vow in his last fight, in order that he might obtain the victory against Ringo (i.e. Sigurðr Hringr). In the Sogubrot af Fornkonungum, c. 8 (F.A.S. I. 380) the words of this bow are given as follows: "I give to Othin (gef ek Oðni) all the host which falls in this battle." It is noticeable that this is the sacrificial formula (cf. p. 4). Again, according to Saxo IX. p. 446, Syuardus (i.e. Sigurdhr orm i auga, son of Ragnar Loðbrók) was so severely wounded that the physicians despaired of his life, when a certain man of immense size approached his couch and promised to restore him to health forthwith "if he would devote to him the souls of those whom he should destroy in war." He declared that his name was Rostarus.

But further, the slaying of an enemy in battle under ordinary circumstances seems to have been regarded as a sacrifice to Othin. This is shown by a verse in Skaldskaparmal, c.1, attributed to Thióðolfr: "There lay the dead on the sand, allotted to Frigg's one-eyed husband; we rejoiced at such a deed." With this may be compared Islendinga s.I p. 307, where Helgi after killing Thorgrimr in battle sings: "I have given the brave son of Thormóðr to Othin; we have offered him as a sacrifice to the ruler of the gallows, and his corpse to the raven." In this passage the phrase "give to Othin" is practically equivalent to "slay in battle." In like manner the phrases "go to Othin" and "receive Othin's hospitality" are used as equivalent to "be slain in battle," e.g. in Ragnars s. Loðbrokar, c. 9 (F.A.S. I. 265), when Aslaug hears of her son's death, she says: -- "Rognvaldr began to stain his shield with the blood of men; he, the youngest of my sons, in his terrible valour has come to Othin."

In Hrómundar s. Greipssonar, c. 2 (F.A.S. II.366), Kari, when mortally wounded, says to the king: --"Farewell, I am going to be Othin's guest." So also in the account of the fight between Hialmar and Oddr and the twelve "berserkir" in Hervarar s. ok Heiðreks, c. 5 (F.A.S. I. 422 f.), Hialmar says to Oddr: "It seems to me very likely that we shall all be Othin's guests in Valholl to-night.: Oddr answers: "It is not I who shall be Othin's guest to-night, but they will all be dead before night comes, and we shall be alive." In the verse the dialogue runs thus: H. "We two brave warriors shall be Othin's guests this evening, but those twelve will live." O. "They will be Othin's guests this evening, the twelve berserkir, but we two shall live." The synonymous phrase í Valholl gista ('lodge in Valholl') occurs in Hrolfs s. Kraka 51 (F.A.S. I. 106).

It has already been pointed out that the phrase "give to Othin" is applied both to sacrifice and to the slaying of an enemy. By itself the meaning of this phrase might be ambiguous; the expression "become Othin's guest" however can have only one meaning, namely that the person of whom it was used must have been regarded as still existing after death in some close relationship to Othin. That persons killed in battle were regarded as passing into Othin's presence is shown by the names Val-fodhr, "father of the slain," applied to Othin himself, and Val-holl, "hall of the slain," applied to Othin's dwelling; so also by such passages as the following: -- "The fifth dwelling is called 'Galðsheimr,' where Valholl bright with gold stands wide outspread; there Hroptr (i.e. Othin) chooses every day men who die by arms." Grímnismál, v.8. So also Krakumál, v. 29 (F.A.S. I 310: -- ..."The Disir (i.e. Valkyries) summon me home; Othin has sent them to me from Herjan's hall; I will gladly drink ale in the highseat among the Aesir... ." Ragnar Loðbrók, however, whose last words are here given, did not die actually in battle but was put to death afterwards by means of poisonous snakes. In Helgakviða Hundingsbana, II. 37 f., the slain Helgi is represented as coming to Valholl and there meeting his old enemy Hundingr. Othin offers Helgi a share in all his power. The entrance of a slain man into Valholl forms the subject also of the poems Eireksmál and Hákonarmál. In the latter poem the Val-Kyriur, "choosers of the slain," figure prominently. But it is at least questionable if in actual religious belief they occupied the same position which is ascribed to them in the poetry. They are elsewhere (Volsunga s. 2 etc.) called Othin's óskmeyiar "adopted maidens" (or "daughters"). With this may be compared the expression óskasynir, "adopted sons" in Gylf. 20: "all those who fall in battle are called Othin's óskasynir." The more usual term for the latter is however einheriar, which signifies perhaps merely "champions." Their life is described in Vafþrúðnismal 41 (cf. Grímn. 23).

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