The Northern Way

The Cult of Othin

Chapter 1

Page 3

Since therefore both the javelin and the gallows appear to have been in a certain sense sacred to Othin, and farther since the javelin was used in dedication enemies and the gallows in sacrificing prisoners, it seems to me unnecessary to suppose with Bugge that the story of Vikar has been influenced by the myth related in Háv. 138. On the contrary there is every probability that it represents the ordinary ceremony of sacrifice; the combination of hanging and stabbing being parallel to the combination of strangling and stabbing in Ib Gazlan's story (p. 43). This was of course not the only method of sacrificing to Othin. Another and simpler plan was to set the house on fire when the victim was asleep within (cf. Yngl.47). The cutting of the 'blood-eagle' upon Ella (Orkneyinga s. 8, Ragnars s. Lodhbrókar 18, Saxo IX. p. 463; see p.6) was a sacrifice; but there in nothing to show that it was a rite of frequent occurrence. From the evidence which is at present available there is every reason to suppose that hanging, whether accompanied by stabbing or not, was the method usually employed.

In Ynglinga s 6 f. Othin es celebrated as the inventor of poetry (skáldskapr), and as proficient in, if not actually the inventor of incantations (galdrar) and runes. To Othin also is attributed (Yngl. 8) the establishment of the three annual Swedish sacrifices. Besides these, there are two institutions attributed to Othin which require notice: (1) the 'wedge' order of battle, (2) Othin's ordinances in regard to the disposal of the dead.

1. The 'wedge' (O. Norse rani, scímfylking, hamalr fulkia) is known to Othin only, though it is taught by him to his heroes: e.g. in Sogubrot af fornkonungum 8 (F.A.S. I. 380). Haraldr (Hilditonn) says: "Who can have taught Hringr to draw up his army in wedge-shaped array (hamat at fylkia); I thought this was known to none except myself and Othin. Does Othin wish to play me false in the awarding of victory?" In Saxo's account of the same event (VIII. p. 390) Haraldus is represented as asking whence Ringo could have derived this knowledge, "especially since Othynes was the teacher and inventor of this science, and no one except himself had received this new teaching in warfare." Othinus is represented as drawing up Haraldus' forces in this manner in his war against Ingo king of the Swedes (Saxo VII. p. 363). So also in Saxo I. p. 52 f., when Hadingus is fighting against the Byarmenses, his army is drawn up in wedge-array by 'an old man' who is clearly Othin.

In connection with Othin's institutions in war a passage from Ynglinga s. 6 deserves mention: "Othin's men went without coats of mail and were raving like hounds or wolves; they bit into their shields and were as strong as bears or buffaloes; they slaughtered the enemy, and neither fire nor iron had any effect on them. This is called berserksgangr." Taken in connection with the fact that the javelin appears to be Othin's sacred weapon, this would seem to show that the worshipers of Othin at one time practiced light-armed warfare, working themselves up into a frenzy before a battle began. The sword, helmet and mail coat are of course not unknown to Othin, but they figure much less prominently than the javelin.

2. Othin's funeral institutions are described in Ynglinga s. 8: -- "He ordained that all dead men should be burnt and brought on to the pyre with their property. He said that every dead man should come to Valholl with such property as he had on the pyre; he should also have the enjoyment of what he had himself buried in the earth. But the ashes were to be carried out to sea or buried down in the earth. A howe (mound) was to be raised as a memorial to noblemen; and for all such persons as had achieved any distinction 'bauta-stones' should be set up. This custom lasted long after." As regards the nature of the 'property' thrown on to the pyre, it seems to have comprised not only arms, gold, silver and other such things, but also animals, and occasionally even servants. Saxo (VIII. p. 391) describes at length the burning of Haraldus (Hilditonn). Ringo took his horse and harnessed it to the royal chariot which was furnished with golden sears. He laid the body of Haraldus in the chariot and prayed that thus provided he might "arrive in Tartarus before his comrades and beg Pluto, the lord of Orcus, to grant peaceful abodes for his allies and foes." He then placed the chariot on the pyre, and, as the flames rose, he implored his nobles to throw their arms, their gold, and whatever wealth they had with them, unstintingly on to the pyre, in honour of so great a king. In Sogubrot af fornkonungum 9 (F.A.S. I 387) the body of Haraldr is buried in a howe, but otherwise the description of the event agrees closely with that given by Saxo. "Hringr had a great howe made, and had the body of Haraldr laid in the chariot and driven therein to the howe with the horse which Haraldr had in battle. The horse was then killed, Then King Hringr took the saddle on which he had himself ridden, and gave it to his kinsman, King Haraldr, and begged him to do whichever he wished, whether to ride or drive to Valholl. Then he had a great feast made in honour of the departure of his kinsman, King Haraldr. And before the howe was closed, King Hringr asked all his great men and all his champions who were present to cast great jewels and good weapons into the howe, in honour of King Haraldr Hilditonn: and afterwards the howe was carefully closed." So also at the burning of Balder described in Gylf. 49, Balder's horse and the ring Draupnir were laid on the pyre. At the funeral of Sigurdhr and Brynhildr, described in Volsunga s. 31 (F.A.S. I. 204), two hawks and a number on menservants and maidservants were burnt. In Ibn Fazlan's account of a 'Russian' funeral on the Volga there were burnt a young woman, a dog, a cock and hen, two horses and two oxen (cf. p. 43).     

There is a most remarkable correspondence between the funeral rites described in the last section and the rites of sacrifice. It was believed that the spirits of the dead passed to Valholl, and it was for their use there that animals and other articles were burnt upon the pyre (cf. Yngl. s. 8). Perhaps the most striking illustration of this belief is the passage from Sogubrot af fornkonungum (c.9), relating to the burial of Haraldr Hilditonn. Hringr gives Haraldr, together with a horse, both a chariot and a saddle, in order that he may have his choice of riding or driving to Valholl. But it has been shown above (p. 9 f.) that persons who were killed in battle were regarded as passing to Valholl, and at the same time their death was regarded as a sacrifice to Othin. Even in Other sacrifices the regular formula employed, when slaying the victim, was 'I give thee to Othin.' The victim must therefore have been regarded as passing to Valholl. This is confirmed by the expression used in Gautreks s. 7, 'Othin desired a man out of their company.' The story of the sacrifice in Hervarar s.11 f. (cf. p. 5) affords a close parallel. The same idea also underlies the story of Aun sacrificing his sons in Ynglinga s. 29. If further confirmation were needed it is supplied by the following curious fact at sacrifices -- at all events at the great nine-yearly sacrifices -- animals were offered together with men; these were, in part, not edible animals such as were offered as a meal to Frö and other gods, but precisely the same animals which were most usually burnt upon the pyre at funerals, namely horses, dogs and hawks. But, further, these animals seem to have been intended rather for the use of the persons sacrificed, when they arrived in Valholl, than as an offering to the gods. This is clearly shown by Thietmar's description of the sacrifice at Leire (Thietmari Chronicon I. 9, M.G. III. p. 739): "There is a general gathering at this place every nine years, in the month of January, after the season at which we celebrate the Epiphany. Here they sacrifice to their gods ninety-nine men and the name number of horses together with dogs and cocks with they offer in place of hawks. They are convinced, as I have said, that these animals will be at the service of the human victims when they reach the powers below, and that they will appease these powers for the sins which the men have committed." At the corresponding sacrifice at Upsala, described by Adam of Bremen (IV. 27), it is stated that "nine male animals of every kind are offered; with the blood of these it is their custom to propitiate the dis." Seventy-two animals were counted, but only men, dogs and horses are specifically mentioned: "There (i.e. in the grove, cf. p. 16) hang dogs and horses together with men. One of the Christians told me that he had seen seventy-two of these bodies hanging interspersed." Whatever may have been the original idea of this sacrifice, whether it was intended as an offering of firstlings or not, the mention of dogs makes it likely that in Adam's time it was regarded in much the same way as the sacrifice at Leire. Elsewhere the sacrificing of animals together with men does not appear to be mentioned. Yet it is curious that the dog and hawk should be mentioned by Saxo (VIII. p. 414) in connection with the hanging of Broderus. Possible the story had originally a different form. In Skáldskaparmál 47 and Volsunga s. 40 only the hawk is mentioned. Saxo also states (VIII. p. 411; cf. p. 17 above) that Iarmericus hanged forty Slavs together with wolves, and says further that this was in early times the punishment for 'parricidium.' It is probable that in these cases the wolf was substituted for the dog in order to disgrace the victim on his arrival in Valholl.

Modern writers have been much perplexed by Thietmar's account of the sacrifice at Leire, and it has been suggested that he confused the rites of sacrifice with the funeral ceremonies of the heathen Danes. This supposition seems to me incredible; the sacrifice at Leire, like that at Upsala, took place every nine years, and the animals sacrificed in both cases included men, horses and dogs. The season, it is true, was different, yet the time of the Leire sacrifice coincides with that of one of the great annual festivals, namely Yule. The true explanation of Thietmar's story is rather to be found in the fact that the funeral rites and the sacrificial rites of the heathen Scandinavians were in great measure identical. Othin is a 'god of the dead' and it is to his abode, Valholl ('the hall of the slain'), that the spirits of the dead pass. 'To give to Othin' is to kill; 'to go to Othin' is to die (especially in battle). In the description of the funeral of Haraldr Hilditonn in Sogubrot af fornkonungum, Haraldr is represented as riding or driving to Valholl; in Saxo's account 'Tartara' is used obviously with the same meaning. so when, in the passage immediately following, Haraldus is to pray to Pluto the lord of Orcus (prestitem Orci Plutonem), it is clear that this means 'Othin the lord of Valholl.' In Saxo II. p. 104 Biarco says: "It is no mean or unknown race, it is not the ashes or the worthless souls of the commons that Pluto seizes; it is the doom of the mighty which he compasses; he fills Phlegethon with renowned forms." With this may be compared Hárbardhsliódh 24: "Othin possesses the nobles who fall in battle, but Thor has the race of serfs."

Possibly the portraiture of Othin, as he appears in the Sagas, with black cloak and deep-falling hood, is due to his character as god of the dead. There can be no doubt that Thietmar's expression erga inferos means "with Othin in Valholl.' It appears, at first sight, somewhat singular that these victims, who in late times were as a rule probably either criminals or slaves, should regarded as passing to Valholl, and also that they should be provided with horses, dogs and hawks for their use there; the fact is however capable of explanation. The underlying idea in sacrifice to Othin is that of substitution. King Aun sacrifices his sons to Othin in order that he may have his own life prolonged. King Heidhrekr makes a great slaughter of the Reidhgotar as a ransom to Othin for the life of his son Angantýr (cf. p. 4). A man may save his own life only by giving that of another man, and similarly the state must offer human sacrifices in order to ensure its own preservation and success. The victims may themselves be regarded as worthless, but since they are going to Valholl, they must be provided with such articles as are thrown on the pyre of distinguished warriors. It is quite possible that slaves and criminals were not the persons originally chosen to serve as victims; from the legendary sagas one would gather that these were frequently selected from a very different class. This change in the status of the human victims seems to harmonize with the fact that apparently no very great care was taken to provide the proper animals, cocks being sacrificed instead of hawks, which were no doubt not so easy to obtain. the change may therefore point to a decay in the vitality of the religion.

In regard to the belief in Valholl there are several questions which have not yet been satisfactorily answered. Apparently not all the spirits of the dead were believed to pass thither; indeed if one may judge from the vows of Haraldus, as related by Saxo (cf. p. 7 f.), it would seem that not all even of those who were killed in battle necessarily reached Valholl. On the other hand the practice of marking a dying man with a javelin was probably regarded as a substitution for death in battle (cf. p. 13 f.), and thus as conferring the right of admission to Valholl. There is no evidence to support the statement quoted above from Hárvardhsliódh that the souls of serfs passed to Thor. Thor does not elsewhere appear as a god of the dead, and the statement may perhaps be due to the fact that Thor was especially the god o f the lower, classes, while Othin was worshiped chiefly, if not solely, by the nobles. Lastly it is not improbable that VALHOLL has been confused to some extent with Ásgardhr ("the court of the Aesir"), though originally the two conceptions would seem to have been essentially different. It is noticeable that in the old poetry the terms Ásgardhr and Ásagardhr occur usually poems dealing with Thor. Perhaps the doctrine of the "end of the world" was originally connected rather with Ásgardh than with Valholl.

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page