The Northern Way

The Cult of Othin

Chapter 3

Page 2

In Tacitus' account the Swedes (Suiones) present a striking contrast to all the other nations of Germany. After describing the construction of their ships he proceeds (Germ. 44):—” These people pay respect even to wealth. The power is therefore vested in one man. Here there are no reservations; his claim to obedience does not rest merely on sufferance. Nor are weapons to be seen in every man's hand, as is the case with the rest of the Germans. On the contrary they are kept stored away in the charge of a slave.” (6) The state of society here depicted is clearly incompatible with the existence of such a cult as that of Othin, which could hardly flourish except under conditions of chronic warfare. (7) On the other hand it corresponds excellently with the peace and plenty and the semi-priestly government, which, accordiug to Ynglinga s. 12, marked the days of Frö.

It is not quite clear whether Tacitus' information was recent. It might possibly be based on stories heard by the members of Drusus' and Germanicus' expeditions in the early part of the century. On the whole, however, it seems likely that his information was derived through quite a different channel. He passes on to the Suiones, not by way of the Elbe tribes, but by a much more eastern course. The tribes mentioned last before the Suionee are the Gotones, Rugii and Lemouii; after the Suiones he passes immediately to the Aestii. Hence it is not improbable that he derived his information from Nero's agent, who had been sent (apparently by way of Carnuntum) to examine the amber coasts. Tacitus' information will therefore apply to a period shortly after the middle of the first century. Therefore, if any reliance is to be placed on his account, the cult of Othin can not have been known to the Swedes before about A.D. 50.

                It has been shown above that the cult of Othin must, in all probability, have been known to the Swedes by about A.D. 500, and that its introduction apparently did not take place before about A.D. 50. For the attainment of a more definite answer there appears to be but one argument available, and this too is one which is usually regarded with the utmost scepticism. Can the introduction of the cult have synchronised with the introduction of the practice of cremation? It has already been mentioned (p. 22) that in Ynglinga s. 8 the institution of cremation is attributed to Othin :—“ He ordained that all dead men should be burnt and brought on to the pyre with their property,” etc. I can not see that there is any great inherent improbability in such an assumption. For the practice of burning the dead seems to point towards a view of immortality which was altogether inconsistent with the popular Scandinavian belief. According to this belief the souls of the dead were supposed to live on in the howe in which they were buried. In several cases the ghost is represented as defending his treasure, when the howe is broken open. The howe seems to have been situated close to the family dwelling, and the ancestral spirits were believed to exercise a beneficent influence over the fortunes of the family. Offerings appear to have been paid to them, especially, it would seem, with the view of obtaining fertility for the land. It may be objected that the continuance of the soul's life in the howe would not be affected by the burning of the body. But the souls of those who were burnt according to the ordinances of Othin, were supposed to pass to Valhöll. The two conceptions are entirely different; for Valhöll was regarded as far away. In Sögubrot af fornkonungum 9 Hringr gives Haraldr a chariot and horse, in order that he may ride or drive to Valhöll (cf. p. 22 f.). So also in Ynglinga s. 10 Othin, when dying, “said that he was about to journey to Goðheimr and greet his friends there. The Swedes now thought that he had come into the ancient Ásgarðr and would there live for ever.” The view expressed in this passage may of course have been influenced to some extent by Christian ideas. Yet, that Valhöll was regarded as far away, may be inferred from another passage in the same saga (c. 13) :—“ When all the Swedes knew that Frö was dead, but plenty and peace continued, they believed that this would last as long as Frö was in Sweden; so they would not burn him, but they called him the god of the world and sacrificed to him ever afterwards for plenty and peace.” (8) In the preceding chapter it is stated that Frö was laid in a howe. The view of Frö's immortality here expressed is identical with the belief in the continued life of the spirits in the family howe. The reluctance of the Swedes to burn Frö is attributed to their belief that, if this took place, he would no longer be with them, but would pass to some other place. There can scarcely be any doubt, in view of what is stated of Othin and Niörðr, that Valhöll is the place meant. But if this belief prevailed in the case of Frö, is there any adequate reason for doubting the existence of a similar belief in the case of the family manes? If not, the introduction of cremation can be explained only by supposing that a revolution had taken place in the Scandinavian view of immortality.

Icelandic writers were under the erroneous impression that the practice of burning the body was older than the practice of howe burial. Thus in the Preface to Heimskringla it is stated :—“ The first age is called the age of burning; all dead men had then to be burnt and 'bauta' - '-stones raised to their memory. But after Frö had been 'howe-laid' at Upsala, many princes raised bowes no less than bauta-stones in memory of their kinsmen. But after Danr the Proud, King of the Danes, had had a howe made for him, and given orders that after his death he should be brought there with his royal equipment and armour, and his horse with its harness, and much treasure besides, many members of his family did so afterwards; and the age of howe-burial began in Denmark. But the age of burning continued much later among the Swedes and Norwegians.” (9) According to Ynglinga saga three of the first nine Swedish kings after Frö were cremated, namely Vanlandi, Dómarr and Agni, besides one, Vísburr, who was burnt alive. The first kings who are stated to have been 'howe-laid' are Alfr and Yngvi, grandsons of Agni; after this howe-burial is frequently mentioned. On the other hand, no king is burnt after Agni except Haki (c. 27), who did not belong to the native dynasty; in his case the cremation, took place on a ship. The evidence of Ynglinga saga therefore agrees with the statement in the Preface. Yet the evidence of the monuments has made it clear that howe-burial, in one form or another, was practised from the very earliest times— before the use of any metal was known, whereas cremation first makes its appearance comparatively late in the age of bronze. The statements of the ancient writers however appear to contain a certain amount of truth. Burning, which towards the close of the bronze age, and for some time after the first appearance of iron, appears to have been practically universal, again seems to be partially displaced by howe-burial in the course of the early iron age. The ancient writers were mistaken only in supposing that the practice was new. In reality it was a return to the old native custom. It is possible that the old custom was resumed among the Swedish royal family earlier than elsewhere on account of their traditional relationship to Frö.

I would not, of course, be prepared to go so far as to say that howe-burial was always associated with the cult of Frö and the manes. In the Sögubrot of fornkonungum Haraldr Hilditönn is howe-laid, though at the same time it is explicitly stated that he is expected to go to Valhöll. (10) In later times the once intimate association between cremation and the cult of Othin may have been in part forgotten. This may have been due to the combination into one system of the cults of Othin and of Frö. That they were originally quite distinct, and that the latter was the earlier of the two, there can hardly be any serious doubt. It is likely that a reminiscence of the struggle between the two cults is preserved in the story of the war between the Aesir and the Vanir (cf. Golther, Mythologie, p. 222 f.).

The data available for ascertaining the period at which cremation began to be practised in the North, are very scanty. It is agreed that cremation was known before the introduction of iron. According to Montelius (Civilisation of Sweden, p. 46; cf. Nordisk Tidskrift, 1884, p. 25) the age of bronze in the North lasted from about B. C. 1500 to about B.C. 500, iron first coming into use about the latter date. Since cremation belongs roughly to the latter half of this period, its introduction, according to Montelius' calculation, will have taken place about B. C. 1000. If this calculation is correct, the introduction of the practice of cremation can not have been due to the cult of Othin; for the latter seems not to have been known to the Swedes at the beginning of the present era. But there seems to be considerable doubt as to whether Montelius' conclusions are correct. Worsaae's calculations (Prehistory of the North, p. 75) differ from those of Montelius by at least 500 years. He holds (Prehistory, p. 113) that there is scarcely sufficient evidence for the existence of an iron-culture in full force even in Denmark during the first century of the present era. In reality the first antiquities, to which an approximate date can be assigned with any degree of probability, are the articles found in the bogs of Thorsbjærg and Nydam. These deposits are attributed by Montelius (Nordisk Tidskrift, 1884, p. 25) to the third century, by Wimmer (Runenschrift, p. 302 f.) to the beginning of the fifth century. We shall probably not go very far wrong in concluding that they belong to about the fourth century. These deposits prove the existence at this time of a fully developed iron culture in South Jutland. At Thorsbjærg many sword-hilts and spear-shafts were found, though the iron was all decomposed.

The Nydam deposit contained over a hundred swords and from five to six hundred spear-heads. The shafts of the spears varied from eight to ten feet in length (cf. Engelhardt, Denmark in the Early Iron Age, pp. 52 f., 57). Iron had therefore completely displaced bronze as a material for weapons. But this can not prove that iron was known more than two hundred years earlier. For the transition from the exclusive use of bronze to a fully developed iron equipment two centuries is an ample allowance. In South Jutland therefore the age of bronze may have lasted till the beginning of the second century. There is nothing improbable in such an assumption. Among the Germans with whom Tacitus was acquainted, presumably those living between the Rhine and the Elbe, in the latter part of the first century, the iron-culture was by no means so far developed as among the South Jutlanders in the fourth century. He says distinctly (Germ. 6) that iron was not plentiful; consequently few of them possessed swords or long spears; the usual weapon was a javelin with a short and thin iron head. Beyond the Eider the equipment may well have been still more primitive. It is not unlikely that the “short swords” (breues gladii) used by the eastern tribes (Gotones, Rugii, Lemouii; Germ. 43) were made of bronze. But if bronze was still used by the inhabitants of the southern and south-western coasts of the Baltic up to the end of the first or the beginning of the second century, it is likely enough that another century may have elapsed before iron came into anything like general use in Sweden. I can not see that there is any improbability in supposing that the iron age proper did not begin in Sweden before the third century. It has been mentioned above that the western Germans of Tacitus' time were still in what may be called a rudimentary iron age. But among the Slavs in the sixth century the iron-culture appears to have been no further developed than among Tacitus' Germans. Like the latter they carried no arms except a shield and javelin (Procopius, Gothic War, in. 14). This illustrates the slowness with which the knowledge of the metals travelled. The original home of the Slavs lay no further from the boundaries of Roman civilisation than did that of the Swedes, though in the case of the Slavs there was of course a racial barrier to be overcome. Taking all considerations together, it seems to me probable that the degree of progress in the knowledge of the metals, which we find among the western Germans in the first century, and among the Slavs in the sixth century, is scarcely likely to have been reached by the Swedes before the third or fourth century. Isolated iron weapons may of course have penetrated occasionally to the North before this time. (11) Yet this is not enough to constitute even a rudimentary iron age in the true sense.

Between the adoption of the practice of cremation and the beginning of the rudimentary iron-culture some considerable time must have elapsed; but the calculation of centuries in such a case can be nothing more than mere guess-work. If the rudimentary iron-culture began in the third century, it is by no means impossible that the adoption of cremation took place in the first century. Hence if cremation is to be associated in any way with the cult of Othin, it is during the latter part of the first century that we must suppose the cult to have been introduced into Sweden. This hypothesis receives some slight support from a statement in Tacitus (Germ. 40). He says that seven northern tribes worshipped the goddess Nerthus, i.e. Mother Earth, “on an island in the ocean.” There can be no serious doubt that this goddess Nerthus is closely related to the Scandinavian god Niörðr. A rite very similar to that described by Tacitus was practised by the Swedes in connection with the worship of Frö (Freyr) the son of Niörðr The festival of Nerthus was accompanied by a holy peace; wars were not undertaken, and weapons were put away; “peace and quiet are then only known and loved” until the goddess returns to her temple. From this description it seems likely enough that the cult of Woden-Othin prevailed among these tribes, but that it was combined to some extent with the older cult of Nerthus-Niörðr. Since Niörðr and Frö were essentially gods of peace, it is probable that the holy peace which was kept at certain seasons (perhaps the new year), was a survival from this earlier cult. Now it has been rashly assumed by many writers that the island on which the temple stood was necessarily situated in the North Sea. But there is absolutely no evidence for this assumption; in cc. 43, 44 “oceanus” is clearly used of parts of the Baltic. There is no island in the North Sea large enough to fulfil the conditions required in Germ. 40. Hence Much (P.B.B. XVII. 196 ff.) and Sarazzin (Anglia, XIX. 384) have conjectured with great probability that the island mentioned by Tacitus is in reality the island of Seeland. If this is really the case, and if in Tacitus' time the cult of Woden-Othin bad already made its way so far north, there is nothing strange in supposing that it may have become known to the Swedes in the course of the next generation.

The conclusions attained in the course of this discussion may be briefly summarised as follows :—[1] The cult of Othin was in all probability known in the North at the beginning of the sixth century; there is no reason for supposing that it was then new. [2] The cult does not seem to have been practised by the Swedes in the first half-century of the present era. [3] If the adoption of cremation was due to the cult of Othin, the cult can hardly have been introduced into Sweden later than the end of the first century.


6. Est apud illos et opibus honos; eoque unus imperitat, nullis iam exceptionibus, non precario iure parendi. nec arma, ul apud ceteros Germanos, in promiscuo, sed clausa sub custode, et quidem seruo etc. Back

7. This is obvious from the accounts of all the great Othin-heroes, e.g. Sigmundr, Starkaðr, Haraldr Hilditönn, Ragnar Loðbrók. Reference may be made also to the conduct of the Eruli, who according to Procopius (Gothic War, II. 14) compelled their king Rudolph to make war against the Laugobardi, though they brought forward no excuse except the fact that they had been without war for three years. Back

8. Þá er allir Svíar vissu at Freyr var dauðr, en hélzt ár ok friðr, þá trúðu þeir at svá mundi vera, meðan Frejr væri á Svíþióð, ok vildu eigi brenna hann, ok kölluðu hann veraldar goð, blótuðu mest til árs ok friðar alla ævi siðan. Back

9. hin fyrsta öld er kölluð brunsöld, þá skyldi brenna alla dauða menn ok reisa eptir bautasteina. en síðan er Freyr hafði heygðr verit at Uppsölum, þá gerðu margir höfðingiar eigi síðr hauga en bautasteina til minningar eptir frændr síns. en síðan or Danr hiun mikilláti Danakonungr lét sér huag gera, oh bauð sik þangat bera dauðan með konangs skrúði ok herbúnaði, ok hest hans með söðulreiði ok mikit fé annat, en hans ættmenn gerðu margir svá síðan, ok hófst þar haugsöld þar i Danmörk. en lengi síðan hélst brunaöld með Svíum ok Norðmönnum. Back

10. According to Saxo's account he was cremated (cf. p. 22). Back

11. It is likely that for along time afterwards swords and other weapons were largely of foreign manufacture. Several of the swords found in the bogs of South Jutland bear Roman marks. Back

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