The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia
To their chief deities the ancient Scandinavians gave the general name of goð (equivalent to the English god), or æsir (plural of áss). Both of these appellations were in common use as the first element in personal names, such as Goðmundr (later Guð-) or Ásmundr. In the Edda, however, the æsir are distinguished from another race of gods, the vanir, to whom Njörd and Frey belonged. Whether this distinction had any bearing on the popular religion does not appear. Other names which occur in the poetic or mythological sources are regin or rögn, denothing their decisive or guiding powers, and bönd or höpt, which imply a binding or constraining might; the goddesses are usually known by the name of ásynjur. The Edda speaks of twelve chief gods, but it may be doubted whether the number was ever definitely fixed, or that it was uniform in all parts of Scandinavia.
In addition to the greater gods various supernatural powers were recognised by the Scandinavians as having influence for good or evil upon human fortunes, and to some extent at least worship was paid to these. This is the clearest in the case of the dísir, female guardian spirits of individuals or families, to whom formal sacrifice was made under the name of dísablót. It is less certain that the belief in the nornir, or Fates, usually thought of as three sisters, can properly be regarded as belonging to religion, though its influence was evidently a powerful one. A belief in the valkyrjur, or war-maidens, who were present at battles and sometimes appeared to the combatants, naturally connects itself with the cult of Odin, but here also the evidence for a religious feeling accompanying the belief is lacking.
It is not quite clear what place is to be assigned to the landvættir, who were supposed to watch over and protect various parts of the country, and whose presence and favour were reckoned to be of so much importance, that the old heathen law of Iceland (framed about 930) began with a provision relating to them. It enacted that 'men should not have ships with heads on them, or if they did, they should take them off before they came in sight of land, and not approach the shore with gaping heads or yawning snouts by which the landvættir might be scared.' When Egil was incensed against King Eirík of Norway, he set up a níðstöng, or insulting post, and declared that he directed it not only against the king and queen, but also against 'those landvættir who inhabit this land, that they may all go astray and none of them find his home, until they drive Eirík and Gunnhild out of the country.' Of the son of a settler in the south-west of Iceland it is said that second-sighted men saw the landvættir accompany him when he went to the assembly, while they followed his brothers in hunting or fishing. The landvættir were also credited with having appeared to a wizard whom the Danish king sent to Iceland about 980, and with having prevented him from landing on its shores. In view of all this, it is extremely probable that these supposed beings may have been actually worshipped, but of this there is no positive evidence.
A somewhat mysterious place among the minor dieties is held by two sisters named Thorgerd and Irpa, the former of whom also bears the epithet of Hölgarbrúðr, apparently meaning 'Hölgi's bride.' All that is known of these is that they are alleged to have been worshipped by Earl Hákon of Norway, in the latter half of the tenth century. It is not improbable that their worship may have been confined to that part of Norway (in Thrandheim) in which Hákon lived, or that they were dísir connected with the family to which he belonged. In the very legendary account of the battle which Hákon fought against the vikings of Jómsborg in 985, it is told that when he found the battle going against him 'he called upon his confidant Thorgerd, but she was angry with him and would not hear him.' It was only when propitiated by the sacrifice of Hákon's own son that she consented to aid him. She and her sister Irpa were then seen by second-sighted men fighting on the earl's side. The great reverence which the earl was believed to have felt for the sisters also appears strongly in the accounts relating to the images of them which he had in his temples; to that of Thorgerd he prostated himself in prayer and made offerings of silver.
Among the Scandinavians, as among other branches of the Aryan race, the practice of hero-worship appears to have been known. Adam of Bremen records it as occurring among the Swedes, who in the life of St. Ansgar are also said to have paid divine honours to one of their kings (Erik), assigning to him a temple and special priests. In Norway, it is mentioned that offerings were made on the grave mound of Olaf, at one time king in Vestfold; and probably some kind of religious feeling towards the deceased person is implied in the worship of grave-mounds, which was sufficiently prevalent to be specially forbidden in the early Christian law of Norway. One of the early settlers in the Færöes, Grím Kamban, is also said to have been worshipped after his death on account of his popularity.
Not only human beings, but even animals, were perhaps occasionally worshipped by individuals. An old tradition related that a King Ögvald, in the west of Norway, chiefly worshipped a cow, and took it about with him wherever he went; and at a later and more historical date Hárek of Rein is said to have worshipped an ox. When Floki set out to look for Iceland he sacrificed to three ravens, which he then took on board with him that they might show him the way. It may also be noted that, if a very curious legend can be depended on, there were even traces of phallic worship in Norway as late as the days of Olaf the Saint (about 1020).
An old account of the heathen period in Gotland (off the eastern coast of Sweden) begins with the words, 'before that time and long after men believed in groves and grave-mounds, holy places and enclosures, and in the heathen gods.' The prominence here given to sacred places appears to be in accordance with the facts recorded elsewhere. In the early Christian law of Norway, for example, cairns (hörgar) as objects of worship are condemned along with grave-mounds, and sacred cairns are also named in some Icelandic sources. In these also a single stone is sometimes mentioned as being worshipped, the most notable instance being that in Kristni Saga, where it is said, 'At Giljá,' in the north of Iceland, 'stood the stone that the family had worshipped, and alleged that their ár-man lived in it. Codran declared that he would not be baptized until he knew which was the more powerful, the bishop or the ár-man in the stone. The bishop then went to the stone, and chanted over it till it broke assunder. Then Codran considered that the ár-man was vanquished.' (The precise meaning of 'ár-man' here is uncertain: usually the word means 'steward,' but in this case it may be derived from ár in the sense of good or plentiful years.) Of an Icelandic settler in the tenth century it is also told that he 'took Flateydale up the the War-stones (Gunnsteinar), and worshipped them.' Close beside him was another settler who worshipped a grove, while one in another part of the island, who is described as a great sacrificer, paid his devotions to a waterfall, into which all remains of food were thrown.
In connection with this worship of natural objects may be noticed the curious belief in Iceland that certain families passed after death into hills or hillocks in their district. This is told, for example, of Thorolf who settled Thorsness and had great reverence for the hill there: 'He called it Holy-fell, and believed that he would go there when he died, and all his kinsmen on the ness.' Even the kinsmen of Aud, who as a Christian, had great religious faith in some hillocks on which she had erected crosses: 'They believed that they should die into these hillocks, and Thord Gellir was led into them before his sons took their place among men, as is told in his saga.'