The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia
When the drinking began, the horns of ale were carried round the fire and solemnly dedicated to various gods. The first full or toast was assigned to Odin (see p. 18), and was drunk to obtain victory and power for the king. Next came that of Njörd and Frey, for peace and plenty. 'After that it was the custom of many to drink Bragi's full. Men also drank to those of their kinsmen who had been famous, and that was called minni.' It is possible that this account may be imperfect or inexact, as another passage mentions Thor as well as Odin in this connection. This is a story of how St. Martin appeared in a dream to King Olaf Tryggvason, and said to him: 'It has been the custom of men in this country, as well as elsewhere among heathen people, that ale is given to Thor and Odin, and toasts are assigned to the Æsir, when there is drinking or feasting in common.' The saint then suggests that in place of the old gods Olaf should substitute Martin himself, along with God and His saints. This was actually what took place in Norway and Iceland, a fact which shows how strong a hold on popular feeling the practice must have had. In the early Christian law of Norway it was enjoined that ale was to be brewed for certain festivals, such as All Hallowmas and Christmas, 'and that ale shall be consecrated to Christ and Saint Mary for peace and plenty.' Omission to do so was punishable by a fine to the bishop. In place of drinking to the heathen gods and their departed kinsmen, men now drank the minni of Christ, of Mary, of St. Martin, St. Olaf, or other saints, and even of the Holy Ghost, and this practice continued to be observed at wedding-feasts in Iceland as late as the seventeenth century.
The great festivals took place especially at three seasons in the year. One of these was at the close of autumn (about the middle of October) 'to greet the winter.' At mid-winter came the festival of Yule (Jól or Júl), originally held in the middle of January, but afterwards altered to correspond with Christmas. The third was held at the end of the winter (about the middle of April) 'to greet the summer.' The precise time of each, however, may have varied in different parts of Scandinavia; Adam of Bremen, for instance, represents the great Upsala festival as taking place about the spring equinox, while Snorri places it a little earlier. As late as 1020 these three festivals were still kept up by the majority of the inhabitants in the district of Thrandheim in Norway, and must have been maintained in Sweden for nearly a century later. The return which the worshippers hoped to obtain from the gods for the sacrifices offered was mainly good seasons, abundant crops, peaceful times, and victory in war if it arose. To some extent, each festival appears to have had a special object, but the statements on this point are not quite in agreement with each other. No doubt the desires of the worshippers were expressed in formal prayers offered up by the one who presided over the sacrifices, but no specimen of these has been preserved. Adam of Bremen asserts that in the sacrifices at Upsala use was made of many incantations of an odious character, but of the precise nature of these there is no indication. The drinking of the various toasts was certainly accompanied by formal speeches, of which those used in Iceland at a later date are probably the Christianised representatives.
It is noteworthy that in most of the references to these great religious festivals there is no statement that the sacrifices were offered to any particular deity, the usual expression being simply 'to sacrifice for peace,' etc., or 'to the gods.' The same vagueness sometimes appears when more private offerings are mentioned; it is simply said that the person 'performed a great sacrifice.' It may naturally be assumed, however, that the deity appealed to would vary according to the boon desired, or the preferences of the worshipper. Adam of Bremen, in fact, states that in event of pestilence or famine the offering was made to Thor; in case of war it was given to Odin; while Frey was the recipient on the occasion of a wedding. The Swedes are also said to have sacrificed to Frey for peace and plenty, and Thorgrim in Iceland honoured the same god at the beginning of winter (p. 26). Earl Hákon's sacrifice to Odin has already been mentioned (p. 16), and is in agreement with Adam of Bremen's statement.
Among the ancient Scandinavians there was no distinct priestly caste. The duty of presiding over relgious ceremonies, and of acting as custodian of sacred places, was attached to persons who had also temporal authority of a more or less extensive nature. Highest of all stood the king, on whose attitude towards the gods and their worship the prosperity of his people was believed to depend. Next to him came the earls, who in this as in other respects acted as the representatives of the king. Among the titles of honour given by the poets to both kings and earls are those of 'ruler' or 'guardian' of sanctuaries. Finally each district had its recognised religious head in one or other of its most prominent men, whose power as a chief was naturally augmented in no slight degree by his position as priest. The holder of this double office appears in the Icelandic writings under the name of goði (also hofgoði), a derivative of goð 'god(s)'; it may be assumed that the name was also known in Norway, and its existence in Denmark is certified by its occurrence in Runic inscriptions. The sagas contain numerous references to these priestly chiefs, who are sometimes named after the god whom they specially worshipped (as Freys-goði), sometimes after the place where they resided (as Tungu-goði), or after those whose religious head they were (as Ljósvetninga-goði). By the older constitution of Iceland the number of recognised goðar was thirty-nine, distributed pretty equally in the various parts of the island. The office itself was, at least in Iceland, known by the name of goðorð, and was regarded as an item of personal property, which might even be shared by more than one person, so that we find such statements as 'he had a third of the goð-orð with Thorgeir.' The right to the office was hereditary, and could also be transferred by one person to another, and this was frequently done, especially when the rightful holder was to be absent from the country for a time. In one case the claimant to a goð-orð is described as performing a ceremony which may have been a usual accompaniment of such transference. He said, "we shall redden ourselves in the goði's blood in the old fashion," and killed a ram, in the blood of which he reddened his hands, and claimed Arnstein's goð-orð.' The goði being as much a chief as a priest, the name did not disappear with the adoption of Christianity into Iceland, though it naturally lost its religious associations and thenceforward denoted only the recognised leader in the various district of the island.
It appears also that women to some extent acted as priestesses, and in Iceland, at least, these were designated by the name of gyðja, or hof-gyðja, a feminine form corresponding to goði and hof-goði. In one passage where a Thord Freysgoði is spoken of, a female relative of his is also mentioned as being hof-gyðja. When the missionary Thorvald was preaching Christianity at Hvamm in the west of Iceland about 984, a certain Fridgerd 'was meanwhile in the temple and performed sacrifice, and each of them could hear the other's words'; then Thorvald made a verse in which he gives the name of gyðja to Fridgerd. Other women are also mentioned with this appellation, but the precise place of the priestess, and her relation to the priest, remains somewhat obscure.
That the public worship of the gods was thus in the hands of the most prominent men in the community, and not merely of a separate priestly class, indicates that the Scandinavian peoples as a whole were really interested in their religion. This is also shown by the thoroughly popular character of the great sacrificial feasts. In earlier times it is probable that the belief in the native gods was strong even to a degree of fanaticism, of which traces are still found in the historic period, especially in Sweden and in the more northerly districts of Norway. The words of Gudbrand already quoted (p. 10) no doubt express a genuine religious attitude common to many worshippers of the Æsir, and similar confessions of faith are to be met with in other accounts. When King Hákon wished his subjects to adopt Christianity, 'and believe in one God, Christ the son of Mary, and abandon all sacrifices and the heathen gods,' there arose a great murmur in the assembly, and the speaker who replied protested against the idea 'that we should abandon that faith which our fathers have had before us......and yet this faith has served us well.' Instances have already been given of the strong attachment which indivuals had for certain gods, whom they regarded as their dear and faithful friends, consulted them in all their difficulties, and gave them joint-ownership of their possessions. Others again were zealous in erecting temples and maintaining sacrifices, such as Hall in Thorskafirth, who 'raised a great temple, because Ulf,' the chief man of the district, 'was no sacrificer.' By such men the encroachments of Christianity were naturally regarded with resentment and dismay. At the Althing in Iceland in 996 it was decided that any one blaspheming the gods should be prosecuted by a near kinsman, and for one to be a Christian was reputed a disgrace to all the kindred. Four years later, while the adoption of Christianity was being debated at the Althing, a volcanic eruption was reported from the neighbourhood, whereupon the heathens said, 'It is no wonder that the gods are angry at such talk.' In 1020 the men of Thrandheim held sacrifices after the old fashion, drinking to the gods, killing cattle and horses, and reddening the altars with the blood; this was done on account of a great dearth in that part of Norway, 'and it seemed clear to all men that the gods were angry because they had turned to Christianity.' So late as the twelfth century the people in some parts of Sweden were still inclined to throw off such Christianity as they had, and revert to the sacrificial rites of the old religion.
On the other hand, it is clear that even in the ninth and tenth centuries the worship of the Æsir was gradually losing its hold. Some of the early settlers in Iceland were either wholly or partly Christian; among the latter were, for example, Helgi the Lean, who believed in both Thor and Christ, and the kinsmen of the Hebridean Örlyg, who 'believed in Columcille, though they were not baptized.' A belief 'in their own might and strength' was all the faith that some of the Scandinavians of this period would own to. Many who came into intercourse with southern peoples accepted the prima signatio, or first sign of adoption into the Christian Church. From at least the beginning of the ninth century zealous missionary efforts were made by the Church to supplant Thor and his hammer by Christ and the cross; while, on the other hand, the Scandinavian religion, however strong its hold upon its adherents, never succeeded in spreading beyond its original limits. The combination of all these facts explains the comparatively rapid manner in which the old faith finally succumbed before the new, leaving behind it only the imperfect traces which have been summed up in these pages, and a mythology which has a profound interest of its own and is inextricably associated with the history of Old Norwegian and Icelandic poetry.