The Religion of the Northmen
THE DIVINE SERVICE OF THE HEATHENS
Sacrifices, or, in the old Norse language, blót, were considered by the heathen Northmen to be the most efficacious means of gaining favor with the Gods and averting their wrath. These offerings were usually bloody, and consisted in the killing or butchering of living creatures under the observance of certain solemn ceremonies; but the character of them is not more fully described in the ancient accounts. The animals most generally offered at the larger public sacrificial festivals were oxen, horses, sheep and swine. The victims were fattened beforehand, in order that they might attain a very large size and make a good appearance. They were slaughtered by the goði or Chief Director of the temple, and generally, as it appears, before the images of the Gods. The blood, which was called laut, was collected in a bowl called laut-bolli; the latter was usually of copper and had its place in the temple upon the High-Altar. By the aid of sprinkling-rods---the so-called laut-teinar---the altars and walls of the temple were besmeared (rjóða) with this laut or sacrificial blood, as it was also sprinkled (stökkva) over the multitude assembled at the sacrifice. The statues of the Gods, which, as before observed, were mostly of wood, were smeared with the fat of the victims rubbed with cloth, and baked by the fires burning along the temple-floor. This function we find, was performed by the women assembled at the festival.
The public sacrifices were in connection with solemn festivals (blótveizlur, sing. blótveizla, perhaps also gildi). In some places these were at the expense of the Chief Director of the temple, who in return had the use of the Temple-possessions, and received the Temple-tribute or hof-toll. This appears to have been universal in Iceland, where the temples were usually the private property of the goðar or priests. In other places, however, and it appears to have been universal in Norway, the expenses of the sacrificial feasts were defrayed by contributions from the people who attended a particular temple, who for that purpose brought ale and all kinds of provisions to the festival; though it also happened sometimes that some rich and powerful chieftain, who was at the same time superintendent of a temple, undertook alone to bear the expenses of a sacrificial banquet, in which case his liberality was, of course, highly praised. In Norway, it appears that after Harald Hárfagri's time the chief direction of all public sacrifices and the feasts connected with them devolved upon the king; he, therefore, occupied the high-seat at the sacrificial guilds, when he was present at them; otherwise some chieftain presided over them in his behalf. Sometimes the managment of the sacrificial feasts of a Fylki or a larger district passed around by turns among a certain number (twelve) of the chosen men of the district; but this was perhaps the exception to the general custom, and was first adopted when the kings and their men had fallen off from the Asa-faith and embraced Christianity. The ancient custom in the time of the Fylki governments was, doubtless, thus: that the hersir, in the character of goði, conducted the public sacrificial feasts in his herað or district, or where several herað or even fylki joined together in a sacrifice, then all the hersar present acted, but in such a manner that the one in whose temple the feast was held presided. If a King or Jarl was present, the post of honor was, of course, always conceded to him; but they could hardly be called the actual conductors of sacrifices; at least, their Kingship of Jarlship originated in a higher than priestly dignity. Such was certainly the case in many places in Norway, as it is known to have been with the Upsala Kings in Sweden.
The sacrificial feast followed after the sacrifice. The flesh of the sacrificed animals, including that of the horses, was now boiled in large pots which hung over the fires along the temple-floor, and was afterwards devoured by the assembled guests, who, as at other banquets, sat along the side-walls of the house on both sides of the fire. The full drinking-horns (full) were now borne around or between the fires (of elda), probably as a kind of purification, and the conductor of the sacrifice consecrated (vigja) them, as well as all the sacrificial food (blót matr). They first drank Odin's horn---or those who trusted in their own strength and energy drank a horn to Thor---next Njörð's horn, and Frey's horn for prosperous seasons and for peace. Then many were accustomed to drink Bragi's horn, by which solemn vows were made; and finally, a horn to the memory of good kinsmen departed. All these solemn toasts were called minni or memorial horns, and were called out by the conductor of the sacrifice, who, in the ancient language was said "at mæla fyrir minni" "to call out the memorial toasts."
The public sacrifices thus consisted of two important performances: first, the butchering (högg, at höggva) and the blood-sprinkling (at rjóða, stökkva) connected with it, all which it seems took place during the first night of the festival; and secondly, the sacrificial feast, at which the consecrated horns were the principal affair, and during which the anointing of the idols appears to have been attended to.
Three times during the year they held great sacrificial festivals, at which the inhabitants of larger or smaller portions of the country assembled together at one common chief-temple. The first of these festivals was held on Winter-night, at the beginning of Gor-mánaðr, or, by our reckoning, about the middle of October,---the 14th of that month being still called Winter-night in Norway, and reckoned the beginning of winter. This festival was called "vetrnátta blót" or "blót ímóti vetri," i.e., Winternight's Sacrifice, or Sacrifice toward Winter; and they were then said to welcome winter---(at fagna vetri). They sacrificed at that time for a good year (til árs), which in Norway meant in reality a good winter, that being then, as now a matter of very great importance for that country. (1)
The second great sacrificial festival was held on Mid-winter (miðr vetr), i.e., at the beginning of the Þorra-mánaðr (Thor's month) of the ancients, or, according to our reckoning, in the middle of January. The 12th of January is still called Mitvet by the Northmen. This sacrifice was usually called miðsvetrar blót, i.e., Midwinter's Sacrifice, or Jól, jólablot, i.e., Yule; sometimes also Þorra-blót, from the month in which it was solemnized. It began on Midwinter-night (miðsvetrar-nátt), which, by reason of the great sacrificial slaughter then performed, was named höggu-nátt, the Hewing or Butchering Night, and it lasted three days, or, according to the ancient mode of expression, three nights. It appears to have been the most solemn sacrificial festival of the Northmen, and they then sacrificed for Peace and a productive Season (til árs ok friðar). On Yule-eve it was the custom to lead out a boar consecrated to Frey, which was called the Atonement-Boar (sónar-göltr); upon this the persons present laid their hands and made solemn oaths (heitstrengingar). This circumstance, as well as the fact that the Yule-sacrifice was made for Peace and Fruitfulness, makes it highly probable that the festival was chiefly in honor of Frey. (2)
The third great sacrificial festival was held at the beginning of Summer, probably on Summer's-day, which, according to both the ancient and the modern Calendar of the Northmen, falls on the middle of April. This festival was called blót at sumri---Sacrifice toward Summer, or Sigr-blót---Sacrifice for Victory, a name which it received because they then sacrificed for victory and success in the military and Víking-expeditions which they might undertake in the approaching summer. (3) It is, therefore, probable that this festival was specially in honor of Odin.
Some have also supposed that a great sacrificial festival was held at Mid-summer-time, (4) but there is scarcely sufficient ground in the ancient sagas for this assumption. It is true that Snorri speaks in a single place of a miðsumars-blót, but this is evidently a confusion in the account, and it is properly a Mid-winter sacrifice, and not a Mid-summer one that is alluded to.
The heathen Northmen had many smaller sacrificial feasts, besides the three great ones above cited, but to pretend to decide upon the times when they were held, leads only into a multiplicity of conjectures, which are wholly without foundation. (5)
Human sacrifices (manna-blót) were not unusual, although it was generally bondsmen and malefactors that were offered up. The sacrifice of human beings was performed either by butchering them like other victims, collecting the blood in the sacrificial bowls, and afterwards sinking the corpse into a pool or morass; or by breaking the victim's back over a sharp rock; or finally by hurling it out over a precipice among the rocks of an abyss. Only on rare and very important occasions were the free-born sacrificed to the Gods; and yet there were instances when the victims were chieftains or their children. Thus it is related of the Upsala King Aun that he sacrificed his nine sons to Odin for the sake of prolonging his life. (6) King Olaf Trételgja of Vermaland was burned to death by his subjects, and sacrificed thus to Odin in order that a great famine should cease. (7) Of the zealous Asa-worshiper Hákon Jarl it is stated, that during the battle in Hjörunga bay with the Jomsvíkingar he sacrificed his son Erling, then seven years old, to Thorgerd Hörgabrúð, and caused his bondman Skopta Kark to kill the boy, in the manner which the Jarl himself prescribed. (8)
Among human sacrifices may also be reckoned the practice of "carving the Blood-eagle" (rísta blóðörn) upon captured enemies. It consisted in cutting the ribs from the spinal column and then through the open wound tearing out the lungs, which, it was said, they presented to Odin for victory. (9)
The inhuman custom which the Norwegian Víkings in heathendom had, of throwing up small children into the air and catching them again upon their spear-points (henda börn á spjóta oddum), (10) is to be regarded perhaps not merely as an outburst of the most savage ferocity of rude warriors, but also as a kind of human sacrifice.
The conqueror usually regarded all enemies slain in battle as an offering he had made to Odin, and it appears to have been the custom sometimes, in order that the sacrifice should be still more special, to besmear the altars with the blood of the first chieftains among the slain.
Two kinds of bloody self-immolation are mentioned in the Sagas. The one is "to mark one's-self with the Spear-point" (at marka sik geirs-oddi), a custom which the Asa worshiper, when dying of sickness, consecrated himself to Odin. The introduction of this custom is attributed to Odin himself, (11) but how far it came into general practice is not known. Probably it was intended to take the place of death by arms upon the battlefield, and thus open to the dying an admission into the ranks of the Einherjar. The other kind of self-immolation consisted in the custom by which any one, who had become old or weary of life, leaped headlong from a steep cliff and thus went hence to Odin. It is mentioned only in King Gautrek's Saga. It is there related that a family living in a retired place in West-Gothland had a steep and lofty cliff (called Ætternisstapi, i.e., Family Rock) near their house, from the summit of which all the aged members of the family or those who had no prospect of supporting themselves, without becoming a burden to the others, precipitated themselves. "Thus they died," it is stated, "without any kind of sickness, and went to Odin." (12) It is true that Gautrek's Saga is in the main a romance, yet there are a few very ancient and undoubtedly genuine traditions here and there interwoven in it, and among them is the above account, which should not be regarded as a mere fiction.
There were human Offerings which were not intended with the death of the victim, at least, not immediately. This was when a person either gave himself, or was given by his parents---sometimes, even, before his birth---to one of the Gods, i.e., was consecrated to the service of that God, perhaps as his hofgoði or priest. Thus it is related of the chieftain Guðbrand, from whom Gudbrandsdal received its name, that he was given to the Gods by his father Raum, and his original name Brand was, in consequence thereof, changed to Guðbrand. (13) Thorolf Mostrarskegg of Iceland, the zealous worshiper of Thor already spoken of, "gave his son Steinn (from his birth it appears) to Thor, his friend, and called him Thorstein." Of this Thorstein, it is related that when he had a son who at the heathen rite of sprinkling with water received the name of Grim, "he gave him to Thor, destined him to be a priest (hofgoði) and called him Thorgrim." (14) The Haleygian Chieftain Eyvind Kinnrifa, a contemporary of King Olaf Tryggvason, was given to Odin from his birth. When King Olaf had taken him prisoner and could neither with fair words nor with threats prevail on him to submit to be baptized, he at last cause a vessel of hot coals to be set upon Eyvind's stomach, in order that the dreadful torture might compel him. But Eyvind was even then inflexible. At length, when his body was bursted with the heat, he begged them to take off the vessel; he wished to say a few words before he died. The king asked again if he would believe in Christ. "No!" answered he, "I cannot receive baptism, even though I would. My father and mother had no children before they applied to the magic-skilled Finns. The latter told them that they should have a child, if they would promise under oath this child should serve Odin and Thor until the day of his death. They did as the Finns advised. I was born, and they gave me to Odin. So soon as I was able to judge for myself in anything, I renewed their vow. I have since that time, in all devotedness, served Odin, and I have become a mighty chieftain. Now I have been so many times given to Odin that I neither can nor will deceive him." With these words upon his lips Eyvind died. (15) When the Swedish King Eirik Sigrsæli (the Victorious) was on the eve of an important battle with his nephew Styrbjörn, and greatly feared the issue of the contest, he went in the night to Odin's temple and gave himself to the God in order to obtain the victory---though on condition that he should have ten years longer to live. (16) It is stated that this same King Eirik died ten years afterwards of sickness; (17) but in general it was certainly the belief of the heathen Northmen that they who were given or had given themselves to Odin must die a violent death, or at least be marked in their dying hour with the spear-point. The Leira-King Harald Hyldatand and King Vikarr of Hörðaland, both of whom had been given to Odin from their birth, ended their lives by a violent death; the former, it appears, by Odin's own hand, the latter by a special arrangement of Odin's.
Besides by the sacrifice of living beings, it was believed that the favor of the Gods might also be gained by gifts (fórn) to temples and idols, as well as by prayers and vows (heit) connected with them. Thus it is said of Hákon Jarl, when he wished to obtain for Sigmund Brestersson the protection of the Goddess Thorgerd Hörgabrúð, that he first cast himself down at the foot of her statue and lay there for a long time. He then arose and told Sigmund that he was to bring her an offering (fórn) of silver and lay it upon the footstool before her. But as the statue would not even then give the desired token of its good-will, the Jarl cast himself down before it again and then shed tears. Thereupon the statue gave the desired token by letting loose a gold ring which it bore upon its arm, and which the Jarl wished to take from it for Sigmund. (18) Before Thor's statue in a temple at Hundsthorp in Gudbrandsdal, the people placed every day four loaves of bread with the due proportion of meat, and they believed that the God consumed the food, when it was devoured by the vermin that found a retreat in the great hollow wooden statue. (19) When the heathen IcelanderHallfred Vandræðaskald wished to get quickly away from Norway, which Olaf Tryggvason was just then converting to Christianity, he and his seamen united in making vows to the Gods, in order to get a fair wind for any heathen country whatsoever, and they promised to give goods (fé) and three barrels of ale to Frey if they could get a fair wind for Sweden, or to Thor or Odin, if they came back to Iceland. (20) The purport of this gift we suppose to be, that there should be a banquet held at which they would drink the promised ale to the honor of the Gods they called upon. During a severe winter in Iceland, the people of Reykdal held a meeting at the house of the hofgoði Ljót, on the Thverá, and unanimously agreed to make vows in order to obtain a better state of weather. Ljót thought they ought to promise gifts to the temple, and to let the new-born infants be exposed and kill off the old people. But Askell, a pious chieftain, raised objections to this proposition. It would be better, said he, for them to promise, in honor of the Creator, to give property to support the aged and bring up the children. Askell's humane counsel was also followed. (21) Prayers were for the most part connected with the sacrifices, and it was believed that they must be uttered with great precision and care, wherefore the people mostly confined themselves to certain formulas which were composed by the priests most deeply initiated into the mysteries of Religion. (22) When they wished to pray right zealously, they cast themselves down with the face upon the ground before the image of the God.
Purifications were also among the sacred rites of the Northmen's worship, as we have seen in the above reference to the sacred Helgafell in Iceland, which no person could look upon before he had washed himself. (23) Not only water, but also fire, was esteemed a means of purification; hence the custom, at the sacrificial feasts, of bearing the filled horns around or between the fires before they emptied them. Fire was regarded with veneration, and the people consecrated landed property and appropriated it to themselves by passing around it with burning fire, the ceremony being performed by walking or riding around the place against the sun (andsœlis), i.e., from west to east, with a flaming brand. (24)
1. Snor.: Yngl. S. 8; Ib. Ol. Hel. S. 115.[Back]
2. Concerning Yule (Jól) see Snorri: Ynglinga Saga, 8; Hák. Góð. Saga. 15 and 19; Olaf Hel. Saga, 114 and 115, and Ol. Tryggv. Saga in Fornm. Sögur, 162, 165, 166; from which it appears that Yule and the Mid-winter Sacrifice were the same festival, and that the heathen Yule was held in January, therefore later than the Christian festival. Yule is doubtless the same festival that Procopius says the Thulites (Northmen) celebrated on the return of the sun, after it had been, at midwinter's time, forty days below the horizon. Proc. de Bell. Got. lib. II. cap. 15.[Back]
3. Snor.: Yngl. S. 8, Ol. Hel. S. 115.[Back]
4. Magnusen: Specimen Calendarii Gentilis in the 3d part of the Arna-Magnæan edition of the O. Edda, p. 1086, et al.[Back]
5. See Magnusen: Spec. Cal. Gentilis.[Back]
6. Snor.: Yngl. S. 29.[Back]
7. Ib. 47.[Back]
8. Jomsvík. S. 44, in Fornm. S. XI. p. 135.[Back]
9. Ol. Tr. S. Skalh. I. 179; the O. Edda: Sigurðar-kviða Fafnisbana, II. 26; Ragn. Lóðbr. S. 18; Norna Gests S. 6.[Back]
10. Landnmb. V. 11; Friðþ. S. 11.[Back]
11. Snor.: Yngl. S. 10.[Back]
12. Gautreks S. 1-2 in Fornald. S. III.[Back]
13. Fundinn Noreg. 1, in Fornald. S. II. p. 6.[Back]
14. Eyrb. S. 7 and 11.[Back]
15. Ol. Tr. S. in Fornm. S. 204.[Back]
16. Styrbjörn. þáttr, 2, in Fornm. S. V. p. 250.[Back]
17. Ol. Tr. S. in Fornm. S. I. p. 61.[Back]
18. Fareyinga S. 23.[Back]
19. Snor.: Ol. Hel. S. 118-119.[Back]
20. Ol. Tr. S. 154, in Fornm. S. p. 15.[Back]
21. Vemundar S. 7, in Íslendinga Sögur II., p. 248.[Back]
22. The O. Edda: Hávamál 145-146.[Back]
23. Chap. XX.[Back]
24. Hænsnaþóris S. 10; Viga-Gl. S. 26; Landnb. III. 6; V. 1, 3. [Back]