By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
Stories of Norse gods abound. But we know not much about the religious practices. And even where a genuine medieval written source means to give us a little information about religion, it’s much less than what the interested reader today wants. An example is the famous Icelandic Book of Settlements. It recounts what it calls the beginning of “the old heathen laws”.
“Old Heathen Laws”
Instead, the Icelandic Book of Settlements about Norse practices gives us a reminder that men ought not to sail toward land with the frightening dragon heads of their Viking ships’ prows up. They, instead, ought to take those dragon heads down as they near land. The reason given is that the ‘land spirits’ might take fright and cause trouble for the seafarers.
No such “land spirits” are conspicuous players in any preserved myth, but this might well constitute a memory of a cult of minor supernatural beings who were regarded as guardians or at least denizens of particular places.
Norse Myths and Land Spirits
In the one other place where such beings are mentioned in literature, it’s also in the context of laying down a curse. The Icelandic Viking Egil Skallgrimsson, in the anonymous saga written about him in Iceland in the 1200s, murders the child of the hated king of Norway, Eirik Bloodaxe. Before sailing back home to Iceland, he erects a wooden pole, topped by a horse’s bleeding head, and carves a curse in runes on it. The curse asks these ‘land spirits’ to have no rest until they have chased the king and queen of Norway out of their own kingdom.
Perhaps these beings were something like the satyr or faun of Classical myth, or the prominent woodland spirits of Slavic-speaking areas, or the ‘woodwose’ or ‘wild man’ told of in other parts of medieval Western Europe.
Oath on Golden Ring
Another practice mentioned in the ‘old heathen laws’ in the Book of Settlements is a heavy golden ring on which men were expected to swear their most binding oaths. For such an occasion, this ring was dipped in the blood of an ox sacrificed by the attending priest, and in the presence of witnesses, he was to call on the aid of gods. This might remind us of saying something like “So help me God” when swearing oaths in a court.
But the specific gods you were to swear this oath on were Njorth and Frey—father and son, two Vanir gods—as well as, quote, “the almighty one of the Aesir”. It is not easy to know which god is meant here. Odin is the head of the Aesir family, but ‘almighty’ could make us think more of his fighter son Thor. Or perhaps, someone else entirely is intended in the oath.
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Norse God Ull
In one of the poems of the Volsungs legends in the Poetic Edda, the very old poem “Atlakvitha”, an oath is sworn on the ring of Ull. This god is mentioned in a couple other places in the Poetic Edda, always in terms just as vague—Ull owns a certain hall, Ull will favor a certain good man.
Snorri knows almost nothing of Ull. He calls Ull a good skier and a good archer. This is not much to go on. Although, in the way that many desperate modern commentators have tried to find roles for all the gods mentioned even once in the Eddas, Ull has come to be called the ‘god of winter’ in many recent books and websites. So many, in fact, that Breckenridge, Colorado has named its major annual skiing festival the Ullr Fest, using the original Old Norse spelling of his name.
This is too much to read into the few paltry mentions the Eddas give us of this god. But Ull must have once been more important, because Norway and Sweden have numerous farms and natural landmarks named for him—Ull’s Acre, Ull’s Valley, Ull’s Hill. While not as many as the thousands of such places named for Thor, there are more places named for Ull than for Odin. And intriguingly, places named for Ull, Frey, and Njorth often cluster together.
Was Ull a Procedural God?
Could it be that we know so little about Ull because he was primarily a procedural god—presiding over oaths and other ritual functions—rather than a god that stories were told about?
If Ull presided over oaths, as the poem Atlakvitha in the Poetic Edda hints, Ull could well be the ‘almighty one of the Aesir’ that the Book of Settlements counsels men to swear by.
But it is sobering to note that the Eddas would never lead us to assign an important role to him—it’s only the additional, indirect evidence provided by the frequency and locations of Ull in place-names that leads us to wonder if he had such a role.
Common Questions about the Icelandic Book of Settlements
A practice mentioned in the ‘old heathen laws’ in the Book of Settlements is a heavy golden ring on which men were expected to swear their most binding oaths. For such an occasion, this ring was dipped in the blood of an ox sacrificed by the attending priest, and in the presence of witnesses, he was to call on the aid of gods.
Snorri calls Ull a good skier and a good archer. In many recent books and websites, Ull has come to be called the ‘god of winter’.
Breckenridge, Colorado, has named its major annual skiing festival the Ullr Fest, using the original Old Norse spelling of his name. In Norway and Sweden, there are numerous farms and natural landmarks named for him—Ull’s Acre, Ull’s Valley, Ull’s Hill.