Because later Norse writers preserved myths but not religious rituals or practices, archaeology is the surest guide to what might remain of pre-Christian religion in Scandinavia. And yet, unfortunately, even relevant archaeological finds have been frustratingly meager. In fact, some important archaeological sites might be the remnants of important centers of worship.
The Norse Religious Site at Lunda
One such Norse religious site is Lunda in Sweden. Lunda, in fact, means ‘at the grove’, and there are many place-names in Sweden that contain this root, including the city of Lund.
Several other place-names with the -lund element contain gods’ names and suggest that prominent groves of trees might have been important worship sites, for example Fröslunda (‘Frey’s grove’) and Torslunda (‘Thor’s grove’).
The site at this particular place, plainly named Lunda, is a prominent hill, where, shortly before the Viking Age, during the 600s AD or so, there was a grove of trees on top that were left uncut, even as forests in the surrounding area were harvested for timber. Nearby was a large residence of aristocratic proportions and appearance, and an associated feasting hall.
Among the remnants of the grove on the hilltop were found the traces of many long-ago fires and burned clay, as well as glass beads. Bones of sheep, goats, and pigs, many of them charred, were found in heaps associated with the fires.
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The Hanged Men at Lund
Of these many finds, which were likely animal sacrifices, there are no dog bones (which are often buried along with human beings), and notably no human bones or typical grave items. And yet oddly, there are representations of human sacrifices in the form of small statuettes of hanged men.
These figurines, about an inch and a half tall, represent men, and apparently hanged men. While they don’t have any preserved rope around their necks, the figurines have necks that are pinched in a way that suggests that rope was there. Moreover, their toes are pointed downward as a hanged man’s would be, and the figures are shown as ithyphallic.
Symbolic Sacrifices in Norse Religion?
A similar figure, of about the same height and also from the centuries just before the Viking Age, was found at a site near Kymbo, Sweden.
This one does have a representation of a noose, with the rope made of gold.
We have to wonder if these figurines represent symbolic sacrifices of human beings, perhaps made to propitiate the gods with the form, if not the substance, of a human offering. We also may think of Odin’s association with hanging, and wonder if the object of propitiation was not Odin himself. Another possibility is that the hanged figures are meant to represent Odin himself, though they are not depicted as one-eyed.
Sculptures Representing Norse Gods
We also have some small sculptural likenesses—about the size of a chess piece—that are almost certainly meant to represent the gods.
One from Akureyri, in northern Iceland, made in about AD 1000, depicts a seated man with a long beard that turns into a characteristic Thor’s hammer near his feet. It is very likely that this depicts Thor himself. In fact, a similar item is described in the saga of a reluctant Christian convert named Hallfreth Trouble-Poet.
Another figurine, made about the same time as the Icelandic Thor figurine, and found in Rällinge, near Stockholm in Sweden, depicts a seated figure who is ithyphallic (although not hanged, as the previous ithyphallic figures, but rather seated)—often thought to represent Frey.
A German cleric known to history as Adam of Bremen described just such a representation of Frey—although this representation was huge.
Gold Temple at Uppsala
Adam wrote a broad history of the church over the centuries in northern Europe, and from his vantage point in the 1070s AD, paganism was only very recently extinguished in Sweden. Adam pauses only briefly in his book to discuss the ‘superstitions’ of the Swedes. His information is second-hand—based on the report of some unknown traveler who had been to Sweden, as Adam had not. But Adam’s report, second-hand though it is, contains tantalizing clues we find nowhere else.
Adam says the Swedes had a temple roofed in gold at Uppsala—the old capital of Sweden, and the last refuge of the polytheistic religion in Scandinavia. Now a literally golden roof does seem improbable, but perhaps it seemed golden from a distance because of fresh thatching.
Adam goes on to say that this temple was surrounded by a golden rope. Whether the rope was truly gold or only looked like it from afar, there are faint echoes of such a thing in the Eddas and sagas. In the anonymous The Saga of Egil Skalla-Grímsson, the Odinic runemaster and duelist, ‘ropes of the sacred site’ are stretched around a court in session—perhaps a reminder that human law is meant to echo divine judgments.
And the very word ropes can be used in Old Norse as a poetic synonym for ‘gods’—which might be explainable if sacred locales were roped off in the way Adam presents.
Common Questions about the Rituals and Practices of Norse Religion
Lunda is a prominent hill, where, shortly before the Viking Age, during the 600s AD or so, there was a grove of trees on top that were left uncut. Among the remnants of the grove on the hilltop were found the traces of many long-ago fires and burned clay, as well as glass beads. Bones of sheep, goats, and pigs, many of them charred, were found in heaps associated with the fires.
There are representations of human sacrifices in the form of small statuettes of hanged men. While these figurines don’t have any preserved rope around their necks, they have necks that are pinched in a way that suggests that rope was there. Moreover, their toes are pointed downward as a hanged man’s would be, and the figures are shown as ithyphallic.
Adam of Bremen says the Swedes had a temple roofed in gold at Uppsala. This temple was surrounded by a golden rope.