Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Vikings - the Old Religion.

The world before the new religion. 
Bjørn Nørgaard: The Viking Age. Tapestry, Christiansborg Castle
Ygdrasil, Silkeborg Museum
The Midgard Serpent, Silkeborg Museum

Johannes Gehrts: Valhalla

Iceland gave with  Vøluspa and Snorre Sturlasson great literature and a magnificent insight into the old religion of the Vikings. The ancient myths in the Edda,  all very different and from everywhere, old legends and religious traditions, foreign and local ideas and thinking, the story of the figths of gods and jotuns, the æsirs and the vanirs' pantheon. In the center is the residence of the gods, Asgard, where the major god Odin has his Valhalla with 640 gates and from where he in his high seat looks across all creation, and here is the bridge Bifröst, the trembling rainbow, that divides heaven from earth. Around the disc of the earth lies the ocean with the big monster, the Midgard Serpent, and by the faraway shores stretches the homeland of the Jotuns, Jotunheim with the castle Udgard. Under the disc of the earth is the kingdom of death, Hel. And in the corner is the mighty ash, Ygdrasil, in itself a worldly image of good and evil, of joy, sorrow and pain. Mighty is Ygdrasil. Its crown reaches the sky, its branches overshadow the earth, its three roots reach Hel and Jotunheim and down under Midgard, the world of humans. At the trunk of the ash is the spring of the god of wisdom, Mimir and the spring of the goddess of fate, Urd - in the branches sits the eagle, and between the eyes of the eagle is a hawk, paled by wind and weather; at the root of the ash a snake gnaws, and between the snake and the eagle a squirrel brings evil words up and down. Four deer bit off the young buds of the ash, and the trunk is rotting along the side. Indeed  - the ash Ygdrasil suffers more than humans know. But the norns give solace at Urd's well, where they pour water over the ash each day to prevent it from drying out. And the bees are nourished by Ygdrasil's honeydew. Upon a sacred place at Urd's spring are the gods gathering at the Thing, and here live the highest norns, the goddesses of past, present and future, Urd, Verdandi and Skuld. In the middle of the world, above the humans, lies the residence of the gods, where the families of the æsirs and vanirs live.
Dagfinn Werenskjold: The Norns, Oslo Town Hall.

Johannes Gehrts: Ragnarok
Lorenz Frölich: Heimdall.
Nothing exists forever, and when the gods have worked through their time, the final is near where everything and everyone shall pass away. The great poet of Vølvuspá describes life's final, and Snorre Sturlasson completes the picture. First evil times will come among humans, all desires are out: sword time, wolf time, whore time, brother and sister beget children and brother kills brother. The cocks crow in the halls of Odin, in Hel and in the sacrificial grove. Horror and scary grows, the time of the big monsters has come. The hellhound Garm howls, the Fenrirwolf is loose from his chain, his gap reaches from earth to heaven, the Midgard Serpent whips the ocean into foam and spits venom across the earth. The jotun Hrym comes across the ocean in the ship Naglfar, built from dead men's nails, and the Muspelsons sail out with Loki as their leader. The ash Ygdrasil is trembling, the sky is breaking, the rocks are falling, Jotunheim is rumbling, the dwarfs are whining. Odin scouts, Heimdall blows in his Gjallarhorn, the bridge Bifröst breaks, the jotun Surtr rushes forward with his flaming fire. Then comes the world's last great duels between gods and monsters.The Fenrirwolf swallows Odin, but is killed by his son Vidarr, who tramples his gap into bits with his heavy shoes. Thor kills the Midgard Serpent, but only walks nine steps before he falls and dies, poisoned by venom. Tyr and the dog Garm kill each other. Heimdall and Loki kill each other. Surtr kills Freyr and burns everything with his fire. The sun turns black and the stars go out. But hope lives. Earth rises from the ocean again. Two blameless among the æsirs, Balder and Hoder, return and live guiltless upon the golden Gimli. The eagle flies across the roaring cataract. A new sun shines over a new world.

The last words gives a clue about a new and victorious religion, the replacement of the ancient belief. Christianity is not mentioned at all, but the old religion feels and predicts its own final. It is all a great death- and resurrection drama.

The Gods
Arthur Rackham: Odin
Frölich-Lundbye-Skovgaard: Odin
The religion of the Nordic Vikings was polyeistic. They believed in many gods. Odin was the highest one, a magnificent, demonic, terrifying, sadistic figure. He is obsessed with a devouring craving after wisdom and he sacrifices his eye for it; he is merciless, capricious, callous, he is the god of war and of killed warriors. He owns the spear Gungnir, the self-renewing goldring Draupnir, the eight-legged black horse Sleipnir; he is guarded by his two wolves, Geri and Freki, and he receives news from everywhere by his two ravens Huginn and Muninn, (Thought and Memory). He consults the severed head of the wise Mimir, he discovers the runes and knows their power, he hunts in the night with his entourage across mountain, forest and field, he appears on the battlefield and for those dedicated to death as a tall, one-eyed figure, swept in a long, wide mantle and with a broad-brimmed hat. Odin is also the god of the scalds, he is the manager of the mysterious assignation, the great pathos, the rage of the soul. And he knows about witchcraft and Seid. Nothing in mind and soul is strange to him, he is the god of great people, he's an aristocrat and a dangerous god. To describe him as an Allfather might be true if he leads the seat among the æsirs, but if the Allfather is meant to be fatherly, loving and protecting, mild and understanding, then Odin is not the Allfather. His clientele among humans are kings, earls, chiefs, wizards, poets. Whoever is killed in the battlefield in Odin's name is brought by the valkyries to Valhalla to be incorporated in his incalculable crowd of warriors, the einherjars, who will assist Odin when Ragnarok comes. In order to reach his great purpose, the collection of all knowledge and wisdom , of all secrets and all hidden truth Odin will never miss anything, evasion, cunning, breach of promise; if he's hard to others he's just as hard to himself,  he covers a wide field, from cynical generosity till a Dionysian roaring of ferocity and ecstasy.

J.H. Füssli: Tor
Frölich-Lundbye-Skovgaard: Thor
There is a big distance from Odin till the next æsir god, his son Thor, the redbearded power guy with his goat-drawn chariot and his electric hammer, Mjölnir. He's the democrat where Odin is the aristocrat. If Odin takes care of the upper-class, Thor is the popular god. And if Odin might lack humor Thor has got plentiful of it. There are numerous myths and anecdotes about Thor, this strong and faithful protector of the Viking farmers; Thor, the big brawler - and the thunder rolls when Thor rushes above the clouds with his goat team. He is irrestible wherever he comes, eager to fight and with his hammer in his hand. But he is not cunning or sly. That's not his ways. The jotuns, who know about witchcraft, often bring him in trouble, but he always manages in the end. The Vikings invented colourful and wonderful adventures about his exploits: he fetches the giantic beer-vessel at Jotunheim, he fetches his stolen hammer, he goes fishing the Midgard Serpent himself, he experiences the weirdest adventures at the king of the jotuns, Utgarda-Loki, where he brings with him the sly Loki - without much luck anyway.  The farmers in the Viking period did like and understand Thor, he was important to the farmer,  he was the manager of crop and wellfare, he was the god of farming, and he seemed more necessary than Odin himself. It was Thor, not Odin who had to "vie runerne" ( bless the runes). It was characteristic that the heathen Vikings in the early Viking period chose Thor's hammer and not Odin's spear as a strong sign against the Christian cross. Thor was a more general god than Odin, he was invoked by many kinds of people, beside the farmer also by the blacksmith, the fisherman and the captain on the sea. He was closer to people,  more down-to-earth and familiar than the incomprehensible and remote Odin.

Tyr, Balder, Heimdall, Ull.
Frank Dicksee: Balder's Death.
Tyr is brave and frank, he loses a hand when the Fenrirwolf is being tied up, and he fights the hellhound Garm during Ragnarok. There is not much information about Tyr except that he's a main god together with Odin and Thor. He was possibly mostly worshipped in Denmark in the Viking period. The handsome blonde god Balder has a special position among the æsirs. He is son of Odin and Frigg. He is helpful and friendly, he has difficult dreams, his death is tragic, his ceremonial cremation, nature's complaint, the attempt of the æsirs to save him from Hel, Loki's evil trick and plot - the whole tale about Balder is a famous piece of the art of storytelling.  Another æsir is Heimdall, the god with the Gjallarhorn, he is alert, sharp-eyed and responsive, he is the watchman of the gods and the guardian of the bridge Bifröst. The god of hunting is Ull, a master of the longbow and of skiing. There are no myths about this deity.

The Vanirs
Bjørn Nørgaard: Freya
Three deities who are not æsirs are Njord, Freyr and Freya. They are vanirs and they belong to another and maybe older family of deities, they are representatives of a half surpressed religion, competing with the æsirs. the working area of Njord, Freyr and Freya is erotica, growth, breeding power, sensuality. They are ancient fertility gods. Njord is the god of seafaring and wind, and he gives prosperity and fertility. Freyr, Njord's son, is the god of intercourse, he is one of the most important gods in Norse paganism, he is highly associated with farming and weather. He has a statue in the temple of Uppsala , where he is fashioned with an immense phallus. Freya, sister of Freyr,  his female counterpart; her domain is love and fertility, she is a generous deity, she has a waggon drawn by cats, she is the death goddess of women, but half of the fallen warriors from the battle field are dedicated to her. The vanirs were very old in the North; they might be earlier than both Odin and Thor,  probably even before Tyr.

Arthur Rackham: Loki
The last god among the æsirs is Loki, half god and half devil; he was son of a jotun and a jotun woman, he begets three terrible monsters, the Midgard Serpent, the Fenrirwolf and Hel. Loki is sarcasm and corrosive satire, never humor, he knows about cunning and malice, but never about friendship, he can hurt, tease and hit and his attacks on all deities are without any mitigating elements. Loki is the psychopath among gods; he amuses himself by hurting people. He has like all intelligent slanderers a sharp eye for the weak points of his victims, and he owns all nuances of wickedness in his hatred of morality. But he's got a weak point himself. He is venturing too far and meets the catastrophe.

Carl. J. Bilmark: Uppsala hovet

The Cult.
There is not much knowledge about the Viking cults, the heathen services or the heathen temples,  only  few informations exist, partly archaeological, partly from literature, from Adam of Bremen, Tietmar of Merseburg and Snorre Sturlasson. There was a flowering heathen assembly in the big temple in Gamla Uppsala in Sweden. This temple was the heathen center and the strongest fortification against Christianity. It was dressed in gold outside and inside, a golden chain  hang above the roof, and the building was shining far away across the plain, where it was built. The plain was surrounded by mountains in a circle, like a theater. Inside were three statues, in the middle of the hall was Thor with Odin and Freyr on each side. Priests were assigned to the gods, they came carrying the sacrifice gifts from the people. If sickness and hunger threatened, they sacrificed to the idol Thor, if war to Odin, if a wedding had to be celebrated the sacrifice was for Freyr.

Carl Larsson: Midvinterblót
J. I. Lund: En Offerscene (Sacrifice)
Every ninth year was a common celebration in Gamla Uppsala. Living male creatures, humans, horses, dogs were sacrificed, nine of each, nine was a significant number. The blood of the victims had to reconcile the gods, the bodies were hung up in a grove close to the temple, humans, dogs and horses among each others. A Christian described how he had seen 72 bodies hanging in the grove. Close to the temple stands a large tree with branches stretching broad and wide, it is green both winter and summer, and no one knows what kind of tree it is. There is a spring where sacrifices are done, living humans are lowered down into the water, and if they don't come up, people's wish will be fullfilled. A sacrifice feast, celebrated each ninth year in January, is described in Lejre at Sjælland. 99 humans and 99 horses were sacrificed, and also dogs and cocks; these sacrifices had to give people protection against evil powers and to work as an atonement for evil deeds. A heathen holy sacrifice feast is called a blót. There was a blót feast in Trøndelag in Norway, where all peasants had to come and bring beer and borsemeat. The walls of the celebration hall were smeared with horseblood outside and inside, fire was lit on the floor and the horsemeat was cooked and distributed. The food had to be consecrated to Odin, Njord and Freyr and to the god Brage.

The Lesser Gods. 
Ethel Larcombe: Elves
But people also sacrificed to lower divine creatures like to the disirs and the elves. The disirs were secrecy female creatures, and it was best to keep on good terms with them and not neglect sacrificial gifts. The disirs warned about death and had to do with the worship of the dead; they protected the home and the crop of the field. The disirs were not always friendly, people were often afraid of them. The elves was the name of some lower deities, they were not exactly gods, but they were worshipped in house and home as protecting creatures. Other invisible creatures who lived close to humans were the vættirs and small trolls and pixies, but there was no actual worshipping of them.
Primitive cults.

Freyr, Swedish, Bronze
In isolated districts existed some primitive cults, described in a poem from the Edda called Volsapáttr (the chapter about Vølse) - this happens in the northernest Norway upon a lonely farm with six people, a farmer and his wife, their son and daughter and a thrall and a thrall woman. Vølse is the cut phallus from a horse, whish is kept carefully; the farmer's wife has conserved it with onions and herbs and swept it in linen; each evening the Vølse goes from hand to hand, and everyone talks to it in the form of a short spoke. This has bow become a custom, but one night king Olav the Holy arrives unexpectedly with a couple of travelling companions. He ends the phallus cult by throwing the Vølse to the farm dog and teach the family about Christianity. Cults and cases like this were not unique in a primitive Nordic peasantry.

Harald Bluetooth's rune stone in Jelling.
Christianity arrived and replaced the old religion; the heathen customs were forbidden or re-shaped into Christian customs. This did not happen in one blow, people kept on being loyal to the old gods and using the old customs for a long time, before they had accepted the new religion. The Christian church was relatively patient and wise, Freya was gradually replaced by Virgin Mary, and various Saints did fill in where it was needed. Everything clicked. Christianity had come to stay. Harald Bluetooth raised the great runestone in Jelling, Denmark's birth certificate. But this was actually meant for all of Scandinavia, although it is not certain that the farmer family in the northernest Norway had given up their primitive cult yet. Communication was a long-winding process at that time, and even in a little country like Denmark were isolated places, where people had not yet heard the latest news. Odin and Thor and the other Nordic gods were still alive for a long period, until they finally faded out. These ancient gods have experienced a certain revival during the latest years, which is quite astonishing. The history and the old legends about the Norse mythology are exciting and interesting and they can really catch the interest of almost everyone.

"The past is behind, learn from it. The future is ahead, prepare for it. The present is here, live it".       


Source: Johannes Brøndsted : Vikingerne, Gyldendal, 1960.

(click to enlarge pictures, especially the Carl Larsson: Midvinterblót).

Collection of pictures from Norrøn Billedkunst: Dagfinn Werenskjold, Bjørn Nørgaard, Lorenz Frölich, Frank Dickee, Ethel Larcombe, Arthur Rackham, Johannes Gehrts, J.H. Füssli, J.I. Lund, Carl Larsson. , Carl J. Bilmark
Photo Silkeborg Museum: stig bachmann nielsen,  


Carolyn said...

Beautiful and informative as alwasy, Grethe ́

just wow.... ;)

Carolyn said...

always ... Haaa

Joan said...

This is so interesting Grethe. I love mythology. The riches of the storytellers of old. Thank you.

Thyra said...

Hej Carolyn from Little Rock and Joan from New Zealand. Isn't it fantastic that we antipodes can write to each other in a second!!

Thank you very much for your nice comments both of you. I love the mythology too - it really talks to your imagination.

Grethe `)

Out on the prairie said...

I was familiar with the myths, but not the beautiful artwork. I have been intrigued with the culture for a long time, and even more having read about a rune stone in Love,Olkalohoma from 1000.So much for the columbus discovery of the new world in 1492.

Thyra said...

Thank you very much Steve, yes it would be great if there were more sources, but unfortunately there are too little facts from that time. Do you have spring now, Steve? It's really beginning to be lovely and sunny here now! So many spring flowers in the gardens!
Grethe ´)

MyMaracas said...

What a rich and colorful mythology. I really enjoyed reading about this, as well as all the photos.

Thyra said...

Hej Maracas, it's so nice to see you here again, it's a long time ago. I'm glad you like the stuff about the Nordic mythology.

Best wishes
Grethe ´)