Old Norse Mythology—Comparative Perspectives

  Hermann, Pernille, Stephen A. Mitchell, and Jens Peter Schjødt, eds., with Amber J. Rose. 2017. Old Norse Mythology—Comparative Perspectives. Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature 3. Cambridge, MA: Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_HermannP_etal_eds.Old_Norse_Mythology.2017.

The Æsir and Their Idols

Jonas Wellendorf, University of California, Berkeley

Abstract: Accounts of the destruction of cult figures are conventional narratives that present a standardized sequence of events, although details may vary from one text to the other. The multitude and longevity of such accounts show that they remained popular through millennia. The standard polemic against cult figures includes lines such as “They have feet, but they will not walk” (Ps. 113: 15). This article discusses accounts of confrontations with idols in the Norse world. Although these accounts adhere to the conventions of such narratives, cult figures in Old Norse literature have been granted an unusual degree of agency. With this agency in mind, the article moves to the mythic sphere and briefly discusses examples of animated creations of gods as well as giants.


In the early eighteenth century, a vicar of Western Telemark in central Norway visited the farm Flatland. An evil plague had struck the farmer, his family, and all of his livestock. As if this were not enough, the farmer’s harvest had failed. The vicar soon discovered that the farmer harbored an ancient idol that had survived through generations, and with a fervor proper to the pietistic spirit of his time, the clergyman smote the ulcerous member of his flock with the lightning of the godly word. The farmer reluctantly admitted giving shelter to the idol, but he denied ever having directed any worship towards it. As the vicar was shown to the place where the abominable object was kept, he was horrified to see a decaying piece of wood onto which a hoary chisel ignorant of heaven had sculpted something not quite resembling a human face. The wooden idol, it turned out, was known by the name of Gudmund. The vicar commanded that it be destroyed, but when no one reacted, he seized an axe, chopped the worm-eaten idol to pieces and burned it. The farmer afterwards mended his ways, and all were healed.

This lightly paraphrased account of the destruction of the idol Gudmund comes to us through Everriculum fermenti veteris, or “Broom for Cleaning out Old Sourdough”, published by the Danish theologian Erik Pontoppidan in 1737 (pp. 12–14). Pontoppidan, who seven years later became bishop of Bergen, Norway, had heard the story from the son of the idol-shattering vicar. This dramatic sequence of events reflects a long and unbroken tradition. Although the extent to which backward peasants in inland Norway venerated cult figures in the early eighteenth century, some seven hundred years after the official conversion to Christianity, is difficult to determine with any certainty, this account of meeting with and destruction of a pagan idol is highly conventional, and numerous parallel accounts can be found in both early Christian and medieval texts from Europe and elsewhere. [1]

Most of the medieval Scandinavian texts that describe the veneration of cultic figures participate in and reflect a dominant discourse in which such images are idols or false gods. The original meaning of the Greek word εἴδωλον (idol) was simply “image” or “likeness”, and Old Norse texts might use a similarly neutral term, such as líkneski, which means the exact same thing: “likeness”. While the Greek term was adopted into Latin (ydolum or ydolon) and used alongside Latin simulacrum (image, effigy) as a negatively loaded term, Old Norse líkneski is unbiased and can be used of idols or pagan cult figures as well as of painted wooden sculptures of saints—a líkneski can be a representation of Þórr as well as of the Virgin Mary (though not both simultaneously). There is even an Icelandic text of the early fourteenth century that is known as Líkneskjusmíð (The Making of a Likeness). In this fragmentary text, one finds a somewhat detailed set of instructions for making a líkneski: “Fyrst skaltu gera af trénu sem þú vilt ok þurrka áðr sem bezt” (Líkneskjusmíð p. 7) (First you shall cut off a piece of the wood as you please, having dried it carefully). [2] The text goes on to explain how the graven image shall be decorated with silver, paint, and so on. It goes without saying that the líkneski that results from following these directions will be a sculpture rather than an idol. [3] But history has, I think, taught us that the classification of graven images as idols or sculptures is in many cases a matter of perspective and, as we shall see later on, it can also depend on the subsequent use of the líkneski. Less ambivalent than líkneski are terms such as trémaðr (wooden man) and skurðgoð (carved god). These designations may safely be considered the Old Norse equivalents of our “idol”, and the same goes for the truncated form goð ([pagan] god).


Although the idols themselves were considered lifeless, idolatry would be catalyzed by another kind of life that might take up residence in the idols in the form of evil spirits or demons. According to the standard hagiographic narratives, demons usurped the veneration offered to idols. Being essentially empiricists, idolaters would be more likely to offer veneration to an idol if the veneration seemed to pay off in some way. Idolatry therefore had to be beneficent to the idolater, or at least appear to be beneficent in the short term. If not, it might be difficult to see the point of venerating any particular idol. The Old Norse saga of Bartholomew illustrates this point:

Á því landi [sc. Indíalandi] var blótat skurðgoð þat er hét Astaroð. Í því skurðgoði var djǫfull sá er sagðisk grœða sjúka menn, en þá eina grœddi hann er hann meiddi ipse, þvíat landsmenninir kunnu non sannan goð, ok urðu þeir af því tældir af ósǫnnum goði. En inn lygni goð tælir svá þá er non kunnu inn sanna goð at hann kastar á þá sóttum ok meinum ok skǫðum ok gefr svǫr ór skurðgoðum at þeir blóti honum. En þá sýnisk heimskum mǫnnum sem hann grœði þá er hann lætr af at meiða þá. En hann bergr engum, sed grandar hann ok sýnisk þá bjarga er hann lætr af at meiða. (Barthólómeus saga postula pp. 99–100)

(In India sacrifices were made to the idol Astaroth. A devil who said that he could heal the sick was in that idol, but he only healed those whom he himself had made sick. The Indians were ignorant of the true God, and a false god therefore deceived them. The mendacious god deceives those who did not know the true God by casting onto them illnesses, diseases, and harms, and he speaks from idols in order that they may make sacrifices to him. And the foolish pagans think that he heals them when he stops harming them. In fact, he heals no one; he harms and appears to heal when ceases to harm.)

The demon who dwells in Astaroth has remarkable powers, but his demonic nature ensures that, strictly speaking, he can do no good: rather, he can do evil and stop doing evil. The demon residing in the idol is capable of making the idol speak or, at least, of speaking from the idol, but he seems unable to animate it further. In the end, according to the saga, the demon is forced to leave, and the empty wooden effigy is subsequently smashed.

Among Scandinavians

During the mission to Scandinavia, the thousand-year-old discourse on idolatry was, as it had been elsewhere, confronted with vigorous and living cultic practices different from those it had aimed at originally. This discourse sought to impose its particular and, at this point in time, fairly rigid cognitive model onto these practices. As far as we can judge from the preserved Old Norse texts, the teachings received by medieval Scandinavians reflected less sophisticated reasoning about idols, such as those found in the saga of Bartholomew, quoted above. The idols in these hagiographic texts are of the empty lifeless kind, unable to help themselves, let alone their worshippers. They might be inhabited by demons, but in such cases the demons are rather weak and incapable of mounting an effective defense when confronted with hostile missionaries. The ubiquity of pagan idols in conversion episodes ensured that the intended audience of such texts knew what an idol was supposed to be, and authors writing about conversion efforts could therefore refrain from describing them in great detail. Thus, as a kind of shorthand, one often encounters statements to the effect that the missionary “destroyed idols”. One example of this is found among Styrmir Kárason’s articuli (no. 23):

This passage is interesting, among other reasons, because Styrmir—if the articuli do indeed stem from his otherwise lost saga about St. Óláfr—idiosyncratically attributes particular cults to each of the Germanic-speaking peoples of northwestern Europe, except the Norwegians, who had embraced the cults of all of these peoples, apparently without having their own particular brand of idolatry or their own supreme god.

In the account about the destruction of Dala-Guðbrandr’s idol of Þórr, the traditional polemic has been seamlessly inserted into a more elaborate account that exhibits features we normally connect with generic saga form and style (see Andersson 1988). One can observe a similar tendency in other accounts of overturning idols in Old Norse literature, such as the mǫrg skurðgoð (many idols) destroyed by Finnr in Sveins þáttr ok Finns (p. 103). [15] In this tale, Sveinn is a devoted idolater and keeps a sanctuary full of idols where Þórr (or an idol of Þórr) occupies the place of pride. Sveinn’s difficult son, Finnr, is characterized as a bit of a loner. He is meddlesome, garrulous, self-assertive, and generally unruly. Although he is pagan, he loathes idols, and he persistently overturns and mocks the idols in his father’s sanctuary, calling them cross-eyed, dusty, and unable to be of assistance to anyone, even themselves. At one point, Finnr swears an oath that he will find the highest king. He sets out, succeeds, and then returns to his father’s sanctuary towards the end of the story. In the temple, Þórr senses that something is brewing. Distressed, he shows himself to one of the people of the farm in a dream and asks to be hidden away in a nearby forest, but he does so in vain. The next day, Finnr strides towards the temple:

Tók hann í hǫnd sér rótakylfu mikla ok gekk til hofsins. Þar var þá allt fornligt, um gætti hurðajárn ryðug ok allt heldr ófáguligt. Hann gekk inn ok skýfði goðin af stǫllunum. En reytti ok ruplaði af þeim allt þat er fémætt var ok bar í belginn. Finnr sló Þór .iij. hǫgg með kylfunni sem mest mátti hann áðr hann fell. Síðan lagði hann band um hals honum ok dró hann eptir sér til strandar, ok lét hann koma á bát. Fór hann svá til fundar við Óláf konung at hann hafði Þór lǫngum á kafi útbyrðis. Stundum barði hann hann. En er konungr sá þetta sagði hann Finn eigi fara vegliga með Þór. Finnr svarar: “Þat sýnisk í því at mér hefir lengi illa líkat við hann, ok skal hann enn hafa verri ok verðugari viðfarar”. Klauf hann þá Þór í skíður einar, lagði í eld ok brenndi at ǫsku. Síðan fekk hann sér laug nǫkkurn. Kastaði þar á ǫskunni ok gerði af graut. Þann graut gaf hann blauðum hundum ok mælti: “Þat er makligt at bikkjur eti Þór svá sem hann sjalfr sonu sína”. (pp. 113–114)

(He grabbed a great club and went to the temple. Everything there looked worn out, rusty door hinges on the doorframe, and all was quite tarnished. He entered and pushed the gods off their pedestals. He stripped and robbed them of all valuables and put them in his skin bag. Finnr struck Þórr three times as hard as he could with the club before he fell. He then tied a rope around the neck of Þórr, dragged him down to the beach and had him put on a boat. On his way to meet King Óláfr, Finnr often keelhauled Þórr, and occasionally he gave him a battering. When the king saw this, he remarked that Finnr did not handle Þórr with care, to which Finnr replied: “From this one can see that I have long had a dislike for him, and he will be given an even worse and more warranted treatment”. Then he clove Þórr into small pieces, cast them in the fire, and burned them to ashes. After this, he got hold of some water, into which he threw the ashes, and made a porridge that he fed to the bitches, saying: “It is only fitting that bitches devour Þórr, just as he devours his sons”.)

Finnr acts aggressively throughout the narrative. He becomes an overzealous follower of King Óláfr, and when the king seeks to convert the Norwegians to Christianity, Finnr, who accompanies him, was often so “óðr ok ákaf at helt við váða þeim er eigi gerðu skjótt hans vilja” (p. 114) (furious and violent that he almost killed those who did not immediately do as he wished). Despite his generally bellicose nature, Finnr’s rage towards the idol is so extraordinary that even King Óláfr Tryggvason himself, who is not otherwise known for his gentleness towards non-Christian practices, is astonished by Finnr’s fury and comments on it. Given that the idol is lifeless, powerless, and empty, it would seem that Finnr goes to extreme lengths in order to destroy it as completely as he does. [
16] However, the metaphysics of cultic figures is complicated. The tale begins by identifying the objects venerated by Sveinn as skurðgoð (idols), but it immediately slips into speaking of them as simply goð (god/gods). The individual idols are referred to as Þórr or Óðinn, the only gods mentioned by name in the text. The text thus illustrates the common slippage from the representation to the represented that is so amply attested throughout the traditional polemic against idols. Sign and signified are united: the god becomes the idol, and the idol becomes the god. In the eyes of the newly converted Finnr, the idol is much more than a powerless piece of wood. It is the god himself, but he is false and utterly impotent. [17] The standard doctrine held that demons took possession of idols and imbued them with a kind of partial life. But the tale about Sveinn and his son Finnr does not mention demons. Þórr is not a demon. He is pagan god who is as real as the god of the Christians, but he is obviously much weaker. [18]

In narratives such as these, demons/pagan gods are normally able to speak from the idol and appear to worshippers in dreams, but they are generally unable to animate the idols further. [19] However, some Old Norse idols have greater powers, and they are so mǫgnut (imbued with strength/power) that they are capable of locomotion. One example of this is provided by the well-known Ǫgmundar þáttr dytts. In this tale, a certain Gunnarr helmingr, a Christian Norwegian, dresses up as the pagan god Freyr and accepts offerings of gold, silver, and fine clothing from the Swedes. First, however, he has to defeat the animated idol of Freyr: “Hafði Freyr þar verit mest blótaðr lengi ok svá var mjǫk magnat líkneski Freys at fjandinn mælti við menn ór skurðgoðinu” (p. 13) (Great sacrifices had for a long time been made to Freyr in that place, and the image of Freyr had grown so strong that the devil spoke to people from the idol). The idol, or the devil who resides in it, is able to cast sour looks in Gunnarr’s direction. At one point, the idol even attacks Gunnarr, and a wrestling match follows. So, the vivacity of a particular effigy may increase in proportion to the degree to which it is magnat or imbued with strength/power through worship. A pious impulse saves Gunnarr, and as he brings down the idol, the devil takes flight. All that is left is an empty piece of wood. [20] It is at this point that Gunnarr dresses up as the idol. The Swedes rejoice when they see that their god is even more vigorous than before: he eats, drinks, talks, and is even able to impregnate his priestess—and they continue to venerate Freyr with sacrifices (p. 16). When the time is ripe, Gunnarr flees Sweden and returns to Norway with his priestess. She is baptized, and they live piously ever after.

The tale of Rǫgnvaldr and Rauðr presents us with an even further invigorated idol and tells how the resolute idolater Rauðr makes such great sacrifices to an idol of Þórr that “the devil spoke to Rauðr from the idol and moved it so that the idol was often seen walking outside with Rauðr during the days”. [21] This liveliness almost evaporates when King Óláfr Tryggvason makes his way to Rauðr’s island. The idol becomes rather despondent, and when faced with the king, it loses all its might. A central scene in this story depicts Óláfr Tryggvason’s standoff with the idol. Rauðr arranges a wrestling match close to a fire between King Óláfr and the rather unenthusiastic, dispirited idol:

Þórr gekk at eldinum, ok var þó tregr til. Tokusk þeir konungr í hendr ok sviptusk fast. Þórr lét fyrir. Drap hann fótum í eldstokkana ok steyptisk á eldinn framm. (p. 332)

(Þórr walked towards the fire even though he was reluctant. He and the king grabbed each other’s arms and wrestled hard. Þórr yielded, stumbled over the firebrands, and tumbled forward into the fire.)

This text once again illustrates the doctrine that the idols themselves are powerless and that when they do exhibit some kind of power, it is caused by a devil who moves in once the sacrifices reach an appropriate level. [
22] When confronted with missionaries, the pagans expect their idols to act, but it lies at the very heart of such stories that the idols are destined to be unsuccessful; conversion tales deal after all with successful missionary efforts. Outside the context of mission and conversion, beings created by human hands can occasionally be more effective. One example is found near the conclusion of Ragnars saga loðbrókar. In this saga, a group of sailors lands on Sámsey in Denmark and finds a colossal old idol completely covered in moss as they explore the island. The sailors are discussing the origin of this trémaðr (wooden man) among themselves when they are interrupted by the effigy, which explains in poetic form that it had been erected long ago by the sons of King Ragnarr and that sacrifices were made to it “for the deaths of men in Sámsey in the South”. [23] The idol in this anecdote is not, and has not been, confronted by a zealous missionary. Therefore it is not predetermined to suffer ridicule and destruction. It is simply presented as an ancient relic of times long past. [24] The fact that the idol is overgrown with moss, on the other hand, should be taken as a sign that the idol suffers from a lack of veneration.

This story has nothing to say about veneration of Þorgarðr, and he is made for the explicit purpose of being sent to Iceland in order to fulfill a specific task. For these reasons, it is obvious that he should not be considered an idol. Nevertheless, we do find some of the same elements as in stories about idols: Þorgarðr is fashioned by human hands and in the image of his maker, he is magnaðr or imbued with strength/power, and the human agent is confident that the effigy will be successful. Jarl Hákon is generally portrayed as a reprehensible character in Old Norse literature, but in this particular anecdote he is successful in his undertaking and is able to exact what the earl must have considered a suitable revenge upon the Icelander Þorleifr jarlsskáld. Had the anecdote involved a confrontation with a Christian missionary rather than a pagan skald, the outcome would surely have been different, but in the pagan context in which the acts of the earl are portrayed, they cannot be considered immediately objectionable. We might even see the account about the how the long dead Saint Mercurius killed Julian the Apostate with his spear as a parallel (Maríu saga pp. 699–702).

Another textual passage that alerts us to the considerable size of the gray zone between idols and other kinds of effigies can be found in the Old Norwegian law of the Eiðsífaþing district. Chapter 24 of the longer version of this law, Eiðsifaþingslǫg: Kristinn réttr hinn forni, contains a series of uniquely interesting paragraphs on cult figures and other practices that are forbidden according to Christian law:

24.1. Engi maðr skal hafa í húsi sínu staf eða stalla, vit eða blót, eða þat er til heiðins siðar veit.


24.3. Nú ef blót er funnit í húsi láslausu, matblót eða leirblót gert í mannslíki af leiri eða af deigi, þá skal hann þaðan leysa brott með lýrittareiði, sekr .iij. mǫrkum ef eiðr fellsk.

24.4 En ef funnit er í lásum, í kerum eða kistum, í byrðum eða í ǫrkum, þá er sá útlægr er þeim lykli varðveitir er at gengr. (p. 24)

(24.1 In his house, no man is allowed to have a stafr or a stalli or vitt or blót or that which belongs to pagan practice.

24.3. Now, if a blót is found in an unlocked house, a matblót or a leirblót formed out of clay or dough in the shape of a man, he [the owner] shall free himself from this with a lýritt-oath; he is fined three marks if the oath fails.

24.4 But if it is found under lock, in vats, or chests, in boxes or cases, then the one who keeps the proper key is an outlaw.

Although the paragraphs are difficult to translate, it is clear that they prohibit the possession of a stafr (a wooden staff with some kind of representation of a deity?), a stalli (altar?), vitt and blót, which might be designations for items used for sorcery and sacrifices or perhaps objects to which sacrifices are made. The following paragraph shows that the sacrifices/objects to which sacrifices are made (blót) might be made out of dough or clay and given an anthropomorphic shape. The import of the passage is plain: there is a clear interdiction against making effigies of dough or clay and perhaps of wood as well. The purpose of these various kinds of effigies might differ from one item to another, but not so much that the lawmaker could not treat them in the same paragraph.

Among Their gods

Within this archetypal sphere, the Æsir themselves both build and preside over temples and altars in the world of the gods. [28] In Hymiskviða st. 1 and elsewhere, the collective of the gods also performs acts of divination. In spite of this, the available sources do not appear to tell to whom these altars were dedicated, towards whom the Æsir direct their questions or from whom they might expect an answer. It might be that there are no gods of the second degree, gods of gods so to speak, and that the gods erect altars where they can sacrifice to themselves or perhaps perform some kind of autosacrifice, offering up themselves to themselves as Óðinn is said to have done (cf. Hávamál st. 138). Another possibility is that it is the inscrutable All-father, the one who according to Jafnhár in Gylfaginning created heaven, earth, the air, and everything there is in them. This might then in a second move lead to ideas of an original monotheism, of prisca theologia, or of some kind of influence from Christian theology. Other potential candidates for the gods of gods might be the Norns, since even the Æsir had to abide by their decrees. One is therefore not unjustified in thinking that the Æsir might try to appease them—or some other mythological power whom the gods are unable to control—through sacrifice. Xenophanes of Colophon famously criticized the cult of the gods and the myths about them for being projections of human conduct and characteristics onto a divine power that had no countenance and was far elevated over the petty concerns of humans. He claimed that if cattle and horses had hands they would depict their gods in the shape of cattle and horses. Xenophanes’s line of thought could in this case lead to the conclusion that the gods, who are essentially anthropomorphic, have altars because humans have altars.

I wish to stress the importance of perspective by returning to Gudmund, the idol who might have been venerated by Norwegian peasants in the early eighteenth century. In 1959, the Norwegian folklorist Olav Bø devoted a long study to the traces of early modern Norwegian idolatry. He argued that the effigies mentioned by Pontoppidan and a number of other sources did not originate as images of pagan gods but were originally statues of saints or remains of supporting pillars of stave churches with humanoid faces carved onto them. In the wake of the Reformation, churches were purged of their old papist interiors, including figures of saints. Some of these effects fell into disuse and were repurposed. The status of the statues of the saints then was unstable, just like that of the Old Norse gods and their cult figures had been centuries before. The post-Reformation material allows us to follow the development of their ontological standing more closely and through additional reversals of fortune. Like the Old Norse gods and their statues, the statues of saints were degraded to idols and discarded, but some were salvaged and elevated to gods by peasants, only to be degraded once again to idols and smashed by zealous Lutheran vicars.

Accounts of the destruction of idols are conventional narratives that present a standardized sequence of events, although details may vary from one text to the other. The multitude and longevity of such accounts show that they remained popular through millennia. At the same time, these accounts are often stereotypical to such an extent that it is an insurmountable challenge to penetrate the layers of convention and uncover a historical reality in which representations of pagan gods lost their divine status and came to be identified as idols. The texts discussed in this article nevertheless demonstrate how the undoubtedly long and complex process of conversion to Christianity came to be remembered as a series of stand-offs between champions of the Church and of the pagans.

Works cited

Primary sources

Barbǫru saga

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Barthólómeus saga postula

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Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda I. Ed. Guðni Jónsson. Reykjavík: 1959. Pp. 219–85.

Rǫgnvalds þáttr ok Rauðs

Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta. Ed. Ólafur Halldórsson. Editiones Arnamagnæanæ, ser. A. 3 vols. 1958–2000. I: 313–33.

Separate Saga of St. Óláfr

Saga Óláfs konungs hins helga: Den store saga om Olav den Hellige efter pergamentshåndskrift i Kungliga biblioteket i Stockholm nr. 2 4 to , med varianter efter andre håndskrifter. Ed. Oscar Albert Johnsen and Jón Helgason. 2 vols. Oslo: 1941.


Snorri Sturluson. Edda: Skáldskaparmál. Ed. Anthony Faulkes. 2 vols. London: 1998.


Stjórn. Ed. Reidar Astås. 2 vols. Norrøne tekster, 8. Oslo: 2009.

Sveins þáttr ok Finns

Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta. Ed. Ólafur Halldórsson. Editiones Arnamagnæanæ, ser. A. 3 vols. Copenhagen: 1958–2000. II: 102–14.

Tveggja postula saga Pétrs ok Páls

Postola sögur: Legendariske fortællinger om Apostlenes liv, deres kamp for kristendommens udbredelse samt deres martyrdød. Ed. C. R. Unger. Christiania: 1874. Pp. 283–318.

Vatnsdœla saga

Íslenzk fornrit, 8. Ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson. Reykjavík: 1939. Pp. 1–131.


Einarr Helgason skálaglamm. Ed. Finnur Jónsson. In Den norsk-islandske skjaldedigtning. Copenhagen: 1912–1915. AI: 122–31, BI: 117–24.

Vafþrúðnismál: see Poetic Edda

Vǫluspá: see Poetic Edda

Þorleifs þáttr jarlsskálds

Íslenzk fornrit, 9. Ed. Jónas Kristjánsson. Reykjavík: 1956. Pp. 213–29.

Ǫgmundar þáttr dýtts

Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta. Ed. Ólafur Halldórsson. Editiones Arnamagnæanæ, ser. A. 3 vols. Copenhagen: 1958–2000. II: 1–18.

Secondary Sources

Andersson, Theodore M. 1988. “Lore and Literature in a Scandinavian Conversion Episode.” In Idee, Gestalt, Geschichte: Festschrift Klaus von See: Studien zur europäischen Kulturtradition. Ed. Gerd Wolfgang Weber. Odense. Pp. 261–84.

Bremmer, Jan N. 2013. “The Agency of Greek and Roman Statues.” Opuscula: Annual of the Swedish Institutes at Athens and Rome 6: 7–21.

Bø, Olav. 1959. “Faksar og kyrkjerestar.” By og bygd. Norsk folkemuseums årbok (1957–58) 12: 43–76.

Dick, Michael B. 1999. “Prophetic Parodies of Making the Cult Image.” In Born in Heaven, Made on Earth: The Making of the Cult Image in the Ancient Near East. Ed. Michael B. Dick. Winona Lake, Indiana. Pp. 1–53.

Grønlie, Sian. 2013. “Þáttr and Saga: The Long and the Short of Óláfr Tryggvason.” Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 9: 19–36.

Kirby, Ian J. 1976–1980. Biblical Quotations in Old Icelandic-Norwegian Religious Literature. 2 vols. Rit, 9–10. Reykjavík.

Liberman, Anatoly. 2009. “Þjalfi.” In Approaching the Viking Age: Proceedings of the International Conference on Old Norse Literature, Mythology, Culture, Social Life and Language, 11–13 October, Vilnius, Lithuania. Ed. Ērika Sausverde and Ieva Steponavičiūtė. Vilnius. Pp. 95–116.

Meulengracht Sørensen, Preben. 2001. “Sagan um Ingólf og Hjörleif: Athugasemðir um söguskoðun íslendinga á seinni hluta þjóðveldisaldar.” In At fortælle historien: Studier i den gamle nordiske litteratur. Trieste. Pp. 11–25. First published in Skirnir (1974) 148: 20–40.

Myrup Kristensen, Troels. 2013. Making and Breaking Gods: Christian Responses to Pagan Sculpture in Late Antiquity. Aarhus Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity, 12. Århus.

Patton, Kimberly Christine. 2009. Religion of the Gods: Ritual, Paradox and Reflexivity. Oxford.

Roth, Wolfgang M. W. 1975. “For Life He Appeals to Death (Wis 13: 18): A Study of Old Testament Idol Parodies.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 37: 21–47.

van der Sanden, Wijnand A. B., and Torsten Capelle. 2002. Götter, Götzen, Holzmenschen. Archäologische Mitteilungen aus Nordwestdeutschland, 39. Oldenburg.

Schjødt, Jens Peter. 2008. Initiation between Two Worlds: Structure and Symbolism in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religion. The Viking Collection, 17. Odense.

Stitt, Michael J. 1998. “Ambiguity in the Battle of Þórr and Hrungnir.” In Telling Tales: Medieval Narratives and the Folk Tradition. Ed. Francesca Canadé Sautman, Diana Conchado, and Guiseppe Calo Di Scipio. New York. Pp. 121–36.

Wais, Kurt. 1952. “Ullikummi, Hrungnir, Armilus und Verwandte.” In Edda, Skalden, Saga: Festschrift zum 70. Geburtstag von Felix Genzmer. Ed. Hermann Schneider. Heidelberg. Pp. 211–61.

Wellendorf, Jonas. 2010a. “The Interplay of Pagan and Christian Traditions in Icelandic Settlement Myths.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 109(1): 1–21.

———. 2010b. “The Attraction of the Earliest Old Norse Vernacular Hagiography.” In Saints and Their Lives on the Periphery: Veneration of Saints in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe (c. 1000–1200). Ed. Haki Antonsson and Ildar Garipzanov. Turnhout. Pp. 241–58.


[ back ] 1. Olav Bø cites a number of similar but less elaborate accounts from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Norway. In some accounts the idol is not called Gudmund but Torbjørn (Bø 1959).

[ back ] 2. I have silently normalized the orthography of this quotation and all other quotations from unnormalized texts. Líkneskjusmíð appears to be related to De diversis artibus by Theophilus, as noted by Ólafur Halldórsson in Líkneskjusmíð: 9.

[ back ] 3. Another medieval text describes a fundraising effort in northern Iceland, in which farmers donated shorn sheepskins to the local cathedral in order to fund the making of a líkneski of Saint Jón of Hólar (Lárentíus saga biskups p. 340).

[ back ] 4. See Myrup Kristensen (2013) for a recent study focusing on late antiquity. On statues and cult figures in antiquity, see Bremmer (2013) who traces ideas about the agency of such statues.

[ back ] 5. Here in the Old Norse rendition of Stjórn II: “Eigi skulu þér yðr skurðgoð gera eptir líkingu þeiri sem á himnum er eða á jǫrðu eða í vǫtnum eða undir jǫrðu. Eigi skulu þér þá hluti vegsama ok fága” (p. 456) (You shall not make idols in the likeness of that which is in the heavens, or on the earth or under the earth. You shall not worship or venerate those things). Cf. Exod. 20: 3–5 and Deut. 5: 7–9 (biblical references are to Biblia sacra vulgata).

[ back ] 6. See the studies on idol parodies by Wolfgang Roth (1975) and Michael Dick (1999).

[ back ] 7. Horace even presents an example of the kind of idol-parody that is commonplace in the Bible when he begins one of his satires with the following words: “Olim truncus eram ficulnus, inutile lignum | cum faber, incertus scamnum faceretne Priapum, | maluit esse deum. deus inde ego …” (Sat I, 8, 1–3) (I once was a fig-tree trunk, a useless piece of wood, when a workman, uncertain of whether he should make a stool or a [figure of the god] Priapus, decided to make a god. So I am a god).

[ back ] 8. An Old Norse rendition of this passage is found in Barbǫru saga (p. 155). See also Kirby (1976–80 I: 68–69).

[ back ] 9. Pétrs saga postola I quotes the last part of the passage from Psalms but sees the wish of the psalmist as a prophecy that has already been fulfilled: “Kom þá þat fram er fyrir var spát með hinum helgustum orðum: Verði þeir sem skurðgoð gera, þeim líkir” (Pétrs saga postula I 117–18) (Then that was fulfilled which was foretold with the most holy of words: May those who make idols become like them).

[ back ] 10. These lines, which are from Makarios Magnes’s Apokritikos, have traditionally been attributed to Porphyry (see Porphyry: 5n26).

[ back ] 11. Styrmir (d. 1245) was prior of the Augustinian house of Viðey and may have written a life of Óláfr Haraldsson around 1220. This work is now lost, but short sections (the articuli) are preserved in Flateyjarbók.

[ back ] 12. See Andersson 1988.

[ back ] 13. See also Wellendorf 2010b.

[ back ] 14. The textual and archaeological evidence for the existence of smaller, less spectacular figurines is much better. In Hallfreðar saga (pp. 162–63) and Vatnsdœla saga (pp. 29–30, 33–36, 42) mention is made of hlutir (sg. hlutr) of Þórr and Freyr (cf. also Einarr skálaglamm’s two manshaped hlutir mentioned in Jómsvíkinga saga (pp. 188–89)). The term hlutr is cognate with English “lot”, and on the basis of the saga accounts, it is reasonable to surmise that hlutir might have played an important divinatory role. The archaeological evidence for cultic figures is assembled by Wijnand A. B. van der Sanden and Torsten Capelle (2002).

[ back ] 15. Sveins þáttr ok Finns and some of the other anecdotes mentioned here have recently been analyzed from a literary perspective in an excellent article by Sian Grønlie (2013). Her main point is that these accounts contribute to the polyphony of Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar in mesta.

[ back ] 16. Although the ultimate consummation of the idol is unusual in an Old Norse context, it recalls Moses’s treatment of the golden calf (Ex. 32: 20), cf. Stjórn: “Hann hlaup þá at blótkalfinum ok braut hann allan í sundr ok brenndi svá at hann varð at ǫsku einni. Þeirri ǫsku sneri hann í vatn ok gaf Gyðingum at drekka af því vatnit” (p. 312) (Then he ran at the idolized calf and broke it into small pieces and burned it to ashes. He poured the ashes into water and gave it to the Jews to drink).

[ back ] 17. A similar slippage is also found in more neutral accounts of cultic figures, like the famous passage about Nerthus, or Mother Earth, described by Tacitus in Germania. He describes how the goddess herself is escorted around the countryside by a priest in a consecrated wagon covered with hangings (Germania ch. 40, 2–4). After this, the goddess is washed in a hidden lake and restored to her temple. Since Nerthus can be washed, we must assume that she is an actual object. Tacitus is careful never to refer to the goddess as an image or a representation of Nerthus. Simultaneously, however, he explains that the goddess is not always present in the temple. The object therefore oscillates ontologically between being a sign and a signifier; it is periodically identical with the goddess and periodically not. Also interesting in this context are Einarr skálaglamm’s lines, “herþarfir hverfa […] til blóta […] ásmegir” (Vellekla st. 16 (BI, 119; cf. AI, 126)) (the sons of the gods, needy of people / useful for people go to the sacrifices). These lines, which belong to an episode in the kings’ sagas that describe the reinvigoration of a pagan cult in Norway after Jarl Hákon has chased out Haraldr gráfelldr and his brothers (cf. Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar pp. 241–43), might be interpreted as meaning that the gods are returning to the sanctuaries.

[ back ] 18. At one point in the tale Finnr and his father discuss the merits of Þórr and Óðinn. The father says that Þórr has “traveled through mountains and destroyed crags” (pp. 103–4). The son is not impressed and retorts: “Þat er harla litill máttr at brjóta steina eða gnípur ok starfa í slíku […] mér þykkir hinn máttugr er sett hefir í fyrstunni bjǫrgin” (p. 104) (smashing stones or peaks and busying oneself with such things requires very little power […] I consider that one powerful who in the beginning created the mountains). Despite such polemics, Þórr is still considered coterminous with the idol.

[ back ] 19. In Pétrs saga postula (pp. 91, 174–75, 185) and Tveggja postula saga Pétrs ok Páls (p. 306), Simon Magus is able to make it appear as though idols are moving and speaking, but it is mere illusion.

[ back ] 20. “var þá tréstokkr einn tómr eptir” (p. 16).

[ back ] 21. “Hann magnaði með miklum blótskap líkneski Þórs þar í hofinu at fjandinn mælti við hann ór skurðgoðinu ok hrœrði þat svá at þat sýndisk ganga úti með honum um dǫgum” (p. 320).

[ back ] 22. Lýtir, mentioned in Hauks þáttr habrókar, is yet another example of an animated idol or perhaps a living god. The text does not explicitly mention demonic possession, but Lýtir does not show himself before sacrifices are made to him.

[ back ] 23. The idol says: “þá vark blótinn | til bana mönnum | í Sámseyju | sunnanverðri” (p. 285).

[ back ] 24. Note also how, in the quotation from Sveins þáttr ok Finns (above), Sveinn’s temple was described as run-down and derelict.

[ back ] 25. Þorgarðr was a quite common name in Norway in the Middle Ages, but in this case, the name appears to have been chosen because it can be seen as a masculine variant of the name of Þorgerðr Hǫrgabrúðr.

[ back ] 26. A different angle on the same theme is provided in Konungs skuggsjá, where the Devil is given the following line: “Þetta er oss ofmikil skǫmm at maðr sá er gǫrr var af leiri eða sǫrgu jarðar dupti skal vera leiddr í þá eilífa sælu er vér várum frá reknir” (p. 80) (It is too great a shame for us that that man who was created of clay or of the unclean dirt of the earth should be led to that eternal happiness from which we were expelled).

[ back ] 27. Cf. Preben Meulengracht Sørensen (2001) and Jonas Wellendorf (2010a).

[ back ] 28. See e.g. Vǫluspá (K) st. 7 (the gods as a collective), Vafþrúðnismál st. 38 (Njǫrðr), Grímnismál st. 13 and 16 (Heimdallr and Njǫrðr, respectively).

[ back ] 29. Kimberley Patton treats this question, in a larger comparative context, in a fascinating study that draws mainly on Greek materials. Among other things, she argues that the gods should be seen as the source of cult rather than the objects of cult (2009: 13).

[ back ] 30. Gylfaginning (p. 13); cf. Vǫluspá (K) st. 17–18.

[ back ] 31. “þvíat engi hefir honum þat fyrr veitt” (Skáldskaparmál I p. 21).

[ back ] 32. That the mare’s heart partly is to blame for Mǫkkurkálfi’s lack of bravery is clear from a passage in Fóstbrœðra saga where a certain Þordís yells to the protagonist Þormóðr, who has found it wisest to hide himself: “Nú ef hann er snjallari en geit eða hugprúðari en merr, ok megi hann heyra mál mitt, þá svari hann” (p. 254n4) (Now if he [Þormóðr] is wiser than a goat and braver than a mare and can hear what I say, then he would answer me). If Þormóðr had not been protected by some kind of magic, he would definitely have responded to this taunt, but doing so would probably have cost him his life.

[ back ] 33. Mǫkkurkálfi is only known from Skáldskaparmál’s prose account. Although this text clearly drew on Þjóðólfr ór Hvíni’s skaldic poem Haustlǫng, neither Þjálfi nor Mǫkkurkálfi is mentioned in the preserved parts of the poem. George Dumézil’s idea that Mǫkkurkálfi is somehow related to an initiation ritual in which the initiated fight a harmless but formidable-looking enemy held sway for some time, but it has now been rejected by Jens Peter Schjødt (2008: 233–41).

[ back ] 34. His name would make more sense if interpreted as “dust-born” or “clay-calves”. Scholars normally take –mǫkkur to mean “mist, fog”, as Modern Icelandic mökkur, but this word is only attested in Old Norse prose as a part of a composite.

[ back ] 35. Kurt Wais (1952) argued that the story about Þórr’s encounter with Hrungnir is an old Indo-European myth that is also reflected in the Hittite myth about the weather god Tasmisu’s fight with the Ullikummi, a giant of stone. The Hittite myth itself is translated from Hurrian. Even though this theory has found proponents (Stitt 1998 is one), it does not explain the function of Mǫkkurkálfi.