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 Temple, the Tree, and the Well: A Topos or Cosmic Symbolism at Cultic Sites in Pre-Christian Northern Europe?

Olof Sundqvist, Stockholm University

Abstract: Revisiting the sanctuary in Uppsala described by Adam of Bremen in the Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, this essay finds additional evidence from a comparison with West Slavic materials, and argues that the mythic elements rendered by the cultic site (Valhǫll, Yggdrasill and the well of Urðr) are based on a real cultic topography rather than literary sources. It further emphasizes that Uppsala was not solely a cultic center, but also a political and economic center and that the mythological-cosmological structures of the sanctuary were used to support the authority of rulers.


Detailed, reliable Old Norse sources relating to sanctuaries in pre-Christian Northern Europe are rare. [1] Fortunately, an especially significant Latin text on this subject exists, namely, the description of the “Uppsala temple” in Adam of Bremen’s famous chronicle, Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, written ca. 1075. [2] Even if Adam’s information of the ninth and tenth centuries must be treated with some caution (cf. Reuter 2002: xi), this chronicle is regarded as the main historical source for eleventh-century Scandinavia, including the medieval region of Svetjud, a Swedish kingdom of somewhat uncertain geographical extent (cf. Sawyer 1991: 16–19). Adam’s text was written in the genre called gesta episcoporum “the deeds of bishops”. Thus, it recorded the campaign made by the Hamburg-Bremen archbishopric to convert Slavic and Scandinavian peoples. This chronicle is preserved in several medieval manuscripts; however, the relationship between them is very complex (Nyberg 1984: 302–7). Bernhard Schmeidler divided them into three classes in Monumenta Germaniae Historica: class A, class B, and class C (Gesta Hammaburgensis). The oldest manuscript, dated to ca. 1100 CE, is commonly called A2, or the “Leiden manuscript” (Cod. Voss. Lat. 4º 123). Although the first three books in this manuscript are fragmentary, Book 4, where Adam’s description of the Uppsala sanctuary appears, is complete. All additional notes (scholia) relating to the chapters about the sanctuary are present in this manuscript; however, the relationship between scholia and the main text is quite complicated (cf. Hultgård 1997a: 915; Sundqvist 2016: 110).

Book 4, Descriptio insularum aquilonis, consists of, as the title suggests, an ethno-geographical description of the Nordic world. Adam details the successes of the Hamburg-Bremen diocese’s missionary activities in this region as well as the missionary work remaining to be done. In his estimation, the sanctuary at Uppsala is the final obstacle standing in the way of the victory of Christianity in the land of the Svear (Hallencreutz 1997; Sundqvist 2016). In 4, 26, we are thus told about Uppsala (or actually Ubsola [3] ):

Nobilissimum illa gens templum habet, quod Ubsola dicitur, non longe positum ab Sictona civitate. In hoc templo, quod totum ex auro paratum est, statuas trium deorum veneratur populus, ita ut potentissimus eorum Thor in medio solium habeat triclinio; hinc et inde locum possident Wodan et Fricco. Quorum significationes eiusmodi sunt “Thor”, inquiunt, “presidet in aere, qui tonitrus et fulmina, ventos ymbresque, serena et fruges gubernat. Alter Wodan, id est furor, bella gerit hominique ministrat virtutem contra inimicos. Tercius est Fricco, pacem voluptatemque largiens mortalibus”. Cuius etiam simulacrum fingunt cum ingenti priapo. Wodanem vero sculpunt armatum, sicut nostri Martem solent; Thor autem cum sceptro Iovem simulare videtur. Colunt et deos ex hominibus factos, quos pro ingentibus factis immortalitate donant, sicut in Vita sancti Ansgarii legitur Hericum regem fecisse. (Gesta Hammaburgensis 4, 26)

Scholion 138 provides further information concerning the area near of the temple:

Scholion 139 describes the temple building and its surroundings in more detail:

Catena aurea templum circumdat pendens supra domus fastigia lateque rutilans advenientibus, eo quod ipsum delubrum in planitie situm montes in circuitu habet positos ad instar theatri. (Gesta Hammaburgensis scholion 139)

(A golden chain goes round the temple. It hangs over the gable of the building and sends its glitter far off to those who approach, because the shrine stands on level ground with mountains all about it like a theatre.)

In 4, 27, the cultic activities are described in more detail as well as the ritual places where the sacrifices took place:

Sacrificium itaque tale est ex omni animante, quod masculinum est, novem capita offeruntur, quorum sanguine deos [tales] placari mos est. Corpora autem suspenduntur in lucum, qui proximus est templo. Is enim lucus tam sacer est gentilibus, ut singulae arbores eius ex morte vel tabo immolatorum divinae credantur. Ibi etiam canes et equi pendent cum hominibus, quorum corpora mixtim suspensa narravit mihi aliquis christianorum LXXII vidisse. (Gesta Hammaburgensis 4, 27)

(The sacrifice is of this nature: of every living thing that is male, they offer nine heads, with the blood of which it is customary to placate gods of this sort. The bodies they hang in the sacred grove that adjoins the temple. Now this grove is so sacred in the eyes of the heathen that each and every tree in it is believed divine because of the death or putrefaction of the victims. Even dogs and horses hang there with men. A certain Christian informed me he had seen seventy-two miscellaneous bodies suspended there.)

In examining Adam’s account of the Uppsala sanctuary, including the scholia, one readily forms the impression that the cultic site was comprised of several ritual places and cultic elements. In addition to the temple building itself and the holy grove, where the sacrificial objects were hung, a specific holy tree and a spring are mentioned. During the springtime, Adam informs us, the pagans made their human sacrifices. An additional note (scholion 139) states that the shrine (delubrum) stands on level ground, surrounded by mountains (montes). In my opinion it is not impossible that Adam had, in fact, heard about the royal funeral mounds situated in Old Uppsala when he describes these “mountains” as located close to the sanctuary (see Sundqvist 2016: 436).

Adam’s description of the Uppsala sanctuary is without doubt a highly controversial resource in today’s research environment. In the past, some historians of religion and other scholars made the argument that his testimony was reliable since it was contemporary with the events it described. [6] In fact, Adam based his text on secondary information, although his informants were eyewitnesses. The Danish king, Svein Estridsson (in Old Norse, Sveinn Ástriðarson, also called Sveinn Úlfsson), was one of them. As it happened, in his youth, during the reign of the Swedish king Anund Jacob (perhaps around the 1030s and 1040s), the king had lived in exile among the Svear for about 12 years; thus, King Svein was likely quite familiar indeed with the customs of the Svear, at least during the period he was among them. Most likely, Bishop Adalvard the Younger of Sigtuna was also an important informant for Adam regarding the sanctuary at Uppsala (Sundqvist 2016: 121). Recent research, however, has turned more skeptical, arguing that Adam’s text is permeated with rhetorical embellishments and missionary strategies. [7] Some scholars have also found mythical elements in it (Bruun and Finnur Jónsson 1909; Alkarp 1997, 2007). The temple, the tree and the well, for instance, are actually descriptions of a mythical landscape, i.e., a literary topos found in Old Norse traditions. These authorities argue that Adam misunderstood the mythical traditions surrounding Valhǫll, Yggdrasill, and the well of Urðr and confused them with reality. Therefore, they believe that Adam’s text cannot be accepted as a trustworthy source on Viking Age sanctuaries.

In my opinion, these connections may lead to another conclusion. In what follows, I will argue that the mythical references in Adam’s description render a cultic reality. The temple, the tree, and the well may deliberately have been arranged as a reminder of the mythical landscape. This is not unique to Uppsala, as this same practice can be seen at cultic places in other parts of Scandinavia and on the Continent as well. In my opinion, these cosmic references in Uppsala had significance for local rulers. Uppsala was not only a place for the famous temple, it was also a political and economic center. The rulers of Uppsala used mythical traditions about the cosmos and the divine world in order to gain legitimacy and power. For instance, the members of the famous family of the Ynglings viewed themselves as the god Freyr’s offspring (Sundqvist 2002, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2016).

Theory and methods

That the sanctuary at Uppsala might mirror cosmic elements of Svea religion is an idea largely derived from Mircea Eliade, who argues that temples, cult places, and towns in several societies reflect mythical symbolism (Eliade 1974, 1987, 1991 (1949)). In his famous book, The Myth of the Eternal Return, Eliade writes:

The temple in particular—pre-eminently the sacred place—had a celestial prototype. On Mount Sinai, Jehovah shows Moses the “form” of the sanctuary that he is to build for him […] And when David gives his son Solomon the plan for the temple buildings, for the tabernacle, and for all their utensils, he assures him that “All this […] the Lord made me understand in writing by his hand upon me, even all the works of this pattern” (I Chronicles 28: 19). Hence he had seen the celestial model. (Eliade 1991: 7)

Such symbolism is evident in several cultures around the world, according to Eliade (for instance, in early Christian basilicas and medieval cathedrals). Modern scholarship sometimes views Eliade’s ideas as problematic, criticizing him for his universal perspectives and for his general inattentiveness to specific cultural contexts (e.g., Flood 1999; Smith 2000; Hellman 2011; Sundqvist 2016). A number of scholars also point out, and disagree with, Eliade’s apolitical and decontextualized interpretation of cosmic myths (e.g., Smith 1987; McCutcheon 1997). Despite these criticisms, Eliade’s basic idea about cosmic symbolism at sanctuaries need not be rejected in a general sense in comparative studies, since different specialists have observed similar phenomena in many cultures and religions (see, e.g., Widengren 1961: 87f. and 1969: 340ff.), including ancient Scandinavia (e.g., Hedeager 2001 and 2011).

Still, there are other problems with Eliade’s approach for a Scandinavianist, mainly concerning the sources, insofar as detailed descriptions of cosmology and mythical landscapes are not preserved in Eastern Scandinavian traditions. Accounts of this type are known only in West Norse texts, those written down in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Iceland. We cannot know how accurately these materials describe phenomena outside of medieval Iceland, or whether such things ever existed in Viking Age Uppsala. Nothing like a centralized pre-Christian religious institution existed, nor was there an organized priesthood similar to the sacerdotes of the Roman Catholic Church that could have formulated normative worldviews, a “canon” of mythical accounts, or “official” ritual practices throughout Scandinavia (Sundqvist 2016: 204, 163–98).

On the other hand, one can easily imagine that certain religious themes spread over wide geographic areas and were stable over time. Ideas and concepts of this sort might have been transmitted by aristocrats who made contact with each other via marriages, (cultic) feastings in halls, law meetings, gift-giving systems, and trade. Is it possible to discover whether such mythic-cosmic aspects are indeed embedded in the landscape? Perhaps we can find out by using a method that employs not only the mythic traditions preserved in medieval Icelandic texts, with their various problems, but also the evidence of the ritual structure at Uppsala, in comparison with other cultic sites as preserved in different kinds of sources.

The temple

In Book 4, 26, as quoted above, Adam describes the temple at Uppsala as being totally adorned with gold. Inside it, the people worship statues of three gods. The mightiest of them, Thor (Þórr), has his throne in the middle, and Wodan (Óðinn) and Fricco (Freyr) sit on either side. In a marginal note, we are told that a golden chain surrounds the temple, hanging over the gables of the building, glowing brilliantly towards those who approach. This description (see above for more detail) resembles mythical conditions. In Gylfaginning, Snorri Sturluson describes a hof-building at a place called Glaðsheimr, which was decorated with nothing but gold: [10]

Var þat hit fyrsta þeira verk at gera hof þat er sæti þeira standa í, tólf ǫnnur en hásætit þat er Alfǫðr á. Þat hús er bezt gert á jǫrðu ok mest. Allt er þat útan ok innan svá sem gull eitt. (Gylfaginning ch. 14)

(It was their [the gods] first act to build the temple that their thrones stand in, twelve in addition to the throne that belongs to All-father [Óðinn]. This building is the best that is built on earth and the biggest. Outside and inside it seems like nothing but gold.)

This building seems to be identical with “the gold-bright Valhǫll” mentioned in the eddic poem Grímnismál in stanzas 8 and 23: [

Glaðsheimr heitir inn fimti, þars en gullbiarta,
Valhǫll víð of þrumir (Grímnismál st. 8)

(Glaðsheimr a fifth is called,
there gold-bright Valhǫll
rises peacefully, seen from afar)

Fimm hundruð dura oc um fiórom togom,
svá hygg ec at Valhǫllo vera (Grímnismál st. 23)

(Five hundred doors and forty
I think there are in Valhǫll)

The number of doors indicates that it is large and therefore can be seen from afar. As does the Uppsala temple, this house has seats for the deities. Óðinn has the high-seat there, and the einherjar (slain human heroes) can drink their fill there every day. According to chapter 36 of Gylfaginning and stanza 36 of Grímnismál, which is in fact quoted in Snorri’s text, the valkyries (valkyrjur) serve ale to the einherjar there.

The parallels between the Uppsala temple and Valhǫll are striking. Most obviously, in both places the gods are enthroned in a mighty gold-adorned building. There are also other, subtler, similarities. When Adam described the temple in Uppsala, he probably did not aim at describing a building exclusively intended for idols and ritual objects. Behind the term templum, a great multifunctional hall building could be concealed, i.e., a room for banquets, which reminds one of Valhǫll. It has been noticed that Adam applied the term triclinium when describing the room where the idols stood (see Dillmann 1997). In both classical and medieval Latin, this term denotes “dining-room” and “room for ceremonial banquets”. According to Adam, libation rituals were made to the three images there:

Si pestis et fames imminet, Thor ydolo lybatur, si bellum, Wodani si nuptiae celebrandae sunt, Fricconi. (Gesta Hammaburgensis 4, 27)

(If plague or famine is nigh, a libation is made to the idol of Thor, if war, to Wodan, if marriage is to be solemnized, to Fricco.)

Archaeologists have found remains of structures in Old Uppsala that may be related to a ceremonial building. In 1926, Sune Lindquist discovered post-holes beneath the current stone church, which he interpreted as the remains of a rectangular temple. New investigations have shown, however, that this interpretation must be rejected (see Nordahl 1996). Remains of a Merovingian period hall north of the church were, however, discovered in the late 1980s (Nordahl 1996). It was located on a plateau and thus elevated in the landscape and visible from public roads; new excavations at Old Uppsala in the summer of 2011 indicate that the hall was 50 meters in length. This hall, however, burned down around 800 and therefore cannot be identical with the temple mentioned by Adam.

The hall in Uppsala had probably been embellished with spiral decorations, made in iron. It seems further that these spirals were deposited in the post-holes of the house and along the walls after the building burned down in the early Viking Age (Ljungkvist 2013; Ljungkvist and Frölund 2015; Sundqvist 2013, 2016). These decorations and ritual deposits indicate that the house had a special function. Even the discovery that the interior of the house was white-limed shows that it was special. Most likely this hall building was used for public meetings, including ceremonial banquets. Knowledge of this Merovingian period hall (or a subsequent hall in Uppsala not yet discovered) may have reached Adam through his informants and inspired his description of the temple.

In recent research, it has been emphasized that Iron Age halls had cultic functions in Scandinavia (Herschend 1993, 1998, 1999). Sometimes they appear at places with sacred place names, such as Helgö “the holy island”, in Uppland, Sweden, and Gudme “the home/district of the gods”, in Fyn, Denmark (on these names, see Vikstrand 2001; Brink 2011). Archaeological finds suggest that these buildings were occasionally adorned with gold, like Valhǫll. Melted gold was discovered in connection with one of the post-holes of the hall at Gudme. Frands Herschend has hypothesized that the posts at Gudme were decorated with gold, which melted in a fire and trickled into the post-hole (see Herschend in Anne-Sofie Gräslund 1997: 108–9). The Gudme hall was very large, about 50 meters in length, and probably visible from afar (Hedeager 2001, 2011; Jørgenssen 2009, 2011). The cultic hall of Helgö was smaller (ca. 21 meters long), but situated on a plateau, and thus located in an exposed position within the surrounding landscape. We may here recall that the large decorated Merovingian hall in Uppsala was similarly located on a plateau.

It thus appears that such hall buildings in Scandinavia typically occupied a prominent position in the landscape. It also stands to reason that the sovereignty of these halls was underscored and reinforced by their spectacular size, ornamentation, and architecture. Key, elevated—and thus highly visible—locations and great size were likely to have been associated with ideological elements and derived from a deliberate strategy of association with the divine and mythical world. Most of the features just enumerated in relation to ceremonial buildings and halls are to be seen in descriptions of such foundational “mythical houses” as Valhǫll. In Grímnismál, we hear, for instance, thus:

  • er blíð regin silfri þǫcþo sali; Valasciálf heitir (where the cheerful Powers roofed the hall with silver; Valasciálf it is called) (st. 6)
  • þars en gullbiarta Valhǫll víð of þrumir (there gold-bright Valhǫll rises peacefully) (st. 8)
  • Breiðablic (the far-shining one) (st. 12)
  • Glitnir (the shining one) (st. 15)

Perhaps these recurrent features and correspondences indicate an “ideal state”, the existence of a “common model”, and/or a cosmic symbolism of the ceremonial buildings in Uppsala and other late Iron Age cultic sites of Scandinavia (see also Sundqvist 2016: 205–19).

The tree and the well

As discussed above, in scholion 138 of Gesta Hammaburgensis, the author comments on the surroundings of the Uppsala temple, saying that near the temple there stands a very large tree with wide spreading branches, always green, whether winter or summer, and a spring at which the pagans make their sacrifices. This description also resembles information from mythical traditions about the Norse “world tree” Yggdrasill and its wells. According to Snorri’s Gylfaginning, Yggdrasill was, of all trees, the biggest and the best:

Askrinn [Yggdrasill] er allra tréa mestr ok beztr. Limar hans dreifask yfir heim allan ok standa yfir himni. Þrjár rœtr trésins halda því upp ok standa afar breitt […] ok undir þeiri rót er Hvergelmir […] En undir þeiri rót er til hrímþursa horfir, þar er Mímis brunnr […] Þriðja rót asksins stendr á himni, ok undir þeiri rót er brunnr sá er mjǫk er heilagr er heitir Urðar brunnr. (Gylfaginning ch. 15)

(The ash is of all trees the biggest and best. Its branches spread out over all the world and extend across the sky. Three of the tree’s roots support it and extend very, very far […] and under that root is Hvergelmir […] But under the root that reaches towards the frost-giants, there is where Mímis brunnr is […] The third root of the ash extends to heaven, and beneath that root is a well which is very holy called Urðar brunnr.)

From this description, it seems as if one of the tree’s roots reached down towards Mímis brunnr (Mímir’s well), where Óðinn deposited his eye in order to drink of the knowledge that the well contained, while a second root was located among the gods at Urðar brunnr (Urðr’s well), and a third root ran down to the well called Hvergelmir. Even if Snorri meant to describe three different wells, these three springs are usually interpreted today as different names for one and the same mental image, that is, the cosmic well (see, e.g., Simek 2006: 167). It is worth noting that the tree and well are mentioned in eddic lays as being related to each other: in Vǫluspá, for example, it is said that the tree Yggdrasill is always green and stands beside the well of Urðr.

Asc veit ec standa, heitir Yggdrasill,
hár baðmr, ausinn hvítaauri;
þaðan koma dǫggvar, þærs í dala falla,
stendr æ yfir, grœnn, Urðar brunni. (Vǫluspá st. 19)

(I know that an ash-tree,
stands called Yggdrasill,
a high tree, soaked
with shining loam;
from there come the dews
which falls in the valleys,
ever green, it stands over
Urðr’s well.)

According to Hávamál, Urðr’s well was situated besides the “High-One’s hall”, i.e. Valhǫll:

Mál er at þylia þular stóli á,
Urðar brunni at;
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Háva hǫllo at, Háva hǫllo í;
heyrða ec segia svá: (Hávamál st. 111)

(It is time to declaim from the sage’s high-seat,
at Urðr’s well;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
at the High One’s hall, in the
High One’s hall;
thus I heard them speak:)

These similarities between Uppsala and the mythical traditions have, as mentioned above, been taken by some scholars in the past as indications that Adam based his account on myth and confused it with reality (e.g., Bruun and Finnur Jónsson 1909; Alkarp 1997). [
13] Thus, they argue that Adam’s account cannot be taken seriously. In opposition to this view, I think that Adam’s description is reliable. The existence of trees and wells is very common to Germanic sacred sites. In the ecclesiastical polemics against pagan customs the expression arbor et fons “tree and spring” seems to announce a pagan cultic place. It appears in normative documents and letters from the sixth century to the capitularia in the age of Charlemagne (see, e.g., Boudriot 1928: 34–35, 38–40; Homann 1976; Nilsson 1992; Sundqvist 2016). A document from the council of Tours in 567 CE reports how recently converted people, who still perform pagan ritual actions, should be treated and punished. Some of them worshipped mountains, trees and wells (“…ut, quoscumque in hac fatuitate persistere viderint vel ad nescio quas petras aut arbores aut ad fontes” (Concilium Turonense p. 133)). In a letter from Gregory I to Queen Brunhilde in 597, the pope states that the pagan cult of trees does not exist any longer (“ut […] cultores arborum non existant” (Registrum Epistolarum 2: 3, 7)); [14] however a Langobardic law, compiled during King Liutprand’s reign in 727, perscribes fines for those who worshipped trees and wells (“Simili modo et qui ad arbore, quam rustici sanctiuum uocant, atque ad fontanas adorauerit” (Liutprandi Leges, Anni 15, ch. 84, in Leges Langobardorum p. 139)). [15] At Concilium Germanicarum, led by Saint Boniface in the year 743, basic Carolingian mission strategies were worked out, including regulations against pagan customs. Some of these regulations were presented in the text Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum (Index of Superstitions and Pagan Practices). In this text, we read about prohibited customs related to trees and wells, in, for instance, chapter 6, “De sacris silvarum, quae nimidas vocant” and chapter 11, “De fontibus sacrificiorum” (Indiculus Superstitionum et Paganiarum pp. 222–23; see also Fontes Historiae Religionis Germanicae pp. 42–43). These regulations indicate that a pagan cult of trees and wells was still widespread in Carolingian areas in the first half of the eighth century. In Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae (769 CE) as well, the cult of wells and trees was forbidden. Sacrifices at groves in a heathen fashion and the custom of making meals in honor of the demons were also rejected (“Si quis ad fonts aut arbores vel lucos votum fecerit aut aliquit more gentilium obtulerit et ad honorem daemonum commederet” (Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae p. 69)).

Sometimes the cosmic pillar or axis mundi, a fundamental structure present in many mythological systems, is represented by a tree trunk in these texts. A pre-Christian sanctuary situated in a stronghold called Eresburg (present-day Obermarsberg) is reported in several sources concerning Charlemagne’s campaign in Saxony. In 772 CE, he conquered and destroyed this pagan cultic site and replaced it with a church. Rudolf of Fulda (ca. 865), for instance, describes this pagan sanctuary and mentions that the Saxons worshipped wells and green groves. In this sanctuary there was a huge tree trunk erected in the open air:

Rudolf’s text is built on older narratives, and is thus not a direct or primary source; moreover, there seem to be secondary elements in it, such as the explanation of the name Irminsul (Palm 1948: 86–88; see however Springer 2000). The information Rudolf relates about Irminsul being a big tree trunk or pillar appears, however, to be reliable, since the name Irmin-sul (ON *jǫrmun– + súla) means “large pillar”. [
17] Widukind, who was a monk in Corvey during the tenth century, has a slightly different version. He records in his chronicle Rerum gestarum Saxonicarum (ca. 967) that a cultic image made as a pillar was devoted to the god Irmin (“effigie columpnarum […] Hirmin […] dicitur” Rerum Gestarum Saxonicarum pp. 20–21, 21n3). [18] The information that Irmin was a god or forefather is considered uncertain (cf. Simek 2006: 175). In my opinion, it is more likely that Irminsul refers to “a great pillar or tree trunk” than to “the pillar of the god Irmin”, since the name suggests this. In either case, Irminsul was an important cultic object at the chief sanctuary of the Saxons, and most likely it included some kind of cosmic symbolism (see e.g. Simek 2006: 175–76; Maier 2000; Sundqvist 2016: 252–57).

Cultic trees and cosmic pillars are also attested in Nordic contexts. The U-version of Hervarar saga reports that a sacrificial tree, called blóttré, stood at the assembly place of the Svear, perhaps located in Uppsala. When the people there oppose King Ingi Steinkelsson (ca. 1080–1110), who refuses to sacrifice to the gods on their behalf, his brother-in-law Sveinn steps forward. Sveinn tells them that he will perform sacrifices on their behalf if they will give him the kingdom. All assent to that proposal: “Þá var fram leitt hross eitt á þingit ok höggvit í sundr ok skipt til áts, en roðit blóðinu blóttré” (Hervarar saga ch. 16) (A horse was led to the meeting place, dismembered and distributed for eating, and the sacrificial tree was reddened with the blood). This late text, which dates to ca. 1300, is usually regarded as an uncertain source on pre-Christian religion, but the information about a cultic tree harmonizes with Adam’s text (see Sundqvist 2016: 254).

There is, however, archaeological support for cultic trees in other places of Sweden. Excavations beneath the altar of the church of Frösön “the island of the deity Freyr”, in Jämtland, revealed large quantities of animal bones in association with a decayed birch stump. Approximately 60 percent of the bone remains had come from wild animals, such as bears, while 40 percent consisted of domestic animal bones. Both the bone materials and the stump have been dated to the tenth century (Iregren 1989; Magnell and Iregren 2010). That the birch root was found under the altar of the church suggests a cosmological continuity of the site (Andrén 2014: 37). In a document from 1408, the church on Frösön was called Hoffs kirkio, and still today, a place southeast of the church is called Hov. Per Vikstrand, an onomastics specialist, has argued that such hov-names in Jämtland refer to structures where cult practices were carried out (Vikstrand 1993). Thus, we may well have a configuration at Frösön similar to that in Uppsala, that is, a cultic house situated close to a cultic tree (Sundqvist 2016: 254).

In the context of the present argument, the most intriguing of these bodies of water is the lake called Tissø “lake dedicated to the god Týr”, on Zealand (Jørgensen 2002, 2009; see Brink 2001: 97 and Holmberg 1986 on the place name). Several Late Iron Age finds, interpreted as sacrificial objects, have been made there. Local elite had raised a huge ceremonial hall just beside the lake, where it is likely cultic feasts took place. A small building—interpreted as a cultic house—appears in connection with the south-western part of the hall. This building was enclosed by a palisade. A similar pattern is also in evidence at the Late Iron Age settlement of Järrestad, Scania, with a hall, an enclosed area with a small cultic building, and beside this hall, sacrificial wells and springs (Söderberg 2003, 2005: 211–13, 238, 252–54).

West Slavic sanctuaries

The mythical-ritual configuration of temple, tree, and well is also visible at cult sites in Continental Europe, especially among northwestern pre-Christian Slavic people. In comparison to the materials available to the historian of Scandinavian religion, the picture of Slavic temples is impressive (Slupecki 1993, 1994, 2002, 2006; cf. Palm 1937). There is good evidence in written sources for temples at, for instance, Radogosc, Szczecin, Wolin, Wolgast, Garz, and Gutzkow. In addition to these sites, possible sanctuaries have been found by archaeologists at Feldber, Wolin, Groß Raden, Ralsiek, Parchim, and Wroklaw.

From the perspective of the present essay, a description of the Triglav temple at Szczecin (Stettin), Pommern, is particularly interesting. It was written in the twelfth century by Herbord in his biography of Bishop Otto of Bamberg and is based on eyewitness information (Slupecki 1993: 250, 265–67, 2002: 31–32; Hultgård 1997a: 27). According to Herbord, there were four temples (continae) in Stettin when Otto arrived. [25] The principal one was called the temple of Triglav and was, according to Herbord, built with amazing reverence and skill. Herbord’s Latin continue (sg. contina) is equivalent to Old Slavic kañcina “temple” (Moszynski 1992: 117–20). After describing the principal temple and a three-headed idol of Triglav, Herbord states:

Erat praeterea ibi quercus ingens et frondosa et fons subter eam amoenissimus, quam plebs simplex numinis alicuius inhabitatione sacram aestimans magna veneratione colebat. (Herbodi Vita Ottonis 2, 32–33, pp. 89–90)

(There was also a huge oak tree with lots of leaves there, and a most pleasant spring near it. The simple people regarded it as seat of a deity and held it in great esteem.)

Similar information about this temple is reported in other sources (Herbordi Vita Ottonis 3, 22–23; Ebonis Vita Ottonis 3, 18; Vita Prieflingensis 3, 11). As at Uppsala, Stettin was also a site for rulers. The palace was situated on the mountain of Triglav (Slupecki 1993: 267). Perhaps cosmic symbolism, including the ceremonial building, the tree, and the well, also played an ideological role in Stettin.

Sacred trees and springs in the twelfth century West Slavic area are also attested elsewhere. For example, Helmold of Bosau reports on the pagan revival among the Wends in 1134. On a trip to Wagria, he saw oak trees enclosed within a courtyard surrounded by a fence of stakes: “Among very old trees we saw there the sacred oaks devoted to the god of that country, called Prove. They were encircled by a yard and a dense wooden fence with two gates” (Slupecki 2002: 28–29 (orig. Chronica Slavorum 1, 84). In a different passage, Helmold mentions some deities who inhabit forest and groves, for example Prove, the god of Oldenburg (“Prove deus Aldenburgensis terrae” (Chronica Slavorum 1, 52)). In the eleventh century, Thietmar mentions a holy spring situated no more than two miles from Elbe, called Glomac: “Its waters create a large morass on which, as the people from the area claim, strange events happen” (Slupecki 2002: 27 (orig. Chronik 1, 3)). Leszek Slupecki suggests that offerings may have been made in Glomac (Slupecki 2002: 27–28). Baltic people also worshipped trees and springs. In a papal letter from Innocentius III, the pre-Christian Latvian cult was described on the basis of missionary reports: “qui honorem Deo debitum animalibus brutis, arboribus frondosis, aquis limpidis, virentibus herbis et spiritibus immundis impendunt” (qtd. Mannhardt 1905 1: 28) (The honor they owe to God, they give (instead) to irrational animals, verdant trees, clear springs, medical herbs and unclean spirits).

Since we do not know much about the ancient Slavic worldview it is hard to know if the ritual elements of Stettin and at other cult places corresponds with the sort of mythic symbolism proposed here. It is possible that the cultic sites among northwestern Slavs had been established under the influence of Scandinavian or Germanic tribes (Palm 1937; critically considered by Slupecki 1994: 21, 2002: 30ff.). Supporting this conclusion are several facts: Stettin is located close to the Baltic Sea, not far from Bornholm. The ninth-century hagiography Vita Anskarii mentions that both Swedish and Danish people plundered in the south coast of the Baltic Sea, both in Slavic and Baltic areas, during the same century (Vita Anskarii ch. 19 and 30). There is also archaeological evidence of Scandinavians in this area during the Late Iron Age. Merovingian period artifacts with Gotlandic and Swedish origin were discovered at three cemeteries outside a town called Grobin close to Liepaja (Libau), on the Latvian coast (Nerman 1958; Stenberger 1971: 646–48). It is also possible that Baltic people, Slavs and Scandinavians influenced each other in a reciprocal way as regards the ritual structures of cultic sites.

Concluding remarks

The question the present study addresses is whether the descriptions of pre-Christian sanctuaries in Scandinavia were based on a literary topos found in Old Norse sources or if they reflect real cultic conditions. In my opinion, Adam’s description of Uppsala, at least fundamentally if not in every detail, cannot be ruled out despite the lack of clear archaeological evidence from the Late Iron Age (cf. Sundqvist 2016: 263). Evidence from other sources and comparative materials supports such an argument. Since cultic buildings are repeatedly found at other sites in combination with specific trees/axis mundi-symbols and/or wells, lakes or bogs, I suggest that this composition reflects a kind of cultural model, i.e., a widespread mythic-cosmological tradition. Aspects of such symbolism and ideology are also observable at other rulers’ sites in Scandinavia, and perhaps also on the Continent.

Most likely this cosmic configuration (or model) could be extended with other ritual structures, such as sacred mounds, workshops, and enclosures, which also play symbolic roles in the mythical tradition. The mythic-cosmic symbols seen at Uppsala in Adam’s text had several functions. On a religious level, they indicated that this site was a threshold to the divine world. At this place, man could meet the divine powers by means of performing rituals, such as sacrifices. Beyond this religious purpose, the configuration also had important ideological and power implications for the rulers of Uppsala. When the ruler appeared, the scene needed to be set with specific properties. Religious symbols, such as representations of the cosmic hall, tree, and well, created the appearance that the ruler’s authority came from a realm beyond politics, society, and the natural world (cf. Lincoln 1994).

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[ back ] 1. This essay synthesizes, builds on, and extends several previously published works in Swedish and English, including Sundqvist 2002, 2004, 2007, 2013, and 2016.

[ back ] 2. On Adam and his work, see e.g. the (new) introduction to Francis J. Tschan’s translation of Adam’s work, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen (2002).

[ back ] 3. Despite objections in previous research, few scholars hesitate today to relate Ubsola to the place called Old Uppsala (Gamla Uppsala) in the contemporary province of Uppland, Sweden. Sictona is usually related to Sigtuna, situated in the same province. This town was founded ca. 970 (Hultgård 1997a: 13).

[ back ] 4. The text is from Bernhard Schmeidler’s 1917 edition. Translation by Francis J. Tschan 2002, but slightly modified.

[ back ] 5. This scholion as well as scholia 139–41 are preserved in the oldest manuscript A2 (ca.1100). See Hultgård 1997a: 15. The last sentence in scholion 141 (hoc sacrificium fit circa aequinoctium vernale) is only attested late in the tradition of manuscripts, more precisely in manuscript A3 from 1434 (Hultgård 1997a: 30).

[ back ] 6. See e.g. de Vries 1956–1957: §290. See also Nils Lid, who stated: “Ein må gå ut frå at dei einskilde ting Adam fortel om, har eit faktisk grunnlag” (Lid 1942: 86) (One must assume that the specific things Adam speaks of have a factual basis). Folke Ström wrote: “I en berömd och ofta citerad skildring har Adam av Bremen återgett ett ögonvittnes berättelse om de offer och ceremonier som utspelades i Uppsala vart nionde år” (Ström 1985: 79) (In a famous and oft-cited account Adam of Bremen cites an eyewitness account of the sacrifices and ceremonies that took place every nine years in Uppsala), while Anne Holtsmark argued: “Detta är en autentisk skildring av gudadyrkan i Norden i slutet av den hedniska tiden” (Holtsmark 1992: 17). For a more thorough survey of the debate, see Sundqvist 2016: 113–27.

[ back ] 7. E.g. Hallencreutz 1997; Hultgård 1997a; Göthberg and Lovén 2010. For a very radical opinion about Adam’s text, see Henrik Janson’s work. Janson argues that that the account of the sanctuary in Uppsala should not be read literally but as a satirical attack on the Gregorians who opposed Adam’s friend, Archbishop Liemar of Hamburg-Bremen (Janson 1997, 1998). Critically considered by e.g. Sundqvist 2002, 2013, 2016 and Reuter 2002.

[ back ] 8. Whether the ritual landscape was based on a mythical model created in a pre-material way, or the mythic traditions were composed with the mundane sanctuaries in mind, is actually impossible to say. Surely a centuries-old reflexive action of mutual influence between the mythic and the physical is the explanation. The major point here is that both myths and sanctuaries were structured according to a common model or broad tradition. On the theories of materiality and the ontological turn in the study of religion, see, e.g., Miller 2005; Henare et al. 2007; Engelke 2012. In this new scholarly tradition, the significance of material culture is emphasized while the meaning behind the things is toned down.

[ back ] 9. Schjødt differs between comparisons on four levels: (1) comparisons with information from the Scandinavian (Old Norse) speaking areas; (2) comparisons with neighbouring cultures of Scandinavia (e.g. Sámi peoples in the North, the Germanic people in the South); (3) comparisons with Indo-European speaking areas; and (4) comparative study of religious phenomena, i.e. world-wide comparisons (Schjødt 2012). In one sense the West Slavic areas also refer to comparisons with Indo-European speaking areas (level 3), since the Slavic language can be connected to this broad language family. In this case, however, I primarily regard the West Slavic people as neighbors to the Scandinavians when conducting comparisons.

[ back ] 10. Text from Snorra Edda, edited by Anthony Faulkes (1988). Translation by Faulkes 1987.

[ back ] 11. Text from The Poetic Edda by Neckel and Kuhn (1983). Translation by Caroline Larrington (2008).

[ back ] 12. Scholars have also argued that the last element in the name Uppsala refers to “banqueting halls” (pl.). E.g. B. Gräslund 1993; Brink 1999: 38−39, 48−49n15; Herschend 2001: 39–60. For a more recent treatment on the name Uppsala, see Vikstrand 2013.

[ back ] 13. Anders Hultgård argues that the description in scholion 138 is basically poetic-mythical and that the motif may be based on a common mythical heritage. He does not, however, comment on the possibility that the cultic place in Uppsala may be based on a mythical model (Hultgård 1997a: 26). For a more thorough investigation of possible ritual representations of mythical trees at cultic sites, see Sundqvist 2016: 250–59.

[ back ] 14. See also Fontes Historiae Religionis Germanicae p. 30.

[ back ] 15. See also Fontes Historiae Religionis Germanicae p. 38.

[ back ] 16. See also Fontes Historiae Religionis Germanicae pp. 60–61. My translation.

[ back ] 17. Cf. ON jǫrmun-, OE eormen- “large”, “enormous”, “elevated”, “wide”; in jǫrmungandr, “the big [enormous] stave”, i.e. the Miðgarðsormr; in OE eormengrund “wide world”; and in a heiti of Óðinn, Jǫrmunr. See e.g. Fritzner 1954 2: 244; Clark Hall 1916: 93; Palm 1948: 92–93; Maier 2000; Drobin and Keinänen 2001: 141.

[ back ] 18. See also e.g. Palm 1948: 89–91; Simek 2006: 175–76; Maier 2000; Drobin and Keinänen 2001: 140–41.

[ back ] 19. Jonas Wikborg, pers. comm. See also www.arkeologigamlauppsala.se (last accessed on May 1, 2014).

[ back ] 20. Tricorns have mainly been found in southern and central Sweden and in southern Norway (see Myhre 2005).

[ back ] 21. See also: http://arkeologiupplandsmuseet.worpress.com/2013/10/11/gamla-uppsala-nytt-ljus-over-gammal-offerbrunn-2/. Accessed on 1 May, 2014.

[ back ] 22. For quotations from Bureus, Rhezelius, and the Rannsakningar, see Vikstrand 2001: 127.

[ back ] 23. The concept temenos refers actually to ancient Greek temple areas. The word τέμενος is in Liddell and Scott translated to “a piece of land marked off from common uses and dedicated to a god, precinct” (1958: 1774).

[ back ] 24. See also www.arkeologiaamlauppsala.se (last accessed on May 1, 2014).

[ back ] 25. “Erant autem in civitate Stetinensi continae quator” (Herbordi Vita Ottonis 2, 32–33, pp. 89–90).