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.

Blótgyðjur, Goðar, Mimi, Incest, and Wagons: Oral Memories of the Religion(s) of the Vanir [1]

Terry Gunnell, University of Iceland

Abstract: This article focuses on the recurring motifs concerning the peculiarities of the religion of the gods referred to as the Vanir, drawing on a range of Old Norse accounts from different times including Landnámabók, Gísla saga Súrssonar, Hrafnkels saga, Vatnsdæla saga, Ynglinga saga, Gunnars þáttr helmings, Gesta Danorum, and more. Many of the aforementioned motifs (commonly concerning ritual activities, religious centers, female religious leaders, and particular types of animal) tend to be unexplained in the texts. Their recurring patterns in the narratives nonetheless imply that in the oral traditions of Norway and Iceland people seem to have viewed the religious activities connected with the “Vanir” (with their center in Sweden) as having been different in nature to those encountered elsewhere. They also seem to have envisaged closer connections between the Vanir and the landscape than existed between the Æsir and the natural environment. This evidence lends weight to the argument that, in spite of recent arguments to the contrary, the religions associated with the Vanir and the Æsir gods had a different nature and origin.

In 2010, Rudolf Simek wrote a now-famous “obituary” for the Vanir in which, among other things, he argued that “there is no inherent difference between the gods [the Vanir and the Æsir] ascribed to by Snorri” (Simek 2010: 13). His general argument, following the earlier ideas of Lotte Motz (Motz 1996: 123–24), is that the idea of a special family of gods called the Vanir was essentially “a figment of imagination from the thirteenth to the twentieth centuries” that began with Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda (Snorri Sturluson 2005: 23, 30; 1998: 3). The aim of this article is to add some support to the ripostes given by Clive Tolley and Jens Peter Schjødt to Simek’s article, which have pointed to methodological weaknesses in Simek’s argument (Tolley 2011) and raised the suggestion that the Vanir definitely had a different “functional tendency” to the Æsir gods (Schjødt 2014: 22, esp. 25–30), an argument that the present author is less convinced of. [2] Here, the focus will not be on function (stressed by Schjødt) or the early use of the word “Vanir” for a group of gods (to which, like Tolley, the present author has no objection), but rather on the degree to which the early oral tradition of western Scandinavia [3] (reflected in Old Norse poetry and the sagas) seems to have viewed those gods classed as “Vanir” as having been different in background, origin, and geographical association from the so-called Æsir (contrary to Simek’s argument). Among other things, it will be argued that the western Scandinavian view of Vanir “otherness” involved a strong sense that the religious practices of the so-called Vanir were somewhat different to those associated with the so-called Æsir. [4] This article will concentrate on evidence of those religious practices reflected in the saga and eddic materials. [5] In addition to this, attention will be paid to some interesting and revealing features concerning the beliefs and practices relating to other gods which are not mentioned in written medieval sources. While Tolley is right that in arguing that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” (Tolley 2011: 20; also Schjødt 2014: 22), it must also be borne in mind that not all absences are “created equal”. As will be explained in more detail below, in the field of the history of Old Norse myth and religion, absence can sometimes be as informative as presence.

To start with, a review will be given of the extant (essentially literary) “evidence” concerning the religious practices of the Vanir (said to include essentially Njǫrðr, Freyr, and Freyja), limited as it is, and the ways in which the Vanir are presented in the written sources in comparison to the other gods. Less attention will be given to the extant myths dealing with the Vanir, which are limited in number.

The paucity of Vanir myths in the extant literature certainly underlines the fact that Snorri apparently knew much less about the religious worldviews and practices associated with the Vanir than he did about about those related to Óðinn or Þórr. This is probably natural since, as many scholars have stressed (see, for example, Vikstrand 2001; Sundqvist 2000; and Brink 2007), a relatively high number of Vanir-related place names point to their association with the Uppland area of Sweden, an area probably unfamiliar to many Icelanders. [6] This association is, of course, backed up by Ynglingatal, Snorri’s account in Ynglingasaga (ch. 9–10), and other saga accounts that also appear to have a background in the oral tradition, such as Gunnars þáttr helmings (Ögmundar þáttr dytts pp. 109–15; Flateyjarbók I, ch. 277–78). [7] It might be remembered that Snorri’s personal associations with Sweden were limited to his visit to Skara in Västergötland in 1218 (see further Sturlunga saga p. 238), and the same probably applies to his personal knowledge of Swedish tradition. One should be careful about assuming the advantages of twenty-first century communications when considering the Nordic world of the thirteenth century. As Sighvatr Þórðarson’s Austrfararvísur (Verses on an Eastern Journey) in Ólafs saga helga (ch. 61) effectively demonstrate, travel took time in this period. The Uppland area of Sweden was some distance from Norway, where Snorri spent most of his time abroad, the distance being further complicated by lakes and forests. It is thus likely that Snorri’s personal knowledge of the mythology and pre-Christian religious activities of the people of Uppland was essentially limited to Norwegian oral accounts (and those of a few Swedes). As the Prose Edda demonstrates, his knowledge of the eddic poem Skírnismál was also limited, as was his knowledge of the now-lost ljóðaháttr poem about Njǫrðr and Skaði (Gylfaginning ch. 36 and 23). It seems logical to assume that Sweden and Swedish traditions were “other” to him, and somewhat more “other” than Danish traditions. The question is exactly how “other” they were seen as being?

While Þuriðr “hofgyðja” herself is never directly referred to as a “Freysgyðja”, her role as priestess and her close association to a “Freysgoði” remind us that in the extant written sources, the Vanir are the only northern gods (in the later Iron Age) whose worship is said to involve females serving in important religious roles (see below). Þuríðr’s association with Freyr also seems logical considering her family, local Icelandic place names (Freysnes; Freyshólar; and Njarðvík: Svavar Sigmundsson 1992: 242–43), and the other oral traditions about the religious practices of the area that seem to be reflected in both the sagas and Landnámabók (see above). Among other things, it seems logical to place her alongside another “hofgyðja” from the same general area who is mentioned in Vápnfirðinga saga (ch. 5), that is, Steinvör “hofgyðja”, who apparently “varðveitti hǫfuðhofit” (protected the hof). Both figures can in turn be placed alongside the “ung ok fríð” (young and beautiful) priestess in Gunnars þáttr helmings who was “fengin til þjónostu” (brought into service) with Freyr and who should “mest ráða með Frey fyrir hofstaðnum ok ǫllu því, er þar lá til” (have most control over the hof site and everything that belonged to it along with Freyr) (Ögmundar þáttr dytts p. 112; see also Flateyjarbók I, ch. 277). In this context, one might also bear in mind the statement in Ynglinga saga (ch. 4) that Freyja served as the “blótgyðja” (sacrificial priestess) of the gods in Sweden (see further below).

Other remnants that appear to point to the enduring key role of the Vanir in ritual activities apparently practiced in both Iceland and Norway after the settlement period can be seen in the wording of the so-called “hofeiðr” (hof-oath) that was supposed to have formed part of early Icelandic law, Úlfjótslög, [16] and the sacrificial toasts from Þrándheimr described in Hákonar saga góða (ch. 14). In the case of the former, one notes that two of the three gods called on to witness the oath are Vanir (Freyr and Njǫrðr), who are accompanied by “hinn almáttki áss” (the mightiest god [áss]). [17] Njǫrðr’s presence here is particularly intriguing if only because he is so rarely mentioned in other Icelandic sources, in spite of appearing in two Icelandic place names (both called Njarðvík: see Svavar Sigmundsson 1992: 242–43). Interestingly enough, both gods reappear together in the sacred full (toasts) closely associated with sacrificial activities in Hákonar saga góða (ch. 14), made by Sigurðr Hlaðajarl “til árs ok friðar” (for good harvests and peace). [18] The account runs as follows:

Þat var forn siðr, þá er blót skyldi vera, at allir bændr skyldu þar koma, sem hof var, ok flytja þannug fǫng sín, þau er þeir skyldu hafa, meðan veizlan stóð. At veizlu þeiri skyldu allir menn ǫl eiga. Þar var ok drepinn alls konar smali ok svá hross, en blóð þat allt, er þar kom af, þá var kallat hlaut, ok hlautbollar þat, er blóð þat stóð í, ok hlautteinar, þat var svá gǫrt sem stǫkklar, með því skyldi rjóða stallana ǫllu saman ok svá veggi hofsins útan ok innan ok svá støkkva á mennina, en slátr skyldi sjóða til mannfagnaðar. Eldar skyldu vera á miðju gólfi í hofinu, ok þar katlar yfir. Skyldi full um eld bera, en sá, er gerði veisluna ok hǫfðingi var, þá skyldi hann signa fullit ok allan blótmatinn, skyldi fyrst Óðins full—skyldi þat drekka til sigrs ok ríkis konungi sínum—en síðan Njarðar full ok Freys full til árs ok friðar. Þá var mǫrgum mǫnnum títt at drekka þar næst bragafull. Menn drukku ok full frænda sinna, þeira er heygðir hǫfðu verit, ok váru það minni kǫlluð.

(It was an ancient custom that a blót (sacrifice) should take place in which all farmers should come to the site of the hof and bring those goods that they would need while the feasting was taking place. Every man should have ale for this feast. Many cattle, sheep and horses were killed there and all the blood that came from them was called hlaut, while the containers in which the blood was caught were called hlautbollar (hlaut-cups), and hlautteinar (hlaut-sticks), which were made like aspergillum and were used to redden the altar completely and then the walls of the hof inside and out, and then to splatter the people, the sacrificial meat then being boiled for the gathering. There should be a fire in the center of the floor and over this should be cauldrons. The full (toast) should be carried around the fire by the chieftain who had organized the feast, after which he should signa (mark/sign/bless) the toast and all the sacrificial meal. First should be Óðinn’s full, which should be drunk to the victory and state of his king; and then a full to Njǫrðr and a full to Freyr for “ár ok friðr”. Then it was common for many men to drink a bragafull (to Bragi?). They also drank a full to their relations who had been buried. This was called a minni (memory toast).)

The wording of the passage implies a possible textual relationship with the detailed descriptions of hof buildings and activities given in Úlfljótslög (see above), Eyrbyggja saga (ch. 4), and Kjalnesinga saga (ch. 2). The formulaic wording of both the full and the oath in Úlfljótslög suggest they have roots in a pre-Christian oral formula that had ritual associations and connections to religious buildings.

Further, more direct connections between the Vanir gods and religious buildings appear in other types of text that appear to have lived for some time in the oral tradition in western Scandinavia before being recorded on parchment, namely the eddic poems which have a better claim to antiquity than the Icelandic family sagas. The texts in question are Grímnismál (st. 16) and Vafþrúðnismál (st. 38), both of which concern Njǫrðr. The former states:

Nóatún ero en ellipto,
en þar Niǫrðr hefir
sér um gǫrva sali,
manna þengill
enn meins vani
hǫrg <i ræðr>.
Nóatún is the eleventh,
where Njörðr has
made himself a hall,
prince of men
lacking in harm,
the high-timbered
hǫrgr (altar) rules.

The latter runs:

Segðu þat it tíunda,
allz þú tíva røk
ǫll, Vafþruðnir, vitir,
hvaðan Niǫrðr um kom,
með ása sonom,
hofom og hǫrgom
hann ræðr hunnmǫrgom,
ok varðat hann ásom alinn.
Answer a tenth,
since about the fate of the gods
you know everything, Vafþrúðnir:
where did Njörðr come from
to join the sons of the Æsir,
hof and hǫrgar
countless, he rules over,
and was not raised among the æsir.

It seems natural to place these stanzas (and the other passages about ritual practice noted above) alongside the famous words of Hyndluljóð st. 10, in which Freyja, referring to Óttarr ungi, states:

Hǫrg hann mér gerði
hlaðinn steinum,
nú er griót þat
at gleri orðit,
rauð hann í nýiu
nauta blóði,
æ trúði Óttarr
á ásyniur.
He made me a hǫrgr
piled with stones;
now that rock
has become [like] glass,
he reddened it in new
bull’s blood;
Óttarr has always believed
in goddesses.

While one can expect some degree of variation and reconstruction to have taken place in the wording of accounts that were passed on in the oral tradition over centuries, prior to eventually being recorded, it would seem questionable whether the stanzas noted above were composed by Christians—or even by Icelanders, since no specially-constructed hof, hǫrgar, or so-called kulthus (cult-houses) of the kind described in the sagas and eddic poems and later found in archaeological excavations in mainland Scandinavia have ever been found in Iceland (see further Gunnell 2001 and the references noted there). The above stanzas would thus appear to have roots in earlier Nordic tradition, and a Nordic tradition that had some reason for connecting Njǫrðr and Freyja (Njǫrðr above all and Freyja secondarily) to sacred spaces: once again, no mention is ever made of a hǫrgr being dedicated to any other god. As noted above, the same ideas of Vanir connections with religious practice, ritual, and hof are reflected in Snorri’s comments in chapters 4 and 10 of Ynglingasaga, in which Njǫrðr and Freyr are called “blótgoðar”, and Freyja a “blótgyðja”. In terms of absence, it should be borne in mind that Snorri makes no similar statements about either Óðinn or Þórr (or even Frigg). Furthermore, while hof and hofgoðar are mentioned elsewhere in Ynglinga saga in connection with the Æsir (ch. 2 and 5; cf. Vǫluspá st. 7), Snorri stresses that “Freyr reisti at Uppsǫlum hof mikit” (Freyr raised a large hof at Uppsala), underlining once again the direct connections he saw as existing between the Vanir (and especially Freyr), Uppland, and the religious activities he describes elsewhere as taking place at Gamla Uppsala (Ynglinga saga ch. 15, 34 and 38; and Ólafs saga helga ch. 67). No similar statements are made about Þórr (who is strangely near absent from Ynglinga saga).

The Vanir, however, are not only shown to be more closely associated with religious buildings than other gods in the extant accounts. They are also depicted as being more directly bound up with particular holy sites in the landscape, and not least sites where they are supposed to “live on” after their deaths: in contrast to Óðinn and Njǫrðr, who are cremated (Ynglinga saga ch. 8 and 9), Snorri, for example, tells how:

er Freyr var dauðr, báru þeir hann leyniliga í hauginn ok sǫgðu Svíum, at hann lifði, ok varðveittu hann þar þrjá vetr. En skatt ǫllum helltu þeir í hauginn, í einn glugg gullinu, en í annan silfrinu, í inn þriðja eirpenningum. Þá hélzt ár ok friðr. (Ynglinga saga ch. 10)

(when Freyr died, they carried him secretly into the grave mound and told the Swedes that he was still alive and preserved him for three winters. They poured the taxes into the mound, the gold going into one window, while the silver went into another, and the bronze into a third. Then the harvests and peace were maintained.)

As was noted above, the formulaic expression “ár ok friðr” seems to have been closely associated with the Vanir in oral tradition (and rarely with other gods).

The same idea of direct connections between the Vanir and the landscape might also be reflected in the earlier-mentioned account from Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta (Flateyjarbók I, ch. 322–23) about how one of the two wooden images of Freyr stolen from his mound was taken from Uppsala to Þrándheimr, where it went on to be worshipped until it was eventually destroyed by Ólafr Tryggvason. This unique account of people transferring a statue of an Old Nordic god from one place to another (rather than simply constructing a new one) would seem to contain a similar idea to that involved with the moving of high-seat pillars and sometimes sacred earth from Norway to Iceland as part of settlement practice, as for instance referred to in Landnámabók (ch. S 297/H 258; see further Gunnell 2009 and the references contained there). What seems to be taking place in both cases is the moving of environmental sacredness, an act which involves what James George Frazer and Arnold van Gennep referred to as “contagious magic” (Frazer 1957: 14–6; van Gennep 1960: 7–9, 14).

Continuing this line of investigation about the idea of physical connection between the Vanir gods and landscape, and the subsequent transference or spreading of the “goodness” of a god (or goddess) to other places permanently or temporarily, it is worth considering a little further the Latin and Norse narratives describing the seasonal ritual journeys made by wagons of Nerthus, Freyr, and Lytir described in Germania ch. 40; and Hauks þáttr hábrókar (in Flateyjarbók I, ch. 467). None of these accounts show direct literary borrowings from each other, and the writers had not seen the Dejbjerg wagon (from Jylland, Denmark, c. first century BCE) or the Oseberg wagon (c. 850 CE), now on display in museums in Copenhagen and Oslo, both of which are believed to have had a ritual purpose. [25] It is equally certain that the writers had never viewed the images of wagons shown as taking part in what appear to be ritual processions on the Oseberg tapestry (Krafft 1956). Nor would they have observed the processional road and sloping ramp leading into the huge hall recently discovered behind the church at Gamla Uppsala, [26] which one assumes might have allowed wheeled vehicles to be drawn in and out; or the straight processional road leading from what appears to be a building at Rösaring, in Uppland, Sweden, which might conceivably have accommodated a wagon like that from Oseberg (which cannot turn). [27] In short, it would appear that each of the accounts telling of sacred wagons noted above has an independent origin, and roots in local oral tradition of some kind (see further Brink 1990: 61). Whether the accounts in question are factually true is beside the point. What matters most here is that for some reason, people believed them to have had some foundation in reality. In short, they appear to have had firm roots in oral tradition, just like the numerous local legends recorded in Sweden and Denmark (including Dejbjerg) telling of golden wagons hidden in lakes that the Swedish folklorist Bengt af Klintberg (1998) has compiled. Each account of the journey of a god reflects the same idea that goodness, focused in a spatial center, could be brought to bear on other places, as occurred also with Christian processions around a settlement or the visitation of a bishop with a holy relic.

As I have noted elsewhere (Gunnell 1995: 54–57, 2006a, and 2011), the ritual journey of Freyr and his wife across the Swedish landscape in wintertime, as described in Gunnars þáttr helmings (Ögmundar þáttr dytts; Flateyjarbók I, ch. 278), contains not only the idea of a ritual procession but also strong elements of drama and performance which are said to have encouraged active belief on the part of those observing. Bearing this in mind, it is interesting to note that when dramatic activities are most obviously implied by the extant literary materials concerning Old Norse mythology or religion, they appear first and foremost in connection with one of the few works that directly concerns the Vanir. The work in question, the wholly dialogic eddic poem Skírnismál, with its outdoor (st. 10, 15 and 32), night time (st. 1 and 10), and apparently midwinter setting (st. 42), and its movement from a civilized, male, inside space to the wild, female, outside space on the periphery represented by a woman called Gerðr (lit. field/delineated space)—who is separated from the rest of the world by a ring of fire (st. 17 and 18)—also contains a strong element of the processional. Its action, which seems to link a central place (inhabited by gods) to a peripheral sacral spot, describes a movement which could well have had a basis in fifth- or sixth-century sacral reality. Indeed, this was a time when many sacrificial practices in Sweden seem to have been starting to move from outdoor spaces on the periphery with close connections to female goddesses (cf. Grímnismál st. 7 and Vǫluspá st. 33) to the indoor spaces of the male ruler, in other words from natural spaces to the man-made hall. In spite of this, it is probable that many of these later indoor activities still needed the validation of some form of connection with the earlier sacred outdoor sites (see further Gunnell 2001; Fabech and Näsman 2013; Jørgensen 2009; and Fredengren 2011). [28]

It is noteworthy that outdoor movement of the kind depicted in Skírnismál is not a central feature of either monologic or dialogic Óðinic-focused eddic dramatic poems, such as Vafþrúðnismál, Grímnismál, Eiríksmál, and Hákonarmál, [29] all of which are firmly situated in an internal hall environment. Skírnismál is very different, and, as noted above, seems to have been comparatively less well known to Snorri. In addition to its movement between spaces, which essentially involves one character (Skírnir, the “Shining One”) moving from one static figure to another (from Njörðr to Freyr to the herdsman to the “ambátt” to Gerðr and back to Freyr [possibly thence to the grove of Barri]), the poem also contains a number of very ritualistic features, ranging from the cutting of fresh wood for a “gambantein” (power wand), to a seeming call on supernatural powers related to different cardinal directions (st. 34), to the physical carving of runes which were evidently still seen as having magical power in the thirteenth century (st. 36: see further Gunnell 2006a and 2011). One also notes the near total absence of the Æsir gods in the poem, outside a strange reference to Skírnir offering Óðinn’s ring Draupnir to Gerðr (st. 22). In the context of Skírnismál, this feature sounds almost as suspicious as the suggestion in the introductory prose (taken directly from Snorri’s Gylfaginning; see Gunnell 1995: 229–32) that Freyr had usurped Óðinn’s high seat when he first observed Gerðr from afar. Bearing in mind that Snorri suggests elsewhere that Óðinn owned Freyr’s ship Skíðblaðnir (Gylfaginning ch. 43; see also Grimnismál st. 43, cf. Ynglinga saga ch. 7), and that Frigg owned Freyja’s “fiaðrhamr”/”valfall”/”valshamr” (bird costume) (see Þrymskviða st. 3–5 and 9 and Skáldskaparmál ch. G56 and 20; cf. Skáldskaparmál ch. 18), there is good reason to consider whether both the ring and the high-seat were seen by some people as having originally been attributes of Freyr rather than of Óðinn. [30] Whatever the case, there is reason to believe that Skírnismál originated in a different environment than the Óðinic poems, even if its structure, form, and movement find certain parallels in the heroic Fáfnismál and Sigrdrífumál (see Gunnell 2006a and 2011).

It seems natural to place both Gunnars þáttr helmings and Skírnismál alongside various comments made by Saxo Grammaticus in his early thirteenth-century Gesta Danorum about the ritualistic activities involved in the worship of Freyr, which Saxo, like Snorri, associates directly with Uppsala. Naturally Saxo, like Snorri, was writing over a century after Sweden had formally adopted Christianity. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that Saxo (like Snorri) saw pre-Christian Uppsala (and Sweden in general) as having not only different beliefs to those of the Danes, but also quite different practices. According to Saxo, Starkatherus spent time with the “sons of Freyr” (Filiis Frø) in Sweden, where he was disgusted by the “womanish body movements, the clatter of actors on the stage and the soft tinkling of bells” (effeminatos corporum motus scenicosque mimorum plausus ac mollia nolarum crepitacula fastidiret) at the time of the sacrifices in Uppsala (see Gesta Danorum, Book 6; see further Gunnell 1995: 76–79). While there is a faint possibility that Saxo is actually referring to activities at the markets later held at Uppsala, described in Snorri’s Ólafs saga helga (ch. 77), his description closely reflects aspects of Adam of Bremen’s earlier account of the same festivals contained in chapters 26 and 27 of his Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiæ pontificum (c. 1050). [31] Adam’s description, purportedly based on the first-hand experience of an informant, and written when the festivals were still taking place, describes, among other things, the “multiplices et inhonestae” (manifold and unseemly) incantations that could be heard at the festival in a surrounding that, according to a later twelfth-century scholium, was like a “teatrum” (Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiæ pontificum ch. 26–27; see also scholia 139).

Adam’s account differs slightly from that of Saxo in that he suggests that the festival, set in early spring, was also dedicated to the male Æsir gods, the statues of “Wotan” and “Frikko” apparently standing on either side of a statue of “Thor”. [32] One wonders where the goddesses are, especially when other accounts, such as that by Snorri in Ynglinga saga (ch. 29), stress connections between the festival, a “Dísarsalr”, and a “dísablót”, an idea later supported by the Upplandslög and Swedish tradition which both talk of a central “Dísæþing” and market taking place at this time (Upplandslagen p. 169; see also Gunnell 2000). The discrepancies between these accounts are rarely discussed, but might perhaps be answered if one considers the timing and nature of the nine-year festivals, which took place at the beginning of the “male” time of the year (in which planting, military activities and trade took place, all of which needed “male” blessing: see further Gunnell 2006b). Like the Alþing in Iceland, they also involved the entire nation rather than a single local group, and thereby potentially needed to involve all the representative gods of all those present (in other words, all the groups represented). None of this detracts from the fact that the activities associated with the Uppsala festivals (traditionally associated with the Vanir by both Snorri and Saxo) were seen as being particularly visual and dramatic, and different from those known elsewhere (hence the attention that they receive). As noted above, the validity of Adam’s and Saxo’s accounts seems to be gaining ever more support from the wealth of archaeological evidence that has been coming to light at Gamla Uppsala over the last few years. The likelihood must be that the format and nature of these festivals, situated in an area marked out by the grave mounds of forefathers and close to another royal burial area at Valsgärde, must have grown out of earlier Vanir rituals (considering the strong traditional connections between the Vanir and the area).

Naturally the textual evidence listed above cannot be trusted as historical records concerning the state of things in Sweden during pre-Christian times. Nonetheless, it does suggest that those behind these accounts would have disagreed with Simek’s statement quoted at the start about there having been “no inherent difference between the gods ascribed to both groups by Snorri”. It also underlines that people in western Scandinavia, Denmark and Hamburg-Bremen seem to have viewed the people of Uppland as different, as “other” to themselves, especially concerning their religious practices, and those concerning the Vanir in general. In the very least, it seems clear that the oral tradition on which these accounts were based, which had been passed on through time, regularly undergoing minor changes, and later came to be recorded mainly in the thirteenth century, possibly influenced by Christianity, seems to have retained vague memories of the religious activities associated with those believing in the Vanir having been different from those known by most people “at home”.

Of course, it is possible that these differences were exaggerated by all the authors in question as part of a “conspiracy” designed to suggest that the old religion of the Swedes (which endured longer than in the other Nordic countries) was especially depraved. Perhaps the more prominent practical role of women in the religion and the interest in animals and ritual drama noted above were deliberately spotlighted alongside the incestuous activities of the Vanir [33] as a means of underlining the pagan depravity of the Swedes in particular (a view that Saxo Grammaticus seems to have held). Such an argument, however, must be viewed as somewhat questionable, not least because, as has been noted above, similar traits keep recurring in accounts that do not obviously borrow from each other. These accounts appear to have a background in cultural memories of tradition, among others those relating to early accounts that were rife with details about the nature of the festivals that were held at Gamla Uppsala from at least the mid Iron Age. As noted above, recent archaeological finds suggest that the accounts given by Adam, Snorri, and Saxo concerning the activities that took place around the large grave mounds in Gamla Uppsala had some basis in reality. They also indicate that the activities which took place on this site, reached by a kilometer-long processional avenue marked with tall pillars off which dead animals seem to have been hung, were more spectacular than those occurring at any other site so far discovered in Scandinavia, apart from perhaps the Oseberg burial (and the Oseberg tapestry, noted earlier, is believed to reflect the kind of activities that took place at funerals of this kind). The grand processional route and the recently-discovered large hall found at Gamla Uppsala towards which the route leads, with its three-meter wide doors and hinges in the form of spears, demonstrate that, whatever was going on at the festivals in Gamla Uppsala c. 800 CE, it was meant to attract attention. In short, it was intended that it burn itself into the memory of those present, and be passed on to those in foreign climes, in a somewhat similar fashion to a televised American presidential inauguration, or a prominent terrorist attack. The Icelandic evidence from Landnámabók and the sagas, along with the eddic poems, suggests that the close associations people saw as existing between ritual activities and the gods associated with the Vanir certainly seem to have continued in the minds of those who encountered Vanir worshippers elsewhere (in Norway and Iceland).

To sum up, both the oral tradition described in this article and the recent archaeological evidence suggest that the religious activities and belief of the Vanir (centered in Sweden) had a slightly different nature, and perhaps a different origin to those connected to Æsir gods like Þórr and Óðinn. If the essence of these accounts can be trusted, it seems that somewhat like the Catholic or Greek Orthodox churches in comparison to Lutheran churches, the “religion” associated with the Vanir was viewed as being more ritualistic. It was also seen as being less sexist and more connected to the local environment (and perhaps also the forefathers buried in the environment). Such differences, to my mind, were not solely related to function. The nuances of such Vanir ritual and how it was enacted and understood by the original believers and later Nordic peoples may never be fully accessible to us. Much will depend on what new discoveries the archaeologists may reveal in the years to come.

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[ back ] 1. I would like to express my gratitude to the editors for their careful reading over of the text of this article, and their suggestions for improvements.

[ back ] 2. Among other things, Schjødt’s suggestion that “the Vanir are not thematised as warriors” (Schjødt 2014: 30) seems to sidestep the fact that Freyr has a horse named Blóðughófi/Blóðhófr, (Blood-hoof); that he is described as being “bǫðfróðr” (battle-experienced); kennings like “as-Freyr”, “es-Freyr”, “él-Freyr” and “víg-Freyr” (for warrior) (Skáldskaparmál, pp. 19, 65, 89, 100, 265–66); and the archaeological and literary evidence of helmets crowned with images of boars (the animal most closely associated with the Vanir; see below, note 14), which are more likely to be related to the battle prowess of the boar than its relation to fertility (see Kovárová 2011). As I suggest here, like Þórr, the Vanir seem to have had a wide range of functions, ranging from sovereignty (not least through genealogical connection to the Ynglingar), to close associations with magic and ritual (not least through Freyja’s connection with seiðr, discussed below), battle-prowess, and fertility. See also Olof Sundqvist (2000: 136–55) on the genealogical connections between the Vanir and the Ynglingar kings.

[ back ] 3. On the West Norse bias of the accounts in Old Norse belief in Old Norse literature, see further Andreas Nordberg’s article, “Continuity, Change and Regional Variation in Old Norse Religion” (Nordberg 2012: 122–24).

[ back ] 4. It is also questionable whether the “Æsir” were commonly viewed as having existed as a united pantheon (see Gunnell 2015).

[ back ] 5. The question of the degree to which this material has roots in the oral tradition is one that has been argued for decades, and there is unfortunately too little space here to examine this point in detail. Nonetheless, it might be stated that while there is little question that the sagas, Prose Edda and eddic poems were recorded in a Christian environment, there is equally little doubt that much of the material they preserve has a background in the oral tradition (see Gunnell 2008, 2013a, 2014). If the apparently historical writing did not have a basis in recognized concepts and knowledge, it would not have been passed on or rewritten.

[ back ] 6. Certainly, as Brink’s maps show, Vanir-associated place names are also found here and there in western Norway (just as they are found in Iceland: see Svavar Sigmundsson 1992: 242–43), but they are much less widely distributed than those associated with Þórr. The Freyr and Njǫrðr place names in Sogn in Norway tend to be comparatively deep inland: see note 8 below. Their particular association with Sweden is stressed by the fact that they are hardly found at all in Denmark or the British Isles.

[ back ] 7. While there has been some discussion about the oral background of Gunnars þáttr helmings (see Brink 1990: 51–52, cf. 55–62), it should be remembered that no trustworthy literary foreign model has yet been suggested. Furthermore, as will be stressed below, almost all of the motifs in the account echo ideas elsewhere closely associated with Vanir cult activities.

[ back ] 8. According to Landnámabók (ch. S 316/H 276 [S refers to chapters in Sturlubók; H to chapters in Hauksbók]), Þórðr’s forefathers came from Høyanger (“Heyangr”) on Sognefjord, an area which contains a number of place names that would appear to be associated with Vanir worship including Fretland, Fresvik and Nærøyfjord. It might also be noted that according to Víga-Glúms saga (ch. 5), Þórðr’s wife was called Ingunn (a name with potential Vanir connotations).

[ back ] 9. One might also include in this list the goði Þórgrímr Þorsteinsson in Gísla saga Súrssonar (ch. 15 and 18), who appears to have focused his worship on Freyr in spite of being the grandson of Þórólfr Mostra(r)skegg, a famous believer in Þórr (see Landnámabók ch. S 85 and H 73 and Eyrbyggja saga ch. 4).

[ back ] 10. The expression would make sense if only two or three gods were worshipped in Iceland, and if Þórr were the most common of these, as is argued in Gunnell forthcoming a. Naturally, as time went on, and more interaction between settlers took place (not least in the form of intermarriage between families with different religious backgrounds), one can expect the differences between religious practices to have become less prominent, and some degree of blending to have taken place.

[ back ] 11. On the nature of the hof (which is still disputed), see further Gunnell 2001 and the references contained there. From here on, the word hof will be used in its original form in translations rather than “temple”, which has a range of questionable associations.

[ back ] 12. For all references to the eddic poems in this article, see the versions of the poems contained in Eddadigte 1961, 1964, and 1971, see Poetic Edda.

[ back ] 13. On Freyfaxi (and Freysfaxi), see further Elmevik 2003 and 2011: 352.

[ back ] 14. The only exception is the description of the image of Þórr’s wagon in the hof in Þrándheimr which is said to be pulled by goats in Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta in Flateyjarbók (I, ch. 268). Nonetheless, nothing is actually done with the goats in this account and there are no accounts of special flocks of goats being dedicated to Þórr (like the horses apparently dedicated to Freyr). The same applies to Óðinn’s wolves, whose real-world representatives would naturally be more difficult to keep in fields. The fact that the mythical boar belonging to Freyr is said to be made of gold (see Snorri Sturluson, Skáldskaparmál ch. 35) may also contain a faint memory of other boar images—perhaps like those adorning the Benty Grange and Pioneer helmets, and also those mentioned in connection with helmets in Beowulf. In addition to the horse and boar, one might perhaps add the bull sacrificed to Freyr in Brandkrossa þáttr (ch. 1) and the bull sacrificed at the vetrnætur in Þiðranda þáttr ok Þórhalls (ch. 2) (here seemingly associated with the arrival of the dísir), bearing in mind that in Gísla saga (ch. 15) the vetrnætr are directly associated with Freyr.

[ back ] 15. A parallel idea might be reflected in the account of the snow never settling on the grave mound of Þorgrímr Þorsteinsson in Gísla saga Súrssonar (ch. 18).

[ back ] 16. See Landnámabók (ch. H 268); and also Hauksbók (Tillæg, ch. IX). Úlfljótslög, believed by many to be the earliest Icelandic law (possibly going back, in part, to around 930) is also contained in Þorsteins þáttr uxafóts (in Flateyjarbók I, ch. 201) and Brot af Þórðar sögu hreðu (ch. 1). On the dating and trustworthiness of Úlfljótslög, see further Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson 1998: 44–50.

[ back ] 17. There is some dispute about who “hinn almáttki áss” was, but the likelihood must be that it was Þórr, since Óðinn seems to have been little known in Iceland (see Gunnell forthcoming a). The appearance of two Vanir gods in a hof oath apparently practiced by all Icelanders naturally raises questions about the argument made in this article with regard to the Vanir worshippers being “other” in Iceland. Nonetheless, the formula may also have been meant to cover all the relevant gods worshipped in Iceland (Þórr, Freyr, and Njörðr being the names most prominent in extant place names).

[ back ] 18. It might be noted that later in in the same saga (Hákonar saga góða ch. 16–17), other sacrificial toasts are also made “til árs ok friðar”, but then only to Óðinn (rather strangely) and Þórr. On the formula “til árs ok friðar”, see further Hultgård 1993: 224–54 and Sundqvist 2000: 176–79.

[ back ] 19. In this context, it is worth bearing in mind st. 51 of Lokasenna, where Skaði, Njǫrðr’s wife, refers to her “véom ok vǫngum” (shrines and sacred fields), something that is arguably backed up by place-name evidence of numerous sites called “Skedevi”/ “Skedvi”, especially in the east of Sweden: see de Vries 1956–57: II, 161–62 and 335–40.

[ back ] 20. On the nature of seiðr, see further Strömbäck 2000; and Price 2002: 91–232.

[ back ] 21. This expression naturally raises further questions with regard to Óðinn’s supposed function as ruler-god and “alföðr”. In addition to the meaning of the word Freyr (generally associated with the meaning of “lord”, but see also Elmevik 2003 on possible links to fertility), this expression underlines that for some people, Freyr was seen as the highest god.

[ back ] 22. On the connections between the álfar and the Vanir, see above and also Gunnell 2007.

[ back ] 23. Alongside this account one might place that concerning the ever-green nature of the grave mound of the Freyr-worshipper Þorgrímr goði noted above; and possibly also the account of the field of Vitazgjafi, also noted earlier.

[ back ] 24. Here I am not talking of sacred buildings or landscape dedicated to the gods according to place names, but rather accounts of particular places in the landscape in which they were supposed to have lived. Of course, there are a range of other accounts telling of Icelanders “dying into” and living on the landscape (see further Gunnell 2014), but the same does not ever apply to the Æsir gods.

[ back ] 25. For the Dejbjerg wagon, see “The Wagons at Dejbjerg”. With regard to the Oseberg wagon, see Christensen et al. 1992: 119–23 and 248–49.

[ back ] 26. For details on recent and ongoing finds at Gamla Uppsala, see Ljungkvist et al. 2015.

[ back ] 27. See further Sandén n.d.; 2002.

[ back ] 28. I would like to express my gratitude to Torun Zachrisson and Olof Sundqvist for their assistance with finding recent sources concerning this subject.

[ back ] 29. Eiríksmál and Hákonarmál both tend to be classed as skaldic poems rather than eddic works, but their meter and form (not least their use of the dialogic form) show close associations with eddic poetry. This subject is dealt with in more detail in Gunnell forthcoming b.

[ back ] 30. Of course, it might be argued that Frigg was the original owner or that both women owned similar costumes. All the same, Snorri offers no poetic evidence to support Frigg being the owner of such garb. Furthermore, unlike Freyja, Frigg rarely moves anywhere. As regards the idea of Freyr’s connection to the high-seat, it might be noted that a number of throned figures (and thrones/chairs) have now been found in archaeological finds both in Sweden and elsewhere (see further Price 2002: 163–67). One wonders whether all—or any—of these figures and thrones were originally related to Óðinn, or whether at least some might have represented Freyr.

[ back ] 31. While Saxo may have read Adam’s account, his description contains no direct borrowings, and differs in several features.

[ back ] 32. Naturally, there are questions why, in a place commonly associated in oral tradition with Freyr, Þórr is said to be the central god. One possibility (if the festival was not associated with the “male” part of the year as suggested above, and the central gods alternated) is that Þórr had a central role at this time because he was the god more associated with growth, as Ynglinga saga (ch. 8) suggests: “Þá skyldi blóta í móti vetri til árs, en at miðjum vetri blóta til gróðrar, it þriðja at sumri, þat var sigrblót” (Then sacrifices should be made at the start of winter for good years, in the middle of winter, sacrifices for growth, the third at the start of summer, that was a sacrifice for victory). According to this pattern (which is echoed in Adam’s suggestion that the gods had particular functions), sacrifices more associated with Freyr would have taken place at the start of winter (as suggested by Gísla saga: see note 14), while the sacrifices at the start of the summer would have been more associated with Óðinn (usually associated with victory). Those closer to midwinter would then have centered on Þórr (although the Uppsala sacrifice seems to have taken place some time in February). As noted at the start (note 2), however, I am wary of such simple functional interpretations. As underlined in the other original references given in Gunnell forthcoming b, Þórr is regularly said to have a central role amongst the gods (not least in accounts describing statues). His central role in Adam’s account might simply be based on expectation rather than memory.

[ back ] 33. These incestuous activities are only noted by Snorri in Ynglinga saga (ch.4): “Þá er Njǫrðr var með Vǫnum, þá hafði hann átta systur sína, því at þat váru þar lǫg. Váru þeira bǫrn Freyr ok Freyja. En þat var bannat með Ásum at byggva svo náit at frændsemi” (ch. 4) (When Njörður was with the Vanir, he had lived with his sister because that was the law there. Their children were Freyr and Freyja. Such close relations amongst relatives were banned amongst the Æsir).