Norse religion refers to the religious beliefs and practices of pre-Christian Scandanavia, especially during the Viking era. It also known as Germanic paganism, Germanic religion, or Norse mythology.
The ancient origins of Germanic religion are prehistoric and thus unknown. Most of what is known about Germanic religion is derived from descriptions by Latin writers such as Julius Caesar (1st cent. BCE) and Tacitus (1st cent. CE), descriptions of early Christian missionaries, and archaeological evidence including cult objects, amulets, grave goods, and place names.
Anglo-Saxon England was converted from Norse paganism to Christianity in the 7th century, Scandinavia in the 10th century. The Germanic/Norse religion gradually disappeared after this, although Christianity absorbed some of its external features, such as the name and popular customs of Easter.
Asatru, the modern revival of the old Norse faith, was founded by the Icelandic farmer Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson (1924–1993).
Today, there are small groups of Asatru adherents throughout Scandinavia and North America. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, in the 1990s the approximately 300 Icelandic adherents hoped to dechristianize Iceland by the year 2000, the 1000th anniversary of the island's christianization.
Neither ancient Norse religion nor modern Asatru is predominantly text-based, but Norse myths are beautifully preserved in two Icelandic epics called the Eddas.
The first Edda dates from the 12th century AD, when Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), an Icelandic poet, historian and politician, retold many Norse myths with quotations from poems and explanations of mythological imagery. His goal was to provide a handbook for poets so the ancient lore would not be lost. It was called Edda, which means "great-grandmother" but may also be derived from Oddi, Sturluson's hometown. It is now known as Snorri's Edda or the Prose Edda.
In 1643, a 13th-cent. manuscript book known as the Codex regius was found in an Icelandic farmhous, containing poems on gods and heroes. This collection, together with a few poems from other manuscripts, is called the Elder Edda, Poetic Edda, or Saemund's Edda (after an 11th-cent. scholar). The poems may date from as early as 800 AD and appear to have been composed in pre-Christian times in Norway. They recount the exploits of the gods Freyr, Loki, Odin, and Thor and include riddle contests between gods and giants, and much about the creation and destruction of the worlds of gods and humans.
Norse religion is polytheistic. In the Viking Age (9th-11th cents.), there were four main deities, with earlier gods remembered as minor deities and other supernatural beings of varying importance.
The Norse gods are of three different types:
- Aesir - the gods of the tribe or clan, representing kingship, order, craft, etc. (incl. Odin and Thor)
- Vanir - gods of the fertility of the earth and forces of nature (incl. Freyr and Freyja)
- Jotnar - giant-gods who are in a constant state of war with the Aesir, representing chaos and destruction
The four main deities in Germanic religion and Asatru are:
- Odin (Germanic Woden) - god of magic, poetry, riches and the dead; ruler of Valhalla (gave his name to Wednesday)
- Thor - sky god who wields a hammer, controls the weather, and protects the law and the community (gave his name to Thursday)
- Freyr - fertility god represented with a phallic statue and seen as the founder of the Swedish royal dynasty
- Freyja - fertility goddess of love and beauty, sister of Freyr, known by many names (including Frigg, Odin's wife and patron of families, who gave her name to Friday)
- Njord - father of Freyr and Freyja, god of ships, sea and lakes
- Tyr (Germanic Tiu) - god of battle, sacrifice, and justice (gave his name to Tuesday)
- Ullr - god of death, winter, and hunting
- Loki - the trickster
Norse religion did not have a unified conception of the afterlife. Some may have believed that fallen warriors would go to Valhalla to live happily with Odin until the Ragnarök, but it seems unlikely this belief was widespread. Others seemed to believe that there was no afterlife. According to the "Hávamál," any misfortune was better than to be burnt on a funeral pyre, for a corpse was a useless object.
More often people believed that life went on for a time after death but was inseparable from the body. If men had been evil in life, they could persecute the living when dead; they might have to be killed a second time or even a third before they were finished. Some records imply that the dead needed company; a wife, mistress, or servant would be placed in the grave with them. On the whole, beliefs in afterlife seem rather gloomy. The dead pass, perhaps by slow stages, to a dark, misty world called Niflheim (Niflheimr).
The central practice of the old Germanic religion seems to have been animal and human sacrifice, conducted in the open or in groves and forests. Roman authors repeatedly mention the sacrifice of prisoners of war to the gods of victory.
One detailed description of a sacrificial feast is given in a saga about a king of Norway, in which cattle were slaughtered, blood was sprinkled inside and out, the meat was consumed and toasts were drunk to Odin, Njörd, and Freyr. Sacrifices of a more private kind might include the sacrifice of an ox to a god or smearing an elf mound with bull's blood.
Women known as Volva had prophetic gifts. They visited homes, practiced divination and foretold children's destinies. They were probably linked with the Vanir (fertility deities).
Temples were rare but wooden temples seem to have been built in later periods. A major religious center was at Upsala, in NE Sweden.
References and Sources
- - "Germanic religion." John R. Hinnels, ed., The Penguin Dictionary of Religions, 2nd ed. (Penguin Books, 1997).
- "Germanic religion and mythology." Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2005).
- "Iceland." The World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World, Vol. I (Oxford UP, 2001), p. 388.
- Rev. Patrick "Jordsvin" Buck, "Asatru, An Ancient Religion Reborn." Irminsul.org.