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The valknut symbol appears on various objects during the Norse pagan period.

Norse paganism is a term used to describe the religious traditions which were common amongst the Germanic tribes living in Nordic countries prior to and during the Christianization of Northern Europe. Norse paganism is therefore a subset of Germanic paganism, which was practiced in the lands inhabited by the Germanic tribes across most of Northern and Central Europe in the Viking Age. Knowledge of Norse paganism is mostly drawn from the results of archaeological field work, etymology and early written materials.

Some scholars, such as Georges Dumézil, suggest that some structural and thematic elements within the attested Norse religious ideas place Norse paganism within the framework of the pan-Indo-European expression of spiritual ideas as a whole.[1]

Contents

Terminology

Map showing regional differences in worship c. 900, as determined by place-names and archaeological data. Blue denotes areas primarily worshipping the Vanir, red areas are where worship of Thor, Odin and other Aesir predominate. Purple indicates areas where both cults coexisted.

Norse religion was a cultural phenomenon, and -- like most pre-literate folk beliefs -- the practitioners probably did not have a name for their religion until they came into contact with outsiders or competitors. Therefore, the only titles bestowed upon Norse religion are the ones which were used to describe the religion in a competitive manner, usually in a very antagonistic context.[2] Some of these terms were hedendom (Scandinavian), Heidentum (German), Heathenry (English) or Pagan (Latin). A more romanticized name for Norse religion is the medieval Icelandic term Forn Siðr or "Old Custom".

Sources

What is known about Norse paganism has been gathered from archaeological discoveries and from literature produced after Christianization.[3]

Literary sources

An 18th century copy of the Prose Edda, one of the key literary sources for Norse mythology.

The literary sources that reference Norse paganism were written after the religion had declined and Christianity had taken hold.[4] The vast majority of this came from 13th century Iceland, where Christianity had taken longest to gain hold because of its remote location. [4] The key literary texts for the study of Norse paganism are the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus and the Poetic Edda, by an unknown writer or writers.

Archaeological sources

Mjolnir pendants were worn by Norse pagans during the 9th to 10th centuries. This Mjolnir pendant was found at Bredsätra in Öland, Sweden.

Many sites in Scandinavia have yielded valuable information about early Scandinavian culture. The oldest extant cultural examples are petroglyphs or helleristninger/hällristningar[5]. These are usually divided into two categories according to age: "hunting-glyphs" and "agricultural-glyphs". The hunting glyphs are the oldest (ca. 9,000–6,000 BCE) and are predominantly found in Northern Scandinavia (Jämtland, Nord-Trøndelag and Nordland). These finds seem to indicate an existence primarily based on hunting and fishing. These motifs were gradually subsumed (ca. 4,000–2,000 BCE) by glyphs with more zoomorphic, or perhaps religious, themes.

The glyphs from the region of Bohuslän are later complemented with younger agricultural glyphs (ca. 2,300–500 BCE), which seem to depict an existence based more heavily on agriculture. These later motifs primarily depict ships, solar and lunar motifs, geometrical spirals and anthropomorphic beings, which seem to ideographically indicate the beginning of Norse religion.

Other noteworthy archaeological finds which may depict early Norse religion are the Iron Age bog bodies such as the Tollund Man, who may have been ritually sacrificed in a seemingly religious context.

Later, in the Pre-Viking and Viking age, there is material evidence which seems to indicate a growing sophistication in Norse religion, such as artifacts portraying the gripdjur (gripping-beast) motifs, interlacing art and jewelry, Mjolnir pendants and numerous weapons and bracteates with runic characters scratched or cast into them. The runes seem to have evolved from the earlier helleristninger, since they initially seemed to have a wholly ideographic usage. Runes later evolved into a script which was perhaps derived from a combination of Proto-Germanic language and Etruscan or Gothic writing. However, this origin has not been proven, and many runic origin theories have been advocated.

Many other ideographic and iconographic motifs which may portray the religious beliefs of the Pre-Viking and Viking Norse are depicted on runestones, which were usually erected as markers or memorial stones. These memorial stones usually were not placed in proximity to a body, and many times there is an epitaph written in runes to memorialize a deceased relative. This practice continued well into the process of Christianization.

Like most ancient and medieval peoples, Norse society was divided into several classes and the early Norse practiced slavery in earnest. The majority of interments from the pagan period seem to derive primarily from the upper classes, however many recent excavations in medieval church yards have given a broader glimpse into the life of the common people.

Worship

Centres of faith

Gamla Uppsala, the centre of worship in Sweden until the temple was destroyed in the late 11th century.

The Germanic tribes rarely or never had temples in a modern sense. The blót, the form of worship practiced by the ancient Germanic and Scandinavian people, resembled that of the Celts and Balts; it could occur in sacred groves. It could also take place at home and/or at a simple altar of piled stones known as a hörgr.

However, there seems to have been a few more important centres, such as Skiringsal, Lejre and Uppsala. Adam of Bremen claims that there was a temple in Uppsala (see Temple at Uppsala) with three wooden statues of Thor, Odin and Freyr, although no archaeological evidence to date has been able to verify this.

Remains of what may be cultic buildings have been excavated in Slöinge (Halland), Uppåkra (Skåne), and Borg (Östergötland).

Priests

Some kind of shamanistic priesthood seems to have existed, focusing especially on magical women known as völur. There seem also to have been chieftain-priests called goðar who arranged religious festivals at their own estates for their followers[6].

It is often said that the Germanic kingship evolved out of a priestly office. This priestly role of the king was in line with the general role of goði, who was the head of a kindred group of families (for this social structure, see Norse clans), and who administered the sacrifices.

Sacrifice

Sacrifice could comprise of inanimate objects, animals or humans. Amongst the Norse, there were two types of human sacrifice; that performed for the gods at religious festivals, and retainer sacrifice that was performed at a funeral. An eye-witness account of retainer sacrifice survives in Ibn Fadlan's account of a Rus ship burial, where a slave-girl had volunteered to accompany her lord to the next world. Reports of religious sacrifice are given by Tacitus, Saxo Grammaticus and Adam of Bremen.

The Heimskringla tells of Swedish King Aun who sacrificed nine of his sons in an effort to prolong his life until his subjects stopped him from killing his last son Egil. According to Adam of Bremen, the Swedish kings sacrificed males every ninth year during the Yule sacrifices at the Temple at Uppsala. The Swedes had the right not only to elect kings but also to depose them, and both king Domalde and king Olof Trätälja are said to have been sacrificed after years of famine.

Odin, the chief god of the Norse, was associated with death by hanging, and a possible practice of Odinic sacrifice by strangling has some archeological support in the existence of bodies perfectly preserved by the acid of the Jutland (later taken over by the Daner people) peatbogs, into which they were cast after having been strangled. One of the most notable examples of this is the Bronze Age Tollund Man. However, we possess no written accounts that explicitly interpret the cause of these stranglings, which could have other explanations, such as being a form of capital punishment.

Influence

Traces and influences of Norse paganism can still be found in the culture and traditions of the modern Nordic countries; Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland the Faroe Islands, the Åland Islands, and Greenland, as well as in other countries such as Canada and the United States which were settled by migrants from Nordic nations.

Days of the Week

The names of the week are based upon the names of the gods of the Norse. Similarly, in the English language, six of the days of the week are named after the Germanic deities of Anglo-Saxon paganism.

Day Origin
Mánadagr Moon's Day
Týsdagr Tyr's Day
Óðinsdagr Odin's Day
Þórsdagr Thor's Day
Frjádagr Freyja's Day
Laugardagr Washing Day—not a Norse deity, but an activity
Sunnudagr Sun's Day

Festivals

Yule log made of birch

Various modern celebrations in Nordic countries have traditions that arose from the festivals of the ancient pagans.

The Christian celebration of Christmas, as practised in Scandinavian nations and elsewhere, still makes use of pagan practises such as the Yule log, holly, mistletoe and the exchange of gifts.

Midsummer, the celebration of the summer solstice, is an Old Norse practice still celebrated in Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and in towns across North America that were settled by Scandinavians.

Neopaganism

Norse paganism was the inspiration behind the Neopagan religions of Asatru and Odinism, which grew up in the 20th century. They are both subsets of the larger Germanic neopaganism, which takes influence from the beliefs of any of the Germanic peoples.

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Ref. Req.
  2. ^ Ref. Req.
  3. ^ DuBois, Thomas A. (1999). Nordic Religions in the Viking Age. Philadelphia, Penn.: University of Pennsylvania Press. p. x. ISBN 0812217144.  
  4. ^ a b Auerbach, Loren (1999). The Encyclopedia of World Mythology. Parragon. ISBN 0-7525-8444-8.  
  5. ^ HELLERISTNINGER ROCK CARVING (halristinger)
  6. ^ Gods and Worshippers in the Viking and Germanic world Tempus Publishing 2008.







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