Norse Mythology Shows There Was a Different Side to Vikings than Plundering and Pillaging

Norse Mythology Shows There Was a Different Side to Vikings than Plundering and Pillaging

Shaina Lucas - November 5, 2018

During the medieval ages, Vikings scoured the land from the 8th century to the 11th century. Vikings originally were not called this term, rather the term was used as a verb which meant to go Viking. The verb Viking meant to raid and pillage in other lands. The Vikings traveled from the far reaches of Scandinavia to as far as the New World and Russia. By around 1100 the Vikings had settled in the New World, Greenland, Iceland, England, France, Russia, Normandy, and their ancient home countries of Sweden and Norway. The Vikings were beginning to become Christianized after the Danelaw and settlement in other countries such as Denmark and Normandy. Before Christianization, the Vikings believe in the myths of the Norse. Why was this way of life ending? Was there evidence of a pre-Christian priesthood? What were their religious practices and rituals for these gods? I will be exploring into the religious practices of the Vikings and their methodologies of worship.

The Vikings were an oral culture before the spread of Christianity reached their realm. Stories were passed down by Skalds, who performed the work of Beowulf and other stories of the gods. The mythic stories of the Norse gods were not written down until after Christianization with Snorri Sturluson’s (1178-1241) work of the Prose Edda. A shorter version and less poetic than the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda was a small handbook for traveling skalds who spoke of the stories of the gods. Paganism is most often called the natural religion, based on unenlightened observation of the environment as speculated by medieval peoples during that time.

During the Middle Ages, one who practices paganism was also seen as one who had worldly knowledge but lacked spiritual knowledge. While the myths of the gods were narratives of their lives, the religion itself was the ritual practice of worshipping and sacrifices. The mythology of the North dates to before the Vikings became known as the fierce early medieval pirates. The beginnings of the myths date back to the Scandinavian Bronze Age that lasted over a thousand years from about 1600 to 450 B.C.E. Works of Nordic literature have survived, but little knowledge has been found about religious practices and culture of these Northmen. The stories of the gods are well-known, but historians must look through an archeological standpoint in order to find religious buildings and material aspects of worshipping the Norse gods. The reasoning behind this Icelandic dilemma is that the religious perspectives have been turned toward the field of history of religion, while the material culture has changed to archeology.

Norse Mythology Shows There Was a Different Side to Vikings than Plundering and Pillaging
Odin, The All-Father. Realm of History.

The Norse developed a cult around the All-Father Odin or Wodan, the god of death and battle as well as inspiration and magic lore. There were also cults around the other Norse gods such as Frejya and Thor, but none as big as Odin. The myths in the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda reflect certain lifestyles of the North. When Odin defeats the frost giants it is seen as a victory against the cold. Norway and Sweden, as well as Greenland, have very cold and harsh conditions that make vegetation hard to grow and their source of food is mainly fish. During the winter months the seas are frozen over and the boats are trapped leaving the Northmen no way out of their lands unless they travel through Russia and down into the Byzantine Empire. The Vikings also feared the winter because in the myths there will be three years of winter when Ragnarök starts. Ragnarök is the end of the world in Viking lore, where Odin and all the rest of the gods except two will be killed and the earth reborn. Lava will encase the earth, and all of humanity will die, leaving Asgarð and Midgarð destroyed. Loki, the trickster god, will side with his daughter Hel and aim to destroy the Æsir. In the Völuspá, Ragnarok starts around stanza 39:

She saw wading there through heavy currents

Men who forswore oaths and murderers,

And the one who seduces another’s beloved,

There Nídhögg sucked the corpses of the departed,

The wolf tore men apart—would you know more?

Norse Mythology Shows There Was a Different Side to Vikings than Plundering and Pillaging
Yggdrasil. Norse

After these stanzas the Sun and Moon are killed. The world tree Yggdrasil shudders and the Midgarð serpent thrashes in the sea. Loki is seen steering a ship from Giantland attacking Asgarð and the Æsir. Loki is a symbol of the trickster inside every human, and the urge for competition. Odin represents knowledge, death and sacrifice. To gain ultimate knowledge he sacrificed his eye. Hel is commonly seen as the inspiration for the Christian version, hell. Hel rules over Hel, or Infierno, and is the equivalent of the Christian Lucifer or the Greek god of the Underworld, Hades.

Norse Mythology Shows There Was a Different Side to Vikings than Plundering and Pillaging
Medieval drawing of Ragnarok. Medieval News.

The prophecy of Ragnarök (judgment of the powers) held vital importance in Viking society. In other societies around the world, all had their own prophecies of the end of the world. Christianity has Judgment Day, as well as the Mayans with the calendar ending on December 21, 2012, prophesying a rebirth of mankind. Prophecies affect all religions, for they create a blueprint to daily life in every culture. One must behave and act a certain way in order to reach each religious version of heaven. In Christianity, one must live a life without sin in order to be accepted into heaven.

In Norse culture, in order to reach Valhalla, a man must die in battle. The Valkyrie are warrior maidens who go around the battlefield and choose men to die so they can be sent to Valhalla to fight in Ragnarök. Prophecy is something all humans are afraid of. Most prophecies are bad in nature and lead to destruction or death. Yet people are fascinated by prophecy because they tell what is supposed to happen in the future, for they are hard to change. Most religions believe fate and prophecies go hand in hand, and fate cannot be changed. Other religions believe fate can be changed and prophecies can be broken. In Scandinavian culture, prophecies coincide with divination. Divination is seen as a paganism ritual and mostly associated with witchcraft. Vikings would seek divination to consult prophecies and matters of the future. In mythology, the Fates are called the Narns. The Narns are the Norse form of the Greek Fates, where one spins the cloth of life, the second measures the lifespan, and the last cuts the thread to seal the fate of that person.

Norse Mythology Shows There Was a Different Side to Vikings than Plundering and Pillaging
Rune stones for divination. ThoughtCo.

The Vikings took their religion as a serious way of life. Their religion was interwoven into their lives which they worked to please the gods daily. They participated in religious sacrifices to earn their gods’ pleasure. Archeologists have found red altars also known as hörgr, most likely from blood staining the sacrificial area. From Adam of Bremen, the Scandinavian society would sacrifice nine people from each social class. This would happen only in nine-year intervals, for the number nine held significance such as the number seven to Christians. The sacrifices would be male only, and most slaves were killed. Scandinavians would also sacrifice horses, which probably helped the warrior men reach Valhalla or so they had a horse to ride during the battle in Ragnarök.

The Northmen had areas of worship, mostly a sacred grove or a scared object placed in a specific area. The Eddic poems have referenced to the building of places of worship such as the high-timbered altar and temple of the Völuspá. Usually, pagan temples have idols in earlier Scandinavian religion and were placed in groups of three. In the Prose Edda, the groups of three are shown in the traveling trio of Thor, Odin, and Loki. Vikings did not seem to have a separate class of religious leaders like priests in Christianity. The term goði implies a religious function for leaders of the Icelandic society before the conversion to Christianity. The Sámi peoples of northern Scandinavia retained open-air priestless paganism worship well after the conversion since they were far from such Christian influences. Each day of the week would also be dedicated to a god, such as Thursday (Thor’s Day) and Wednesday (Wodin’s Day). The Vikings would also pray to Njord to protect them during their seafaring trips, and have feasts in honor of each god daily.

Norse Mythology Shows There Was a Different Side to Vikings than Plundering and Pillaging
Modern Viking Funeral reenactment. Ancient Pages.

The Scandinavian culture had a variety of burial rituals for their dead. These rituals were believed to help the dead reach Valhalla. The dead could be cremated, thrown in bogs, buried in the water, or under mounds. Burial rituals differed from area and class. In certain areas, there were mass burials under mounds of dirt and rock depending on the size of the villages. The gravestones, if any, were marked with symbols of moons or stars, circles, and other alignments forming variant patterns. Bodies were crammed into “coffin boxes” or a form of detachable wagon that was mostly used for women. The typical variations of these boxes were found in Norway. The chamber graves that were more often found in Sweden were reserved for the elite class and the wealthy. These graves were underground rooms built of wood, with thatched roofs and filled with goods. These rooms would have animals, food, drink, and treasures so the dead could take these materials with them to Valhalla. The dead would be laid out on their backs or side, and sometimes even in luxurious chairs. Laying out the dead in chairs was more commonly found in Sweden and Russia.

The most famous of burials are those of ships and boats that have become commonly known for the Viking Age. These boats or ships could extend from a one-man dingy to a massive seafaring vessel. One of the most famous of burial ships is the Oseberg ship found in Norway reveals how the elite was ceremoniously buried after death. Two women were found in the ship, as well as many possessions like carts, wooden chests, and a bucket. When an elite member was buried, one must be sacrificed with the dead. Usually, the one chosen to be sacrificed is a woman. In terms of a King, his mistress or love slave would volunteer to be sacrificed with her master. She would then have sexual intercourse with several members of the village, where the men would pronounce they were doing it for the good of the King. The volunteer would be hoisted over the crowd and she would speak before them before she would be buried alive or burnt to death. During the funeral process, a make-shift grave must be put in place. Ten days of activities follow the temporary grave-making. These activities and ten days of celebration all lead up to the deceased “last day” when the cremation begins. The body, the sacrificial volunteer and belonging are all loaded into the ship and then burned to the ground.

Norse Mythology Shows There Was a Different Side to Vikings than Plundering and Pillaging
Drawing of what a viking burial would look like inside the ship.

Vikings were fascinated by the idea of death; the idea of the Barrow expands on that concept. Barrows were the hill where those who died were buried, and the mythology of the meaning of a burrow goes along with it. These Barrows, or tombs, were believed to be hollow passageways that led from Midgarð to Valhalla, and also to Hel. With these passages, the dead could return to their Barrows at night after having done what the Valkyrie asked of them or battling in Valhalla.

People today are still fascinated by the stories of Norse mythology. Tolkien took many ideas from the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, using them in his Lord of the Rings works. Marvel Comics also used the mythology in their comic book Thor, who becomes a member of the Avengers and his arch-nemesis is the god Loki. The myths of fairies, elves, giants, and monsters all come from the Norse, giving us the fairy tales we know today. The myths of the Norse gods and creatures will forever play an important role in the lives of people today.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Andrén, Anders. “Behind Heathendom: Archaeological Studies of Old Norse Religion.” Scottish Archaeological Journal 27, no. 2 (September 2005): 105-138.

Davidson, Hilda Roderick. Scandinavian Mythology. Verona, Italy: Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1969.

Lindow, John. Handbook of Norse Mythology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2001.

MacCulloch, John Arnott, and George Foot Moore, eds. EDDIC. 3rd ed. Vol. 2 of THE MYTHOLOGY OF ALL RACES. New York, NY: Cooper Squares Publishers, 1964. First published 1930 by Marshall Jones Company.

Price, Neil. “Passing into Poetry: Viking-Age Mortuary Drama and the Origins of Norse Mythology.” Medieval Archaeology, no. 54 (2010): 54-156.

Sturluson, Snorri. Prose Edda. Translated by Jesse L. Byock. New York, NY: Penguin, 2006.