We are all familiar with common religions like Christianity and Islam. In earlier periods before these religions became widespread, different cultures had their own beliefs and followed their religions. The Vikings also had their own set of religious beliefs that was quite the opposite to the monotheistic religions like Christianity. As such, Vikings were described as pagans.
Very little is known about the Viking’s religious beliefs. Most of the written records that exist are found in the Poetic Edda and Codex Regius, both of which were written centuries after the Viking Age. So, many people still wonder, what was the religion that the Vikings followed? What were their beliefs? In this post we will be discussing in detail, the different beliefs held by Vikings and the forms of religion they followed.
Viking Religious Beliefs
The Viking religion was known as the Old Norse religion, or Norse paganism, as described by Christians. The reason for them being considered pagans is because the Viking’s religious beliefs differed greatly from that of Christians. For instance, while Christians believe in one God, Vikings believed in many deities and the existence of many worlds and mystical creatures.
The Vikings believed that the universe was created when two elements of extreme cold and heat joined in the middle of Ginnungagap. This led to the formation of the first living beings, Ymir, the first frost giant, and Audhumbla the cow that suckled and nourished Ymir. Audhumbla was believed to have nourished herself by licking ice, which is how she discovered Buri, the first Norse deity who existed and the grandfather to Odin and his two brothers Ve and Vili. The brothers were believed to have killed Ymir and used his body to create Midgard, or earth as we know it. This led to the eternal enmity between Frost giants and Norse deities, that would end in Ragnarok, which was believed to be the end of the world for the Vikings. A time when the Cosmos would be restored to its original state.
As we mentioned the Vikings believed in several deities. According to their Norse beliefs, the Norse pantheon was divided into two groups, the Aesir and Vanir. The two started as enemies but later formed a truce, agreeing to live in harmony. Among the deities, there were gods and goddesses in charge of different things. Odin was the All-Father and the god of war, Thor was the god of thunder, Frig and Freya were considered the goddesses of fertility, and the list goes on.
Aside from Midgard, the Vikings believed that there were eight more worlds. Asgard, the land of the Aesir deities, Vanaheim where the Vanir lived, Jotunheim the land of giants, Niflheim the realm of ice and mist, Muspelheim the realm of fire and ash, Svartalfheim the land of dark elves, Alfheim the land of light elves/dwarves and Helheim the world of the dead. The nine worlds were believed to be connected through Yggdrasil, the ash tree of life that was at the center of the universe. The tree had three roots that extended to three wells for nourishment. One of the wells was the Well of Mimisbrunnr in Jotunheim. The others were the Wells Urdarbrunnr in Asgard and Hvergelmir in Helheim.
In terms of death, the Vikings believed that those who died would be taken to Helheim the underworld. They, however, believed that warriors who died courageously in battle would have their souls taken to Odin’s hall in Valhalla. There they would dwell until the day of Ragnarok when they would be resurrected to fight alongside Odin, against the giants.
Old Norse Religion
The Old Norse religion, better yet, the Norse Paganism was the most common form of Germanic religion. It came about during the Proto-Norse period when the North Germanic people became a separate distinct group. The religion would later be replaced by Christianity during the Scandinavian Christian conversion period. As a result, what is known of the religion are reconstructed aspects done by scholars from the archeology, historical linguistics, and toponymy left behind by the North Germanic people, for example, like the runic inscription in the Younger Futhark.
The Old Norse religion was polytheistic, meaning they believed in several deities, who were divided into the Aesir and Vanir. Each god and goddess was in charge of a particular aspect of nature or the world, be it war, the sky, the sea, fertility, or the earth. The Norse cosmology is also comprised of several worlds with different mystical creatures including the giants, elves, and dwarves. All the worlds were connected with the tree of life, Yggdrasil at the center of the universe.
There are very few written records of this region because it depended heavily on oral traditions and rituals. These practices were integrated into everyday life, such that the Old Norse was more of a lifestyle than it was a religion. Although not much is known about this religion, what is known is that the kings or chieftains held a priest-like position. They were in charge of offering sacrifices to the Norse deities. Most of these sacrifices were either of horses or humans. The sacrifices were mainly made to Odin who was believed to be the most powerful Norse god, although, sometimes sacrifices would also be made to other Norse deities.
The rituals often took place in outdoor spaces like the lakes and grooves, although in the third century CE a few cult houses were purposely built for the rituals. Seidr, a form of magic/sorcery that scholars described as shamanistic was also a part of the religion and was practiced by Odin and Freya. When it came to burials, various practices were conducted including inhumation and cremation. In both cases, the deceased would be accompanied by various burial goods. That’s because the Vikings believed in an afterlife and that there were several afterlife realms that different Norse deities were in charge of, the main ones being Helheim and Valhalla. Eventually, this religion became gradually replaced with Christianity, owing to the requirements of trade that would later be put in place.
Modern And Ancient Norse Religion
Although the Old Norse religion seemed to have disappeared after the Christianization in Scandinavia, even today some people still believe in and practice this religion. There are, however, certain similarities and differences when it comes to the Old and New Norse religion. While some things remained the same, there were some changes in terms of practices and certain beliefs.
To start with both Modern and Ancient religions are polytheistic, meaning there is a belief in several deities. Some of these deities are similar, including Odin and Thor, although some deities have been left out in the New Norse religion. The two religions also go by different names. The Old Norse was also known as the old way, Forn Sidr, Norse Paganism, or Norse mythology. The New Norse is also known as Odinism, Germanic Neopaganism, Heathenry, and Asatru. While the Old Norse existed in the Viking Age and the number of followers is unknown, the New Norse was revived in the 20th century and has over 2000 followers that continue to grow even in the 21st century. These followers are now mostly in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and small parts of England and the USA.
The practices between the two religions also vary. For starters, while in the Old Norse ritualistic animal sacrifices were common, this is considered illegal in Western countries today. Also, while the Old Norse believers all believed in an afterlife, this varies for the New Norse believers. Some still believe in realms like Valhalla and Helheim, while others choose not to emphasize the afterlife. Still, the basic beliefs and practices remain the same, such as shamanism and animism.
Viking Pagan Belief
There is little contemporary evidence that exists about the Vikings’ beliefs. What is known is from written records done in the 13th century years after the Viking age and Christian conversion. What’s more, the records were written by Christians, hence the occasional reference to paganism in the different sagas. Today these stories are regarded more like myths than expressions of religious beliefs. This is thanks to the Eddas, which are the surviving literally works of the Vikings’ beliefs that are painted as folk tales.
It is, therefore, safe to say that what is known of the Vikings’ pagan beliefs are influenced by some Christian beliefs. You may notice some Christian themes in the beliefs like when Odin hanged himself on Yggdrasil. Being the main god of the Vikings, this act is interpreted as Odin sacrificing himself to himself, by hanging himself with a spear on his side, in a form of crucifixion parallel to that of Christ. The idea of the underworld Helheim is close to what Christians consider as Hell. Another close similarity is Ragnarok, which was meant to destroy the cosmos, much like the idea of Christian’s Revelation that narrates the end of the world.
There are, however, certain beliefs that differ from the Christian religion, like the Vikings’ belief in mystical creatures like dwarves, elves, and giants. They also believe in the existence of multiple realms and multiple deities. Unlike the Christian form of worship, Vikings’ beliefs were centered around ritualistic practices that involved animal or human sacrifices, led by the chieftain or king as their head priest.
What Is Asatru?
Asatru is a relatively modern Norse religion that was founded in the 19th century by an Icelandic farmer named Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson. The name Asatru can be divided in two, with the first part ‘Asa’ referring to the Norse gods and the last part ‘tru’ meaning faith. As such the name Asatru is taken to mean Aesir belief. Unlike the Old Norse, Asatru is the worship of not just the Norse deities but also the giants and ancestors.
The Asatru believers believe that there are three groups of deities, Aesir, Vanir, and Jotun. The main deities worshiped are Odin, Thor, Freya, and Freyr. The Aesir deities, however, receive more attention in the Asatru religious practices. They also believe that there are minor and major deities where some are more powerful than others. As for death, some Asatru believes in Valhalla, while others simply believe in an afterlife and possible rebirth in the family line.
In Denmark, there are about 500 to 1000 followers who still believe in the Nordic religion. As such Asatru has managed to survive for more than 1000 years. Today, the practice has grown and spread to several places in the world. The primary regions are Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and parts of the US, Canada, and Britain.
Although not much is written on the Viking religion, it is clear that they followed the Old Norse Religion. Even after the conversion to Christianity, the Nordic religion still survives although slightly altered. This is thanks to the surviving records of the Vikings’ beliefs and culture that influence the Nordic religion today. Even if there may be some Christian bias in the written accounts, it has kept the Viking religion alive to date.