Gods, myths and rituals: what we know about Viking religious beliefs

Little is known about the beliefs and rituals of the Vikings, with most information coming from the clues at burials sites or the sagas written from the time after the conversion to Christianity. As Jonny Wilkes explores for BBC History Revealed, they were pagan, polytheistic and had a plethora of ways to worship, as far as can be told...

A carving of the Viking gods Odin, Thor and Freyr with a sacrifice above them. It was found on the Swedish island of Gotland (Photo by: PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

There was no single, organised and institutional religion of the Vikings. As they did not comprise a distinct social entity to begin with, it stands to reason they would not have a distinct set of beliefs and practices.

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The paganism seen in the Viking Age varied from region to region, so what people believed in Denmark would be different to Norway and Sweden. Each community, each family even, practiced their beliefs in their own way. How they did so is a far trickier question to answer.

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Beliefs and rituals were vital to the Vikings and infused into everyday life, but very little evidence survives to suggest how this would have looked other than what can be gleaned from burials and carved figures. The sagas and narratives that provide the bulk of our understanding (about Odin, Thor, Valhalla, Ragnarok etc) come from centuries later, and were written by Christians no less.

The Vikings had no religious texts – as everything spread through oral tradition – and few temple-like buildings. Instead, natural features such as groves and rivers were deemed sacred and used for rituals.

Chieftains and rulers mostly took charge of religious rituals and ceremonies, but evidence suggests that völur or seeresses also existed (women with magical and prophetic power), as well as Godar (heathen priests who functioned as cult leaders).

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It would have been priests who most likely carried out the major Viking ritual: sacrifice. Although, anyone could offer objects or sacrifice animals to the gods, and it seemed the Vikings were not opposed to human sacrifices, too, at certain ceremonies, such as funerals.

Why were Vikings buried inside ships?

As the sea played a huge role in the lives of the Vikings, so it did in death as well. Due to their beliefs in the afterlife, Vikings were buried with all that they might need for their journey into the underworld. Craftsmen might be buried with their tools and warriors their weapons.

We have little written evidence for their burial rituals, but Arab writer Ahmad Ibn Fadlan is one of the few people to have witnessed a 10th-century Viking burial. His account stated that the ritual included human sacrifice and torture.

For kings and the nobility, a ship burial was the most common form and evidence of these have been found across Scandinavia, Britain and Russia. The dead were laid out in a ship with their possessions, and either sent out to sea and set alight or buried under a mound. Burial mounds also served a dual purpose as markers of dynastic territories.

The best-preserved ship burial to date was found in Norway and is known as the Oseberg ship. The find uncovered a complete longship, the remains of two women as well as horses, clothing, a cart and chests of goods.

A photograph of the Oseberg ship at the Viking SHip Museum in Oslo, Norway, one of the best-preserved Viking ships ever found
The Oseberg ship, dated to around AD 800 and discovered in the early 20th century, is one of the best-preserved Viking ships ever found. It is now on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway (Photo by Noe Falk Nielsen/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Vikings had a whole pantheon of gods and goddesses who affected every part of their lives, and each requiring their own sacrifices. Women looked to Freya, for instance, for help with pregnancy or childbirth, while Thor, the hammer-wielding god of thunder, received sacrifices for good weather. Again, the importance of an individual god varied depended on where they were being worshipped.

And it was not only gods the Vikings believed in, but also Frost and Fire Giants and a menagerie of monsters and beasts, including the wolf Fenrir and Jörmungandr, a serpent so large that it encircled the realm of humans. That realm was called Midgard. The gods resided in Asgard, the giants in Jotunheim, while Niflheim was the cold, dark and misty world of the dead. There were nine realms in total, connected by the branches and roots of Yggdrasill, a sacred ash tree at the centre of the cosmos.

Vikings believed in Frost and Fire Giants and a menagerie of monsters and beasts, including the wolf Fenrir and Jörmungandr, a serpent so large that it encircled the realm of humans

The place all good Viking warriors wanted to go, though, was Valhalla, a magnificent hall in Asgard for those who died in battle. There, it was believed, they would spend their days honing their combat skills and, wounds magically healed, their nights drinking the finest mead and feasting on the meat of an eternal boar.

The god Odin welcomed these warriors, as they would fight for him at Ragnarok – the pre-ordained end of the worlds, when the Sun will darken, the stars vanish, the Earth sink into the sea, and a great battle will take place between the gods, giants and beasts.

A painting by painting by Johann Heinrich Füssli of the Viking god Thor battling the serpent Jörmungandr from a boat
Thor, standing in the boat of Hymir, battles the serpent Jörmungandr in this 18th-century painting by Johann Heinrich Füssli (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

So, with so little evidence, how do we know about this Viking mythology? On top of a number of sagas, the chief text to provide a systematic explanation was Prose Edda by Icelander Snorri Sturluson. It comprehensively covered the mythology from before creation to Ragnarok. Written in the 13th century, long after the Vikings were at their height – and so after Scandinavia converted to Christianity, indeed Snorri himself was a Christian – it offers fascinating insights, but should not be taken as gospel.

“We can’t be absolutely sure it hasn’t been overlain with judicious reinvention or influenced by Christian theology to some extent,” says historian Philip Parker.

The clash of their pagan beliefs with Christianity would forever change the concept of religion for the Vikings. While seen as heathen and barbaric by the Christians, the Vikings’ decisions to target places like churches and monasteries were not motivated by religion, but by knowing where the undefended treasures were being kept.

In fact, before the gradual move towards conversion, they quickly came to see the benefits of Christianity, according to Parker: “Sometimes they had a kind of token conversion, called primsigning or ‘first signing’, where they had the sign of the cross made on them. It made them acceptable to engage in trading.”

When did the Vikings become Christian?

With the Vikings raiding and exploring other lands, they came ever more into contact with Christianity. At first, they showed a willingness to take on the trappings of this religion to help with their trading – what’s one more god to their pantheon anyway? – but as assimilation increased and generations passed, many Vikings converted.

Often, pagan beliefs could be incorporated, so that Ragnarok and Judgement Day merged. Coins found in York, for example show the name of St Peter alongside Thor’s hammer.

As for Scandinavia itself, politics helped Christianity take hold. “There were missionaries early in the ninth century, but they don’t make much headway at all,” says Philip Parker. Instead, rulers started converting – such as Harald Bluetooth of Denmark in around AD 960 – for political expediency or to foster good relations with Christian nations.

By the mid-11th century, Christianity had been established in Denmark and most of Norway, thanks to King Olaf Tryggvason.


Viking gods – 5 deities you need to know about

Odin

The All-Father and ruler of Asgard, Odin was linked with war, wisdom, magic and poetry, among other things. Such was his desire for knowledge that he sacrificed one of his eyes for perception of the world and cosmos, and let himself be hanged on the world tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days and nights to gain understanding of the runes.

The one-eyed Odin (or Woden, which is where ‘Wednesday’ comes from) was often depicted in a broad-brimmed hat or cloak so he would not be recognised as he walked the human realm.

He rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir and owned two ravens that spied for him. Odin would meet his end fighting the monstrous wolf Fenrir at Ragnarok.

Thor

God of thunder, lightning and storms, Thor was perhaps the most popular of the pantheon as he protected humankind and Asgard.

The red-bearded son of Odin boasted such strength that he could fight giants – armed with his iron gloves, enchanted belt and, most famously, his great hammer, Mjollnir, which could level mountains. His hammer became a ubiquitous symbol in Viking art and culture.

It was from his name that we get ‘Thursday’ (‘Thor’s Day’).

Freyja

Goddess associated with love, sex, beauty, gold and magic, Freyja – the sister of Freyr – was pleasure-seeking and materialistic. She owned the beautiful necklace Brísingamen and a cloak of falcon feathers that let her fly.

One of the few female deities in the Viking pantheon, her name means ‘Lady’. While half of the warriors slain in battle were selected by the Valkyries to join Odin in Valhalla, the other half went to the field presided over by Freyja, named Fólkvangr.

Freyr

God of fertility, but also associated with sunshine, prosperity and peace, Freyr, as son of the sea god Njörd, belonged to the Vanir – one of the two warring races of gods, the other being the Æsir.

One of the most venerated of the gods, especially in Sweden, he would receive offerings for a good harvest or virility. According to the mythology, Freyr owned a ship he could fold into his pocket and a sword that battled on its own, and he rode a golden boar made by the dwarves.

Loki

The trickster, a god associated with mischief (and also fire), Loki was a shapeshifter, able to take on the forms of animals and people. But Loki could also be cruel with his pranks – leading to the death of a beloved god.

Loki tricked Freya, mother to Balder, into revealing her son’s only weakness, mistletoe, and then had the blind god Höd throw a sharpened branch of mistletoe at him. At Ragnarok, Loki sides with the giants, but is slain in the battle.


This content first appeared in the November 2020 edition of BBC History Revealed