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Norway - Paganism and non-Christian religions

1. Evidence of paganism

1A. Pagan genealogies

According to some poems (Ynglingatal, Háleygjatal), which according to the majority of scholars date from the pagan period, the Yngling kings and the earls of Lade claimed descent from the gods. Several other powerful chieftains may also have done so. This feature is common to many countries: the Danish "Skjoldungene" and several Anglo-Saxon royal families claimed to be descended from Odin or Woden. The Christian kings, at least from the second half of the twelfth century onwards, tried to trace their lineage back to Harald Fairhair (d. c. 930/35), who was believed to have united the whole of Norway under his rule. To descent from Harald was added a complete ancient genealogy back to the gods, but in such a way that the gods were presented as human kings of the distant past who became worshipped as gods after their death. This is the interpretation of two historical works, Historia Norvegiae (c. 1150-80) and Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (c. 1230), the latter of which collected the sagas about the Norwegian kings from mythological times up to the end of the 1100s.

1B. Writing down of pagan myths in Christian chronicles 

Among the ancient mythological poems known collectively as Edda the Elder is a collection of 29 pieces of pre-Christian skaldic poetry, including ten about the gods, preserved in the Codex Regius, an Icelandic manuscript which dates from around 1275 but is probably based on an exemplar from around 1230.. The most well-known of these is Voluspá, "Volven's prophecies," which provides insight into the pre-Christian Norse world view. Other well known writings in the collection include Hávamál, stanzas written for Odin, and Skírnismál, which some researchers believe refers to a fertility cult. The poems are recognized as sources of pre-Christian ways of thinking, and are specific to the Northern countries.

Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) was the first to record Norse mythology. In his work Edda, based on ancient skaldic poems, which were orally preserved, and from poems preserved in Edda the Elder, Snorri refers to myths about the gods and their genealogies, about the activities of the gods and about the history of the world from the time it was created until it ends. Cult activities are referred to in Heimskringla, such as an incident in which the chieftains forced Håkon the Good to participate in animal sacrifice.

Norse mythology and Snorri's presentation of it have been the subject of much research and extensive debates among Norwegian researchers of many academic disciplines. The distance between pre-Christian times and the later recording of the myths is problematic, as is the degree to which Snorri's Christian point of departure influenced his work, such as in the Christianization of the royal genealogies mentioned above. But research also shows that a portion of the poems that Snorri reproduces in Edda must have originated in Viking times. Evidence to support this view includes a quotation from the poem Hávamál in a skaldic stanza from the tenth century and a runic inscription from the Viking age in the Eddic metre. The reliability of Heimskringla and the other sagas, as well as the reasons for the preservation of the ancient poetry, have been the subject of intense discussion, particularly over the parts dealing with the earliest period, from which there is little contemporary evidence. Few firm conclusions have been reached, and the whole question clearly relates to larger ones about attitudes to the past, as well as links between skaldic poetry and the old pagan religion.

The Norse peoples were not the only pagans in what is now modern Norway: several different groups of Saami people also belonged to the area. In Saami religion the most important good gods were female (for instance Sáráhkká, Juksáhkká), while the most important evil power was male (Stallo), in contrast to old Norse religion where the most important gods were male (Odin, Thor etc.), or alternatively both male and female were important. Thus in Norse mythology Odin was supposed to receive the men who die on the battle field in Valhall, a place for heroes, in contrast to Helheim, where the female Hel received the other dead. In Saami religion on the other hand it was the female goddess Jábmeáhkká who ruled the place for the dead. There was a similar contrast between the female goddess of the dead and the male god of hunting. The sun, Beaivi, was also an important god.

The Saami religion is mainly known from anthropological studies of Saami from modern times; from comparative anthropological studies of peoples of for instance the trans-Siberian area, like the Evenks; from archaeological investigations, and from written records, that is, from a few remarks in medieval sources about "Finns" etc., but most of all from the notes of Norwegian and Swedish missionaries from the 17th and 18th century.

Edda the Elder, ed. & transl. U. Dronke as The Poetic Edda (Oxford 1969-2000), 2 vols.

Hávamál, ed. D. A. H. Evans as Hávamál (London 1986).

Snorri Sturluson, Edda, ed. A. Faulkes, as Snorri Sturluson: Edda. Pt. 1: prologue and Gylfaginning (Oxford 1982), transl. A. Faulkes as Snorri Sturluson: Edda (London 1987).

Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, ed. F. Jónsson as Heimskringla (København 1893-1901), 4 vols., transl. L. M. Hollander as Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway by Snorri Sturluson (Austin 1964).

Bagge, S., Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (Berkeley 1991).

Holtsmark, A., Studier i Snorres mytologi (Oslo 1964).

Schanche, A., Graver i ur og berg: samisk gravskikk og religion fra forhistorisk til nyere tid (Karasjok 2000).

Steinsland, G., Det hellige bryllup og norrøn kongeideologi (Oslo 1991).

Steinsland, G., Den hellige kongen. Om religion og herskermakt fra vikingtid til middelalder (Oslo 2000).

Steinsland, G. & Sørensen, P. M., Menneske og makter i vikingenes verden (Oslo 1994).

Turville-Petre, G., Myth and Religion of the North (London 1964).

1C. Archaeological evidence of cult-sites, cultic activity 

The most numerous archaeological groups of monuments are burials, which are also the most numerous group of non-Christian places of cult. Other places of cult are rather more uncertain of interpretation. Place names referring to non-Christian cult activities are important, and some of them are associated with specific deities, like for instance "Torshov". (A `hov' means a place for cult, not necessarily a building, but it may be a building. Torshov is a place for Thor's cult.) There are many other names indicating cult places, from different times, for instance combinations with the name of gods like Ullr/Ullinn, Freyr, Freyja, Njord, Tyr, Balder and Odin, or names with a part which indicate a sacred place, like hov, horgr, haug, ve and vang. We have some combinations of a god's name and -land, -heim or -setr.

The dating of the names is not very well established; many names are probably older than the written sources, and it is difficult to find a secure link between a name and archaeological finds, because the name may have changed several times. Farm names such as Hov, -hov, Hove or the like indicate pre-Christian cult sites. Such names are numerous in Norway, and there are quite a few Hof and Horgr in Iceland, which could indicate that the name Hof/Hov/Horgr was still in use in the 10th century. The Hof-name has been dated to between the 7th and 10th centuries by Magnus Olsen. These farms are often centrally located, and may have been gathering places during Viking times. Pre-Christian cult buildings are referred to as hof in the sagas, but most researchers are today of the opinion that these buildings were halls located on the largest or most prominent farms; hof being the same word as German hof or (working) farm.

Farm names such as Horg or -horg refer to outdoors cult sites, often having stone cairns and sacrificial sites in honour of the powers of nature. One skaldic poem refers to Olav Tryggvason as a "horg breaker," as one destroying these sites. The oldest of Christian legislation prohibited the location of cults near hills and 'horgs'. A stone construction, found near Egersund, may be a pre-Christian altar.

A few places where we find a combination of cultic place-names, pits with stones and charcoal and some animal bones have been interpreted as possible cult-places. These places are closely connected with burial places. There may of course have been a cult which combined aspects of life and death as two associated phenomena.

Since the excavations at Mære in the 1960s, several excavations seem to confirm the signification of "gullgubber" in post holes of big houses as indicative of non-Christian places of cult; known such sites are listed below. Gullgubber can be described as pictures featuring one or two persons in relief on a small golden sheet; the persons are interpreted as deities. The cult meaning of gullgubber is not clear, but it is assumed that it was part of the rites and symbols of the Nordic royal families. Large quantities of them have been found at centres of power in the North: Gudme on Fyn, Bornholm and Helgö. Gullgubber have not been found in graves.

We know more in general about Saami non-Christian cult sites than Norwegian ones, for instance 'stallo-sites'; holy stones and mountains with rich oral and living traditions of cult. A 'cult-place' might be viewed as an integrated part of the ordinary living space, or at least, not as a space sharply separated from the other parts of daily life. Special places of offering are often found close to burial fields, with lots of animal bones and horns. These places are associated with the cult of the dead. It was assumed that after 3 years the body would be reduced to a skeleton, and the dead had a new body in Jábmeáibmu. During this time reindeer, tobacco and other things may have been offered for the dead person, but after this period, collective feasts were arranged for the dead.

On the basis of archaeological material the ritual seems to have been less restrictive and more inclusive at offering places, as compared to the burial sites. For instance we find only bones in graves, while we find both bones and horns in offering places. It is thought that bones were associated with the dead, while the horn was associated also with the middle and upper cosmologic levels. While coins and iron arrow heads are frequent finds in offering places, they are never found in graves. In offering places there is more imported material from western areas, while in the graves material from the East dominates. This is interpreted as meaning that the burial site was the location of rituals for the dead, while the offering place was for rituals both for the dead and the living.

Düwel, K., Das Opferfest von Lade, Wiener Arbeiten zur germanischen Altertumskunde und Philologie (Vienna 1985).

Krag, C., Vikingtid og rikssamling 800-1130, Aschehougs Norgeshistorie 2 (Oslo 1995).

Lidén, H.-E., 'From Pagan Sanctuary to Christian Church. The Excavations of Mære Church in Trøndelag' in Norwegian Archaeological Review Vol. 2 (1969), pp. 3-21.

Lidén, H.-E., 'Kultkontinuitetsproblemet. Ble kirken på Mære i Nord-Trøndelag bygget på hovets grunn?' in A. Ågotnes (ed.), Kristendommen slår rot, Onsdagskvelder i Bryggens Museum 10 (Bergen 1995), pp. 7-17.

Schanche, A., Graver i ur og berg: samisk gravskikk og religion fra forhistorisk til nyere tid (Karasjok 2000).

Solberg, B., Jernalderen i Norge. 500 før Kristus til 1030 etter Kristus (Oslo 2000).

Steinsland, G. & Sørensen, P. M., Menneske og makter i vikingenes verden (Oslo 1994).

1D. Burial practices 

Mounds or heaps of stones often mark graves from the pre-Christian Viking era. These are generally quite visible, and located near farm yards or along farm paths. The graves are usually in groups, from a few to about 20 in number. The deceased was sometimes burned prior to burial. Fire graves are almost always 'fire flake graves'; that is, bone, burial gifts and ash were rolled out together like a sheet and a grave memorial was then built over it. In unburnt graves, the deceased was buried in costume, and with jewellery and weapons. Dogs or horses and driving or riding equipment have also been found. Grave furnishings varied depending on the status of the deceased. Along the coast, a long sequence of boat graves, both burned and unburned, has also been discovered. A burial mound most often covers the boats. Well-known ship graves, which contain magnificent burial objects, make up a very small part of the total amount of grave finds. These were linked with persons who held both power and status, or were associated with special cult functions. Christian graves should by contrast be in a church yard, east-west orientated, inhumation, without grave gifts or mound etc., but some of these criteria cover other religious traditions as well, and Christian burials do not always follow such strict rules. Graves with few or no burial gifts are not unequivocally Christian, and neither is an east-west grave orientation. Many people were buried in a simple manner both in Norway and in the other northern countries. It is not always possible to prove whether these are evidence of Christian burial practices or not. A burial according to Christian tradition by a church in a churchyard leaves little doubt that the grave is Christian, even if the grave may contain some grave gifts. A burial with rich grave gifts, in a mound or cairn, cremated, orientated north-south, with no Christian objects could equally be reasonably interpreted as non-Christian. More or less all other graves may be debated, and interpretation must be based on broader analyses of a region or a whole burial ground.

From archaeology we know that Saami burial rituals were different from Norse and Christian ones, at least in the period contemporary with the Viking Age and medieval period further south. The burial rituals vary, but one tradition lasting from c. 800 to post-1800 is burial in scree, often with a pulk and birch bark. The importance of the naked stone is reflected in this burial custom (the god Sieiddit was a stone god), which is a characteristic of the Saami religion, not found as clearly in the Norwegian cults. The dead person seems to have been equipped with grave goods as with the Norwegians, but the composition differs. Animals and dress accessories were a common deposit in both cultures, but the standard weapons and rich household equipment and boats which we find in many of the Norse graves seem to be missing in the Saami graves. The lack of weapons is explained by the separation between the goddess of death and the male god for hunting.

Farbregd, O., 'Hove i Åsen - kultstad og bygdesentrum' in Spor (1986), pp. 42-46.

Gabrielsen, K. H., Vestlandets steinkors. Monumentalisme i brytningen mellom hedendom og kristendom. Hovedfagsoppgave i arkeologi (Bergen 2002).

Gräslund, A. S., Birka IV: the burial customs. A study of the graves on Björkö (Stockholm 1980).

Heyerdahl-Larsen, B., Kaupang-funnene Vol. I (Oslo 1981).

Narmo, Lars Erik, 'Kokekameratene på Leikvin' in Viking Vol. 59 (1996), pp. 79-100.

Olsen, M., Ættegård og helligdom, Norske stedsnavn sosialt og religionshistorisk belyst Instituttet for sammenlignende kulturforskning. Serie A, Forelesninger (Oslo 1926).

Rydving, H., 'Ortnamn som religionshistorisk källmaterial' in Namn och bygd Vol. 78 (1990), pp. 167-177.

Rygh, O., Norske Gaardnavne (Kristiana 1897-1936).

Schanche, A., Graver i ur og berg: samisk gravskikk og religion fra forhistorisk til nyere tid (Karasjok 2000).

Solberg, B., Jernalderen i Norge. 500 før Kristus til 1030 etter Kristus (Oslo 2000).

Steinsland, G. & Sørensen, P. M., Menneske og makter i vikingenes verden (Oslo 1994).

1E. Statements, topoi about paganism (type and date, and if possible the reliability of the information

There is a great deal of written evidence on the nature of paganism: various prohibitions of pagan cult in the laws, the mythological and skaldic poems, Snorri's Edda describing the ancient mythology and a number of descriptions in the narrative sources dealing with the conversion. The problem lies in the reliability of this information, as most of the sources are late or at least written down at a fairly late stage. An early narrative source is Adam of Bremen's Deeds of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen (1073-75), but he has little to say of Norway. The value of his information is also open to discussion.

2. Evidence of other non-Christian religions

2A. Knowledge/attitude of society to these

The Saami's way of life and religion were unlike those of the rest of the population. This comes forth in the earliest written records, where the Saami are referred to as Finns and figure as a separate people. The Saami lived as nomads in the north of Norway as well as further south in the country. It is not easy to delineate a specific Saami area. Ottar's report talks about the taxation of the Saamis, but sources that refer to a Saami religion are from the Christian era. This has affected the ways in which the Saami have been represented.

Adam of Bremen appears to be aware of shamanism in Saami religion. He writes that those who live along the sea furthest to the north are not yet Christian: "These people are still so skilled in sorcery and prayer that they claim to know what everyone in the world is doing".

The Historia Norvegiae contains a section on "the Finns", that is, the Saami. It speaks about the special characteristics of the Saami's religion: shamanism, cultic dance, trances and clairvoyance. The clerical author describes how the Saami could influence others with their supernatural abilities, and that the shaman, "the wizard," uses blood, dance and cult objects to fall into a trance. He describes this as "the work of wizardry" but gives the impression that there was much contact and trade between the Christians and the Finns in the second half of the 1100s.

Heimskringla does not say much about the Finns, but links them for the most part to "wizardry," for example for their knowing how to conjure up spirits. The Eidsivatingsloven, the legislation related to the east of Norway and brought to bear in early Christian times, tells us that people went to the Saami to get help with healing illness. This suggests that the Saami were known for their healing abilities and tecniques.

Adam of Bremen, Magistri Adam Bremensis Gesta Hammarburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, ed. B. Schmeidler as Magistri Adam Bremensis Gesta Hammarburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum germanicarum in usum scholarum) II (Hannover 1917), transl. F. J. Tschan as Adam of Bremen: History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen (New York 1959). Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, ed. F. Jónsson as Heimskringla (København 1893-1901), 4 vols., transl. L. M. Hollander as Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway by Snorri Sturluson (Austin 1964).

Historia Norvegiae, transl. A. Salvesen as Norges historie; Historia Norvegiae (Oslo 1978).

Norges gamle Love indtil 1387, eds R. Keyser & P. A. Munch, Vol. I (Kristiania 1846).

Mundal, E., 'The perception of the Saamis and their religion in Old Norse Sources' in J. Pentikäinen (ed.), Shamanism and Northern Ecology, Religion and Society Vol. 36 (1996), pp. 97-116

Schanche, A., Graver i ur og berg: samisk gravskikk og religion fra forhistorisk til nyere tid (Karasjok 2000).

© S. Bagge and S. Nordeide