Human sacrifice

In episode eight of Vikings, Ragnar Lothbrok with family and friends travel to Uppsala, the most renowned sacrificial site in all the Viking World. The description in Vikings builds closely on Adam of Bremen’s accounts of the Uppsala temple and rituals in Deeds of Bishops of the Hamburg Church.

When Ragnar visited the temple in the episode, I got associations to a church and to Christian liturgy, and details in Adam’s description remind more of Christian churches from the eighth and ninth centuries than a pagan offering place. Extensive searches and excavations at Uppsala have never revealed signs of a temple, but rather of a great king’s hall that Adam may have heard of.

Adam’s descriptions of rituals and human sacrifices at Uppsala have also been doubted and ascribed to Christian bishops’ habit of gross exaggerations in their anti-pagan propaganda. Human sacrifices, however, are told of many places in the old sagas.

Human sacrifice
King Domaldi is sacrificed. Illustration to Heimskringla by Erik Werenskiold.

In Ynglingatal in Snorre’s Heimskringla King Domaldi was sacrificed at Uppsala to end a long-lasting famine. Snorre also tells of king Aun who, to live longer, sacrifices nine sons. The first son gives him sixty new years and the eight following sons give him ten years each. When Aun wanted to sacrifice his tenth son, the Swedes led the son away, and Aun died.

Human sacrifice
King Aun wants to sacrifice his tenth son. Illustration by Erik Werenskiold.

In Saga of Olaf Tryggvason Snorre tells that Earl Hakon sacrificed his son Erling to gain victory over the Jomsvikings in the famous battle at Horundafjord. In The Saga of the Jomsvikings it is said that Earl Hakon prayed to his patron goddess Thorgerd Holgabrúd to gain victory, but that she would receive no other offering than his seven year old son. When the son was sacrificed, a hailstorm turned against the Jomsvikings, and all the second-sighted fighting in the battle had seen Thorgerd in the sky, sending showers of arrows against the Jomsvikings. The arrows shot out of her fingers and all of the arrows hit their targets.

Odin himself, of course, sacrificed himself to himself, when he hanged himself in Yggdrasil, the World-Tree, to receive the deepest of secrets.

So, human sacrifices play a part in the legendary sagas of the Old Icelanders and were certainly part of the Viking Age imagination and myth. To what extent human sacrifices where performed in real ritual is uncertain, but most commentators deny it was a regular part of rituals, but that they may have occurred. In the Oseberg Ship burial, the young queen had an elder woman with her in the grave, and Ahmed Ibn Fadlan's eyewitness report of a Viking funeral involves the burning of a ship with lots of grave offering and multiple intercourses with a thrall woman who is sacrificed and buried alongside the chieftain in the ship.

Human sacrifice
Note the similarities with Werenskiold's drawing

Nevertheless, episode eight in Vikings strengthens the view that the TV series is first of all a historical fantasy series, with emphasis on fantasy: a new version of The Legend of Ragnar Lodbrog. But the series is well done, exciting, and I love fantastic legends.

Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson

Saga of the Jomsvikings

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