Vikings at Uppsala

The Eurocon programming included a number of guided tours of the city and its environs. The one I immediately signed up for was to Gamla Uppsala, the site of the original Viking-era settlement which is about 5 km from the modern city. I’m very glad that I did.

Prior to the Viking age (and for some time during it), the Scandinavian nations were not the single countries we know today. Much like in Britain, the social structure was a patchwork of local kingships. The two most powerful kingdoms, as far as I’m aware, were based at Birka and Uppsala. The folks at Birka did particularly well for themselves, as they became a centre for the lucrative Baltic trade that extended down through the lands of the Rus to Constantinople and Baghdad. But Uppsala was also a very wealthy and important place.

The pagan Vikings wrote very little down, and the runestones that survive are largely memorials for people who had died on overseas adventures. Our written evidence for the site comes from Christian era writers such as Snorri Sturluson, Adam of Bremen and Saxo Grammaticus. Jonathan Olsson, our tour guide, told us that there is also a record from an Islamic traveler who visited a Danish city (and was deeply unimpressed).

What we do know is that there are many circular burial mounds, some of them impressively large. Snorri said that they included the graves of Odin, Thor and Freyr, but excavations have shown that they are burials for high status human individuals, including at least one woman. Archaeology has also turned up an impressively large hall, and what is probably a ceremonial centre. Our ancient sources claim that Odin, Thor and Freyr were worshipped there.

In the UK and USA our view of Norse religion comes primarily from Britain’s interaction with the Norwegians and Danes, whose allegiance seems to have been primarily to the Aesir. The Swedes, whose raiding activities focused on the east, seem to have paid more attention to the Vanir. In particular, Freyr is said to be the ancestor of the Swedes.

Much to my surprise, Jonathan told us that Thor’s hammer jewelry was associated almost exclusively with burials of women. Men favoured Odin and Freyr instead. Clearly Chris Hemsworth had a fan club even in those days.

The whole Aesir/Vanir thing is very confusing, and absent written sources we’ll probably never be able to make sense of it. However, one plausible explanation is that two rather different groups of gods belonging to different tribal groups have been melded together over time.

I am interested in this, primarily because Freyja is Vanir, and she’s a fertility goddess who goes around in a chariot drawn by cats. The parallels with Cybele should be obvious.

Saxo Grammaticus tells us that the priests of Freyr at Uppsala were effeminate. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they were like the galli and that Freyr is an equivalent of Attis. Freyr was a war god, and he is described as Freyja’s brother, not her consort. But there is clearly something interesting going on and it would be nice to have some more evidence to back up Saxo’s assertion.

We do know that effeminate men associated with the Vanir existed. Olaf Tryggvason, one of the first Norse kings to convert to Christianity, is said to have been attacked by a group of sorcerers, whom he defeated and put to death. The word “sorcerer” is here an English translation. The original text describes them as men who practiced “seidr”, a form of women’s magic specifically associated with Freyja.

One of the other clues we have about gender fluidity in ancient Norse religion comes from Tacitus. In his Germania he tells of a particularly sacred grove in what is now modern Poland which was attended by a cross-dressed priest and was dedicated to Castor & Pollux. While the pagan Germans clearly had a similar pantheon to the Norse, I knew of no parallel to this in Norse religion. Until I visited Uppsala, and there it was.

The museum at Uppsala contained a reference to images of twin gods dancing with weapons. One was found at the site (see the photo above), and one nearby. The description compares them to Castor and Pollux, and says that they were companions of Odin. The weapon dance reflects the Corybantes of the Cybele cult. There is a suggestion that one of the images on the helmet at Sutton Hoo also represents these twin gods (see below). And that in turn would suggest that there might have been an ergi priest at the court of King Raedwald, the probable occupant of the Sutton Hoo burial.

Cheryl, meet rabbit hole. There’s a lot of research to be done here. Hopefully it will turn up more evidence.