Sa c r i f i c e and Sa c r i f i c i a l Ideology in Old Nor s e
The practice of sacrifice is often treated as ‘the dark side’ of Old Norse
heathenism, by both medieval Christian commentators and modern
scholars alike. However, within Norse religious practice, sacrificial
ritual (blot) was one of the most central acts of religious observance.
This paper will seek to examine aspects of the significance of blot
within Old Norse religion, the ideology of sacrifice as it operated
within this tradition and its relation to other Indo-European traditions,
and the reactions to the issue of sacrifice by medieval contemporaries
and modern scholarship
A fascinating discovery is shedding light upon pre-Christian Scandinavian religion and early Christian inroads into Norway. In the Norwegian press, this highly important find is being called “unparalleled,” “first of its kind” and “unique,” said to have been “deliberately and carefully hidden” - from invading and destructive Christians.
Located at the site of Ranheim, about 10 kilometers south of the Norwegian city of Trondheim, the astonishing discovery was unearthed while excavating foundations for new houses and includes a “gudehovet” or “god temple.” Occupied from the 6th or 5th century BCE until the 10th century AD/CE, the site shows signs of usage for animal sacrifice, a common practice among different peoples in antiquity, including the biblical Israelites. (E.g., Num 7:17-88) Over 1,000 years ago, the site was dismantled and covered by a thick layer of peat, evidently to protect it from marauding Christian invaders. These native Norse religionists apparently then fled to other places, such as Iceland, where they could re-erect their altars and re-establish the old religion.
When medieval writers from Europe and other lands wrote about the frightning Norse raiders, they frequently mentioned that the invading Vikings were very tall.
In 921, an Arab, Ibn Fadlan was sent by the Caliph of Bagdad to accompany an embassy to the King of the Bulgars of the Middle Volga. Ibn Fadlan wrote an account of his journeys with the embassy, called a Risala. During the course of his journey, Ibn Fadlan met a people called the Rus, a group of Swedish origin, acting as traders in the Bulgar capital. Ibn Fadlan tells us:
“I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Volga. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blonde and ruddy…”
European observers made similar observations. The Annals of Fulda record that, in 884, the Franks defeated a party of attacking Vikings in a battle in Saxony, mentioning their great size:
Quales numquam antea in gente Francorum visi fuissent, in pulchritudine videlicet ac proceritate corporum.
[In that battle such men are said to have been killed among the Northmen as had never been seen before among the Frankish people, namely in their beauty and the size of their bodies]. (Coupland, pp. 188-189)
The question is, do these anecdotal reports reflect reality? To answer this question, archaeologists turn to studies of bones from Viking graves. A study by Richard H. Steckel,Health and Nutrition in the Preindustrial Era: Insights from a Millennium of Average Heights in Northern Europe, presents a convenient summary of height data from Northern Europe.