Temple of Uppsala and Dísablót

Temple of Uppsala - Medieval drawing from Adam of Bremens description of the Heathen temple

The Oseberg ship burial tapestry (dating no later than 834 AD, when the ship was buried with its two ladies in Vestfold, Norway). The tapestry shows a scene of apparent human sacrifice – or initiation – where nine males are hanging from a large tree in a grove of serpents. Three ladies (the fates?) hover above. The tapestry may possibly give some archaeological support to the written sources about the Uppsala sacrificial grove where nine males are said to have been hung in a sacred grove.
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The Temple of Uppsala

Around the year 1070, Adam of Bremen described the great pagan cult centre of Uppsala, Sweden in his work Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, the most famous source to pagan ritual practice in Sweden. It was written with the agenda of showing how barbaric and immoral were the practices and religion of the pagans, in defense of the still somewhat fragile position of the Christian church in Sweden at the time. Thus it cannot be read as an objective source to paganism, but rather as a strongly biased attack on paganism. Yet it is one of the only sources we have, and must make do with. The temple of Uppsala is described in the fourth book, chapter 26:

“This people have a widely renowned sanctuary called Uppsala. By this temple is a very large tree with extending branches. It is always green, both in winter and in summer. No one knows what kind of tree this is. There is also a spring there, where the heathens usually perform their sacrificial rites. They throw a live human being into the spring. If he does not resurface, the wishes of the people will come true.

The Temple is girdled by a chain of gold that hangs above the roof of the building and shines from afar, so that people may see it from a distance when they approach there. The sanctuary itself is situated on a plain, surrounded by mountains, so that the form a theatre.

It is not far from the town of Sigtuna. This sanctuary is completely covered with golden ornaments. There, people worship the carved idols of three gods: Thor, the most powerful of them, has his throne in the middle of the hall, on either side of him, Odin and Freyr have their seats. They have these functions: “Thor,” they say, “rules the air, he rules thunder and lightning, wind and rain, good weather and harvests. The other, Odin, he who rages, he rules the war and give courage to people in their battle against enemies. The third is Freyr, he offers to mortals lust and peace and happiness.” And his image they make with a very large phallus. Odin they present armed, the way we usually present Mars, while Thor with the scepter seems to resemble Jupiter. As gods they also worship some that have earlier been human. They give them immortality for the sake of their great deeds, as we may read in Vita sancti Ansgarii that they did with King Eirik.”

Fourth Book, chapter 27:

“For all these gods have particular persons who are to bring forward the sacrificial gifts of the people. If plague and famine threatens, they offer to the image of Thor, if the matter is about war, they offer to Odin, but if a wedding is to be celebrated, they offer to Freyr. And every ninth year in Uppsala a great religious ceremony is held that is common to people from all parts of Sweden.”

When the pious Christian Amund, king of the Swedes, recently refused to bring to the gods the statutory sacrifice from the people, and was thus banished from his realm, he is said to have left the people at the assembly a happy man, because he was considered worthy of being dishonored for the sake of Jesus`name.

No one is exempt from participating in this celebration. Kings and people, everyone, sends their gifts to Uppsala, and they who have by now converted to Christianity, must buy themselves free from these ceremonies. This is harder than any other punishment.

The sacrifice happens as follows: Nine live beings of the male gender are sacrificed, their blood is used to mollify the gods.

For nine days they celebrate with banquets and such sacrifices. Every day they sacrifice one man – together with other living beings, so that within nine days 72 living beings are sacrificed. This sacrifice takes place in connection to the spring equinox.

The bodies are hanged up in a grove close to the temple. This grove is so holy for these heathens that they think that each individual tree inside it has become divine through the death and decay of the victims. There hang dogs and horses together with humans. A Christian told me that he had seen 72 such bodies hang there, animals and people together. As usual with such sacrificial acts, many songs are sung, they are indecent and ought to be concealed.”

 Snorri Sturluson also referred to the Temple of Uppsala in his work Heimskringla.  There, Snorri relates that the Temple was built by the god Freyr, who settled at Uppsala:  

“Odin took up his residence at the Maelare lake at the place now called Old Sigtun. There, he erected a large temple, where there were sacrifices according to the customs of the Asaland people. He appropriated to himself the whole of that district, and called it Sigtun[1] To the temple priests he gave also domains. Njordr dwelt in Noatun, Freyr in Upsal, Heimdallr in the Himinbergs, Thor in Thrudvang, Balder in Breidablik, to all of them he gave good estates

Freyr built a great temple at Upsal, made it his chief seat, and gave it all his taxes, his land, and goods. Then began the Upsal domains, which have remained ever since.

But after Frey was buried under a cairn at Upsala, many chiefs raised cairns, as commonly as stones, to the memory of their relatives.”

Snorri also relates how human sacrifice began in Uppsala, with the sacrifice of a king.

“Domalde took the heritage after his father Visbur, and ruled over the land. As in his time there was great famine and distress, the Swedes made great offerings of sacrifice at Upsal. The first autumn they sacrificed oxen, but the succeeding season was not improved thereby. The following autumn they sacrificed men, but the succeeding year was rather worse. The third autumn, when the offer of sacrifices should begin, a great multitude of Swedes came to Upsal; and now the chiefs held consultations with each other, and all agreed that the times of scarcity were on account of their king Domalde, and they resolved to offer him for good seasons, and to assault and kill him, and sprinkle the stall of the gods with his blood. And they did so.

After  Ole`s fall, On returned to Upsal, and ruled the kingdom for twenty-five years. Then he made a great sacrifice again for long life, in which he sacrificed his second son, and received the answer from Odin, that he should live as long as he gave him one of his sons every tenth year, and also that he should name one of the districts of his country after the number of sons he should offer to Odin.”

Moreover, he relates that many people gathered there for the sacrifices:

“Onund`s district-kings were at that time spread widely over Sweden, and Svipdag the Blind ruled over Tiundaland, in which Upsal is situated, and where all the Swedish Assemblies are held. There also were held the mid-winter sacrifices, at which many kings attended. One year at midwinter there was a great assembly of people at Upsal, and King Yngvar had also come there with his sons. (…)

In Svithjod [Sweden]it was the old custom, as long as heathenism prevailed, that the chief sacrifice took place in Goe month [Mid-February to Mid-March]at Uppsala. Then sacrifice was offered for peace, and victory to the king; and thither came people from all parts of Svithjod. All the Assemblies of the Swedes, also, were held there, and markets, and meetings for buying, which continued for a week: and after Christianity was introduced into Svithjod, the Things and fairs were held there as before. After Christianity had taken root in Svithjod, and the kings would no longer dwell in Upsala, the market-time was moved to Candlemas, and it has since continued so, and it lasts only three days.”

The third main written source to the Temple of Uppsala is by Saxo Grammaticus, who in his Gesta Danorum offers the following 12th century description:

“Also Freyr, the regent of the gods, took his abode not far from Upsala, where he exchanged for a ghastly and infamous sin-offering the old custom of prayer by sacrifice, which had been used by so many ages and generations. For he paid to the gods abominable offerings, by beginning to slaughter human victims.  (http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/OMACL/DanishHistory/book3.html)

And when he (Starkad) had done many noteworthy deeds among them, he went into the land of the Swedes, where he lived at leisure for seven years’ space with the sons of Freyr. At last he left them and betook himself to Hakon, the tyrant of Denmark, because when stationed at Upsala, at the time of the sacrifices, he was disgusted by the effeminate gestures and the clapping of the mimes on the stage, and by the unmanly clatter of the bells. ”  (http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/OMACL/DanishHistory/book6.html)

Adam of Bremen claimed that the great sacrifice at Uppala was held every ninth year the vernal equinox, which would be around March 20/21. According to Snorri, the main sacrifice at Uppsala was held annually, at midwinter, sometime in February. This was when the great þing [Assembly, Parliament] of all Swedes (that is, of all the tribes, chiefdoms and kingdoms), took place.

An aspect of the Uppsala rituals that is almost completely ignored by these three male chronicler, with the honorable exception of Snorri who at least give it a mention, is the fact that goddess worship took place in conjunction with the assembly of the rulres. In fact, a celebration of the goddesses was so central to this annual, national parliament at Uppsala that it was actually called “The Assembly of the Goddesses,” as we will be discussing below.

b)The Invisible but Crucial Ladies of Uppsala

Detail from the Oseberg tapestry showing three women ruling sword (valkyria), weave (norn) and serpents (ogress of Hel), the three aspects of the dísir.
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In conjunction to this parliament was held the Dísablót [The Sacrifice to the Goddesses[1]]. This was why the annual assembly of the kings was actually called the Dísaþing, [The Assembly the Goddesses] a name still used to describe the annual fair or market that also took place in connection with the ruler´s Assembly. The “Dísting” is still held in Sweden at Uppsala, obviously not as a pagan ceremony but as an annual fair that has survived since pagan times.

During the nine-day celebration of the goddesses and assembly of the kings at Uppsala, a temple was honored as the Dísarsalr [The Hall of the Goddess]. According to (and in accordance with a traditional view that female deities always relate to fertility) most historians, this sacrifice to the norns and the valkyries had the purpose of enhancing the coming harvest.  I am going to explain my view that different mythological aspects than fertility may have played a part in the goddess-parliament combination.

The celebration of the female powers is mentioned in the Sagas of Hervor, Viga-Glum, Egil, and in Snorri´s Heimskringla. In Hervarar Saga, there is a description of how the sacrifice was performed as “Alfhildr, the daughter of king Alfr of Alfheimr,”[2]was a blótgydja, that is, a sacrificial priestess, who was performing sacrifice at the dísablót, reddening a shrine with blood, when she was kidnapped by the rogue warrior Starkad. The saga suggests an aspect of the celebration where sacrifice was performed by priestesses. But the king also had a major role as high priest of the Temple of Uppsala, as described by Snorri in his Heimskringla:

King Adils was at a Sacrifice to the Dísir; and as he rode around the Hall of the Dís, his horse, Raven, stumbled and fell, and the king was thrown forward upon his head, and his skull was split, and his brains dashed out against a stone. Adils died at Uppsala, and was buried there in a mound. The Swedes called him a great king.

In Sweden, the Dísablót was of central political and social importance as it was when and where the kings and chiefs gathered annually to hold parliament. The king of all the Swedes obviously had an important ritual role during the ceremonies: to ride in a circle around the Dísarsalr – the Hall of the Dís.  That the singular form is used in the genitive dísar points to a singular dís, a unifying lady of all the dísir. It is generally acknowledged that this must be Freya, whose name is in fact a title, meaning “Lady”, as in “female ruler.”  The goddess-king connection may have something to do with an ancient ritual of Sacred Marriage in which the king´s rule was legitimized through his symbolic marriage with the goddess.[3]

However, the goddess or goddesses are hardly mentioned in the written sources that relate directly to Uppsala Temple, which is odd because the great ceremony of the goddesses (and the Goddess) obviously took place there and was of central importance. The sources, however, concentrate on the three male gods and the barbaric nature of the sacrifice. That big, collective human sacrifices of this kind may have happened in pagan times is perhaps supported by the early 9th century Oseberg tapestry showing nine men being hanged from a tree or from trees within a grove. The same tapestry testifies to the importance of the dísir, who appear to hover in a trinity of valkyria, norn and giantess above the hanging scene (see image and explanation of symbols above).

Why have the goddesses been almost ignored, if they were so important? Firstly it must always be taken into consideration that the written sources are not completely trustworthy. Those we are left with are seen through the eyes of people who wished only to conquer heathen beliefs and practices. That they fail to emphasize goddesses that were crucial to the cult testifies not to the goddesses´ lack of importance, but to the failed conception and rendering of medieval Christian chroniclers with an agenda.

There are several clues to the importance of the goddess/goddesses in the written sources that we do have about Uppsala, if we look to other sources, such as the myths. First of all, that the annual assembly of rulers is held in conjunction with a celebration of norns and valkyries is no coincidence, and very credible. In the Eddas, the parliaments of the Aesir gods are indeed held by the Urdarbrunnr [The Well of Origin], that is, by a sacred water source owned by the oldest Norn, who rules all destiny. As is described by Snorri in his Gylfaginning:[4]

“The third root of the ash is in heaven, and below this root there is a well that is particularly sacred, and it is called the Urdarbrunnr [The Well of Origin]; there the gods keep their legislative assembly. Every day the Aesir ride there, crossing the Bifröst [Vibrating Voice]…There is a beautiful hall below the ash by the well, and from this hall emerge the three maidens known as Urdr, Verdandi and Skuld [Origin, Becoming and Debt[5]]. These maidens decide the fates of people, and we call them norns…”

That the divine assembly is held by the Well of Origin is repeatedly asserted by the Poetic Edda poems, and implies that the parliament of the gods is held under the observance of those who really make the laws and rule the fates, as said in the Völuspá [The Prophecy of the Witch], stanza 20:

…they set the laws
They shaped the lives
The eternal destiny of mankind

In fact, and as is frequently referred to in the myths and in sagas and other written sources, the norns rule all fate, even that of the gods. They are, simply, the most powerful beings in the universe, they decide the universal laws and the outcome of everything. When even the gods acknowledge this power and place their parliament within the realm of the norns, it is only natural to assume that human beings followed in these footsteps and dedicated their legislative assemblies to the ladies of fate.

The great Temple of Uppsala, in which, according to Adam, three male gods were worshipped, is described and adorned with gold and a golden chain. This is consistent with how the halls of the goddesses, the halls of the “maidens with mead”, and indeed, the hall of Freya, are described. In the words of Snorri:

“There is a fair hall below the ash by the Well of Origin, and from this hall come the three maidens that are called Origin, Becoming and Debt…

…They built another hall too, it was called Horgr [The Altar], owned by the gydiur [the priestesses/goddesses]. It was a particularly beautiful hall, people call it Vengolv [the House of Friends]…

There are other norns there too, who come to each child as it is born, and rules its course of life. Some norns are of divine lineage, other of elfin lineage, and the third are of dwarfish lineage, as it is sung:

Different lineages there are among norns
They do not have the same source
Of aesir kind are some
Of Elfin kind are some
And some are the daughters of Dvalinn [Hibernation, Coma]“

What we are seeing when we put all the sources together is that the Temple of Uppsala may very well have been a real-life attempt to copy the mythical concept of a divine parliament held beneath the World Tree by the Well of the Norns, who are dísir – goddesses - in their raw aspects as ladies of fate and destiny, and who apparently supervised the parliament. It is a perfect image of the typical Old Norse male-female complimentary universe where the male powers represent the known, seen and obvious, the ordered universe, and the female powers represent the unknown, unseen and hidden forces, the raw substance universe.

It has been suggested by the archaeologist Britt Solli (“Seid” – 2000) that the hanging of nine men at Uppsala may have been mock sacrifices that represented the nine days of hanging by Odin during his initiation, when he in fact descended to the roots of the world tree and grasped the runes that had been carved there by the norns. It has also been pointed out by Folke Ström that the sacrifice in the well by drowning was a typical and age-old sacrifice to the Goddess who resided in the bogs and water-sources. I wonder if this could not also have been part of an initiation rather than a sacrifice. In Snorri`s Gylfaginning, a description is given of the Well of Urdr where he explains that those who submerge themselves in the water of the norns will come out of the water shining, bright and transparent like the inner membrane of an egg. This spells spiritual transformation in my mind.

Article by Maria Kvilhaug


[1] Dísir is a substantive(the plural form of dís) related to the old Indian word Dhisanas (sg.;Dhisana), a group of goddesses that embodied intelligence and who guard the sacred drink of soma. In pagan Scandinavia the word was used to describe any female power, whether it be an ásynia, vanadís, valkyria, norn or gygr [giantess, ogress], so I have translated it as “goddesses” to give to right idea – that of a feminine cosmic power. Like the Dhisanas guarding the drink of immortality and wisdom, soma, also called madhu[honey], the dísir, of all the kinds, guard the precious mjödr[honey-based mead] of poetry, intelligence and indeed, immortality. Like the Dhisanas all come together in the one great Dhisana, so the Norse dísir come together in the great Dís (Nässtrom, Ström)

[2] Elf-Battle, daughter of King Elf from Elf-World – the elf may be either a symbol of the human soul existing in the burial mound after death (dark elves) or as the immortal souls of those who had transcended to the upper heavens (light elves). Elf-World is “owned” by the god Freyr

[3] Näsström, Ström, Steinsland

[4] The first book of Snorri´s Prose Edda, in three parts. Gylfaginning means “The Illusions of Gylfi”

[5] According to Rudolf Simek (1996), Became, Becoming, and Become, all forms of the verb verda – to become (urdr=urdum=became, verdandi=becoming, skuld=skulu – to become, intend. I think the name Skuld could mean “debt”, as skuld is a noun meaning debt – that which the future owes. Urdr is also a noun meaning Origin, hence my translations. In any case, these three norns together represent past, present and future.


[1] Sigtun could be the same as Tacitus`Sitones

 Responses to Temple of Uppsala and Dísablót from my previous website/blog:

  1. Pingback: Ærend-gewrit: Wicu 4-10 April 2011 on Twittere | Þæt Eald-Ænglisce Blog
  2. Hello Maria,
    So many people who have blogs or websites or ancient germanic mythology/religion seem not to have any phililogical background and often are unaware of the correct (or most used) in any particular early gmc dialect, be it OE, old-scanian, old-west-norse, gothic and when the temporal form given word in the same language, e.g. (my guesses here, common-ingvaeonic ca. 400AD, *woðenæz or *woðenæR, yielding the most recorded, mainly westsaxon forms uuoden or woden and that Odin, Oðinn (I know there’s an accent over the ‘o’), Wuotan, Wotan, Othon, etc, are not different words, but merelt reflexes of the same word over time and by different dialects. Many people into gmc religion, mythology are not aware of things like w-deletion in ngmc around 600AD, before certain vowels, usually ‘o’ or ‘u’ or their later i-shifted forms, e.g. ‘wool’ – ‘ull’ to ‘yllen’… Usually they have no idea about IE or GMC grammar and morphology, like declensions, gender, etc. So, people still go around writing “Valhalla” gen. plur. fem, when they should write “Valhöll” or at least “Valhall”. Well, I just wanted that you know your grammar and your blog is really good. Du kan skriva tillbaka på norska.
    Ha det bra,

    Ken

    Ken

    • Yes, I agree, I encounter many strange ways of writing these names and words, hehe. Especially common is: people make up Norse/Germanic names for themselves and get the grammar or gender wrong. It could be a bit funny when it was meant in all seriousness. However, I thought it was in fact common to write “Valhalla” in English, (at least I see it so often I thought perhaps it was THE English version…) although the proper name would be Valhöll, just like we write Odin rather than the proper form, Ódinn (with the special d, dont have it here), or Balder rather than Baldr, etc. But writing Hela and Frigga rather than Hel and Frigg seems a bit odd. I usually stick to the Old Norse forms. Jeg kunne svart på norsk men jeg tenkte kanskje noen var interessert i å følge med på det som blir sagt. Hej då
      maria

3 Responses to Temple of Uppsala and Dísablót

  1. Pingback: Lite mera om Disablotet, inom och utom landet « Hedniska Tankar

  2. Bob Warren says:

    Really wonderful, populist work with a lot of research behind it. I knew a little about Uppsala but you taught me more in a quick and painless way. My knowledge was weak especially concerning female roles. I think in general you are doing a good job of setting right a tremendous wrong that was done to peoples who so obviously cared about their enduring reputation and legacy.
    The comments already posted reveal a touch of human weakness. I can see why someone might be annoyed if someone else uses a pseudonym like Loki Werewolf-Helgisson but it can be fun and it’s in a valid tradition of it’s own or were the Beatles or the scholars who set up the Viking Society with its Saga-Book and assorted funny names for its officers not creatively mixing up languages, spelling and grammar for fun. Or Shakespeare. Or didn’t Cloud Cuckoo Land give the Greeks a laugh and make a serious political point? It’s cheap and easy fun to mock others but you may find yourself a Thor facing an Odin. But you don’t need to be an Odin. Try: “The learned lady can’t say learned.” (Adjective rhymes with wed).
    Valhalla spelt as such IS the usual form. It’s in the OED and Oxford’s consultants are seriously learned. All languages adapt words to suit their own tongues or why would someone say “Himeskringla and spell it “Heimskringla” with a first vowel like that in “neighbour”. Names adding an r or ur look ridiculous to English eyes.
    Kenneðr beggars belief: “most people into mythology are not aware of w deletion in 600″. Does that mean only he a sprinkling of chums are allowed to discuss it either for fun or seriously. A Baptist lay preacher and retired lecturer I drink with doesn’t know a word of Greek, Latin or Hebrew. He didn’t even know that England was once mainly heathen until I told him. “Britain was part of the Roman Empire when it converted”, he told me.
    But as I’ve been trying to read the runes of Sonatorrek recently could some kind scholar help me with a translation which completely clarifies Egil’s understanding of the afterlife and his relationship to the gods and to the universe or are there perhaps a few words, kenning and other areas where we all see through a glass but darkly? If only the skald’s daughter’s runes would turn up complete with handy Latin glosses like King Alfred’s will.
    The hard coal face of bit by bit translation has a very necessary place but all scholars come to point where they guess, assume, intuit or fill in from context if there is any.
    The University’s reaction to The Maiden with the Mead shows the limits of the cautious coal-face work. But after the academic senators have had their day with their daggers it is still possible for a Mark Anthony to undo them with the help of the citizens.
    Again: thanks for all your hard work Maria: you seem inspired. I hope lots of citizens buy your books and donate.

  3. Michael Cooper says:

    First of all, I’m not a scholar. I’m just keenly interested in my ancestors. How they lived, how they died, what brought them joy, and what torments they suffered. I have come to understand that they sucessfully endured many hardships, and that this is the reason I exist today. I want to thank you for your work and your insights. I’m sad that so much of our pre-christian heritage has been lost. I have Nordic, Finnish, Celtic and Germanic ancestry and no matter which direction I look, the picture is clouded by the cultural destruction which was “Christian conversion”. Again, thanks for your hard work – WELL DONE!

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