By Maria Kvilhaug
The dawn of the Scandinavian Bronze Age has been traced back to the 16th century B.C and lasted for a thousand years before it was gradually evolved into the Iron Age of the fifth century B.C. The population of Scandinavia of that time is supposed to have consisted of a fusion of groups native to the area from the earliest Neolithic period and of immigrant groups known as the “Battle Axe people” who apparently emerged from east-central Europe and who settled in the Baltic and in Scandinavia during the Neolithic period. Hallmarks of their culture were the battle-axes and individual burials.
It is possible that these were the people who brought with them the Indo-European language and culture to Scandinavia, although there is no certain evidence for this since we do not know what kind of language was being used by the Neolithic and by the Bronze-Age peoples. Indo-European language and culture was certainly dominant in Scandinavia by the time of the Iron Age.
That it was so even in the Bronze Age seems very plausible, also that there were certain likenesses in culture between the Scandinavian upper classes and the those of southern Europe such as the aristocratic Greeks who produced the heroic poetry of the Iliad and the Odyssey. There was certainly a great deal of trade and travel between the North and South during the Bronze Age, and even ideas and cultic practice were being exchanged. Labyrinth symbols from Crete have been found in rock carvings in the north of Norway, dating back to the time of the Minoan civilization. Symbols of Sacred Marriage were common all over Scandinavia during the Bronze Age, another link to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern religions. As illustrated by the image above, the Scandinavian Sacred Marriage was often depicted in burial chambers or on the lids of burial urns – showing that the Sacred Marriage as a symbol was, in some way or other, associated with resurrection and the afterlife already then.
We know that the divine pantheon of the Iliad, and even many of the rituals described there – supposedly a very old story even when it was written down sometime during the eight century B.C – had its clear continuity in the religion and cults of the Greeks far into the Roman Age, only to disappear through the victory of the Church. The lack of literary evidence means that we know comparatively little of the pantheon of the Scandinavian Bronze Age and how it may have continued, changed or vanished as the Iron Age evolved.
The continuity of cults through the ages
That some level of continuity in religion and cult is possible is shown, among other things, through the works of Tacitus who wrote about the German tribes around the year 80 A.D. His descriptions of religion and cult are certainly recognizable in other descriptions of Germanic peoples written down even more than a thousand years later. Texts written down in the 13th century A.D also relate stories that may be recognized from picture stones reaching more than six hundred years back in time before they were written down. Heroic poems featuring historical characters such as Attila the Hun, who died in 451 A.D, still flourished in the 13th century A.D.
It would certainly be possible to prove that cult, mythology and religion in general often have a “life-span” of several thousand years in the history of religions, looking for example at the figure of Ishtar-Inanna and the associated cult of Sacred Marriage which lasted for thousands of years and reached into many other cultures in the Middle-East, the Mediterranian, even England, Ireland and Scandinavia. I think we should not underestimate the power of continuity in poetry, cult, religion and pantheons in ancient times.
Indeed, it would be remarkable if the Norse pantheon of gods such as Ódinn, Thor, Freyr and Freyia just popped up from nothing sometime before the Viking Age, while the previous gods simply vanished. It is tempting to suggest that even if the names of these deities changed, their essential functions and attributes did not.
Divine emblems of the Bronze Age reappear in the Viking Age Pantheon
In the artistic works of the Scandinavian Bronze Age, certain types of symbols appear and reappear throughout the whole period. The four symbols of major concern to this article are the following: disk (sun-disk), axe or hammer, spear and sword. The symbols have obvious reference to cult and worship and are often found together, the symbols apparently driving in a chariot or being aboard a ship.
It has been assumed that the symbols are attributes of major deities or that they represent the deities in themselves. Human beings drawn together with the symbols or even “wearing” them have been interpreted either as anthropomorphic representations of these deities or as worshippers carrying the symbolic representations of the gods as emblems. It could often look as if the people wearing the emblems are dancing – ritually. Gelling and Davidson suggest a likeness to the bear-cult of Artemis, where the goddess was worshipped in the shape of a bear. The worshippers dressed and acted as bears and were even called “bear”. The principle seems to be that the worshipper – wearing the attributes of the deity or the cult – somehow “becomes” the object of worship.
It has been suggested, with good reason that the symbols or emblems are pre-anthropomorphic representations of the gods, later to take on a more human appearance. But which anthropomorphic gods were preceded by which emblems?
The Axe-god and Thor
Now axe (hammer), spear and sword are indeed recognizable attributes of much younger deities known from the Norse pantheon, as Gelling and Davidson carefully point out. The battle-axe is recognizable in Thor´s hammer. We know that this god is of very ancient origins, and his myths are closely linked to the myths of Indra in Old Indian scriptures, so the idea of a Thor-like deity during the Bronze Age is very acceptable.
The spear is certainly a feature of Ódinn, and the sword is associated to Freyr. Gelling and Davidson discuss these similarities with great caution, since there is very little evidence to draw conclusions from.
The Spear God and Odin
Figures of spear-men that may be certainly identified with Ódinn may only be found from the seventh century A.D, but already Tacitus described rituals typical of the Ódinn-cult more than five centuries before that. To carry the cult back to the Bronze-Age, however, means a leap of
at least five hundred more years, so the evidence is scarce and uncertain and may, according to Gelling and Davidson, be decided only on grounds of general probability. The two scholars seem to find the grounds of general probability sufficiently strong to conclude that “it seems distinctly possible that a god was worshipped before the end of the Bronze Age who was recognizably like Ódinn.” The spear emblem is often shown as penetrating the sun disc.
The Sword God and Freyr
As far as Freyr is concerned, the evidence appears to be stronger. The sword-imagery shows that the sword – or what it represented – was directly worshipped. Often it is directed towards a disk. It is tempting, Gelling and Davidson argue, to regard these circular figures as female symbols and the sword as a male one, except that this would contradict the assumption that the disks are symbols of the sun . We shall come back to this problem later in the article. In any case, Gelling and Davidson argue that the sword is connected to procreative power and is a phallic symbol, either deriving its power from the sun with which it is so often portrayed, or regarded as an independent source of fertility. What seems certain, they state, is that there is no evidence at all for connecting the sword with any martial cult. Like the disk and the axe, it is shown being carried on a ship, confirming the idea that the symbol was connected to the same group of ideas.
The sword is linked to fertility, which may be a link to Freyr who was also associated with a sword – and a ship. Freyr was also associated with genitals and the boar. One striking Bronze Age image shows a huge sword pointing towards the genitals of – a boar. As Gelling and Davidson argue, “it is remarkable to find the pair of attributes side by side…” , especially with such a clear reference to fertility. Most of the Bronze Age figures that could be associated to Freyr are indeed found in Östergötland, where they correspond to the distribution of place-names containing the name Freyr. Gelling and Davidson conclude that the “side of religion which was most directly related to fertility had already acquired some of the traits which were to mark the cult of Freyr.
The following conclusion may be drawn from this little survey: It is certainly possible that the cults of Ódinn, Freyr and Thor – great gods of the Viking Age pantheon – had their closely related predecessors in the Scandinavian Bronze Age, albeit their names and mythologies may have differed and changed throughout the millenniums. The other alternative – that the Bronze Age deities simply vanished and completely new deities who simply happened to share a few important attributes just popped up some time during the Iron Age – seems far less plausible in my opinion.
But…What became of the Sun God???
I saw the Sun and it seemed to me
that I saw a glorious goddess
I bowed before her one final time
in this mortal world
Solarljod, st.41 – The Song of the Sun
(12th century Icelandic poem)
There are, however, two big problems about this conclusion. One Bronze Age deity – in fact the one who was by far the most central, universal and important in its time – seems to have vanished completely! This deity was symbolized through the disk – generally and with good reasons assumed to be the sun disk.
The Norse pantheon knew no Sun God as such, although attempts to link Freyr to the Sun God has been made, in my view rather unconvincingly. The other problem is the Bronze Age lack of great goddess-figures. The Norse pantheon certainly knew of a Great Goddess, and recent research has shown that she was a lot more important to the Viking Age cult than previously assumed. Goddess-worship was widespread and important both to the official, royal cult and to the cults of farm and home. Those who maintain the idea of a Great Goddess with many hypostases generally agree that it is Freya, Freyr´s sister, who hides behind the hypostases. It is indeed remarkable that Freyr should have had his predecessor in the Bronze Age whereas his sister was non-existent or unimportant.
The Sun “god” and Freya
Folke Ström argues that the Scandinavian Bronze Age saw a gradual change from “masculine” to “feminine” fertility cult. Increasing contact with the Middle East brought the Great Goddess to Scandinavia during the late Bronze Age, where she gained ground as the “Goddess of the Necklace” and became increasingly important throughout the Iron Age. The necklace, of course, is the emblem of the goddess Freyia.
If we agree with this view, Freyia´s predecessor is the latest arrival in the Norse pantheon, imported from the south where worship of the Great Goddess was so important even from Neolithic times. Somehow, Scandinavia must have differed completely from the rest of Europe with their assumed focus on an entirely masculine pantheon even from the earliest Bronze Age. I find this very curious. It is true that the goddess of the necklace, perhaps an influence from the south, came late. But were there no important goddesses, native to Scandinavia, before that? May only Thor, Ódinn and Freyr brag that they are authentic Scandinavian gods with roots back into the earliest Bronze Age?
I turn again to the cult of the “Sun-God”. Scholars have been puzzled by the fact that the sun-disks sometimes appear as if they were female symbols, being penetrated by phallic objects. The idea has been dismissed because the disk has been identified as a representation of the sun. Somehow, it has occurred to no one that the sun itself may have been a female symbol!
The idea is that the sun was a male god, and that´s that! But… why is that? Now, the sun was the most important symbol in the Bronze Age, apparently the most central of cults. Its emblem is often seen carried by phallic, masculine warrior or dancer figures. Of course, if these figures represent the sun-god himself in anthropomorphic form, we may be speaking of a male sun-god. But it is just as likely that the figures are worshippers carrying the sun´s emblem on their shields or on its own. Some of the Bronze Age figures are clearly such carriers of an emblem.
Active, male worshippers, even male priests taking the deity´s presence into themselves, do not mean that the deity they worshipped or represented must have been a male one. Goddess-worship has been far more popular among Indo-European male-dominated aristocratic classes than previously assumed – and this is not the least the case in Scandinavia. Is it possible that the sun-cult that was so crucial to Bronze Age religious life was a kind of native goddess-worship preceding the worship of the Necklace-Goddess?
Now, recalling that there may have been a degree of continuity between the Bronze Age cults and the Viking Age deities, we should have a look at how the Sun is described in the Norse myths. Enter Snorri Sturluson:
“…he called his son Moon, and the daughter was called Sun, she was married to someone called Glen (“Gap Between Clouds”)….the gods put these siblings up on the heavens. They let Sun steer the horses who drew the chariot of the sun that the gods had created…”
…The sun travels fast, as if she was afraid…two wolves are after her…”
“Sun and Bil are also counted among the goddesses, their work has been told about earlier..”
The image of the sun in a chariot that Snorri describes is certainly an old one. Riding a chariot was the most common representation of the sun during the Bronze Age. Chariot-riding was also strongly associated with Nerthus, mother of gods in the Roman Iron Age, and of her descendant Freyia in the myths. It is associated to Freyr and his priestess in one saga.
The Poetic Edda has this to say about the Sun:
“Sun came from the south, companion of the moon
she threw her right hand round the edge of heaven
Sun did not know where her hall might be…”
Völuspá st. 5.
…”from where will a sun come into the smooth heaven
when Fenrir has killed this one?
Elf-Shine (the Sun) will bear a daughter
before she is killed
she shall ride, when the gods die
the girl on her mothers´ old paths.”
Vafthrudnismál, st. 45-46.
“No man should fight facing
the late-shining sister of Moon (=Sun)”
Reginsmál, st. 23
As we see, there is very little information about the Sun in the Norse sources, and the Sun was obviously, by that time, a rather faded deity. But one thing remains very clear and entirely unambiguous: the Sun is a female, a mother of the new daughter-Sun to come, a sister to the moon, counted among the goddesses. Even the word “sun” (sól) is a feminine noun in the Norse language. There is never even one single hint that the sun should be a masculine entity.
Perhaps the idea of the Sun as female is difficult to grasp because other Indo-European religions conceive of a masculine sun? Yet, There is simply no tradition of a male sun anywhere in Scandinavia in any written source.
One is perhaps forgetting that Scandinavia has had other influences than the Indo-European. The Norse-speaking population had thousands of years of co-inhabitation on the peninsula with the Saami – a Finno-Ugric language group, and there is evidence of other Siberian input, possibly through the Gothic tribes who lived in Eastern Europe. In Finno-Ugric mythologies, the Sun is very often perceived of as a female.
The Sun and the Souls
The idea of the sun as female is actually dominant in Scandinavia since the the Saami also spoke of a “Sun-Maiden”, Beaivi-Nieida, who according to some traditions was the single origin of all souls, carried to earth on her sun-rays. Indeed, all souls were feminine in their origin, changed to men only while in the mother´s womb. The Great Goddess as Sun may have been a Finno-Ugric influence on Scandinavian religion.
Finno-Ugric people from Siberia to Scandinavia believed in the existence of a Sun Woman, Sun Mother, or Sun Maiden, who gave life to the world through her golden rays and who received the dead souls by a sacred lake filled with swans and other aquatic birds that represented the souls of people.
Finno-Ugric mythologies share a common belief that probably dates back into the Stone Age. There is a realm of death in the North which is dark and frozen, ruled by the “Death Mother”. But there is also a realm in the South, called the Land of the Sun or the Winterland, in which there is a lake that offers a rebirth of the soul, or rather, a renewal. All new souls are born in this southern land, and the water birds, such as swans, are metaphors for the souls of people. The lady of these lands is connected to the Sun, she is called the Golden Woman of the South, the Sun Mother, the Sun Woman, the Goose Mother, the Old Woman of the South or the Mother Goddess. She is both old hag and young maiden at the same time. By her lake of renewal, where birds and souls bathe and are reborn, there is also a tree, mostly a birch. The woman of the south sends the birds and the souls of people out into life from where they sit, nesting, in the tree. The connection between water birds and the souls of human beings is concrete and completely obvious in these mythologies, since Siberian shamans up until recent times have used this imagery for their own soul flights.[i]
The cosmology of the Northern and the Southern lands is probably very ancient. The famous Onega Lake is surrounded by rock carvings dating back to Baltic-Finnish tribes from between 5000 and 3000 BC. The imagery is that of water birds – swans and geese mostly, connected to a anthropomorphic figure that has now been interpreted as a goddess with one blind and one seeing eye.[ii]This proto-Uralic cosmology has influenced several Mongolian speaking tribes of Siberia, and might very well have influenced the Scandinavian.
In fact, echoes of this ancient proto-Uralic imagery is very prominent in Old Norse cosmology, where a magic lake full of swans is owned by the ancient norn Urdr, Origin, goddess of fate. Her lake makes everybody who bathes in it come out new, transparent and shining of white light, just like the souls entering the sacred lakes of the Finno-Ugric Sun Ladies. Her lake is situated in the South, in the place of the origin of all norns – who are the fate-spinning aspects of the souls of the people, as we saw in chapter one. The alternative, just like in the Finno-Ugric myths, is a frozen, desolate land to the North, ruled by grim Hel. The old Norse goddesses are incessantly described as golden, shining, blasting with rays of light, as wearing the hides of swans and as being “southern”, or coming from the south. The Sun is also connected to the light elves: One of her most common names is Alfrödull: The Shine or Splendor of Elves. As has been suggested, the light elves represent the immortal souls of the three upper heavens.
We might conclude from this that the Scandinavian Sun is of ancient origin and that it is intimately connected to the souls or the origin of the souls of people – just as the norns or goddesses of fate are.
The Sun Goddess
How the hypothetic Bronze Age male Sun, the most important deity of the Bronze Age, just swapped gender and suddenly became an unimportant goddess and a feminine noun in the Norse – and in all related- languages is an idea I find extremely problematic.
If all the other major gods of the Bronze Age pantheon have their more or less direct descendants in the Norse pantheon – how could the one god who was the most important just vanish?
How could the sun just suddenly become a mother, sister, daughter and lady? How could the woman Sun be driving the chariot that the male sun-god supposedly drove for at least a thousand years?
And even more incredibly: How could the Scandinavian Bronze Age be so bereft of female deities while we know that goddess-worship dominated Neolithic Europe and still flourished well into the Iron Age everywhere else? How could a feminine deity imported from the south just suddenly have become so important in Scandinavia as to swap places with an extremely important male god? Why would people so easily accept a goddess in the place of this god, when they had, assumedly, paid homage almost only to male deities before that?
Of course, all these questions may be answered by saying that it just happened, because it is possible. However, while there is plenty of evidence both in language and mythology for a female sun in the Northern tradition, there is none whatsoever for a male sun. The fact is that modern people have assumed that the Bronze Age sun god was a male god because the Greeks and Romans believed the sun was masculine. Are we going to understand Norse/Germanic mythologies on the basis of Greek-Roman mythologies or are we going to understand the Northern tradition on its own terms?
It seems to me far more plausible to assume that the Great Goddess existed also in Scandinavia from the earliest Bronze Age, and that her major symbol was the Sun, because she was the Sun, whose company was as necessary for the great gods of battle-axe, spear and sword as Freyia and Idunn were for Thor, Ódinn and Freyr.
It has become increasingly common to realize that goddess-worship is not always about women, fertility and the home, but that it has been central also in the life of men, warriors and priests. Sun-worship faded in the advent of the Iron-Age, when people needed more human-like deities.
I believe that the Great Goddess lived on in the Iron Age Goddess of the Necklace – and in Viking Age Freyia of the golden tears, driver of chariots and owner of the Brisinga-mén – the Necklace of Flames.
The Great Sun Lady and a Trinity of Gods
Mighty, majestic and shining – Thou shine brightly in the evening
Thou light up the day at dawn – Thou stand in the heavens as Sun and Moon
Thy miracles are known both up and below:
To the greatness of the sacred Priestess of Heaven
To Thee, Innanna, I sing!
Sumerian hymn to the Great Goddess[iii]
The Old Norse pantheon is dominated by four gods whose particular attributes were well known as far back as the Bronze Age, three thousand years before the myths were written down. As we have seen, the Bronze Age pantheon shows three gods represented by their attributes – a battle-axe, a sword, and a spear. Sometimes phallic human figures are seen carrying these objects, being either anthropomorphic representations of the gods, or – more probably – pictures of human worshippers carrying the emblems symbolizing the gods. It seems obvious that the gods are three separate entities – the Sword God, the Axe God and the Spear God. Other attributes, such as pigs in connection to the Sword God, only strengthen the impression that the mythology of these three gods has laid the foundation for the mythology of the much later Old Norse pantheon.
Written three thousand years later, Old Norse mythology still features Thor with the hammer (axe) – Freyr with his pigs and his sword, and the Spear-lifting Odin. The fourth deity is the Sun, represented by a disc, and carried around by the other three gods or by worshippers, and either drives a wagon or travels by ship. The Sun was, unquestionably, the most important and central deity to which all the other gods were centered. Large processions, music, dance and acrobatics both on land and aboard ceremonial ships are shown to have accompanied the worship of the Sun. The Sun disc also often appears to engage in sexual intercourse – with both sexes, and most often with males. [iv]
Just like the Sun was depicted driving a wagon in Bronze Age pictograms, so the Sun Goddess in Old Norse mythology three thousand years later is described as driving a wagon across the heavens. In my opinion, it is very probable that the Sun worshipped by the Bronze Age people of Scandinavia was their representation of the Great Goddess. That she is carried by phallic figures only means that she was associated with sexuality and that she might have had a masculine priesthood, male worshippers who carried her emblem or painted her symbol on their shields – or, perhaps, depicting the Sun disc as a divine force within themselves.
The Sacred Marriage ritual that was so prominent in Scandinavia (as it was in Southern Europe and the Middle East) during the Bronze Age, may very well have been, then, a marriage to the Sun, as we see depicted when the Sword God penetrates the Sun disc. Thus, as opposed to the common assumption that the Older Bronze Age knew only of four great masculine gods, I assume that the Great Goddess has ancient origins native to Scandinavia, and that she was the center to its religion, surrounded by a trinity of male gods. The idea of a masculine trinity is very central in Old Norse mythology, showing itself in a number of ways, such as Odin and his two brothers Vili and Vé, Odin and his two friends, Loki and Hænir, or Odin and his two major companions in Viking Age cultic life, Thor and Freyr. Snorri depicts Odin as a trinity named High, Just-As-High, and Third. The Goddess, on the other hand, is present in many shapes but always essentially the same.
[i] Napolskikh, 1992, p. 3-13
[ii] Ernits, 1992, p. 115-121
[iii] Kingsley, 1989, p. 113
[iv] Davidson/Gelling, 1969