Thursday, March 15, 2012

Viking Sacrifice: What assumptions can we believe?

Any person that has just the slightest amount of knowledge about the great Vikings more than likely assumes that there was sacrifice of some sort that took place during this historical time period.  This is a fairly reasonable assumptions because the Vikings did in fact practice sacrifice, but the question posed here is what evidence do we have to prove this claim?   Interestingly enough, there is evidence in both archaeological finds and in literature that proves and produces findings that the almighty Vikings did in fact practice sacrifice.  There are several claims made by both archaeologists and authors in literature that give today’s society belief that human and animal sacrifice were a significant part of the Viking culture.  The difficult part is trying to distinguish the truth about Viking sacrifices from the assumptions gathered by old myths and legends.  

Archaeological Evidence of HUMAN sacrifice:

A Polish-Viking Double Burial
A classic example of human sacrifice was the killing of a slave girl by the Rus.  It is believed that the girl was sacrificed to accompany her master in death (Pearson 1999:17).  Other examples of sacrifice from the Viking world include the finding of the Viking queen buried with the body of an elderly woman in the Oseberg Ship in Norway.  The elderly woman is believed to possibly be the queen’s personal slave (Pearson 1999:99).  More recently in Poland, these recent and past discoveries are great find for archaeologists, but can a legitimate assumption of human sacrifice be made with just a small amount of proof?  There are instances of double burial, which simply means where more than one person was buried at the same time, which may or may not be related to human sacrifice (Jesch 1991:24).  The technology of archaeology has advanced greatly in the last hundred years but viking burials have been dug up for longer than that. 

Early on archaeologists were perhaps to quick to assume that a double burial must mean human sacrifice (Jesch 1991:24).  Modern evacuations show that people could be buried together, yet that second person could have been buried soon after the first person, but not at the same time.  Archaeological examples of this include the burials Hestehagen in Norway, which are thought to be a couple buried together who died years apart, i.e. burial of a widow in her husband’s grave (Jesch 1991:25).  However, a significant number of Viking graves contain individuals who were more than likely sacrificed to accompany the primary occupant.  Archaeologists have several tricks that help them identify sacrifice based on certain markers on the body and in the grave.  These markers include burial grave findings of decapitation, hands and feet bound together, and broken necks, possibly from hangings (Brink 2008:266).  There are several famous burial examples of human sacrifice including: the burial at the fort wall at Birka, which involves a body of a young male that has been decapitated, and laid over an elder man furnished with weapons (Holmquist-Olausson1990).  Another interesting discovery was found at a woman’s grave from Gerdrup near Roskilde containing a woman and man, the man appeared to have a broken neck (Christensen 1981).   There is plenty of archaeological discoveries that show that the Vikings could have practiced forms of sacrifice, but that poses the question of, “WHY did the Vikings use sacrifice during burial practices?”  

Viking Reasons for Sacrifice…..

Sacrifice in a way, was apart of the Viking religion, it was a way of life for the water adventurers.  It is believed that most all of their sacrifices were to Odin (mythological speaking, Odin was the father and ruler of all the Gods) (Belloni  Du Chaillu 1889:365).  Alike many cultures, the Vikings believed the sacrificing of humans and animals to Odin was done for reasons such as keeping their ship from sinking, granting them victory in a battle, personal ornaments, and burial rituals (Brill-Leiden 1969:618-621).  As mentioned, there have been archaeological finds that point to men and women possibly being stabbed, beaten to death, tied by their hands and feet, and strangled.  Even instances of possible animal sacrifice are seen in burial sites.  In seventh century ship burials at Vendel in Sweden, and Oseberg in Norway, and Ladby in Denmark, considerable numbers of horses were killed at the funeral and laid out in or around the ship (Brill-Leiden 1969:619).  Though these are clearly legitimate assumptions made from an archaeological stance, literature of the Viking time period also points to the practice of sacrifice.   

Elden den "köllas" av nio slags ved,                      The fire is lit by nine kinds of wood,

det är gammal sed.                                                that is the old custom.

Offer till andarna skänkes,                                  A sacrifice is offered [to the spirits],
med blodet sig alla bestänkes.                             everyone is sprinkled with the blood. 

Det bästa till andar föräras,                                The best part is gifted to spirits, 

det som blir över skall av männen förtäras.       what remains is to be consumed by the men.     


The Viking era is something researchers of all types are and have been interested in for some time.  Between the literature of that time period and the archaeological discoveries, the people of today have a better understanding of what the lives of Vikings were like.  We can only hope there will be more discoveries and findings to make the assumptions into certain truths about this great Viking time era.  With different speculations about what archaeologists have found in or around burial sites, we have a good idea of how burial rituals were practiced, but it also gives us a foundation for not only how the Vikings died, but also, how they lived.  

Belloni Du Chaillu, PaulThe Viking Age.  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.  (1889)  P. 365. 
Brill-Leiden, E.J.  Historia Religionum I: Religions of the Past.  Netherlands.  (1969.) P. 618-621.
Brink, StefanThe Viking World.  London and New York: Routledge.  (2008.) P. 266-268.
Christensen, T.   ‘Gerdup-graven’, Romu.  Årsskrift fra Roskilde Museum.  (1981)  2: 19-28.
Holmquist-Olausson, L.  “Älgmannen” från Birka.  Presentation av en nyligen undersökt  krigargrav med människooffer, Fornvännen.  (1990)   85: 175-82.

Jesch, Judith.  Women in the Viking Age.  United Kingdom: Boydell Press.  (1991) p. 24-26.
Pearson, M.P.  The Archaeology of Death and Burial.  Texas A&M Press: College Station.  (2008) p. 17.
Watson, TraciPictures: Mysterious Viking-era Graves Found with Treasure.  National Geographic, December 16, 2011.  (2011)  P. 1-2.

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