Monday, February 06, 2012

Viking Clerics

Apparently there was no Viking Priesthood, only Chieftains who served as religious authorities; but even that is a misnomer as people paid homage to the gods that served them best. Thor, interestingly enough, was the common mans god in most regions, he was the most human. Freyja was fairly commonly worshiped as well, but Odin hardly at all.

We cannot know all this for a certainty, as very little remains of this ancient religion, only what comes down to us in the Icelandic Sagas and those are often contradictory...reinforcing the idea of no organized priesthood or religion. But we have such things as place names...their disbursement and organization tell us which gods were worshiped where. We also surmise where they worshiped by the early Christian proscriptions of places to avoid.

All very interesting. Odin One Eye, too clever for common man. Thor, thunder god, the everyman's god. Freyja, a fertility god.

8 comments:

William Dowie said...

That the Norse had no Priesthood other than their Chieftains is not entirely true, there were holy sites and temples attended by a full time priesthood, just not many. Uppsala in Sweden comes immediately to mind, although I seem to recall an example in Denmark too. There were also the "traveling priests" that moved around performing various rites in different villages within a certain area, so they must have had a "home base"; but in large part religion was home or community based and the head of household performed family rites and the head of community performed community rites.

Joseph Bloch said...

Snorri Sturluson tells us in Heimskringla of the priesthoods that were established, and Tacitus definitely mentions them in the context of the earlier Germanic tribes.

- Grandpa Chet said...

As I recall (Years ago, research with a Norwegish bald friend.) Odin wasn't so much worshiped as respected and sorta dreaded. Though Loki was the Trickster character in the mythos, Odin might very well be walking among you without your knowledge. (Somehow, he could make you not notice that he was one-eyed, etc.)

Stephen Chenault said...

William, that's interesting. The book I"m just finishing up Gwyn Jones' A History of the Vikings (excellent work) and from the text he relates that we have no definitive evidence of a priesthood and the descriptions we have of temples come largely from Christian sources, with precious little archeological evidence. The temple in Uppsala I do not think we have found, but have it largely on the authority of Adam of Breman. He speaks largely to your second sentence, that the religion was more home based. But this book is a little dated, 1984 latest printing I have so you may be correct if more has come to light.

Stephen Chenault said...

Joseph, as noted above, reading A History of the Vikings by Jones, he does draw comparisons with Tacitus but we have to be very careful as the Germanic and Nordic religions were similar but different as well. Jones is very careful with his use of the Sagas as they, according to him, contradict each other on a number of points. And of course much of Snorri's work was written after the conversion to Christianity of the Icelandic Vikings...which in and of itself was a strange instance.

Stephen Chenault said...

Chet, Yeah, apparently Odin was a dinkus! haha

- Grandpa Chet said...

@Steven - Possibly. But I'd never tell him that.

Joseph Bloch said...

Jones is good as far as he goes, but somewhat outdated and not very imaginative, even for an historian.

Bear in mind that the Sagas mostly speak only of Iceland, and were themselves composed long after the Conversion, as well. In that sense, it's not really fair to dump Snorri in favor of the Sagas, since they both share the limitation you mention.

As far as Tacitus goes, if something is mentioned by him (or Jordanes, etc.) and then also mentioned many centuries later, the case becomes much more difficult to simply dismiss it as lacking relevance to Norse religion. If you can draw a straight line from the 2nd century to the 12th, it stretches credulity to say that it doesn't include the intervening years.

The Glavendrup Stone (Denmark) makes reference to Alli, "a respected thane of the temple" (i.e., priest), dating from the early 10th century. So there you have a contemporaneous source dating from before the conversion. There are plenty of others.

I suggest "Nordic Religions in the Viking Age" by DuBois and "The Norsemen in the Viking Age" by Christiansen. And of course Simek's "Dictionary of Northern Mythology" has all sorts of great information beyond the strictly mythological, into the realm of the religious.