Much of the knowledge regarding Uppsala comes from the writings of Adam of Bremen, a Christian author of the 11th century who recorded accounts of people he had talked to that had been there. Though his writings are steeped in religious bias and seek to portray the Norse as barbarians who sacrificed constantly to appease their bloodthirsty gods, they are one of the only records that exist that mention the Temple at uppsala. This is often a problem when studying pagan peoples and their religions, as most of these societies did not keep historical records, but relied on oral histories to preserve the words of their gods and ancestors. But, this is a topic for a future diary when we can more thoroughly explore the Norse religion.
In this temple, entirely decked out in gold, the people worship the statues of three gods in such wise that the mightiest of them, Thor, occupies a throne in the middle of the chamber; Odin and Freyr have places on either side. The significance of these gods is as follows: Thor, they say, presides over the air, which governs the thunder and lightning, the winds and rains, fair weather crops. The other, Odin-that is, the Furious-carries on war and imparts to man strength against his enemies. The third is Freyr, who bestows peace and pleasure on mortals. His likeness, too, they fashion with an immense phallus. But Odin they chisel armed, as our people are wont to represent Mars. Thor with his scepter apparently resembles Jove. The people also worship heroes made gods, whom they endow with immortality because of their remarkable exploits, as one reads in the Vita of Saint Ansgar they did in the case of King Eric.
A golden chain goes round the temple. It hangs over the gable of the building and sends its glitter far off to those who approach, because the shrine stands on level ground with mountains all about it like a theater solemnize in Uppsala, at nine-year intervals, a general feast of all the provinces of Sweden. From attendance at this festival no one is exempted.
The sacrifice is of this nature: of every living thing that is male, they offer nine heads,4 with the blood of which it is customary to placate gods of this sort. The bodies they hang in the sacred grove that adjoins the temple. Mow this grove is so sacred in the eyes of the heathen that each and every tree in it is believed divine because of the death or putrefaction of the victims. Even dogs and horses hang there with men. A Christian seventy-two years old told me that he had seen their bodies suspended promiscuously. Furthermore, the incantations customarily chanted in the ritual of a sacrifice of this kind are manifold and unseemly; therefore, it is better to keep silence about them.
Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum
* Please note that I have changed the names from the German names of the deities used by Adam of Bremen to the Norse names to make them more familiar for readers.
Olaus Magnus Woodcarving of Uppsala Temple ca. 1555
This gives us a bit of understanding visually of what a temple in Gamla Uppsala may have looked like. It is also the basis for the History Channel’s representation of Uppsala in Season 1 Episode 8. While no archaeological evidence has been unearthed to support Adam’s account, the Ynglinga Saga
has the following to say of Uppsala:
Frey took the kingdom after Njord, and was called drot by the
Swedes, and they paid taxes to him. He was, like his father,
fortunate in friends and in good seasons. Frey 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....
[Domald, son of Visbur] 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 Domald, and they resolved to offer him for good
seasons, and to assault and kill him, and sprinkle the stalle of
the gods with his blood. And they did so. Thjodolf tells of
"It has happened oft ere now,
That foeman's weapon has laid low
The crowned head, where battle plain,
Was miry red with the blood-rain.
But Domald dies by bloody arms,
Raised not by foes in war's alarms --
Raised by his Swedish liegemen's hand
To bring good seasons to the land." .
The Ynglinga Saga
A brief word about the sagas: The sagas are the written accounts of skald Snorri Sturluson, and were recorded around 1225 C.E. in Iceland. These are the oral traditions passed down for generations, and as such the validity of them has been questioned. In his introduction to the Prose Edda, Arthur Brodeur writes:
"The materials at Snorri's disposal…were: oral tradition; written genealogical records; old songs or narrative lays such as Thiodolf's Tale of the Ynglings and Eyvind's Haloga Tale; poems of court poets, i.e., historic songs, which people knew by heart all from the days of Hairfair down to Snorri's own time. 'And most store,… set by that which said in such songs as were sung before the chiefs themselves or the sons of them; and we hold all that true which is found in these songs concerning their wayfarings and their battles.' Of the written prose sources he drew upon he only mentions Ari the Learned's 'book,' . . . probably, as it seems to us, because in the statements of that work he had as implicit a faith as in the other sources he mentions, and found reason to alter nothing therein, while the sources he does not mention he silently criticises throughout, rejecting or altering them according as his critical faculty dictated.
The Prose Edda - Introduction
Gamla Uppsala - Ca. 2000
Photo by OlofE
Yet what Archaeologists have discovered is that Uppsala was far more than just a temple. Burial mounds scatter the countryside around Gamla Uppsala. It is estimated that thousands are buried within these mounds, but three central mounds, known as the “Royal Mounds” are most prominent of all. These mounds are of particular interest because three of the kings in The Ynglinga Saga: Aun, Egil and Adilsv, are said to be buried in Uppsala. Excavated in the 1840s, these mounds provided a wealth of information about the lives of the Norse buried there, but little about who they were. The bones are not possible to study, because like many of the remains found in Gamla Uppsala, the bodies were cremated before interment. This is one of the problems when studying the Norse through archaeological records as cremation was a common practice, so much of the material remains are lost. There were however many gold items in these mounds, which lends credibility to the idea that the remains within these three giant mounds were of wealthier individuals.
Excavation of the Royal Mounds in 1874.
Photo by Henri Osti
Swedish archaeologists excavating the ruins describe Gamla Uppsala as a central place--place of prominence where people gathered from all over for religious, political and economic purposes. Last year, archaeologists excavated a large portion of the grounds and unearthed evidence that Gamla Uppsala held many permanent residents as well as temporary visitors. They discovered artifacts of everyday life in this important location, which helps piece together a picture of a Viking central place, with hundreds of buildings. They unearthed remains from all walks of life which help to provide clarity to how the ancient Norse people lived and played. The archaeologists have this to say of the Ancient cult:
Gamla Uppsala is often linked to a golden pagan temple, consecrated to the gods Odin, Thor and Freyr, with worship involving animals and humans sacrificed to the gods. This is according the German church historian Adam of Bremen, who described the cult in the 1070s.
Now archaeologists have found traces of a more everyday cult, including animal bones deposited, or sacrificed underground.
The most striking feature comprised the large number of iron amulet rings found on the settlement as well as adjacent to the graves. Some of these amulets are in the form of strike alights, on which pendants were attached, for example miniature sickles.
Amulet rings, usually iron, are quite common on settlements in The Mälaren region, but usually only two or three on the same site. In Gamla Uppsala, about 80 have been found, complete or fragmented.
Arkeologi Gamla Uppsala
I highly recommend that archaeological site for a thorough explanation of the material records found at this amazing site. They also have pictures linked within their text of all the artifacts which is a great resource for anyone interested in the lives of the ancient Vikings. There has been a great deal more found at this site than I could mention in this article, and the site lists even more interesting discoveries, such as ship graves and an extensive list of items recovered.
As for the History Channel’s portrayal of Uppsala, it is an interesting episode. I thought the most powerful episode of the first season. As interesting as I found their portrayal of the temple to be, I find the historical and archaeological records far more fascinating.
Royal Mounds at Gamla Uppsala on a cloudy day.
Photo by Wiglaf - Unknown date
* All images have been accessed from Wikimedia commons. All images in this diary are either in the public domain, or licensed for free use.