The latest episode of the History Channel’s smash hit, Vikings, has spurred a lot of debate today about human sacrifice on several social media sites that I read. While we see the majority of human sacrificial remains dating from before the Viking Age, if Adam of Bremen is to be believed and some archeological evidence indicates that he should be, human sacrifice did continue into the Viking Age. The debate and arguments I’ve seen today have mostly focused on what kind of person was sacrificed. In last night’s episode, it is implied that the other eight men, in addition to Leif, are willing sacrifices and free men. This brought up the questions regarding academic discussion about human sacrifices being thralls or even criminals. This, of course, has lead to some heated arguments over why you would sacrifice something of such little value.
It seems to me that we need to go back and look at the concept of worth again, which it seems lately I am talking about a lot in my social circles. Today, worth is just another synonym for financial value. This is not, however, the concept our ancestors had when talking about being worthy. Worth is a social construct, not a financial consideration. Being a person of worth means that you are a person who is held in esteem because you are a positive influence in society and a benefit to your community. It also means that you are free folk and not a thrall. By the very nature of being a thrall, you are worthless but you are not without value. The Icelandic law code Grágás placed the price of a slain thrall as equal to that of one head of cattle. Slavery is ugly, but it was a fact of life back then, and a thrall was a possession, not a person. The nature of being a possession meant that you had no place in society and therefore could not be a person of worth. Your owner might appreciate your hard work and free you, at which point you could then earn real worth for yourself, but thralls did not have any intrinsic worth, only value.
A criminal, or outlaw, on the other hand is both worthless and without value. An outlaw could be slain and no recompense need be paid to their kin. The nature of their actions that lead to their outlawry also shows that they were damaging to society and thus were also without worth. They lived on the very fringe of society, a target for anyone who thought himself brave and strong enough to kill you. In the case of lesser outlawry, which had a term of three years, you regained both value and worth once it was lifted. With greater outlawry, which was permanent, no such return was possible.
So, why would these kinds of people make for “good” sacrifices and be a better choice than a free man who volunteers? In truth, they wouldn’t, but it is also far less likely that a free man would volunteer to die when an outlaw or thrall could go in his place. Our ancestors were pragmatic and it’s not a hard conclusion to reach. So, doesn’t this imply that the most likely kind of human sacrifice was somehow a rip off and not worthy of our gods? No, it doesn’t, but the reason for this requires some analysis.
A thrall would be no different from a goat, a pig, or a cow. We know that these were considered good sacrifices. In fact, you could argue that the best sacrifice of living property would be a hearty thrall. They could serve the gods in death as they served their master in life. Their lifeblood would sustain the community in the same way as the lifeblood of any animal. In fact, it would be a gift for which only the gods benefitted from, as you could not consume the body in a sacred feast as you would with a cow, pig, or goat. The gods get everything. The trickier question arrives from discussing the sacrifice of an outlaw. In the case of a criminal, they are of no social worth but the act of sacrifice imparts them with some worth as their blood, their life force, goes to benefitting the society they were otherwise a destructive force for. It takes something useless and makes it useful. While we see little in the way of formalized capital punishment in the old law codes, we do know it occurred. This is, in fact, a method for creating socially and religiously beneficial means of execution. It is, again, a pragmatic solution. You take someone who has no worth and no value and imbue their life with some meaning that benefits society rather than just killing them and letting them rot as worthless and wasted souls.
Now, I must grant that this is speculative, as we do not know what theological elements existed around such acts. I have found, however, that it is a compelling argument that could shed some light on a practice that we do not fully understand. Even if outlaws were not sacrificed, the possibility of thralls being the most likely human offering makes the most sense to me, and in the case of Vikings, it also makes sense why Ragnar would offer up Athelstan, who is not a free man. There are other arguments, of course, and I am not saying that this is the correct answer, only that if we think about it in these terms, it makes seems to make more sense and sheds light on an ancient custom that we just don’t understand today.