The Hof from Episode 8 of Vikings

Vikings-templeI know a lot has been said in other places about the History Channel’s hit show, Vikings. Some of us just love the show while others are less pleased with it. I can’t say that I love the show but I have been enjoying it. Last night, however, finally got my attention in a very visceral way. The very first shot of the hof at “Uppsala” was truly awe-inspiring to me. I’m not usually taken in by TV or movies, but this got to me. I found it to be a grand interpretation of the source material we have on this holy site in Sweden. Now, I could opine all day long about this element or that detail, but I won’t. Instead, I thought you might appreciate reading what was written on the subject and was the basis for this rendition of the great hof.

Adam of Bremen gives us the following details from an eye witness account:

At this point I shall say a few words about the religious beliefs of the Swedes. That nation has a magnificent temple, which is called Uppsala, located not far from the city of Sigtuna. In this temple, built entirely of 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; Wotan and Frikko 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 and crops. The other, Wotan -that is, the Furious–carries on war and imparts to man strength against his enemies. The third is Frikko, who bestows peace and pleasure on mortals. His likeness, too, they fashion with an immense phallus. But Wotan 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.

For all their gods there are appointed priests to offer sacrifices for the people. If plague and famine threaten, a libation is poured to the idol Thor; if war, to Wotan; if marriages are to be celebrated, to Frikko. It is customary also to solemnize in Uppsala, at nine-year intervals, a general feast of all the provinces of Sweden.

A general festival for all the provinces of Sweden is customarily held at Uppsala every nine years. Participation in this festival is required of everyone. Kings and their subjects, collectively and individually, send their gifts to Uppsala; – and – a thing more cruel than any punishment – those who have already adopted Christianity buy themselves off from these ceremonies. The sacrifice is as follows; of every kind of male creature, nine victims are offered. By the blood of these creatures it is the custom to appease the gods. Their bodies, moreover, are hanged in a grove which is adjacent to the temple. This grove is so sacred to the people that the separate trees in it are believed to be holy because of the death or putrefaction of the sacrificial victims. There even dogs and horses hang beside human beings. (A certain Christian told me that he had seen seventy-two of their bodies hanging up together.) The incantations, however, which are usually sung in the performance of a libation of this kind are numerous and disgraceful, and it is better not to speak of them.

Additionally, the Scholium gives us the following additional details:

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.

Near that temple is a very large tree with widespread branches which are always green both in winter and summer. What kind of tree it is nobody knows. There is also a spring there where the pagan are accustomed to perform sacrifices and to immerse a human being alive. As long as his body is not found, the request of the people will be fulfilled. A golden chain encircles that temple and hangs over the gables of the building. Those who approach see its gleam from afar off because the shrine, which is located on a plain, is encircled by mountains so situated as to give the effect of a theatre. For nine days feasts and sacrifices of this kind are celebrated. Every day they sacrifice one human being in addition to other animals, so that in nine days there are 72 victims which are sacrificed. This sacrifice takes place about the time of the vernal equinox.

Snorri also provides us some insight into the temple in his description of Sweden:

In Svithjod it was the old custom, as long as heathenism prevailed, that the chief sacrifice took place in the month Gói (sometime around February 15th until March 15th today) at Upsala. Then sacrifice was offered for peace, and victory to the king; and thither came people from all parts of Svithjod. All the Things of the Swedes, also, were held there, and markets, and meetings for buying, which continued for a week: and after Christianity was introduced into Svithjod, the Things and fairs were held there as before. After Christianity had taken root in Svithjod, and the kings would no longer dwell in Upsala, the market-time was moved to Candlemas, and it has since continued so, and it lasts only three days. There is then the Swedish Thing also, and people from all quarters come there.

Svithjod is divided into many parts. One part is West Gautland, Vermaland, and the Marks, with what belongs to them; and this part of the kingdom is so large, that the bishop who is set over it has 1100 churches under him. The other part is East Gautland, where there is also a bishop’s seat. … Tiundaland is the best and most inhabited part of Svithjod, under which the other kingdoms stand. There Upsala is situated, the seat of the king and archbishop; and from it Upsala-audr, or the domain of the Swedish kings, takes its name. Each of these divisions of the country has its Lag-thing, and its own laws in many parts. …And in all matters in which the laws differ from each other, Upsala-law is the directing law; and the other lagmen are under the lagman who dwells in Tiundaland.

Snorri’s account differs somewhat from Adam of Bremen’s in the timing, however. Snorri’s timing, and description, would place the sacrifice around Disting but Adam’s account puts it nearer to when “May Day” is celebrated now.

While I won’t quote Saxo here, as I find his description of events to be a bit too offensive, we do have him to thank for his account of Swedish history. Saxo tells us that it was Freyr who introduced human sacrifice as part of the offerings. Exactly what this tells us about the cult of Freyr is hard to say, but given that Snorri says that it was Freyr who dominated worship at Uppsala, along with Thor and Odin, It seems that we get an interesting picture of sacrificial customs.

If you’d like some additional information and details, Germanic Mythology.com has a really good page on this. I recommend you check it out.


Comments

The Hof from Episode 8 of Vikings — 2 Comments

  1. I too found this to be my favorite episode thus far. The depiction of the temple had me riveted to the screen. Was told once by some Asatruars (and have read) that the virtue of “self reliance” means that we are not to ask the Gods for anything. This seems to fly in the face of historical facts. Ancient Heathens DID ask the Gods for favors, and they gave gifts or favors in return. “Wisdom and fair speech give to us, and healing hands…” equals “asking for something”. We and the Gods need each other.

    I had a bit of a problem with the depiction of the temple priests in this episode. Are shaved heads, makeup (?), etc., mentioned in historical sources? They looked rather sinister to me. Equally surprising to me were words uttered by the gothar, to the effect that the Gods would be angry because of this or that reason. Sounded awfully Christian, though many pre-Christan religions DID believe that the Gods could become angry with us, and that this anger could be addressed via certain rites or acts.

    • To be self-reliant doesn’t mean that we are not to be in need of assistance from time to time. No one can do everything by themselves. We have plenty of evidence from the sagas alone that sacrifices were made specifically to get help from the gods, so such a notion is simply someone’s self-important view of their own machismo. We are cautioned not to sacrifice too often, but that is something else entirely. We also know that regularly offerings were made to the álfar, the landvættir, and to ancestors for aid.

      As for the appearance of the priests, that has raised some questions in Heathen circles. The bald heads and ritual scarification we have no evidence for and can (and probably should) be chalked up to creative license. The exact way the eye make-up was put on is also creative license but we do have accounts of it being used. A Jewish merchant named Ibrahim ibn Ya’qub, who visited Hedeby, Denmark, in 985 CE said that “both men and women use a kind of indelible cosmetic to enhance the beauty of their eyes.” He doesn’t say it is limited to just priests or in what manner it is applied, however.

      As far as the gods becoming angry, we also have our own lore to cite for this, if only in a smaller scale. In the case of Starkaðr, Thor had it in for him. We also have a take of Freyr becoming furious with someone who came from a family devoted to Freyr but abandoned His worship in favor of Odin. I’m sure there are other such references, but those are what I can come up with off the top of my head.

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