And What About Loki?

While there is minimal and non-conclusive evidence of the historical worship of most of the Rökkr, it is good to once again remember that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. While we may never find the conclusive smoking-gun evidence that many of us would enjoy, it continues to be valuable to dig deeper into the evidence that is available, continue critically assessing potentially outdated interpretations, and looking for further evidence to help us better understand the beliefs, practices, and cosmology of pre-Christian Nordic paganism. In the meantime, lack of historical evidence does not undermine the validity of worshiping the Rökkr within the new religious movement that is Norse neo-paganism and Rökkatru specifically.

There is one Rökkr for whom we have more evidence, however: the much-loved, much-hated, and always contentious Loki Laufeyson.

For those who love Loki, the love is fierce and passionate. For many LGBTQIA+ Heathens, Loki is embraced as representing genderqueerness, genderfluidity, or nonbinary gender due to his tendency for shifting not only form but gender. For those who have experienced degrees of abuse and trauma in their lifetimes, Loki as a deity of change is empowering, a source of strength and an assurance that while the good may not be forever, neither is the bad. Many who work with and honor Loki find a great degree of love and comfort in his lessons of self-honesty, speaking truth to power, and growing and learning through trial and ordeal.

Many who worship Loki see him as the vital instigator of change which prevents the entropy of stagnation, but just as many fear Loki for the chaos he is associated with and his role in Ragnarok. Those who fear, dislike, or mistrust Loki will point out the sheer number of times Loki creates trouble and mischief for the gods, while those who love him are quick to point out that Loki is the heart and spirit of much of the surviving lore and won the gods their treasures, including Thor’s hammer, through those same shenanigans.

To put it bluntly, Loki is a divisive deity—and he is one of the primary gods among the Rökkr. Just as Angrboda can be called the mother of the Rökkr, so too can Loki be called their father: of the primary Rökkr, Loki and Angrboda are parents to Hel, Jörmungandr, and Fenrir. A very contentious family within Heathenry to be certain, but also a very important one.

So let’s look at what evidence there is, starting with a ship burial uncovered in Bitterstad, Norway. A 2016 report from The Arctic University of Norway describes two pendants discovered in association with the burial. The pendants are nearly identical faces cast in silver depicting a man with a mustache, rounded eyes, and mouth that had been set with garnet, though most of the stone inlay no longer remains. “On the back of the two pieces of jewelry were a few remnants of preserved textiles, probably from the deceased’s clothing,” (1) suggesting that these pendants may have been worn as part of the finery in which the deceased was buried.

Bitterstad Pendants

What is particularly interesting about this, is that the authors of the report put forward the theory that these pendants represent Loki, drawing a comparison to the Snaptun Stone:

“I will present here the not un-problematic idea that these face pendants from Bitterstad can represent Loki. There are two primary things that can point to this. First, the garnets themselves. These have, as we have mentioned several times, historically often related to fire. Fire is something that Loki is often connected with…The other interesting detail is the wrought stone from Snaptun Jutland which depicts Loki after he had his mouth sewn by the dwarf Brokk (Jørgensen 2010, pp. 149-150). Again, we find the relationship between fire and Loki to be interconnected…the images that are on the stone and on the jewelry from Bitterstad are relatively similar. Both figures have a strong mustache, round eyes, sharp marked nose and image of hair. This idea can of course not be proven but may be left as a speculative interpretation of the jewelry from Bitterstad.” (2)

This is only one of several pendants that have been purported to feature Loki, including one found among gravegoods near Härad, Sweden and another found in Vejen, Denmark. The Vejen artifact was originally reported in a press release from Denmark’s National Museet, but the link no longer works, and I’ve struggled to track down information on the Härad piece as well. Nonetheless, photos of both exist, and it can been seen that both images bear a striking resemblance to the Snaptun Stone and Bitterstad pendant, with a mustache and lines across the mouth that have been frequently interpreted as the stitches from the Brokk myth. And of course there is the Snaptun Stone itself, commonly identified as Loki due to the presentation of the mouth, which appears to be stitched. (3)

Härad, Sweden Pendant

These and other similar depictions dating to the pre-Christian and conversion era would disprove the claims of some scholars and laypersons that Loki is little more than a literary figment created during pr shortly after the conversion. Furthermore there is evidence, albeit limited, of people and at least one place being named for Loki—something we wouldn’t expect to see if Loki were either a post-Christian figment or reviled in the pagan days of Scandinavia.

Let’s start with the people whose names appear to include Loki’s name. Axel Olrik, in his essay Loke in Younger Tradition, writes this:

“There is one thing that might surprise people who bear Loke from the ancient myths in mind…people actually have been named Loke or Lokke: Among the Norsemen in Northumberland in the 12th century, there was a man called Locchi. In Scandia, Lokkethorp (now Lockarp) was named after a man with a similar name. In Småland, Locke has been preserved as a hereditary surname. On a rune stone in Uppland, the name “Luki” (Loki?, Lokki?) appears…From Norway we know a settler called Þórbjørn loki, and a birkjebein called Þórðr loki.” (4)

Generally speaking Olrik makes the argument that regionally there may have been elemental or other supernatural spirits referred to with names deriving from Loki. Despite expressing the belief that these names likely refer to these spirits rather than the god, he does offer some thought to the contrary:

“In favour of the regard of the personal name as naming after the god Loke, we can mention, that contemporary with the birkjebein Þórðr loki, there lived a man called Auðunn býleistr (named after Loke’s brother). But if there is any connection between the two names (the form Loki isn’t quite certain here), it could be due to the fact that the nickname býleistr (he who is similar to or worse than Loke) was given to an opponent, just because the birkjebeins didn’t know the origin of the name.” (5)

In addition to this, the most common alternate name for Loki, Lopt, appears to show up in a very interesting place: the surname of Snorri Sturluson’s own foster-father. Jón Loptsson (6) was the son of Loptr Sæmundsson, who was born in the twelfth century. (7)

Vejen, Denmark Pendant

Due to the lateness of this name it cannot, in itself, be cited as evidence of naming conventions honoring Loki (this was more than a hundred years after the conversion of Norway, where he appears to have been born) it may well indicate that Lopt or Loptr may have had some history of use in Norwegian naming conventions. This is noteworthy given the name’s relative proximity to the official conversion of Scandinavia, as this would have been only about two generations removed from the official conversion and within a reasonable time span that we might expect to still find pockets of old worship.

Olrik also notes several place names that appear to be associated with Loki, in particular Lockbol or Lukabol, and Lockesta or Locastum. Unfortunately I’ve been unable to locate further information about these locations outside of Olrik’s references, but if anyone has any leads on these places I would love to hear them. There is one location I’ve been able to identify with more certainty, however, whose name bears a striking resemblance to Loki: Lokkafelli.

Lokkafelli is described as a point on Eysturoy, or “East Island,” in the Faroe Islands. It sits at an elevation of 281 meters above sea level and…that’s about all the information there is to be found about Lokkafelli. Even pictures are hard to come by. Nonetheless, paired with the fact that Loka Táttur, one of the most favorable of the tales about Loki, originates from the Faroe Islands, the apparent inclusion of Loki in a place-name is intriguing. Unfortunately the Loka Táttur is thought to date to the late middle ages, at least 300 years after the Islands were officially and forcibly Christianized. This does not, of course, mean that the ballad is not a remnant of an older tradition, but if that tradition existed we have no further information about it.

Location of Lokkafelli in the Faroe Islands from Google Earth

On that note, let’s turn to the written sources. Despite the heavy Christian influence of many of these sources, it is possible to glean information about old pagan beliefs from them with critical analysis, and there is no figure in Norse mythology more closely scrutinized than Loki.

One interesting piece of textual evidence to consider is Lóðurr. Lóðurr is an interesting figure who is identified in Völuspá as playing a role in the creation of man alongside Odin and Hœnir. He is said to have given the first men either blood or flesh (the translation is a bit troublesome) along with the color or hues of their skin. Aside from this, however, Lóðurr is only mentioned in original sources two other times: in Háleygjatal and Íslendingadrápa Odin is referred to as “Lóðurr’s friend.” The inscription logaþore / wodan / wigiþonar has been brought into discussions of Lóðurr as well, for while the second two names in this inscription have been cleanly identified as Odin and Thor, the first remain is elusive, and both Lóðurr and Loki have been proposed as possible translations. (8)

The reason this is important and intriguing is because, as some readers may already know, Lóðurr is sometimes identified as Loki. Cawley addresses this in his essay The Figure of Loki in Germanic Folklore, where he highlights an apparent “parallel with Loki and Lóðurr, which seems to be a byname of Loki in some Old Norse sources. This is corroborated by evidence from Germany in the name Logaþore on the Nordendrof brooch.” (9)

The identification of Loki with Lóðurr was proposed by Ursula Dronke in The Poetic Edda: Volume II: Mythological Poems. She argued that the occurrence of Odin, Hœnir, and Loki as a trio in the skaldic poem Haustlöng, the introduction of Reginsmál, and Loka Táttur establishes a sound basis for identifying Lóðurr, also paired with Odin and Hœnir, as Loki, and that the kenning “ Lóðurr’s friend” for Odin reinforces this interpretation. (10)

This is particularly important for those who work with and honor Loki, as his positive contribution to this creation myth flies in stark contrast to the depiction of Loki as a devilish or malicious figure. Here, under the name Lóðurr, he is credited for making a direct and vital contribution to the origin of man. This aligns him just as clearly with the forces of creation as his involvement in Ragnarok align him with forces of destruction.

Snaptun Stone

Though in and of itself, this piece of evidence isn’t proof positive of historic cultic worship, it undercuts the narrative which poses Loki as a definitive enemy of the gods and of humanity. Loki has never been a definitive enemy of the gods, as is proved time and again in the Eddas, and here he is not only not an enemy of humanity, but part of the divine trio which gave humanity life. Historically and in religious traditions worldwide, such myths are typically associated with deities who are recipients of cultic worship. Even Prometheus, the Titan credited for creating humanity in Greek mythology and bound for giving humans fire—a figure Loki as often compared to and identified with—had some degree of cultic worship in Athens. (11)(12)

Another interesting piece of textual evidence comes from Saxo Grammaticus, who was writing in the same time period as Sturluson. In the eighth book of his Gesta Danorum, he records the story of a king named Gorm who worships a giant by the name of Útgarða-Loki. Though this name should in theory identify a giant known from Gylfaginning, in which he challenges Loki, Thjalfi, and Thor to a series of impossible challenges. However, the description of Útgarða-Loki’s “dwelling” in Gesta Danorum bears a striking resemblance not to the Útgarða-Loki of Gylfaginning, but rather to Loki after his binding by the Æsir:

“Then he made others bear a light before him, and stooped his body through the narrow jaws of the cavern, where he beheld a number of iron seats among a swarm of gliding serpents…a foul and gloomy room was disclosed to the visitors, wherein they saw Utgarda-Loki, laden hand and foot with enormous chains. Each of his reeking hairs was as large and stiff as a spear of cornel. Thorkill (his companions lending a hand), in order that his deeds might gain more credit, plucked one of these from the chin of Utgarda-Loki, who suffered it.” (13)

Útgarða-Loki is here depicted chained in a cave, paralleling Loki’s binding, and there are described to be venomous snakes nearby, evoking the image of the serpent fastened by Skadi above Loki’s head. The only detail here that doesn’t parallel Loki’s imprisonment is the attachment of “Útgarða,” a word meaning means “outside” or “outyard.” This means Útgarða-Loki is “Outsider Loki.” This distinguishes the giant of Gylfaginning from Loki, who is counted among the Æsir and therefor is an “insider,” while the other giant is an “outsider.” In Gesta Danorum, Útgarða-Loki could be interpreted be a Loki post-binding, who has been cast out from Asgard and thus rendered outsider or Útgarða.

If this is indeed Loki, it is important because this tale describes him receiving worship in the form of devotion, offerings, and prayers. The king Gorm is depicted making offerings and praying to Útgarða-Loki to smooth a disastrous passage by sea, and this succeeds. When the character of Thorkill brings him news of Útgarða-Loki and the chin hair he plucked from the giant’s chin, Útgarða-Loki is referred to as the king’s “own god” for whom he was “zealous” in his worship.

Gesta Danorum is generally considered as depicting, to some degree, Scandinavian history, and in particular the history of Denmark. Given that archaeological artifacts potentially pointing to the worship of Loki have predominantly been found in Denmark and southern Norway, this is notable. These items taken together could indicate that there was localized cultic worship centered around Loki in the pre-Christian era.

With the archaeological evidence and literary evidence taken together, what we have in favor of the worship of Loki is significant, if not definitive. On this front, Loki has confounded historians and scholars just as much as he has confounded them with regards to his basic nature and role in the Nordic pantheon and cosmology.

If I’ve taken anything from this portion of my studies, I find it unlikely that Loki received no worship in pagan Scandinavia, though perhaps it was limited and localized. What I do find likely is that Loki has always been and always will be an enigmatic figure, ever eluding definition. This seems just as much an aspect of Loki himself as his trickster aspect, his connection to fire, his gender-fluidity and pansexuality—it seems a vital core of Loki’s essence and being, and is certainly one of the things that draw so many people to his altar.

(1)Cerbing, M., Lend, K., & Niemi, A. R. (2016). Arkeologiska urgrävningar av båtgravnar och gravhögar, Bitterstad, Hadsel kommune, Nordland [PDF]. Trosmø: Norges Arktiske Universitet. p.p.72

(2)Cerbing. p.p. 86

(3)Madsen, Hans Jørgen (1990). “The god Loki from Snaptun”. Oldtidens Ansigt: Faces of the Past. Det kongelige Nordiske Oldskriftselskab.

(4) Olrik, A. (1908). Loke i Nyere Folkeoverlevering (917288899 720864290 A. Eli, Trans.). Danmarks Folkeminder. p.p 15.

(5) Olrik. p.p 15.

(6) Wills, T. (n.d.). C. Jón Loptsson. Retrieved September 06, 2020, from https://skaldic.abdn.ac.uk/m.php?p=doc

(7) Sturlungasagans släktregister (Ættartölur), 1, Oddaverjar.

(8)MacLeod, Mindy; Bernard, Mees (2006). Runic Amulets and Magic Objects. Woodbridge: Boydell Press. pp. 17–19.

(9)Crawley, F. S. (1939). The Figure of Loki in Germanic Mythology. The Harvard Theological Review, 31(4), 309-326. Retrieved 2017, from jstor.org/stable/1508020

(10)Dronke, Ursula (1997). The Poetic Edda : Volume II : Mythological Poems. Oxford: Clarendon Press. In particular p. 18 and pp. 124–5.

(11)Lewis Richard Farnell, The Cults of the Greek States (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896), vol. 1, pp. 36, 49, 75, 277, 285, 314, 346.

(12) Carol Dougherty, Prometheus (Routledge, 2006), p. 42ff..

What about the Rökkr?

Though there is much interest in the Rökkatru community in historical evidence of the worship of the Rökkr specifically, the evidence is scant. For those who count Gerd and Skadi among the Rökkr, there is more readily available and more well-known evidence, but even this is somewhat minimal.

For some this lack of evidence has caused some degree of despair: we know so much to have been lost to the wear and tear of time as well as the conversion of the Nordic regions, and the textual evidence we have was largely written by Christian clergy rather than pagan believers. Many idols were likely made of wood, and the environment of Nordic regions isn’t a great one for preserving wood through the ages. Only a handful of bronze and iron idols have been recovered, the rarity of these likely due to the relative expensive nature of producing such an item at the time. Though some stone carvings depicting the gods or their myths have been found, most rune stones are memorials or records of important events, not religious practices. Older stone carvings are often difficult to interpret, and it is generally understood that most interpretations can never be truly confirmed or denied.

The result is that we really know very little about religious practices prior to encounters with literate Christian clergy. This can be frustrating to say the least, as we are often piecing together a religious practice based on incredibly fragmentary information.

Because of this, there’s not a lot of evidence of cultic practices dedicated to any of the gods, let alone those we today call the Rökkr. What evidence exists for gods such as Odin, Thor, and Freyr is more clear cut and readily validated by what remains of the lore, but it is worth noting that, as is so often the case in matters of gods, absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence.

By the Viking era it is unlikely that the Jötnar generally were major recipients of worship, though we have identified a few for whom we have evidence of a cultic practice. As society evolved, so too did the religious practices. It is likely that as the people of Scandinavia moved away from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to increasingly settled and “developed” lifestyles including large settlements and communities, relationships to the natural world inevitably changed. It is likely that as the need to appeal directly to the forces of nature waned with the advent of agriculture and increasingly developed technology, so too did the cultic practices centered around those natural forces.

That the jötnar may have been more widely worshiped in a deeper history does not make the current resurgence of worship less valid. That we do not have clear-cut evidence indicating when figures such as Loki, Angrboda, Fenrir, Jörmungandr, and Hel entered the collective consciousness of the pre-Christian people of Scandinavia does not invalidate their worship today.

Nonetheless, with the aforementioned criticisms that come from other parts of the Heathen community often being levied against Rökkatru, there is a desire to be able to root that honoring of these deities in a historical foundation. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that, unless a review of existing archaeological evidence discovers something which could reliably be argued to be physical evidence of a cultic practice centered around Angrboda, Fenrir, Jörmungandr, or Hel, all we have to go on for these deities are the textual sources.

I don’t want to harp on the point too hard, but it remains very important to remember that the textual recordings of the lore were written by Christian clergy. The Poetic Edda is the only exception to this, primarily because we do not know who the authors of these poems were. We don’t even know where the poems were composed. Common estimates claim the dates of the poems range from 800-1100 CE, and these poems are believed to have represented centuries old oral traditions prior to being recorded. As a result of this, the arrival of certain names in text can be roughly dated, but it can’t be known how long those names and their corresponding identities may have circulated in oral traditions.

To take a relevant example, Andy Orchard claims in Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend that, regardless the age of the belief that Loki and a giantess produced between them three monstrous offspring, “the name Angrboda seems to date from no earlier than the twelfth century.” (1) Though the poem he cites, Hyndluljóð, doesn’t seem to have a particular estimate for when it was written, it cannot truly be known how long the name Angrboda was passed through poetic recitations, minstrel song, or other means of oral storytelling.

For Fenrir, at least, there is much evidence of his role in Nordic cosmology in the form of runestones and other carvings. A Viking age hogback (sculptures that lay against the ground and are commonly accepted to be grave markers) in Northeast England is believed to depict Tyr and Fenrir,(2) as is a gold bracteate from Sweden dating to the Migration Period.(3) The Ledberg Stone in Sweden is believed to depict Fenrir’s consumption of Odin, and though the stone otherwise generally appears to serve as your typical runestone memorial it does include an inscription in Younger Futhark that has been interpreted as a magical charm.(4) No connection between the charm and the depiction of Odin and Fenrir appears to have been made, however.

Ledberg Stone

The Ledberg Stone was discovered in Ledberg, Östergötland, Sweden

Thorwald’s Cross and the Gosforth Cross both depict Fenrir, but are also both examples of a mixture of Norse pagan and Christian belief. These stones, which blend images of Rangarök and the Christian Judgment Day, therefore may be important evidence of the gods that were recognized by the eleventh century and the way they were seen or understood at that time, but it can’t be known how accurate of a representation they provide for pre-Christian contact Nordic beliefs.

These pieces of evidence don’t provide much insight as to whether there was any historic cultuc practice centered around Fenrir. The surviving textual evidence doesn’t provide much either, though this isn’t surprising. What the text does provide is a certain amount of contradiction and confusion: Scholar John Lindow points out that there isn’t a clear reason why the gods cast out Fenrir’s siblings but chose to raise Fenrir himself, aside from, perhaps, that Odin has a clear-cut connection to wolves.(5)

Odin’s connection to wolves indicates that wolves were not wholly demonized in Nordic society, though they might have posed a threat to livestock and, occasion, typically due to starvation or sickness, humans. This coupled with the choice of the gods to raise Fenrir prior to binding him indicates a deeper and more complex nature to Fenrir’s relationship to the gods, though what that may have been or how it may have been taken at the time is uncertain. Many Rökkatru will additionally point out that according to the lore itself, Fenrir had done nothing to illicit the binding to which the gods subjected him, save for to feature in a prophecy about Ragnarok. In this way, Fenrir’s binding could just as easily serve as a parable about self-fulfilling prophecies as a true condemnation of the wolf.

Nonetheless, there remains no clear cut evidence of historic worship, thought I would argue that none of this necessarily precludes worship. The historical worship of deities considered “dark,” with associations to death, destruction, and chaos is not unheard of, and nearly every god has their dark side, after all. Regardless, we must acknowledge that the hunt for evidence of the historical worship of Fenrir runs cold.

His siblings may fare better, however. Jörmungandr is also featured on the Gosforth Cross, as well as the Altuna Runestone is Sweden and the The Hørdum stone in Denmark. Many runestones feature serpentine figures, but it is often difficult to discern whether any given serpent is Jörmungandr or a simple knot-work embellishment.

atla

The Atla Runestone was found in Atla, Uppland, Sweden

Of the textual evidence regarding Jörmgandr, we again don’t have clear-cut evidence of worship of the Midgard Serpent. Nonetheless, the treatment of the serpent has been, at least from some scholars, much kinder. In his essay “Thor’s Fishing Expedition,” Preben Meulengracht Sørensen argues that textual evidence suggests pre-Christian beliefs about Jörmgandr may have been drastically different from modern-day, Christian influenced beliefs. “[The Midgard Serpent] is part of the cosmic order which will be destroyed if the monster does not stay in place,”(6) he argues, citing variations on the myth of Thor’s fishing trip which see him thwarted in reeling in Jörmgandr by his giant companion, who cuts the line. In the course of the essay Sørensen calls this giant “an involuntary helper” who guides Thor from the realm of civilization, as represented by farmland, to an untamed world of otherness, as represented by the sea. He describes the violent struggle between Thor, attempting to catch the serpent, and Jörmgandr attempting to escape to freedom, as a struggle between up and down, between the tamed and the tame. This is ultimately, he concludes, a tale of the struggle for balance.

Sørensen argues in this essay that the encounter between Thor and Jörmgandr as one reaffirming the balance of the cosmic order as understood by the pagans of Scandinavia. In this argument, Jörmgandr is a vital part of the cosmos which cannot be removed or destroyed without disrupting the balance of, well, everything else. Sørensen additionally claims that as the story was handed down it may have been changed and re-formed by people who were recording it without the original context or understanding of the symbolism inherent in the story, so that it eventually became a story about Thor defeating a monster rather than a parable about the vital cosmic order.

If this interpretation is true, it validates the understanding of rmungandr that some Rökkatru have as the serpent being a protector of Midgard, a guardian patrolling the liminal spaces at the world’s edges rather than a threat or enemy. Not all Rökkatru hold this belief of course, but regardless this interpretation of the myth, despite lack of physical evidence of historical reverence for the serpent, might support modern-day reverence.

Finally we have Hel, or Hela. This goddess of the underworld is often referred to in sayings throughout The Poetic Edda, both in mentions of her halls and their locations as well as in phrases such as “Hel can take him” in Fáfnismál and “Hel has half of us” or “sent off to Hel” in Atlamál. Most famously she’s attested in Snorri’s recounting of the death of Baldr and Frigg’s journey to try to get him back.

There are many more attestations of Hel in the written sources, but perhaps most interesting is the archaeological evidence. Several bracteates from the Migration Period have been proposed to depict Hel as a woman at the bottom of a slope, holding either a scepter or a staff. It is theorized that the downward slope along which travelers are walking, toward the woman posed at the bottom of the slope, indicates the downward journey to the underworld. Bracteates IK 14 and IK 124 are those primarily highlighted as possible depictions of the goddess Hel.(7) Other bracteates that are theorized to depict the death of Baldur show three figures, two typically identified as Odin and Baldur while the third is usually identified as either Hel or her father (and oftentimes killer of Baldr) Loki.(8)

116_Niaer2_Fredrikstad_IK244_OHM

Bracteates are finely hammered discs such as the one pictured above, IK 244. Unfortunately photographs or sketches of IK 14 and IK 124 are proving quite elusive.

If the interpretations of these bracteates are correct, it would fly in the face of scholarly interpretations that demote Hel to a mere literary figure of late and likely Christian creation. Furthermore, arguments that Hel would have received no cultic worship by virtue of being a goddess of death seem to assume that our pagan ancestors would never honor deities associated with death and darkness. This would be to ignore plenty of evidence of cultic worship given to deities like Hekate, Hades-Plouton or Hades-Klymenos, Ereshkigal, Kali, and more. Though these gods may have been feared just as much if not more than they were revered, we know they were recipients of cultic worship. We know that our ancestors did not withhold worship from “dark” deities just because they feared them.

Herein lies the core of Rökkatru: an understanding that simply because something is frightening or difficult to understand, this does not mean that thing is evil or unworthy. A snake may be venomous, but that does not mean that it doesn’t play a vital role in the balance of the ecosystem. A wolf may be frightening and it may occasionally take livestock, but that doesn’t mean that wolves are not absolutely necessary in the ecosystem. A flower may be poisonous, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t beautiful and doesn’t contribute to the fertility of its environment.

Rökkatru is the understanding that a balance between light and dark is the key to life, that death and fertility are linked and interdependent, and that to remove one negates and nullifies the other. It is the understanding that just because we fear the dark or do not understand that which lingers in the dark, that does not mean that dismissing it as evil or unworthy is either wise or correct. It is the value of the twilight—that delicate balance between the dark and the light—as beautiful, necessary, and sacred.

(1) Orchard, Andy. Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend. 1997. pp 7.

(2) McKinnell, John. 2005. Meeting the Other in Norse Myth and Legend.

(3) Davidson, Hilda Ellis. 1993. The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. Routledge.

(4) MacLeod, Mindy; Mees, Bernard (2006). Runic Amulets and Magic Objects. Boydell Press. pp. 145–148.

(5) Lindow, John (2001). Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press. Pp 111-114.

(7) Meulengracht Sørensen, P. (1986). Thor’s Fishing Expedition. In G. Steinsland (Ed.), Words and objects: Towards a dialogue between archaeology and history of religion (p. 67). Oslo: Norwegian Univ. Pr. Pp 67

(8) Pesch, Alexandra. (2002). “Frauen und Brakteaten – eine Skizze” in Mythological Women’, edited by Rudolf Simek and Wilhelm Heizmann, pp. 33–80. Verlag Fassbaender, Wien.

8Simek, Rudolf (1996). Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D.S. Brewer. Pp 44.

The Evolution of Pre-Christian Nordic Religion

Compared to many cultures around the globe, very little evidence remains of pre-Christian religious beliefs and practices in Scandinavia. By far the best known pre-Christian temple in Scandinavia was the temple in Uppsala, having been attested to in the writings of Adam of Bremen. However, evidence remains scant. Some archaeological evidence of a hall near to the burial mounds of Gamla Uppsala has been uncovered but, because of the decay of building materials, very little evidence remains to be interpreted. These remains have largely been read as being evidence of a hall where both political and cultic practices may have occurred, including sacrificial feasts (1) though some have suggested that this may have been the temple, or served both functions.(2) Even the best known religious sites offer us little evidence to interpret or develop an understanding of Scandinavian religions prior to the conversion era.

Considering the minimal nature of archaeological evidence of pre-Christian religions in Scandinavia, how do we know what we know about those religions? “Apart from the rune stones, contemporary written information about the Viking homelands is almost exclusively the work of foreign clerics,” Else Roesdahl notes in The Vikings, “few of whom had visited Scandinavia. Nearly all these texts are in Latin and they were usually written following political or military confrontations on Denmark’s southern border, or attempts to convert the pagan northmen to the true Christian faith.” (3)

Most of what we think we know about Scandinavian religion before the arrival of Christianity is, in fact, based on writings from contemporary Christian clergy. Yet the history of complex religious beliefs in Scandinavia was established long before the onset of the best-known and best-evidenced eras of Scandinavian history, the Vendal and the Viking eras, let alone before the arrival of Christianity.

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Sample of pictographs from Atla, Norway

Evidence of religious beliefs in Scandinavia dates to as early as the Stone Age. “The Stone Age archaeological record paints a surprisingly complex picture,” writes Bryon J. Nordstrom. “Artifacts of bone or amber and petroglyphs and pictographs, such as those in Alta in Norway or the somewhat later ones at Nämforsen in southern Sweden, depict reindeer, moose, bear, birds, fish, whales and humans. These depictions indicate the presence of animist religious beliefs from very ancient times.” (4) Based exclusively on the archaeological evidence we can see an evolution in these animist beliefs (defined primarily by a belief that all things in nature contain a spirit, not just humans). In the late Mesolithic, for instance, occurs new “systematic burial practices that may indicate a belief in an afterlife or veneration of family members.” (5)

This late-era shift in religious practices and beliefs lead to the new practices of the Neolithic age, shifting toward a religious outlook which favored ancestor veneration and practices regarding death and belief in the afterlife. This is evidenced by megalithic graves, dolemens and passage graves. (6) Because of the obvious amount of labor and time expended upon the construction of these graves and because they were used repeatedly, there is a strong likelihood that such grave sites doubled as cult sites.(7)

We come next to the Bronze Age. The tradition of petroglyphs had certainly survived through the ages, the changes in climate, and invasions. By this point in history “the most common images are of ships, circles and wheels, men with weapons, men with exaggerated phalluses, plows, footprints, and occasionally women…they may be sacred images, including the sun, the ships that carried the sun across the sky, and gods and goddesses of the hunt, the field, and fertility.” (8)

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Sample of pictographs in Nämforsen, Sweden

Moving into the Migration and Vendal eras, we continue to have a wealth of archaeological evidence up for interpretation. This evidence continues to come from places of burial and sacrifice and, just as the cultures of these ages “may also be seen as direct antecedents to the Viking Age,” (9) it seems reasonable that the religious beliefs of these ages were also direct antecedents to Viking Age religion. This is especially true when we consider that the only thing directly separating the Vendal and Viking ages are the written records of the Viking invasions of Lindisfarne in 793. (10)

At long last, the beginning of the written record regarding Scandinavia has begun. Because of the great wealth of churches, which housed the aforementioned literate clergymen, Vikings often targeted them. Though they had not yet begun to write about the religion of the Vikings, this marks the point at which the written record can be used to corroborate theories about the archaeological evidence which, in regard to religion, continues to remain inconclusive. Stone carvings continue to be an important source of evidence, such as the picture stones in Gotland dating between 400 and 800 A.D., which depict “sailing ships, costumes, processions, battles, sacrifices, and Norse gods such as Odin.” (11) Though these are among our primary sources of evidence, in addition to grave goods and sites of sacrifice, it is worth noting that “pictures can rarely be interpreted precisely, but they give an impression of ceremonies and rituals and also confirm some of the stories about the gods…” (12)

Details-from-the-Hunninge-stone-from-Gotland-Sweden-showing-the-presence-of-sails

Hunninge picture stone from Gotland

Though it is far simpler, it is neither wise nor advisable to entirely separate these different periods of religious belief from one another. The evolution of religious practices and beliefs is just that—an evolution. These beliefs and practices evolved in tandem with the society out of which they arose. We can see in the Stone Age that animist religions underwent a change as the people themselves shifted from the nomadic lifestyle of the Megalithic age to the settlement lifestyle of the Neolithic. I would argue that the more familiar beliefs of the Viking age could not and would not have taken the shape they did if it weren’t for the shape these earlier religions took and the effect changes in society had on their development and evolution, much like modern people could not exist in their current form without their ape ancestors.

Some disturbances naturally occur which induce or alter this process. These included changes not only in climate but also invasions which brought new people with new weapons, technologies, and cultures, as well as new religions and new gods:

“Some researchers believe Sweden, along with much of the south Baltic, Denmark and Finland, were invaded by nomads whose origins lay along the western slopes of the Ural Mountains…some archaeologists think they brought with them the prototype of the later Germanic languages, including Swedish, and a new set of gods. According to this interpretation, these invaders descended on the peasant farmers of the north, conquered them, became a new elite, and erased the old cultures. Good evidence supports these views: The beautifully crafted boat-shaped ceremonial axes, crudely decorated pottery, and simple individual chamber graves become common and were strikingly different from their counterparts in either of the older Neolithic cultures.”(13) 

Though it is true that these invading forces re-shaped the existing culture, it is drastic to say that they could or would have utterly eradicated it, as is suggested when Nordstrom writes that the invaders “erased the old cultures.” While significant damage to existing cultures can and is often done when a foreign force invades an area, historically this often involves some degree of assimilation rather than total annihilation. We can see this in other instances of invaded peoples straining to retain their culture and new rulers making certain cultural concessions to keep their newly conquered people in the fold.

With specific regard to religious practice and belief, there are plenty of examples of religions meeting wherein the conquering religion assimilated rather than destroyed the other. Take, for example, the Greek Titans: some scholarship suggests that these formidable beings in Greek mythology represent deities from an older religious tradition. This argues that the depiction of the Titans as having been conquered and imprisoned by a younger generation of gods represents a newer religious tradition supplanting the elder. This is a mythological form very closely mirrored in other cultures, including the Babylonians, Hittites, and Phoenicians.(14) Lotte Motz highlights specific examples: “The Giants and the Titans of the Greeks were ultimately defeated by Olympic Zeus; the great god Marduk of the Babylonians opposed those from whom he was descended, who were fighting under the leadership of Kingu.” (15)

I propose that we can see echoes of this myth-form in the war between the Nordic Aesir and the Vanir, as well as the ongoing struggles between the Aesir and the Jötnar. Multiple waves of migration into Scandinavia followed closely by discernible shifts in religious orientation, values, and structures may very well indicate that a series of invading and supplanting cultures introduced a series of supplanting religions. This is in addition, of course, to other environmental factors that were prompting changes in religious focus and values, such as the switch from nomadic lifestyles to settlement lifestyles, often corresponding with a switch between hunter-gatherer cultures and agricultural cultures.

Ultimately while it is hard to definitively interpret the archaeological evidence without textual evidence to fill in the gaps, we can make reasoned assessments based on the evidence we do have. We can additionally study the evolution of other, better documented religions around the world to fill in our understanding of the kinds of patterns and changes that are common in religious evolution. Taking the evidence we do have and comparative studies of comparable myth-forms and religious developments from the around the world, it’s not such a stretch to interpret the primal, often clearly nature-associated jötnar as survivors of an older, primordial animistic religion that set the stage for later Nordic religions.

(1) Gamla Uppsala. “Kungsgårdsterrasserna.” Gamla Uppsala Museet: Gamla Uppsala, 2000. Plaque.
(2) Roesdahl. pp 154
(3) Roesdahl. pp 15
(4) Nordtsrom, Bryon J. Scandinavia since the 1500s. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2000. pp 4
(5) Nordstrom, Byron J. The History of Sweden. Greenwood Press: Westport, 2002. pp 14
(6) Nordstrom, Byron J. The History of Sweden. Greenwood Press: Westport, 2002. pp 15
(7) Nordstrom. pp 15
(8) Nordstrom. The History of Sweden, pg 17
(9) Nordstrom. History of Sweden. Pg 19
(10) Pearson. pp 337-353
(11) Nordstrom. The History of Sweden. 21
(12) Roesdahl. The Vikings. pp 128
(13) Nordstrom. pp 15
(14) Burkert, Walter. The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age (Revealing Antiquity). Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1995. Pgs 94-95.
(15) Motz, Lotte. “Giants in Folklore and Mythology: A New Approach.” Folklore, Vol. 93 No. 1. Taylore & Francis, LTD. 1982.