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.
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.
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 Jörmungandr 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)
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.