The Long View: The Known God and the Forgotten God

When the Viking Thorolf arrived in Iceland in the ninth century, he saw pure beauty. The primordial landscape was, in his eyes, an image of paradise. He and his family settled on the Snaefellsnes peninsula, home to a vast, intimidating mountain, Snaefeljokull, and a more minor, serene looking mountain named Helgafell, both of which loom over large green fields. At the end of these fields lies a precipitous drop to the ocean, which thunders against the sheer basalt cliffs. No doubt to Thorolf, this landscape evoked the world at the moment of its creation; timeless, shapeless, and devoid of man. Under the shadow of Helgafell, or ‘holy mountain’, Thorolf established a landholding. He had, from his moment of arrival, held this mountain in great reverence. He believed that when he and his family died they would be pulled in to the mountain, and they would feast together with Thor at the head of the table.

Helgafell, ‘Holy Mountain’

The Eyrbyggja Saga tells of how a shepherd saw the northern side of Helgafell open up after Thorolf died. Inside, the shepherd saw mighty fires, and heard the sounds of merriment and the clank of drinking horns echoing throughout the mountain. For generations after Thorolf’s death, individuals living in the peninsula would recall the shepherd’s story, reassured that Thorolf and all of his sons feasted in Helgafell alongside Thor, awaiting the end of the world. 

For Thorolf, Helgafell was his connection to the gods. When he looked up to the mountain that remained constant against the shimmering Northern Lights of winter and the summer’s furnace skies, he did not see a landmass. He saw the precipice from which his god looked back down at him, watching over Thorolf’s settlement and the people who lived there. This was how the Vikings saw their world. Individuals would look around their local landscape, and when they saw mountains, lakes, forests, oceans, and even man-made features like graves or burial mounds, these features would be explained as evidence of gods’ actions. Just as Helgafell provided Thor and local heroes with a feasting ground, other landmarks throughout Scandinavia made their way into local mythologies. Mountains became feasting halls and rivers became highways to the afterlife. Fields hosted grand battles while ancient trees held up the sky above the warriors’ heads. Individuals developed a personal relationship with the gods by linking them with their immediate surroundings. For the Vikings, the gods were present within the local landscape, were physically able to see their actions, and approve or disapprove accordingly.

While to us, geography, history, religion and mythology are all clearly distinct, to a Viking, the four are inseparable. The landscape was living evidence of their history – it served as an ancient tome, each area a new page with a new gathering of mythologies and religious practices. The job for us, as historians, is to use this fact to see the world with Viking eyes. Place-names can help us here. They provide clues about what the Vikings valued within their surroundings. Of course, with the example of Helgafell, if all we had was the place-name ‘Holy mountain’, it’s difficult to see the value that Thorolf and his people had placed on the location. It is only through the additional information provided by the sagas that we can understand how important this mountain was. Following the trails between place-names and saga stories allows us to understand how the Vikings connected landscape and gods, and we can learn to see the world as the Vikings did.

What’s in a name?

Ullevi ‘Ull’s Shrine’ stadium

Existing patterns of Norse god’s place-names have three rough categories of behaviour. Firstly, there is simply a place of worship to a god — two examples of this are Ullevi, Ull’s Shrine, a football stadium in modern day Gothenburg, Sweden, and Odensvi, Odin’s Shrine, a small town roughly 150 miles south of Stockholm. The suffix –vi indicates active worship, and so these were probably community meeting places to praise Ull and Odin respectively. If the landscape around the shrine hosted the god, it was here where a community’s worship was most practiced.

Secondly, there is the act of ‘charging’ a feature with the power of a god’s blessing. It is likely that if a field is named for a god, it was to imbue the landscape with the God’s presence. An example of this behaviour would be Odensaker, or ‘Odin’s field’ in southwestern Sweden, or Ulleraker, ‘Ull’s field’ in Uppsala, near Stockholm. These areas feature the god’s name attached to an attribute that is unusual for our understanding of the god, and in the case of Odensaker or Ulleraker, the name was probably given to try and encourage a more successful harvest on infertile ground.

Thirdly, and most significantly for our purposes, there is the example of a ‘storied’ landscape. In a ‘storied’ landscape, the god is, according to mythology, an active participant in the landscape’s shape, purpose or requirement. This is like the second grouping – sometimes indistinguishable – but in the storied landscape the emphasis is on the god already being present, rather than being invoked.

While the presence of the first category demonstrates conventional collaborative worship festivals, the second category demonstrates a more passive form of prayer. But the third category indicates the god working in the landscape of their own volition, purely by virtue of the landscapes features. Because of the active role that the landscape plays, for a place to receive a god’s name in this form demonstrates the importance of landscape for Viking beliefs before the conversion to Christianity.

Odin All-Father

Odin is mentioned more than any other god in the sagas, and is one of the first individuals who comes to mind when Norse belief is mentioned. He is mentioned so often in sagas, and given so many roles to play, that his personality is impossible to summarise. This enigma makes him an enticing character, but he has a couple of constants. Whether he is written by Christians in the thirteenth century, or making an appearance in the Marvel franchise, Odin has immense wisdom and is unassailably powerful. His name is derived from ‘Odr’ and ‘in’, translating roughly as ‘frenzied one’. He has many other names, including ‘Alfodr’ (all-father), father of the slain, god of the hanged, and god of the bound, all of which relate to stories with which he is associated. One description which survives from Snorri Sturlusson, author of the thirteenth century Icelandic Eddas, is that Odin is the ‘highest and most venerable god of them all; everyone who falls in battle is his foster-son, and he then allots them places in Valhalla. They are then known as Einherjar’, ‘the lone-fighters’. 

Odin’s attribute as the ‘all father’ has made him a very attractive god for kings and powerful landowners to affiliate themselves to. Accordingly, Per Vikstrand has shown that Odin place-names match-up with areas that are known to be centres of power in the Iron Age. In these power centres, Odin’s perceived presence in the local landscape was used to deliver legitimacy to the local landowner. As these communities saw it, Odin bestowed blessings on the landowner, for example good harvests or gifts of character, which allowed them to maintain their position at the top of the social hierarchy. In Egil’s Saga, for example, Egil’s skills in poetry and his ability to fight are perceived by his peers and subjects as blessings from Odin, making him a very powerful leader in their eyes. But a leader’s power is fragile, and depends on them having an heir to succeed them, to maintain or even expand the territory that they inherit. Egil’s heir, Bodvar, is killed at sea by a storm believed to be summoned by Odin. Because of Odin’s active behaviour in Egil’s local landscape, Egil fears that Odin has damned him, and adversaries will take advantage of this moment of weakness. So Odin’s omnipresence within the landscape was a double-edged sword; it could be both a blessing and a curse for the individuals who lived within these centres.

Odin place-names are also visible on the coast off to the eastern part of modern Sweden and around Lake Malaren, which was much more open to the Baltic Sea in the early medieval period. In this area, Odin place-names are much more concentrated than anywhere else in Scandinavia. Rather than being a concentration of powerful landowners, it is much more likely that the individuals in this area were sailors. The powerful, tempestuous oceans with their potentially deadly headwinds were a daily peril for sailors, and were poetically compared to Odin’s erratic and ‘frenzied’ nature. The Baltic   Sea is predictable in some ways; the water rotates in an anticlockwise current around the lands which surround it. However, this pattern is easily interrupted by strong winds – thought to be controlled by Odin – which can affect the direct of flow of the surface water. The Baltic Sea is too small to be affected by regular tides, but is vast enough for these winds to have a major effect on the direction of travel for boats, both for sailing boats and the typical rowed long-boats.

Onsjo, or ‘Odin’s Lake’, is also the home of ‘Onsjo Golfklubb; Odin’s Lake Golf Club. Image credit Johan-Jonsson

In Egil’s Saga, Bodvar is drowned at the mouth of a fjord, where the water is affected by the wind in the same way as the Baltic Sea. Strong winds carry the surface water in unforeseeable directions, which leads Egil to believe that this was the work of Odin. Similarly the whole ocean, in all its unpredictability, was explained in terms of Odin and his effect upon the water. Correspondingly there are dozens of Odin place-names on the eastern coast of Sweden. Gautrek’s Saga, based in Vastergotland near the coast of Lake Malaren, tells stories of people taking refuge on an island during a particularly bad storm. Odin demands a sacrifice while they remain on the island to ensure safe passage for the rest of the journey. It is likely that Odense, capital of the Danish island of Funen, and the Estonian island Odensholm were thought of as places of refuge like this, both lying on the River Volga in the Baltic Sea. While traveling along the River Volga, even when headwinds were favourable, Viking traders making their way up the river towards Constantinople would tell stories of Odin’s requirement for a sacrifice on these islands, to ensure that the storm did not remain for long. 

From sea to yew

Ull, by contrast, is a god rarely mentioned in the sagas – but there are many places named after him, particularly in Sweden. His name may be derived from a word meaning ‘glory’, although this cannot be stated with certainty. He’s associated with archery – Snorri tells us that Ull is ‘such a fine archer and skier that no one can match him; he is also handsome in appearance, with the talents of a warrior: he is good to pray to in single combat.’ It is also stated within the Grimnismal, (‘the sayings of Grimnir’) that Ull’s home is in Ydalir; ‘yew-dales’, or, ‘fields where yew trees grow’. Because yew is so flexible, it was important for making bows, so it is likely that his association with archery stems from a similar association with yew trees. Just as Odin is associated with the ‘frenzy’ of battle, Ull is associated with the ‘glory’ of hunting and hand-to-hand combat. Odin’s hall houses the feasts of a king living from what his land produces, awaiting a final frenzied battle at the end of the world. Nature also provides sustenance for the followers of Ull – he has a hall in Ydalir where hunters feed on their kills, preparing for their respective roles in the afterlife.

C18th depiction of Ull with his skis and bow

Because Ull was the god of hunting and skiing, his influence within the landscape would be seen by hunters. His hall in Ydalir was surrounded by yew trees, which are extremely important for Scandinavian hunters; flexible skis can be crafted which allow for quiet movement on snow during a hunt. Within Scandinavia, hunters were likely to associate yew trees with Ull, in the same way that sailors affiliated the Baltic Sea with Odin. The most compelling piece of evidence for this connection is that the growth patterns of yew trees within Scandinavia correlates heavily with the place-names relating to Ull. It also explains why there are no Ull place names in Denmark, where the land is too waterlogged for yew trees. Within Iceland also, the ground is too cold for yews, and there is a lack of wildlife for hunting – except for polar bears, a hunting lifestyle which necessitated praying to Ull would be untenable in Iceland. For the Icelandic and Danish Norse, Ull is not seen within the landscape, and praying to him is unnecessary. As most Viking written sources are Icelandic, because nobody had any reason to pray to Ull, it is likely that this is why he is almost absent from the surviving written stories. 

The hunters who prayed to Ull, and the sailors who prayed to Odin were both present within Eastern Sweden, and were in cultural contact. Though they lived within the same landscape, their understandings of the landscape were fundamentally different. A sailor or powerful lord would emphasise the features in which they saw Odin’s influence, and a skilled hunter would emphasise the features in which they saw Ull. Both would see their god as the major contributor to the local world. When we in the 21st century think about Norse belief, we need to set aside Christian understandings of what belief is. When we view the world through modern eyes, we make it impossible to understand our history, and to see as our ancestors did. For the Vikings, the landscape was more than their home. It was their life bearer, a connection to their ancestors, to their gods and to their history. Though figures like Thorolf are long gone, the names that they gave their landscape, and the stories that they told are still out there. Through the guides that they have left us, we can understand the Viking world, and how they saw themselves within the vast beautiful landscape. And by understanding a different worldview, maybe we can learn to see our landscape not just as a host for human life, but as an extension of our lives and values.

Christopher Dickinson

Christopher is a masters student studying Medieval History at the University of York. The landscape is a heavy feature in his hometown, Burnley in East Lancashire, with ‘Pendle Hill’ being a sight of beauty and awe for him from a young age.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_CultureFacebook, and Instagram


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s