Spears, Groves, and Hanged Men: A Discussion of Historical Sacrifices to Odin.
Originally posted on Tumblr on: June 29th, 2017
Anonymous asked: “Greetings brother, what do you know about sacrifices for odin? Are there sources directing to That?”
There are indeed many sources that speak of sacrifices to Odin. In fact, I would argue that his sacrifices are the most famous, at least among the Norse gods. I will tell you what I know, but do feel free to explore any of the sources that I cite as well.
The most important sacrifice involved with Odin is his own, when he hung upon Yggdrasil and pierced himself with a spear in order to gain wisdom; a sacrifice of himself to himself. This is not only important symbolically, but also in its impact on the sacrifice rituals that surrounded him.1 So although this may not be the kind of sacrifice you came to me for, I would still like to share it as a lead-in to actual ritual practice. It comes from Hávamál, stanzas 138–141:2
“I know that I hung on a windswept tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
“With no bread did they refresh me nor a drink from a horn,
downward I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.
“Nine mighty spells I learnt from the famous son,
of Bolthor, Bestla’s father,
and I got a drink of the precious mead,
I, soaked from Odrerir.
“Then I began to quicken and be wise,
and to grow and to prosper;
one word from another word found a word for me,
one deed from another deed found a deed for me.”3
And so Odin once hung himself upon a tree, the tree, in a sacrificial ritual. Yet, this ritual is not just unique to the lore, nor is it strictly a symbolic tale. Aye, animals and men alike were sacrificed in this manner to Odin, the All-Father and Lord of the Slain. Adam of Bremen recorded this type of sacrifice at the temple at Uppsala — a once very sacred location in Sweden.4 Here Odin is named as Wotan, and Freyr as Frikko:
“For all their gods there are appointed priests to offer sacrifices for the people. If plague or famine threaten, a libation is poured into the idol of 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. From attendance at this festival no one is exempted. Kings and people all singly send their gifts to Uppsala and, what is more distressing than any kind of punishment, those who have already adopted Christianity redeem themselves through these ceremonies. The sacrifice is of this nature; of every living thing that is male, they offer nine heads, with the blood of which it is customary to placate gods of this sort. The bodies they hang in the sacred grove that adjoins the temple. Now this grove is so sacred in the eyes of the heathen that each and every tree in it is believed divine because of the death and putrefaction of the victims. Even dogs and horses hang there with men. A Christian seventy-two years old told me that he had seen their bodies suspended promiscuously. Furthermore, the incantations customarily chanted in the ritual of a sacrifice of this kind are manifold and unseemly; therefore, it is better to keep silent about them.”5
A few things should already sound familiar. Odin has been mentioned, who, in the Hávamál, said that he hung for “nine long nights.” Along the lines of that symbolic number, “nine heads” are offered and these ceremonies occur in “nine-year intervals.” A sacred grove is also referred to, and Odin hung upon a sacred tree. The trees of this grove are all considered sacred because of these sacrifices, which are hung upon these trees. Given the nature of this ritual, there is a connection between it and Odin, who sacrificed himself in a noticeably similar manner.
What may be surprising is the element of human sacrifice involved here. After all, Adam of Bremen clearly states that “even dogs and horses hang there with men (my emphasis).” More than one source, including non-textual sources, indicates that this was a truthful practice. In what is perhaps a less reliable source,6 Guatreks sagarecounts the sacrifice of King Vikar to Odin, who was even present himself in the judgement. This heroic legend is intertwined with lore and mythological fantasy, but echoes the attachment Odin has with the sacrifice of men. Here Odin, disguised as a man named Grani Horsehairs, has told his foster-son Starkad how to properly sacrifice King Vikar. But they must trick him and the others, for this was a king they were planning to sacrifice, after all. Odin gave Starkad a spear that would appear as a reed to everyone else. Furthermore, the “gallows” he constructs is made to look weak and harmless. And so the ritual unfolds:
“‘Your gallows is ready, king, and it doesn’t seem all that dangerous. If you come over here I’ll put the noose around your neck.’
‘If this contraption is no more dangerous than it appears,’ said the king, ‘it won’t do me any harm. But if things turn out differently, so be it.’
The king mounted the tree stump, and Starkad placed the halter around his neck. Then Starkad stepped down from the stump to the ground, thrust at the king with the reed, and saying, ‘Now I give you to Odin,’ let go of the fir branch. The reed turned into a spear and went right through the king. The tree stump fell away from under his feet. The calf’s entrails became strong rope, and the branch sprang up and lifted the king to the top of the tree.”7
Once again, the ritual is clear: a man is stabbed with a spear, hung from a tree, and dedicated to Odin. Even though the people did not find the sacrifice to be in good taste after it had happened, this saga still shows that there was some connection between this manner of sacrifice and Odin. Yet, it does not always have to be of this exact nature, at least when we choose to believe the word of each saga we consider. In Ynglinga saga, Snorri mentions that King Olaf Tretelgja, who did not sacrifice much and perhaps caused a famine as a result, was sacrificed to Odin in this manner instead:
“Then the Svíar mustered an army, made an expedition against King Óláfr, seized his house and burned him in it, dedicating him to Óðinn and sacrificing him for a good season.”8
Further examples of human sacrifice to Odin can be seen in even earlier sources, although we enter a possible debate in doing so (see endnote 9 for details). Regardless, there was at least a point in which the first man captured in war was sacrificed to Odin, which may answer the question that if men were to be the offering, what type of man would it be? Other examples suggest criminals as well (Tacitus mentions this in his Germania), but the most honorable sacrifices that one could offer to the Lord of the Slain were, well, the slain. And so, in the days of Old, before the dawn of the Viking Age, men of war were sometimes sacrificed in the same manner as Odin himself described in Hávamál:
“And they incessantly offer up all kinds of sacrifices, and make oblations to the dead, but the noblest of sacrifices, in their eyes, is the first human being whom they have taken captive in war; for they sacrifice him to Ares, whom they regard as the greatest god. And the manner in which they offer up the captive is not by sacrificing him on an altar only, but also by hanging him to a tree, or throwing him among thorns, or killing him by some of the other most cruel forms of death.”10
Procopius wrote this during the sixth century, which was near the end of the Migration Period.11 Some may believe that the above passage refers to Tîwaz (later Týr), but it is known that Wodan (later Odin) took the reigns of war from him during this period.12 It was during the time of Tactitus, who wrote during the first and early second centuries that the god of war was still confidently Tîwaz. As a result, I consider this example to be referring to Odin, or at least an ‘older’ version of him, especially given the reference of “hanging him to a tree” when considering sacrificial options. It is generally accepted by scholars that this type of sacrifice was “known to be associated with Wodan from early times,”13 thus giving Odin an old relationship with this ritual; a part of Odin, however small, once demanded and expected this type of sacrifice.
Despite the nature of these more grim sources, the Prose Edda still retains this image of Odin; even by the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, Odin could still be called by names that reflected this type of ritual sacrifice. When Snorri introduces Odin, for example, it does not take long before a name related to this practices is revealed:
“Odin is called All-father, for he is the father of all gods. He is also called Val-father [father of the slain], since all those who fall in battle are his adopted sons. He assigns them a place in Val-hall and Vingolf, and they are then known as Einheriar. He is also called Hanga-god [god of the hanged] and Hapta-god [god of prisoners]…”14
The words of Adam of Bremen must also be remembered, for he also mentioned this sort of human sacrifice (that of hanging) and wrote of such just after the end of the Viking Age.15 Thus, we have sources from before and after the Viking Age that indicate that men and animals alike were hung from trees in sacrifice to Odin. His name as “Hanga-god” (Hangaguð), God of the Hanged, comes from this practice. As we have already seen in several written accounts, men are hung upon trees when they are sacrificed to Odin, hence the additional title being added to Odin’s long list of names. Yet, do we have any proof beyond written record that the Norse and other Germanic peoples, whether before, during, or after the Viking Age, sacrificed men in this manner? Is this ritual purely literary exaggeration and symbolism to make these people seem backwards and violent in the eyes of Greeks and Christians alike? The Tollund Man would suggest otherwise.
On May 6th, 1950, the body of a man was discovered in a bog in Denmark. This alarmed the locals who had stumbled upon the body, which still looked like it was sleeping beneath the ground. The police came by the 8th, and it was soon realized that this was no murder victim, at least not a recent one. Nay, it was a man who lived around the fourth century. Around his neck was a rope, and the medical examiner was certain that he had been hanged by it.16 Here is an image of the Tollund Man:
Although it is well-known, and well-documented, that Odin demanded hanged men for sacrifice, this was not the only option that was available to his worshippers; hanging men from trees may be a part of Odin’s vast complexity, but not all of his followers had the means to provide this. One could offer animal sacrifices, and they need not even be hanged. One could even host a ritual feast, which, of course, included ritually sacrificed animals, but also much ale-drinking and feasting in honor of the gods. Such a ritual is spoken of in Hákonar saga Góða, contained in Snorri’s Heimskringla:
“Sigurðr Hlaðajarl was very keen on heathen worship, and so was his father Hákon. Jarl Sigurðr maintained all the ritual banquets on behalf of the king there in Þrœndalǫg. It was an ancient custom, when a ritual feast was to take place, that all the farmers should attend where the temple was and bring there their own supplies for them to use while the banquet lasted. At this banquet everyone had to take part in the ale-drinking. All kinds of domestic animals were slaughtered there, including horses, and all the blood that came from them was then called hlaut (‘lot’), and what the blood was contained in, hlautbowls, and hlaut-twigs, these were fashioned like holy water sprinklers; with these the altars were to be reddened all over, and also the walls of the temple outside and inside and the people also were sprinkled, while the meat was to be cooked for a feast. There would be fires down the middle of the floor in the temple with cauldrons over them. The toasts were handed across the fire, and the one who was holding the banquet and who was the chief person there, he had then to dedicate the toast and all the ritual food; first would be Óðinn’s toast—that was drunk to victory and to the power of the king—and then Njǫrðr’s toast and Freyr’s toast for prosperity and peace. Then after that it was common for many people to drink the bragafull (‘chieftain’s toast’). People also drank toasts to their kinsmen, those who had been buried in mounds, and these were called minni (‘memorial toasts’). Jarl Sigurðr was the most liberal of men. He did something that was very celebrated: he held a great ritual feast at Hlaðir and stood all the expenses.”17
In the end, there is much to be said about Odin and the sacrifices that were made to him, the prevalent theme of which is consumed by spears and the hanging of men from trees; sacred groves, spears, hanging, and the men of war are all associated with Odin and the rituals of sacrifice in his name. Yet, one could also offer him a ritual toast and feast, which was far more ‘peaceful’ than hanging men in trees; sacrifices of this less extreme nature were likely the norm. Although, that still usually involved the sacrifice of animals and the use of their blood, which, it seems, could have been either hanged or slaughtered in order to be sacrificed properly. Apart from the hanging of men, the sacrifices made to Odin were much like that made to other gods, such as Thor, Freyr, and Njord (all mentioned above, at one point or another). Regardless of the available options, though, the spear-pierced man (or animal) hanging upon the branch of a sacred tree was a type of sacrifice ritual specially devoted to Odin, the God of the Hanged.
* * *
I hope this information satisfies your search for knowledge, friend, for that is what I know in regards to sacrifices to Odin. Feel free to ask me any follow-up questions you may have, or even investigate the sources that I used in the composition of this post. Regardless of what you do now, I wish you the best in all your endeavors.
Friður sé með yður.
(Peace be with you.)
1. This could be the opposite of what happened, though; the story could have derived from already existing rituals, versus being the cause for its beginning. The poem itself, however, is likely later than the rituals themselves, but that does not mean that the lore behind it was not already alive and well in the hearts of men long before.
2. Some include stanzas 141–144/5, which consists of the knowledge of runes that he acquired while hanging upon Yggdrasil. I have decided to omit them since our purpose is the ritual of the sacrifice itself.
3. Carolyn Larrington trans., Poetic Edda (Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 2014), 32. (Hávamál, st. 138-141.)
4. His account, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, is from ca. 1072-75/6, and was later revised in the early 1080s.
5. Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, translated by F.J. Tschan with new introduction by T. Reuter (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 207-8. (Via the Viking Age Reader.)
6. Sagas are always challenging for the scholar, for we must beware the motifs being used for the purpose of symbolism. It is clear here, after all, that the example stands more strongly for the purpose of symbolism, as the passage will soon tell. Regardless of the inherent insecurities that we may have when history meets mythological fantasy, the existence of other sources that attest to human sacrifice makes this example all the more likely. Furthermore, it strengthens the connection of this practice to Odin.
7. A.A. Somerville trans., Gautreks saga, in Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda, edited by Guðni Jónsson, Vol. 4 (Reykjavík, 1959), 31. (Via the Viking Age Reader.)
8. Snorri Sturluson, Ynglinga saga, in Heimskringla, Volume I: The Beginnings to Óláfr Tryggvason, translated by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes, 2nd ed. (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, University College London, 2016), 42. The topic of burning the dead is actually a rich discussion to be had itself, although not necessarily in the form of burning men alive in homes, which is a separate fruitful discussion to be had.
9. The source soon to be mentioned was written by Procopius, an outsider writing in the early sixth century. The key problem is not that he was an outsider, but rather the date of the source. Gods change, and this is a very early look at Odin, or rather Wodan. Some actually would consider these gods to be very different from one another. In fact, because gods change over time, does the Odin of Snorri’s Edda truly compare to the Wodan on the sixth century? They are the same, and yet they are different. Odin is clearly considered God of the Hanged in later works (soon to be mentioned in more detail), but not to the intense nature that is seen in even earlier records. Thus, to use an early source to attest to Odin’s thirst for human sacrifice in war raises the question of temporal placement. Did the men of the Viking Age sacrifice war-captives like this? Perhaps not. Other source do suggest, though, that the practice had not quite died out completely. At the very least, it was perhaps not to the same scale as it was in the more distant past. Yet, even that scale is questionable.
10. Procopius, History of the Wars: Book V and VI, translated by H.B. Dewing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), Chapter XV.
11. The period, lasting primarily from the second century up to the sixth century, is named for clear reason: many of the Germanic peoples were on the move — mostly moving south into the territories of the Roman Empire.
12. The process is complicated, of course. In fact, it appears likely that Odin is not simply the later version of Wodan, but a combination of both Wodan and Tîwaz (see H.R. Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, 56-7). This returns us to the debate mentioned above in endnote 9, which argues that the Odin of the Viking Age may not be the same god we hear of from before the Viking Age. Debates aside, though, this is still a part of Odin’s overall image. Whether the influence is direct or indirect does not matter, for the fact still stands that a part of him once, or always had, demanded human sacrifice in such a manner.
13. H.R. Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (repr., 1964; London: Penguin Books, 1990), 144.
14. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, translated by Anthony Faulkes (London: Everyman, 1995), 21. (Online Edition.)
15. Within a single decade, in fact. The Viking Age ‘officially’ ends in 1066, with King Harald Hardradi’s defeat at Stamford Bridge; Adam of Bremen wrote his text around the year 1075.
16. This information, and much more, was found at http://www.tollundman.dk, which was developed by the Silkeborg Museum and Library, along with ACU Århus County. I thus consider the information to be fairly reliable.
17. Snorri Sturluson, Hákonar saga Góða, in Heimskringla, Volume I: The Beginnings to Óláfr Tryggvason, translated by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes, 2nd ed. (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, University College London, 2016), 98-9.