#1 Thor before signing up for the Avengers

Thor, god of thunder. But although we adore the Marvel version flexing his oily muscles and hammering bad guys, the Thor of the mythology is somewhat different. Not only he is incredibly murderous towards Giants and somewhat dim and coarse, but he is also red-bearded.

Old drawing of Thor fishing Jörmungandr, the world's serpent
Unattractive Thor fishing. Confess it. You were expecting Chris Hemsworth. Source

#2 The pagan Norse gods

You’re probably familiar with some of the other gods the Vikings worshipped. Odin, Freya, and maybe you heard about Loki, the trickster? Between raid and raid, the average Viking found little time to write in his diary what he had stolen or killed. Or rather, he didn’t have time to learn how to write in order to do those things. The stories of their gods were passed through oral tradition, sitting by the fire or sang by Skalds (poets and bards). They didn’t have a book like the Bible or Quran to pass the word of God. So how come we know about them?

The Norse gods are essentially known to us thanks to the Prose Edda, a compilation of Norse mythology, pantheon, and myths, written by the Icelandic Snorri Sturluson, around 1220, and based on the oral tradition that had surreptitiously survived his country’s conversion to Christianism in 1000 AD. The gods, are divided in two pantheons; the Æsir, and the Vanir. In the first group we find Odin, god of war and chief of the Æsir; Thor, and his brother Baldr; Frigga, Odin’s wife; and Tyr, whose hand was ripped off by the wolf Fenrir, when he put it between the creature’s jaws.

Fenrir chewing Tyr's hand
Tyr learnt the lesson the hard way: never pet a dog feeding. Author: John Bauer. Source

Among the Vanir, we know Njörðr, and his offspring, the twins Freyr and Freya, whose domains were sex, fertility and prosperity. The Æsir and the Vanir were at war once, but eventually sued for peace and exchanged hostages. Njörðr, Freyr and Freya moved to Ásgarðr, home of the Æsir, and Hœnir and Mímir went to Vanaheim, home of the Vanir.

Nine worlds, including Ásgarðr, Vanaheim and Midgard, revolved around a giant ash tree: the Yggdrasil. The giants, traditional god’s enemies, lived in Jötunheimr.

#3 Who or what were the pagans?

The Norse cult spread amongst the predominantly Germanic tribes that had emigrated to Scandinavia, essentially modern day Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. Althoug during the Viking Age they kept moving and colonising new places like Iceland, Northern Russia and Ukraine, or Greenland. Their religion thrived until Christianism gradually replaced it between the 10th and 12th centuries. These heathens, called pagans by Christians, lacked cult uniformity, and worshipped from whenever they wanted: their huts, a sacred grove or from the comfort of their straw beds. However, most ceremonies took the form of huge feasts in the chieftain’s hall. Animals were sacrificed, and their meat consumed alongside unhealthy amounts of mead and beer.

#4 The Viking temple of Uppsala

Nonetheless, Adam of Bremen (approx. 1050-1081/85), in his chronicle of the Bishops of Hamburg-Bremen, mentions a pagan temple in Uppsala, located in modern day Gamla Uppsala, Sweden, a place the Swedes would have revered as their own Jerusalem. The Uppsala Temple, was said to be clad in gold, and a huge golden chain hung from the gable, reflecting the sun, and temporarily blinding passing travellers.

Drawing of the temple published in 1555. Since it was drawn more than 400 years after the destruction of the temple, this is just but the author’s imagination based on the chronicles available. In fact, notice how close it resembles a late medieval castle. Author: Olaus Magnus. Source

Inside, three statues presided; Thor, seated on a throne, flanked by Wotan (Germanic name for Odin) and Fricco (Freyr), whose large penis likely disturbed the puritanical Adam.

A 9th century statuette believed to depict Freyr with a morning woody. Author: Historiska museet. Collection. Source

Every god had priests appointed, and who would pray according to necessity. During famine and plagues Thor was asked to bring good weather. Odin was prayed to during war in order to secure victories. And if your only dashing neighbour who hadn’t lost all teeth was hopelessly rejecting your clumsy advances, then you had to request Freyr’s assistance. Adam says that every nine years, during the spring equinox, between the 21st of January and the 19th of February (Old Julian calendar), a big celebration took place. Every pagan in Sweden had to attend or send gifts, but Christians could pay their way out of it.

#5 Why Christmas is nicer

The priests selected nine males of every species, and sacrificed them in a nearby grove. Including humans. Their bodies, next to those of dogs and horses, were left dangling in the branches of the sacred trees, like Christmas decorations, while the pagans sang vile songs. The equivalent of Christmas carols, if you like.

Midvinterblot (Midwinter sacrifice in Swedish). Notice the dagger in the front red cloaked figure. The naked man is king Domalde, about to be sacrificed because of bad crops. Painted by Carl Larsson, 1915. Photo of painting edited by W.carter. Collection. Source

Adam of Bremen recorded that a Christian, whose name he didn’t bother to mention, nor did he explain what was a Christian doing in a pagan temple, counted 72 hanging corpses. The blood of the sacrificed placated the gods, who were known to be addicted to it, in a similar fashion to Instagrammers and YouTubers craving likes and followers.

Watch this scene from the TV show Vikings, 1×08: ‘Sacrifice’. One of the most thrilling, historical recreations ever, it features human sacrifices in Uppsala in shocking detail

Uppsala hosted many other important celebrations. The Dísablót honoured the female spirits Dísir, and the Valkyries, Odin’s daughters. There was also the Disting, an annual market, which stills takes place to this day. Uppsala was the political centre of Sweden, and the Thing of all Swedes met there during the Dísablót. The Thing was an assembly of freemen, who voted on legal matters, and chose the crews for the summer raids. Eventually, the pious, boring Christians overcame the blood-thirsty pagans. Their sexual promiscuity and horse-eating habits during Lent and Easter ceased, to the rejoicing of Adam and his Bishop pals.

#6 The twilight of the Pagan religion

The new Christian authorities destroyed the temple in the late 11th century, and a church was built on its place, becoming the seat of Sweden’s Archbishopric in 1164. Either the Christians found the rent cheaper there than elsewhere, or they thought that the best way to appropiate the people’s loyalties was to built their church on top of the most revered building of Viking Age Sweden. Take a guess.

Photography of the modern Uppsala Church
Gamla Uppsala Church. Author: sv:User:OlofE (Wikipedia user). Source

Nowadays, the church of Gamla Uppsala overlooks three Viking Age mounds, the Royal Mounds, protruding from the flat soil like spongy boobs. These are thought to be the burial chambers of the Yngling kings, a famous Swedish royal dynasty, who claimed to be descended from Freyr. The huge penis god, remember?

The mounds look like boobs in a plain field with trees in the background
The Royal Mounds. From left to right, Eastern, Middle and Western Mound. Gamla Uppsala church in the background. Author: OlofE (Wikipedia user). Source

Using ground penetrating radar, postholes have been found under the church, which are theorised to be the foundations of the pagan temple. In addition, the filling material of the Eastern Mound was found to contain bones belonging to humans, horses, oxen, pigs, cows, rams, dogs, and cats. Sacrifice victims? Shortage of building material?

#7 The return of the gods

Uppsala was the last redoubt of Heathendom. But the gods only went on vacation. The hundreds of years since they were last fed with blood have turned them into romantic figures. And despite a short and poisonous romance with Nazi symbolism, Thor and company have found new fans within the modern pagan religion, or Heathenry. And also Marvel, of course.

Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir. Modern worshippers, sometimes called Ásatrú (loyal to the Aesir), wear it as a necklace like Christians wear the cross. Photography: Gunnar Creutz. Source
Do you want to learn more about Norse mythology in a simplified way? Surely a video would help to clarify things. Check out ‘Norse Mythology’ from the YouTube channel ‘History Today’, and learn about the ruddy Thor and the knowledge-thirsty Odin
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