Did the Vikings conduct human sacrifice? It is a sensational claim. Not only does it make for an intriguing field of study, but it also makes fantastic television. The idea of human sacrifice is not new to the study of Vikings. There have been several bits and pieces of evidence recovered over the years to support claims made by some scholars and sensationalized by modern media. Where does the idea for human sacrifice in Viking society come from? I explore the evidence:
Textual Evidence for human sacrifice among the Vikings
One of the most well-known attestations of human sacrifice in the historical record is that of Ibn Fadlan, an Arab chronicler who encountered the Rus, a tribe of Swedish Vikings, along the Volga river. In his writings, Ibn Fadlan describes the sacrifice of a slave girl, or thrall, who volunteered to join her Lord in the afterlife. The ritual is described in gruesome detail, much of which may have been sensationalized by the author himself. Ibn Fadlan’s account is arguably the most widely known and recognized account of human sacrifice in the Viking world. His is also the earliest attestation by an outsider to the ritual of human sacrifice.
The works of Adam of Bremen, who worked as a missionary in Scandinavia in the 11th century and best known for his title work Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, observed and chronicled the rituals of paganism as they were in the 11th century in Uppsala, Sweden. In his description of the rituals, he describes the sacrifice as follows:
“Of every kind of male creature, nine victims are offered. By the blood of these creatures, it is the custom to appease the gods. Their bodies, moreover, are hanged in a grove which is adjacent to the temple. This grove is so sacred to the people that the separate trees in it are believed to be holy because of the death or putrefaction of the sacrificial victims. There even dogs and horses hang beside human beings.”
The missionary Anskar also brought back descriptions of human sacrifice. On the request of the Carolingian emperor, and on the [alleged] invitation of the Swedes, he traveled to Upsalla to preach and to teach the heathens about Christianity. The chronicler Rimbert, who wrote the Vita Anskarii, the story Anskar’s life and mission to Sweden, wrote:
“At this time Upsala, which was about twenty miles north of Sigtuna, was the chief centre of heathenism. It contained a gilded temple surrounded by a sacred wood on which the bodies of men and animals that had been sacrificed to the gods were constantly hanging.”
There are several other passages from other works that are thought to be of human sacrifice rituals but are generally discounted as historical sources for being either too vague or written in a time and place apart from when such practices existed. Snorri Sturluson, as an example, briefly touches on the subject of ritual death, but does so in the context of the greater mythological significance, and is not indicative of any one singular event.
Accounts of human sacrifice in the written record have often been discounted as false propaganda against the pagan faiths during the Christianization of Scandinavia. However, the account of Ibn Fadlan has long stood against this idea as it was written by someone who neither had a stake in the conversions nor shared the faith of those historians accused of slander. Nevertheless, the textual evidence is too questionable to confirm that human sacrifice was a thing, and so we must turn to archeology for more concrete answers.
Archeological Evidence for human sacrifice among the Vikings
At Trelleborg, in Denmark, five wells dating back to before the building of a Viking fortress in the late 10th Century were discovered. Within them, archeologists found the mangled remains of various sacrifices, ranging from horses and dogs, to humans. What makes this site of special intrigue is the fact that among the human sacrifices were young children aged between 4 and 7. Their presence raises more questions than it answers. Whatever the significance of the children’s remains, the site remains among the most valid pieces of evidence for the practice of human sacrifice in the Viking Age.
Several burial mounds have been discovered to contain unusual finds that are thought to have been human sacrifices. At a royal center in Lejre, Denmark, for example, archeologists found two male skeletons with vastly different characteristics. The first skeleton was adorned with armor, weapons, and jewelry, and was laid to rest on his back. The second skeleton had been decapitated and was bound by the hands and feet. It is thought that this second skeleton was a thrall sacrificed alongside his master.
Another find in Denmark, at a site called Dråby, also contained two selections in differing positions. The first, a woman, was buried whole with jewelry and other grave goods. The second skeleton was that of a man whose head had been cut off. The presumption is that the male skeleton was that of a thrall sacrificed to follow his mistress into the afterlife. This grave find has lead historians to conclude that both men and women could receive human sacrifices for their burial, and that both men and women could be sacrificed.
There are a spattering of other such examples across Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, and as far away as Iceland, the Orkneys, and Hebrides. Many of the suspected sacrifices are by no means conclusive, and therefore not concrete evidence. But there is ample evidence in the archeological record to prove that, to some extent, human sacrifice was indeed a “thing”.
Human sacrifice is a sensational subject that certainly catches the attention of the general population. Unfortunately, the evidence for its prevalence during the Viking Age is light, and we must therefore be cautious with our conclusions. What can be said is that the textual and archeological evidence does prove that human sacrifice was a practice within the culture of the Vikings. However, there is not enough evidence to suggest that it was a common practice. In fact, the sheer number of burial mounds containing no human sacrifices compared to those that do is indicative that it was rare. Until more evidence is uncovered, it is difficult to know for sure. Did the Vikings conduct human sacrifice? The answer is yes, some Vikings did sacrifice humans.
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