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 for fantastic media coverage. The idea of human sacrifice is not new to the study of the Vikings. While the evidence from the historical and archeological record supports the claim that Viking Age Scandinavians sacrificed human beings, we must tread carefully when considering the ubiquity of such practices. Here I examine the evidence for human sacrifice among the Vikings, and its implications.
Textual Evidence for human sacrifice in the Viking Age
Our best textual evidence for the practice of human sacrifice comes to us by way of the bishopric of Hamburg. As early as the 830’s, the monk Anskar embarked on a mission to the north to proselytize the Scandinavians. His journey took him to Upsala, in Sweden, where he made observations of the local culture, including some rather disturbing rituals involving sacrificial human beings. The chronicler Rimbert, who wrote about the life and mission of Anskar, relates to us the following testimony:
“At this time Upsala, which was about twenty miles north of Sigtuna, was the chief center 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.” – Life of Anskar, the Apostle of the North
A later bishop of Hamburg, Adam of Bremen, who also worked as a missionary in Scandinavia in the 11th century, and is best known for his title work Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, observed similar rituals 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.” – Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum
Another cleric named Thietmar of Merseburg described how the Danes met every nine years at the temple in Lejre, in Zealand, in the month of January to, “Offer to their gods 99 people and just as many horses, dogs and hens or hawks, for these should serve them in the kingdom of the dead and atone for their evil deeds.”
Accounts of human sacrifice in the written record have often been discounted as false propaganda against the pagan faiths during the Christianization of Scandinavia, and we must seriously consider the possibility. However, a disparate account from the Middle East, not in line with the motives of the bishopric of Hamburg, confirms the practice of human sacrifice in certain rituals. Ibn Fadlan’s encounter with the Rus, now one of the most popular sources on the Vikings in the East thanks to Michael Crichton, disputes the claim that the observation of Anskar and Adam of Bremen were slanderous. In his testimony, he wrote:
“The men came with shields and sticks. She was given a cup of intoxicating drink; she sang at taking it and drank. The interpreter told me that she in this fashion bade farewell to all her girl companions. Then she was given another cup; she took it and sang for a long time while the old woman incited her to drink up and go into the pavilion where her master lay. I saw that she was distracted; she wanted to enter the pavilion but put her head between it and the boat. Then the old woman seized her head and made her enter the pavilion and entered with her. Thereupon the men began to strike with the sticks on the shields so that her cries could not be heard and the other slave girls would not seek to escape death with their masters. Then six men went into the pavilion and each had intercourse with the girl. Then they laid her at the side of her master; two held her feet and two her hands; the old woman known as the Angel of Death re-entered and looped a cord around her neck and gave the crossed ends to the two men for them to pull. Then she approached her with a broad-bladed dagger, which she plunged between her ribs repeatedly, and the men strangled her with the cord until she was dead.”
That Ibn Fadlan met the Swedish Vikings known as the Rus on the Volga river, and that Anskar and Adam of Bremen also visited the Swedes, may point to the idea that human sacrifice was practiced more commonly in Sweden and further East. From the textual evidence, what we can say with relative certainty is that human sacrifice was indeed a practice, albeit it is impossible to say how widespread it may have been.
Archeological Evidence for human sacrifice in the Viking Age
Five wells dating back to the late 10th Century were discovered underneath a fort in Trelleborg, Denmark. Within them, archeologists found the mangled remains of various sacrifices, ranging from horses to 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 Viking Age Scandinavia.
At a royal center in Lejre, in Zealand, 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 bodies 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. The 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 exist a litany of other such examples across Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, and as far away as Iceland, the Orkneys, and the Hebrides. Many of the suspected sacrifices are by no means conclusive, and therefore not concrete evidence. But ample evidence in the archeological record proves, to some extent, human sacrifice was indeed practiced in Viking Age Scandinavia.
Did Viking Age Scandinavians conduct human sacrifices prior to their Christianization? The evidence says yes, and the practice appears as gruesome as we might have imagined it. However, how widespread the practice may have been remains unclear.