The Alchemy of Fire: Cremating the Dead in Ancient Scandinavia


Being a so-called “medievalist” living in America, not everybody can really relate to the niche of my academic background, and that requires me to resort to a few simplifications beyond what was required of me back home. Though prone to yapping, I keep it as my mantra to try to avoid what Nassim Taleb might call nerdery, that is information without charm. If people ask me what I "do" I usually just tell them I write about “Vikings”, and that’s usually enough to gauge their interest. To some the Viking is just a word in the dictionary, or a face on a TV-screen.
If you don’t know and don’t care too much about the prehistories of exotic nations, you can well be excused for finding it all a little too abstract. Scandinavia isn’t exactly the navel of the world. But I made an interesting observation that I’ll pretend surprised me more than it did, about the go-to image Americans tend to evoke when reminded that the Viking Age exists: The so-called Viking funeral.

Chuck another on the fire

You probably already know what I’m talking about: A dragon ship bobbing in the open ocean. The cold body of a chieftain resting atop a stack of treasure, dressed in his finest garments. Armed, armored even. A carefully meditated shot sends a single flaming arrow hurling towards it in an elegant arch, setting the scene ablaze. A delicately planned stage drama in its essence.

It will generally pop up in introductory social chit-chat situations. What’s new is that I never really reflected on how big of a meme this is, having surrendered it to the big pile of peculiar notions people have about Early Norse society that I stopped thinking about years ago. I don’t know how this became the distinguishing mark of Old Norse culture, but let’s entertain how this pop-culture saturated scenario would work in real life: To the untrained eye, it might appear to be off to an exciting start as the more combustible parts of the funeral vessel catches fire. Fabrics, straw, and other plant materials may give off intense, but short lived flames. Presuming the cremation platform was constructed by an expert, that it is ventilated, dry, the fire may well continue burning for a while.

The emerging issue is that there is a great likelihood that the vessel would begin taking in water long before the body is finished cremating. Especially if the vessel in question is a boat rather than a full ship, which seems statistically likely and economically reasonable, if not exactly pyrotechnically sound.

Imagine the horrified faces of loved ones and old allies as the magnificent vessel begins to heel starboard, spewing smoke as the proud warrior's bloated body rolls off the pyre. The ballast might pull parts of the ship to the bottom of the ocean, while scattered pieces of wreckage, coal, charred straw, and indeed most if not all of the dead guy himself, would be bobbing in the surf soon after. I think it's safe to say that water does not provide ideal crematory conditions.

But the idea isn’t half bad. Though the mental image of the floating funeral pyre is an awkard one, we find most of its elements in Old Norse funerary practice and beliefs. Ship burials were in vogue in Early Norse culture, and by “Early Norse” I mean the Viking Era, the final stage of the Nordic Iron Age, before the start of the Nordic Middle Ages. They also practiced cremation, among other things. Sometimes in combination with boat and ship burials, but physically at sea? Beyond mythological sources, the evidence ain’t too inclined.

What is a “burial” anyway?

The ship was but one of many symbols associated with the afterlife in pre-Christian Scandinavia. And though this makes sense for a seafaring culture, boat and ship burials were still comparatively rare. In reality, Scandinavian burial practices were amazingly diverse. Some people were afforded expensive burials with lavish grave goods, and complex, laboriously constructed monuments. This was partly dependent on social status, presumably, but but there must also have been other conditions and circumstances governing how a the dead were treated in any given year or location.

By the Viking Era, Scandinavians had already been building burial mounds for thousands of years, yielding innumerable burial mounds scattered across Scandinavia. A counterpoint to the international myth of the Viking buried at sea is the popular Scandinavian misconception that barrows typified how the dead were treated in the Viking Era, forgetting that these represent an accumulation of dead aristocrats across thousands of years. In reality, burial mounds are tremendously hard work, and only few important individuals were afforded such an honor, though old burial mounds were often reused, sometimes several times across everything from a few generations to thousands of years.

Monumental grave markers speak of power. Archaeologists assume that burial mounds followed times of conflict and political assertion. Iron Age burial mounds came with and without seafaring vessels, some were buried in wagons, or just the wagon box. Many were laid in flat ground, with or without (surviving) funerary monuments, while some were buried by or between standing stones. Some were even placed in small wooden structures, or laid under cliff overhangs. Some sat upright in their burial chambers, other lay down in their coffins. Some on their back, some prone. Some graves face east-west, others north-south. Some dead were laid down whole, others burned to ashes and scooped into a serving bowl. There are instances where people have been posthumously decapitated, crushed by heavy stones, or had their jaw removed and swapped for that of an animal. Due to the oftentimes extreme variation in burial practices in prehistoric Scandinavia, some archaeologists have argued whether we can talk about “typical” burials at all.

Its not uncommon to see neopagans fantasizing about elaborately furnished burials, but there’s every reason to believe that most people enjoyed simple burials that left few (if any) material traces for the distant future to observe. Through much of Scandinavian prehistory, cremation was practiced alongside inhumation (the more conventional meaning of “burial”). We know very little about how these cremations were organized and how they actually happened, but charred human remains in funerary contexts reveal that Iron Age, and even Bronze Age Scandinavians certainly weren’t one-trick ponies in that department. Evidence suggests they could choose between a range of different cremation techniques, which finally leads us to the main focus of this article.

Before the second half of the first millennium, the dead were usually cremated before their bones deposited somewhere else, while in the Viking Age, pyre and burial are often in the very same spot. Cremation may have been a practical way of dealing with the remains of people who died abroad, but they were also commonplace locally. It could be as simple as being cremated in some designated public or ritual space before being movied to a local cemetery or appropriate burial site, sometimes only a few yards away. In the first half of the Iron Age, they were often buried in an urn, pot or some other kind of vessel. As with all archaeological contexts, burials leave a lot to the imagination. But this is even more so the case with cremations. First and foremost because prehistoric Scandinavian cremation graves hardly contain any bones at all. What the fuck?

Bones from a modern cremation prior to grinding at møllendal crematorium. credits: Terje østigård

Bones from a modern cremation prior to grinding at møllendal crematorium. credits: Terje østigård

Migration period funerary urn, Sørbø, Rogaland, Norway. Note the small amount of burnt bones to the right. Credits: Arkeologisk Museum i Stavanger

Migration period funerary urn, Sørbø, Rogaland, Norway. Note the small amount of burnt bones to the right. Credits: Arkeologisk Museum i Stavanger

A modern cremation yields, on average, 3037 grams of bones (3375 grams for men, 2625 grams for women), amounting to a volume of 7,8 liters before they are ground to ashes. But these are not the figures we see in archaeological contexts. In Scandinavian cremation burials, the total weight of remains usually ranges between a few grams up to 100. One study of 1082 separate cremation contexts recovered only a handful of burials where the total mass of bones exceeded 1000 grams, which is still less than a third of the post-cremation bone weight of an average grown man. In only two cases did the bones amount to more than 3000 grams (Kaliff & Østigård 2013: 77).

This appears to have been fairly consistent feature of Scandinavian burial practice back to the Late Bronze Age. In excavations of a cult and burial site in Ringeby in Östegötland, Sweden, active from 1000 BCE up until 350 BCE, archaeologists identified the remains of 44 separate individuals. The excavation yielded a total of 7000 grams of bones, but only 823 grams of these bones were human. Less than one third the weight of one complete, average male skeleton divided among 44 different people (Kaliff & Østigård 2013: 78). Migration Era funerary urns in Norway hold about 1,5 liters on average, so if these were made with a funerary purpose, they were intentionally made to only fit a fragment of a person’s skeleton (Østigård 2007: 52)

In contrast to inhumations, where the complete body is buried, it must have been extremely rare to bury the full remains of any given cremated individual. That the burial formed only one symbolic piece in a bigger eschatological puzzle. In other words, something else was consistently happening in the middle phase between cremation and burial, since only a small fragment of the actual bones usually made it into the burials, so where the hell did the rest go? To offer a possible answer to this riddle need to take a deeper look at cremation itself.

Experimental funeral pyre, The Iron Age Farm at Ullandhaug. Credits: Arkeologisk Museum I stavanger

Experimental funeral pyre, The Iron Age Farm at Ullandhaug. Credits: Arkeologisk Museum I stavanger

To burn a body

Who were given the task of cremating the dead in Iron Age Scandinavia, and how did they do it? These are some of the questions the Norwegian archaeologist Terje Østigård has asked in his comparative work on fire, ritual, and transformation in prehistoric Scandinavia, who is also the main source and inspiration for this article.

You may or may not be surprised to hear that there’s much more to burning a body than lighting it on fire. It’s actually quite hard. There is a range of factors the budding crematory worker must consider, temperature obviously being the most important. Modern cremation ovens are usually preheated to around  650-700 °C, and this temperature may often rise to 1000-1200 °C once the body catches fire. Temperatures in the latter range are generally not possible on an open air funeral pyre due to heat loss. Furthermore, the temperature of any given fire is never completely evenly distributed (Østigård 2007: 33). If a pyre burns cold and unevenly, the body may only be partially cremated.

On a pyre, fat people are harder to burn than skinny people, while the opposite is true if you are cremating in an oven, since the closed environment allows for a greater build up of temperatures to the point where an obese corpse essentially fuels itself. In an outside environment, the struggle is not only about getting the fire burning (and people generally don't burn very well), but also maintaining temperature. If you didn’t guess it already, if you are being roasted on a DIY pyre built and tended by inexperienced cremators (read: family members) the results can be both messy and inefficient. A modern oven cremation can be over in as soon as an hour. In modern Nepal, a professional pyre cremator can get the job done in two or three hours, while families doing it themselves may spend up 5 hours (Østigård 2007 : 21).

Bones subjected to lower temperatures look different from bones treated to higher ones, and hence be qualitatively graded. Østigård refers to four distinct qualities of cremated remains:

  • Grade 0: Unburnt bones without visible traces of fire, but have been affected by heat. Maximum temperature probably didn't exceed 200 °C.

  • Grade 1: Sooty bones. Maximum exposed temperature probably didn't exceed 400 °C.

  • Grade 2: Lightly burnt bones. Maximum temperature probably no higher than 700-800 °C.

  • Grade 3: Moderately burnt bones that have been exposed to temperatures in the range of 1000-1100 °C.

  • Grade 4: Heavily burnt bones that have been exposed to temperatures in the range of 1200-1300 °C.

Mind you, different fragments from a single cremation may yield varying grades because the temperature distribution in any given fire is never even. Remains in the scale of 3,73 would reflect a job well done, while 0,70 would probably have been very sloppy. The grading of the bones allows us to say something about the skill and experience level of whoever performed the cremation.

As you probably realize, there are many good reasons for getting professional help: During cremation, fat and flesh will be sizzling and roasting. Tendons and muscles contract, causing limbs to move and twist, and even make the body sit up or raise its arms and legs, and heads tend to explode with an audible bang above a certain temperature. A specialist would know how to spare onlookers from such grim displays, the family may not even be aware of the issue. But there are also reasons why a family might choose to do it themselves: They may not have the financial resources to hire a specialist, or desire to do it themselves under a sense of social obligation, and so on. In the Indian subcontinent, many cremations are handled this way, or under the supervision of a specialist.

In these cases, if we presume that the cremation is overseen by a male member of the family, such as a brother, uncle, or the oldest son, there is a limit to the experience this person will normally have when it comes to dealing with the dead. Hindu priest specializing in cremations may oversee thousands of cremations within the first ten years of his career. As Østigård says, an amateur cremates differently than someone who has cremated 15000 people.

Funeral pyre on the bank of the bagmati river, Nepal. Credits: Gregor Younger

Funeral pyre on the bank of the bagmati river, Nepal. Credits: Gregor Younger

Who cremated the dead?

Simply judging from Germanic and Old Norse social norms, we might expect that Scandinavians relied heavily on family members to perform funerals. Reasonably the main heir, the oldest son, might have been responsible for burying his parents, which is the case in contemporary Hindu tradition. On average, it is unusual to have any previous experience cremating people before the death of either parent. This means only one son would have first hand experience doing so, and only the really unfortunate would be required to cremate more than two people in the course of their lives (Østigård 2007: 14). Most would certainly have witnessed more cremations before then, and be familiar with some of the more obvious principles and religious symbolism associated with building a pyre, such as its proportions and general construction, roughly how much wood is needed, and so on. Even though some Nepalese families may choose to do much or all of the work themselves, specialist and overseers are readily available for those who can afford it.

The question is, did pre-Christian Scandinavian society have local access to such specialists? There is no evidence pointing directly to the existence of a specific priestly caste in Scandinavian Germanic society. Priesthood was a role performed in specific situations, rather than a full time job, delegated in accordance with social, economical and political status. It is also probable that specific vocations opened for specialized ritual functions.

But is there even any evidence they utilized or needed such specialists? If we can determine the quality of burnt bones in archaeological contexts, we would certainly know, and we do. So how effective were Scandinavian cremation practices, exactly? Barring a few exceptions where we might imagine a burnt lasagna sort of situation, the botched final journey as conducted by a mourning son completely without prior experience, it turns out that quite often, Scandinavian Iron Age cremation methods were extremely effective.

By “effective” I don’t just mean that the bodies were evenly and neatly burned. Østigård coughs up some fascinating numbers that point towards a possibility few of us, and certainly myself, would once have imagined. On account of previously addressed grading system for cremated bones, the majority of bones in Scandinavian Iron Age contexts meet the grades 3 and 4, on the very top of the scale. That means they were subjected to temperatures between 1000-1300 °C, well within the standard of modern crematoriums, or higher, which suggests that people had access to specialists mastering the element of fire. The obvious candidate at this time, in this culture, is the smith.

These temperatures can only be achieved with a very large and properly constructed pyre, but while remains of such pyres are also represented in the archaeological material, these temperature ranges are also consistent with smelting ovens and furnaces, opening for the very real possibility that ancient Scandinavian smiths doubled as ritual specialists whose workshops doubled as crematoriums, human bone fragments in Bronze Age smelting ovens seem to confirm this purpose (Østigård 54:). It is also worth pointing out, as Østigård does, what a strange and marginal figure the smith is in many pre-urban societies, including Scandinavia. Sometimes an untouchable, impure or sacred. In Scandinavia he was often a dangerous, sorcerous figure who tended to an immense variety of local tasks, from shoeing horses to performing surgery, to judging local courts and, not insignificantly, tending the dead. Essential, and simultaneously exiled to the margins, either for the sake of fire-safety or superstition, or even enslaved (consider the myth of Vǫlundr). A mediator between Earth, Heaven, and Hell.

The Iron Forge Viewed from Without, Joseph Wright of Derby (1773)

The Iron Forge Viewed from Without, Joseph Wright of Derby (1773)

The riddle of steel

Not only did the Iron Age smith possess the means, know-how, and probably also the religious authority to properly cremate the dead, he had a wealth of esoteric technical knowledge out of reach to many members of society (Østigård 2007: 42), and among the wonders at his fingertips we find the transformation of iron into steel. A process beginning at 720 °C with molecular changes to the structure of iron when a source of carbon is added. In the Iron Age, coal produced from animal bones were probably an indispensable source, and with all of the above considered, it seems more than likely that blacksmiths made use of human bones for the same purpose, a resource they would have had ample access to, allowing him to transfer not only the carbon contents — but perhaps the properties or the spirit, or identity of animals and humans into the metal itself, imbuing objects with supernatural properties.

But there are key differences between cremating bodies and turning bones into coal. Coal is produced at lower temperatures in oxygen deprived environments. This could be achieved in ways that might yield quantities of lower grade cremated bones, which can easily be misinterpreted as badly executed cremations, some of which are possible to reinterpret as parts of a complex technological process in a workshop context. It is also possible that smiths dismembered the dead, cremated certain body parts, and turned the rest into coal. This may explain why human remains have also been found in earth ovens, which are normally understood as cooking pits (Østigård 2007: 55)


Where did the rest of the bones go?

If cremations were just burial rituals we could have expected more complete sets of bones. As Østigård points out, we must consider the extant fragments “complete” in the sense that people only buried trace amounts of the cremated dead on purpose. But this doesn’t explain where the rest of the bones went. While some bones might have ended up as raw materials for the mystical transformation of iron into steel in blacksmiths workshops, it seems unlikely that this fate was shared by the majority of the bones absent from prehistoric Scandinavian cremation burials.

In pre-Christian Scandinavia, death was never just an ending, but a transfer. An affirmation of continuity, of up- and re-rooting, of breaking apart and building anew. It might make sense, then, why the end of a life would be followed by the obliteration of the body, and the reassembling of constituents into something new. A motif that echoes into Old Norse and Indo-European symbolism and religiosity on too many levels to touch upon here, but that you will find several other examples of on this blog.

Human bone fragments pop up in a wide array contexts. Østigård lists ceramics, post holes, fire pits, earth ovens, deposits of fire-cracked stones, altar-like structures, boundaries between properties, and fields, arguing that the primary destination of cremated remains were not in fact the grave itself, but places such as these. Bones were likely distributed among family members or spread out in religious rites. Even a form of ritualized, endocannibalistic consumption has been suggested as a form of ancestor worship.

Whatever they did, it seems that burial was literally just a fragment of a greater religious funerary concept, expressed through the disintegration of the physical body, and the transformative properties of fire.


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  • Kaliff, Anders & Terje Østigård (2013). Kremation och kosmologi – en komparativ arkeologisk introduktion. Occasional Papers in Archaeology 56. Uppsala University: Uppsala

  • Østigård, Terje (2007). Transformatøren – ildens mester i jernalderen. Rituelle spesialister i bronse- og jernalderen. Gotar Serie C. Arkeologiska Skrifter No 65. Gothenburg University: Gothenburg

Brute Norse Podcast ep. 15: Pagan Christmas


Woe is me, it’s the ghost of Brute Norse podcasts. In this episode Eirik shares what the holidays mean to him as a homesick barbarian/contrarian, and covers some of the many yuletide horrors past folks had to put up with. And concerning the paganism of Christmas: Norse religious festivals were determined according to a lunisolar calendar, so when exactly did the vikings celebrate jól, what exactly is its relationship to the winter solstice, and why does any of that matter to you and me?

Admittedly, a lot of the material in this podcast has been covered in this article, now available to your listening pleasure due to popular demand! Happy Yule!

Check out the Brute Norse Yuletide playlist here.

Support Brute Norse on Patreon or buy a shirt, maðrlover

Spirits, Premonitions, and Psychic Emanations in the Viking World (Norse Metaphysics pt. 3)


Whenever somebody asks me to give them a quick run-down of Norse religion, I start to sweat. Where do I even begin? Most people would wisely start by pointing out that Norse paganism was a polytheistic ethnic religion, with a varied pantheon of gods, descending from a Northern Germanic system ultimately derived from the same, Proto-Indo-European mythology as the Greeks and Romans, but sprinkled with local innovations and influences from neighboring cultures. They might further say that it was a religion based on public sacrifices and communal meals, a religious calendar of annual and seasonal festivals. Even then, we would only be scratching the surface.

How do you explain a worldview? A totally alien way of seeing reality, and the world around us. Not just a different way of seeing things, but a lost way of seeing things. One that we cannot quite grasp, because our language, society, ethics, sense of aesthetics, economy, and livelihood is so utterly different from theirs. They had all these wonderful and peculiar ideas that we can read about, explore, look at, but never we can never relive them or quite fully understand. In the end, much of what we know (which is not a lot) boils down to tedious source critical nerdery, discussion, and comparative analysis. This work might seem dry and uninspired to the uninitiated, but it opens up a world of new ideas you would not get by simply reading the Prose Edda in translation.

To the people who lived in the 9th century Nordic area, the term of "Norse religion" would have been an alien concept. This odd conglomeration of myths and practices were simply their si­ðr, their "custom". Norse religion was expressed, not just in grandiose and bloody animal sacrifices, or elaborate burial practices for the elite, but also mundane every day tasks, language, figures of speech, law, taxes, hygiene, taboos, ideologies, courtship rituals, family, art, work, play, names, movements, gestures, ethics, etiquette, and how they read the landscape. "Norse religion" covered the entire experience of existence, though by the term we usually mean just a handful of the symbolic gestures and events motivated by their society and worldview. To those who lived in pre-Christian Scandinavia, it was an ontological reality you were born into, with little room for the concept of faith, or the choice of belief. This was a place where every event was the cause of an act, either by seen, or unseen forces. 

The spirit in a concrete world

One aspect of day-to-day religious perceptions in the Norse world, was belief in spirits. In modern popular thought, we tend to think of spirits either as a individual and distinct category of being, such as a ghost, or as a property of something else. Like the "human spirit", or "the soul". In one case, we might consider a spirit to have its own personality, set of motivations, properties, and so on. A spirit can for example inhabit (or personify) a body of water, or represent a non-physical manifestation of an ancestor. In the case of the "human spirit", on the other hand, we may suddenly find ourselves engaged in a discussion about the relationship between mind and body. In the Western world of today, this conversation would soon touch upon cartesian dualism, and the idea of the separateness of mind and body.

Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. But this is not how thing were seen in pre-Christian Scandinavia. Had we taken the conversation back to Viking Age Scandinavia, however, we might find ourselves walking down quite a different intellectual path. A holistic, rather than dualistic discourse on spirit, where the mind-body dichotomy is far less clear. Where even if the spirit is tied to us, it can be both within ourselves, and beside ourselves, travel ahead, be simultaneously inside and outside of us, and be both ourselves and not ourselves at the same time.

Old Norse conceptions of spirits may seem outright irrational and strange at first, but they form quite a coherent, rich, and occasionally even empirical system of belief, though the edges are blurry, the waters muddy, and the ideas overlap and intersect all over the place. First of all, spirits aren't necessarily the same as "invisible entity". The Old Norse world had a large variety of unseen beings, whether naturally invisible, or stealthy by choice. While we can argue that some creatures, such as the so-called vættir (literally "things"), such as giants, trolls, dwarves, elves, and revenants, in fact constitute spirits in various forms, they will not be discussed here. Rather I will concern myself with perceptions on spirits in the narrow-yet-wide sense of "tools, properties, emanations, or companions of human beings".

The sensual world and the spirit world

Relating to the mind-body problem above, it feels redundant to point out that our experience of the world is mediated by our bodies. In the Norse view of the world, the body and its functions provides means for all manner of metaphorical thought: The world was created from the body of the pre-cosmic giant Ymir, and royal poets invoked a king's right to rule by portraying him as a god who has sex with the earth. But even without these culture-specific ideas, we can all relate to the basic truth that we perceive the world sensually, through sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch.

In Norse culture, the spirit world might have made itself quite tangible through a very simple, involuntary bodily action: The sneeze. How exactly you respond to a sneeze depends on your native culture. We have all probably heard countless bless yous and gesundheits in our lives, but there are also local, less heard of variants of such formulas. In Scandinavia we commonly say prosit, which is Latin for "may it be beneficial". But I grew up in West Norway, where a different version of the sneeze-formula also exists. Whenever I sneezed in childhood, many of the adults around me would say something along the lines of  "are you expecting visitors?", "your friends are coming over", and so on. Of course, my young mind was quite stirred by the fortunes my grandmother, mother, or nanny would tell each and every time snot exploded through my nostrils.

Some interest was invested in the amount of consecutive sneezes. Because, apparently, you would sneeze once for every visitor. Being a child, assuming somebody would come knocking in the afternoon wasn't boldly speculative, either. As far as I was concerned it was a cute, folksy expression, like a nursery rhyme, or some fable you tell to entertain the kids, or shut them up. Neither myself or any of my elders really thought any more about it.

It was only much later that I came to realize the apparent antiquity of this common phrase, and how it related to a much more complicated network of ideas associated with spirits, psychic emanations, forerunners, prophecy and fate. The epiphany came to me when I read Orkneyinga saga where the viking Sveinn Ásleifarson foresees an incoming ambush thanks to a sudden itch in his nose.

Breath, wind, spirit, mind

Essentially, the irritated nostril ties in with a Nordic folk belief that spirits can enter or exit a host body through the nostrils and mouth. In other words, through respiratory passages. The Old Norse terms ǫnd ("spirit") and andi ("breath", but also "spirit") share the same etymological root, and carries on into the Scandinavian languages. For example in Norwegian 'ånd' ("spirit, ghost") and 'ånde' (breath). There are similar etymologies from different roots in the Indo-European languages, such as Latin  , from whence the English 'spirit' derives, and Sanskrit ātmán. The association of spirit with breath is undoubtedly ancient. We observe that we breathe as long as we live, and when we don't, we die. Our bodies become lifeless, the spirit has departed, and so has the breath.

Though the notion probably dates back several millennia, simply judging from the comparative evidence, the earliest and most compelling evidence I can think of comes from the Migration Era, where odd spirals, arrows, shapes and animals often seem to emanate from the mouths of humans depicted on brooches and bracteates. 

ketch of bracteate from Tjurkö, Sweden. Note the mouth.

ketch of bracteate from Tjurkö, Sweden. Note the mouth.

The belief that a spirit or psychic emanation could take the form of breath or wind is found throughout Norse literature. In the Prose Edda, Snorri explains that "Troll woman's wind" is a poetic metaphor meaning "mind" (the word here is hugr), and several such examples are attested in Skaldic poetry from the Viking Era. It's worth noting that the Old Norse vindr can mean either 'breath' or 'wind'. The term hugr is interesting, and as the case often is, it provides a wide selection of possible translations. Usually hugr means "mind, thought, consciousness, will", but in other contexts also "emotion, love, affection" or "soul, spirit". We will see throughout the course of this article that these three categories of meaning have a stronger connection than one might at first think, and their association with the "spirit = breath" complex have quite enchanting implications.

Unsurprisingly, the ability to control or send forth one's mind or spirit at will, is particularly associated with magical specialists, or people believed to have "strong minds". When such people died, folklore states that their departing spirit was able to extinguish candles or raise winds (Heide 2006a: 351).

There is also another, fairly widespread folk belief in Scandinavia, Iceland, Shetland, and Orkney, that the spirits of the dead were able to cause extreme weather. In Scandinavia this is associated first and foremost with the seasonal storms, often those occuring in autumn or winter, particularly around Christmas time. Then the wild hunt - the oskorei - flies around, picking objects, animals, and people, riding them through the air like horses, spreading fear and terror across the land. Other names for these storms of departed souls are, interestingly, 'gandferd' (Norway) and the Icelandic variant 'gandreið'. Gandr being an Old Norse term that essentially means "spirit helper, magical projectile", while 'reið' and 'ferd' mean "riding" and "journey" respectively. In Norwegian dialects 'gandferd' can also mean "flying coven of witches", and in Icelandic folklore it's specifically women who undertake the 'gandreið', snatch men in the night, and "ride" them to death (Heide 2006b: 213). 

The fylgja and hugr - psychic companions, thoughts, and forerunners

In my previous article on seiðr, we saw that a central aspect of seiðr was to produce and manipulate a spirit cord, which could be sent forth and used to pull or string along its target, whether literally or in a more euphemistic sense, but strikingly placed in the symbolic framework of spinning and textile work. Magic is the realm where the mundane meets the divine, and so many other analogies are possible (and made) that fit the same framework. In this situation, a magician's spirit helper or magical projectile, called gandr in Old Norse, could take many shapes. Often long an narrow objects like a string, rod, or even a penis.

There is clearly an overlap between the above, particular understanding of spirits in the context of seiðr, and the more general idea of spirits or psychic emanations as wind and breath. In the third chapter of Hrólfssaga Kráka, there is a particularly interesting account of a seeress (seiðkona) who "yawns much" (geispar mjǫk) before she cites her revelations in verse, implying she breathes in the source of her vision. This, in turn, bears a striking likeness to the belief in spirit companions called fylgjur ("followers, escorts", singular fylgja) and the aforementioned hugir (psychic emanations. Literally "thoughts, minds", the plural of hugr), which are widely attested in the sagas.

There appears to be a twofold, but fluid perspective on the nature of these spirits: The first is that spirits can be either a separate entity, a helper or construct, that interacts with, or protects the individual, and can enter their body with his or her breath. The other is that the spirit is your own mind and spirit, detached from your body. We can also speculate that both can be the case at the same time, and in varying degrees. Such is the case among the Sami, where the ritual specialist, the noaidi, sometimes had a spirit who was his very own mind, yet simultaneously the soul of a dead person, which could travel around and do what the noaidi was thinking, sometimes without him even knowing it (Heide 2006b: 215).

In terms of agency the fylgja is at least a semi-separate entity. She acts as a sort of spirit alter ego vaguely comparable to the idea of a guardian angel, that every person seems to have. Some individuals have several fylgjur, as was ascribed to the powerful 10th century heathen leader Hákon Sigurðarson (Oláfs saga Tryggvasonar ch. 3), but in other cases a fylgja can be shared by an entire family, or even inherited (cf. Hallfreðar saga ch. 11). The term fylgja literally means "something that follows", but can also mean 'afterbirth, placenta', supporting the notion of the parallel fate of the person and their fylgja.

Killing a fylgja or hugr can kill the person they were attached to, suggestive of a certain oneness between them, but meeting your fylgja - whether in a dream or in person - often foreshadowed your death. It's important to state that, counter to what the name implies, the fylgja is usually described as going before the individual. This can cause premonitions in people he or she will encounter, and also warn enemies (Ström 1960: 37). This is certainly accidental, as the fylgja tries to act in accordance with a person's interests.

In several sagas, the fylgja or hugr can make an enemy yawn or fall asleep, which would arguably benefit the invader. The opposite is obviously true if it fails, and the victim becomes aware of not only the fylgja, but the impending attack, as happened to Sveinn in Orkneyinga saga when we was saved by his itchy nose.

It's no coincidence that a person's fylgja could approach others and give itself away in the form of a yawn or nose itch, as the respiratory organs served as the spirit's main point of contact (and entry) with a person. The belief that the respiratory organs are vulnerable to supernatural attack, seems attested in a Southern Norwegian folk tradition where mothers, if they saw their child yawning, would do the sign of the cross in front of their mouth and say "in Jesus' name" (Reichborn-Kjennerud 1927: 2). 

Detail of mask ornaments on a Migration Era brooch from Fonnås, Norway.  See the whole thing here

Detail of mask ornaments on a Migration Era brooch from Fonnås, Norway. See the whole thing here

The sagas don't give a clear answer to whether the fylgja's attack constitutes a form of combat ma gic, or if the fylgjur act on their own agency. Both were probably the case. The fact that the fylgjur or hugir are frequently clumsy and give themselves away, may well tie in to a person's ability to curb their own thoughts. In Nordic folklore, intense thoughts about a certain person can sometimes harm, or even kill them. This is probably derivative of the very same concept of detached spirits and psychic emanations found in Norse texts, as the term hugr (Norwegian 'hug') has been used in this context as late as the 20th century.

I've found that there are several terms in Norwegian folklore tying respiratory reflex symptoms to the idea of somebody else's thoughts, such as 'nasahug' (literally "nose mind"). Psychic emanations were even believed to cause heart disease, in which case it was called 'hugbit' ("Mind bite". Reichborn-Kjennerud 1927: 1-2). The verb 'hugsa', which means "to remember" in Swedish and Norwegian, has the secondary meaning of "through one’s thoughts make someone ill or sick" in the Swedish Dalecarlian dialect (Heide 2006a: 353). This is all similar to the contemporary Sami and Northern Scandinavian tradition of cursing people with one's mind, 'gann'. The word itself was borrowed into Sami from Old Norse gandr, described above.

There appears to be a subconscious, involuntary component to these spiritual attacks: They minds really do what their host person is thinking. The spirit's give-away, uncouth behavior, or sudden attacks may be analogous to the intensity of the host's emotions, neurotic thoughts, and overall lack of cool. Sometimes a victim will se a woman implied to be a fylgja in a nightmare, where the victim's death is simulated. The character of Án Hrísmagi ("Án Brushwood-belly") in Laxdæla saga, who got his name after a dream where a woman approached him, slit his abdomen, pulled his intestines out, and stuffed him with twigs. His peers laughed, but not for long, as he was horribly disemboweled in the next chapter.

Psychic emanations, emotion, and eros

The varying expressions of a fylgja seem appropriate if the fylgja is to be understood as a voluntary or involuntary psychic emanation. As the fylgja sometimes seems to do what a person thinks, it makes sense that they would approach a person's object of hate or fear, seeing that these emotions are difficult to control. On the flip side, we may not be surprised to find that the fylgja also expressed erotic desire. In Gísla saga Súrssonar one such approaches the eponymous Gísli in a dream and tries to "ride" him. It takes a more sinister turn in Eyrbyggja saga, where the character Gunnlaug is found witless outside of his home, bruised around the shoulders and with the flesh torn off his legs, having been ridden in the night, apparently by a beautiful widow by the name of Katla. It seems reasonable to think that wet dreams, nightmares, and supernatural erotic encounters, could be seen as caused by the psychic emanation, the roaming hugr, of a woman. Here we find an example motif attraction or overlap between the belief in hugir/fylgjur, and the mara who expressed the danger, and hence power, of unfettered female sexuality (cf. Berzina 2017)

When it comes to curbing the spirit or emanation, I cannot help but be reminded of the emphasis on controlled breathing in many ecstatic and meditative spiritual traditions, from shamanism to contemporary astral projection. Though his idea of magic certainly differs from that of the vikings, the 20th century occultist Aleister Crowley raised an interesting point in his book Magick Without Tears (1954):"

Why should you study and practice Magick? Because you can’t help doing it, and you had better do it well than badly.

Sound advice if you live in a world populated by unruly spirits, and mischievous magicians. 

What does a spirit "look" like?

Though spirits are prone to move about unseen, they were certainly able to manifest visually. During a seiðr-séance in Eiríks saga rauða, the seeress tells that she is able to "see" the entities (náttúrur) that help her, but does not say anything abut their appearance. Otherwise, spirits seem to take a variety of forms.

Gandr, as mentioned, could mean a variety of things, and their specific, cosmetic appearance (say, a long string), might only serve to illustrate points and analogies in terms of how they operated. Presumably, a spirit's exact image was contextual.

However, the fylgjur were conventionally thought of as women. The exceptions are animal fylgjur, who only really appear in dreams, taking the form of animals that symbolically reflect the characteristics or attitude of their host. There, the fylgja of an enemy can take the shape of a wolf, for example, but it's hardly reasonable to believe that temporal conflicts dictated the permanent form of a fylgja, or even that the fylgja had a concrete, literal form.

There are other cases where spirits sent by magicians latch on to or scratch their victims, as if they have claws, which may imply animal form even if the victim is unable to see them. Yet, we should be wary of thinking too literally about a spirit's exact appearance. For the sake of analogy, we can turn to the later Norwegian witchcraft tradition surrounding the "troll cat". This was a spirit envoy or familiar that would go forth steal milk for their owner. It would suck the milk out of other peoples' cows, which they vomited out upon their return. The "cat" itself usually looks like a ball of yarn. 

Owing to the explicitly feminine nature of the fylgja's human form, some scholars such as Else Mundal (1974), have argued that the fylgja originated or functioned as a maternal ancestral spirit, whose purpose was to protect the living members of the family. It's not a massive stretch to associate the fylgja with fate, as she often foreshadows or simulates events that have not yet come to pass. Sadly, this is not the opportunity for a more in-depth discussion on the concept of fate in Norse culture and religion. In the next part of our series on Norse Metaphysics, we will take a closer look at spirits in light of out of body experiences, possession, and zoomorphic shape-shifting.

If you haven't already, feel free to check out the previous entries on magic below:

In Defense of Magic (Norse Metaphysics pt.1)

Sex, drugs, and drop-spindles: What is Seiðr? (Norse Metaphysics pt. 2)

Sources and suggested reading:

  • Bek-Pedersen, Karen (2011). The Norns in Norse Mythology. Dunedin Academic Press: Edinburgh 
  • Berzina, Inga (2017). "Mara – uttrykk for fri kvinnelig seksualitet i norrøne kilder og norsk folketro." In: Maal ogMinne 1, 2017. Novus forlag: Oslo
  • Heide, Eldar (2006a): "Spirits through respiratory passages." In John McKinnel et. al. (eds.): The Fantastic in Old Norse / Icelandic Literature. Sagas and the British Isles. Preprint Papers of The 13th International Saga Conference, Durham and York, 6th-12th August, 2006
  • Heide, Eldar (2006b): Gand, seid og åndevind. PhD dissertation. The University of Bergen
  • Mundal, Else (1974): Fylgjemotiva i norrøn litteratur. Universitetsforlaget: Oslo
  • Reichborn-Kjennerud, Ingjald (1927). "Hamen og fylgja." In: Syn og segn 1, 1927. Oslo.
  • Ström, Folke (1960): "Fylgja." In: Kulturhistorisk leksikon for nordisk middelalder 5. Rosenkilde og Bagger: Copenhagen

Norse Yuletide Sacrifices Had (Almost) Nothing To Do With The Winter Solstice


In imitating the exemplary acts of a god or of a mythic hero, or simply by recounting their adventures, the man of an archaic society detaches himself from profane time and magically re-enters the Great Time, the sacred time.
– Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane

Yule lads roasting on an open fire, spirits of the ancestral dead nipping at your nose. It's the most wonderfully strange time of the year. You know, that time when the sun proverbially turns, prying the coming spring from the cold dead hands of winter darkness. Where we spend all our money on symbolic trinkets, and open our hearts and doors to friends, family, and fire hazard in great abundance.

Oh yes, my friends, Christmas is here again, though we don't call it that in Scandinavia. We call it jul. It's an old word, handed down across the generations from the Old Norse jól, which in turn has cognates in several other Germanic languages. The occasion, or so it appears, was also referred to by other terms, such as miðsvetrarblót (midwinter sacrifice), and Hǫkunótt (etymology uncertain). I'll generally stick to Yule and jól for the duration of the article.

As sure as some birds fly South in the winter, so come the articles about the apparent continuity of certain Christmas traditions, like Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and every festive dinner food on the Scandinavian table (though some of them are hardly a century old). I will save my heart the strain of going down that rabbit hole of disinformation and misconception today, but I will give you a fairly comprehensive run-down of one of the most popular misconceptions about pre-Christian yuletide celebrations: The time and date.

Time is an important aspect of ritual, whether you approach the subject with personal investment, or academic distance. I wrote this article with a varied audience in mind, and as always, my iconoclasm is motivated by a wish to raise awareness, and impose a minimal sense quality and critical thought on a scene that tends to be severely gullible (you know it's true). For the reconstructionists and perennialists among you, the virtues of exploring this subject should be self-evident: The ritual year, and its calendrical rites, are tremendously important to understanding the practical religious mind of archaic societies. Not to mention how these societies regarded time, even on a mundane level. Now that I've made this disclaimer, we can move on.

Textile fragment depicting a sacrificial grove. Oseberg, Norway.

Textile fragment depicting a sacrificial grove. Oseberg, Norway.

Yule - a feast of the sun?

Take a moment to take a long, hard stare at the sun (proverbially of course). Is it not radiant? The tempting assumption that the solstices (and equinoxes) formed the basis of pre-Christian Scandinavian religious feasts, is prevalent not only in modern Heathenry and Ásatrú, but is also reproduced in countless popular media articles on the ancient origins (no pun intended) of Yule in Northern Europe. This view was also widely held by scholars of the field up until the turn of the last century, and though fewer think so today, it has somehow stuck. Even if many have changed their opinion in recent years, this has hardly seeped into the public consciousness.

It doesn't seem too idiotic at face value: The Nordic area can be a dang cold and harsh place. It's not exactly the fertile crescent. We'll take all the sunshine we can have. The old idea that Viking Age Scandinavians celebrated jól on the winter solstice as a sort of solar adoration, is among the most prevalent yuletide claims you'll see presented on the internet (or wherever) this year. It would seem intuitive that Viking Age Scandinavians greatly missed the sun at winter, and if jól was celebrated around the solstice, close to Christmas, it seems to explain how Christianity could simply just walk into Scandinavia and appropriate the heck out of our gluttonous solar feast.

As you must have guessed by now, it's quite more complicated than that, and it rests on a massive jump to conclusions with no direct support in any of the primary sources. And it’s not as if Old Norse texts never said anything about exactly when the yuletide sacrifices should commence, because they totally do, and it coincides with the astronomical winter solstice in exactly no source whatsoever. But that’s good news, because if you are like me, that’s a good excuse to celebrate the season not one or two, but three times properly.

None the less, you will find no shortage people who insist that the opposite is true, refusing to let the evidence speak for itself. To paraphrase the Swedish archaeologist Andreas Nordberg (cf. 2006: 102): Those who insist on refering to jól as the solstice, must be more interested in the solstice itself, than they are in sources for Norse religion.

His interpretation will get the final word here, as his much lauded publication Jul, disting och förkyrklig tideräkning (2006) remains the most comprehensive and academically sound exploration of the Nordic pre-Christian calendars. Sad to say, this classic has been out of print since the world was young, but luckily a PDF has since been released officially (you can find it at the bottom of the page, and it includes a very handy step-by-step English summary in the end).

Given the solar bias of yuletide speculation, there is a lot of hot talk about the solar characteristics of this or that Norse deity. I won’t say that all of it isn’t worth considering, but you’ll be wise to maintain a critical eye. The god Freyr is subject to a lot of discussion, probably above all, as Snorri places him in control of sunshine and rain (Gylfaginning 24). Whichever solar features Freyr may have had, he is never described as the sun itself, and to be fair, this is seldom claimed in modern discourse, either. I wouldn't bother including him in this discussion, were it not for the fact that celestial bodies are so important to the Norse perception of time. However, Sól (“Sun” - personified as female, rather idiosyncratically in Norse mythology) and Máni (“Moon”. Male, likewise) are not deities per se but personifications in pre-Christian Scandinavian religion. There was no proper cult attached to them as far anybody can tell. This sets Nordic religion apart from several other old timey religions. Rather, they to do cosmological tasks in subordination to the gods (Simek 2007: 297), like servants (or tools). This seems laid out in stanzas 4 through 6 of the eddic poem Vǫluspá, describing an early phase of the universe where the celestial bodies were unaware of their purpose, and how it was given to them when the gods first divided the days. This enabled the reckoning of time, and time - it turns out - is important in Norse religion.

In Alvíssmál, another eddic poem, the moon is even referred to by the name Ártali, roughly translatable as “He-Who-Counts-The-Year”. While the life-affirming properties of the sun could hardly have been lost on pre-Christian Scandinavians, they seem to have regarded the sun as a cosmic feature, rather than an object of direct worship. It’s a service, somewhat simplified. The sun moves in accordance with divine intent.


 Hǫkunótt - a Norse pagan Yule feast

The oldest evidence we have for a possible Scandinavian yuletide feast, was described by the 6th century Byzantine chronicler Procopius, who mentioned that the inhabitants of Scandinavia (called “Thule”) celebrated a feast for the returning sun, some time after the winter solstice (Nordberg 2006: 156). The earliest Old Norse reference to jól, however, comes from the 9th century Haraldskvæði, which is a praise poem composed in honor of Harold Fairhair's victory at the battle of Hafrsfjorð, and the following unification of the kingdom of Norway. To boast the king's unpretentiousness, and disregard for soft comforts, the poet declares the king's intent to drink yule (jól drekka) at sea, rather than in the padded comfort of a heated house. Though it says nothing beyond that it happened in winter, it reveals that jól, like many other Norse religious and social events, revolved around conspicuous consumption of alcohol.

In the saga of Olaf the holy, Snorri mentions a blót at midwinter (miðsvetrarblót), refering to it also as jólaboð and jólaveizla, both meaning Yule feast. Again implying that the main pagan religious event of jól occured later than Christmas, several weeks after the solstice. The saga of Hervor goes so far as to place jól in February, further yet from the winter solstice. The chronicler Thietmar of Merseburg, who died in 1018, claimed that the great blót in Lejre, Denmark was celebrated in January, some time after the Epiphany (cf. Nordberg 2006: 106).

Snorri states, in the Saga of Hákon the good, that jól  was a three-day event starting at a night called Hǫkunótt, which he perceived as the midwinter night. It's a common misconception that midwinter and the astronomical winter solstice are one and the same, but in Scandinavian tradition - in which the year is divided into four quarters, such seasonal milestones started roughly a month later than the solstices and equinoxes. This is probably due to the climatical conditions of the North, so that midwinter and midsummer occured at more or less at the peak of the seasons. According to the Julian calendar, and conventions of  Snorri's time, this would be around January 14th. According to our modern, Gregorian calendar, it would be January 20th (Nordberg 2006: 150).

In other words the winter solstice, which occurs on December 21st or the 22nd in “our” Gregorian calendar, would actually have taken place on December 14th through 15th according to the Julian calendar, which is when the latin calendar came to Scandinavia. So to Snorri Sturlusson, the astronomical winter solstice would have roughly coincided with the feast of St. Lucy, which would have occured roughly a week before Christmas according to the Julian calendar, which was only replaced by our current, Gregorian calendar in the 18th century (Nordberg 2006: 148). In other words, Santa Lucia / Lussi that was celebrated on the solstice, roughly ten days before Christmas until recently. This also explains why the eve of St. Lucy is still considered the longest and darkest night in Scandinavian folklore.

Dísablót by August Malmström

Dísablót by August Malmström

The Norse lunisolar calendar

While there's a time and place for everything, it seems solstice was not the time of the yule blót. So far, all of the sources place the event between January and February, but we have no yet come to explain the flaky and inconsistent dating of jól itself. Why do the sources give varying dates for the festival, within such a discrepant timeframe as January through February? This is where the pre-Christian calendar system comes in.

The festival of jól took place within a certain timeframe in the Norse calendar, which contained no less than two months of Yule, called Ýlir and Jólmánuðr respectively. Yule is a common Germanic holiday, and the tradition of two Yule months are attested as far back as 4th century Gothic texts, as supported by by Anglo-Saxon sources, where the 8th century chronicler Bede writes that the pagan Angles followed a calendar based on the lunar cycles. Yet, he also states that this lunar year was determined on the terms of the solar year: It was lunisolar. What does that mean? Prepare to be amazed!

This system was also in place in Scandinavia. As the name implies, months were determined by lunar phases, from new (nýr) to waning () moon. There are 12 months in a solar year, which lasts 365 days. However, it takes only 354 days to complete 12 lunar cycles. Therefore, a certain new moon will occur 11 days earlier than it did in the previous year. A lunar calendar won’t “stay still”, but actually rotate backwards. Every month will seem to start 11 days earlier than the previous year, unless there is a system in place to stop it. In some systems, such as the Islamic calendar, the months change from year to year. Muslims might observe the holy month of Ramadan in the middle of the summer one year, and late autumn a dozen or so years later.

This doesn’t matter so much in climates close to the equator, where there are several harvests in one solar year. It’s a big problem in Northern Europe, where the calendar helps determine the one time in the year where harvest is expected, requiring the calendar to bounce back to roughly the same point in the astronomical year every cycle. One way to make sure the months weren't spinning backwards was to make an exception in the lunar calendar, where the winter solstice always marks the point where the first month of Yule ends, so that the second Yule month starts with the next new moon, no matter what. In other words the Norse month ýlir always contained the solstice, but the second month contained the yule moon, which occurs on the first full moon following the new moon past the solstice. This, my friends, was probably when the actual and main feasts would have taken place. A consequence of this system is the fact that the lunar phases would “bounce” back and forth within a certain interval, but at least it was fixed and not rotating backwards ad infinitum.

Still with me? Good. To make up for the 11 days lost in the lunar year, the Germanic lunisolar calendar seems to have used a leap year system where a thirteenth intercalary month was added to the summer. Why the summer, of all things? Nobody really knows. And how do we know when it’s a leap year if we’re just getting started? Well, Nordberg provides a great rule of thumb: If the new moon occurs 11 days or less after the solstice, the intercalary month is inserted around the time of the summer solstice (for whatever reason) to stop the second yule month from starting before the solstice next year. In this regard, the solstice serves as a regulator, if not an object of celebration in itself.

Interestingly, this seems to recall the great blóts held at Uppsala and Lejre, which occured every ninth year. This is probably no coincidence (Nordberg 2006: 154). Old Norse religion is famously hung up on multiplications of the number three. Here it seems that this was also incorporated into cultic practices through the observance of sacred time. This cycle seems to have been based in an “inclusive” count in which the last year is also the first year of the cycle, so every eighth year according to our conventional way of thinking numbers. The fascinating part about this is that you can easily do the math yourself and actually tie on to the “nine year cycle” of the great blóts, more on this below.

Vocabulary shows that Norse peoples were well aware of the astronomical solstices and equinoxes, but the main pagan religious festivals seem to have been celebrated to mark each quarter of the calendrical year. These did, as previously mentioned, not directly coincide with the solstices and equinoxes, and seem to have been determined by the lunar phases. Because the solar and lunar year met at the winter solstice, the months of the year would bounce back and forth between two points within a certain, ~28 day interval. As Snorri, as well as other sources place the winter blót a month (or more) after the solstice, it seems most likely that jól was celebrated on the full moon of the second Yule month. That is to say the full moon after the new moon following the winter solstice. Then it would always occur no earlier than January 5th and February 2nd in the modern Gregorian calendar, well inside the interval stated by Norse texts.

Figure based on Nordberg 2006: 105

Figure based on Nordberg 2006: 105

So why the full moon, one may ask? In Nordic folk traditions, a remnant of this system seems crystalized in the concept of the Yule moon. The term is attested in Old Norse as jóla tungl, and in various derivatives in later Scandinavian folklore: Swedish 'jultungel', Norwegian 'jultangel' and 'julemaane', Danish 'jule mae', and Finnish 'joulukuu', all refer to the full moon around the time of the Epiphany, on January 6th in the Gregorian calendar, but later in the Julian. In other words, the first full moon of the new moon after the solstice. The association with the Epiphany, Nordberg adds, appears to be a Christian approximation from the older, pagan, calendrical system described above. Similarly, the Dísting market in Uppsala - which seems to have emerged from the pre-Christian dísablót to (from dísir, "goddesses") was indeed determined by the full moon. Nordberg argues that the Yule moon represents a pan-Scandinavian rule of thumb used to determine the time of the Yule blót in the pre-Christian lunisolar calendar, and that such a system of determining religious festivals would apply to the other quarters of the year as well, equating to roughly the next month of the equinoxes and solstices, in the full moon of the new moon succeeding them. The vætrnætr "winter nights", which marked transition from autumn to winter, and the corresponding dísablót, would have been celebrated on the full moon of the new moon, following the autumn equinox.

The beauty of this system is that not only does this open up a whole new paradigm towards understanding the religious life of pre-Christian Scandinavians, but it allows for a new level of celebration alongside more recent established traditions. Why not do both? As mentioned, we can actually tie ourselves onto the tradition of the great blóts at Lejre and Uppsala through a close, source-critical reading of primary sources. The last “great blót” was apparently celebrated in Uppsala in 1078, so you can easily pull out your calculator and determine when the next one will be. Last year in that cycle, I personally held a great feast where I almost burned myself alive, and a child was even born as a result (not of me setting myself on fire, but the mania of the occasion, presumably). This work cannot be underestimated!

Yearly update for 2019:

As for 2019, readers would be wise to brew their beer strong and stock up for a solid feast, because January 21st holds not only the Yule Moon but a lunar eclipse! Remember: It’s always the new moon of the full moon, following the winter solstice. Personally, I'll gladly celebrate Yule twice. 

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A Supernatural Guide to the Oseberg Ship (The Brute Norse Podcast Ep.5)


In this Halloween special, we tackle the weird and mysterious case of the Oseberg ship, and the lesser known, but true, story of how a Brooklyn clairvoyant may have caused the discovery of the most extravagant Viking Age burial ever found.

The episode is available from all podcast apps worthy of praise. If you like my stuff, feel free to rate, review or subscribe. Or better yet; pledge your support over at!

The "Valknútr" Does Not Exist


It's bogus, it's a sham. The valknut, a staple not only of the study of Norse religion, but of modern heathenry and neopaganism as well, is actually an entirely spurious term: There is no evidence for a “knot of the slain” in any Norse source whatsoever. It's never mentioned even once. More importantly: No evidence connects the name to the symbol pictured above.

This may be a shocking and provocative statement to make in the face of the thousands of people who have the so-called valknut symbol tattooed, even branded, or carved into their skin. Who sold t-shirts, and those who bought them. The uncountable masses who wear it as a pin on their jacket. This demographic makes for a significant chunk of my reader base, and if you are one of these people, then please bear with me. You may find some solace from my iconoclastic rampage in the fact that I am one of you.

At the age of 18 I found myself in the blissful and rare situation of having few financial commitments, yet an abundance of spare cash. This younger, less discriminating version of myself went down to my local tattoo parlor, and asked for a dotwork valknut on my forearm, which I got. In retrospect, I suppose my perception was pretty standard. My teenage self would say the valknut was an odinic symbol of sacrifice and fate. By permanently fixing it to my skin, it showed my appreciation for the things in life, both good and bad, that are beyond our personal agency and control. While I no longer accept this as the be all and end all interpretation of the symbol, it still retains a personal significance to me.

Regardless of source-critical status, it worked as the personal reminder I intended it to be. If anything, the connotations have developed and matured with me. I don't believe academic nuance has damaged my relationship with the symbol. Actually it's quite the opposite! I believe source criticism matters: It is not the enemy of fanciful speculation. Rather I find that it informs it. Obviously, I cannot argue with personal ideas and connotations, and I didn't write this article to burst any bubbles. Rather, I hope I am adding something to public discourse that should have been said a long time ago.

I will still make the case that the valknut is a great example of spiritual idiosyncrasy drawn from faulty reasoning, which consequently brings more darkness than light to our understanding of pre-Christian religion.


Possible lid or cutting board from Oseberg. Oslo University Museum

Possible lid or cutting board from Oseberg. Oslo University Museum

*Valknútr and Valknute, same but different

Credit goes out to the research of Tom Hellers who wrote an entire book on this. His Valknútr”: das Dreiecksymbol der Wikingerzeit [“The triangular symbol of the viking era”], is a solid piece of work that would have been earth-shaking, had it only been written in English instead of German. My arguments lean heavily on his groundwork. 

As mentioned, I assert that there is no sound evidence to support claims that the valknut was primarily a symbol of fate, sacrifice, death and binding. While iconography is sometimes cited, the interpretation is mainly based on the etymology, which assumes that it comes from an Old Norse term meaning "knot of the slain". However, the elephant in the room is that the word *valknútr does not exist in the Norse language at all. The term was arbitrarily applied to the symbol in modern scholarship, but the historical precedence is non-existent.

This this not to say that the valknut isn't a real term. However, the name was taken from Norwegian valknute, which specifically refers to an entirely different range of symbols and ornaments that appears in textile- and woodworking. First and foremost, many Norwegians know it already as a square, looped knot (⌘) used to designate points of interest on maps and road signs. It's also identical to the command key on Apple keyboards.

Norwegian tapestry with valknute ornaments (detail). Norwegian Museum of Cultural history.

Norwegian tapestry with valknute ornaments (detail). Norwegian Museum of Cultural history.

Hrungnir's heart?

I can only speculate why such an arbitrary term was picked in the first place, but it has spawned decades of circular and anachronistic reasoning, based on the etymology of the symbol's recently applied name. What was it originally called? Nobody is alive to tell us, but the Icelandic chronicler Snorri Sturlusson mentions in Skáldskaparmál, that the giant Hrungnir had a "famous heart": It was jagged, with three edges or protrusions, and Snorri mentions that it looks like a carved symbol (ristubragð) called hrungnishjarta derived from the myth. If this is true, the connection to Odin and sacrifice is severely shaky, seeing that Hrungnir was an adversary of Thor.

The traditional ornamental valknute (also known as "sankthanskors", St. John's cross), has no clear association with death as far as I know. The etymology is uncertain, but it's no given that the prefix val- is the same word as Old Norse valr, meaning slain, war-dead, though this is commonly assumed. There are other, equally plausible explanations for the prefix val-, cf. Old Norse valhnott - "french nut". You'd be hard pressed to find a connection to the triangular symbol either way.

They don't have many stylistic traits in common either. In terms of design, the Viking Era symbol and its derivatives are triangular, effectively trefoil in shape, usually consisting of interlocking, yet separate elements, while the traditional valknute is square and singular: The square valknute is easily drawn in a single line, and most versions of the nameless, triangular viking symbol are not.


Hellers' fivefold typology of the symbol (2012: 74)

Hellers' fivefold typology of the symbol (2012: 74)

As there is neither a typological, nor any linguistic basis to connect the two, their association remains problematic and speculative. Hellers makes the effort of discussing whether or not it even was a symbol, or merely an ornament, but concludes that the former is most likely. I find it hard to disagree: Often, it seems deliberately placed and meticulously carved. The carver had some kind of intent, but the question of significance remains.

A multivalent symbol

While it is popularly called a symbol of death and binding, few people stop to ask what the evidence is. It is true that the symbol occurs in funerary contexts, but so do most viking era artifacts: Boats, shoes, crockery, swords, coins, seeds, food and drink, combs, animals, and grinding stones, are all found in graves, but are not items we automatically consider symbols of death.

It's not wholly impossible that there was a connection to death still. There are some iconographic sources that are strongly suggestive of death and sacrifice, and a connection to the god Odin as well. The strongest case in favor of the death-fate-binding-sacrifice-hypothesis famously comes from a panel on a Gotlandic picture stone, Stora Hammars I, depicted at the top of this article. The symbol hovers above a man forcefully bent over what might be an altar, as if he is being executed – perhaps sacrificed. The character forcing him down carries a spear – an attribute of Odin, also used in human sacrifices and what we may deem “odinic killings” in the sagas. To the left, a warrior hangs from the limb of a tree (Odin is famously the god of the hanged). To the right, another man offers a bird, maybe a falcon or a raven, and an eagle flies above the symbol. All of this is heavily suggestive of the cult of Odin.


The Nene River ring. British Museum

The Nene River ring. British Museum

However, there are contexts where this association seems unlikely. If the symbol was associated with the aforementioned hrungnishjarta, and the myth of Thor's battle against Hrungir, then such a connection does not seem likely at all. Additionally, the symbol frequently occurs in  other contexts where an interpretation favoring death and sacrifice is very far-fetched. The depiction on Stora Hammars I appears to be the exception rather than the rule. 

For example, it the symbol frequently occurs with horses on other Gotlandic picture stones - maybe suggestive of a horse cult? While pagan Scandinavians believed they could reach the world of the dead by horseback, it's not obvious that the riders in these depictions are anything but alive and well, if we rid ourselves of the preconceived notion that the so-called *valknútr was a symbol of death. It also occurs on jewelry, coins, knife-handles, and other more or less mundane objects. The magnificent Oseberg ship burial contained two examples. Firstly a flat wooden object, possibly a lid or a cutting board, and secondly it was carved into a bedpost. There is no reason to assume that it was carved in conjunction with the burial. It might well have been present when the bed was still in nightly use. 

The truth behind the symbol eludes popular interpretations. It's difficult to connect all the varied contexts of occurrence. There is a Facebook page solely dedicated to documenting and uncovering more examples of the symbol, run by the Czech living history group Marobud. If you're interested in the subject, I highly recommend you check it out. Like Hellers, they include the triquetra in their study. It's up for debate whether triquetras constitute “true” examples of the symbol, but the similarity is definitely greater than the case is with the Norwegian valknut-ornaments. They could, for all we know, simply be variants of the one and same symbol. 


From a source-critical viewpoint there can be no doubt that the term *valknútr/valknutis dubious and unhelpful. Evidence suggests that the symbol's original contents go far beyond the common themes of interpretation, which are none the less fossilized in both scholarly and neopagan discussion. There seems to be more to the symbol than death and sacrifice.

I can't offer a good alternative name. Gungnishjarta is too tentative, but maybe I am overplaying the harm a misnomer can do. Nevertheless, I think that the terminology has done more to cloud the symbol, rather than clearing it up. This should concern anybody invested in shedding light on pre-Christian Scandinavia.

Now, if you find yourself stirred because you, like me, have a tattoo, or maybe you have benefited from the symbol in some other idiosyncratic way; don't cry. This revelation should not take any pleasure away. Let it instead be a vessel for deeper appreciation to whatever attracted you to it in the first place, and let yourself be enchanted by its mystique. We will probably never know.

Addendum : Converning the etymology of “Valknute” (10.25.2018):

Since the original publication of this article, I realized that I had overlooked a more convincing etymology to the prefix val- that we see in the term ‘valknute’. It is probably neither valr “corpse” nor valir “French, Breton, foreigners”, but “something rounded”. This etymology seems to be taken as a given among folk art experts and I believe it stands up to scrutiny. Compare for example with Norwegian ‘valk’ “roll, flab of skin” or English ‘wallow’ “to roll about”. Hence the term valknute appears to refer to the shape of the symbol: . Plain and simple.

This "looped square" ornament or symbol predates its triangular impostor by centuries and should therefore, if anything, be reserved for that specific shape. I have also come to partially accept the terminology proposed by David Stříbrný et. al. (of Marobud fame), that the term “triquetra” is preferable in many, if not all situations. While triquetra is more commonly used about trefoil symbols and ornaments, it really only means "three-cornered" and is thus a more neutral term than the heavily loaded "valknut". At least from a semantic viewpoint, which is all I care about in this question. There is ample evidence to suggest that the two symbols are interconnected, even overlapping in the early Norse world.

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Brute Norse Podcast Ep.1: The Archaeology of Emotion with Leszek Gardeła


It is my supreme pleasure to reveal the next chapter in the Brute Norse saga, namely the spanking new Brute Norse Podcast. Keeping up with the public can be a difficult task. I guess it's all about meeting your audience where they are at. While articles have their charm, they lack the versatility and perks of the podcast format. My readers have been suggesting I try it out for some time, and I admit that I've shied away from certain topics in the past, thinking they deserved something more sparkly than my usual article format. With the recent revamp of the blog I think the time is ripe to try something fresh and new.

A podcast allows me to let someone else do the talking for a change, and lets me invite people with talents and knowledge I may not possess. This episode was a treat to produce for that exact reason. I the had pleasure of meeting up with Leszek Gardeła, who is an assistant professor of archaeology at the University of Rzeszów, Poland. A rising star of viking scholarship, his vast body of work includes magical staffs, ritual specialists, the viking diaspora in Poland, and the spooky world of "atypical burials". We sat down for a discussion about the ambiguity of magic, morbid viking burials, and the ethics of studying the dead. He recently published his doctoral thesis about magic staffs in the viking era. I've featured his work previously in my article on the magical practice of seiðr.

Leszek frequently works with the Polish artist and illustrator Mirosław Kuźma to reconstruct the various graves he studies, adding imagination and color to the dark past. I highly recommend you check out his work.

As for the podcast itself: It is now available through Soundcloud, iTunes, and any podcast app worth it's salt, so be sure to subscribe!

Trekroner-Gryderhöj A 505, by Mirosław Kuźma

Trekroner-Gryderhöj A 505, by Mirosław Kuźma

The Norse saga of Gautama Buddha


Some time around the year 1250 AD, the Norwegian king Hákon Hákonsson laid eyes on one of his court scribes' latest work: It was a brand new saga – or more accurately: an Old Norse retelling of a Latin story, handed down from Greek sources, describing events that happened in the distant land of India a long time ago. They named it Barlaams saga ok Jósafats.

The saga of Barlaam and Jósafat

The story begins with a conservative Indian king who fears that a hip, new spiritual trend will overthrow his authority. His paranoia grows even greater once he hears word of a prophecy foreshadowing the religious conversion of his one and only son. Hoping to secure his legacy, the king puts the young prince in a secluded fortress, hoping he will grow up totally ignorant of outside life. Meanwhile, the king does all he can to pursue hermits, holy men and other spiritual freaks in a futile attempt to drive them out of his realm. One day a hermit named Barlaam approaches the adolescent prince, whose name is Jósafat, and opens his eyes to the compassionate, anti-materialist teachings of Christianity. The prince is baptized in secret, and Barlaam returns to the desert from whence he came. The now infuriated king desperately tries to revert his heir back to the religion of their ancestors, but to no avail. Western spirituality is there to stay. Instead, Jósafat converts the king, accepting Christ on his deathbed. Finally inheriting the kingdom, Jósafat abdicates. He leaves not only his crown but his entire country behind. Preferring the simple life of an ascetic to the luxuries of a king. He wanders the desert to live with his old master Barlaam.

St. Buddha

If the story sounds familiar, it's probably because you've heard parts of it many times before, as the Buddhist story about the life of Siddhārtha Gautama, whom most Westerners know simply as «The Buddha». To its Norse audience, the Saga of Barlaam and Jósafat served as a moral commentary on the vanity of material life, with the protagonist turning his back on his earthly kingdom to partake in the Kingdom of Heaven. Actually, the name Jósafat is a severe bastardization of bodhisattva – a title denoting a person who has experienced the enlightenment of Buddhahood, but has sworn to stay behind in the world in order to work for the salvation of all living things.

Nobody knows what medieval Norwegians might have thought about the saga's Buddhist roots. Their only knowledge of India came from fantastic medieval romances, where it was described as a magical place inhabited by monsters and elves. As for Buddhism, they were blissfully unaware of its existence. However, far Eastern Christianity was a staple of medieval folklore: From the Nestorian church in Asia to the legends of Prester John. It was a widely believed that the apostle Thomas had brought Christianity to India after Christ's death, which gave credence to the idea that isolated pockets of early Christians persisting throughout the uncharted East.

The Helgö Buddha. Photo: Historiska Museet

The Helgö Buddha. Photo: Historiska Museet

From Bengal to Björgvin

Before becoming available to Norwegian audiences in the 13th century, the story had already undertaken an impressive journey: It was brought into Catholic circulation via Greece, who got it through Georgia where it was first adapted to Christianity from an Arabic version in the 10th century. This version had in turn come from Persia. The legend provides an amazing example of how stories can acquire new meanings outside their original contexts as they move across cultures.

The story is not the first Buddhist creation to reach Scandinavia though. In 1956 a small bronze statuette of the Buddha was found in a viking era settlement on the isle of Helgö in Sweden. Produced in North-East India, the figurine depicts him peacefully meditating on a lotus blossom. How did it get there? As far as the vikings are purported to have traveled, it's very unlikely they had any significant contact with Buddhists, if at all. The explanation is probably more mundane, but interesting none the less: Typologically the statue is dated to the 6th century AD, a time when Scandinavians by all accounts lacked sailing technology. Their rowing capabilities allowed them to trade across the North and Baltic seas, but direct contact with the middle east is pretty much out of the question. Of course, I cannot leave this without addressing the unfortunately named «Buddha bucket» of the Oseberg burial, as well as similar examples from various viking era burials. Don't let anybody fool you: they are Irish, not Indian in origin. The Helgö Buddha is a genuine example though, but it was likely a centuries old antique by the time it reached Sweden, having made its way North on a slow journey that took it generations to complete. Which is pretty impressive in itself. I wonder what they must have thought of it! 

Despite any similarities with oriental art, the so-called buddha bucket of Oseberg is Irish in origin.

Despite any similarities with oriental art, the so-called buddha bucket of Oseberg is Irish in origin.