and the Royal Burial Mounds

The following is largely quoted, or abridged from the book Frey's Offspring: Rulers and Religion in Ancient Svea Society by Olaf Sundqvist (2002) p.  94-136. Most of the evidence and copious examples have been truncated or omitted. Please refer to the original text for details:

  "Gamla Uppsala is one of the most complex archaeologial monuments in Scandinavia. The finds are sufficient for it to be considered a central place during the entire Late Iron Age. The mounds, boat-graves, traces of hall(s) and the wall to the north indicate the presence of a ruling stratum at least from the 5th or the 6th century. These finds, together with the phosphate values at the Eastern Mound and the Middle Mound, may also indicate ritual activity. Archeological analysis shows the site has been settled since the Roman period. It is an important site from at least the Migration Period up to the Middle Ages, though it may have experienced some troughs during the 9th century, after the hall on the southern plateau was burnt down."  

Uppsala was never a town during the pre-Christian period. But it can be regarded as a "central place" as early as the migration period. Theories of central places first developed in geography, and in the 1970s and 1980s gained ground in archaeology too. These places typically have had many functions in relation to the surrounding regions. They may have been administrative, judicial and military centers.  They were frequently established along lines of communication. In all likelihood they were religious centers with cultic buildings, e.g banqueting halls, outdoor cult sites and burial places, and some of the central places may also have functioned as "schools" where poetic and runic knowledge was taught. They were probably economic centers, where the ruler exerted his royal domain, where tributes or fines were collected, and market-places set up.

Snorri mentioned a winter market at Uppsala held at the same time as the cult feast and Thing of the Svear. This is probably identical with the Dis-thing attested in Upplandslagen (1296 AD). The name dísir, itself indicates a pre-Christian origin. Snorri tells about the dísar-salar at Uppsala where the disa-blót took place (Hkr I, IF 27, p. 109). There is strong evidence that in skaldic poetry, ON salr often denotes a "banquet hall". In Eddic poetry its meaning is more ambivilent, but in other Germanic languages equivilents of the word denote "hall for banquets or gatherings". At Uppsala, the name of the market, Disþing, also indicates a pre-Christian assembly attached to the cult of the Disir. In a passage in Snorri's Ólafs saga helga, ch. 77, the Uppsala sacrifices are intgrated with the Thing and the fair:

  Í Svíþjóðu var það forn landsiður meðan heiðni var þar að höfuðblót skyldi vera að Uppsölum að gói. Skyldi þá blóta til friðar og sigurs konungi sínum og skyldu menn þangað sækja um allt Svíaveldi. Skyldi þar þá og vera þing allra Svía. Þar var og þá markaður og kaupstefna og stóð viku. En er kristni var í Svíþjóð þá hélst þar þó lögþing og markaður. En nú síðan er kristni var alsiða í Svíþjóð en konungar afræktust að sitja að Uppsölum þá var færður markaðurinn og hafður kyndilmessu. Hefir það haldist alla stund síðan og er nú hafður eigi meiri en stendur þrjá daga. Er þar þing Svía og sækja þeir þar til um allt land.

Svíaveldi liggur í mörgum hlutum. Einn hlutur er Vestra-Gautland og Vermaland og Markir og það er þar liggur til og er það svo mikið ríki að undir þeim biskupi er þar er yfir eru ellefu hundruð kirkna. Annar hlutur lands er Eystra-Gautland. Þar er annar biskupdómur. ... Tíundaland er göfgast og best byggt í Svíþjóð. Þangað lýtur til allt ríkið. Þar eru Uppsalir. Þar er konungsstóll og þar er erkibiskupsstóll og þar er við kenndur Uppsalaauður. Svo kalla Svíar eign Svíakonungs, kalla Uppsalaauð. Í hverri þeirri deild landsins er sitt lögþing og sín lög um marga hluti.  ...En þar allt er lögin skilur á þá skulu öll hallast til móts við Uppsalalög og aðrir lögmenn allir skulu vera undirmenn þess lögmanns er á Tíundalandi er.
In Svithjod it was the old custom, as long as heathenism prevailed, that the chief sacrifice took place in the month Gói  (sometime around Feburary 15th until March 15th) at Upsala. Then sacrifice was offered for peace, and victory to the king; and thither came people from all parts of Svithjod. All the Things of the Swedes, also, were held there, and markets, and meetings for buying, which continued for a week: and after Christianity was introduced into Svithjod, the Things and fairs were held there as before. After Christianity had taken root in Svithjod, and the kings would no longer dwell in Upsala, the market-time was moved to Candlemas, and it has since continued so, and it lasts only three days. There is then the Swedish Thing also, and people from all quarters come there.
Svithjod is divided into many parts. One part is West Gautland, Vermaland, and the Marks, with what belongs to them; and this part of the kingdom is so large, that the bishop who is set over it has 1100 churches under him. The other part is East Gautland, where there is also a bishop's seat. ... Tiundaland is the best and most inhabited part of Svithjod, under which the other kingdoms stand. There Upsala is situated, the seat of the king and archbishop; and from it Upsala-audr, or the domain of the Swedish kings, takes its name. Each of these divisions of the country has its Lag-thing, and its own laws in many parts.  ...And in all matters in which the laws differ from each other, Upsala-law is the directing law; and the other lagmen are under the lagman who dwells in Tiundaland.

Sources referring to western Scandinvia also indicate a connection between law and religion. According to medieval sources cases were heard within a court-circle or judgment ring (dóm-hríngr). It may be the physical structure of such a ring that is described in Egil's saga in connection with the Gulaþing. According to other Icelandic sagas, ring-oaths (baugeiðr) were sworn in sanctuaries at the stallahringr and sometimes these ceremonies were combined with sacrifices (Landnamnabók H 268, Eyrbyggja 4).  At any rate, it may be stated that religious and judicial aspects were united during the days of assembly. When all free men gathered, þinghelgi prevailed. It is thus possible that the pre-Christian cult and Thing were integrated in one and the same system at Uppsala and elsewhere. At these feasts the farmers gathered at Uppsala, making it a suitable occasion for demanding military service.  The hund/hundare-system constitutes strong evidence for some kind of military organization as early as the Viking period. Perhaps this system also formed the basis for the judicial and religious community. In ancient cultures, warfare was often ritualized. Old Norse sources show that battles were surrounded by rituals. For instance, hazel staffs were used to mark off the battlefield on which King Adelstein proposed to meet King Olof of the Scots. Odin threw the javelin, perhaps ritually, as he introduced war against the Vanir. According to Snorri, sacrifices were made at Uppsala for peace and victory of the ruler. Chapter 8 of Ynglingasaga says that the third calendaric sacrifice performed towards the end of summer in Svetjud, was a sígrblót (victory-sacrifice).

Adam of Bremen describes a pagan cult at Uppsala in the 1070s:


Adamus Bremenus
Gesta Hammaburgensis

ecclesiae pontificum

 Liber IV  

Capitulum 26: Nunc de supersticione Sueonum pauca dicemus. Nobilissimum illa gens Schol.134 templum habet, quod Ubsola dicitur, non longe positum ab Sictona civitate. In hoc templo, Schol.135 quod totum ex auro paratum est, statuas trium deorum veneratur populus, ita ut potentissimus eorum Thor in medio solium habeat triclinio; hinc et inde locum possident Wodan et Fricco. Quorum significationes eiusmodi sunt: 'Thor', inquiunt, 'praesidet in aere, qui tonitrus et fulmina, ventos ymbresque, serena et fruges gubernat. Alter Wodan, id est furor, bella gerit, hominique ministrat virtutem contra inimicos. Tertius est Fricco, pacem voluptatemque largiens mortalibus'. Cuius etiam simulacrum fingunt cum ingenti priapo. Wodanem vero sculpunt armatum, sicut nostri Martem solent; Thor autem cum sceptro Iovem simulare videtur. Schol.136 Colunt et deos ex hominibus factos, quos pro ingentibus factis immortalitate donant, sicut in Vita sancti Anscarii leguntur Hericum regem fecisse.



 Schol. 134. Prope illud templum est arbor maxima late ramos extendens, semper viridis in hieme et aestate; cuius illa generis sit, nemo scit. Ibi etiam est fons, ubi sacrificia paganorum solent exerceri et homo vivus immergi. Qui dum non invenitur, ratum erit votum populi.


Schol. 135. Catena aurea templum illud circumdat pendens supra domus fastigia, lateque rutilans advenientibus, eo quod ipsum delubrum in planitie situm montes in circuitu habeat positos ad instar theatri.



Schol. 136. Nuper autem rex Sueonum christianissimus Anunder, cum sacrificium gentis statutum nollet demonibus offerre, depulsus a regno, dicitur a conspectu concilii gaudens abisse, quoniam dignus habebatur pro nomine Iesu Christi contumeliam pati.



Woodcut of the idols Frigga, Odin and Thor in the temple of Uppsala

Olaus Magnus 1555


Capitulum 27: Omnibus itaque diis suis attributos habent sacerdotes, qui sacrificia populi offerant. Si pestis et famis imminet, Thorydolo lybatur, si bellum, Wodani, si nuptiae celebrandae sunt, Fricconi. Solet quoque post novem annos communis omnium Sueoniae provintiarum sollempnitas in Ubsola celebrari. Ad quam videlicet sollempnitatem nulli praestatur immunitas. Reges et populi, omnes et singuli sua dona transmittunt ad Ubsolam, et quod omni poena crudelius est, illi qui iam induerunt christianitatem, ab illis se redimunt cerimoniis. Sacrificium itaque tale est. Ex omni animante, quod masculinum est, novem capita offeruntur, quorum sanguine deos placari mos est. Corpora autem suspenduntur in lucum, qui proximus est templo. Is enim lucus tam sacer est gentilibus, ut singulae arbores eius ex morte vel tabo immolatorum divinae credantur. Ibi etiam canes et equi pendent cum hominibus, quorum corpora mixtim suspensa narravit mihi aliquis christianorum 72 vidisse. Ceterum neniae, quae in eiusmodi ritu libationis fieri solent, multiplices et inhonestae ideoque melius reticendae. Schol.137


Schol. 137. Novem diebus commessationes et eiusmodi sacrificia celebrantur; unaquaque die offerunt hominem unum cum ceteris animalibus, ita ut per novem dies 72 fiant animalia quae offeruntur. Hoc sacrificium fit circa aequinoctium vernale.



Adam of Bremen
History of the
Archbishops of
1075-1080 AD

Book 4

Chapter 26: Now we shall say a few words about the superstitions of the Swedes. That folk has a very famous temple [134] called Uppsala, situated not far from the city of Sigtuna and Björkö. In this temple, [135] entirely decked out in gold, the people worship the statues of three gods in such wise that the mightiest of them, Thor, occupies a throne in the middle of the chamber; Wotan and Frikko have places on either side. The significance of these gods is as follows: Thor, they say, presides over the air, which governs the thunder and lightning, the winds and rains, fair weather and crops. The other, Wotan -that is, the Furious--carries on war and imparts to man strength against his enemies. The third is Frikko, who bestows peace and pleasure on mortals. His likeness, too, they fashion with an immense phallus. But Wotan they chisel armed, as our people are wont to represent Mars. Thor with his scepter apparently resembles Jove. [136] The people also worship heroes made gods, whom they endow with immortality because of their remarkable exploits, as one reads in the Vita of Saint Ansgar they did in the case of King Eric.


Scholium 134: Near this temple stands a very large tree with wide-spreading branches, always green winter and summer. What kind it is nobody knows. There is also a well at which the pagans are accustomed to make their sacrifices, and to plunge a live man into it. If he is not found, the people's wish will be granted.


Scholium 135: A golden chain goes round the temple. It hangs over the gable of the building and sends its glitter far off to those who approach, because the shrine stands on level ground with mountains all about it like a theater.



Scholium 136: When not long ago the most Christian king of the Swedes, Anunder, would not offer the demons the prescribed sacrifice of the people, he is said, on being deposed, to have departed "from the presence of the council, rejoicing" that he had been "accounted worthy to suffer reproach for the name of Jesus."




Chapter 27: For all their gods there are appointed priests to offer sacrifices for the people. If plague and famine threaten, a libation is poured to the idol Thor; if war, to Wotan; if marriages are to be celebrated, to Frikko. It is customary also to solemnize in Uppsala, at nine-year intervals, a general feast of all the provinces of Sweden. From attendance at this festival no one is exempted Kings and people all and singly send their gifts to Uppsala and, what is more distressing than any kind of punishment, those who have already adopted Christianity redeem themselves through these ceremonies. The sacrifice is of this nature: of every living thing that is male, they offer nine heads with the blood of which it is customary to placate gods of this sort. The bodies they hang in the sacred grove that adjoins the temple. Now this grove is so sacred in the eyes of the heathen that each and every tree in it is believed divine because of the death or putrefaction of the victims. Even dogs and horses hang there with men. A Christian told me that he had seen 72 bodies suspended promiscuously. Furthermore, the incantations customarily chanted in the ritual of a sacrifice of this kind are manifold and unseemly; therefore, it is better to keep silent about them. 137


Scholium 137: Feasts and sacrifices of this kind are solemnized for nine days. On each day they offer a man along with other living beings in such a number that in the course of the nine days they will have made offerings of seventy-two creatures. This sacrifice takes place about the time of the vernal equinox.



A Woodcut of the temple at Uppsala from Olaus Magnus, 1555.

The Church at Old Uppsala
Southern view

The Church at Old Uppsala
Western view

Hooperstad Stave church, Norway

The Royal Mounds at Gamla Uppsala

Detail from the Oseberg Tapestry,
showing hanged bodies in a tree.

Map of the Old Uppsala Area

Artist's rendering of the Temple

The Royal Mounds at Gamla Uppsala
  Freyr's Offspring (con't, pp. 112 ff):

The Viking Age runic inscriptions in Uppland have been discussed in the context of Christianity. H. Janson (1998) has argued that the runic inscriptions show a Christian aristocracy there as early as the first half of the 11th century and that the runic evidence shows that Adam's description cannot be relied upon. There is no doubt that the inscriptions which can be seen in association with the church of Gamla Uppsala were made by people strongly influenced by Chistianity. Many of the "Christian inscriptions" in general reflect a transiational phase, where elements of both religions involved are visible.  One problem, not seen by Janson is whether the runic stones were raised at Uppsala or not. It is probable that they were brought there when the first church was built or later. There are nine runic stones (U 978-986) in the parish of Gamla Uppsala. Five (U978, U979, U980, U981 and U986) are in immediate association with the church and the vicarage of Gamla Uppsala, i.e. the area of the cult site.

The information from these inscriptions actually harmonizes with Adam's account. According ot him, Christians and pagans lived side by side in Svetjud during the middle of the 11
th century, Adam has the following to say about the sacrifical feast at Uppsala:

  "From attendance at this festival no one is exempted Kings and people all and singly send their gifts to Uppsala and, what is more distressing than any kind of punishment, those who have already adopted Christianity have to buy themselves out of these ceremonies." [Tschan tr., modified]

Adam's indignation has been interpreted as an indication of the accuracy of his statements (Hultgård, 1997). Adam's information as well as the unknown origin of the runic stones in Gamla Uppsala show that Jansson's criticism is based on erroneous assumptions.  Old Norse sources confirm that parts of Sweden became Christianized only at a late date. Sigvat's Austrfararavísur was composed around 1020. It tells about the poet's journey through Sweden. In Dalsland, Värmland or Västergötland he met farmers who celebrated álfablót at a place called Hof. The poem is contemporary with the events it describes, and there are no reasons to doubt it.  The account in Sverris saga, ch. 12, tentataively dated to 1202, is also reliable. Sverri himself met pagans on a journey from Värmland via Dalsarna and Härjedalen to Jämtland in the year 1177. Also known are the comments of the Christian king Olaf Tryggvasson, recorded by Snorri, when he saw the pagan Svear at the battle of Svolder c. 1000 AD. It is obvious that the medieval writer conceived of the Svear as more primitive, barbaric and pagan than the Norwegians and Danes.

In the discussion of Uppsala as a prominent cultic site, Adam's account is crucial. Scholars have recently attacked Adam's description of the Uppsala cult and there seems to be details that cannot be accepted as authentic. This does not mean that all of Adam's text should be repudiated as rhetoric or fantasy.

There has been a lot of discussion about the temple at Uppsala. Earlier archaeologists regarded it as a building exclusively erected for cultic purposes and tried to find its remains in connection with the mounds and the church.  Now scholars tend to conclude that Adam's temple may have been a banqueting hall, where ritual feasts were held, with ceremonial drinking. There are some features of Adam's text that indicate that Adam's templum was actually a banqueting hall. Dillman focuses on the term tricinium, which Adam used when he described the room where the idols stood. In Classical and Medieval Latin, it has both the connotation of 'dining-room' and 'room for ceremonial banquets'.  Adam's text supports this explanation: "If plague or famine threaten, a libation is poured to the idol Thor, if war is imminent, to Wodan, if marriages are to be celebrated, to Fricco." The verb Adam used is libo (libare), which should be translated as "to pour a libation of." Adam also used the noun libatio, "a sacrifical offering, esp. a drink, libration" in connection with the sacrifices at Uppsala. It may thus be assumed that a banqueting hall is hidden behind Adam's templum. There is archaeological evidence for such a hall at Uppsala.

The archaeological finds in combination with literary sources lend support to the idea that Uppsala had hall buildings with ritual functions. Adam's temple is not confirmed by indigenous sources, though these often refer to buildings. Ynglingasaga says "Freyr erected a huge hof at Uppsala and made his chief residence there" The word hof/hov probably denoted "hall", but may connote "sanctuary" as well. It appears quite frequently in Swedish place-names, where it sometimes denotes "banqueting hall." The hall at Uppsala is mentioned several times in Old Norse and medieval Latin texts.

It is also possible that the ceremonial hall(s) at Uppsala was/were enclosed in some way. About 50 meters north of the northern plateau a stone foundation has been interpreted as a wall. It was built in the beginning of the 7
th century and probably not intended for fortification. It may have been intended as a cultic demarcation and could be compared with the ON vébönd, which seem to have occured at cult and thing places. Behind the wall there were terraces datable to the late 8th century. There was a burnt wooden structure with post-holes and hundreds of fragments of clay weights for looms, one covered with illegible runic inscriptions. In connection with the burnt place a 30 cm deep pit was found, interpreted as an offering place and a post interpreted as a wooden cult image (Duczko 1997).

The cult of the gods Thor, Odin and Freyr at Uppsala seems to be based on genuine information.   Already Dumezil noted that the images there could be interpreted as expressions of the Indo-European tripartite system. Libations were offered to a certain deity, with a view to receiving the gifts of a restricted functional field of culture. These functional aspects of the deities have parallels in Old Norse tradition, e.g. Snorri's description of the sacrifice at Lade and Mære. They toasted Odin for victory and dominion (til sigrs ok ríkis) and Njord and Freyr for good crops and peace (til árs ok friðar). When it comes to Thor there are striking parallels between Adam's description and Snorri's account about the Mære sanctuary in ch. 64 of Ólafs saga Tryggvassonar.  Adam's picture of the cult at Uppsala—gods with certain functions can also partly be supported by Ynglingasaga ch. 9 and 10.  Adam's account of the cult of the three deities should not be dismissed as pure fantasy. Early literary sources throughout northern Europe mention pre-Christian idols. Archaeological finds may also support the existence of cult images in Svetjud and Götaland.  From Old Norse texts we have plenty attestations of images, called tréguð and skurgoð, which seem to be made out of wood.  It seems as if the author had the Christian church as a mental model when describing the building.  Anyhow the information on the cult images may be based on authentic tradition. Kjalnesingasaga mentions that in the hof of Thorgrim Helgason, Thor stood in the middle of the gods behind the stalli: "There stood Thor in the middle of the gods and [he] had the other gods on both sides." We even find a triad of cult images in Old Norse sources as in the temple at Uppsala. Njal's saga tells that Earl Håkon' and Gudbrand had a sanctuary. These texts were composed late, and thus must be treated with caution.

Some scholars have been skeptical of Adam's statement that the feast was held every ninth year. According to astronomical calculations it is more plausible that the sacrifice was performed every eight years, which gives a minimal fluctation of the vernal equinox (circa aequinoctium vernale) (+/-1, 5 days), whereas a 9 year cycle gives a maximal fluctation (+/- 14 days). Nine sacrifices over eight days also harmonize better with Adam's information that seventy-two miscellaneous bodies were suspended inthe grovw. The number nine had particular significance in ancient Scandinavian sacrifical contexts. According to the early runic inscription of Stenoften (DR 357), Blekinge Sweden (7th century), the local ruler at Hådulv performed sacrifices: "with nine bucks, with nine stallions Haþuwulfr have good growth". Thietmar von Merseburg (c. 1000 AD) refers to the sacrifical feast in Lejre on the island of Zealand. His description bears some resemblence to Adam's account.

At the end of the Viking period, Uppsala was quite powerful. It was probably obligatory for all minor cheiftains and free farmers of Svetjud to attend the Uppsala cult (and the thing), was celebrated every nine (or eight) years. According to Adam. local kings and people were obliged to send their gifts to Uppsala. This statement reflects a regiaution of both cultic and economic activites. In addition, Snorri states that the main sacrifices (höfudblöt) were held at Uppsala and it appears that he regarded them as compulsory. A firm organization concerning common cult, law,  tributes, trade and military activites, was most probably established in the 11
th century.

The Pagan Great Midwinter Sacrifice and the ‘Royal’ Mounds at Old Uppsala