The Vikings were a people with their origin in the areas of modern-day Denmark, Norway, and Sweden active during the Viking Age of European history (793-1066 CE).
They lived a rural life in which the majority of the population engaged in agricultural practices such as fishing and hunting. The Vikings are also remembered for their trade, raids, conquests, and especially for their fascinating religious beliefs and myths communicated in their sagas, poems, and literature. The primary sources for learning about Viking religious belief are the Eddas, a collection of literary works composed in Iceland during the thirteenth century.
Gods and Mythical Beings
The Vikings were polytheists because they believed in many gods and goddesses. The most powerful is Odin (the “all-father), the god of poetry, magic, and war. Loki is known as the “trickster” and is the companion of the gods Odin and Thor. Thor is the god of thunder and son of Odin, a powerful and brave god known for the special hammer, Miollnir, he used to defend of the gods against the giants. Freyja, the goddess of love, fertility, and death, rules over Fólkvangar, a meadow and hall where half the slain on the battlefield go (the other half go to Valhalla where Odin takes them). Freyr is the brother of Freyja and the god of peace and fertility often depicted with a large phallus. Njord is the sea god and the god of wind who is the father of both Freyja and Freyr. The goddess Hel is the ruler of the underworld called Helheim. The Vikings believed in many other gods and goddesses. They also believed in entities such as spirits, dwarves, elves, and giants. Another important belief was in the nine realms or worlds of Niflheim, Asgard, Jotunheim, Muspelheim, Helheim, Midgard, Vanaheim, Alfheim, and Svartalfheim, all held together by a world tree inhabited by the dwarves, spirits, gods, giants, and human beings; according to the Poetic Edda, “The Jötuns I remember early born, those who me of old have reared. I nine worlds remember, nine trees, the great central tree, beneath the earth.”
The Battle of Ragnarok
Doom runs through much of the mythology of the Vikings. It teaches that everything will lead up to one calamitous event in which Odin and Loki will bring an age old conflict between the gods and the giants to a conclusion. This is the battle of Ragnarok in which the gods will die, the world will be destroyed, and the world created anew. The Poetic Edda speaks of how “The sun turns black, earth sinks into the sea, the bright stars vanish from the sky; steam rises up in the conflagration, a high flame plays against heaven itself.”
In other legends, Loki is chained to three rocks for eternity as punishment for fooling Hoder (Odin’s blind son) into murdering Baldr (the “shining prince” of goodness). As Loki struggles to break free from his confines, the reverberations will shake the world where trees will be uprooted and mountains will fall over. As Loki regains his strength the world will be damaged as harsh and unforgiving winters assault the surface eventually leading to no summer at all. Battles will rage everywhere as father fights son and brother fights brother until the world lies in ruins. When Loki breaks free from the rock the sky will split open and his monstrous wolf, Fenrir, will swallow the sun. Loki will lead an army of giants, monsters, and the dead from the underworld on a ship made from the fingernails of the dead. Odin assembles his own army, the Einherjar, from the slain on the battlefields to fight Loki.
The gods will be defeated despite their huge armies. Thor is eaten by Fenrir and his brother Vidar will rip Fenrir in two from the jawbones. The world is destroyed by fire and subsides beneath the sea before a new world is born. Only the gods Vidar, Vali, Modi, and Magni will survive the destruction of the world along with one man and one woman, Lifthrasir and Lif, who give rise to a new race of human beings.
The Vikings who died of natural causes faced the unattractive prospect of Hel, a cold and damp underworld. Only Vikings selected for sacrifice or those chosen to die in battle by Odin’s valkyries (a race of supernatural and warlike females) could enter Asgard (the home of the gods) via the “rainbow bridge.” Half of the dead from the battlefield go to Freyja’s Fólkvangar and the other half belongs to Odin’s hall of the slain (Valhalla). In Valhalla they fight each other all day in preparation for the battle of Ragnarok and feast in the evenings on the meat of a magical boar and the milk of a magical goat.
Conversion to Christianity
The Vikings made contact with Christianity through raids and their settling into territories with Christian populations, notably England, Scotland, and Ireland, where they had little issue adopting Christian religious modes and beliefs. Adopting to Christianity was a slow and gradual process and by the mid-eleventh century, Christianity was well established in Denmark and most of Norway. The Viking Age came to an end with the spread of Christianity after the Battle of Stiklestad (1030 CE) and the establishment of Christianity as the dominant religion. A succession of defeats in England, Ireland, and Scotland brought the era to a close.