The Vikings & The Sacred

A Viking Temple?

by Michael Djordjevitch

Well, no, or at least, not exactly.  

The above is a photograph, circa 1900, of the best preserved of a number of the earliest surviving religious structures from the Viking world, conventionally known as Stave Churches.

This rare surviving monument from Norway’s early Christian period, the Borgund Stave Church, has been judged to have been built sometime after 1180 but before 1250 A.D.  The term “stave” refers to the type of construction of its walls, being fashioned of cheek by jowl vertical wooden boards.

Below we see the plan of this church.  It’s form is comprised of a tall (multi-story) inner core surrounded by an interior and an exterior ambulatory.  The more compact types of Stave Churches have only the inner ambulatory.   

This view shows a cutaway perspective of the Borgund Church's interior, revealing the fairly complex construction of an architecturally nuanced conception.     

The next engraving is an image of the original front portal of another very old Scandinavian building, the Hedal Stave Church, the oldest surviving of its type in Norway, and bearing direct witness to the Pre-Christian origins of this architecture.  

A drawing, circa 1853, by G. A. Bull of the Hedalen Portal :

Next, and now through digital means, we see an image of a reconstructed interior, and an archeological representation of the excavated plan remains, of a Viking-Age building recently found in Uppåkra, Sweden.  Its excavator, Lars Larsson, has stated that this is "the first Scandinavian building for which the term 'temple' can be justly claimed".  

The evidence for the construction of his building reveals that it too was of the Stave Type.  In the plan below the pink shows the location of trenches dug for the walls.  The brown shows the location of the central columns, and the red, the place of the hearth/altar.  

According to the archeological evidence, the building was situated on the remains of a third century A.D. longhouse, and from the sixth to the tenth centuries A.D. rebuilt six times in the same form as its final iteration seen below.  Among the remains associated with its walls were found around two hundred fragments of gold foil, incised with human figures.

Two possible reconstructions of the exterior form of this Viking Temple:  

Almost a century before this momentous discovery, Sweden's then-foremost painter, Carl Larsson (1853 - 1919), in the course of his commission to ornament the monumental entry hall and staircase of the National Museum in Stockholm with scenes from Swedish history, proposed to crown his work by depicting a semi-legendary moment from Swedish history, poetically preserved in the Sagas of Snorri Sturlusson, an Icelander.  This vast canvas would become the most controversial painting in Swedish history.  

The resulting monumental painting, entitled “Midvinterblot“ (Midwinter Sacrifice), shows the monarch, King Domalde offering himself for sacrifice.  This Viking ruler gave himself to the gods so as to appease them, after a prolonged period of drought and starvation, for whatever faults may have brought about this calamitous withholding of divine favour.  

Here we are presented with the very public spectacle of this exceptional mid-winter sacrifice before the most venerable of Viking Temples on the Holy Ground of Ancient Uppsala and its adjoining Sacred Tree.



Informing Carl Larsson’s representation of this lost-to-history Pagan Temple are, very reasonably, Stave Churches, Norse Epics, and the one surviving account of this place from Adam of Bremen, a chronicler from medieval Germany who lived in the second half of the eleventh century.  He has left us a priceless  description of the Pagan Great Midwinter Sacrifice in Viking Uppsala:

“In this temple, 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; Odin and Freyr 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 crops. The other, Odin-that is, the Furious-carries on war and imparts to man strength against his enemies. The third is Freyr, who bestows peace and pleasure on mortals. His likeness they fashion with an immense phallus. But Odin they chisel armed, as our people are wont to represent Mars. Thor with his scepter apparently resembles Jove. 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.

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. They 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.

The sacrifice is of this nature: of every living thing that is male, they offer nine heads, 4 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 seventy-two years old told me that he had seen their 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 silence about them.”

Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, by John Lindow, 2002, is an accessible and judicious entry into this world.    

Carl Larsson third preparatory study for Midvinterblot (1915) :   

Somewhat closer to home, the Old-English Epic Poem, Beowulf, the oldest surviving major work of literature in our language, offers us an image of a monumental building in the Denmark of the sixth century A.D., then the home of those Saxons who were, along with their neighbours the Jutes and Angles in the process of conquering and colonising Celtic/Roman Britannia.


Then, as I have heard, the work of constructing a building

Was proclaimed to many a tribe throughout this middle earth.

In time—quickly, as such things happen among men—

It was all ready, the biggest of halls.

He whose word was law

Far and wide gave it the name "Heorot".


The men did not dally; they strode inland in a group

Until they were able to discern the timbered hall,

Splendid and ornamented with gold.

The building in which that powerful man held court

Was the foremost of halls under heaven;

Its radiance shone over many lands.


John Howe here gives us a plausible glimpse of this precursor to the monumental architecture of the Vikings.  



Apart from the Stave Churches, what survives of the Architecture of this World can still be readily encountered today in the substantial and captivating remains of its other monumental artifacts, its Long Ships.

A detail of the great portal from the Hedal Stave Church:

And what of the heirs to the Vikings of yesteryear?   

The twilight world between Viking Paganism and Christianity found its peerless chronicler and poet in the novels of  Sigrid Undset (1882 - 1949), most notably in Kristin Lavransdatter, the epic work for which she most deservedly received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928.  

That was then.  

Today, almost a century later, if we were to seek out the remains of Uppsala’s once sacred ground, we would find this building, which now stands on and in some sense is intended to memorialize this still poorly understood and exceedingly mysterious place.

Agnes Slott-Møller  (1862–1937), Borgund Stave Church in Norway, 1915 (oil on canvas):   

For more on Viking buildings watch this clip from Michael's lecture on the Vikings