Horse Burial in Scandinavia during the Viking Age

The Horse Cult at Skedemosse

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2.1 The Horse Cult at Skedemosse

Beginning in the Roman Iron Age (0-500 AD) there is clear evidence of horse sacrifice in Sweden. At Skedemosse on the island of Öland in the Baltic Sea, the bones of hundreds of horses have been discovered on the shores of a shallow lake, alongside smaller numbers of cattle, sheep, and pigs. Where the layer of excavated sediment was undisturbed, a basic system for what were undoubtedly sacrificial rites can be made out. In certain areas, horse bones were found in heaps consisting of skull parts, extremities and tail vertebrae (fig. 2). Elsewhere, concentrations of ‘dismembered, marrow-split’ bones were uncovered.37

(Fig. 2. The gray sections represent the typical bone finds from Skedemosse. Courtesy of: Müller-Wille 1971).

This is relatively strong proof that these horses had been eaten. Since they accounted for a larger percentage of the sacrificed animals, they were evidently a particularly favored victim. It is a completely different picture from normal dietary habits, as midden remains from area farms show that sheep and then cattle were the most common food animals. Eating horse meat must therefore have marked a special occasion, probably some kind of ceremonial feast.

The Icelandic historian, Snorri Sturluson, writing in the first part of the 13th century, indicates that such feasts involving horseflesh were held regularly at the Norwegian sites of Lade and Mære in Trøndelag during in the Viking Period. In The Saga of Hákon the Good 38 from Heimskringla, Snorri describes one of the annual pagan Yuletide feasts in which the Christian king Hákon is expected by the local chieftains and farmers to participate. Though at first he steadfastly refuses to partake in the meal, they eventually force him to eat a few bits of horse liver.

According to Snorri, this is how the whole sacrificial event played out and what it also may have resembled at other sites such as Skedemosse:
“…all kinds of livestock were killed in connection with it, horses also and all the blood from them was called hlaut [sacrificial blood], and hlautbolli, the vessel holding that blood; and hlautteiner, the sacrificial twigs [aspergills]. These were fashioned like sprinklers, and with them were to be smeared all over with blood the pedestals of the idols and also the walls of the temple within and without; and likewise the men present were to be sprinkled with blood. But the meat of the animals was to be boiled and to serve as food at the banquet.”

(The Saga of Hákon the Good, Ch. 14)

Clearly, ample attention is paid to the animals’ blood as well as the meat.39 The horses’ blood probably received a similar focus at Skedemosse, as Hagberg notes that the horses at Skedemosse bore no traces of blows on their skulls, but rather seem to have been stabbed to death.40 Stabbing would have been perfect for blood-letting. Such a manner of death would hardly have been swift, but rather drawn out—done therefore less for practical and more for ceremonial reasons.

The very meaning of the place-name Skedemosse suggests that there was more to the horse sacrifice there than just ritualized slaughter and feasting. The first element of the word is thought to derive from Old Norse skeið, meaning either a fight between stallions or a horse-race, and it has been suggested that these competitions were used to select which animals should be used for sacrifice and which ones should be kept to breed.41 Horse-fighting is a well-known event in Icelandic literature42 and is even depicted on a Viking Age stone carving from Häggeby, Sweden (fig. 3). What also may be pictorial evidence of a horse-race preceding a sacrifice appears on one of the gold horns of the late 5th century from Gallehus in Denmark, in which a scene with the riding of a horse ends with a priest and priestess carrying a horn.43

(Fig. 3. The stone carving from Häggeby depicting a horse fight. Courtesy of: Müller-Wille 1971).

We can be relatively sure that the horse sacrifice took place in one form or another across Scandinavia. The eating of horse meat must have been a significant part of pagan belief because the permission to do so was one of the conditions under which the Icelandic All-thing accepted Christianity in the year 1000.44 Equally revealing, according to the early Norwegian law, Gulatingsloven, a person would have all his possessions confiscated and face exile if he were to eat horse meat.45

But what meaning may these sacrificial feasts have had for their participants? The Old Norse word for sacrifice was blót, which probably originally meant ‘strengthen (the god)’ and, despite the suggested cognate, does not belong etymologically to the word blood.46 This blót has been seen to have had a central place in the cult, serving as a direct connection between the people and gods in the ancient Scandinavian religion.47

As such, the sacrifice was reciprocal. The people gave to the gods so that the gods would give back gifts. The particular sacrifice that Snorri tell us about is held in honor of Odin, for victory and power to the king, as well as for Njord and Frey, for good harvests and peace (The Saga of Hákon the Good, Ch. 14). Hagberg suggests that the people at Skedemosse were probably sacrificing to some kind of horse god,48 hoping to secure fertility for the herds and a good crop for the following year. It is probable that the gods to whom these sacrifices were dedicated differed both temporally and regionally.

It follows that the greater the sacrifice made, the greater the reward the people hoped to receive. One would then offer that which was the finest food and drink available,49 which was clearly horse meat and horse blood. Accordingly, it seems that the winner of the horse race at Skedemosse rather than the loser would have served as the perfect sacrifice.

2.2 Stallions, Hangings, and the Number Nine

If we are to rely on the historical writings of Adam of Bremen,50 the horse sacrifice seems to have taken on a variety of forms:
“It is the custom moreover every nine years for a common festival of all the provinces of Sweden to be held at Uppsala.... The sacrifice is as follows: of every living creature they offer nine head, and with the blood of those it is the custom to placate the gods, but the bodies are hanged in a grove which is near the temple; so holy is that grove to the heathens that each tree in it is presumed to be divine by reason of the victim's death and putrefaction. There also dogs and horses hang along with men.”

(Adam of Bremen, Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, Book IV, sect. 27)

Adam of Bremen never visited Uppsala, but his account jives with that of another German, Thietmar of Merseburg, who wrote about cultic activities at Lejre in Denmark in the early 10th century. People there gathered also every ninth year, but the sacrifice entailed ninety-nine people along with ninety-nine horses, dogs and cocks.51 What’s more, the Stentofta stone in Blekinge, Sweden, from 600 AD relates that “with 9 billy-goats, with 9 horses gave Huthuwolfr a good year.”52

It cannot escape notice that all of the victims of these sacrifices were male, humans and animals alike. It is also quite clear that the number nine had a special meaning for those performing the rites.53 Considered along with the hanging that occurred at Uppsala, they may well have been connected to the worship of the god Odin. The poem Hávamál from the Poetic Edda illustrates this:

“I know that I hung on the windy tree

for nine full nights, wounded with a spear, and given to Odin,

myself to myself,

on that tree of which no one knows

where the roots run.”

(Hávamál, str. 138)

Elsewhere in Old Norse poetry, Odin is referred to as hangaguðr or gálga valdr, “Lord of the Gallows.” Even more revealing is that the world tree, Yggdrasill, from which Odin hangs himself, literally translates as ‘Ygg’s [another name for Odin] horse.’54 Though various sources intimate that Frey, Thor and even Freya were all possible recipients of the sacrifices at Uppsala,55 it makes most sense that in those instances in which male creatures, especially horses, were hanged in groups of nine, they were dedicated to Odin.

Unfortunately, the archaeology neither corroborates nor dispels the notion that such sacrifices took place. For one, the actual cult sites of Uppsala and Lejre have not been identified.56 It would be interesting to analyze any horse remains from these places and find out what fate befell them. Yet, whether it was groups of nine horses (or other animals) that were rounded up and put to death at one specific time probably could not be determined. As these sacrifices would have taken place over decades, the number of carcasses would literally have piled up. It might also be quite difficult to prove that they had indeed been hanged and, as it was, hanging itself was almost certainly of a post-mortal nature. The very physics involved in yanking a horse up in a tree would have been demanding enough without it struggling and kicking on the end of the rope. Perhaps they would have been gashed first with a spear—like Odin was in Hávamál—until they died and thereafter hanged, as has previously been suggested.57

Still, at Skedemosse and other known sites like Rislev on Syd-Sjælland (300-400), and Lillemyr and Gudinsåkarne on Gotland (600-800)58, the horses were found in such a manner that only the skull, hooves and tails remained. It is also possible that their hides were originally left intact. It may then still have been the case that they were hanged, for what eyewitnesses may have seen were simply the heads and empty carcasses dangling from the trees.

But perhaps a more plausible explanation is that these carcasses had been set up on poles for display (fig. 4). In the 950s, a Moorish Arab named Ibrahim At-Tartushi visited the town of Hedeby in southern Denmark and described the sacrifice he witnessed there:

“They hold a feast at which they all gather to honor their god and to eat and drink. Whoever kills a beast as a sacrifice sets up a pole at the door of his house and fastens the animal to it; thus the people know he has made an offering in honor of his god.”59
This idea that the body was eaten, while the hide, head, legs and hooves were placed on a pole as a gesture to the gods, has been widely supported.60

(Fig. 4. Reconstruction of the pole-offering of a horse. Courtesy of: Jones & Pennick 1995).

However, this may not be the only possible reason for the practice. The act of putting just the horsehead on a pole is mentioned in some Icelandic sagas,61 where it serves as a symbol of insult and is referred to as a niðstang, or “pole of shame.” Travelers of the Viking Period also write of a custom in southern Russia where the horse’s skin, feet and head were placed on a pole over the grave of a dead man.62 Nothing, however, at the aforementioned sites suggests that the horse remains were associated with a human burial.

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