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Maybe they'll find a hammer? 1,200-year-old sacrificial temple to Thor and Odin unearthed in Norway

By Elizabeth Rayne
Thor: Ragnarok

Viking artifacts often surface in Norway and other parts of Scandinavia, but what recently emerged after being buried from thousands of years is the closest any mortal will get to Valhalla.

While the remains of an Iron Age Viking settlement were rising from the ground at an archaeological site at Ose farm in Ørsta, Norway, the surviving parts of a magnificent pagan temple or “god-house” were found among longhouses and other remnants of Viking life. This is an especially thrilling find because not many of these buildings have survived in Scandinavia. Archaeologist Søren Diinhoff of Bergen University Museum, one of the excavation leads, has never seen one of these temples in such a state of preservation.

“We have discovered the most perfectly shaped god house of all the finds so far — I know of no other Scandinavian buildings in which the house construction is as clear as it is here,” he told SYFY WIRE. “I think our building is central to document and verify this very special architecture. Another important observation is that centralized religious activity in this area can be traced back into the Middle Iron Age around 4–500 AD.”

There was one missing piece that could have revealed even more. The floor of the building had long since been plowed away, which means that any wooden or metal objects typically placed there — such as figurines of gods or other offerings — would have dissolved. Intact, it would have looked like this. There are some other things that this structure can reveal about Norse religion when heavy Christian propaganda is stripped away. The beliefs and rituals of the people we now know as the Vikings are actually not well known, despite legends that have persisted enough for Neil Gaiman to humanize Odin the All-Father in American Gods and Marvel to create a legendary comic and movie series out of Thor.

The temple and the overall finds at the Ose site also tell us about Viking society during the Late Iron Age. The longhouses in which most people lived supposedly date from 400 or 500 to 1200 A.D. It is believed that the the leading families in society, who ran the most prominent farms (more like manors) in the settlement, also ran the god house. Diinhoff believes that the excavation supports how archaeologists believe the Vikings was organized and ran their societies.

“Buildings like this show that although the Norse cult would not be a systematic unified religion, there was a unity in certain high end cult buildings. Whoever build these houses made an effort to construct them in a very specific design. Doing this one expressed a common Scandinavian understanding of ideological power,” Diinhoff said.

Whether humans were also sacrificed in such god-houses remains a topic of debate that started when the German scholar Adam of Bremen traveled to Denmark in 1070. In his work Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, in which he documented the Norse people and customs, he also wrote about human sacrifices taking place every nine years at the pagan temple at Uppsala, Sweden. The god-house at Uppsala is thought to have been one of the epicenters of ancient Norse worship. There is an episode of Vikings that reenacts a festival at Uppsala. Even the Viking metal band Rebellion echoes a pilgrimage the holy place for an offering to the All-Father and the Thunder God before battle in their song Sweden, with the lyrics “To Uppsala/Odin and Thor”.

Still, Adam of Bremen’s work is thought to be biased because he was a Christian, and early Christians were known to erroneously view pagans as brutal and uncivilized.

“Human sacrifices in the Viking Age have been a hot topic for years,” Diinhoff said. “All what was written in Christian era about Norse religion must be read critically. Adam’s story was probably constructed to tell how awful and primitive the heathens were.”

Something that Adam of Bremen wrote does stand out, whether or not he actually witnessed human sacrifice. Nine is the sacred number that recurs most often in Norse mythology. Some archaeologists believe that it is rooted in the lunar calendar’s 27 days being a multiple of nine. Yggdrasil, the ash tree from which Odin was rumored to have sacrificed himself, held up nine worlds on its branches. There are also rumors of sacrificial feasts that lasted nine days and involving nine sacrifices. Another Viking metal band, Bathory, speaks of this in their song Vinterblot (which literally means a blood sacrifice in the winter), referring to the sacrifices as “nine by nine”, hanging from an ash tree. Among them are humans.

“There are a few finds in the Viking Age that may show human sacrifice,” said Diinhoff. “In a few graves the deceased seem to have been followed by a sacrificed person—most likely a slave–and finds of human skulls may be interpreted the same way. However, at the cult building, it is human bones that we found. If human sacrifices took place, it would have been rare. The sacrifices at the temples did not demand human sacrifices, only animal offerings.”

Whether the human sacrifices reenacted in Vikings or hidden in song lyrics are actual shadows of history or sensationalized rumors remains unknown. It is unlikely the practice was common. Even the Bathory song speaks of a ritual outside of the usual solstice festivals that was held as a plea to the gods to end a particularly rough winter. The main religious festivals of the year were during the summer and winter solstice, much like rituals thought to take place at Stonehenge. Any human sacrifice must have meant it was a desperate time. For many other ancient cultures, offering up one of their own was usually a last plea to the gods in times of drought or famine or other unavoidable disasters.

The legacy of the Vikings really has proven to be immortal. However, the sudden voluntary sacrifice of a warrior in place of a servant in that Vikings episode is probably no more than a flourish of drama.