Worshipping the Dead: Viking Age Cemeteries as Cult Sites?
By Leszek Gardeła
Germanische Kultorte: Vergleichende, historische und rezeptitonsgeschichtliche, ed. M. Egeler (Munchen, 2016)
Introduction: Aspects of ritual behaviour and cult in Norse societies have been the subject of academic scrutiny for many years. In past scholarship particular attention has been devoted to various numinous places and features in the landscape such as mounds, mountains, meadows, waterfalls, rivers, lakes, islands , wells, trees/groves, roads but also to special types of architecture (buildings, altars etc.) which could have played significant roles as settings for pre-Christian rituals. Many of the early studies, especially by historians of religion or philologists, have analysed pagan worldviews predominantly on the basis of the available textual accounts written in a range of different languages such as Old Norse, Latin, Greek and Arabic. When approached with caution, however, these textual accounts can also be effectively used in finding and interpreting tangible archaeological evidence related to pre-Christian ritual practices.
Although biased in various ways, such interdisciplinary methodology is employed by many scholars today.
In recent years attempts at identifying cult places in the archaeological record have borne remarkable results especially in Denmark, Iceland and Sweden, but different ‘signals of belief’ of the Norse population have also been discovered in England and elsewhere in the Viking diaspora. For example, latest excavations at Late Iron Age sites across Iceland and Scandinavia have demonstrated the existence of elaborate wooden structures which (on special occasions) may have served the role of cult houses or ‘temples’, but there are also traces of other allegedly ritual architecture in the form of peculiar stone altars and sacrificial wells. The discoveries of tools or weapons in watercourses and wetlands in different parts of the Viking world have also been interpreted as traces of ritual behaviour (i.e., sacrifices) and not simply as accidental losses.