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The Viking temple of Uppsala

If there was a religious and cultural center in the Viking civilization, it was the Uppsala Temple . Place of pilgrimage where every nine years a feast with human sacrifices was celebrated that led to the mad ecstasy of people.

Today there is not much left, to say the least, of this building. However, the descriptions have come down to us in the ancient chronicles as well as the mentions in the Norse sagas. Both the Uppsala Temple itself and, above all, the rituals that were practiced in the overwhelming Dísablót.

Uppsala: a landmark in the Viking era

We will start by giving some geographical and historical context. Uppsala was a large city that was the residence of the Swedish kings of the House of Yngling, whose founder according to legend was Ragnar Lodbrok. Furthermore, Uppsala was an important meeting place for three reasons:
  • It hosted the celebration of Dísablót in its sumptuous sanctuary.
  • It was the seat of the Thing of All Swedes , a political assembly where the king and nobles organized summer expeditions.
  • It hosted the Disting, a large market for commerce that curiously has continued to be held to this day.

It must be said that the original Uppsala, now known as Gamla Uppsala or “Old Uppsala”, is located a few kilometers north of the current Swedish city. Hundreds of burial mounds dating back to the Bronze Age and, of course, the Viking Age have been found in the surrounding area. The city is located about 80 kilometers northwest of Stockholm, and today is the fourth most populous city in Sweden with more than 140,000 inhabitants.

What was the Uppsala temple like

To find out what the now defunct Uppsala Temple looked like, we refer to texts such as the Gesta Danorum (12th century), written by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus or the writings of the chronicler Adam of Bremen (now Germany) from the 1070s.

The Uppsala temple was large . Inside it contained wooden statues of the three most important Viking deities of the Norse pantheon:

  • Odin , god of war and wisdom.
  • Thor , god of thunder and protector of Midgard.
  • Frey , god of fertility.

Thor is the most powerful of the gods, ruling thunder and lightning, wind and rain, sunlight and crops. He sits in the center with a scepter (Mjolnir) in his hand, and at his side are Odin, the god of war, in full armor and Frey, the god of peace and love, characterized by a large phallus. “

Adam of Bremen

Adam of Bremen says that according to some local and oral tradition the old temple was built in gold, with a gold chain hanging along the facade. As the building was located in a valley, surrounded by mountains, it made a good impression to see it. Of course, the shrine could not be made of gold and this is nothing but an exaggeration.

Uppsala temple illustration

Illustration of the Uppsala Temple (1555) by Olaus Magnus.

Myth or reality?

We must also contribute to the views of other more skeptical historians. They argue that the temple was not a building in its own right, but was confused with the hall of the Swedish kings where banquets were held.

However, remains of wooden buildings were found under the Gamla Uppsala church (former cathedral). Recall that the churches were built on pagan places of worship. Are these the remains of the Uppsala temple? We don’t know for sure.

What Happened to the Uppsala Temple?

This discrimination against Christians and religious tensions in general were the cause of a civil war in Sweden. King Inge I, a Christian, was overthrown by Blot-Sven and the pagan faction in 1084. Three years later, in 1087, Inge I and her Christian army regained power in Gamla Uppsala.

It was then that the Uppsala Temple was set on fire and the Christianization of the country was consolidated . According to the records, the last Dísablót took place in the year 1078.

The Dísablót: human sacrifices in the Uppsala Temple

Legend has it that the god Frey settled in Uppsala. It was this god of fertility who encouraged the practice of human sacrifices to satisfy the gods. And from there derives the origin of the Dísablót or “feast of the gods”.

Nobody has lost the Dísablót

Dísablót was celebrated in February every nine years and was attended by all Swedes, from the king and nobles to the common people . Assistants from all over the country brought offerings for the deities. If anyone could not come due to illness, old age or any other circumstance, he would ask the neighbors to take their tributes to the gods.

Slaves also took part in the Dísablót… usually in the form of sacrificial victims. There was only one sector of the population banned from the party: the increasingly numerous Christians. Not only could they not participate, but Christians also had to pay a heavy fine .

A feast of human and animal blood

The number of creatures sacrificed is confusing enough, but the truth is that nine males of each species, in addition to humans, were sacrificed for nine days . As we know, nine is one of the most sacred Viking numbers in Norse culture.

All were slaughtered and their blood collected in bowls. The bodies were hung upside down from tree branches in the forest surrounding the religious complex.

Blood made the forest and the trees that believed in it sacred. All these offerings had in the background songs, “horrible” and “impudent” choirs according to Adam of Bremen. People were ecstatic.

On the other hand, each god of the temple had a priest who collected the corresponding offerings. Pilgrims paid homage to Frey for having fertility in their marriage or their crops; to Thor to avoid or cure the disease; and to Odin to gain wisdom or triumph in war.

Uppsala as the center of Viking power

We remember that after Dísablót there were two great events that alone justified a large influx of people. On the one hand, the convening of the Thing of all Swedes; on the other hand the Disting or market.

As a curiosity we will add that some members of the Ásatrú religion performed a blót in ancient Uppsala in 2000 . Not less than 900 years after the last one celebrated.

This was the Battle of Stamford Bridge (1066)