Whilst the writings in the Eddas and Sagas present a jumble of romantic (and perhaps) metaphorical ideas, the material finds of archaeologists, and the recordings of monks and other contemporary writers provide evidence of a slightly more certain kind. In Chapter 18 of The Viking World, written by Anne-Sophie Grasslund of Uppsala University, she describes how, since the 1990s, the remains of structures have been found at Sanda in Uppland and Borg in Ostergotland that could have been cult temples. The remains of sacrificial offerings and amulets, miniature Thor hammers and tiny sickles attest to the conclusion that, before Christianity, there existed in the Germanic peoples of Scandinavia and Saxony, a common belief system that shared many ideas and icons.
In general, it appears that the pre-Christian Scandinavians were much given to the carrying of charms: miniature Thor hammers, Odin spear heads, tiny women with drinking horns (Valkyries?) and phallic icons. Weird beasts also form part of the iconography, and I have read that this emanates from a belief that the gods visit our world in the shape of animals and humans, whereby they can influence the actions of mankind. (In these respects the religion is not so different from that of the ancient Greeks. Indeed, Homer’s Iliad reads rather like an Icelandic Saga.)
But why their jewellery and their carved thrones, marker stones, ship’s prows and harness bows are full of gripping beasts is not known. Personally, it seems to me that there may be some link with the ‘magical’ quality of knotting ropes. To someone unfamiliar with the resolution of forces about a node (I qualified as a civil engineer many decades ago), why certain knots should hold and others not, may have been somewhat mysterious.
Open air sacred groves have also been found. Excavations under the chancel of a medieval church at Froson in Jamtland produced many domesticated and wild animal bones, including bears, placed among the roots of a growing birch tree. Carbon dating gave 745 +/-85 to 1060 +/-70. At an Iron-Age site at Lunda, Sodermanland, three small (2-3cm long) metal figures were found, one in gold, that appeared to be hanged men. Perhaps it is coincidental that the tapestry found in the Oseberg burial site also shows men hanging in a grove. But this occurrence is also reported in Adam of Bremen’s famous account of the happenings at Uppsala in the eleventh century. And archaeological excavations of the graves of high status leaders on the Isle of Man and at Repton, have provided evidence of the ritual sacrifice of a slave-girl and of children respectively. So it would appear that circumstances could exist in the Scandinavian belief system for human sacrifice to be justified. The thought occurs to me that we are not so far removed from this, even today.
In The Viking World, Chapter 16.2, Routledge 2008, Dr Olof Sundquist Theologian and historian, says about Yggdrasill (the world tree) and other characteristics of Scandinavian pre-Christian theology, that similar ideas come from a common Indo-European heritage that can be traced in Greek, Phrygian and Indic traditions.
Could it be, I wonder, that, along with Greek and Roman civilisations, these old conceptions of reality were equally so weak in sophistication, but strong in basic survival concepts of right and wrong, that both the Roman and the Germanic tribes were so ready to accept Christianity?