Did the Vikings Perform Human Sacrifices?

Conversations about Vikings and Viking culture have become increasingly popular recently, and with good reason.

After all, most of the tales regarding them are as wild as they are fascinating—especially concerning human and animal sacrifice. However, how many of these stories are legends, and which are actual histories?

Vikings may have performed human sacrifices for various reasons.

There is archeological and textual evidence supporting this, but the veracity of these texts is contested because the writers were biased against the Viking religion.

This article examines this evidence and explores some reasons for human sacrifices in Viking culture. It also explores how widespread the practice was during their time.

Also, see Are All Scandinavians Descendants of Vikings? to learn more.

Evidence of Human Sacrifices in the Viking Age

Vikings are indisputably some of the most popular Scandivanians in history.

They’ve recently become a hot topic for conversation thanks to several successful TV shows and movies, viral video games, and even somewhat obscure graphic novels [1].

These seafaring people are most famous as plunderers who attacked and interacted with many European nations between the 8th and 11th centuries (701 AD to 1000 AD) [2].

However, their culture was more than just war, battle, and bloodshed.

Like every people and society across history, they had many interesting religious beliefs, peculiar political systems, and strange communal rituals.

Fortunately, there has been extensive documentation about their way of life, conquests, and even religious beliefs.

So, what is the evidence of human sacrifice in the Viking Age?

Well, this evidence can be grouped into two broad categories:

  • Textual evidence of human sacrifice
  • Archaeological evidence of human sacrifice

These pieces of evidence come from a wide range of sources—from journals by 9th-century historians to isotope-precise investigations of Viking DNA [3].

These sources have also been thoroughly vetted by several experts in the matter to ascertain the truth of Viking history regarding human sacrifice.

The next section of this article examines this evidence in more detail.

Textual Evidence of Human Sacrifice in the Viking Age

Most of the textual evidence for many Viking practices today comes from various sources, including runes, contemporary accounts, sagas, coins, and even Skaldic verses [4].

However, very few of these have been confirmed to be irrevocably true accounts.

Still, as to human sacrifice, there are two primary sources that many experts agree to be authorities on the subject.

These sources are:

  • Adam of Bremen
  • Ahmad ibn Fadlan

Adam of Bremen

Adam of Bremen was a medieval scholar and missionary who worked in and traveled around Scandinavia during the 11th century.

Most of his reports were based on first-hand accounts of his experience with the Vikings.

One can find the best-documented accounts of these experiences in his book, “Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum,” where he described some Viking human sacrifice rituals in a Nordic temple in Uppsala, located in present-day Sweden [5].

In his own words, “Of every kind of male creature, nine victims are offered. By the blood of these creatures, it is the custom to appease the gods.

“Their bodies, moreover, are hanged in a grove which is adjacent to the temple.

This grove is so sacred to the people that the separate trees in it are believed to be holy because of the death or putrefaction of the sacrificial victims.

There, even dogs and horses hang beside human beings.” [6]

However, most of Adam of Bremen’s accounts have long been argued to be no more than Christian propaganda against the Nordic pagan faith of the time.

After all, stories like these were prevalent among the early church, which sought to villainize traditional beliefs in order to Christianize regions.

Ahmad Ibn Fadlan

Ahmad ibn Fadlan’s separate accounts of Viking human sacrifice at the Volga River in Russia lend some more credence to Adam of Bremen’s reports.

Fadlan was an Arabian traveler and scholar, much like Adam, who explored most of Europe in the 10th century during the Islamic Golden Age [7].

His account was similar to Adam of Bremen’s, even though they experienced these practices around 100 years apart.

According to Fadlan, “The men came with shields and sticks. She was given a cup of intoxicating drink; she sang at taking it and drank.

The interpreter told me that she in this fashion bade farewell to all her girl companions.

Then she was given another cup; she took it and sang for a long time while the old woman incited her to drink up and go into the pavilion where her master lay.

I saw that she was distracted; she wanted to enter the pavilion but put her head between it and the boat. Then the old woman seized her head and made her enter the pavilion and entered with her.

Thereupon the men began to strike with the sticks on the shields so that her cries could not be heard and the other slave girls would not seek to escape death with their masters.

Then six men went into the pavilion, and each had intercourse with the girl.

Then they laid her at the side of her master; two held her feet and two her hands; the old woman known as the Angel of Death re-entered and looped a cord around her neck and gave the crossed ends to the two men for them to pull.

Then she approached her with a broad-bladed dagger, which she plunged between her ribs repeatedly, and the men strangled her with the cord until she was dead.” [8]

Archaeological Evidence of Human Sacrifice in the Viking Age

And while the two sources above may be the most popular today, they are not the only textual evidence of human sacrifice in the Viking Age.

In fact, several sagas chronicle the practice among royalties like king Olof Trätelja and king Domalde who were sacrificed by their subjects after severe famines.

However, these sagas are rarely considered vital enough evidence since they show up much later in Viking history or even much closer to recent history.

Therefore, most of the best evidence for human sacrifice among Vikings today comes from archaeological sites in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway—strongholds of the Vikings across many ages.

These include wells in Trelleborg, Denmark, where archaeologists found remains of animals and humans—even small children—dating as far back as the 10th century [9].

This site is one of the most substantial pieces of evidence that prove that Vikings practiced human sacrifice.

Other sites include Lejre, Zealand in Denmark, which had two bodies—a male and a female.

Experts have long established the female body as a wealthy dignitary, probably a merchant.

However, the male was like her thrall, who was beheaded to accompany her to the afterlife.

Ultimately, these prove that human sacrifice was a part of Viking culture for most of their active period.

And while there have mostly been religious connotations to the practice, there’s very little evidence to show how pervasive human sacrifice might have been among the Vikings.

[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source
[4] Source
[5] Source
[6] Source
[7] Source
[8] Source
[9] Source

Christian Christensen

Christian started Scandinavia Facts to explore his family heritage, raise awareness of one of his academic interests as a professor, and civilly promote the region. Please see the About page for details.

Related Questions

error: This content is copyrighted.