What I’m writing about this week, #14: Viking human sacrifice

Sometimes you don’t realise what a book is really about until you have almost finished writing it. King of the North (Fire Born 4), I have just discovered, having recently typed The End at the bottom of the manuscript, is not about kings at all. In fact, I realise, it’s about the Viking practice of human sacrifice.

A 19th-century engraving of the battle of Brávellir. Note the berserker next to the front horse!

This book, the fourth outing for my heroes Bjarki Bloodhand and Tor Hildarsdottir, is a retelling of the legendary battle of Brávellir (above), which took place in what is now Sweden some time in the mid 8th century. And as with all legendary or mythical events, the facts are rather vague, and confused and most of what we think we know is probably untrue. But that’s why they used to call this period the Dark Ages.

However, the legend is, I think, extraordinarily revealing about the Viking mindset, and it goes something like this. (NB, I have not stuck very closely to the legend for King of the North, so don’t worry about spoilers.) Harald Wartooth, King of Denmark, was getting old and is worried that he will die peacefully in his bed and so won’t make it to Valhalla. So he asks Sigurd Hring, King of Sweden, to help him get there.

Heroes are served by Valkyries in Valhalla while Odin (in winged helm!) sits on his throne

The two kings agreed to meet in on a flood-plain in Sweden, near the modern town of Norrkoping, and have the battle to end all battles. Each king prepared for seven years, and they recruited the greatest heroes of the North to fight for them, as well as mercenaries from Frisia, Finland, Ireland and the Slavic lands. Some 200,000 warriors fought in the battle, it was rather improbably claimed by later chroniclers.

At the height of the action, when Harald Wartooth had killed a satisfactory number of enemies, his own steward crushed his skull with a war club, at his lord’s orders, thus ensuring that Harald went to Valhalla. It is said that 40,000 men perished in the battle. So all those warriors died in a pointless, pre-arranged fight so one important guy could go to his otherworldly reward. How’s that for a mass human sacrifice?

The Old Sacrifice

Professor Neil Price, of Uppsala University in Sweden, my go-to-guy in all matters of Viking culture, writes in his brilliant textbook The Viking Way: “Battle itself was a sacrificial act, as the enemy dead were offered to Odin in advance.” And Harald Wartooth, of course, sacrifices himself. He gave the order to his steward to knock his brains out at the climax of the battle. Sacrifice is all about giving away something precious – and what could be more precious than your own life? – in exchange for something better.

Human sacrifice has been practised in societies since the dawn of time. Think of Isaac offering up his first born son to God in the Bible (below), only to be reprieved at the last minute. Think about the Aztecs ripping the hearts out of their sacrificial victims by the thousands. So there is little doubt that the Norse cultures of the Viking Age practised human sacrifice, and it might even have been a regular occurrence.

A 10th-century Arab traveller called Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who visited Viking settlements in Russia, witnessed the sacrifice of a young woman at the funeral of a chief; and archeological bone evidence from Scandinavia shows that people, often women and children, were killed along with livestock and buried at religious sites such as the Great Temple at Gamla Uppsala. Sometimes their hands are bound, which suggests they were not willing participants of the ritual, but more likely slaves or prisoners of war.

“The Sacrifice of Isaac” by Caravaggio

In The Saxon Wolf (Fire Born 2), I describe a scene of human sacrifice in a sacred grove in north Germany. Nine prisoners of war (nine is the sacred number) have been bound and hung up high in the trees: “The Saxon warrior had a long spear in his hands. He approached the first one, a young handsome fellow of not much than sixteen summers, barely able to shave, and lunged upwards very fast. The spear-tip sliced into the victim’s belly, surging on upwards through skin and muscle and under his ribs and deep into his lungs. The young man gave a great scream, only partially drowned out by the drumming and the loud singing of the priests. Blood fell like warm rain on the Saxon spearman. The other eight dangling victims were now also shrieking and bellowing in their fear.” 

The truth is that we don’t know exactly how these Viking human sacrifices were made, the records are very scanty. That’s where fiction writers like me come it. We gather up what evidence there is and make the rest up from our imaginations. Unpleasant these sacrifices most certainly were, but I also think they are absolutely fascinating. And I have revisited these gruesome Viking rituals in Chapter One of King of the North (at the Great Temple at Uppsala). I probably shouldn’t be telling you all this – I’m giving away something precious. But, in true sacrificial style, I’m giving you this precious insight into my book and my creative process and hoping that I will get something much better in return. Your custom as book-buyers.

King of the North (Fire Born 4) will be published in August 2023. The Last Berserker (Fire Born 1), The Saxon Wolf (Fire Born 2) and The Loki Sword (Fire Born 3) are all now available from Amazon.

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