Walking with Vikings

Gamla Uppsala, according to Mirinda, was a site where the Vikings would voluntarily offer themselves as sacrifices to all father Odin as depicted in the wonderful TV series. If so, there’s no mention of it in the museum. There was, however, a pagan temple somewhere thereabouts, so maybe it’s true.

According to Wikipedia: “It was also the location of the Thing of all Swedes which was a thing (general assembly) held from prehistoric times to the Middle Ages, at the end of February or early March.[7] It was held in conjunction with a great fair called Disting, and a Norse religious celebration called Dísablót.

Dísablót was a religious festival held there each year and there were sacrifices so, maybe, this was it. According to Danish historian, Saxo Grammaticus (c1150-c1220), there were human sacrifices held at Gamla Uppsala. These days, while the festival is still held in Uppsala, no-one is sacrificed. The festival is called Disting. I reckon we’re going to have to go one day.

And, following on from yesterday’s post, it was the location of the first Uppsala cathedral. It was built using one of the burial mounds for building material.

The mounds, in the photo above, are called Kungshögarna (Royal or King’s Mounds) though there’s no evidence that any royals or kings were buried there. Excavation of the two either end in the photo above, unearthed a high status man aged between 20 and 40 in one and possibly a woman and child in the other. Though that may not be the case. The problem with identification appears to be the fact that the bodies and artefacts were burned before being mixed up and shoved into an urn and buried.

Blame Odin. He declared that the dead be buried along with all their belongings. At least that’s what it says in the Ynglinga saga.

Inside the mounds, right down the bottom, are big stones and under the stones are cremated human remains and burned grave goods. And then a whole lot of dirt was piled on top. There’s nothing about where the dirt came from. It’s not like there’s big pits everywhere.

My visit to Gamla Uppsala started, naturally enough, at the bus stop (line 2 from just down the road from my accommodation). From there it was but a very short walk to the museum.

As I entered the museum, I was just in time to join an English tour and I’m glad I did. I think the woman guide was an archaeologist (she definitely had an archaeological friend at least) because she didn’t speak in absolutes.

She took us on a tour of the museum, explaining what the mounds revealed over the years and how the site changed from pagan temple with possible horse racing facilities, to a big old Christian cathedral.

She was very good. I particularly liked her saying that the Christians told the Vikings that in order to accept JC into their lives, they’d have to give up whores. The Vikings agreed. When the Christians tried the same thing with the Irish, they said no, they wouldn’t give up whores and they still eat whores to this day. It was at that point I realised she was saying horse. Pre-Christianity, the Vikings ate horse. I guess that does make more sense. I didn’t know that the Irish still did.

Speaking of eating, I had lunch at Odinsborg, where it’s really important not to get caught behind stupid American tour groups. Of course, I didn’t know that then, and was stuck behind one, headed by that worst kind of tourist the old white male (OWM), in a voice muffling mask. Though why his mask affected his hearing is anyone’s guess.

The staff at Odinsborg are excellent and their English is perfect but this OWM couldn’t understand what was happening. I don’t know why he’d been elected to do the ordering because he was inept. If he was the best choice, the rest of the group must be right morons.

Having had lunch I quickly escaped Odinsborg, just as a massive group of Germans, I think, queued out the door. They couldn’t have been as bad as the American crowd but I wasn’t taking any chances. Some of the women looked quite cranky.

I went and sat for a short while in the churchyard at the parish church. Very peaceful it was among the dead. I would have gone inside except for the sign outside the main door.

It was outside the church that I found out a little more details with regards to the original cathedral (see yesterday’s post). According to legend, King Eric Jedvardsson walked from the royal manor at Gamla Uppsala on 18 May 1160 in order to celebrate Mass. During the service, a bunch of Danes approached. They were clearly not Eric fans. When the king left the church, a conflict started which ended with his decapitation.

Eric’s head rolled down a hill and, where it stopped rolling, a spring of water suddenly appeared. He very soon became Saint Eric and he was buried near the original cathedral but, when it burned down in the 13th century, he was dug up and reburied at the new one. There is no mention of what happened to the spring. I didn’t see one.

But, back in the peaceful churchyard, I was very pleased to see a detached belfry, something we saw quite a lot of last year during our time in Sweden. In fact, I actually heard this one ringing as the funeral service finished and the deceased was rung away by the big bell.

Around the side of the church, being used as part of the exterior wall, there’s a rune stone. This was not the first time I’ve seen this, the old stones becoming part of the fabric of a church. Given that rune stones are very much like gravestones, marking the passing of people, this secondary use is an excellent form of preservation.

This rune stone says something about the father of a chap called Sigvid Englandsfararen (England traveller) and dates from the year 978 BCE. Here I am with the stone, enjoying some of my Viking heritage.

For more information regarding Vikings, archaeology and generally very informative stuff you didn’t know you needed to know, I recommend this Tumblr blog: Digging Viking Woman.

Having drenched myself in Viking lore, I headed for a short walk around the mounds. There were quite a few people, mostly in family groups, wandering around but it never felt crowded. And the mounds were quite peaceful.

The mounds are fenced off (a very friendly fence) from the public with little, unobtrusive, signs saying not to walk on them. There are tracks across them from days gone by and it’s easy to see the erosion caused by the many feet.

According to the guide in the museum, when one of the mounds was excavated, the archaeologists decided to make a tunnel through it rather than dig down from the top. The tunnel extended 25 metres into the mound. People would visit Gamla Uppsala and walk into the mound.

Eventually, though, they had to close the tunnel off because students from Uppsala University regularly held parties in it and it became somewhat unstable. Needless to say, there’s no longer any evidence of a tunnel at all. Though Uppsala University students presumably still hold parties.

But the mounds aren’t the only excavation sites. There was also a grave found near the spot where the vicarage now stands. It was the grave of a woman. With her were clothes, jewellery and other grave goods. Silk from China, Arabic coins, and, most importantly, an amulet which depicted a female deity.

Many experts say that the site at Gamla Uppsala was the realm of the goddess Freya and, perhaps, the woman’s amulet depicted Freya. Obviously, we’ll never know for sure but I like to think so. I quite like Freya and her cats. This picture was on the information board.

Freya was a total party girl. According to Loki, she’d slept with all the gods. She was completely devoted to pleasure. It’s understandable that she would be worshipped. The whole killing thing that Odin looked after pales into insignificance when you consider the pleasures of Freya’s realm.

Having spent a lot of time wandering around and admiring this amazing place, it was time to catch the bus back. I didn’t have long to wait and was soon deposited at the Centrum where I bought a few beers for later consumption.

I rather liked the Juicy IPA, though all three were particularly good. I drank them to honour the great Goddess Freya who guides my life towards happiness and beer.

Tomorrow I return to Stockholm.

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