Old Norse Religion
The religious beliefs of the Vikings and other pagan Scandinavians are generally referred to as the Old Norse Religion. There is no evidence that the Norse themselves ever had a specific name for their religious beliefs and practices. Belief in the old gods was an integral part of their lives. To separate the need to worship the gods and avoid their wrath from other daily activities would have been alien to their way of thinking. Only with the coming of Christianity did it become necessary to distinguish between the "new faith" and the "old ways". This article will focus primarily on the historical aspects of the Norse religion.
The Principal Gods
As with most religions in pre-Christian Europe, the Norse worshipped a pantheon of deities. Each god or goddess held a specific sphere of influence in the world. The Norse deities were divided into two races, the Æsir and the Vanir. As with the Roman deities, the principal Norse gods each had a day of the week named for them. Curiously enough, no god was associated with Saturday. According to one of the resources I consulted, the Norse originally had a six-day week, which may account for this omission.
- Oðin/Wotan (chief of the gods, his principal day was Wednesday; according to legend, he sacrificed an eye to learn the secret of the Runes. He is also identified with the Roman god, Mercury)
- Þórr/Þunor (the "Thunderer", he was the most popular of the gods; his symbol — the hammer — acquired widespread use among the Vikings; his day is Thursday and he is identified with the Roman god Jove or Jupiter)
- Freyr & Freyja (twin brother and sister, they were the deities of love, sex, and fertility; they belonged to the lesser race of Vanir and their joint day is Friday; Freya is also identified with Venus)
- Tyr/Tiw (god of law and warfare, his cult was not widespread among the Vikings; due to oath-breaking, he was obliged to sacrifice one of his hands to the wolf, Fenris; he is associated with the day Tuesday, and he is identified with Mars)
Besides the principal gods listed above, there were numerous other deities. Most important were Baldur and Loki. Baldur was the first of the gods to die, in fulfillment of an ancient prophecy, Voluspa, which foretold the death of all the Norse gods and the coming of a new golden age. A similar prophecy in Vergil's Song of the Sybil was widely interpreted by medieval clergy as the coming of the Christian religion. Baldur's death was brought about by Loki's treachery. Loki was the chief adversary of the Norse gods. Other important deities include the Norns or "fates"—able to see past, present, and future—and the Valkyries. These were the seductive and terrifying daughters of Odin that chose who would live and who would die, on the field of battle, and conducted them to their final reward in Valhalla, the abode of the heroic dead.
An Ethnic Faith
Unlike universal religions such as Christianity and Islam, the Old Norse religion did not actively seek converts. One became a worshipper of the gods by virtue of one's birth or by marrying into a Norse family. Outsiders had their own gods to watch over them, and any stranger seeking to convert would most likely have been considered a social outcast. As the Vikings settled in news lands, they began to adopt the religious traditions of their neighbors, especially Christianity. Many of the Norse however clung to both traditions, publicly professing Christianity, while worshipping the old gods in private.
Lee M. Hollander (trans), The Poetic Edda, Univeristy of Texas Press, 1962, 1999
Gerald Simons, Barbarian Europe, Time-Life Books, 1968