Human Sacrifice in Saxon & Norse Historical Heathenry
Updated: Oct 31, 2021
Pictured below is a rendition of the tribes who would eventually become "the Saxons": Cherusker, Marsi, Fosi, Angrivarrii, and others sacrificing Romans to Woden after Arminius' the Cherusker's defeat of three Roman Legions (22,000 Roman troops) as described by first century Roman Historian Tacitus. The Roman sources claim these proto-Saxon tribes (tribes that would later form the Saxon confederation) sacrificed the Roman soldiers on trees with rocks being used as altars (haergs).
Many scholars in Anglo-Saxon studies, have noted that there is no literary mention of human sacrifice amongst the Anglo-Saxon Heathens. Marilyn Dunn and David Wilson in particular have stated this in their books. (Dunn, Marilyn (2009). The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons c.597–c.700: Discourses of Life, Death and Afterlife. London and New York: Continuum.) & (Wilson, David (1992). Anglo-Saxon Paganism. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-01897-8). Remember though, that absence in written sources does not necessarily prove absence in history. While there are no Anglo-Saxon mentions of human sacrifice, we do have some continental Saxon references to human sacrifice.
Sidonius, is the first to mention human sacrifice among the Saxons. Sidonius is a saint who died in 489 AD. Sidonius' “Nine Books of Letters” is according to one important Saxon scholar Dr. Eric Goldberg "the single most important surviving author from fifth-century Gaul." (The Fall of the Roman Empire Revisited: Sidonius Apollinaris and His Crisis of Identity Archived September 2, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.) Some scholars either accept or dismiss Sidonius’ mention of the Saxons, mainly based on how they view the Latin in which he wrote. Let’s take a look at what Sidonius recorded about the Saxons and human sacrifice, note that the Latin words are in parenthesis:
“When the Saxons prepare to set out from their homeland (patriam), their custom (mos) dictates they sacrifice one-tenth of their prisoners. The victims are chosen by lot and killed by water or crucifixion. (per aquales et cruciarias poenas)” Some translate this last phrase very differently, instead of "killed by water or crucifixion" they translate it as: "they were made to die by torturous drowning." (Sidonius, Apoll, “Nine Books of Letters” ep, vi. Lib.8, as quoted from Page 192 of “The History of the Anglo-Saxons” Volume 1 by Sharon Turner). Please note, the word "excruciating" is cognate to the Latin word "crucifixion." PLEASE NOTE: This is a reference that does suggest that the Saxons did not sacrifice their own people, but prisoners (of war) to their Gods.
In terms of the Latin, this is rather simple, if Sidonius is saying that the Saxons engaged in crucifixion, he is obviously wrong, as this was not a practice known to Germanic tribes. If Sidonius is saying that the Saxons drowned human sacrifices in a torturous way, that is at least plausible, and backed by archaeological evidence of bog sacrifices. (This being said though, the Old Saxon Heliand Poem refers to human sacrifice by the Saxons, and the use of water is not mentioned in this very large work (two and a half times the size of the Old English Poem “Beowulf”). The Old Saxon Heliand has many references to Saxon human sacrifices to Uuoden. This being said, Sidonius' statement may only refer to Saxons sailing the North Sea as Pirates, and this could be the reason Old Saxon poetry doesn't mention this practice.
The Saxons lost a thirty-three-year war of independence against Charlemagne, King of the Christian Franks. The Saxon goal of this war is very clear and not debated by historians: The Saxons wanted to remain Heathen, and free from foreign Frankish-Christian rule. When the Saxons lost the Saxon Wars, Charlemagne forced three different capitularies and one law code called “The Lex Saxonum” on the Saxons. The goal of the Lex Saxonum was to take away Heathen law and force upon the Saxons Christian law. These laws outlaw human sacrifice.
Sentence #9 of the Lex Saxonum (the Law code forced upon the Heathen Saxons in 797 AD, states the following: “If anyone shall have sacrificed a man to the devil, and after the manner of the Pagans shall have presented him as a victim to the demons, let him be punished by death."
This is an interesting sentence. It proves that the Christians did believe that the Saxon Gods did exist, but that they were relegated to being deceitful spirits called “demons” and “the devil.” It also proves that the Franks thought that Saxons did human sacrifice. (On a side note, animal sacrifice is not mentioned in the Lex Saxonum, my belief is because the Christians understood Heathen blot as killing dinner and sharing blood with the Ancestors and Gods, which was not "sacrifice" in the Biblical sense. The Germanic tribes did not WASTE animals burning them on altars in the manner of Biblical sacrifice, but the skins were used by Germanic peoples for clothing, and the blood was shared with the Ancestors/Gods, followed by a meal. It is VERY interesting that the Christians did not accuse the Saxons of doing Animal Sacrifice, nor did they forbid it in the Lex Saxonum.
Please note as well, any Christians complaining that Heathens did human sacrifice should stop for a minute, and THINK, as Jesus himself, the center of Christian religion is indeed a human sacrifice, or some odd form of deicide or suicide.
These sources imply the Saxons performed human sacrifice, that they sacrificed their own people to their Gods. I disagree with this, per the quote above. The Saxons felt they were descended from Sassnoth, son of Uuoden (see the Genealogy of the Kings of Essex, 8th century). Therefore, sacrificing their own Saxon children or sons to their Ancestral Gods would be sacrilege. Uuoden (Odin), Thunaer (Thor) and Sassnoth (or Saexneat) were war Deities as well as tribal deities. Prisoners of war were sacrificed. There are MANY examples of this in the Old Saxon Heliand, where men are sacrificed on trees with rope. They were just hung on trees (as Uuoden hung himself on a tree) and pierced with spears (Uuoden's weapon). The Old Saxon Heliand was written circa 830 AD. The Lex Saxonum was written in 797 AD. When Christ is crucified in the Old Saxon Heliend Poem, he is both nailed to a cross, and hung on a tree with rope, as the Saxons did not understand Roman crucifixion. Therefore, first time Gospel hearing Heathen Saxons would have no idea what crucifixion was, hence in writings like the Heliand, the Saxon method is mentioned alongside of the Roman method as kind of an introduction to these new foreign religion's thoughts and methods. Saxons hung prisoners of war with rope from trees, and they did not use nails. They did use a spear to honor Uuoden (Odin.)
Here is a Heliand passage showing Heathen and Roman methods of execution in the same sentence, as obviously one can’t be nailed to a cross and roped to a tree at the same time… (translation mine from my published book "The Saxons")
Before giving some lore passages on Norse Human sacrifice, let me state that in Norse Sagas, sometimes Kings, the most important people are sacrificed. Sometimes their backs are broken on a rock, which somehow leaked blood onto a rock. Please note, outside of the Saxon references, which are 5th, 8th, and 9th century references by non-Heathens, the Norse references were in all fairness written by Christians and sometimes centuries after Historical Heathenry had come to a close. Therefore, one must remember Christian and anti-Heathen bias in reading these passages:
Chapter 10 of Eyrbyggja Saga: "The circle where the court used to sentence people to be sacrificed can still be seen, with Þór's Stone inside it on which the victims' backs were broken, and you can still see the blood on the stone." Please note the phrase "sentence people." This implies that those sacrificed were criminals.
Perhaps the most notable example of human sacrifice in the Icelandic literary records occurred on the day the Alþing was considering the adoption of Christianity in the year 1000. The heathens present at Þingvellir decided to sacrifice two men from each of the four quarters, according to chapter 12 of Kristni Saga. The heathens called on the gods to prevent the spread of Christianity through the land with this human sacrifice.
Adam of Bremen wrote his famous passage in his book "Gesta" in the 11th century: "It is the custom moreover every nine years for a common festival of all the provinces of Sweden to be held at Uppsala. Kings and commoners one and all send their gifts to Uppsala, and what is crueler than any punishment, even those who have accepted Christianity have to buy immunity from these ceremonies. The sacrifice is as follows: of every living creature they offer nine head, and with the blood of those it is the custom to placate the gods, but the bodies are hanged in a grove which is near the temple; so holy is that grove to the heathens that each tree in it is presumed to be divine by reason of the victim's death and putrefaction. There also are dogs and horses hang along with men. One of the Christians told me that he had seen seventy-two bodies of various kinds hanging there, but the incantations which are usually sung at this kind of sacrifice are various and disgraceful, and so we had better say nothing about them."
The German bishop, Thietmar of Merseburg in his 11th century "Chronicon", describes how the Vikings met every nine years at Lejre on Zealand in January “and offer to their gods 99 people and just as many horses, dogs and hens or hawks, for these should serve them in the kingdom of the dead and atone for their evil deeds.” (PS- I tend to wonder if Adam of Bremen borrowed Theitmar's passage, as Adam also copied other historical passages on the Saxons in his writings... a common practice for Adam.) It is of course also possible that Danes and Swedes did perform a very similar sacrifice every nine years.
The Ynglinga Saga states: "Domald took the heritage after his father Visbur, and ruled over the land. As in his time there was great famine and distress, the Swedes made great offerings of sacrifice at Upsalir. The first autumn they sacrificed oxen, but the succeeding season was not improved thereby. The following autumn they sacrificed men, but the succeeding year was rather worse. The third autumn, when the offer of sacrifices should begin, a great multitude of Swedes came to Upsalir; and now the chiefs held consultations with each other, and all agreed that the times of scarcity were on account of their king Domald, and they resolved to offer him for good seasons, and to assault and kill him, and sprinkle the stalle of the gods with his blood. And they did so." I really have a hard time taking this passage at face value. What we know of Heathen votive sacrifices and blots, the best are given to the Gods. This passage seems to have Swedes deciding to sacrifice a bad king responsible for the famine to Odin, and it is more of a form of an execution than a ritual human sacrifice. Please join us on Facebook in the group: "Aldsidu: Saxon Heathenry."