Why Sweden of All Places? or, Visiting the Temple at Uppsala

A woodcut depicting the Temple at Uppsala, based on the writings of Adam of Bremen. From Olaus Magnus' "Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus."

A woodcut depicting the Temple at Uppsala, based on the writings of Adam of Bremen. From Olaus Magnus’ “Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus.”

Among the first questions people would ask me when I told them I was going to be studying abroad in Sweden was “Oh really?” followed shortly by “Why Sweden?” which was the question they really wanted to ask in the first place. The whole “Oh really?” thing was an unnecessary prologue, so we can go ahead and skip that one and go straight to the “Why Sweden?” one.

In trying to answer the question “Why Sweden?” I always found myself in the slightly awkward position of trying to think of an answer that would satisfy people’s curiosity without lying but also without getting into the real, core reason about why I was going to Sweden of all places. The answer usually included my degree’s requirement to study Scandinavian literature as a result of my second language being Swedish and my belief that studying the literature in the context of the history and culture from which it arose would lend me greater insight into the literature itself. If people asked me why I studied Swedish in the first place because come on, who speaks Swedish? they would get the bit about my great-grand-father having been a Swedish fisherman (read: I study Swedish to honor my ancestors and heritage). I only actually told one, maybe two people (and a couple others probably inferred) that coming to Sweden has been a pilgrimage of sorts.

Upon arriving in Uppsala I began to learn more about the history of this place. Among many, many other things I have learned that Uppsala was among the last – if not the last – major pagan hold-outs during the conversion and perhaps the largest, certainly best well-known and maybe only real pagan temple in Scandinavia had once stood maybe five miles from where I currently live, near to the large burial mounds which house the ashes of kings and queens and grave-goods of all sorts. Though the king at the time convinced the Christian folk to not charge through and burn down the temple (interestingly enough, because it might provoke a pagan riot and result in a mass sort of un-conversion [Roesdahl 161]) the temple was eventually lost and little to nothing remains of it. However, enough evidence does exist to establish the location of the king’s demesne or seat of the king’s estate – a location which very likely housed religious practices and sacrificial feasts in addition to political assemblies, and which may have also acted as a temple.

Much of what is “known” about the temple at Uppsala is almost exclusively based on the writings of Adam of Bremen, a Christian chronicler who wrote about the cultic activity at Uppsala without ever having seen Uppsala. Aside from the fact that he likely embellished details related to him by people who had seen Uppsala, the fact that he was closely tied to the Christian church renders him (and probably his sources, as well) somewhat unreliable – but certainly not entirely unreliable. Little to no archeological evidence exists of many of his claims, including that the temple was covered in gold and that human sacrifice was practiced on the site. Some of his claims can be dismissed as exaggerations and embellishments (such as the temple being covered in gold) but others can’t be dismissed so easily (evidence of human sacrifice has been found all over Scandinavia – it’s not impossible that it happened here as well).

The result is that we really know very little about the temple at Uppsala. We know that it very likely existed and we know that sacrifices very likely happened there. We know that it might have occupied the same space as the king’s demesne, which we know lies just a handful of yards from the current Gamla Uppsala Kyrkan (Old Uppsala Church). We know that the location of the temple may have been related to the location of the burial mounds, which were similarly associated with royalty. We know that there may have been a large sacrificial event every nine years and that blóts happened there, probably annually. And that’s about all we know.

All of that is to say that I have no evidence with which to back up my claim that the temple was, indeed, housed in the king’s demesne or that the sacrificial altar stood on the far end of the building, near to where the king sat (I suppose I can’t be too critical of Adam of Bremen after all). All I have to base this claim on is the feeling that arose in my gut as I circled the flat grassy space at the top of the hill and which spread over me as I stepped through the space I imagined to be the entry way – the place where I felt the door.

I tried to walk slowly through the grass, carefully. The sensation of the temple grew and settled. As has occurred around the mounds and on the paths leading off into the wooded areas around them, the sense of this place you are walking on is holy – take off your shoes and let your flesh meet the ground became overwhelming. I paused and took of my shoes. It would be sacrilegious, it seemed, to not do so. I left them behind and took three more steps.

Drop your bag – carry nothing with you into this place. I dropped my bag and went on empty handed to the end of what was once the king’s hall. There, in that place that felt like the receptacle of offerings and sacrifice, what felt like the seat of a king and a hall of the gods, I knelt.

For a while I only sat. I sat and peered through the trees at the golden fields beyond (when I first saw the farmlands stretching out around Gamla Uppsala my first thought was, “This is Vanir land”) and listened to the wind in the trees and, less romantically, the construction in the distance. After a while, it felt like time to pray…not even necessarily to my gods, but the gods of this place, the gods whose land I am living and learning on now: Thor (while attending mass at Gamla Uppsala Kyrkan, Sigyn told me this wasn’t Her place – it had never been Her place. It had been Thor’s place) Freyr and Odin. But not just the gods of this place: all of the Æsir and Vanir, all of the spirits of the land, and the land itself.

And as I prayed my hands moved – folded in front of me or pressed to my heart or my stomach, touching the ground in front of my knees, beside my knees, beside my calves, and behind me, folding again, lifting to touch my forehead, then falling to my lap, then lifting up and to the side, palms turned toward the sky. While they were folded I was only praying. While they were touching the ground, I was feeling the place – the spirit of it, the grass bristly against my palm and the dirt damp beneath it and, somehow, soaked into it still though it’s been over a thousand years, though I don’t know where in Sweden my ancestors came from, the blood of the sacrifice and the blood of the people whose names I don’t know but without whom I never could have existed. When my hands touched my heart or my stomach I was showing the gods and the spirits of that place where I would carry them when I left and when I lifted my palms to the sky I was offering them all that I was, all that I am, all that I will be.

I can’t remember all of what I said while I prayed (and I’m sure most of it was only for the gods, in any case, as has often been the case in my experience). But I told them who set me on this path – Loki, trickster god of fire, blood-brother to the All-Father, Thor’s companion and father of wolves, father of monsters, burden of Sigyn’s arms, destroyer of worlds – and for whom I am now here – Sigyn, lady of the staying power, lady of unyielding gentleness, north star, mother of Narvi and Vali and wife of Loki, victory woman, incantation fetter – and I told them why I am here – to live, to learn, to grow, to learn how to be Her priestess, to learn Her mysteries – and I asked them to be as pillars to me while I do these things – while I live, learn, and grow here in this place, their place, the place of my ancestors.

And while I did this I cried, and while I cried I laughed. Because this – this – is really why I came here, and I am here, this is happening. That bit about school? It was just the excuse I needed to get me here.

[Tahni is beginning to lose track of how long she has been a practicing pagan, but she believes that it’s been somewhere around eight years. She recently became a devotee of Loki, but continues to work with deities and spirits from many pantheons. She often honors the deities and spirits she works with by telling stories for and about them in her art and writing. Some of her work has been featured in Huginn, Lilith: Queen of the Desert and Unto Herself: A Devotional Anthology for Independent Goddesses. She often shares snippets of writing at tahnijnikitins.deviantart.com.]

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