Sacrifice and Sacrificial Ideology in Old Norse Religion
The practice ofsacrifice is often treated as ‘the dark side’ of Old Norse heathenism, by both medieval Christian commentators and modern scholars alike. However, within Norse religious practice, sacrificial ritual (blot) was one of the most central acts of religious observance. This paper will seek to examine aspects of the significance of blot within Old Norse religion, the ideology of sacrifice as it operated within this tradition and its relation to other Indo-European traditions, and the reactions to the issue of sacrifice by medieval contemporaries and modern scholarship. An examination of Old Norse literature relating to religious practice demonstrates the importance of blot within the religious life of the heathens of Scandinavia. Well over one hundred and fifty references to blot can be found in different sources, including Eddic and skaldic poetry, early historical works and annals, legal material, and saga literature. There are no extant scriptures or religious manuals from the heathen Norse that give a detailed explanation of the theory and operation of sacrifice. However, the accounts of sacrificial practice, taken altogether, provide a wealth of knowledge about how it was performed, by whom and to whom, as well as where, when and under what circumstances it was performed. The Old Norse verb bl6ta, which means ‘to sacrifice’, also has the extended meaning ‘to worship’, particularly by means of sacrifice, which testifies to the importance ofsacrifice as a form ofworship. In a language that had no proper word for its indigenous religion, the word blot had become a by-word for all things heathen, evidenced by terms such as blotdomr, blotskapr, or blotnaor ‘heathen worship’, bl6thus ‘temple’, bl6tmaor ‘heathen worshipper’ and even bl6tguo ‘heathen god’.