Long ago, as early as the 3rd century AD, a great temple was built in the name of the ancient Norse gods on the site of what we now call Gamla Uppsala in Sweden. This temple was said to be adorned with gold, and inside the people worshipped the statues of three gods. On the left was Odin the All-father, decked in armour and with his spear Gungnir. In the centre was Thor the thunder-god, the mightiest of the three, clutching his great hammer Mjolnir. On the right side of Thor was Frey, god of fertility, depicted with his immense, erect Penisnir.
Every nine years during the month of Goi (Feb. 15th-March 15th) a general festival for the provinces of Sweden would be held, and all the people would come to this centre of worship to sacrifice to the gods. Nine male animals of each species would be slaughtered and give blood to appease the gods. The feasts and sacrifices continued for a total of nine days, and during the course of each day a man was sacrificed along with two animals. In the nine days, a total of twenty-seven sacrifices would occur. Their bodies were hung in a grove which was adjacent to the temple. This grove was so sacred to the people that the individual trees in it were believed to be holy because of the death or putrefaction of the sacrificial victims. In this grove, even dogs and horses would hang beside human beings.
This site at Uppsala was also known to be the residence of the Swedish Kings. There are three, huge burial mounds at Gamla Uppsala where are believed to be buried King Aun, King Adil, and King Egil of the legendary Yngling dynasty. When a man of great honour and importance died, the Nordic people of that time would cremate him in a massive pyre with all of his most valuable belongings. The fire could reach temperatures of 1500 degrees Celsius and would burn for many days. After the fire finally died, a stone cairn would be built around the body, and then a mound would be piled over the body, making sure the cairn lay in its’ exact centre. The burial mounds at Gamla Uppsala probably took several months to complete, with around 400 slaves working ceaselessly.
“Thus he (Odin) established by law that all dead men should be burned, and their belongings laid with them upon the pile, and the ashes be cast into the sea or buried in the earth. Thus, said he, every one will come to Valhalla with the riches he had with him upon the pile; and he would also enjoy whatever he himself had buried in the earth. For men of consequence a mound should be raised to their memory, and for all other warriors who had been distinguished for manhood a standing stone; which custom remained long after Odin’s time. […] It was their faith that the higher the smoke arose in the air, the higher he would be raised whose pile it was; and the richer he would be, the more property that was consumed with him.” (Ynglinga Saga)
Today at the ancient site of Gamla Uppsala, one can still find the massive burial mounds along with many smaller ones, approximately 250 barrows in total. If there ever was a Norse pagan temple it is long gone, and in its place stands a beautiful Christian medieval church from 1273. Underneath the church the remains of one or several large wooden buildings have been found, which may have been the original pagan temple of Uppsala.
After wandering around the burial sites and exploring the church in Gamla Uppsala, Ashleigh and I decided to take the “Pilgrimage of Saint Erik”, a six kilometre trail from the ancient site to the cathedral in the modern city of Uppsala. Saint Erik Jedvardsson, Sweden’s patron saint, led a crusade to Finland, forcing the Finns to accept Christianity. Erik was eventually beheaded by his enemies and supposedly a spring welled up from where his head touched the ground. On Saint Erik’s day in the springtime, his relics would be carried to the cathedral in Uppsala, until the pilgrimage was discontinued in the 16th century. The pathway still remains and is clearly marked all the way to Uppsala.
We set out on our pilgrimage from the ancient site of Swedish kings and a religion long passed. The trail wound through dark, looming forests and open fields. We reached the cobblestone streets of Uppsala, beautifully decorated with Christmas decorations and coloured lights. We continued to follow Saint Erik’s path all the way to Uppsala Cathedral and congratulated ourselves for completing the quest (200 experience points rewarded!). The cathedral’s spires towered above us and disappeared into the mist, and we looked upon its’ magnificent construction in awe as we approached the main doors.
Inside a choir was practising for Saint Lucia’s Day, a Swedish Christmas event on the 13th, their voices echoing through the perfect acoustics of the cathedral’s halls. Intricately carved columns supported the ceiling painted with divinely inspired, classical medieval artwork. Several tombs of archbishops were marked underneath the stone floor, each one with four iron rings that would allow four strong men to open the grave. Inside also were the relics of Saint Erik Jedvardsson, locked within a golden casket. Many coronations of the Swedish kings were held within the cathedral, and many of them were also entombed there, including Gustav Vasa, John III, as well as other prominent figures like Carolus Linnaeus, Olaus Rudbeck, and Emanuel Swedenborg. Gustav Vasa with his family has the most prominent tomb in the largest chapel at the eastern end of the church. Gustav Vasa is one of Sweden’s most famous kings and is labelled the founder of modern Sweden.
Across the street from the cathedral was the Gustavianum, which contains an Anatomical Theatre where human dissections of criminals were carried out in front of medical students and the public up until 1766.
Ashleigh was on a mission to find one building in particular as we wandered around the cathedral and surrounding streets. Carl Linnaeus, considered the father of modern taxonomy, studied and taught at Uppsala University in the 1700s. He developed the system of taxonomic classification that scientists in the biological sciences use today, and Ashleigh discovered that the house he and his family had lived in was actually still in Uppsala today. We eventually found the Linnaeus house, in the midst of cafes bearing, “Linne,” as part of their names in his honour. It’s too bad that the gardens and orangery weren’t open, but we still got some nice photos of Ashleigh looking very excited in front of the very old house.
The remainder of the day we spent strolling through the quaint streets of Uppsala, enjoying the shops, the sites, the architecture, but mostly reflecting upon the ancient history we learned that day, events that once had occurred on the ground we walked.