Post-classical history



Do you know how to cut? Do you know how to read?

Do you know how to stain? Do you know how to test?

Do you know how to invoke? Do you know how to sacrifice?

Do you know how to dispatch? Do you know how to slaughter?


Björn Ironside, Halfdan Whiteshirt,2 Ubbe, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Ivar the Boneless.

The recitation of their names has a poetry about it, like the ritual summoning of Viking ghosts. Most of these individuals – if not all of them – were, unlike their supposed father, real people. Of the five, three of them – Ubbe, Halfdan and Ivar – had a major role to play in Britain during the ninth century. In the stories that were written about them in later centuries, the relationship with their father, Ragnar Loðbrók, was crucial – not least in establishing a motive for their violent intrusion into England.

The vengeance that they (and Ivar in particular) were believed to have wrought on King Ælle for supposedly dumping their dad into a snake-pit has been held up for centuries as the epitome of Viking savagery and pagan cruelty. ‘Ivar and the brothers’, so the story is told in Ragnarssona þáttr(‘The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons’, written c. 1300), ‘had the eagle cut in Ella’s back, then all his ribs severed from the backbone with a sword, so that his lungs were pulled out’.3

This grotesque performance has become known as the ‘blood-eagle’. Saxo Grammaticus, writing at least a hundred years earlier than the author of this account (though still 300 years after the event) gives a version of something similar, but his description is ‘milder’ in that the outline of an eagle is simply incised into Ælle’s back; no messing around with ribs and lungs flapping about all over the place (although Saxo does introduce some literal salt into the wound: ‘Not satisfied with imprinting a wound on him, they salted the mangled flesh’).4 More pressing than the disagreement between these sources, however, is the fact that the only contemporary account of Ælle’s death implies that it occurred during the Northumbrian attempt to recapture York in 867. Even if we imagine this unpleasant spectacle taking place in the immediate aftermath of victory, one might expect that something so outlandish would have received a passing mention, even in a document as famously laconic as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The earliest Old Norse reference to the killing of King Ælle comes in verse form. In a stanza of one of several skaldic poems composed in praise of King Cnut in the eleventh century (known collectively as Knútsdrápur), the poet Sigvatr Þórðarson wrote:

Ok Ellu bak,

At lét hinn’s sat,

Ívarr, ara,

Iorví, skorit.5

Translated literally, this turns out as:

And Ella’s back,

at had the one who dwelt,

Ivarr, with eagle,

York, cut.6

To say that skaldic verse is an economical art-form would be something of an understatement, and the particular form that the Knútsdrápur took (a metre known as tøglag) was particularly compressed. Most pertinently, the relationship of the elements within the stanza is as ambiguous in Old Norse as it is in modern English. It can be translated as ‘Ivar, who dwelt at York, had an eagle cut into Ælle’s back’ – the implication being that Ivar cut the image of an eagle into Ælle’s back. This seems to have been how medieval writers understood it, and modern historians have tended to accept the interpretation of Saxo and the saga-writers.

However, the verse could equally well mean ‘Ivar, who dwelt at York, caused an eagle to cut Ælle’s back’.7 Or, if one is to fill in the subtext: ‘Ivar, having captured York, defeated and killed King Ælle: which meant, to everyone’s general satisfaction, that eagles were able to gouge the flesh of his corpse as it lay face down and naked in the mud: hooray for Ivar, feaster of eagles!’ This, the reader may remember, is very much the sort of thing that Viking aristocrats enjoyed being praised for. Good kings were those who could claim particular success in turning their enemies into fleshy morsels for raptors and carrion creatures (especially the wolf, raven and eagle). In other words, it is utterly conventional, and precisely the sort of thing we should expect a skaldic poet to come out with.8

The elaborate and inconsistent descriptions of gory rituals contained in Saxo’s history and in the sagas seem, when seen in this light, to have been the product of a medieval misunderstanding, one which has been compounded by a tendency among modern translators to approach the poetry through the prism of those later embroideries.

The supposed ‘rite of the blood-eagle’ seems, therefore, to be a myth of Viking barbarity conjured up in later centuries by antiquarians enthralled by the exoticism of their forebears and titillated by their gory antics. As the late Roberta Frank, the incomparable scholar of Germanic languages and literature, put it: ‘Medieval men of letters, like their modern counterparts, could sometimes be over-eager to recover the colourful rites and leafy folk beliefs of their pagan ancestors.’9 This should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the pagan people of northern Europe did indeed engage in practices which – from our perspective – appear horrific and bloodthirsty.

In a famous passage in his Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesie pontificum (‘Deeds of the Bishops of the Church of Hamburg-Bremen’), the eleventh-century German chronicler Adam of Bremen decided to give an account of what he called ‘the superstition of the Swedes’. After an extraordinary (and frankly somewhat unlikely) description of a temple at Uppsala, he goes on to explain that:

each of their gods have appointed priests to offer up the sacrifices of the people […] The sacrifice proceeds as follows: nine males of every living creature are offered up, and it is customary to placate the gods with their blood: their corpses are hung in the grove next to the temple. That grove is so sacred to the heathens that every single tree is considered to be divine, thanks to the death or rotting carcass of the sacrificed; they hang dogs and horses there alongside men.10

There are plenty of details in Adam’s account that provoke sceptical beard-stroking – the grandiose scale of the temple and its associated rituals, as well as the obvious Christian agenda of the author, are paramount among these.11 But even if the details are dubious – indeed, even if there never was a temple at Uppsala12 – evidence from elsewhere in the Viking world suggests that sacrifice, perhaps including human sacrifice, was very much a part of pre-Christian religion in the north. In 1984, remodelling of Frösö Church in Jämtland, Sweden, led to an archaeological investigation of the chancel. Beneath the altar, the excavators discovered the stump of a birch tree, cut down before the church was built. In the dark earth surrounding the tree were found the bones of animals – cattle, goat, sheep, pig, horse, dog, chicken, grouse, squirrel, deer, elk and bear – scattered in profusion, disarticulated, broken and cut. The remains of humans were also found: two adults (possibly more) and two children – one between three and five years old, the other a baby of less than six months. All of the bones, human and animal, can be dated broadly to the Viking Age. The evidence from Frösö strongly suggests that the tree was a focal point for sacrificial offerings, and it is possible that humans and animals (or parts of animals) were hung from branches – in a manner similar to that described by Adam of Bremen – until they were cut down and buried, or rotted and fell to the earth below.13

Other images and texts from the Viking Age seem to corroborate Adam of Bremen’s tale – at least in part. Ibn Fadlān explained that, in gratitude for supernatural intervention and assistance, animals were slaughtered and their remains offered to the idol. The offerer ‘hangs the heads of sheep or cows on the wooden stakes which have been driven into the ground’.14 Ibrâhîm ibn Ya`qûb al-Ṭurṭûshî, a Jewish merchant from Islamic Spain, reported that in Hedeby, ‘When a man kills a sacrificial animal, whether it be an ox, ram, goat, or pig, he hangs it on a pole outside his house so that people will know that he has made a sacrifice in honour of the god.’15 It must have made for a grisly street scene.

A fragment of tapestry, woven in the ninth century, was preserved in a ship burial at Oseberg near Oslo in Norway. It seems to depict a strange tree laden with corpse-fruit while a procession of wagons, horses, women and warriors passes beneath it. Finally, the famous Stora Hammars picture stone from Gotland appears to show something more elaborate: a small figure lies face down on a small structure. Behind, to the right, stands a bearded man, leaning forward, wielding a spear. Behind him and above him, two large birds are depicted – ravens, perhaps. To the left of the scene an armed man hangs from a tree, to the right a crowd wave their weapons in the air.16 No one knows what this scene is intended to convey (a mythological scene, a legendary narrative, a depiction of contemporary practices?), but the impression of blood-ritual is unmistakable and a connection to the cult of the god Odin entirely plausible.

One of the most evocative of medieval embellishments was that which transformed the supposed rite of the blood-eagle from a sadistic and vengeful act into a religious ritual. This notion of cultic sacrifice has its origins in the only other saga account of the practice – a description in the thirteenth-century Orkneyinga saga which insists that Halfdan Long-leg (a son of the ninth-century Norwegian king Harald Finehair) ‘had his ribs cut from the spine with a sword and the lungs pulled out through the slits in his back’ by Einar, Earl of Orkney, who ‘dedicated the victim to Odin as a victory offering’.17 The saga is deeply flawed as a guide to historical events, its grisly details as unreliable as the sources discussed above. In one detail, however, the saga may preserve a real aspect of the relationship between death and ritual during the Viking Age: an association with the lore and cult of Odin, Lord of the Hanged (Hangadrottinn).

There is no escaping the fact that Odin, as we know him from Old Norse poetry, as well as from later medieval writings, is a troubling and sinister deity. Among the most ominous of the huge number of names by which he was known are Valföðr (‘father of the slain’), Skollvaldr (‘lord of treachery’), Hjarrandi (‘screamer’), Grímnir (‘the hooded one’), Hildolfr (‘battle-wolf’), Bölverkr (‘evil worker’), Draugadróttinn (‘lord of the undead’), Hengikeptr (‘hang-jaw’) …18 His portfolio is a broad one: magic, warfare, rune-craft, fate, poetry, prophecy, dissimulation, power and death seem to have been considered his main areas of interest. Odin’s multifaceted nature makes him a difficult god to characterize. But in all his guises there runs a skein of darkness, an intimacy with death that hangs off him like a cloak of shadow that obscures and obfuscates – a dark and tattered mantle.

Odin’s association with bloody rituals is bound up with the god’s repeated acts of self-sacrifice in the pursuit of hidden or forbidden wisdom. His one empty eye socket – the god’s most unambiguous distinguishing feature – was the result of his thirst for a draught from the well of Mímir, the fountain of wisdom and intellect presided over by its eponymous guardian. To gain access to the well, Odin plucked out his own eye and gave it to the waters – an exchange of sight for insight.19 When Mímir the guardian died, decapitated during a war between the gods, Odin took possession of the severed head. He carved runes into it, spoke charms over it. Ever after it would speak with him, whispering him secrets, telling of other worlds. Here is Odin the necromancer, conversant with corpses.

The knowledge of runes and charms came about as the result of an even greater sacrifice – the god’s dedication of himself to himself:

I know that I hung on that windy tree,

spear-wounded, nine full nights,

given to Odin, myself to myself,

on that tree that rose from roots

that no man ever knows.

They gave me neither bread, nor drink from horn,

I peered down below.

I clutched the runes, screaming I grabbed them,

and then sank back.20

The tree from which Odin was hung is probably to be identified with the world tree, Yggdrasil. The spear with which he was wounded is probably his own dwarf-forged spear, Gungnir. Unlike the loss of his eye, given as surety to a third party, this was a more profound sacrifice – one which acknowledged Odin himself as the highest power to which an offering could be made, himself to himself, an ordeal of transcendental suffering – the primal bargain of power for pain.

The initial Viking capture of York came towards the end of 866, and the calamitous Northumbrian counter-attack didn’t materialize until March of 867.21 The delay meant that the Vikings were probably able to celebrate their victory in synchronicity with the mid-winter festival, a time of drinking, feasting and sacrifices known, in Old Norse, as jol – or, as we know it, Yule. As is so often the case, we only have much later writers to rely on for any sense of what this festival involved. And, almost as predictably, it is the Icelander Snorri Sturluson in his great historical cycle Heimskringla who provides the detail. This comes, firstly, in Ynglinga saga, where he explains that sacrifices were made at mid-winter for a good harvest (a provision which makes sense if one imagines mid-winter as marking the rebirth of the sun – the start of the solar year – and the beginning of a new cycle of growth),22 and, secondly, in Hakonar saga góða (the saga of Hákon the Good). Hákon (King of Norway between 934 and 961) is principally remembered for his role in promoting Christianity in Norway, and one of the ways he apparently tried to achieve this was by aligning the Yule festival with the dates of Christmas. As Snorri explains, ‘previously observance of Yule began on midwinter night (12th January), and continued for three nights’. He goes on:

It was an ancient custom, when a ritual feast was to take place, that all the farmers should attend where the temple was and bring there their own supplies for them to use while the banquet lasted. At this banquet everyone had to take part in the ale-drinking. All kinds of domestic animals were slaughtered there, including horses, and all the blood that came from them was called hlaut (‘lot’), and what the blood was contained in, hlaut-bowls, and hlaut-twigs, these were fashioned like holy water sprinklers; with these the altars were to be reddened all over, and also the walls of the temple outside and inside and the people also were sprinkled, while the meat was to be cooked for a feast. There would be fires down the middle of the floor in the temple with cauldrons over them. The toasts were handed across the fire, and the one who was holding the banquet and who was the chief person there, he had to dedicate the toast and all the ritual food; first would be Odin’s toast – that was drunk to victory and to the power of the king – and then Njǫrð’s toast and Freyr’s toast for prosperity and peace. Then after that it was common for many people to drink the bragafull(‘chieftain’s toast’). People also drank toasts to their kinsmen, those who had been buried in mounds, and these were called minni (‘memorial toasts’).23

Although this description is generic – it could apply to any festival – the fact that it follows Snorri’s reference to Yule implies that he expects it to be read in that context. Much of it evokes a familiar yuletide scene – families gathered together around the fire, plenty of booze and roasted meat, companionable glasses raised to family and absent friends, to peace and good fortune. From a modern perspective, however, this cheerful tableau of comfort and joy is somewhat compromised by the torrent of gore applied liberally to walls, floors and guests. Still, if we believe Snorri (and his description is disarmingly artless and non-judgemental), this is the sort of scene that we can imagine Ivar, Ubbe and Halfdan enjoying over the York festive period during the winter of 866/7.


Snorri Sturluson, as imagined by the artist Christian Krohg, 1899 (Wikimedia Commons)

After consolidating their initial victory by defeating and killing Osberht and Ælle, the Viking army was soon making provision to move on. By the end of 867, the great heathen horde was in Mercia, bedding down for another winter and, perhaps, a new round of Yule sacrifice. This, understandably, was not to the liking of the Mercian king, Burhred, though there seems little he could do about it. He was compelled to send south – to Wessex – and request the assistance of his brother-in-law, King Æthelred (Burhred had married Æthelswith, the daughter of the old West Saxon king Æthelwulf in 853). The following year, 868, the West Saxons, led in person by Æthelred and his brother Alfred, joined forces with the Mercians and advanced on Nottingham where the Viking army, ‘protected by the defences of the fortress, would not give battle’.24 This was probably not what the English had expected; pitched battles – not sieges – had long been the preferred Anglo-Saxon way of war. This new-fangled use of fortifications set an unwelcome precedent.

We don’t know a great deal about the realities of siege warfare during the early medieval period, and what we do know is often derived from continental contexts where continuity with late Roman military strategy and technology was arguably stronger. Even so, offensive strategies against fortified positions were, in the words of one distinguished historian of early medieval military affairs, ‘usually conducted with a minimum of finesse’.25 In the ancient world, siege technology had been impressive. A great Assyrian relief carving produced in the early seventh century BC depicts the capture of the walled Hebrew city of Lachish in 701 BC by the Assyrian king Sennacherib. That siege, which took place 1,500 years before the Viking Age, involved massed archers, scaling ladders, siege towers and battering rams – the latter encased in a contraption with more than a passing resemblance to a tank.26 Compare this to the images depicted in relief on the early eighth-century AD ‘Franks’ casket, a remarkable whalebone box crafted in Northumbria and now housed (apart from a single panel in the Bargello Museum in Florence) at the British Museum. On its lid, a single archer is depicted defending a fortified enclosure, firing arrows from the only point of egress – presumably the door. Ranged against him is a motley band which, compared to the mighty hordes of Sennacherib, seems woefully underprepared for the task in hand (although, to be fair, the scale of the undertaking hardly appears comparable).

Techniques of siege warfare seem to have been rudimentary at best. In the absence of any evidence in Britain for siege engines, the assumption has to be that assaults were typically conducted using the ‘direct approach’; such seems to be the implication of the few indications that survive.27In 757, an internecine feud within Wessex resolved itself in a kerfuffle at the royal hall at Meretun (unidentified). The episode concluded with fighting that took place ‘around the gates’, until a faction loyal to the (slain) king, Cynewulf, ‘forced their way in’ and did for the would-be usurper, Cyneheard. In 917, when Æthelflæd, ‘the lady of the Mercians’, captured Derby from the Vikings, ‘four of her thegns [lesser Anglo-Saxon noblemen], who were dear to her, were slain within the gates’, implying that – 150 years later – barrelling through the front door was still the principal method for gaining access to fortified places.28 These are the occasions on which such tactics worked: when they went wrong – as at York in 867 – they could be catastrophic. More often than not, however, the sieges reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle seem to have ended in something rather more bathetic. Engagements of this nature probably resembled the first attempt on the French castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: a futile charge, a pelting with a range of unpleasant objects, and an ignominious retreat.

Of course, we don’t know for sure that the siege of Nottingham was quite as calamitous as all that. Nevertheless, it does seem to have been a bit of a damp squib. ‘There occurred no serious fighting there,’ the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle offers, rather feebly. John of Worcester adds limply, ‘the Christians were not able to breach the wall’.29 In the end, the Mercians ‘made peace’ with the Viking army; in other words, with no end to the stand-off in sight, and the troops grumbling about their fields and families, the English bought the Vikings off.

All parties went their separate ways – the Vikings back to York, Æthelred and Alfred back to Wessex (presumably). The whole affair has the appearance, if not of cock-up, then certainly of anti-climax. Nevertheless, the episode is significant for several reasons: firstly, it demonstrated how weak Mercia had become since its heyday a hundred years earlier. Not only had Burhred failed to deal with the Viking threat, but he had been forced to turn to his brother-in-law (and, probably, nominal overlord) to dig him out of the hole – unsuccessfully, as it turned out.30 Secondly, it highlighted the willingness, as we have seen, of the Vikings to make use of fortifications in a way which left their enemies off-balance and struggling for military solutions. Finally, and related to the last point, it points to the strategic choice to which Anglo-Saxon kings would resort over and over again when faced with this sort of Viking aggression: they reached for their metaphorical chequebooks, rather than their swords, frequently with – predictably – disastrous consequences.

Burhred was not the first to pay the Vikings to go away. The East Anglian king, Edmund, seems to have done much the same when the micel here turned up on his doorstep in 866; the horses and provisions they had taken in his kingdom in 865 were almost certainly rendered up by the East Anglians in order that they might avoid any further unpleasantness, instead passing the bad news on to their northern neighbours. If that had been Edmund’s hope, then it proved to be a forlorn one.

Here is how the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle puts it: ‘870: [In this year] the here rode over Mercia into East Anglia and took up winter settlement at Thetford. And that winter King Edmund fought with them, and the Danes took the victory, and slew the king and took all the land.’31 This brief notice, a mere thirty-five words, represents effectively everything that is known of the Viking conquest of East Anglia: no battle, no deed of heroism or cruelty, no desperate resistance or punitive vengeance has survived to be passed on to us. All we know is that, 450 years after the Anglian settlement of eastern England, 300 since the South folk and the North folk had recognized a single king to rule over them, 250 since the occupant of Mound 1 had been laid to rest at Sutton Hoo in a ship filled with the treasures of the age, and only 40 since the East Anglian king Æthelstan had slain two Mercian kings in battle,32 Anglo-Saxon East Anglia had fallen to new rulers.

Like the capture of York and the death of King Ælle, however, the conquest of East Anglia and, particularly, the killing of King Edmund were to leave a lasting imprint on the early medieval imagination, eventually developing a significance that would reverberate through the centuries. And, as with Ælle, this would hinge almost entirely on the way that Edmund’s death was later reported.

The first – and fullest – account of Edmund’s death, the Passio Sancti Eadmundi, was written in Latin during the second half of the tenth century by a man called Abbo, a Frankish Benedictine monk from the Abbey of Fleury (in modern France). Probably aware that the century-long gap between Edmund’s death and his account might raise issues of credibility, Abbo was particular about establishing the provenance of his tale. He claimed that he had heard it from Archbishop Dunstan, who had himself heard it told to King Athelstan (of Wessex) by an ancient who had served as King Edmund’s armour-bearer. Believe that if you will – there is no way to prove it either way. Suffice it to say, however, that there are aspects of Edmund’s death (and subsequent undeath) that present certain difficulties.

Abbo starts, in time-honoured fashion, to establish some familiar tropes (I quote at length to give a flavour of his idiosyncratic waffle). He reminds us:

that from the north comes all that is evil, as those have had too good cause to know, who through the spite of fortune and the fall of the die have experienced the barbarity of the races of the north. These, it is certain, are so cruel by the ferocity of their nature, as to be incapable of feeling for the ills of mankind; as is shown by the fact that some of their tribes use human flesh for food, and from the circumstance are known by the Greek name Anthropophagists. Nations of this kind abound in great numbers in Scythia, near the Hyperborean Mountains, and are destined, as we read, more than all other races, to follow Antichrist, and to batten without compunction on the agonies of men who refuse to bear on their foreheads the mark of the beast.33

Vikings, Abbo wants us to understand, are a very bad thing.

He continues, in this wonderfully circumlocutious way, to elaborate the arrival of Ivar (‘a tyrant who from sheer love of cruelty had given orders for the massacre of the innocent’) and Ubbe (‘his associate in cruelty’) in East Anglia and the hideous and horrible atrocities they carried out there. All of which is mere preamble to the real point of Abbo’s story – the description of the gruesome and absurdly sadistic killing of King Edmund, drawn out in lingering, almost eroticized, prose. Edmund, stoic in his refusal to fight, was bound in chains, mocked, beaten and tied to a tree. He was lashed and tortured, ‘but unceasingly called on Christ with broken voice’. Irritated by this, the Vikings ‘as if practising at a target’ discharged a forest of arrows into the hapless king until he resembled ‘a prickly hedgehog’ (asper herecius). Somehow, this was not enough to finish off the defiant Edmund, or even to silence him (his people may have wished that he had shown the same backbone on the battlefield). This was apparently the final straw for Ivar. Edmund, barely able to stand, ‘his ribs laid bare by numberless gashes’, prepared for the killing blow: ‘while the words of prayer were still on his lips, the executioner, sword in hand, deprived the king of life, striking off his head with a single blow’.34

In the past, some historians have attempted to argue that Abbo’s lurid descriptions are an essentially accurate illustration of a ritualized killing, a garbled retelling of the sacrificial rite of the blood-eagle. This is manifestly absurd. For one thing, the Passio Sancti Eadmundi should be judged precisely as it is titled. It is a Passio (a ‘passion’), a story modelled on the Passion of Christ, a martyrdom story explicitly intended to elicit empathy and sympathy from its audience for its anguished protagonist – an overwrought exhortation for reader or listener to wallow in second-hand suffering, to facilitate mental excoriation in order that the audience can better comprehend the corporal self-sacrifice that God inexplicably demands from his most devout followers. It is also, of course, modelled explicitly on the sufferings of Christ and of St Sebastian, that other famous Christian pin-cushion. Abbo is not trying to fool us. ‘In his agony’, he patiently explains, Edmund resembled ‘the illustrious martyr Sebastian’. To argue that the Passio is a description of an offering of royal blood to Odin, with Ivar officiating as fanatic pagan priest,35 betrays a gross misunderstanding of the conventions of martyrological literature, as well as a failure properly to challenge the dubious provenance of the tale.

Other details more fundamentally undermine the Passio’s credibility. After the killing, Edmund’s severed head was taken into the woods and thrown into a bramble patch. Dismayed, those loyal to the dead king resolved to find it and bring it back for burial alongside the rest of his remains (which, Abbo delights in reminding us, were ‘bristling with grievous arrows, and lacerated to the very marrow by the acutest tortures’). However, not even decapitation could stop Edmund from babbling:

The head of the holy king, far removed from the body to which it belonged, broke into utterance without assistance from the vocal chords, or aid from the arteries proceeding from the heart. A number of the party, like corpse-searchers, were gradually examining the out-of-the-way parts of the wood, and when the moment had arrived at which the sound of the voice could be heard, the head, in response to the calls of the search-party mutually encouraging one another, and as comrade to comrade crying alternately ‘Where are you?’ indicated the place where it lay by exclaiming in their native tongue, Here! Here! Here! In Latin the same meaning would be rendered by Hic! Hic! Hic! And the head never ceased to repeat this exclamation, till all were drawn to it. The chords of the dead man’s tongue vibrated within the passages of the jaws, thus displaying the miraculous power of Him who was born of the Word and endowed the braying ass with human speech.36

The search party duly discovered the garrulous head in the bushes, where it was being guarded by a monstrous wolf. ‘Lifting up, therefore, with concordant devotion the pearl of inestimable price which they had discovered, and shedding floods of tears for joy, they brought back the head to its body.’37 They were accompanied by the wolf, who – having seen the head safely entombed – wandered placidly back into the forest.

The Passio was, transparently, a carefully crafted piece of promotional literature – a puff piece for an ineffective king, elevated to sainthood on account of his death at the hands of an ungodly horde. The cult of St Edmund developed in East Anglia remarkably quickly after his death, but it was Abbo’s writings that really got it off the ground. Shortly after it was written it was translated into Old English (in a mercifully abridged – and far more elegant – form) by the prolific writer and abbot of Cerne, Ælfric of Eynsham. With new-found interest beyond East Anglia, and a compelling myth with which to sell it, the cult grew during the latter half of the tenth century and into the eleventh. By the reign of Cnut, the shrine of the saint-king was receiving significant investment and royal patronage. Enthusiasm for the saintly Edmund continued beyond the Norman Conquest and grew throughout the Middle Ages: Edward I’s younger brother (1245–96) was named after him, and St Edmund also appears on the Wilton diptych as a patron and guardian of the angel-faced Richard II (r. 1377–99), alongside John the Baptist and Edward the Confessor. Although his prominence declined after the adoption of St George as the patron of Edward III’s Order of the Garter in 1348, Edmund’s tomb-shrine ceased to be a major place of pilgrimage only when it was destroyed in 1539 during the reign of Henry VIII. Nevertheless, the town and the abbey which housed it still bear his name – Bury St Edmunds: the burh (‘stronghold’) of St Edmund.38

Edmund’s story reminds us that the Christian Anglo-Saxons had their own notions of sacrifice, their own notion of the power of holy blood. And of course, like the Vikings, Christians had their own corpse-god, and their own spiritual mysteries to unravel. Like Odin, Christ had also hung upon a windy tree (in Old English, treow, ‘tree’, was a ubiquitous simile for ‘cross’), pierced in the side by a spear. And, like Odin’s auto-sacrifice, Christ’s semi-permanent death on the cross was also – in its own confusing way – an offering of self to self: the sacrifice of a son by a father, both of whom were indivisible parts of a triple-faceted deity.39 These similarities are unlikely to be coincidental. The story of Odin’s sacrifice may well have been influenced by Christian theology (bearing in mind that all the written sources pertaining to the god date – in the form they survive – from the Christian era). Conversely, both stories, Christian and pagan, may have derived some of their content and their cultural capital from yet more ancient mythic stock. What is certain, however, is that the Vikings shared a range of fundamental religious, moral and supernatural ideas with the Christian Anglo-Saxons with whom they came into contact, not least concerning the transcendental value of self-sacrifice. They saw it in the stories of their god, and they also found it in the way that human beings met their own ends.


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