Laidoner Triin, Ancestors, their worship and the elite in Viking Age and early medieval Scandinavia
Laidoner Triin, Ancestors, their worship and the elite in Viking Age and early medieval Scandinavia, Thèse de doctorat soutenue en 2015 (University of Aberdeen)
Ancestor worship is often assumed by contemporary European audiences to be an outdated, distant and primitive tradition with little relevance to our societies, past and present. This study questions that assumption and seeks to determine whether ancestor ideology was an integral part of religion in Viking age and early medieval Scandinavia. The concept is examined from a broad socio-anthropological perspective, which is then used to generate an overarching ‘lens’ for a set of case studies which analyse the cults of specific individuals in the Old Norse literary tradition. The thesis argues that the views of social anthropologists have been ignored in Old Norse scholarship for too long and that they have great potential to contribute to our understanding of the religious diversity present in typical folk-religious societies worldwide, including those of pre-Christian Scandinavia. Of particular importance in this context is the concept of ‘god’, which in most traditional cultures is intimately related to the idea of family ancestors. The situation of gods in Old Norse religion has been almost exclusively addressed in isolation from these socio-anthropological perspectives. The public gravemound cults of deceased rulers are discussed conventionally as cases of sacral kingship, and more recently, religious ruler ideology; both are seen as having divine associations in Old Norse scholarship. Building on the anthropological framework, this study suggests that the gods in pagan Scandinavia and Iceland, too, were perceived as human ancestors belonging to elite families. This thesis also discusses the euhemerism found in the Old Norse sources and suggests that even if medieval authors were influenced by classical writings, the ‘euhemerisations’ are based on real perceptions. It does not reject the existence of ruler ideology, but argues that the ideology was based on conventional and widely recognised religious practices revolving around kinship and ancestors. It introduces the concept of ‘superior ancestors’, used in social anthropology to denote a form of political ancestor worship used to deliberately regulate social structure. It is argued that the communal worship of deceased rulers derived from their doubly important role as social leaders and as ancestors.