Drawing of the place of worship at Ranheim discovered in 2010. (Photo: Preben Rønne, NTNU University Museum).
We still know little about how and where the Vikings worshiped their Norse gods, but a few findings show that religious rituals took place in holy places with processional roads, altars and houses of worship.
Only few remains of heathen hofs are found in Scandinavia, but in 2010 it was by chance discovered an almost complete place of worship at Ranheim, about ten kilometers north of Trondheim in Central Norway.
The discovery revealed a processional road, a round sacrificial altar of stone (Old Norse: hǫrgr) and a house of worship (Old Norse: hof). The wooden building contained traces of four poles that may have had carved faces of Thor, Odin, Freyr and Freyja.
The altar measured fifteen meters in diameter and was about one meter high.
A few meters away, a rectangular building measuring 5.3 x 4.5 meters with 12 poles was found. The researchers are confident that the construction was not used as a residence.
Glass beads, burned bones, part of a skull and several human teeth were also found at the site.
The processional road west of the temple, heading straight toward the building, was marked with two parallel rows of large stones. One of the rows was at least 25 meters long.
Fled from Christianity
The holy place may have been built around the year 400 AD, and the newest findings are dating from the years 895 to 990 AD, – a time when Christianity was introduced in Norway with swords and axes, and “heathens” were killed if they did not convert.
The poles inside the wooden building had been pulled up and removed. The whole altar had been carefully covered with a thick layer of soil and clay at the exact same time Norway was Christianized.
This roundhouse at Avaldsnes, a reconstruction of finds made during archaeological excavations on the Hundvåg Island in Stavanger, may have been used as a house of worship. (Photo: Nordvegen Historiesenter / Merete Vistnes)
Norse writings document that many Norwegians fled the Trøndelag region and took horses, cattle, slaves, tools, – and their Norse faith with them, and crossed the ocean to the west and settled in Iceland and other North Atlantic islands.
Erased From History
There is reason to believe that the old stave churches built after the Christianization of Norway were built on Norse pagan places of worship.
It was convenient: The hofs were often placed nearby key locations and building materials could be reused, while all traces of Norse paganism effectively were erased from history.
Findings from the Mære medieval church in Trøndelag makes it natural to assume that the same location has been used as a pre-Christian hof.
Also in the Old Uppsala in Sweden, findings suggest that the Christian church was built on the same site as the pagan temple.
Irony of Fate
Now, the unique Norse place of worship is removed to make way for new housing.
Several complaints to both the Directorate for Cultural Heritage and the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Norwegian Monuments were denied. The fact that the site is the only of its kind ever found in Norway was ignored.
Many are upset that the historic site was removed although the location of residences at Ranheim easily could have been adapted to the unique cultural monument.
It is an irony of fate that the Catholic Church never was able to locate and destroy the pagan holy place, while modern society obliterated it with a signature.
Text by: Thor Lanesskog