Woodcut depicting the Temple at Gamla Uppsala, in what is now Sweden, by Olaus Magnus, from his Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (“Description of the Northern Peoples”), published in Rome in 1555.
This woodcut includes a few key features noted by scholar Adam of Bremen in his late eleventh century work Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum (“Deeds of the Bishops of Hamburg”), specifically, a golden chain that can be seen from far away; a massive tree nearby; and a well for making human sacrifices.
This temple is one of the few known such sites in ancient Scandinavia. What made Gamla Uppsala (“Old Uppsala”) so special, and what role did this site play in the religious lives of the Vikings and their forebears?
The short, obvious answer is that we can’t be sure: records are sparse, and Adam’s account is one of the most detailed we’ve found (and probably ever will find) describing any Germanic pagan temple.
But let’s get into the details anyway. First, here’s the bulk of what Adam has to say on the temple and what happens there in his Historia:
Chapter 26: Now we shall say a few words about the superstitions of the Swedes. That folk has a very famous temple  called Uppsala, situated not far from the city of Sigtuna and Björkö. In this temple,  entirely decked out in gold, the people worship the statues of three gods in such wise that the mightiest of them, Thor, occupies a throne in the middle of the chamber; Wotan [Odin] and Frikko [Freyr] have places on either side. The significance of these gods is as follows: Thor, they say, presides over the air, which governs the thunder and lightning, the winds and rains, fair weather and crops. The other, Wotan -that is, the Furious–carries on war and imparts to man strength against his enemies. The third is Frikko, who bestows peace and pleasure on mortals. His likeness, too, they fashion with an immense phallus. But Wotan they chisel armed, as our people are wont to represent Mars. Thor with his scepter apparently resembles Jove. The people also worship heroes made gods, whom they endow with immortality because of their remarkable exploits, as one reads in the Vita of Saint Ansgar they did in the case of King Eric.
Scholium [note/addition] 134: Near this temple stands a very large tree with wide-spreading branches, always green winter and summer. What kind it is nobody knows. There is also a well at which the pagans are accustomed to make their sacrifices, and to plunge a live man into it. If he is not found, the people’s wish will be granted.
Scholium [note/addition] 135: A golden chain goes round the temple. It hangs over the gable of the building and sends its glitter far off to those who approach, because the shrine stands on level ground with mountains all about it like a theater.
Chapter 27: For all their gods there are appointed priests to offer sacrifices for the people. If plague and famine threaten, a libation is poured to the idol Thor; if war, to Wotan; if marriages are to be celebrated, to Frikko. It is customary also to solemnize in Uppsala, at nine-year intervals, a general feast of all the provinces of Sweden. From attendance at this festival no one is exempted Kings and people all and singly send their gifts to Uppsala and, what is more distressing than any kind of punishment, those who have already adopted Christianity redeem themselves through these ceremonies. The sacrifice is of this nature: of every living thing that is male, they offer nine heads with the blood of which it is customary to placate gods of this sort. The bodies they hang in the sacred grove that adjoins the temple. Now this grove is so sacred in the eyes of the heathen that each and every tree in it is believed divine because of the death or putrefaction of the victims. Even dogs and horses hang there with men. A Christian told me that he had seen 72 bodies suspended promiscuously. Furthermore, the incantations customarily chanted in the ritual of a sacrifice of this kind are manifold and unseemly; therefore, it is better to keep silent about them. 137
I highlighted the most important features in bold: they are, again, the bits in Magnuson’s woodcut above regarding the golden chain, the giant tree and the sacrificial well, and inside, carvings of Odin, Thor, and Freyr, with Thor occupying the most important place.
It’s also worth noting how Adam describes the sacrifices made at the temple, because that speaks to some extent to how much we can rely on the account itself: these chapters are consistent with symbology associated with these gods, and similar to other accounts of sacrifices to these gods, though perhaps on a grander scale.
Compare all of this to Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian who studied German tribes in the first century CE, publishing his own account in his De Origine et situ Gernanorum. One thousand years before Adam, worship of Odin, Thor, and Freyr was described a bit differently:
The Germans, however, do not consider it consistent with the grandeur of celestial beings to confine the gods within walls, or to liken them to the form of any human countenance. They consecrate woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to that hidden presence which is seen only by the eye of reverence.
This practice continued long after Tacitus’s visit to the German tribes and well north of those specific tribes, as there’s a record of a grove dedicated to Thor at a Viking settlement in Dublin, and many such place names throughout Scandinavia and northern Europe. Norse travelers were known to seek out and consecrate trees to the gods so that they could complete their worship rituals. One of the most famous conflicts between Germanic pagans and Christians involves the 8th century felling of a Thor/Donar Oak in Gaesmere, in the region of Hesse, Germany.
And trees aren’t the only sacred objects or spaces, just the ones most often commented upon. For instance, as settlers came to Iceland, the small mountain Helgafell (“holy mountain”) was almost immediately consecrated and treated as a potential gateway to the Other World. It remains a cherished site to this day.
This older reliance on rituals held in groves or centered on trees is consistent with the animistic understanding of the world that we can attribute to many ancient religions and to the Germanic pagans in particular. Animism is a perception of everything in the world having an animating consciousness, not just humans. You may recall in the story of Balder’s death that Frigga sought the promise of everything in the world not to harm Balder, not just humans and animals. He was killed by a shaft of mistletoe, a piece of wood that we would normally think of as inanimate but is treated in the story as having the opportunity to make the promise but was overlooked due to an oversight. Thus the Germanic pagans believed themselves to have a relationship with everything in the world, not just other humans.
But as a shaft of wood or a tree has its own animating consciousness, recall also that Thor was, in his own way, exactly the same thing. Thor was the storm, the thunder and lightning that showed the fierce battle constantly being waged between awesome forces of creation and destruction.
And by having a particular tree or grove consecrated to all the gods, or to one god in particular, worshippers had the opportunity to use these trees as intermediaries, to help achieve a closer, more personal connection with the gods, and to allow the gods to better receive the dividends and intentions from a sacrifice, human, animal, or otherwise.
So why a temple at Gamla Uppsala then? What changed in the 1,000 years from Tacitus to Adam that made the Swedes move indoors?
At least a partial answer is that they didn’t. As you’ll note from Adam’s description, sacrifices were made in a sacred grove – outdoors. He relates tales of a massive tree, perhaps modeled on Yggdrasil, and a sacrificial well, perhaps modeled on the well of Urd, both of which are also outdoors.
And it’s also worth bringing up now the archaeological evidence of Gamla Uppsala and its “temple”. We have long been aware of at least some evidence of a building beneath the foundation of a church in Gamla Uppsala, and there are three large burial mounds at the site as well which have been excavated in the past 200 years. Many of those interred here are obviously wealthy, important figures, which lines up with our understanding of Gamla Uppsala as a centralized gathering place where kings, jarls, and other leading figures would come to conduct business commercial, legal, and religious.
Perhaps just as notable as the burial mounds and remains of the temple is a recent discovery of a mile-long row of 144 large wooden columns around eight to ten meters (26-32 feet) tall. These pillars appear to be in a processional row. Whether the columns had a purpose other than as guideposts is hard to say, but it’s worth noting that 144 is a multiple of 9 and also a multiple of 6, and is thus relevant to sexagesimal number systems and could have astronomical significance. They also fit the general concept of a “vé“, “an open space marked off by some barrier such as ropes or fencing, within which the ground must not be defiled by bloodshed, nor weapons carried.” [the site cited is here quoting Simpson, Everyday Life in the Viking Age]
It seems likely that Adam’s description of the temple decked out in gold and with a golden chain probably has more to do with his expectation of places of worship from his own experience of an organized religion with a separate hierarchical priesthood conducting business in dedicated buildings. The temple he describes sounds more like a Christian temple than the “stave churches” made of wood that Scandinavian converts to Christianity would build over the next few hundred years, and more likely would have resembled any sacred building their ancestors would have built.
Archaeological evidence for structures in the Viking Age, at least, has not yet indicated separate structures like this for worship, or anything quite like a stave church. It would likely have seemed like trying to contain the gods, as Tacitus noted. Instead, if some daily rituals, or simple weather issues forced worship inside, then these rituals were simply conducted in homes, or in common areas like town halls or multi-use farm structures.
It’s possible that there was enough Christian influence on the Germanic pagans at Uppsala that they adopted some Christian practices and brought at least some of their worship indoors. After all, Gamla Uppsala was a key centralized location where people traveled from far and wide. They might well have treated it as a place of pilgrimage as Adam describes.
But it might also be the case that the “temple” was an especially large structure set near the sacred grove, tree, and well, that was used for several purposes. Law and commerce may have been conducted there, and the statues of the gods Adam mentions may have been included for worship or for adornment – Vikings didn’t compartmentalize religion from the rest of their lives, typically, so it may have been the case that a large building warranted large statues inside because that was the best way to keep the gods present. A dedicated priesthood for any or all of the gods may have formed in this centralized place, but given the fact that rituals in smaller communities were led by community leaders, those leaders may have worked together to lead the nine-year sacrificial rituals in addition to their local duties. It’s hard to be sure, and again I caution against taking my analysis as authoritative due to my lack of expertise.
In reviewing the available records, I think Olaufson’s woodcut, and Adam of Bremen’s description on which it is based, are overly Christianized depictions of a site that was undoubtedly one of the most important sacred places in the history of the worship of the Aesir. While we won’t ever know exactly what it looked like, Adam’s biases and second-hand reporting have probably left us with a permanently fuzzy understanding of the temple, its design, and its exact function.
At the very least, this is a reminder that the perspective of the observer matters when attempting to understand the practices of other peoples, whether those living in the world today or those who have passed into history and legend.