Does a landscape write its own history? Standing in the fields just south of Gamla (Old) Uppsala, looking north one early morning in June, you realize that this place, one of the largest archaeological sites in northern Europe with its famous mounds, numerous graves, terraces, wells and mysterious buried remains almost demands a good story, a narrative worthy of its monuments.
Sometimes it is almost inevitable, even necessary, that heretical thoughts should strike us now and then, ideas that urge us to consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe the people who composed the poetry, sagas and other stories about Uppsala actually knew little more about the place than we do ourselves. Perhaps they stood there, just as I did, in front of the huge mounds, and were filled with wonder; maybe they happened upon the monuments and assumed – quite naturally – that this enigmatic place must have been the dwelling of ancient kings, no question about it. And if they were incredulous, at least the site could provide a magnificent backdrop for stories about power, wealth and heroic deeds.
Ancient Uppsala is a most versatile place. At various times it has sated all types of scholar, nourished every kind of ideology, and fed all forms of doubt. Portrayals of the site have almost exclusively been made at times when it was necessary to define the relationship between the people and the elite, the elite and the Crown, or the Crown and the Church. These narratives take many forms – an ancient myth, a missionary story, or a tale about princely power play, the struggle for social integration in early modern Sweden, absolute royal power, the freedom of the people, the oppression of the people, centralism, or the manipulation of history. Uppsala, almost without exception, was the stage on which vital scenes of this kind were played out.
There is no shortage of stories of this kind, even if the heroic nature of the deeds they describe can be disputed. Kings walk in and out of the sagas. They were born, eulogized, sailed abroad, and returned in all imaginable states of repair, spending the rest of their lives involved in pointless feuds and legal disputes. They sat in Uppsala on occasion, haunted by misfortune and surrounded by an unmerciful and gloomy aura of meaninglessness – after all, the kingdom they had inherited was a waterlogged land of snow, rain and post-glacial mud. Consequently, while European kings died like regents and Christians, Swedish monarchs died in the most rural fashion – often due to their bottomless stupidity and ardent love of scuffles and fermented beverages. If they did not die of frostbite or, even worse, in their beds, fading away in a terrible state of perpetual infancy, they drowned in barrels full of mead or – like King Sveigder – were lured inside a large stone by an evil dwarf.
With a few exceptions they were all buried right here.
One might think that kings like this would inflict considerable damage on national self-confidence – especially during the seventeenth century when Sweden briefly emerged as a great power, and that early historians would have been prompted to enlighten the world (or at least the Danes) that Mother Sweden, rather than some bizarre parvenu was in fact a lady of pedigree. Yet in some strange way, and without hesitation, the kings were taken straight into the hearts and minds of the early historians, who for centuries tried to ascribe various mounds in and around Uppsala to specific, illustrious kings. Sometimes, as in Johannes Magnus’ Gothorum Sveonumque historia (1558) their deeds were altered beyond recognition. Others, such as Johannes Messenius, put the kings on stage and endowed them with qualities and talents about which the ancient sagas said nothing. It is quite clear that Uppsala and its environs became a literary landscape rather than an historical one.
It is probably a pity to ruin such a provocative approach for the purposes of a thesis on Viking Age Uppsala, but we must accept the fact that the situation is not so simple. The references to Uppsala in the sagas and other early written sources are just too numerous to be ignored, and even if one suspects that certain tales have been rearranged to suit the topography, these sources are still unanimous about the significance of the place. The credibility of certain texts can be questioned, yet nothing in the archaeological evidence really contradicts them as a whole. The essential point is that problems rarely concern the sources themselves, but how we use them.
According to the early written sources, Viking Age Uppsala was the judicial, economic, political and religious center of the Svear kingdom. It was located at Gamla Uppsala, five kilometers north of the modern city. Extensively settled during the second century AD, Gamla Uppsala became the main residence of the Iron Age chieftains and kings who, from the beginning of the Migration Period until the mid-eleventh century, ruled over Sweden proper – Svetjud – an expanding federation of separate provinces pos-sessing varying degrees of autonomy.
The Uppsala kings, the Ynglinga dynasty, gained power over a wealthy domain, and eventually became immortal by claiming mythical descent from Odin himself. Thus, Gamla Uppsala became embedded in pre-Christian mythology as the site from which the kings traced their ultimate ancestry. By extension, every Swede probably did so too.
The most important description of late Viking Age Uppsala is found in Adam of Bremen’s Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, ‘History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen’ (1070-75).
The popular image of Uppsala is based almost entirely on Adam because he is the only contemporary author to describe the site, defining its contours and anatomy. Here we can read about a golden temple, barbaric ritual, human sacrifice and other terrible things intended to scare us. His account of the famous pagan center has been studied and discussed vividly for centuries and has stimulated the imagination of countless historians and laymen alike. Very few have mentioned the obvious problems with Adam’s description of Uppsala – the reason for their silence is clearly ideological.
At some point, the situation at Gamla Uppsala changed. By Adam’s day, the site was no longer the primary royal seat, although its great symbolic value remained. This does not mean it had lost its significance for the kings. On the contrary, they were still the off-spring of Frey, and still participated at the major things, the market and the fair. However, by this time the expression ‘to sit in Uppsala’ was no longer a geographical fact, given that during the Viking Age it had become increasingly important for the kings to show their presence elsewhere in their expanding realm. The now-baptized monarchs were no longer guaranteed a safe haven in Uppsala, where they could easily get into trouble with non-baptised Swedes – after all, Uppsala was the stronghold of the pre-Christian religious custom. Yet ‘to sit in Uppsala’ was the principal form of legitimacy for all Swedish kings until the end of the Viking Age – even if they did not actually sit there very often. He who did not sit in Uppsala was no king at all.
At some point, paganism in Uppsala was expelled or suppressed. We do not know how, and we do not know when. Historians believe the Uppsala dynasty was outmaneuvered by other powerful dynasties – probably from southern Sweden – who came into contact and allied themselves with Continental Christianity at an earlier date than the rest of the country. Even if this is a slightly embarrassing and trivial conclusion, it is the only explanation we have.
Nevertheless, there are a few indisputable facts. After this supposed power struggle, Gamla Uppsala enjoyed a brief renaissance in the twelfth century. The kings returned on occasion, and in 1164 Uppsala became the archbishop’s see, with a cathedral dating from the 1130s onward. Then, in 1258, Pope Alexander IV permitted the archiepiscopal see to move from Uppsala to a more suitable site since the old cathedral was located at a ‘miserable and despicable’ place, i.e. Gamla Uppsala. The initiative came from the Swedish archbishop himself, and the Pope agreed provided that the new location – Östra Aros – changed its name to Uppsala, in a brilliant move reducing much bureaucracy. Reading between the lines, the underlying reason was that Gamla Uppsala was a tragically rural nowhere, where nobody came to mass.
However, there was another, more pressing reason, and a significant one at that. In a letter from Innocent IV to the inhabitants of Uppsala, dated the 9th of August 1245, the Pope promises remission from 40 days’ penance if the people help their archbishop to rebuild the cathedral, which had been damaged by fire. Somewhat later the arch-bishop confirms the letter, promising an additional 40 days’ indulgence. The reconstruction of the cathedral was costly, becoming a nationwide concern, and at some point, the bishops in Sweden decided not to rebuild the cathedral in Gamla Uppsala, but to move the archdiocesan capital to Östra Aros – a more dignified and suitable location, a mere four kilometers downriver. The Pope agreed and the transition began in 1273. This marked the end of an era in Swedish history.
Adam’s description of Uppsala raises many questions. The most obvious one concerns accuracy and authenticity, but the concept of authenticity can change over time. We must remember that Adam was a clerk living at a time of the harsh, pessimistic Augustinian Weltanschauung. There was always a Babylon, always some idol-worship going on somewhere in the world. A world war raged between God and the Evil One, a conflict of literally biblical proportions – there could be no peace, no such thing as neutrality, and no demilitarized zones between the giants. This was for real, this was the reality for a cleric like Adam. Why, then, can we draw any conclusion from Adam’s vivid tales of pre-Christian cultic ritual? What makes his account increasingly suspect is the fact that Adam never set foot in Uppsala, and that he relied entirely on informants and hearsay of varying reliability. Why should we ever believe him?
We do not have to. The problem is not the story itself but how we use it.
Despite the inherent interpretational problems with written sources of this kind, Adam’s account has served as a model for explaining cultic sites and practices elsewhere in Sweden, even in Scandinavia as a whole. Until recently Adam’s credibility had long been beyond reproach, his description of Uppsala and its associated cultic ritual deemed to have been founded upon solid inquiry and investigation.
This attitude prevailed throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and is slightly surprising given the breakthrough of harsh source criticism that swept through Scandinavian universities towards the end of this period. Despite the change in the academic climate, hardly anyone thought to question Adam and his temple. Perhaps because of the significance of the national symbol itself, it is quite clear that no one wished to deprive Gamla Uppsala of her narratives, especially that of the temple. This probably explains why the translation of Gesta from Latin to Swedish was tampered with to fit the Uppsala landscape.
This desperately uncritical perspective was not always predominant. If we turn to the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, antiquarians and historians were far more critical towards Adam than many modern scholars.
Early historians could not help exposing the fact that many of Adam’s descriptions of miraculous events – such as the revelation of the Virgin Mary in Uppsala – were based upon tragic misconceptions. This was understandable given that Adam was a misguided, superstitious Roman Catholic rather than a decent Lutheran. He was wrong, but he could not help it. We should probably regard this attitude as mandatory in the harsh, post-Reformation era, yet criticism of Adam was mostly of an historical-topographical nature.
A general practice at that time was comparative reading. Adam could not be understood without studying the Classics or the Bible, and while his work was being read he was continuously compared to other, analogous sources. It is certainly true that Adam tended to be used freely in those days –incomprehensible or obscure elements were disregarded – but most work by earlier scholars is quite skeptical, especially regarding Adam’s descriptions of topography and cultic ritual. Human sacrifice was a popular motif, but while some scholars, Johannes Magnus for example, treated the subject with deadly seriousness, others such as Johannes Messenius seemed to regard these stories as basically anecdotal. Delighted by its thespian qualities, he repeatedly used human sacrifice as a comical motif in his plays.
In the mid-seventeenth century, Cartesianism swept into the University of Uppsala, imported by the learned Queen Christina, who invited Descartes himself to Stockholm (where he died, probably as a result of the cold climate).
During this period, many Icelandic manuscripts came to Copenhagen and Uppsala, and scholars suddenly acquired an immense resource with which to work. Thanks to many of these manuscripts, such as the Hervarar saga, the picture of pre-Christian Uppsala became radically clarified. At this time, most historians believed the original Uppsala to have been located in the modern city itself. However, as increasing numbers of sagas, letters and other written sources emerged, combined with archaeological findings and the renewed will to listen to popular, oral traditions, it became clear that Gamla Uppsala was the true location of ‘pagan’ Uppsala.
Even if some of the more well-known antiquarian works of this period are absurd and seemingly based on euphoric imagination, most are not. In many ways, seventeenth-century historians had a much broader and more literate perspective on texts such as Gesta than later scholars. Sometimes their critique was based on subtle discussion typical for its day – such as the discourse on the relationship between religion and royal power – a relationship best observed through the subject of idolatry.
The brilliant Johannes Schefferus from Strasbourg, a highly respected Professor of Eloquence and Government at the University of Uppsala, was interested in the theoretical implications of religion and central power in the republican Commonwealth of Great Britain. Olaus Verelius, Professor of Antiquity, tried to understand idolatry with reference to the landscape and in terms of the prerequisite of central places such as Uppsala. Verelius was not only Professor of Antiquity. In his additional capacity as university treasurer, he traveled the landscape, taking note of the vast numbers of Viking Age burials in the vicinity of Uppsala. His library included many British works such as A Perambulation of Kent by William Lambarde and A Learned Discourse of Ceremonies by Lancelot Andrewes. By the time Olaus Rudbeck, Professor of Medicine, sat down to write his notorious Atlantica, he had already conducted some quite impressive empirical fieldwork – his reputation as a fanciful lunatic is a highly distorted one. In terms of Gamla Uppsala, the twentieth-century archaeologist is by no means less imaginative than Rudbeck.
Before I discuss Adam’s detailed description of Uppsala, we should bear some important things in mind. Gesta is clearly a political work. Its emphatic underlying intention is to allow the Archdiocese of Hamburg-Bremen to lay claim to Sweden and to take credit for the salvation of the Swedes – at a time when the Church was undergoing one of its most severe crises ever.
In order to achieve this end, Adam employed many familiar narrative techniques to make his story credible. His setup is as clear as in any dramatic script, the plot structure perfect, the whole in complete harmony with the classic rules of an efficient narrative.
First Adam lets us know that even if Aristotle never slept here, pagan Scandinavian society is comprehensible. Its structures are understandable and its philosophical out-look differs little from the Continental concept of a good, meaningful life. The Swedes are peaceful, their hospitality bountiful, and they are not unfamiliar with the Word of God – despite the dilettantism of some early missionaries. Of course, this is a world turned upside down – people drink too much and indulge in erotic adventures – and yet, Adam says, we have values in common, and the Swedes’ basic cultural rules might easily be nurtured, allowing their world to evolve into a more advanced society. In addition, the country is extremely fertile and rich in resources; they have everything they need. Adam goes on to describe a land ruled at times by baptized kings, some of whom have been banished due to the stubbornness and delusion of the people. This is the mandatory dynamic of an efficient narrative embodied, for example, in the Augustinian battle between Good and Evil – Babylon versus Zion – and even if it is just another dramaturgical trick of the trade, one cannot exclude the possibility that a conflict between the Old and the New actually did exist.
Adam’s main point, his message to the bishops, is this: the Swedes are quite all right and it should not be too difficult to convince them of their urgent need for salvation, but they are stray sheep – send more shepherds.
However, the problem with the Swedes is that they never really seem to get the message. Something is standing in their way, something evil, a nemesis. What could it be?
There are some lesser obstacles, indolent missionaries and lazy clerics, but this is no great problem. People of this kind can easily be replaced. No, the real nemesis, the symbolic nemesis of the Swedes and the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen is the superstition that enslaves the people, the superstition embodied in the heathen temple in Uppsala – the bastion of the ancient, frightening popular customs. This is what holds the Swedes down.
In line with Adam’s narrative technique, the nemesis must be regarded as almost invincible. Thus he certainly describes Uppsala as a pagan center of great importance, but it is a center in decline. It is doomed. The Kings want to tear it apart and burn it down, and the fate of barbarism is obvious. Now is the time for swift action. All it would take is that extra push over the cliff – the destruction of the temple.
Adam’s description of pre-Christian Uppsala contains two essential elements: the micro-topography of the site, and the cultic ritual that took place there. The cultic center comprised a temple (templum and, n.b, triclinium), a well (fons), an evergreen tree (arbor maxima … semper viridis), and a sacred grove (lucum). The centre is located on a plain (planitie) surrounded by hills (montes). We can assume that the terrible Swedish outdoor activities that took place there made a quite unforgettable impression on Adam’s observers. However, this scene has substantial inherent problems.
Turning to the description of Uppsala by Snorri Sturluson, even allowing for his trade-mark minimalism, nothing in Snorri’s account really contradicts Adam. Both authors describe the thing (consillium) and cultic ritual. The major difference between Snorri and Adam is in the detail. Snorri mentions neither a temple nor human sacrifice.
It is sometimes very useful to try and imagine how things actually work in practice, and when it comes to human sacrifice we are limited only by our imagination. We can easily imagine poor souls being selected at random, dragged from their beds in the middle of the night in the midst of a beautiful dream, only to find themselves hanging from a tree surrounded by a jeering mob and some gloomy crows.
It would, of course, make far more sense if the victims were sentenced to death at the thing, and then given to Odin. This sequence of events is crucial and we come across it in many other sources, for instance in Eyrbyggja saga (10), where we learn that a man could be sentenced to blót at the thing. By definition, this is still human sacrifice but with the irrational element removed. These killings were of a primarily judicial nature.
The actual methods of execution – victims were either hanged or drowned – bear the hallmarks of Tacitus’ description of the assembly, or thing, and the death penalty among the Germanic tribes, where criminals were dispatched in a similar fashion.
Today, scholars question human sacrifice as a cultic practice, not only in the late Viking Age but in other contexts too. One of the few contemporary sources that corresponds with Adam is the Chronicle of Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg, which describes human sacrifice at Lejre in Denmark. Even if the Chronicle has been questioned, Thietmar’s Lejre has the same characteristics as Adam’s Uppsala – an important power centre of religious and probably judicial significance. In other words, if Adam’s informant mistook execution for human sacrifice then Thietmar’s may well have done so too.
Professionals and laymen alike have focused considerable attention on the Uppsala temple – especially during the nationalist era of Swedish archaeology. The temple was a popular motif, a fantastic scene that dovetailed neatly with nationalist concepts of continuity and the wrongly ascribed dignity of Viking Age society. However, in common with all nationalist ideas, significant problems are associated with the concept of the temple.
One reason why the idea of a pagan temple was so enduring was the extensive excavation of Gamla Uppsala church in 1926. Directed by the future Professor of Archaeology at Uppsala, Sune Lindqvist, the excavations revealed postholes in the earliest deposits beneath the church floor.
The full excavation report was not published until 1996, but in 1927 Lindqvist released some preliminary findings, including a plan that showed a selection of postholes arranged to form a square building. Although the only dateable find from the earliest deposits was a mould for a tenth-century oval clasp, this brief report did the trick! The conclusion was obvious – Lindqvist had found the famous Temple.
This heralded the beginning of a period of incredible activity. The academic community in Sweden, especially Uppsala, was stricken with an outbreak of temple fever. Numer-ous reconstructions, both plausible and implausible, saw the light of the day. Was it big, was it small, what kind of roof did it have, did it resemble a Norwegian stave church – or was it something different entirely?
Since the excavation had not been fully published, nobody realised that the postholes – for stratigraphic reasons – were not all contemporary with one another. As early as 1966, Olaf Olsen had published Horg, Hof og Kirke, in which he refuted the idea of the temple being a universal element in ancient Scandinavian society. Olsen was highly critical of the automatic interpretation of Lindqvist’s postholes as the remains of the temple, yet still he accepted its existence.
Tourists at Gamla Uppsala are still told that the temple was located on the exact same spot as the medieval church. This theory probably emerged during the late Middle Ages, becoming widely accepted in the sixteenth century. Rather than just another academic construction, the idea probably stemmed from a local, oral tradition. Another version locates the church at roughly the same place as where paganism once flourished. Note the vague wording – it does not say the exact same spot, nor does it really mention a temple. The allusion here is to a sanctuary that included the grove and well.
Even if we are suspicious about the exact location of this cult building, the theory makes sense: to build the archbishop’s cathedral at the most central place in Gamla Uppsala was probably a symbolic act. The Pope would immediately have seen the symbolic value in such a solution, and it would have been tempting indeed to found a church where paganism had flourished not half a century earlier. There is no other way to explain this rather irrational decision – it would have made far more sense to estab-lish the archbishop in a town such as Sigtuna, Strängnäs or Västerås if he were to be installed in this part of the old Svithiod at all.
Another factor that kept a belief in the temple alive was the rehabilitation of a notorious forgery, The Annotations of Bishop Carolus (1678), which purported to confirm the exist-ence of the temple. Even at the time this document was declared the clumsiest and most stupid falsification ever seen, yet it saw a brief renaissance in 1967 when Kjell Kumlien argued for its authenticity. This started the most unbelievable circular argument. Historians claimed that given the archaeologists had found the temple, then Annotations must be authentic; archaeologists argued that the historians had demon-strated the authenticity of Annotations, thus proving the postholes belonged to the temple.
Kumlien’s argument was very weak.
Annotations is not an authentic source.
Templum or/and a triclinium?
The results of the 1926 excavation have been widely disputed. We cannot accept the term templum because we know of no corresponding Germanic word. Neither do we have any other description of a temple in Scandinavia. The only occasion Snorri mentions a building with a cultic function in Uppsala is when he describes the Uppsal itself, the hof, or hall. Elsewhere, the account of the Battle of Fyrisvall in Flateyjarbók mentions Odinshof, a hall, not a temple. Other sources speak exclusively of the hof as the main cultic structure. They never mention temples.
So what did Adam actually mean? He was well acquainted with many aspects of Scandinavian everyday life, and must have been familiar, for instance, with the concept of the Viking Age hall. After all, he was entertained as a guest at the court of King Sven II of Denmark for some time. This is why it is so interesting that at one point in the text he calls the temple a triclinium – a dining hall – by which he obviously means a hall building.
Adam would have been perplexed at the attempts by modern archaeologists to distin-guish between temples and halls. The exercise would have seemed totally pointless to him. From his perspective, a hall that functioned as a cult building, among other things, was a temple. This was the most respectful way to describe this important hall – his nemesis.
Adam’s description of Uppsala gives rise to so many questions that it almost blinds us to the fact that his book was never intended for the modern-day archaeologist or historian. In the late twentieth century it became possible to question some of Adam’s narrative elements. His topography was strange, the temple unlikely, his account of ritual activity went against the grain of contemporary thinking. Perhaps Adam had included foreign details, elements from other sources, just to fill in the gaps or to make the picture as comprehensible as possible. Scholars began to see similarities between Adam’s temple and the description of Solomon’s Temple in 1 Kings 6:21-22.
Sadly, this interesting development was ruined by certain academics who claimed that, rather of Adam, it was the builder of the Uppsala temple who had been inspired by the Bible. Even if this is a peculiar conclusion, the point remains that some of Adam’s narrative elements may well derive from the Bible.
Storytellers trick of the trade
If we accept the idea that Adam was in some way influenced by other sources then the possibilities are limitless, and a cynic can always claim that Adam was simply describing the standard props of any religious scene. A large tree with a well at its roots, golden temples – these are components in many religions, what Jung would have called arche-types.
However, the unique combination of elements makes Adam’s account so interesting. A golden hall on a plain, a spreading evergreen tree with a well at its roots, and a sacred grove – have we not heard all this before? It takes little effort to discover that Adam’s description of Uppsala – the golden chain, the grove, the idols, the well – has its analo-gy in the Edda. We find all Adam’s elements here: the hall of gold (or hall with a golden roof), the evergreen tree with the well at its roots, and the grove. Everything is in place, even the three gods. There are even direct parallels with Gesta, as with the spreading evergreen tree: ‘… but few men know from what roots it springs …’, which chimes with Adam’s ‘What kind of tree it is nobody knows.’
We know that Adam loaned means of expression from other authors. He borrowed enthusiastically – sometimes word for word – from Sallustius, Virgil, Lucan and Horace. He often uses sentences from, and references to, the Bible. So why would he do other-wise when describing Uppsala?
We can almost certainly rule out the possibility that Adam had access to written sources for the ancient Scandinavian religion. Nor did he possess a hitch-hiker’s guide to Uppsala. Adam’s narrative comprised a compilation of oral sources. It may well be that Adam’s informants, when asked about their cults, described the mythological halls Valhall, Gimle, Glitne; the evergreen tree Yggdrasil, Mimameid; the wells Urdal, Minnur; and the grove, Glasner, of the Edda.
Uppsala or Babylon?
There is yet another possibility. Turning to the Bible, to the deuterocanonical Book of Baruch 6:1-73, we find many similarities with Adam’s Uppsala. Jeremiah, in a most eloquent letter to the Israelites who were to be led as captives into Babylon, warns the unfortunate Jews about pagan cults, temples and idols. In their temple, he says, the Babylonians worship three idols made either entirely of wood or covered with silver and gold. Jeremiah’s description of a Babylonian temple could just as well be that of a cult building anywhere in Iron Age Europe, yet the most intriguing part of the letter is where he describes the idols.
One idol holds a sceptre – sceptrum – in his hand. Another is armed with a weapon – a gladius or an axe. Adam’s idols are similarly equipped, but this is not the only familiar feature in Baruch. Jeremiah points out the stupidity of asking these pagan gods for anything: if you suddenly went blind, what would be the point in praying for a miracle? This is paralleled in Uppsala, where Adam tells the story of a pagan priest who sud-denly goes blind. He asked the gods for mercy but to his great surprise nothing hap-pened. Then the Virgin Mary appeared before him, saying that this despicable place, where so much innocent blood had been shed, would soon be rededicated to no less a person than herself. She offered the priest his sight back on the condition that he al-lowed Jesus into his heart, and on doing so his vision was suddenly restored. He praised the Lord and from that day onward travelled Sweden preaching the Word of God.
Having said all this, I do not believe that Adam is far from the truth. Much of his de-scription actually makes sense, depending on how one uses the text. Nothing in the archaeological evidence rules out the possibility of a pagan cult in late eleventh-century Gamla Uppsala. On the contrary, all the available evidence points towards parallelism. The Church was not sufficiently established to eradicate ritual practice among its members.
Adam probably did not embellish his story beyond recognition. He needed to maintain its credibility for contemporary readers and to avoid the risk of his important work being seen as a fake. We should not dismiss the similarities between Gesta and other sources as pure coincidence; neither was Adam cutting and pasting just to tell a good story. Nor were the idols and triclinium just figments of his imagination. In other words, Adam’s narrative elements are familiar from other sources, as common practice at the time was to borrow from the Classics and the Bible in order to make the picture as clear and vivid as possible. After all, Adam, as we have already seen, did not write Gesta for archaeolo-gists or historians of religion. Like any other writer he efficiently adapted his forms of expression, imagery and thoughts for his readers. If he perhaps borrowed the sceptre and the weapon from the Babylonian temple in order to describe the idols of Odin and Thor at Uppsala, this should come as no surprise. To link the tremendously important symbol of Babylon with the thinking of St. Augustine – the foremost Christian philosopher of the age – would have been an elegant and typical gesture for its day. Augustine saw Babylon, pagan stupidity and idol worship in every land. It would not be the first time we see this theme in Gesta.
It is important to distinguish what a person describes from how he or she describes it. Moreover, we must always consider the dynamics of retelling. Every instance of reitera-tion – an example of which is Adam’s text – can introduce errors. These might some-times be deliberate, yet very often they are not. To retell a story, relate a sequence of events or describe a landscape for a purpose often transcends notions of true or false. We remember what we remember, and if we embellish a story then we probably do so in order to draw the listener’s attention to some important point or other. But human memory is an incredible thing. It can take separate fragments of remembered input that share one or more common elements, and meld them to form a new ‘fact’, a fresh, dis-torted sequence of events. The scenery may change, with different lighting, the wrong actors and wrong extras. The story may acquire new props, and it may even be staged in another scene in a different play.
Adam of Bremen vividly described cultic ritual in Uppsala. He probably interpreted the death penalty as a primarily cultic practice, human sacrifice. Adam describes the tem-plum, which he terms a triclinium too. The most obvious conclusion is that the templum in Uppsala was a hof, or hall – maybe the same hall that Snorri Sturluson mentions in Heimskringla.
Many of Adam’s narrative elements and much of his information make sense, but only if we see him as someone other than an eyewitness, and bear in mind how this type of narrative is compiled. I admit to this being just another truism, but with regard to Gam-la Uppsala one cannot repeat it often enough. No other archaeological site in Sweden is surrounded by so many banalities and clichés as Gamla Uppsala, and with scrutiny one finds this is the product of how the written sources have been handled.
Adam never set foot in Uppsala. Most of his information came from informants – some of them Christian, others not. He probably acquired some first-rate information from King Sven II of Denmark and his courtiers, from sailors, and from other clerics. For Adam, a writer with an important mission, selecting sources must have been a delicate task. Like any other author he would have discounted many facts that he regarded as insignificant, if they interfered with his purpose. And like any other writer he probably filled in the gaps with speculation of varying accuracy.