|Fifty years with the Cult
Site of Rösaring
From Viking Heritage Magazine 3/2002, published by Gotland University.
UKF:s startsida The Sun and the Rösaring ceremonial Road Ämnesområden
the Cult Site of Rösaring
By Börje Sandén
The cult site of Rösaring is located high on a glacial ridge some 40 kilometres northwest of Stockholm, in the municipality of Upplands-Bro. It has ancient cairns and a stone labyrinth, together with what makes this site like no other in Sweden - a well-made roadway running north south along the ridge for over half a kilometre (fig.1). A single carbon dating at one end of the road points to the Viking Age. The site provides the best setting yet discovered for fertility rites and wagon ceremonies as described by the Roman writer Tacitus for the goddess Nerthus.
was in the summer of 1952 that I first set
Rösaring. Just one week earlier I had moved to the district to
my job as schoolteacher and church organist in the little parish of
never guessing that I was to stay on until 1993. Maybe it was the
of a region rich in ancient sites and relics that made me stay. I set
learning all I could, talking with my new neighbours as well as reading
books on history and archaeology. At first this was just in order to
local history, but in 1968 I was appointed local representative to the
National Board of Antiquities, and then in 1977 came a special three
project on history and local identity coordinated by the National Board
of Health and Welfare.
|As guide for the Rösaring
site, I have
long been in close contact with new discoveries and gradually evolving
ideas about how the site was once used. Much has happened there in the
past 50 years.
The cult site of Rösaring
|The cult site is
thought to have
been in use since the Bronze Age, mainly due to the appearance of the
yet unexcavated cairns. Not far from the cairns and taking up a
position at the south end of the ridge is an unusually large and
labyrinth made up of small stones (fig.2). The name
is made up of röse, meaning pile of stones or cairn, and ring, as
in the rings of a labyrinth.
| This labyrinth was listed
as one of the oldest in Scandinavia, and may date back to early Iron
or even late Bronze Age. Yet labyrinths made up of small loose stones
difficult to date with certainty, and the only relevant carbon dating
so far obtained for the entire cult site of Rösaring came from the
well-made, 3 m wide roadway, which runs from the southern end of the
with its cairns and labyrinth, northwards along the ridge-top for 540
The roadway is unique in Sweden and may have been used for ceremonial
The carbon sample was taken at the southern end where the road meets a
large, flat-topped earth mound, and its date points to the early Viking
Up to the 13th century Lake Mälaren was a bay of the Baltic Sea. One of the main Viking sea routes passed Rösaring, on the way to Uppsala and Vendel (fig.3).
Today, people travelling by road past the church of Bro may notice a rune stone with an inscription using the very word “vikings”. This rune stone tells us that a man called Assur had the role of watching out for Vikings (landvärnare mot vikingar), and that his widow built a bridge (bro) as a memory of him.
|It is rare that the word
“vikings” is recorded
at all in old texts, and here it suggests that they were outsiders to
community, and to be feared. Studies of ancient cemeteries at the base
of the Rösaring site show that this area was well populated over a
very long time.
The ceremonial road
| At the
was the stone base of a small rectangular building. At the south end,
flat-topped earth mound had tended to spread down on to the road after
a thousand years of rain, so that the road seemed to lead into it.
This is why the first interpretation was of the road being for a funeral procession, with the mound used for burial of some important dignitary after the body had been prepared in the building at the northern end. But in 1985 in Old Sigtuna, not far from Rösaring, another flattened mound of similar size was examined. It too had been thought to be a king's grave but proved to have been a mound for a district court or thing (tingshög).
Future excavations of the mound at Rösaring may show if it too was just a platform for ceremonies. If so, it is likely that the road was used repeatedly, maybe for some other purpose than burials.
There are three factors indicating a fertility cult at Rösaring.
are often connected
with fertility through stories in which they are the scene of meetings
in springtime between male and female, or earth and sky deities, thus
each year’s new cycle of vegetation and growth.
Second, the roadway suits wagon ceremonies, such as of the fertility goddess in the wagon described by Tacitus.
Third, place names in the neighbourhood also call attention to a fertility cult. About 5 km from Rösaring we find the names Härnevi and Ullevi, which refer to the female earth goddess Härn (Nerthus) and her male counterpart Ull, a sky god, both from the period before the Viking Age. A similar pattern of place names is to be found near all labyrinths lying on ridges crossing Lake Mälaren, as shown by John Kraft in a book published by UKF in 1999.
Typically, these labyrinths have only one path
to the centre - a round, winding pathway defined by 8, 12 or 16 rings
small stones. Mazes with blind paths did not appear until the 15th
|A report about
1717 comes from Johannes Arenius, living in the village at the foot of
the glacial ridge. He wrote in a dissertation in Latin: “In the
of Lossa you will find a massive hill rising steeply in the forest. It
is called Röraring because the place in antiquity was adorned with
winding pathways bordered with stones where young people in summertime,
up to this very day, come together for dancing and playing.”
It is not hard to imagine that what was by the 1700s just a bit of traditional summer fun for youth, might once have been a serious ritual for a much older community, concerned with survival and the prospering of animals and crops during the coming agricultural year.
Fertility gods appear as wagon-gods in many old cultures around the world. Wagons need roads, and there could hardly be a better setting for the ceremony of taking out and/or putting away such a wagon than Rösaring - the only place to date where a suitable roadway has been found so clearly marked in connection with fertility cult.
Many reports of wagons and their gods from other times and places can help us imagine how the site might have been used. Scandinavian examples continue into Christian times, with wagon burials and the crop-blessing processions of St. Eric. Relevant recent publications in Viking Heritage 1/2002 are “The woman on the wagon” by Jörn Staecker and “Freyja - a goddess of love and war” by Britt-Mari Näsström.
of “the Rösaring story” I often use Tacitus' description of the
of the wagon-borne earth goddess Nerthus, thought to be the forerunner
of later wagon-gods. I also include the processional wagons shown on
tapestry of Oseberg together with an image of a goddess and her
(Norway, 9th century AD). More examples are found in the writings of
My own studies in Egyptology have suggested yet another comparison - between Tutanchamon and the Icelandic outlaw Gunnar Helming! An Icelandic saga that escaped Christian censorship (Flateyjarbók) tells of the resourceful Gunnar who fled into Svea territory (the Mälar region). There he took refuge in a wagon carrying the life-size image of the fertility god Frey, attended by a living priestess, and managed to convince many for a time that he was her companion the god Frey, come to life. He thus acted as a living incarnation of the idol of Frey, just as the famous Pharaoh did when he represented the living incarnation of Amon, the sun god. Tut-anch-amon was not a personal name, but a title meaning "Amon’s living statue" (from tut, statue and anch, live or living).
|Tacitus and the
Tacitus admired much in the native culture of the peoples of Germania. He described their "invisible" goddess Nerthus who travelled at special times among the people in a covered wagon, which was kept in a sacred grove on an island in the sea (… in insula Oceani… in the Latin version). Before the wagon was returned to the grove, it underwent ritual cleansing in a secret isolated lake, carried out by slaves who were then drowned in the lake. Tacitus mentions seven tribes of people worshipping this fertility deity, somewhere to his north. Scholars have not identified the place; suggestions have been made, but there are some unclear points in his text. Tacitus never went to Germania, and his report was based on the tales of others.
For anyone wishing to speculate further in the matter, there are two vital points to consider in his story. First, is it possible to identify an island that was an important cult centre at least 2000 years ago, located in an ocean or sea? Second, is it possible to find there a secret isolated lake, where the slaves might be drowned when they had done their duty? Over the years I have entertained my audience with the following proposal.
|"… on an
island in the sea".
To the Romans all of Scandinavia was in an ocean, and the Baltic Sea was simply an ocean extending northwards. The earliest maps of Scandinavia that were drawn in continental countries were based on sailors’ tales. When I first saw Willem Barents’ map from 1598 (fig. 4), I was astonished because it still showed Lake Mälaren as a bay of the Baltic – a full 300 years after the bay had become a lake, cut off by the rising land!
He showed Stockholm and Uppsala as if separated by an archipelago. If Lake Mälaren
|was regarded as a
bay even then,
how might it have been thought of when Tacitus wrote his book in 98 AD
– a full 1500 years earlier, when the sea level was at least 10 m
Perhaps Tacitus, like Barents, based his story on information a few hundred years out of date. The hilltop on which Rösaring is located really was an island in the sea at that time. Note that to this very day, all of Upplands-Bro is connected to the mainland by stretch of land only 2 km wide. Could it be that we have here Tacitus' island in the sea?
|"… a lake,
lying in secret
At the end of Tacitus' story, he describes a special lake where the slaves were sacrificed. Alf Önnerfors in 1960 translated the original text as: “a lake lying in secret isolation”, Per Persson in 1929 used the words: “in a remote lake”, and Hammarstedt in 1916 translated the phrase as "a solitary and well-concealed lake" (author’s translations from Swedish).
If we consider sea levels at Rösaring about 2000 years ago, we find a strange-shaped, almost enclosed bay 1100m directly north of the ceremonial road (fig.5). It resulted from an unusual geological phenomenon. When the glacier that originally formed this region was about 2 km thick, the gravel, sand and boulders being pushed forward in a watery tunnel under the ice were blocked in their flow by an enormous clump of ice. This “iceberg” gradually melted, leaving behind a cavity. The lower part of this cavity is now a small bay of Lake Mälaren and the upper part is a narrow valley called Djupdal (Deep Valley).
When standing at the bottom of Djupdal, you are surrounded on three sides by impressive steep slopes 25 metres high, and can see the present lake about 200 m away to the north. Of course there would have been other bays and inlets here 2000 years ago, one of them even nearer the processional road, to its east – but all of these would have been too wide and open to be described as any kind of lake, let alone secret or isolated.
The cult site of Rösaring has all the elements which make it an ideal setting for Tacitus’ story: a unique ceremonial road suited to wagons, a platform mound at the open southern end and a wagon shed in the forest to the north, beyond which lay a steep sided, almost enclosed, secluded “lake” for the last part of the ceremony, in which the wagon and the covering were cleansed and slaves drowned.
Tacitus mentioned one wagon location and seven tribes, none of which has been convincingly located by any researcher. His description of the northern parts of Germania as “girdled by the sea, flowing around broad peninsulas and vast islands” applies to a very large region.
Fig.5. From a modern map, contour
m. The strange valley of djupdal lies 1100 m north of the ceremonial
which points directley towards its centr. Could this be the reason for
alignment of the ceremonial raod?
|But if we turn from his text to
evidence of place names and land forms, we cannot ignore the
that tribes in the Mälar valley worshipped Nerthus, and that
being readily reachable by sea and suitable in so many other ways, was
a keeping-place for a wagon of Nerthus – maybe even the place that
was writing about. Rösaring should at any rate not be omitted from
Rösaring, a stimulus to new ideas
Rösaring is indeed a fascinating place.
those unfamiliar with its history and archaeology, its unusual geology
and natural beauty are great attractions. Its geology also helps us to
put forward interpretations of past uses of the place, especially
because the first written reports of Sweden’s geography and history are
not fully reliable; they came from people who were never there.
|Tacitus' report of th goddess
From Germania, ch, 40. in Tacitus: The Agricola and the Germania, Penguin Classics, 1970.
“… (These seven tribes) share a common worship of Nerthus, or Mother Earth. They believe that she takes part in human affairs, riding in a chariot among her people. On an island of the sea stands an inviolate grove, in which, veiled with a cloth, is a chariot that none but the priest may touch. The priest can feel the presence of the goddess in this holy of holies, and attends her with the deepest reverence as her chariot is drawn along by cows. Then follow days of rejoicing and merrymaking in every place that she condescends to visit and sojourn in. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms; every iron object is locked away. Then, and then only, are peace and quiet known and welcomed, until the goddess, when she has had enough of the society of men, is restored to her sacred precinct by the priest. After that, the chariot, the vestment, and (believe it if you will) the goddess herself are cleansed in a secluded lake. This service is performed by slaves who are immediately afterwards drowned in the lake. Thus mystery begets terror and a pious reluctance to ask what that sight can be which is seen only by men doomed to die.”
David Damell. Rösaring and a Viking Age Cult Road. In Archaeology and Environment 4. 1985: 171-185. In Honorem Evert Baudou.
John Kraft. The Goddess in the Labyrinth. Åbo Academy 1985.
James Frazer. The Golden Bough. 1922.
Folke Ström. Nordisk hedendom; tro och sed i förkristen tid. 1967.
Britt-Mari Näsström. Fornskandinavisk religion; en grundbok. 2002.
Oskar Lundberg and Hans Sperber. Härnevi. 1912.
David Damell. Vi måste samarbeta med hembygdsfolket. Populär Arkeologi 1983:4.
Börje Sandén. Det hände i Upplands-Bro; en hembygdsbok. 1984. New issue in preparation 2002.
About the author: Börje Sandén has taken part in many community projects alongside his work as teacher and musician, including concerts in historical settings, computerisation of local history records and a book-on-demand publication system. Four books include the “Vad hände egentligen?” series (1990-93) showing the impact of local history on the early development of democracy in Sweden.