The god Ullr is another of Norse myth’s enigmatic gods, along with Heimdall. Both seem to have faded in importance by the time that the myths were being written down, although people in Sweden and Norway worshipped Ullr, and we know that invoked him when they swore oaths. He is clearly a god of winter and winter pursuits, which has led to a rebirth of sorts in the Ullr Fest held in Colorado each winter.
The first question about Ullr has to be: Æsir or Vanir? The fact that places with Ull- in the name are often found near those with the name Frey- in them has led to the idea that Ullr must be one of the Vanir. One scholar went so far as to identify Ullr with Freyr.1
Unfortunately, the written sources have a different idea. According to Snorri:
How should Ull be referred to?
By calling him the son of Sif, the stepson of Thor, the god with skis, the god with a bow, the hunting god and the god with a shield.
(Skaldskarpasmal, Byock’s translation)
Which would make him an Æsir by adoption, at least. No source remains to tell us who his father was, although theories abound, all the way from Odin to a frost giant.
Where was he worshipped?
The one thing we do get from the place-name evidence is that Ullr once had a healthy cult in Scandinavia, if somewhat limited in georgraphical extent. Stefan Brink has studied the place-name evidence, and concluded:
Ullr has a similar spread to the cult of Freyr, with two distinct areas, the Svea region in eastern Sweden and the Viken region in Norway, whereas Trøndelag has no names and western Norway has some uncertain ones. Denmark has no evidence of a cult of Ullr. A regional cult of Ullinn is demonstrable for the central and western areas of Norway, and only there.2
In Sweden there are 37 Ullevi, or Ullr’s vi (“sacred enclosure”), while in Norway you often get names based on Ullin, which seems to go on the same principle as Oðr – Oðin.3 A listing of place-names is available in the Wikipedia entry for Ullr.
Skadi also has some places named for her in Scandinavia, such as Skadevi (Skadi’s temple) and Skadalund. (Skadi’s grove) It’s difficult to say for sure with many place-names, because the ska- element is common in Scandinavian languages. de Vries thinks her places are mainly in eastern and mid-Sweden, and southeastern Norway. Like Ullr, her places are near those of Njord and Frey, which makes sense.
The Eddas and Sagas
There isn’t a lot in the sources about Ullr. In Gylfaginning, Snorri lists him second to last (Forseti comes after him), and tells us:
There is one called Ull, the son of Sif and stepson of Thor. He is such a good archer, and so good on skis, that none can compete with him. He is also fair of face and has the ability of a warrior. It is good to call on him in a duel.
(Gylfaginning, Lindow’s translation)
So Snorri gives us some information. We can get more by going to the older Edda, where we learn a few more things about Ullr:
Yewdale, it is called, the place where Ull
has made a hall for himself
(Grimnismal: 4 Larrington’s translation)
Yewdale, or Ydalir in Old Icelandic, is an appropriate place for Ullr, since yew was traditionally used for bows. Frey’s home is mentioned next, reinforcing the connection between the two. Towards the end of Griminismal, Odin says
May he have Ull’s protection, and that of all the gods,
whoever first quenches the flames;
for the worlds lie open for the sons of gods
when they lift off the kettles.
It has been suggested that this latter verse refers to some sort of divination or trancework that involved steam. Still, it’s interesting that Ullr’s favour would be enough incentive for Odin to offer it to a total stranger, and that he lists Ullr ahead of all the other gods.
We know that you could swear oaths while invoking Ullr. In the Atlakvida, Gudrun reminds Atli of his oath, earlier in the story:
May it so befall you, Atli, as you gave in oath to Gunnar,
oaths you often swore and pledged early
by the sun curving to the south and the mountain of the War-god,
by the marital bed and by Ull’s ring.
Grimnismal and Atlakvida are considered to be amongst the oldest Eddic poems, which may explain why they are the only ones to mention Ullr.
The Vanir connection arises once more, as we know that in Iceland Freyr and Njord were called on when one swore an oath on a ring (Hauksbok 268):
I attest that I make an oath on the ring, a legal oath: May Freyr and Njörd and the almighty ás help me.4
Much ink has been spilled on the question of whom the “almighty ás” is, but it’s worth mentioning that Ullr is one of the contenders.5 At any rate, the ring was presumably an oath-ring, which was worn or displayed during the swearing ceremony. Eyrbyggja Saga describes one:
But off the inmost house was there another house, of that fashion whereof now is the choir of a church, and there stood a stall in the midst of the floor in the fashion of an altar, and thereon lay a ring without a join that weighed twenty ounces, and on that must men swear all oaths; and that ring must the chief have on his arm at all man-motes.
(Chapter 4, William Morris & Eirikr Magnusson)
Later in the same saga, there is a court case at the local Thing:
Arnkel the Priest went to the doom and made oath on the stall-ring that Geirrid had not wrought the hurt of Gunnlaug; Thorarin made oath with him and ten other men, and then Helgi gave the verdict for Geirrid. And the case of Thorbiorn and Snorri came to nought, and thereof gat they shame.
(Chapter 16, William Morris & Eirikr Magnusson)
There were gold or silver ones that were kept in temples, which always should be sworn on before legal proceedings6, although kings at one time had their own, usually set into a sword hilt. Archaeologists excavating at Lilla Ullevi (Ull’s vi) found 65 amulet rings.They don’t look like oath-rings, so I wondered if they weren’t a symbol of Ullr himself. Or maybe offerings after a successful court case or duel.
Apart from this, Ullr makes one other appearance as Ollerus in Saxo grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum (History of the Danes). In that story, Odin is the king of the gods in Byzantium, but is forced into exile after he dresses up as a woman to get close the king’s daughter Rind, on whom he gets Baldr’s avenger. After 10 years Odin returns, and now Ollerus is forced into exile and killed.
This doesn’t seem to touch the Ullr we know, but Saxo adds a telling detail:
The story goes that he was such a cunning wizard that he used a certain bone, which he had marked with awful spells, wherewith to cross the seas, instead of a vessel; and that by this bone he passed over the waters that barred his way as quickly as by rowing.
(Book III: Elton’s translation)
Ollerus may very well have been using skates with bone blades, as they were known back then. (A pair was found in York, probably dating from the 10th century. They were tied on to the owner’s shoes, rather like the first (metal) skates I had as a child. So we know he used skis, and now skates. Combine this with Snorri’s mention of a kenning of “Ullr’s ship” for a shield, and have a primitive snowboarder as well.
Putting together Ollerus, Ullr, Ullin and Old English Wuldor, we get an etymology of “Glory”, which some have traced to the aurora borealis. It’s certainly the grandest thing you can see in the winter sky, and should have a god of its own.
This idea obviously influenced whoever engraved the Thorsberg chape, which dates from around 200 CE, and was found on Thorsberg moor in Germany. (A chape is a metal piece at the end of a scabbard.) It has an inscription which is usually taken to refer to Ullr:
owlþuþewaz / niwajmariz
which translates as “Glory-Servant Not-Poorly-Famed”.7 Svartesol also suggests “Wulthoraz the Well-Famed”, which could also work.8 McLeod and Mees9 do not see it as necessarily relating to Ullr, but considering how many kennings for warriors and swords have the Ull- element, it fits.
Nor is Ullr so poorly famed in one sense, at least. Google him and you’ll find the Ullr Fest, which is a week-long event held in Breckenridge, Colorado to celebrate “the god of snow”, and bring snow to the town. No other Norse deity has such a public, and generally popular, festival. Maybe the obscure god is having the last laugh on those who displaced him.
1. Nielsen 1969.↩
2. Brink 2007: 123.↩
3. Brink 2007: 116-8.]↩
4.Lindow 2001: 56. (He gives sources for several of the theories about which god it might have been, along with the suggestion that the Christian author meant the Christian god.)↩
5.Simek: 9, Lindow 2001: 56↩
6.Kjalnessingasaga, among others, mentions a silver oath-ring, which the godi had to wear at assemblies, and which men swore on before a court case.↩
7. McLeod and Mees 2006: p. 24, n. 14.↩
8. Svartesól 2009: 145-6.↩
9. McCloud & Mees 2006: 24-5, n. 14.↩
Snorri Sturluson/ Jesse Byock (trans.) 2005:The Prose Edda Jesse Byock (trans.), Penguin Classics.
Carolyne Larrington (trans.) 1996: The Poetic Edda, Oxford UP.
Brink, Stefan, 2007: “How Uniform Was the Old Norse Religion?”, in Learning and understanding in the Old Norse world : essays in honour of Margaret Clunies Ross, eds. Judy Quinn, Kate Heslop, and Tarrin Wills, Brepols, Turhout, Belgium. (academia.edu)
Lindow, John, 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, Oxford UP.
McLeod, Mindy, and Bernard Mees, 2006: Runic Amulets and Magic Objects, Boydell Press, London.
Nielsen, Niels Age, 1969: “Frey, Ull, and the Sparlosa Stone” Mediaeval Scandinavia 2: 102-28.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall), 1996, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.
Svartesól 2009: Visions of Vanaheim, Lulu Enterprises Inc. 860 Aviation Parkway, Suite 300, Morrisville, NC 27560.
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