The sun hung low in the near-cloudless sky, the late afternoon dry and cold with the promise of frost when darkness fell. Winter was nudging her icy nose into people’s lives and they did not relish the prospect. They’d done all in their power to ensure the well-being of the village during the bleak months ahead and hoped their hard work would reap its dividend. All that was needful now was the blessing of the gods. In sombre mood, villagers waited for the ceremony to begin.
‘Remember they are pagans, Eadwulf,’ Sigehelm urged as they watched the sun touch the distant horizon, ‘and we do not understand their ways.’ He sniffed and pointed across the compound. ‘See that flat-topped rock over there with the bowl and twig on top of it? That will likely be used as the altar, where the sacrifice will be made. The jarl and his entourage are already congregating about it and as soon as the sun disappears, the ceremony will start.’
Eadwulf nodded, staring at Ragnar in a flowing robe of brilliant white. His long hair was unbraided, held by a silver band around his brow; about his waist a belt held a long knife with a jewelled hilt in a leather sheath. At his sides, his three eldest sons and four men were all splendidly garbed.
‘The jarl is acting in his role as high priest,’ Sigehelm said. ‘Today he‘ll lead the first of the rites to honour the gods, pleading their munificence during the winter months, when the land yields little sustenance. Blood sacrifices will be offered to demonstrate their sincerity.’ Contempt soured Sigehelm’s words and Eadwulf glanced about, fearing someone might overhear. Ahead of them Aslanga stood with her younger children and thralls, all too intent on their own conversations to have heard Sigehelm’s words.
‘The pagans believe the blood will strengthen the gods and urge them to look more favourably upon them,’ Sigehelm continued. ‘The sacrifice could be a pig, or more likely a horse, since Ragnar’s spent so long in the stables today.’
Eadwulf baulked at the idea of sacrificing a horse: in Mercia, horses were prized animals. But he blanked out thoughts of home and concentrated on the present. In two days’ time they would all attend the ceremony to Odin, the highest of the gods, but today it was to the red-headed, short-tempered god of thunder that people turned.
Thor was well loved in Danish communities. Warriors, farmers and those to be married, all prayed for his guidance and protection as he raced across the skies in his chariot pulled by goats, controlling lightning and the forces of nature. Many people were named in his honour, including Thora and Toke.
Ragnar stepped forward with raised arms and silence descended. Eyes followed Ulrik leading a proud old stallion towards the altar, its dappled markings identifying it as belonging to Ragnar. Recognising his master, the stallion whinnied and picked up his pace. Eadwulf sighed, envisioning the animal’s sad end.
‘It will be quickly over,’ Sigehelm assured. ‘Ragnar would not inflict unnecessary suffering on an animal that has been his favourite for many years.’
Ragnar caressed the stallion’s neck, speaking in low, soothing tones, whilst behind them Bjorn slowly lifted the bowl and twig from the altar. The jarl’s hand slid to the hilt of his dagger and he inched the long blade slowly from its sheath.
Death came fast, the wide slash across the horse’s neck dealt with practised dexterity. Ragnar held on to the soft muzzle as the forelegs buckled and the animal dropped to his knees, then onto his side, shuddering in his death throes. Bjorn knelt to hold the bowl beneath the gash, collecting the life-blood as it gushed forth, and Ragnar sprinkled the bright red fluid across the altar and ground around it with the twig.
‘Accept our offering, mighty Thor,’ he intoned. ‘Let the life-force of this noble beast be a token of our thanks and devotion, strengthening the ties between you and your humble servants. Look upon us benevolently throughout the coming year.’
‘The jarl’s priestly robes will be put aside for a day or two now. He’ll attend the feast as chieftain tonight, and behave as loutishly as the rest of them!’ Sigehelm ran his fingers through his hair. ‘It is difficult for us to equate the two roles, is it not, Eadwulf? But, there’s much in this land to be wondered at . . .
An extract from my book Shadow of the Raven. The eBook is available on Amazon.
There are two different Viking sacrifices in the story, the other one being quite different to this. I might post that one some time soon.