National Geographic : 1970 Apr
Two other sixth-century monarchs sleep in equally imposing man-made hills beside him, and many smaller barrows arc toward the ho rizon. I visited Gamla Uppsala after a snow fall, and children were slamming down the slopes of the mounds on red and yellow sleds. Yet the scene held no gaiety. The mounds are too high, too blunt, too funereal to support joy. Kings once burned here, and the smoke of the pyres seems to linger on the air. From the royal mortuary, I crossed a road into the grove surrounding Old Uppsala Church, built upon the ruins of a pagan shrine. Writing in the 11th century, the historian Adam of Bremen had described the shrine as "entirely decked out in gold." Inside Thor was locally worshiped as king of the gods; Odin, as god of war; and Frey, as patron of "sensuous pleasures." Every nine years, Adam related, the entire population flocked to Uppsala to witness a special sacrifice, where "of every living thing that is male, they offer nine heads, with the blood of which it is customary to pla cate gods of this sort. The bodies they hang in the sacred grove that adjoins the tem ple.... Even dogs and horses hang there 498 with men." KODACHROME(ABOVE)ANDEKTACHROMES @ N.G.S. "May godheads grant me luck" AS THE VIKING WARRIOR pleaded before en tering battle, so present-day contestants invoke fortune's aid at the Folk Sports Olym piad on the Swedish island of Gotland. Here, like a flashback to the distant past, the island's modern Northmen-tall, fair, and handsome perpetuate the old sports and superstitions. His eye on a peg 65 feet away, a Gotlander (right) blows on his stone for luck in the vener able game of varpa, won by tossing nearest a stake, as in horseshoes. A wind-blown blonde, emblazoned with the emblem of her local varpa club (above), awaits her turn. Tilting backward to balance the weight of a 16-foot pole, a muscular islander poises for a throw in the grueling game of stdngstdrtning, much like the Scottish caber toss. Shortly he will lunge to his feet and send the beam flying. Both in sport and in battle, the concept of luck loomed large to the Northmen, or Norse men. When a man wished to go viking-raiding for plunder-he sought to sail with a chief renowned for luck in battle.