Ullr

A possible depiction of Ullr on the Böksta runestone
A possible depiction of Ullr on the Böksta runestone

Ullr (pronounced “ULL-er,” often Anglicized as “Ull,” and also occasionally referred to as “Ullinn”) is an obscure and enigmatic Norse god. References to him in Old Norse literature are sparse and tell us little to nothing about his personality or role in pre-Christian religion and mythology. Nevertheless, these passing references indicate that he was once a deity of considerable importance, even if we don’t know why.

Ullr is the son of the grain goddess Sif, and therefore the stepson of the thunder god Thor.[1] Kennings (elaborate stock metaphors that are a characteristic feature of Old Norse poetry) establish that Ullr is an excellent archer, hunter, skater, and skier, handsome, warlike, and an especially apt deity to invoke before a duel. “Ullr’s ship” is a kenning for “shield,” which indicates that there was a tale of his traveling across the ocean on a shield, but if so, this tale has been lost.[2] One of the poems in Poetic Edda, the Grímnismál, states that his home is called Ýdalir, “Yew Dales.”[3] Yew wood was preferred above that of all other trees for making bows, which probably explains this association.[4]

Elsewhere in the poem, Odin, who is entrapped between two fires, promises the blessings of “Ullr and all the gods” on whomever will rescue him.[5] This placement suggests a position of particular prominence for Ullr relative to other deities. This suggestion is corroborated by the medieval Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, who tells us that Ullr (whose name is here Latinized as “Ollerus”) assumed the leadership of the gods during a period when their usual chief, Odin, was in exile.[6] Similarly, another Old Norse poem, the Atlakviða, features a scene involving the swearing of oaths wherein the last and most solemn oath is sworn on the ring of Ullr.[7]

The prevalence of place names derived from “Ullr” throughout Sweden and eastern Norway further attests to Ullr having once been an exceptionally prominent figure amongst the Scandinavian gods. Many of these names are combined with elements such as hof, “temple,” which indicates active worship of Ullr during the early Viking Age and possibly later as well.[8][9]

The meaning and etymology of his name are uncertain, but some have suggested that it could be derived from a Germanic root that can also be found in Gothic wulþus, “glory,” and Old English wuldor (“glory, splendor, honor”).[10]

Some have attempted to equate Ullr with the sky god Tyr, who, as his article on this site discusses, was the Germanic version of the highest god of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, from whom the Norse and other Germanic peoples are descended.[11]

This connection seems to me to be technically possible, but it’s quite a stretch. Tyr was, amongst other things, a god of law and justice. The episode of swearing an oath on Ullr’s ring in the Atlakviða could indicate that Ullr was likewise appealed to as a patron of law and justice. But since swearing an oath on a symbol of divinity – any divinity, regardless of that deity’s connection with justice and law – was a common practice in heathen Germanic society, this episode alone is insufficient to establish that Ullr had anything in particular to do with these attributes. Both gods were apparently more prominent in Norse religion at one time than they were by the time Old Norse literature was written, but this does not in and of itself establish a connection between the two, either. And that’s the only evidence that connects Ullr and Tyr in any way – if you even want to call that evidence. This speculation, therefore, is nothing more than a speculation, for which and against which it is impossible to persuasively argue.

Others have wanted to connect Ullr with the Vanir tribe of deities on similarly shaky evidence: the distribution of place names with “Freyr” and “Njord” in them in the vicinity of place names bearing “Ullr,” and the fact that Ullr apparently once traveled across the sea (some deities who are grouped amongst the Vanir were associated with the ocean). More fundamentally, however, any argument that assumes the Vanir were a distinct tribe is by that virtue alone open to considerable suspicion, because it’s highly debatable to what extent the Vanir were seen as being a distinct tribe of gods, if at all.[13]

So, in the end, we know just enough about Ullr to infer that he was once a deity of prime importance, but we have no idea who he really was or what made him so important to the ancient Scandinavians. Like so many other aspects of pre-Christian Germanic religion, the information we have on Ullr is fragmentary and insubstantial, but, what is even more frustrating, tantalizingly so.

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References:

[1] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 182.

[2] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 339-340.

[3] The Poetic Edda. Grímnismál, stanza 5.

[4] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 182-183.

[5] The Poetic Edda. Grímnismál.

[6] Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta Danorum.

[7] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 182-183.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 339.

[10] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 184.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ellis-Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 105-106.

[13] Simek, Rudolf. 2010. The Vanir: an Obituary. In The Retrospective Methods Newsletter, December 2010. Edited by Helen F. Leslie and Mathais Nordvig.

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