The Stone Age
9000 B.C.E. - 1800 B.C.E.
Scandinavia was largely covered by ice during most of the Stone Age: it was the last part of Northern Europe to become habitable. The earliest settlements in the Northland date to roughly 9,000 B.C.E., but human beings did not become common there until a couple of millennia later. At that time, folk were already being buried with grave-goods: the Swedish Bäckaskog woman was sent to the worlds beyond armed with a spearhead of bone and flint and a chisel. The dead may have been feared as well: one of the Skateholm burials, a powerful man whose skeleton showed evidence that he had survived a wild boar's attack and a flint arrow in the pelvic bone, was buried with due honour and a sprinkling of red ochre - but his head was chopped off and placed by his foot, an act which Norse sources describe as a means of quieting the walking dead. Red ochre was frequently sprinkled over the dead; animals or parts of animals were also set in the graves. The Skateholm cemetery includes a few dogs who were set in human graves with broken necks; a Danish burial had a small child's corpse laid on the wing of a swan.
With the rise of agriculture, the cult of the dead also seems to have become more important. About 3500 B.C.E., the people dwelling in the areas of Germany and Scandinavia began to build houses for the dead out of slabs of stone, often with mounds heaped about them. By 3000 B.C.E., these houses had developed into huge passage graves, where the dead of a whole community could be brought over a long period of time. Clay vessels of food and drink were given to the dead; they were fully fitted out with weapons, tools, and jewelry. The tombs and their mounds often had one or two circles of stones set out around them. These may have been meant to ward the dead from evil wights, or to keep the corpses from wandering out of their graves; the stone chambers certainly suggest that the dead were expected to live on in their homes (The Prehistory of Germanic Europe, pp. 97-98), a belief which was certainly very strong in Germanic culture. Around this time, another means of burial/worship appeared in Jutland: the graves were dug into the ground, but a hut was built beside them where the grave-gifts and perhaps the body could be displayed until the burial (Prehistoric Denmark, p. 22).
The next major change in Scandinavian Stone Age culture was the arrival of such items as the cart and the well-fashioned stone battleaxe, about 2,800 B.C.E. At this time, burial customs also changed somewhat: graves were single burials covered by low mounds, which were also marked out by stone rings. More sexual differentiation can be seen in the grave-goods at this time: men were commonly buried with stone axes, women with amber necklaces. It has been suggested in the past that the "Battle-Axe People" may have been an invading horde, but that is not commonly accepted now (A Scandinavian Saga, pp. 75-76).
For obvious reasons, we know only a few things about the religions of the Stone Age. Amber was very important at that time, both as a magical gem and as a sacrificial item. Many Stone Age amber deposits have been found in bogs, some totalling as much as 10 kilos (22 lbs.) of beads. These gifts were probably given in the form of huge necklaces, and suggest an early worship of a goddess who dwelt in earth and water (perhaps similar to Nerthus or Frija?). Miniature axe-heads of amber were also worn as amulets: the double-headed form of these is strikingly similar to the Þórr's Hammer amulets of the late Viking Age, and it is possible that the belief in the warding might of the thunder-god's weapon could have continued unbroken from the Stone Age to the conversion (see "Thonar"). The National Museum of Denmark also holds several small amber animals - wild boar, swan or goose, and two fragments that may have been elk or deer. These are thought to have been used as hunting-magic talismans, though it should also be noted that the wild boar and the waterfowl, in particular, continued to be major figures in the magic and religion of the Northern folk until the conversion to christianity. As in later Germanic religious art, the head was given special prominence, as shown by the small amber sculpture of a bearded man's head from Norra Åsarp (Västergotland).
Axes, usually made of flint in the earlier Stone Age and greenstone or porphyry later, were also particularly important. They were often given as gifts to the gods, as was probably the case at Källgårds where fifteen fine axes were left in three neat rows in a marsh, and miniature flint axes were worn as amulets as well. A ceremonial axe with its butt carved into an elk-head was found in Alunda; it may have been an import from Finland, where such axes were more common, but rock carvings from Nämforsen also show men carrying staffs topped by elk heads (Treasures of Early Sweden, p.34). The use of ceremonial axes is attested through the Bronze Age; in Old Norse literature, the hallowing axe seems to have been replaced by the Hammer.
There are a number of Stone Age ritual sites in Denmark where holy feasts were clearly held: food and drink were brought in pottery vessels (which were then broken and left behind), and animals were slaughtered for the feast at the site. There is some slight evidence that human flesh may have sometimes been used in the lakeside feasting as well, though this particular form of ritual practise was mostly observed in front of the large grave-chambers in Sweden (Erikson & Lofman, A Scandinavian Saga, p. 62). The breaking of crockery and the leaving of the shards was particularly characteristic of religious feasting both in the marshes and at the grave-sites. This was probably done to send the vessel and its contents to the worlds beyond so that the god/esses and the dead would receive them. A horse-skull found at Ullstorp (eastern Scania) with a flint dagger in it, dated to ca. 2000 B.C.E., is also thought to have been killed as a sacrifice - particularly interesting in view of the great importance of horses as sacrificial animals of the Germanic peoples in later times.
Musical instruments may also have been used in Stone Age ritual. A number of bone and flint flutes have survived from that time, as has a bone scraper from Malmö. An artifact from Kongemose has been interpreted as a bull-roarer (a thin oval swung about on a thong to make a humming noise, known to primitive cultures worldwide). Clay drums, both whole and deliberately shattered, have been found outside of the Continental stone-slab tombs. The folk of the Stone Age probably used rattles as well (Lund, Fornordiska klanger, pp. 36-40).