The Earliest Representations of
Old Norse Gods
Mythological and Religious

The Oseberg Tapestry
Selected Images

Textile fragments found among the grave goods
of the Oseberg Ship Burial, 834 AD.
All Images © 2017 Kulturhistorisk Museum, UiO / CC BY-SA 4.0
On August 6th 1903, a farmer named Oskar Rom dug into a mound on his property at the Lille Oseberg farm in Slagen, in the county of Vestfold, Norway and discovered what appeared to be pieces of a ship, and thus contacted Professor Gabriel Gustafson in Oslo, who visited the farm two days later. Based on his initial investigation, Gustafson determined that the mound contained a ship burial from the Viking era, but decided to wait until the following summer to excavate. Ultimately, the dig revealed the remains of two women buried in a ship no later than autumn of 834 AD, interred with a ceremonial wagon, four ornate sleds, an array of household goods, and a number of domestic animals. Remarkably, the burial was furnished with a lavish array of textiles, constituting a key feature of the Oseberg find.
            The grave chamber contained the largest collection of textiles and textile tools ever been found in a single grave. The collection consists of a number of narrow tapestries thought to have lined the chamber, as well as bedlinens, woven woolen blankets, tablet bands and a large collection of cloth fragments from clothing, sails, tents, rugs and curtains, in addition to remains of silk fabrics and silk thread embroideries imported from Central Asia. The textiles themselves vary greatly in quality, weaving techniques and materials.  Researcher Anne Stine Ingstad has divided them into 19 different groups according to quality and purpose. Coarse wool fabrics woven with geometric patterns, predominantly diamonds and crosses, were found in abundance throughout the grave, perhaps representing the remains of draperies used in the furnishing. The ornamental tapestries are woven from wool with a weft made of plant material, possibly flax, which has since disintegrated. They portray a variety of people in procession and at war, some clearly in costume, along with animals, wagons, and buildings, possibly representing ritual scenes, suggesting the older woman was of great importance. Altogether fifteen different silk materials are represented, mostly cut into narrow ribbons, which may have been used as adornments. Multi-colored silk embroideries in patterns of tendrils, spirals, animals and geometric designs may also have trimmed the women’s garments. The textile tools include: 5 different weaving looms, 1 tablet weaving loom, 1 manual spindle and distaff,  1 weaving reed, 5 balls of wool, 1 device for winding wool, 2 yarn reels, 2 linen smoothers, 1 smoothing iron, 3 wooden needles, 1 pair of iron scissors, and various small implements for spinning and textile work.  

The Ritual Wagon Procession
Watercolor Reconstruction of the Oseberg Tapestry
by Mary Storm, 1940. 
Although difficult to interpret, the scene appears to represent a religious procession of three horse-drawn wagons accompanied by people on foot. The two figures riding in the wagon (lower middle left of the conjoined imnage above) may represent an idol and his or her priest(ess). A ceremonial wagon ornately carved with figures (pictured at the top of the page), was found with the tapestry. The front panel of the wagon is decorated with interwined animals, including cats, suggesting to some that the older woman of the Oseberg burial may have been a priestess of Freyja. The remaining two covered wagons, which appear to follow the lead wagon, may plausibly contain religious objects of some kind.

 A horned figure (at the top far left) leads the procession, accompanied by a man either accompanied by or carrying a four-leafed symbol, which may be mounted on a staff.  The same symbol appears between the wheels of the lead wagon. The comparatively larger size of the  horned man  may indicate his status as a deity, possibly Odin. The male figure behind him bearing the symbol is followed by eight women in procession.   A similar procession of one man with up-raised arms and eight women can be seen on stones of the Kivik King's Grave, along with a wheeled chariot, drawn by two four-footed animals, apparently representing horses, demonstrating the great age of this processional ritual. A similar procession of women in hooded robes is found on the Garde Bote Picture Stone from Götland.  The building in the direct center of the conjoined image above (or on the left side of the right panel) is thought to represent a temple or hall used for ritual activity. Another fragment of the tapesty (see below) depicts a tree in which human bodies are hung, reminiscent of sacrificial trees described outside the heathen temples at Uppsala and Lejre in later written accounts. This leaves little doubt that the procession depicted in this scene is religious in nature.
Images of the Wagon Procession by Mary Storm c. 1939-1940:

Left Side of the Tapestry showing ritual wagon procession led by a horned figure:

Right Side of the Tapestry showing "Temple" (on left):


 Black and White Drawing of the Left and Right panels:

Fragments of the Wagon Procession

Drawings by Sofie Krafft c. 1916:

Group of Riders

The Sacrificial Tree 
The Oseberg tapestry shows a religious wagon procession and a scene of apparent human sacrifice, in which human bodies hang from a tree. The tapestry provides archaeological support for Adam of Bremen's account of the Uppsala Temple in the 11th century, where nine men are said to have been hung in a sacred grove along with various types of animals as a sacrifice outside of the temple. A fragment of the actual tapestry is pictured below, along with artistic representations of the same scene.
Adam of Bremen writes: "It is customary also to solemnize in Uppsala, at nine-year intervals, a general feast of all the provinces of Sweden. From attendance at this festival no one is exempted Kings and people all and singly send their gifts to Uppsala and, what is more distressing than any kind of punishment, those who have already adopted Christianity redeem themselves through these ceremonies. The sacrifice is of this nature: of every living thing that is male, they offer nine heads with the blood of which it is customary to placate gods of this sort. The bodies they hang in the sacred grove that adjoins the temple. Now this grove is so sacred in the eyes of the heathen that each and every tree in it is believed divine because of the death or putrefaction of the victims. Even dogs and horses hang there with men. A Christian told me that he had seen 72 bodies suspended promiscuously. Furthermore, the incantations customarily chanted in the ritual of a sacrifice of this kind are manifold and unseemly; therefore, it is better to keep silent about them. "


Image courtesy of Peter Robinson who draws attention to
the "horse-head" terminals at the ends of the tree branches, suggesting
they may reflect the name Yggdrassil, which means "Ygg's [Odin's] horse".

Costumed Figures
Indicating Participation in Ritual Activities
"The images contained in the Oseberg tapestry are often extremely unclear and enigmatic, but nonetheless clear enough to suggest that what is being portrayed in the pictures should be viewed in a ritual context. This is evident not only in the wagon procession, but also in the row of dancing female figures, and the line of celebrants who have a stance similar to that often depicted on the Bronze Age petroglyphs. ...Bearing this ritual background in mind, a more detailed examination can now be made of the costumed figures which occur both on those tapestry fragments depicting the procession itself, and on other fragments of less certain context. One of the latter fragments, for example, contains the image of an armed male figure, clad in what appears to be a complete animal skin (except for a hole for the nose and mouth), approaching a larger figure who is wearing what seems to be a bull-horned helmet and carrying a pair of crossed spears (or perhaps twigs) in his left hand. The horned figure reappears, more clearly, in one of the procession fragments, again holding a pair of crossed spears in one hand, but now grasping a sword by the blade or sheath with the other. Another fragment, which might have originally been attached to the section containing the skin-clad man, depicts a group of women bearing shields. Some, however, seem to be wearing boar-like animal masks and skins, causing Hougen to class them as 'shield-maidens' (valkyrur), with boar-heads. On yet another fragment, another female clad as a bird of prey with wings and a bird head appears standing  in front of what has been interpreted as a temple building."
—Terry Gunnell, The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia (1995) pp. 60-61.
Two Boar-Headed women with shields
confronting horned men with crossed spears

Horned man with crossed spears
confronting man in bear-skin
Various Figures
Horned Man, possibly representing Odin,
followed by man carrying a symbol.
The Bird-Headed Woman
Female Dancers

Female Dancers


Celebrants with Raised Arms

Geometric Patterns 

The Wagon and the Sled

Folded Fragments with Human and Animal figures

Pattern Reconstruction from a  Silk "Ribbon"
"Ribbons" of Cut Silk
Watercolor Reproduction of Silk Embroideries


Illustration of silk embroideries tendril patterns