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Odin’s Skull: A Macabre Amulet from Denmark

Viking amulet

The Ribe skull fragment (source)

This rather macabre artefact was found during an archaeological excavation at Ribe in Denmark. It represents a fragment of human skull that was subsequently fashioned into an amulet. It measures circa 6 cm by 8.5cm in size and contains a small hole, which would have allowed it to be worn on a neck-tie. The amulet dates from the mid-8th century, a time when Denmark was still a predominantly pagan country. It contains a number of  lines of inscribed Runic text and these give an insight into the objects original function. The runes most likely read:

Ulf and Odin,

and High Tyr,

is help for Bur,

against these pain

and Dwarf sword,

Bur.’ (MacLeod and Mees 2006, p. 24)

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The runic inscription (source)

The runic inscription appears to invoke a triple force of protectors to fight a Dwarf. These are Ulf or wolf, which may represent Fenrir, then Odin the chief Norse god, followed by High-Tyr who is probably the warrior god Tyr. These will aid Bur, who is most likely Borr/Burri, Odin’s father (it is also possible that Ulf/Odin/High-Tyr, represent a divine trinity of the same god, Odin).

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The Ribe pendant in relation to a human skull

In Norse mythology Odin was thought to have healing powers, while dwarves were often associated with disease. In light of this the pendant may have been used as a talisman to protect against illness. The use of a human skull probably imbued the amulet with extra potency and this is not unlike the role played by corporeal relics in the Christian tradition.

References

MaCleod, M. & Mees B. (2006) Runic Amulets and Magic Objects, Boydell Press, Suffolk