The handout for our discussion of Ullr, November 2011
Updated May, 2013, with thanks to Niklas of Enkoping, Sweden for suggestions about the Lunda figurines and Ullr’s wife.
Grimnismal (Dronke translation):
|4. Land er heilagt,
er ek liggja sé
Ásom ok Álfom nær;
Enn í Þrúðheimi
skal Þórr vera
unz of riúfaz regin
|The land is hallowed
that I see lying
close to the Æsir and Elves.
Still in Might’s Realm
Þórr shall remain,
until the old rule ends
|5. Ýdalir heita,
þar er Ullr hefir
sér of görva sali;
gáfu í árdaga
tívar at tannféi.
|Yew Dales they are called
where Ullr has
made halls for himself.
Elf Realm to Freyr
in the old days
the gods gave as a first-tooth penny.
|42. Ullar hylli hefr
ok allra goða
er hverr tekr fyrstr á funa,
þvíat opnir heimar
verða um ása sonum,
þá er hefia af hvera [halir].
|He has Ullr’s favour
and that of all the gods
who first brings a cauldron to the fire,
because realms are laid waste
round the Æsir’s sons,
when cooks lift their cauldrons off.
|(May he have Ull’s protection,
and that of all the gods,
whoever first quenches the flames;
for the worlds lie open
for the sons of the gods
when they lift off the kettles.
|(His the favor of Ull
and of all the gods
Who first in the flames will reach;
For the house can be seen
by the sons of the gods
If the kettle aside were cast.
|43. Ívalda synirgengo í árdaga
Skíðblaðni at skapa,
nýtum Niarðar bur.
in the old days
set about shaping Stick-Leaf,
the best of ships,
for shining Freyr,
Niorðr’s indispensable boy.
Atlakviða (Dronke translation):
|30. Svá gangi þér, Atli,
sem þú við Gunnar áttir
eiða oft of svarða
ok ár of nefnda,
at sól inni suðrhöllu
ok at Sigtýs bergi,
ok at hringi Ullar.
|May your fate, Atli,
fit the oaths you swore
often to Gunnar
and pledged long ago,
by the sun southward-curving
and by Oðinn’s crag,
by the steed of sleep’s pillows
and by Ullr’s ring.
31. Ullr heitir einn, sonr Sifjar, stjúpsonr Þórs. Hann er bogmaðr svá góðr ok skíðfœrr svá at engi má við hann keppask. Hann er ok fagr álitum ok hefir hermanns atgervi. Á hann er ok gott at heita í einvígi.
Ull is the name of one, son of Sif, stepson of Thor. He is such a good archer and skier that no one can compete with him. He is also beautiful in appearance and has a warrior’s accomplishments. He is a good one to pray to in single combat. (Faulkes translation)
21. Hvernig skal kenna Ull? Svá, at kalla hann son Sifjar, stjúp Þórs, öndurás, bogaás, veiðiás, skjaldarás.
How shall Ull be referred to? By calling him son of Sif, stepson of Thor, ski-As, bow-As, hunting-As, shield-As. (Faulkes translation)
Gesta Danorum Book 3: Ollerus takes over for Othinus when Othinus is exiled. After ten years, Othinus returns, and Ollerus goes to Sweden, where he is killed by Danes.
The Böksta Runestone: Located in the Uppland region of Sweden, the runestone appears to depict an archer on skis watching a hunter. The archer may be a representation of Ullr.
The Lunda Figurines: In 2002 three figurines were found in Södermanland, Sweden. They appear to have been buried near a grove and group of halls believed to be a cult site of some kind. With their gold decorations and belts, the figurines may be representations of Ullr.
The Sparlosa Runestone: Though few agree with his interpretation, Nielsen in 1969 translated the Sparlosa Runestone as describing an offering made to Ullr, whom he believed to be identical with Freyr.
The Thorsberg Chape: Dating from around 200 AD, the chape was discovered in the Thorsberg Moor, where it had probably been deposited as a votive offering. It bears the inscription “owlþuþewaz niwajmariz.” Though there are some alternate translations, most often, the first word is read as “glorious one’s servant.” The second word can be read as “not ill-famed.” In its entirety, then, it can be translated as “the well-renowned servant of Ullr” or “the servant of Ullr, the renowned.”
Lilla Ullevi: The “little shrine of Ullr” of Sweden was excavated in 2007 in Bro, Uppland near Stockholm. In layout, it was likely a knoll surrounded by a palisade of poles and ropes. On top was a large plateau (about 100 square meters) of rocks with two outstretching arms, also of rock, which possibly ended in two pillars or idols. On the plateau, there may have been a gabled hall, while between the two arms four pillars would have held a wooden platform of about 12-14 square meters. In the sides of the hill were pits in which ritual meals of boiled meat were likely cooked. Off the hill to the south, archaeologists found over sixty-five rings, mostly iron, mostly unadorned; these rings are assumed to be related to the ring of Ullr in Atlakviða. The earth for Lilla Ullevi was piled sometime around 100-200 AD, and the area was used and lived in from about 400-1600 AD.
Place names: According to Turville-Petre, Ullr may have more places named after him than any other god, and the distribution of Ullr place names in the north is comparable to the distribution of Tyr place names in the south (Myth and Religion cited in Our Troth Vol.1 286). Variations on Ullinshof, Ullensaker, and Ulvangr are the most popular, but other places bear his name all over Sweden and parts of Norway, especially eastern Norway (though it should be kept in mind that since his name means something like “Glorious,” a place like Ullarvin could just as easily be “Glorious Meadow” as “Ullr’s Meadow”). Turville-Petre observes that Ullr place names can often be found near places named for the gods in general, such as Ullarfoss near Goðafoss and Ullarklettur near Goðaklettur; in Our Troth Volume 1, the authors speculate that such pairings may show that “Ullr and all the gods” was done for reasons beyond alliteration. According to de Vries, in Norway Ullr places are often located near places named for Freyr; in Sweden many times they can be found near places named for Njorðr, Freyja (including by-names like Horn), and the Disir. Davidson adds that Ullr places are also located near places named for Skaði (Gods and Myths 106).
Theories, Speculation, Modern Worship, and UPG:
The Name: Ullr’s name is thought to derive from *Wulþuz, which would mean “glory, bright, shining, majesty.” In Saxo’s Gesta Danorum, he appears as Ollerus. The name Ullinn appears in some Norwegian place names and is likely a form of his name. In modern Iceland, his name is most often Ull. Tribalists worship him as Wuldor (occasionally Vuldor), and because one of the names that appears in “Caedmon’s Hymn,” which takes multiple Heathen god names and uses them to describe the Christian god, is wuldurfadur (“Glory Father” or “Father Wuldor”), Gundarsson thinks it possible that the Anglo-Saxons may have known of Ullr (Our Troth Vol. 1 287).
Apollo: Like Ullr, Apollo is such a good archer that none can compete with him, a glorious god who is beautiful in appearance and has a warrior’s accomplishments, a skilled hunter, and an individual who is simultaneously one of the gods but also stands apart from them. For those who see Ullr as a sun god (though Apollo may not originally have been seen as a solar deity, he was eventually identified with wights like Helios and Sol Invictus) and/or the sometimes regent of the gods, the similarities are stronger. Apollo was believed by the pre-conversion Hellenists to have a special connection with Hyperborea, a mythical land to the far north of Greece identified variously as parts of the UK, Siberia, and Scandinavia, among other areas. According to the ancient Greeks, Apollo alone of the Olympians was worshipped by the Hyperboreans; in the winter, he left Delphi in the care of Dionysus and went to Hyperborea.
Bel (Belenos): Based almost entirely on his name probably meaning “shining one” or “bright one,” some modern Heathens, particularly those who also worship Celtic gods, believe Bel, a Celtic god of the sun and healing, is identical to Ullr. During Roman occupation of Gaul, Bel became known as Apollo Belenus.
Father: Because Ullr’s father is not explicitly named in any of the references to him, many theories as to his father’s identity have been advanced. Reaves and Rydberg both think Volund’s brother Egil, an accomplished archer, Finn prince, and possible elf, is a good candidate. Schroder thinks that Thjazi, Skaði’s father, is also Ullr’s father, and in Guerber’s Myths of the Norsemen, an unnamed frost giant is suggested. Odin as Allfather is occasionally put forth by modern Heathens, as is Loki, based on the Sly One’s accusation against Sif in Lokasenna and his shearing of her hair in Skaldskaparmal.
In the poetry, Ullr is referred to as either Sif’s son or Thor’s stepson. Much like Loki’s being called Laufeyjarson, this may indicate his father was of significantly lower status than his mother or that Ullr was illegitimate.
The Finnish connection: In the lore, the archetypal Finn is an expert skier, archer, hunter, and magician. As well, the Finnish god Tapio is a god of hunting, archery, skiing, and the forest, and he has strong associations with evergreen trees. Because of this, some (such as Steinsland) believe that Ullr (and Skaði, who shares similar characteristics) may have once been a Finnish god, perhaps identical to Tapio, who was adopted by the Germanic people.
Freyr: The close pairing of Ullr and Freyr in Grimnismal and in place names have led some to postulate a connection between the two. Dronke seems to see Ullr as an old sun god giving way to the younger sun god that is Freyr. Nielsen goes further, saying that Freyr and Ullr are identical, a conclusion mocked by scholars like Simek.
God of Archery and the Hunt: In modern Heathenry, Ullr is most likely to be recognized as a god of archery and hunting. People who practice archery recreationally may invoke him, and blots are performed asking his aid in finding game as winter begins.
Jeffrey Peterson has suggested that, as Germanic culture shifted from a hunter-gatherer society to one more based on agriculture, a god of the hunt would be of less importance, something reflected in the disparity between the god’s place names and his role in the mythology.
God of Circles: A bow is “bogi,” a ring is “hringr” or “baugr,” an arc is “hringbogi,” the painted circle on a round shield is “baugr,” and a circle is “hringr.” A drawn bow, especially a horn bow, has a round, nearly circular, shape. It is possible that Ullr’s popularity in skaldic poetry was due in part to the wordplay that poets could engage in when composing.
God of Martial Arts: Because Snorri says that Ullr has a warrior’s accomplishments and is good to pray to in single combat, some modern Heathens who practice martial arts include him in their worship. Freyr is another popular god for them because of his killing Beli without a sword.
Ivaldi: The name Ivaldi probably means “god/owner of the bow” or “god who rules in the yew tree,” which would be appropriate ways to refer to Ullr. The second stanza in Grimnismal that refers to Ullr by name is immediately followed by a stanza describing how Ivaldi’s sons built Skiðblaðnir, Freyr’s ship. There seems to be an implied relationship among Ivaldi, the dwarven smiths, and the alfar throughout the mythology, but nothing is ever explicitly stated. Ivaldi may also be identical to Thjazi’s father, given as Alvaldi in Harbardsljoð and Olvaldi in Skaldskaparmal, which would create a different relationship between Ullr and Skaði than often imagined.
Mithothyn: In Book 1 of Saxo’s Gesta Danorum, a figure named Mithothyn rules in the place of Othinus for a time. In Mythes et dieux des Germains and Mitra-Varuna, Dumezil tentatively identifies Tyr, Ullr/Ollerus, and Mithothyn as the same figure, or possibly different figures who represent the same idea. According to Dumezil, while Odin’s reign represents one part of the first function in his tripartite theory, a sovereign with warrior attributes who uses questionable magic and whose lack of scruples often results in the decline of society, the reign of Tyr/Ullr/Mithothyn represents a different part of the first function, a warrior with sovereign attributes who uses magic as necessary and whose uncompromising sense of honor helps reestablish rule of law in difficult times (cited in Lincoln 134).
The Northern Lights: An extremely common UPG that can be found in nearly any book about Asatru and most web sites dedicated to Ullr is that the god is associated in some way with the Aurora Borealis. The reasoning is that because Ullr is a winter god whose name means “Glorious,” the awesome colored lights that can be seen sometimes in the skies of the far north during the winter are his. Occasionally, Skaði is brought into it as well; she represents the shadow/darkness of winter, while Ullr is the majesty of the Northern Lights.
Rydberg: Ullr plays a significant role in Rydberg’s not-widely-accepted reconstruction of pre-conversion Germanic mythology. According to Rydberg, Ullr is the son of Volund’s brother Egil and Sif, who is one of the swan-cloaked women who visits Egil and his brothers in the Wolfdales. Ullr, like his father, is an elf lord and an excellent skier and archer. He has a number of adventures growing up, including an episode based on events detailed mainly in Book 5 of the Gesta Danorum in which he helps Oðr rescue Freyja from some giants who have captured her (interestingly, while Dronke agrees with Rydberg’s understanding of the woman rescued as Freyja, she makes no mention of what she thinks of his interpretation of the other characters in the story). At the conclusion of the Æsir-Vanir war, the Vanir temporarily drive the Æsir out of Asgard and put Ullr in Odin’s place. After the Æsir and Vanir reconcile, Ullr spends most of his time in the company of his step-father Thor, helping fight giants. Though Rydberg’s theories are unpopular with most scholars of Norse mythology, pieces of them often manage to make it onto various internet sites about the gods, usually without attribution.
The Sacred Archer: In an essay that was once widely published on the internet but seems to have declined in popularity over the last few years, Anthony Roe posits a sort of archetypal divine archer. Bringing in figures such as Apollo, Shiva, and Ullr, Roe describes an archer whose arrows can bring disease or healing, who purifies with light and fire, and whose weapon is a symbol of sovereignty. Ullr’s link to this concept seems to be in the meaning of his name and his probable importance in antiquity. Since Ullr may have a connection to the alfar, this may relate to the idea of “elf-shot.”
Saint Hubert: In Guerber’s Myths of the Norsemen, an occasionally unfaithful and much-embellished retelling of Norse mythology, Guerber explains that Ullr was replaced after the conversion with St. Hubert (whose name means “bright mind”), a patron saint of hunting. The sign of St. Hubert appears on bottles of Jagermeister (“Master Hunter”); the sign and the name lead some modern Heathens to offer libations of Jagermeister to Ullr.
Scyld Scefing: Because a kenning for “shield” is “Ullr’s ship,” some scholars (Davidson, Simek) have seen a possible connection between Ullr and Shield, the son of Scef. Simek is a little more forceful than Davidson, stating that though the specific myth of Ullr’s ship may be lost, “the shield as the ship of a fertility god appears to have been a well-known part of the myth, as is shown by a certain Skjoldr (‘shield’) mentioned as the husband of Gefjon, as well as Scyld Scefing” (340).
Skaði: Because of the similarities between Ullr and Skaði, scholars, Heathens, and others persistently try to bring the two together in some way. Rydberg makes them cousins, and Schroder, seeing in them a Germanic version of the Finnish gods Tapio and Mielikki, makes them either brother and sister or lovers (or both). “The Ice King and His Wonderful Grandchild,” a folktale modified and retold by William Griffiths in 1918, presents Ullr and Skaði as husband and wife with six daughters. Online, the most common version of the marriage of Njorðr and Skaði seems to be a repeatedly cut-and-pasted story that has Skaði meet Ullr soon after her divorce; she and Ullr, with their love of hunting and skiing, are soul mates and live happily ever after.
The Ski God: Even beyond his popularity as a god of hunting and archery, Ullr in modern times is worshipped as a god of skiing and other winter sports. In 1963, Breckenridge, Colorado had their first Ullrfest, which they were originally going to call Ullr Dag. Though much of it was probably not intended seriously, locals had parties, skied, and made offerings in Ullr’s honor, thanking him for snow and asking him for more. The event was so successful that it continued, growing in size, adding events like parades, snow sculpture championships, bonfires, dances, and the “Ullympics,” a series of winter-themed competitions. While Breckenridge remains the main location for Ullrfests, other places began having Ullrfests as well; over the years, they have been celebrated around the US (including Alaska, Vermont, New York, Montana, and Taos, NM), Canada, Australia, and Europe. In Japan, as Ullerfests grew in popularity, Shinto priests near ski resorts frequented by Europeans and Americans began adding Ullr to the deities that they honored out of respect for their visitors. Today, Ullr is annually given vast amounts of old ski and snowboard equipment as burnt offerings, libations of all sorts of alcohol (especially drinks like iced vodka and cinnamon and peppermint schnapps), praise poems ending in requests for good snow, and anything else winter sports enthusiasts think might be fitting.
The popularity of Ullerfests have led to Ullr being invoked as a sort of god of outdoor activities in general, as well. The Ullr Ski For Light Foundation, for example, is dedicated to helping individuals with disabilities to experience not just skiing and snowshoeing but biking and summer hiking as well.
A Solar Deity: Some (Dronke, Zavaroni) have sought to understand Ullr as a sun god, based mainly on the meaning of his name and the symbols associated with him. In skaldic poetry, Ullr’s ship is a kenning for shield, and Ullr’s shield is a kenning for ship. Ships have strong connections with sun worship from very early times in Germanic cultures, both the ship and the shield may be used to represent the sun in skaldic poetry, and Simek explicitly connects Scandinavian ship burning at Midsummer with Alpine wheel burning (281-282). Thus, one explanation for the kennings is that both shield and ship refer to the same object, the sun. Ullr’s ring, because of its shape, may also be a solar symbol. As well, his bow may represent the sun, either in its round shape when drawn, or in an association between rays of the sun and arrows such as occurs in non-Germanic gods with solar associations like Apollo.
Additionally, Zavaroni draws a connection between Julius Caesar’s description of the Germans in De Bello Gallico (ca. 51 BC) as worshiping only the Sun, Vulcan, and the Moon and Ullr’s seemingly being known to the Germanic people very early in their history. If Ullr were a sun god, as solar worship gradually declined in Germanic culture, he may have had a less prominent role than before in their mythology and religion.
Summer King/Winter King: Based primarily on Book 3 of Gesta Danorum and the frequent toponymic pairings of Ullr with other gods (especially Vanic gods and Odin), Ullr is sometimes cast as one of the parties in the battle between the personifications of Summer and Winter. Ullr is usually made the Winter King, an Old Man Winter to be driven out in the spring by young Freyr or a returning Odin. Zavaroni, however, in his essay “Communitary and Individualistic Gods in German and Roman Religion” argues that Ullr is a sun god and should be seen as the Summer King, while Odin/Jolnir should be seen as the Winter King.
A more symbolic interpretation of the alternation of Summer King and Winter King seems to be inspired by Dumezil’s contrasting Ullr/Tyr with Odin and has one ruler as the ruler during good times (summer), while the other is the ruler during more difficult times (winter) who must restore order and balance so the good times can return. John McKinnell in Meeting the Other in Norse Myth and Legend points to a pattern in stories of the Yngling dynasty in which kings marry alien and/or magical women; the sons of these marriages are either mundane (identified by McKinnell as Summer Kings) or are restorative, magical kings who take after their mother and her kin (and are hence Winter Kings). Ullr, the son of Sif and a father not explicitly identified in the lore, may be such a Winter King. In the commentary to her translation of Atlakviða, Dronke, working off Dumezil and de Vries, theorizes that Ullr supplants Odin as ruler when “through his unprincipled genius, he (Odin) is in disgrace,” and that Ullr works to uphold the good faith betrayed by Bolverkr (Vol. 1 65).
Wife: As noted above, Skaði is frequently made Ullr’s wife in modern mythology. Because place names for Freyja are often found near place names for Ullr, particularly in Sweden (such as Härnevi and Ullevi), it is possible that the two powers were seen as a couple, perhaps even a pairing of an Earth Mother with a Shining God of Heaven. The name Ullin often appears in place names in Norway, such as Ullinsakr (“Ullin’s field”) and Ullinshof (“Ullin’s hof”). While for the most part individuals like Lindow and Simek believe Ullin to be another name for Ullr, occasionally internet speculation comparing the pair of names to Frey and Freyja or Tyr and Zisa surfaces.
The Yew God: The evergreen yew trees have a long history in Germanic culture.Yew bows and knives have been found that are around 10,000 years old, and because of the yew’s popularity for making bows and similar weapons, the great yew forests of Western Europe were almost completely destroyed. The tree is poisonous, especially its red berries, and it may be for this reason that yews were planted in and around graveyards. Tacitus mentions tribes that worshiped the yew, and a judge’s staff was traditionally made of yew. Various scholars, including de Vries and Schroder, have argued that Yggdrasil, though described as an ash in Voluspa, Grimnismal, and Gylfaginning, should be instead understood as a yew.
Because Ullr seems to have a strong association with the yew, various theories about the god have arisen in connection with the tree. Gundarsson and Thorsson have described Ullr as a god of life in death or an archaic death god, respectively, based on the tree’s evergreen but poisonous nature. Those who see Ullr as being related to the alfar and elf-shot may argue that the practice of putting yew poison on arrows and using yew bows in general strengthens their case, and those who see a connection between Ullr and the Finnish Tapio point to the importance of evergreens for both gods. The practice of planting yews near graves may be additional evidence of Ullr as a god associated with death (or life in death), while the use of yew for judges’ staves may be related to the idea of Ullr as an alternate ruler or a god for whom oaths are especially sacred.
A very common UPG among modern Heathens and other neo-Pagans is a connection between Ullr and the rune Eihwaz (yew). In the Younger Futhark, the rune Yr (a version of Algiz) means yew or yew bow also, and some relate that rune to Ullr as well.
Multiple inscriptions that seem to have a magical purpose have been found carved into yew wood; two Frisian inscriptions specifically call upon the power of the yew to avert ill (or illness) and to calm waves.
While the name Ýdalir is properly translated as Yew Dales or Yew Valley, a closely related word, “dalr,” is a term used for “bow” in some of the Thulur (Dronke Vol.2 107). The name of Ullr’s realm may thus involve some word play; the home of the Bow God is both Yew Dales and Yew Bow.
The placement of the lines in Grimnismal in which Ýdalir is mentioned has occasioned some speculation. It has been used as evidence suggesting that Freyr and Ullr have a special connection (perhaps even are the same wight), that Ýdalir is located in Alfheim or between Asgard and Alfheim, or that Ýdalir is located in Thrudheim.
Personal Worship and UPG:
Of the gods, the only one I may make offering to more often than Ullr is Freyja. Ullr has held a strong fascination for me since I was young; there is just enough about him in the lore to develop a wide range of ideas as to his nature. With the rise of the internet, it has become easier than ever to learn what others think and how they may choose to worship the Bow God. Obscure essays and passages in out of print books from half a century ago or longer can be read (and sometimes haltingly translated with software assistance) via things like Google Books or the occasional sympathetic fellow Ullr-worshiper on a discussion board. Every few months, I use internet search engines to see what is new and trending with Ullr; the discovery and excavation of Lilla Ullevi a few years ago was a very exciting time.
While my initial interest in Ullr was probably due to my interest in archery, I have gradually developed a personal understanding in which Ullr is, as in the theories advanced by Dumezil, de Vries, and Dronke, a sort of restorative, redeeming god for whom oaths, particularly ring oaths, have a special sacred quality even beyond usual. I think it likely that he has a connection to the alfar, the Vanir, and the Finns, that Ivaldi is a good name for him, and that there is probably a parallel with other archer gods in their relation to disease and health. Much as Tyr and Zeus may be the same individual understood differently by different peoples, I think it possible that Ullr and Apollo may be the same figure; I have tried a few experiments in making offering to Ullr as the Hellenists do to the Far Shooter and in invoking him for similar circumstances, and the results have been positive. The possible word plays involved in some of his by-names and attributes are entirely in keeping with skaldic diction; “Round,” a poem that I composed for Ullr in 2010, originally had the refrain line “The god’s great bow is his ship is his ring / is a red shield shining on everything.”
My most frequent offerings to Ullr are libations and poetry. I have also donated in his name to various causes for social justice, especially medically-related ones, and I have left rings under stones at one of our blot sites. Though I am not much of one for winter sports in general, every once in a while I consider going to Breckenridge for one of their Ullrfests as a sort of pilgrimage. I usually wear an Ullr pendant on Wednesdays, I think of the the ring on my Laby hammer pendant as Ullr’s ring, and a number of my possessions are adorned with images and runes based on the Böksta runestone and Thorsberg chape, courtesy of Erich Campbell. The drinking horn I use most often has a hail to Ullr and an image of the god among its decorations, so that whatever else I am using the horn for, I am also hailing him.
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