Sacral Rulership in a New Key: A Conceptual and Contextualised Study of Religion and Rulership in Late Iron-Age Denmark, c. 500-950 AD

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Sophie Bønding


Postdoctoral Fellow


Stockholm University


DKK 900,000




Internationalisation Fellowships


Political and religious power are often connected in complex ways. This phenomenon is found across time and space in societies which are hierarchically organised and centred around rulers. Iron-Age Scandinavia was no exception. This project explores the religious aspects of rulership in late Iron-Age Denmark, c. 500-950 AD. It has two main objectives: first, to offer a new conceptual framework for analysing the relation between religion and political power in Iron-Age Scandinavia: and second, to use this framework in a closely contextualised study of the relation between religion and political power in late Iron-Age Denmark. The project studies the religious practices, beliefs, ideologies, and institutions that underpinned the political authority of rulers. More specifically, it seeks to understand the collective processes through which the authorisation and legitimation of political power took place – e.g. through religious rituals.


Archaeological research has demonstrated that extensive ritual activity took place at rich elite sites like Gudme, Tissø, and Lejre. On this basis, consensus holds that rulers must have deployed religious rituals to establish and exert their political power. Yet, few attempts have been made to understand in concrete terms, how rulers used religion to establish political power and how this should be understood within the larger remits of the social, judicial, and martial aspects of rulership. This needs to be remedied. However, a further problem is that the interpretational models used in Danish and Scandinavian scholarship to understand the connection between religion and rulership needs to be updated and discussed against recent insights and developments in the wider cross-cultural study of religion and culture. This project offers a solution to both of these problems.


The project is divided into two parts. Part one discusses interpretational concepts and models for investigating the connection between religion and political power. Drawing on insights in the cross-cultural study of religion, it proposes a new model, centered on the concept of ‘sacral rulership’. In the second part, the project uses this model to reconsider the archaeological and textual evidence relating to elite sites from late Iron-Age Denmark, especially Gudme, Tissø, and Lejre. By giving precedence to the contemporary material evidence, it offers closely contextualised interpretations of the rulers’ position in their wider communities and how religious practices, ideas, and institutions worked to support their claim to and exercise of political power.

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