Who Was Ullr in Norse Mythology?
When studying mythology, modern historians have to rely on texts from the past, art and artefacts, and the clues left behind in modern thought. Often, these sources provide a wealth of information about who an ancient deity was and how they were worshipped.
At other times, however, little remains to tell us about the religion of the past. Some gods are mentioned only in passing and their true meaning and importance are lost to us.
In Norse mythology, Ullr is one of these nearly forgotten gods. Historians know he was an important figure in mythology, but a lack of written references means that we have no myths associated with him.
So what can historians tell us about Ullr and his place in the Norse world?
Although there are no surviving myths that feature him in a prominent role, historians can tell that Ullr was an important god in the Norse world.
One way they can see this is in the way in which his name has survived. It was common for Scandinavian and German places to be named in honor of the gods, and many place names survive in Sweden and Norway that contain Ullr’s name.
While his name also shows his importance, it gives little explanation for his role. The Old Norse ullr is related to the Old English word wuldor, meaning “glory.”
In later times, wuldor was not used as a name but was included in poetic titles for the Christian God. The fact that it was a general term for glory and divinity would imply that as a name it would be used for a very important pagan deity.
One of the most well-documented aspects of Ullr’s character is his family relationships. Both the Prose Edda and shorter kennings, poetic descriptions, refer to him as Thor’s stepson and the son of Thor’s wife, Sif.
No father is ever named for Thor’s stepson, however. In one poem, Odin mentions that Sif has a lover besides Thor, but no name is ever given.
A few stories indicate that Sif may have had an affair with Loki, but there is little evidence for this and no sources make a link between Ullr and Loki directly.
The Prose Edda otherwise says that Ullr is exceptionally attractive and has the characteristics of a warrior. The author, Snorri Sturluson, claims that Ullr is a good archer and that no one can outpace him on skis.
Other sources contain more vague and general depictions of Ullr. The Poetic Edda, for example, names him specifically with “all the gods” who can give a blessing and claimed that an oath was taken on Ullr’s ring.
The Poetic Edda also gives a name for Ullr’s home, Ydalir. No details are given about Ydalir, however, and it is not referenced in any other surviving source.
The closest thing to a myth that survives regarding Ullr is found in the Gesta Danorum, a history of Denmark written in the 12th century.
Saxo Grammaticus, the writer of the Gesta Danorum, called Ullr by his Latin name, Ollerus. He claimed that the god once ruled the Aesir.
In a story that is not repeated elsewhere, Saxo wrote that Odin began to neglect his duties and take his anger out on others after Baldur was killed. The gods sent him into temporary exile and nominated Ollerus to take his place.
Saxo described Ollerus as a “cunning wizard” and said that he had a bone marked with “dire spells” that he used to sail across the sea without rowing. Ollerus took the name Odin for himself and ruled for ten years until the real Odin was called back from his exile.
Saxo’s story, however, is not referenced in other surviving myths so it’s impossible to tell how well-known the story was. Because Ollerus took Odin’s name while he ruled, even if the story were known elsewhere it would not refer to Ullr in a way that could be recognized.
These sources give very little information about Ullr. So how can historians say what domains he was associated with?
Modern writings often call Ullr a god of archery, skiing, or athletics in general. While surviving Norse sources do not make this explicit, there is evidence for this in late pagan texts.
Snorri Sturluson specifically referenced Ullr’s skill in both archery and skiing. Snorri’s Edda does not specifically say that Ullr was prayed to for strength in these skills, but it does claim that Ullr is good to call on in duels.
Artistic representations also seem to confirm that Ullr was strongly associated with skiing and archery. Images of a man on skis holding a bow are often interpreted as being of Ullr.
One of the other sources we have for information about Ullr is the kennings, poetic descriptions that often referenced gods and myths to describe everyday objects or events.
Poets sometimes referred to a shield as askr Ullr, or a “ship of Ullr.” Historians believe that this kenning may be an important clue in understanding the god.
This description does not refer to a shield as a weapon or means of defense, but as a mode of transportation. Art and archaeology indicate that the earliest skis may have been more disc- or shield-shaped than the long planks familiar later, so this kenning may further indicate Ullr’s connection to skiing.
It may also explain the unusual bone that sailed Saxo’s Ollerus across the sea. It is possible that by the time of the Gesta Danorum the kenning was taken more literally and Ullr was believed to travel on an unusual ship rather than skis.
Ullr’s ties to archery are also confirmed in the way language was used.
His home, Ydalir, translates as “Yew Glen.” Yew branches were a favorite material for making bows, so much so that they were often referred to by the name of the wood.
Ullr’s importance, however, seems to have extended beyond his role as a god of sports or hunting.
The mentions of Ullr in the Poetic Edda say that he is the primary god to grant certain blessings and a god that specifically witnesses oaths. These tasks are generally those of major gods who have dominion over aspects of the law.
This, and the fact that Saxo’s account has Ullr taking the place of Odin, seems to indicate that Ullr had powers far beyond athletics or even warfare. He was a god of law and leadership as well.
Some historians believe that so few records exist for Ullr because he may have been known by another name at one point.
Some have suggested that Ullr is an alternative name for Heimdall, the god who sounded the horn to announce Ragnarok. While there are differences in the way the two gods are mentioned, some historians believe that this may explain why there are few places named for Heimdall.
Another interpretation is that Ullr was one of the Vanir gods, a pantheon that existed alongside the more well-known Aesir.
In some ways, Ullr seems to compliment the one-time ruler of the Vanir, Njord. They are both referred to as gods of law and leadership but have opposite domains, Njord being a god of the sea while Ullr’s skis would connect him to the mountains.
Ullr and Njord, according to some historians, could have once been revered as divine twins. They were similar gods who together represented the two regions of the Norse world, the mountains and the shoreline.
One reason Ullr’s stories may have been lost could be that he was supplanted by Njord’s wife, Skadi. She was a giantess who, like him, was associated with the mountains, hunting, and skiing.
The story of Skadi and Njord’s marriage emphasizes the fact that they were opposites, with Njord expressing hatred for the howling wolves and rugged landscape of his wife’s home. This story could have replaced an earlier one in which Njord and Ullr represented the two different terrains.
Ultimately, however, Ullr’s exact role in Norse mythology remains unknown. While historians can come to some conclusions based on the little remaining evidence, his identification as the god of archery and skiing is based on only a few brief references.
Ullr is often referred to as the Norse god of skiing, archery, hunting, or sports.
This interpretation is based on only a few brief descriptions of the god. He is mentioned as a skier and archer only once, but other artistic and linguistic clues show that a stronger connection may have existed.
Several sources say that Ullr was the son of the goddess Sif and the stepson of her husband, Thor. His father is never named, however, and there are no stories that recount how he interacted with his mother or stepfather.
The only legend that truly involves Ullr as a character is told in just one source, the Latin Gesta Danorum of the 12th century. This work claims that Ullr temporarily took Odin’s name and role as the leader of the gods, but this story cannot be found in any other sources.
In addition to his connection to archery and skiing, the few references we have to Ullr also show that he may have been a god of law or leadership. He had skill as a warrior, witnessed oaths, and gave blessings.
While some historians believe that Ullr may have been an alternative name for Heimdall or a twin of Njord, there is little direct evidence for these interpretations. Ullr’s true power and place in the Norse pantheon have, unfortunately, been lost to time.