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gods viking

Today, the name "Thor" likely conjures up an image of a well-muscled Chris Hemsworth playing the Norse-inspired superhero on the big screen.

For the actual Vikings, the god of thunder may have similarly been admired for his great feats — but certainly not for his moral fortitude.

New research suggests that Vikings didn't look to their pantheon of gods for moral enlightenment, nor did they expect the gods to punish wrongdoers.

Despite their lack of all-knowing, moralizing gods, the Vikings developed a complex society.

That suggests that even belief in smaller deities can spur human cooperation, researchers reported in December 2018 in the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior.

"From the Viking perspective, there seems to be a number of supernatural beings that facilitate cooperation," said study author Ben Raffield, an archaeologist at Uppsala University in Sweden.

[Fierce Fighters: 7 Secrets of Viking Seamen] Thor, Odin, Freyja and the other Norse gods are well-known names even today, but figuring out what the Vikings actually believed about them is a tricky business.

Prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries and travelers starting around A. 800, the people of Scandinavia didn't write much of anything down.

The sagas, poems and ballads that record the tales of the Norse pantheon were all written down relatively late, between the 12th and 14th centuries, Raffield told Live Science.

When the tales were written down, Christians or people who'd come in contact with Christians were the ones doing the writing — meaning it's hard to say whether Christian values had colored the tales.

Still, the sagas and poems do reveal some information about pre-Christian Scandinavian belief, Raffield said, particularly when combined with archaeological evidence.

He and his colleagues analyzed common Viking artifacts and multiple texts, including the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, several sagas and traveler accounts.