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Vikings and Religion

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The Viking Age (793-1066) began with sacking monasteries but ended with Viking kings becoming champions of the Church. This change is startling, especially because the struggle between the Vikings and the rest of Europe was so often framed as the battle between Heathenry and Christendom.  But how much of a shift was it really, and why did it happen? This article will briefly look at the relationship between the Vikings and Christianity, and some of the impacts the two forces had on each other.

Norse Attitudes Towards Faith and Viking Raids on Monasteries  

The early Norse had a profoundly ingrained ethos that permeated every facet of their lives and can still be clearly mapped out in the study of their actions – yet they did not even have a word in their language for ‘religion.'  Belief in their gods was just an accepted fact for the early Vikings, and their spiritual rituals were usually conducted by their community leaders. There were a small number of priests, seers, shaman, and other professional spiritualists, but these were rare specialists rather than the everyday ministers of faith.  Great Pagan temples, like the one Adam of Bremen described in Uppsala, Sweden, were occasional destinations of homage, but much of the regular worship took place outdoors in groves or other natural sites. 

In short, the Norse did not have an organized religion, the way Christians, Muslims, or Jews did, and they were puzzled by these religions when they encountered them. 

Because the Norse did not have an organized religion and had no concept of sin and salvation, they never made any real attempt to proselytize or spread their faith.  There were a few instances of them turning Christian shrines into Pagan ones, but these were usually part of a broader military strategy. Doubtlessly, some people who were taken by the Vikings or whose lands fell under their control adopted the Norse faith, but evidence shows the majority did not.  Similarly, the distressing cruelty some Vikings inflicted on Christian priests, monks, and nuns were also military "shock and awe" or merely the depravity of individual raiders.

For the people of Early Medieval Europe, monasteries and abbeys were not just places were monks chanted and prayed.  They were the centers of learning, music, and culture. Kings and nobles patronized them to display their personal riches, largess, and piety and great wealth aggregated there.  But this wealth was usually poorly-defended, and so these centers became the prime targets of Viking raids.

Vikings even attacked their own religious centers.  In the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok and His Sons, Ivar and his brothers sack a Pagan shrine for no other reason than it will bring them riches and fame.  By the late-10th and 11th centuries, Christian Vikings would still sometimes attack monasteries, and non-Norse Christian kings would plunder Christian centers sponsored by Norse leaders.  Even for some non-Norse combatants in this violent age, churches and monasteries began to be seen as soft-target assets of a competitor rather than sacrosanct houses of God.  

So, what we see from a close examination of the sources is that for most Vikings the extensive attacks on religious sites was not about promoting their faith or suppressing another.  It was about the money.

Christian Views of Viking Invasions

Most of our non-Norse primary sources on the Vikings were written by churchmen and contained a religious perspective of the events.  While the Norse believed that fate governed all things, Medieval Christians believed that God governed all things. Therefore, it was a tremendous blow when the seemingly-invincible Vikings desecrated churches with impunity.  Many people concluded that God was using the Vikings to punish Christendom for some as-yet-unidentified sin.

In the military and material sense, however, this perspective did not yield immediate benefits.  Every Viking victory undermined confidence. Instead of trying to learn from strategic mistakes and get better at fighting the fierce northerners, some Christian leaders concluded they needed to pray and supplicate more – and then became increasingly depressed when they lost the next battle anyway.  Thus, the Vikings achieved a strong psychological edge over the armies they were fighting, and it was not until the Christians began racking up some victories (almost a generation later) that they could clear their head and start to solve their Viking problem.

Early Missionaries to Scandinavia

Carolingian rulers sent several missionary envoys to Scandinavia (especially Denmark) starting in the 9th century.  While it must have been a daunting task to bring Christianity to the fierce Viking homelands, these missionaries were usually received peacefully. 

However, the missionaries did face the significant obstacle of language.  While part of the same linguistic family as other Germanic tongues, Old Norse had changed dramatically over the past few centuries.  It was difficult for the missionaries to become fluent enough to meet the poetic standards the Vikings valued. Ultimately, it was not to be the missionaries that converted Scandinavia.  It was to be the Vikings themselves.

Changing Norse Attitudes Towards Christianity

Gradually, the disdain for Christianity the early Vikings held shifted.  One of the reasons for this was that Christian forces began to win battles and earn the respect of their Viking enemies.  Men like Alfred the Great in Britain, King Constantine in Scotland, and Mael Sechnaill in Ireland devised strategies that broke the spell of Viking invincibility. 

Simultaneously, some churchmen – disgusted with their royal patrons’ inability to defend them – started leading forces themselves.  Some of these bishops and abbots were of noble birth and so had military training, and they could be charismatic and successful leaders.  Monasteries built towers (like the one at Glendalough, Ireland) to stave off Viking attacks, and men like Wessex’s Bishop Heahmund fought and died heroically in battle.  The Vikings noticed this, and it helped them to see the Christian god as a war god they could better appreciate. This militant response to Viking invasions was to have far-reaching (and often negative) effects on the Church in the Middle Ages and is one reason why a chess board has bishops as powerful pieces.

But of all the things the Vikings encountered, what finally changed their mind about Christianity the most was contact with the Byzantine Empire.  Starting in the 9th century, Swedish Vikings and the hybrid Kievan Rus began to fight with – and eventually for – Constantinople (now Istanbul in modern-day Turkey).

Constantinople was by-far the most magnificent city the northerners had ever seen. It was opulently wealthy, and the city alone had more people living there than all of Sweden.  It was also the first naval power the Vikings encountered that was able to stand up to them. The
Heimskringla sums up the Viking impression of “the Great City” when – upon entering the gates for the first time – Harald Hardrada tells his followers to close their gaping mouths lest they look like fools.

In the 10th century, Byzantine Emperor Basil II “the Bulgar Slayer” instituted the Varangian Guard – an elite unit of 6000 ax-wielding Vikings.  While initially made up of Swedes and some Rus, the Varangian Guard soon attracted Norse warriors from all over the Viking world. Brave men of ability would distinguish their careers in the service of the Christian emperors for the tremendous prestige, glory, and wealth it guaranteed.  These men did not only return home with cash and stories to tell, but with a broader perspective of the world.

Forced Baptism and Top-Down Conversion

On the eve of the Viking Age, the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne forced multitudes of Pagan Saxons in mainland Europe to convert at sword point.  Sacred oak groves were cut down, and those who resisted were allegedly massacred. The kings of Christendom were rarely to be in the position to do the same to the Vikings.  

Baptism was increasingly demanded of the leaders of defeated Viking armies, though.  For example, Alfred the Great required the Danish Sea King, Guthrum, to be baptized along with about 30 of his jarls.  One of these jarls reportedly joked that this would be the twentieth time he was baptized, and then complained that the white baptismal garment was not up to his usual quality.  His attitude was probably typical.

Kings like Alfred were less concerned with the state of the Vikings’ souls and more concerned with trying to find some means of enforcing peace.  It was hoped that inclusion in the Church might be one more way to exert some influence – however small. The Christian kings also had to navigate their own political realities, as many of their nobles and bishops may have been critical of making treaties with “the heathens.”  Viking baptisms removed some of this pressure.

Overall, the experiment seemed to work.  While the English could never entirely count on Guthrum, he did keep the peace after his baptism.  Considering he had been a model of Viking cunning before baptism, one can only conclude that there was something about Guthrum’s position and new-found legitimacy that the Dane liked.  Similarly, the great Viking, Rollo, accepted baptism to claim Normandy from the Frankish Emperor, Charles the Simple, and used his new-found ties with the Church to strengthen and advance his realm.   

Ironically, more Norse would be forced into Christian conversion by Vikings than by the kings of Christendom.  From the late-tenth century onward, Norse Viking kings like Harald Gormsson (aka Harald Bluetooth), Olaf Tryggvason, Olaf the Stout (“Saint Olaf”), and Magnus the Good all believed in Christianity’s benefits for national cohesion.  

In the east, Vladamir the Great of the Viking-hybrid Kievan Rus came to the same conclusion. Supplanting their native faith with Christianity (sometimes by arms) and aligning themselves with Rome or Constantinople became key components of their empire-building. 

Eventually, even Iceland would see Christianization as just “keeping up with the times,” and their parliament (the
Althing) would vote to make Iceland Christian in the year 1000.  

Bottom-up Conversion

When the Vikings raided, they took everything of value that they could carry, including people.  Vikings were notorious slavers. Some of these captives were sold far away in the teeming slave markets of the booming Islamic east.  Others they kept for themselves.

The Vikings also began staying longer and longer into the lands they raided and often intermarried with the people they met there.  For example, the Irish annals mention groups of Norse-Irish as early as the 840s. Recent DNA research has revealed that about 25% of the males and 50% of the females of the founding population of Iceland (i.e., 870-930) were Irish or Scottish.  

This all meant that Norse households became increasingly mixed in terms of faith.  The Icelandic sagas reflect this. One such example is found in Erik the Red’s Saga.  In it, Leif Erikson converts his mother to Christianity, and she subsequently refuses to sleep with her husband, Erik, until he converts, too.  The skald adds wryly, “this was a great trial to his temper.”   

The sagas show that many times these religiously-heterogeneous households were as happy and productive as need-be, while other times the clash of faiths could lead to big problems. In the Greenlander’s Saga, one of the expeditions to America breaks up because of religious strife amidst the parties, and in the Saga of Burnt Njal, two inseparable brothers fight against each other at the Battle of Clontarf, split along religious lines.

 

How Were Vikings Different After Becoming Christian?

Though the Viking Age would end and the Norse warrior ethos eventually cool as Scandinavia became more like the rest of Europe, the Christian Vikings of the 10th and 11th century did not behave much differently than their Pagan counterparts.  They were still extraordinarily warlike and about as likely to plunder, take slaves, have multiple wives, engage in blood feuds, and display other typical features of Vikings anywhere.  They were just as daring in exploration. Some of the most savage, intrepid, and successful Vikings – like Harald Hardrada, Amlaib Cuaran, Sytric Silkenbeard, Leif Erikson, and Cnut the Great – were Christians by choice.    

Viking values of total commitment in battle and placing glory over life itself also did not change.  Clear evidence of this can be found in the Battle of Clontarf (Ireland, 1014) and in the Battle of Stamford Bridge, (England, 1066) in which mixed-faith Viking armies chose annihilation rather than dishonor and suffered casualty rates of 80-90 percent.  These battles, and the others like them, showed that for the Vikings it did not really matter whether they were going to Heaven or Valhalla.

The Norse Conversion Experience: Pluralism, Syncretization, Replacement, and Cultural Legacy

Many early Viking Christians seem to have just incorporated Christ into their cosmology rather than completely rejecting their old ways.  We find sayings in the sagas like, "On land I worship Christ, but at sea I worship Thor."  This was not apostasy – just what the pre-modern polytheistic mind considered pragmatic.  Other examples of this pluralism (that is, acknowledging both religions as true in their own way) abound in archaeology, where Mjolnir (Thor’s Hammer) amulets have been found in the same graves as crosses.  One archaeological dig even turned up a casting mold that could make a Mjolnir and two crosses at the same time (see photo).  

There are many examples of this “Christian polytheism” in the historical record too, such as when a dying Rollo of Normandy gifted 100 pounds of gold to his local Christian churches and then hanged a hundred prisoners as sacrifices to Odin. Professor Kenneth Harl (2005) of Tulane University generalizes that “it usually took Vikings two or three generations to figure out what monotheism was.”

Hardliners in the Church tried to convince the Norse that their old gods were lesser spirits – or, basically, demons.  This was a hard sell. The Norse revered their ancestors, and their ancestral gods seemed impossible to remove from their cultural identity.  Over the next few hundred years, some Scandinavians would settle into this opinion, but it was not the most popular one. The idea that the old gods remain "alternative powers" (demonic or otherwise) did eventually take root in Icelandic magic, such as what one finds in the Galdrabok grimoire.

Other Norse Christians around the Viking Age and after took a different view.  They held that the old ways served their purpose but that their time had passed.  We see later Scandinavian Christian monks describe an early king as “a favorite of Odin,” without any sort of religious apology.  In the view of many, the old gods had already perished in Ragnarok, and the world was reborn as the Christian world they lived in.  

By the time Snorri Sturluson and other Icelanders were writing down the sagas and poetry of their ancestors, symbolic ties and Christian themes were being identified (some experts say, added) to their old lore.  For example, Odin’s son, Baldur, with his kind nature, unjust death, and glorious resurrection became allegorically associated with Jesus.  As another example, crusading descendants of Vikings identified most with the Odin-like qualities of the Old Testament God. Evidence of this syncretization and culture blending remains evident in the holiday traditions, such as Christmas/Yule.

By the early 12th century, Denmark had 2000 churches. Norway and Sweden each had about 1000.  Sweden seems to have held on to Paganism the longest, due to its isolation and differences in its political transition from its neighbors.  One of the tools archaeologists use to determine “thorough” Christian conversion from native religion is by looking at burial practices. Based on such findings, Scandinavia was Christian in practice by the end of the 12th century.  

Conclusion

The conflict of ideas between Nordic Paganism and Christianity was one of the defining features of the Viking Age.  Very gradually, many of the Norse began to adopt Christianity in response to their changing conscience and expanding world view.  Christianity did not end the Viking Age, or make the Vikings not be Vikings anymore. Some of the most epic and brutal battles ever fought were by Christianized Vikings.  However, Christianity was recognized by both sides as one of the clearest pathways to bringing the Norse into the broader European community. Rulers of England, France, and Byzantium used it to harness the northerners’ energy while Norse kings used it to advance their drive for power and nation-building. 

Christianity and inclusion in the Church, along with changing economic, military, and political circumstance made the Scandinavia of the 12th century very different from the Scandinavia of the 9th century.  But focusing too much on this delivers an inaccurate picture.  For most of the three centuries the Vikings were exploring the oceans, trading with the far corners of the earth, and fighting all comers, the Christians and Pagans amongst them were moving in and out of conflict and cooperation.  Like Odin, the Vikings did not just have a fierce nature, they also had a curious one. Through both their old and new faiths, they found different ways to understand their world and different self-expression in art and action. Though the contact between the two faiths could be violent, in some ways, it could also be synergistic.  




Contributing Author

David Gray Rodgers is a fire officer, college lecturer, historian, and novelist.  He is the author of Usurper: A Novel of the Fall of Rome and co-author of Sons of Vikings: History, Legends, and Impact of the Viking Age.   

 

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Photo Credits

Man with Cross Stone and Illustration of Ansgar:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianization_of_Scandinavia

Rune Stone raised by Bluetooth, Danish Cross and the Mjolnir/Cross Mold:
https://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until-1050-ad/the-viking-age/religion-magic-death-and-rituals/christianity-comes-to-denmark/

Church in Hvalsey, Greenland:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=Hvalsey+Church+Greenland

Frösö Stone:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fr%C3%B6s%C3%B6_Runestone

 

References

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