A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE VIKINGS
The images that conjure up in our minds when we think of the term ‘Vikings’ are relatively simplistic. In fact, our only understanding of Vikings as a race of people probably came from the epic animated movie by Pixar, How to Train a Dragon.
In our minds, Viking men are huge, brutish and rough with thick beards who are perpetually grumpy. Just like us… in the mornings… but we digress!
Our group decided to dedicate our very first blog post to the Vikings so that we could dispel any preconceived myths we have of them since they are honestly such a misunderstood bunch!
Here’s a brief outline of our post that we hope would be of help to our readers:
1. Vikings and their beginnings
2. Norse Beliefs: Asatru and Odinism
3. Introduction of Christianity
4. Pop Culture Adaptations
Essentially, the Vikings (aka our homies) are most commonly known for their accomplishments as pirates and their culture flourished from 800 C.E to about 1,100 C.E. In fact, they were known to be a group of Scandinavian men (and some women) who left their homeland in search of fortune elsewhere around the region. Before the term ‘Vikings’ were used to describe them, these brutish men were collectively referred to as ‘Norsemen’ (or Northmen) who would raid coastal sites and even monasteries around the British Isles. We mean, who would even dare to steal things from actual places of worship?! - Only them, these brave “Dothraki” men-warriors.
‘Viking’ came from an Old Norse word of ‘vik’(translated as bay or creek) which was then reconstructed to be ‘vikingr’, meaning pirate.
For the next 3 centuries, the Vikings would soon begin to carve a name for themselves as they continue to uphold their reputation, not only as pirates and raiders, but also as traders and settlers on much of the European continent.
The people we know now collectively as Vikings originated from a wide array of Nordic countries. One defining characteristics of these Vikings were interestingly not related to their ancestry but where they came from - much of these Vikings were said to be from uncivilized foreign lands which made us believe that they were regarded as such because they were non-Christians.
Interestingly, the creation of Vikings came about during the period of considerable religious change around the Scandinavian region and it was thought that most of them had an infallible hatred towards their neighbors because they practiced Christianity. However, our research dispelled any of these preconceived notions when we found out that most modern-day scholars believe these Paganistic Vikings raided Christian monasteries due to the lack of defense to sustain the raids, rather than a deep-set hatred towards the Christians.
VIKING CULTURE AND THE NORSE RELIGION
Much of the information about the Viking religion were documented in the form of the Codex Regius and the Icelandic Sagas. We have The Codex Reguis that contains the Poetic Edda, which accounts Norse beliefs and rituals in the form of tales and Old Norse poems. Meanwhile, the Icelandic sagas are narrative recordings of the Norsemen way of living.
Fundamentally, Vikings followed the religion of Ásatrú, a Paganistic religion that has a pantheon of gods. Pagans believe in a universe encompassing a total of nine realms in which three are our central focus:
Niflheim: the land of the freezing mist where evil-doers and oathbreakers of the Viking age end up in.
Midgard: the middle realm where mortals reside.
Asgard: home of the Gods; connected to Midgard by a rainbow bridge.
Similar to the aforementioned realms are also the Pagan’s belief in three groups of higher beings - the Aesir making up the main set of Viking gods, the Vanir the gods and goddesses of fertility and the Jotun the giants. While we are mainly only going to focus on the Aesir in this blogpost, it is worth mentioning that the gods in Aesir did not live harmoniously with the giants.
The main group of gods, Aesir, was believed to have consisted of Odin, Thor, and Loki, as mentioned previously. Despite being known to seduce mortal women for sexual acts resulting to his numerous children, one of whom is Thor, Odin maintained dominance among Pagans.
It is known that Odin was highly appraised for having traded his “worldly vision (his eye) for internal vision (wisdom). His son, Thor, was known for his insurmountable strength being labelled “the god of thunder, fertility, the sky and the law,” the latter in which he controlled with a boomerang-like hammer called Mjollnir. Meanwhile, there’s Loki who was notorious for his disputes with Odin and Thor, and eventually turning against the Aesir in the apocalypse called Ragnarok.
TRANSITION TO CHRISTIANITY
Unfortunately, despite the pantheon of gods that the Vikings had, they were unable to run away from the influence of Christianity around the Scandinavian region. For Vikings living around what is now known as Denmark, their apprehensiveness to convert to Christianity can be a result of their strong, unwavering beliefs towards their gods.
As we continued our research, we began empathizing with them because it sure isn’t easy to completely abandon centuries of age-old practices in favor of a strange, new, monotheistic religion like Christianity! It was therefore difficult for early missionaries, who came to Denmark around 700-800 CE, to convince the Vikings that only Jesus Christ can salvage them and not “Odin’s [thread] that will determine their path to the afterlife”.
It is also interesting to note that the adoption of Christianity as a religious belief did not come about due to a complete submission towards the Christian god. However, it was regarded as a “necessary” evil for Viking merchants who traded with the rest of Europe. It is even more interesting to know that Viking merchants were readily branded with a sign of the cross and denouncing their Norse gods, without necessarily receiving official baptism. So much for loyalty, huh?
While the initial introduction to Christianity came about with Viking merchants trading with other people across Europe, the complete conversion of the Viking to the Christian faith took 200 years! In fact, the earliest record of Christian missionary visits came with Willibrord, an English archbishop who travelled to Denmark to teach the Danes the Christ way-of-life during 700 CE. There he met the king of the Danish people, King Ongendus (Agantyr), who was described to be “a man more savage than any wild beast and harder than stone”, a description befitting a Viking man of that time. Unfortunately, Archbishop Willibrord was treated badly during his solo missionary voyage to Denmark that he left prematurely, only to return after with 30 boys who were trained in Christianity.
By around 800 CE, Christianity and the Nordic religion have been co-existing harmoniously for years until King Harald Bluetooth erected the Jelling runestone - which disproves the misconception that the Vikings had a long-held hatred for Christianity; the misconception is refuted with this evidence because we get to see that Vikings were in fact rather tolerable of it.
The Jelling runestone is believed to have been erected by the King in Denmark as an ode to his parents and to chronicle his victory in making the Danes Christians. The inscription on the stone are evidences that Christianity became a significant religion in the region as it says, “King Harald bade this monument be made in memory of Gorm his father and Thyra his mother, that Harald who won for himself all Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christians”.
DID YOU KNOW?
Despite the seemingly mythical tales of the pantheon of gods in the Norse traditions, our modern-day description of days in a week are heavily inspired by the Norse gods!
MORE: POPULAR CULTURE!
In fact, the values exhibited by the different Viking gods are so universal that they have been widely adopted into popular culture, specifically in Marvel comics and films! If you were confused as to where you’ve heard Odin, Loki and Thor being mentioned before, we can now safely tell you that the characters in the movies under the Thor/Marvel franchise are highly inspired by Ásatrú beliefs! Look, even in the still-cut of the movie above, Odin is depicted to be one-eyed! Just as it is said above, the Marvel character Loki also adopts certain virtues of Ásatrú’s Loki - that, despite his good looks, he is scheming, evil and very mischievous!
Written by Mario Bernardi, Tricia Jean Vergara, and Quraishia Juwanda