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From Thor to Jesus: A Gradual Change in beliefs and Power

 

Frank Dicksee, Vikings Heading for Land, 1873. 2 Viking soldiers on a sea voyage standing at the front of a ship with 2 other vikings rowing the ship. The hull of the ship is shaped like an animal head, probably a dragon head like most viking ships. 

 
 
 

Layout of blog post

 

 

Introduction

Vikings were actually Christians.

Interesting isn’t it? That the people who created Norse mythology were practising Christians. Well, to be accurate, they first believed in Norse mythology. However, the Vikings slowly converted to Christianity and their belief in Norse mythology dwindled thereafter.

This transition from Norse mythology to Christianity (800-1300 CE), and its resulting impact on the Vikings’ politics, is our focus for this blog post. The study of this transition is important as it reveals how religion can influence politics and governance, and serve as a unifying force for different communities1 of the same culture.

Norway and Iceland portray this unification best as they were influenced by Norse mythology differently and heavily influenced by Christianity. As such, our blog post shall mainly focus on Vikings from these areas.

 

Viking Rule under Norse Paganism

 

Before Christianity, the Vikings believed in something that has recently taken the Marvel world by storm: Thor. That’s right, the franchise that has given us Chris Hemsworth’s chiseled abs is based off of Norse mythology, courtesy of the Vikings.

Watch the video below for information on Norse Mythology:

 
 

Viking myths inspired the development of different political traditions in Norway and Iceland. Norway represents traditions developed in the early Viking Age, whereas Iceland was settled by the Vikings towards the end of the Viking Age.

 

Norway

According to available sources2, Vikings in Norway did not appear to have a clear governing body. Instead, their politics seemed centered around their conquests and accumulation of power.

With their state-of-the-art ships, Vikings in the Viking Age (800-1050 CE) were known for their successful conquests. Interestingly, Vikings were relatively rational. Their conquests were politically motivated by their desire for wealth and power, both of which have surprising religious origins.

Vikings primarily invaded monasteries along the coast of the British isles and Europe to amass wealth and social stature. The wealth a Viking accumulated determined his/her social class. The greater their fortune, the higher up their social ranking. More interestingly, Vikings collected treasures and weapons as they believed that, in the afterlife, these souvenirs served as tokens of glory that they can bring with them to Valhalla4, the hall of heroes.

Vikings also engaged in warfare to garner honor and prestige. Parallel to the adventures of their deities against frost giants5, Vikings fought to claim religious prestige. For the Vikings, it was honorable to die on the battlefield. Fallen warriors were rewarded with entry into Valhalla. Dying of sickness and old age, however, was considered cowardly. Those who did not die in battle were believed to be sent to Helheim6.

As such, in Norway, Norse mythology influenced the Viking’s political conquest for prosperity and power.

Max Brückner, Valhalla,  1896. In the background, wisps of mist shrouds a majestic castle that appears to be made of rock. It lies on top of a mountain bathed in the soft yellow glow of the sunlight. The picture is framed by trees in the foreground to the left and right of the picture. 

 

Iceland

Governance over Icelandic Vikings was also inspired by Norse mythology. When the Vikings settled in Iceland (870-930 CE) 7 , their behaviour may have been adapted from Norse mythology.

As one of the early settlers in Iceland, Viking chieftains were usually the leaders of the Vikings. These chieftains were influential in terms of religion and politics.

As religious leaders, they followed Norse paganism closely. For instance, the communication between chieftains and their supporters closely resembled that between Norse deities, where disputes were common. As such, there is a close similarity between Norse myths and the way chieftains imitated it to exercise power over their Viking subjects.

Furthermore, Norse mythology emphasized dominance and power and even encouraged the commitment of shameful acts to attain it. Deities in the mythologies committed dishonest acts to others assuming that others would do the same to them. It seems that the old Norse deities were very ambitious in preserving their status. Imagine how much power they desired if they actively committed dishonest acts just to get it.

Similarly, the chieftains took Norse deities as role models, and also acted immorally to secure their status and power. Due to the absence of a government in Iceland, the chieftains had large power over the Vikings. In fact, Viking subjects were actually afraid of the chieftains seizing more area and power over themselves. The attractive aspects of power depicted in Norse mythology induced within chieftains, a desire for greater power and control. Thus, the chieftains imitated and used Norse myths to maintain their status and authority in Iceland.

 

Oscar Wergeland, Norsemen landing in Iceland, 1909. 7 vikings clad in armour and armed with spears sail on a boat that has a dragonhead at its bow. Two of the vikings are standing, one of them is looking ahead at the choppy sea, possibly to guide the boat safely. 

 

Vikings in Norway and Iceland focused on varying aspects of Norse Paganism. Vikings in Norway emphasised on the rewards of conquests, whereas Vikings in Iceland emphasised on the behaviour of deities to gain power. This difference is reflected in the contrasting Viking rule in the 9th and 10th century and shows how politics can vary under the same religion. However, this division between Viking settlements diminished as the Vikings slowly became influenced by another religious power…

 

Transition From Paganism to Christianity

Although the Vikings resisted adopting Christianity, they slowly began to convert in the 10th Century. Their rationale for trading Norse deities for Christ was mainly for political and social peace.

 

Contact with Christians

Firstly, the Vikings welcomed Christianity due to increased exposure with Christian regions. Vikings pillaged many parts of the British Isles and Frankish territories, where natives were mostly Christians9. Sometimes, after raiding an area, the Vikings chose to live there with the Christian natives. This led to intermarriages between Christian natives and Pagan Vikings. In these mixed-religion communities, there was greater acceptance of different religions. Since the children of such families grew up in partially Christian households, some of them grew up believing in Jesus more than Norse deities10.

Additionally, the acceptance of Christianity for trade purposes also contributed to their gradual conversion to Christianity. Trade between Pagans and Christians was prohibited in many Scandinavian regions, so many Vikings underwent primsigning11 to prove that they had accepted Christianity for economic purposes. Although the Vikings may not have believed in Christianity, the increased contact between Vikings and Christians paved the way for its future adoption.

James Denham. The Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory. 2013. Graveyard alongside red brick ruins of a Christian monastery that was raided and destroyed by Vikings in Northumberland, Great Britain, during the battle of Lindisfarne in 793 CE. The battle of Lindisfarne is considered by most historians to be the beginning of the Viking Age.

 

Christianity as an Olive Branch

The maintenance of peace, both politically and socially, was the main reason the Vikings adopted Christianity. Some vikings chose to convert in order to gain other European Christian kings as allies. Although they are known for their strength and brutality, the Vikings experienced defeat on several occasions. As the losers of the battles they waged, some Viking leaders had to convert to Christianity as compensation.

One such example was the religious conversion of the Danish Viking leader Guthrum, who was made to convert to Christianity after losing to King Alfred of Wessex. Guthrum was made to sign the Treaty of Wedmore (878 CE)12 which required him to be baptised and accept Christianity in exchange for King Alfred to recognise him as King of East Anglia. Although Guthrum didn’t believe in Christianity13, agreeing to the treaty and converting to Christianity wasn’t a bad deal as punishment for an invasion he started (and lost).

 

Need for Social Harmony

Social peace also contributed to the adoption of Christianity by the Vikings in Iceland. In 998 CE, the king of Norway, Olaf Tryggvason, converted to Christianity. This shift away from Norse Paganism, especially by a person of high authority, led to discord amongst the people14. As Iceland was under the authority of Norway, its lawspeaker15, Thorgeir Thorkelsson, made the conscious decision in 1000 CE to formally recognise Christianity as the main religion by law to prevent civil conflict within Iceland. The practice of Norse religion was initially still permitted given that it was done secretly, and a few Pagan customs were kept.

But think about it, if practising Norse Paganism had to be covert, was it really still allowed? Thorgeir made a smart move by ratifying Christianity, as King Olaf was harsh in his attempt to spread Christianity. In addition to destroying many Pagan temples, King Olaf even tortured and killed those who opposed Christianity, sometimes using brutal methods such as burning and shoving animals down people’s throats.16

 

Vikings rule under Christianity

The conversion to Christianity was essential to the Vikings because it reflects the collective process of integrating Viking communities from different regions to achieve a more unified power. Heroic missionary kings, Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf Haraldsson, did not just introduce Christianity but also influenced the growth of a centralised government in Medieval Norway. This in turn drew viking communities in Iceland to merge with those in Norway because they had limited resources to ensure security. Christianity at that time was a powerful political utility for developing states and societies.

 Holger Uwe Schmitt.  The Alesund Church was completed in 1909.  2016. A portrait of King Olav II Haraldsson on a stained glass window at Alesund Church located in Norway.

Holger Uwe Schmitt. The Alesund Church was completed in 1909. 2016. A portrait of King Olav II Haraldsson on a stained glass window at Alesund Church located in Norway.

Pope Gregory VII wrote to King Olav Haraldsson on 15 December 1079 with the purpose of connecting Norway more closely to the Holy See; he asked the King to send reputable young men to study at the Vatican City. This led to the creation of a common elite culture which transmitted ideologies from the top-down, resulting in the increased acceptance of Christianity within the Viking communities.

Besides the Vikings’ increasing acceptance of Christianity, the Church’s growing power also contributed to the change in Viking politics.

The period between the 11th and 13th centuries saw the development of the power and influence of medieval churches. The Church’s dominant position and influence was established due to its ability to generate wealth from collecting tithes20 and owning “more than one-third of arable land in Western Europe” way before the 11th century.

"Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine." 
(PROV. 3:9–10)

With sustained economic returns, the Church was able to build more churches, establish health services, and provide social support for its members. Thus, the Church became a prominent entity which oversaw matters related to everyday life. For instance, the Church had authority over affairs with regard to marriage, births, education, and even royal advisement. This exemplifies the monopolistic behaviour and singular dominance of the Church which allowed the Church to exert significant influence over the Vikings and many other communities.

 

Food for thought: A philosophical alternative...

The rationale for the Vikings' conversion to Christianity seems straightforward: exposure led to greater acceptance, which also facilitated social and political peace. However, since not everything was documented17, what about spiritual motivations? Could it have played a role in their conversion?18

It can be argued that the spiritual security Christianity provides may have led the Vikings to adopt Christianity. The relationships between Pagan deities and the Vikings were more of a mutual agreement: the deities granted your wish in exchange for sacrifices. However, one’s wish could be rejected, which led worshippers to appeal to other deities. Their act of appealing to other deities indicate an inkling that Vikings prefer religious certainty, which is something Christianity offers. As the Christian God can be seen as one who grants salvation to his followers, the spiritual comfort it provides could have been a factor influencing their conversion.

Additionally, Pagan deities from different realms were always in conflict, as interpreted in the Aesir-Vanir War19. This resulted in segregations within the Viking community as people attached to different deities and believed that the deity/ deities they believed in were more superior than those others may believe in.

In contrast, Christianity was seen as a religion that provides moral order because there is only one deity and He established the laws that govern this universe. The duty then is only to adhere to God's plan. This clear contrast between the two religions explains the political change that the Vikings underwent when they converted.

Christianity seemed to benefit the Vikings by providing them spiritual security. Christianity also preached of morality and lesser conflicts which explains the more organised form of governance the Vikings adopted as compared to previous unsystematic governance, where chieftains acted selfishly and immorally to gain power.

This adds another complex layer in considering the reasons why Vikings changed their religion, which in turn affected their politics.

 

Conclusion

Christianity is a unifying power for the Vikings as seen in the convergence of various political ideas to a similar government body in different viking communities.

The Viking’s conversion to Christianity is important to study because it gives readers a big picture of how vikings in different regions came to be under a single power and system of governance. Furthermore, it is interesting how religion shaped governance and gave political structure to a culture. One might even say that religion played a civilising role.

Nevertheless, amidst the warfare and chaos in this period of transitioning, it is important to note that adopting a new religion may not signify the end of a civilisation, but rather a reformation that allows for its continued existence.

 

References

Birkett, T. The Vikings in Munster. Centre for the Study of the Viking Age, University of Nottingham. (2014).

Byock, J., Walker, P., Erlandson, J., Holck, P., Zori, D., Gudmundsson, M., & Tveskov, M. A Viking-Age valley in Iceland: the Mosfell archaeological project. (2005).

Cans. Vikings: Norse mythology – II: Norse gods and goddesses [Thor, Loki, Odin and more]. (28 March 2016) YouTube

Chepkemoi, Joyce. What is the difference between the Vatican City and the Holy See?. The World Atlas. (2017).

Ellis, Hilda Roderick. The road to hell: A study of the conception of the dead in old Norse literature. (1968).

Firth, Matt. Viking identity and Christianity – the performed violence of Olaf Tryggvason. The Postgrad Chronicles Site. (2017).

Fridriksson, F. The rise and decline of the Icelandic commonwealth (Doctoral dissertation, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University). (1982)

Helmersen, Kristian. Adam of Bremen. From Museum at Vikingeskibs Museet. (2018).

Henriksen, Louise Kæmpe. Written sources for the Viking Age. From Museum at Vikingeskibs Museet. (2018).

History.com. Vikings. (2009).

History Extra. 8 key Viking dates you need to know. (2018).

Hultgård, A. The religion of the Vikings. The Viking World, 212-218. (2008).

Husain, Shahrukh and Willey, Bee. Stories from ancient civilisations: The vikings. (2007).

Lindow, J. Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press. (2002).

McCoy, Daniel. Viking raids and warfare. (2018).

McTurk, R. A companion to Old Norse-Icelandic literature and culture. (2008).  

Oxford University Press. Oxford big ideas geography history 8: The vikings. (2012).

Þórhallsson, B. Iceland's external affairs in the middle ages: The shelter of norwegian sea power. (2012).

Ross, M. C. Old Icelandic literature and society. Cambridge University Press. (2000).

Sundqvist, O. Cult leaders, rulers and religion. The Viking World, 223-226. (2008).  

Vésteinsson, O. The Christianization of Iceland: Priests, power, and social change 1000-1300. OUP Oxford. (2000).

Wikipedia. Æsir–Vanir War. (2017).

Wikipedia. Settlement of Iceland. (2018).

Wikipedia. Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi. (2018).

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Williams, G. Viking Religion. BBC History. (2011).

  1. Viking communities often segmented and settled in other areas such as Iceland and Greenland.
  2. There aren't a lot of sources on the governance and routines of the Vikings during the period they practised Norse mythology. This might be because they passed down their traditions orally and rarely documented information, aside from using writing as a way to track their trade and goods.
  3. Valhalla is a great majestic hall in Asgard, one of the nine deities’ realm. It is ruled by Odin, the Father of Gods. Valhalla is a heaven fallen warriors ascend to where they can enjoy feasts and fight alongside with the deities.
  4. They are enemies of Viking deities. Battles in Norse Mythology are usually between the deities and creatures like the frost giants.
  5. Origin of the word “Hell”, it is the Underworld in Norse mythology. This Underworld realm is ruled by the deity, Hel. She watches over the dead which spend eternity wandering around aimlessly in this world.
  6. This it just a rough gauge. There were sources stating that the dating of their settlements may not be reliable.
  7. Christian monasteries were the Viking’s main target during these raids, not due to religion, but due to the riches they held. And because monasteries were easy targets; Monasteries were unarmed and well, the monks weren’t gonna fight against the vikings were they? Can you imagine such a scene?
  8. A possibility for the adoption of Christianity, instead of Norse Paganism, by children of such intermarriages, could be attributed to the difference in time spent with each parent. Viking parents may have spent more time away from home due to their travels etc, so their children may have accepted Christianity better since more time was spent around that religion.
  9. Primsigning was an agreement where Norsemen would accept Christianity, but did not have to undergo baptism. It was regarded as a first-step towards converting to Christianity. Many Viking traders followed this custom in order to trade in Christian regions.
  10. The vikings, led by Gothrum, lost to King Alfred of Wessex in the Battle of Edington. As a result, the Treaty of Wedmore was signed, possibly to keep the vikings in check by making them comply with the Christian code of ethics. This was done in hopes of reducing viking raids in Anglo-Saxon England.
  11. When Guthrum was baptised, he took on the Christian name Æthelstan, and King Alfred became his Godfather. It is unknown if Guthrum later believed in Christianity after his conversion, but nonetheless, he respected the terms of the Treaty of Wedmore after its signage.
  12. There were multiple claims regarding the ease with which vikings in Iceland took to the adoption of Christianity. Some claimed that the transition was smooth as vikings were already exposed to and familiar enough with Christianity to accept it easily. Others disagreed and supported the claim that the adoption of Christianity was mainly political in nature.
  13. Lawspeakers were more or less the person in charge of the whole Icelandic Commonwealth. As President of the Althing, lawspeakers held power over legislative courts and also provided advice and clarification regarding laws.
  14. Many stories of Olaf’s cruelty can be found in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, one of the Old Norse Kings’ Sagas that were compiled sometime in the 12th century. One such story was that of Raud the Strong, a leader priest who practiced sorcery and wizardry, who was ordered by King Olaf to be killed by having a snake shoved down his throat. Another story is that of Eyvind Kinnrifi, who was killed by having a brazier filled with burning hot coal placed on his body until his belly burst open. There is a debate about whether some of the stories are true, or if they were part of the author’s overactive imagination. The only consistent story is that the reign of Olaf Tryggvason was indeed one of many executions and coerced religious conversions.
  15. Not everything was documented as the Vikings themselves only wrote down economic transactions. Most of the text about the rituals and routines were documented by outsiders, such as Adam of Bremen, a German monk attached to the Cathedral in Bremen.
  16. Word of caution: The following is speculation made based on our analysis on the differences between Norse mythology and Christianity. There is no primary source that explicitly states our arguments below
  17. Aesir-Vanir War is a period of dispute between two groups of deities in Norse mythology that contributed to the amalgamation between the two realms.
  18. Tithes are like taxes whereby people are obliged to pay 10% of their income to the Church. People in the medieval times pay in the form of agriculture produce and not cash and cheques which are widely accepted now.