Religion in the Viking Age
Viking culture is intertwined with the stories of the Norse gods. But it was also the Vikings who brought Christianity to Norway.
Beginning over 1,000 years ago, the Viking Age was a period of religious change throughout Scandinavia. The history is long and complex, but fascinating at the same time.
Most modern scholars reject the description of the early Vikings as pagans who hated Christians. Although they had pagan beliefs, most scholars now believe that the attacks of the church had nothing to do with religion. To the Vikings, churches and monasteries were simply poorly defended buildings with riches behind their walls.
It is known that the Vikings worshipped many gods. This may partly explain why some were so quick to adopt the concept of a Christian god. Let's look at what we know (and think) in more detail.
The ancient scandinavian beliefs
There is not much evidence of the old Scandinavian paganism, as very little has been written.
Rooted in rituals and oral tradition, the Old Norse was fully integrated into daily life.
So much so that it was seen as a way of life rather than a religion.
What is the Viking religion called?
The concept of religion as we know it today was only introduced in Scandinavia by Christianity.
Paganism is sometimes mentioned in Viking sagas.
However, most of these sagas were written in Iceland in the 13th century, a few hundred years after the introduction of Christianity.
Asatru, the Modern viking religion
Priest, chiefs and Sacrifice
We know that the chiefs had a priestly role and that pagan worship probably involved the sacrifice of horses.
We also know that the Vikings were not a single people.
They lived in groups in a vast area. That said, it is likely that these groups saw themselves, to some extent, as one with other speakers of Old Norse throughout Northern Europe.
Pre-Christian belief systems shared many ecological, economic, and cultural links.
Who are the Viking Gods?
Like the Greeks and Romans before them, the Vikings worshipped many gods.
The best known is Odin, God of Wisdom, Poetry and War.
Odin's son, Thor, the god of thunder, and the goddesses of fertility, Freyr and Freyja, are other notable names.
To learn more: The gods of Norse mythology
The Vikings sailed far away
The raids on the British Isles and elsewhere led the Vikings to have more regular contact with the Christian world.
It is believed that the Vikings maintained their own beliefs after the raids, but were under political pressure to convert if more peaceful relations were to develop.
Christians were not supposed to trade with pagans.
It is believed that many Vikings had to undergo some form of "temporary baptism" in order to trade.
They did not achieve full baptism, but showed a willingness to accept Christianity. This was enough to allow the trade to take place.
When Christianity came to Norway
Most people know the story of Olav Tryggvason who returns to Norway with Christianity in tow. But the religion had already spread in Scandinavia, albeit on a limited basis.
As early as the year 725 attempts were made to convert Scandinavia. It was then that the Anglo-Saxon St Willibrord led a mission to Denmark. The Christians as well as the worshippers of Odin and Thor lived side by side in the town of Hedeby. You can even buy the Christian cross and Thor's hammer at the local jewelry store.
Around 950, Håkon the Good tried to establish Christianity with its royal authority. It soon became clear that he would lose the support of the pagan rulers if he insisted. He made the decision for himself, so he abandoned the idea and sent his bishops back to the British Isles.
Olav Tryggvason returned to Norway in the summer of 995 with the intention of claiming the throne. It was then that the large-scale conversion really began.
He brought many ships with him, as well as several English priests and a bishop. When he landed on the island of Moster, he celebrated the first official Christian mass in Norway. But it took about 35 years for the religion to be adopted in Norway.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Christianity was adopted gradually. Individual regulations would be converted depending on whether or not the local chieftain converted.
Prevention is better than cure
The introduction of Christianity in Norway has taken much longer than many people think. We will never know whether the religions were considered comparable, or whether people simply did not want to take the risk of upsetting the old gods or the new ones.
The historic moat churches in Norway are adorned with elaborate carvings that mix Christian and Viking symbols. This is surprising to many people considering that the oldest example was only built in the 12th century.
Many church roofs are covered with sculptures of dragons, while finely carved portals inside tell ancient stories. Norway's oldest moat church, Urnes, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The north wall is decorated with a beautifully carved panel depicting a snake bitten by another animal.
The church's Romanesque basilica and its sculptures make it an important example of the combination of traditional Scandinavian symbols and medieval Christian influences.
Evidence of this long period of transition can also be seen in cemeteries throughout the United Kingdom, where many Scandinavians settled. Some ancient tombstones bear both the hammer and the cross.
Coins tell a story
Also in the United Kingdom, coins from the Viking period in York are named after Saint Peter. But look a little closer, and you will see that the final 'I' in 'PETRI' is actually Thor's hammer!
The York Museum Trust explains how some of the coins in the rea give an important insight into how Viking leaders worked with the Christian church, or didn't :
"On the other hand, King Jorvik Olaf Sihtricsson proclaimed his militant independence with coins bearing his title in the ancient Scandinavian language. Later, Eric Bloodaxe, the last Viking king of York, used a Viking design. After he left the city, it was never used again. »
A constant mix of old and new
In his book " Nordic Religions in the Viking Age ", Thomas A. Dubois summarizes the situation well. In the centuries leading up to Christianization and in the centuries that followed, communities and individuals developed their own versions of religion.
This would include their own deities, rituals and worldviews that helped explain their current situation.
New ideas would enter into these constructions based on economic and cultural influences, while old ideas would persist.
"Thus, the Nordic religion at a given moment in space or time could be considered both an artifact of its past and a reflection of its present. »