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Vikings: When the hammer met the cross

26 October 2018

Martyn and Hannah Whittock explore the speedy conversion of marauders from the north


Ragnar Lothbrok played by Travis Fimmel (right) and Æthelstan played by George Blagden in the History Channel series Vikings

Ragnar Lothbrok played by Travis Fimmel (right) and Æthelstan played by George Blagden in the History Channel series Vikings

VIKINGS and Christians are two words that are not commonly found in the same sentence — not unless the sentence is describing how the former terrorised and abused the latter.

This is an image vividly imprinted on the popular imagination. Almost everyone has a clear picture of “the Vikings”: they were fierce pagan warriors who worshipped gods such as Odin and Thor, pillaged Christian monasteries, sacked communities, and sacrificed their victims in the dreadful rite of the “blood eagle”.

Their pagan character is dominant in this narrative of a clash of civilisations. It was not only Christians who encountered the Vikings: Islamic communities in Spain and North Africa were also on the receiving end of their destructive raids, and North Africans rubbed shoulders with Western Europeans as they were sold off in the slave markets of Viking-age Dublin and elsewhere.

The impact was geographically widespread. Vikings raided across the British Isles; they caused havoc on both sides of the North Sea and English Channel; they founded the first Russian state, based in Kiev; they reached the Caspian Sea, where they fought Muslim fleets; they turned up in Baghdad, riding camels; and they attacked Constantinople, the capital of the Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire. They even reached North America, where there is clear evidence of their short-lived settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, on Newfoundland.

No amount of revisionist history can get away from the violence and destruction wrought by these raids. Lives were lost, settlements and churches were burned, and Christian libraries and artworks were destroyed. It looked as if the Christian communities might be destroyed by these violent marauders.

As one historian once quipped, about a Viking king of York, “He wasn’t called Erik Bloodaxe because he was good with the children.” When we learn of an Orkney Viking known as Thorfinn Skull-splitter, we get the point.


IN 793, Vikings trashed the monastery and cultural centre of Lindisfarne, in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. This particular monastery had played a significant part in the Christianisation of northern England, and was renowned for its holy leadership and its magnificent artwork, made to the glory of God.

The beautifully decorated Lindisfarne Gospels are now one of the treasures of the British Library. When the monastery was attacked from the sea by Viking raiders, the severity of the destruction and the killing of monks, coupled with the northern origins of the raiders, persuaded some church leaders that it was a fulfilment of the prophecy found in Jeremiah 1.14: “Then the Lord said to me: Out of the north disaster shall break out on all the inhabitants of the land.”

To these Christians it seemed like an End Time event. It sent shock waves across Britain and Western Europe. As established Christian centres suffered escalating destruction, the faith itself seemed under threat, and Vikings were identified as manifestations of Antichrist and their actions were read as apocalyptic signposts. And these attacks were not limited to Viking raids on the North Sea coast of England.

They did the same across Ireland and elsewhere; and they became particularly adept at targeting Christian holy days, since these served up the maximum number of people to enslave. They were also skilful at exploiting divisions among their enemies, and punished this ruthlessly.

The image of Alfred the Great, of Wessex, forced into the marshes of Somerset to escape capture — where the legendary cake-burning episode is said to have occurred — remains a powerful one, passed down through generations. The raid, which almost succeeded, occurred on Twelfth Night: Vikings were sneaky, as well as violent. Alfred was celebrating Christmas at Chippenham, Wiltshire, and had his mind on other things.


ALAMY Ref: P5D3WX (RM)King Cnut and Queen Emma donate a golden altar cross to the New Minster at Winchester, c. 1031THESE raids spread terror from Ireland to the rivers of Russia, from Frisia to North Africa. And, in each place, their paganism was their trademark. Indeed, Scandinavia and Iceland were some of the last Western European communities to convert to Christianity. Iceland did not convert until 1000 (News, 23 March 2018), and Norway and Sweden contained significant numbers of pagans for even longer. King Sigurd of Norway even led a “crusade” against the south-east of the Swedish kingdom, in the early 12th century, to convert the locals from paganism to Christianity forcibly.

The paganism of the Vikings continues to inspire art and culture. Well-known elements include a range of competing gods and goddesses; the bridge of Bifrost, connecting their home in Asgard with the other worlds of being; dead warriors, chosen by Valkyries to feast in Odin’s hall of Valhalla; Thor battling giants with his great hammer; and the idea that, on the day of Ragnarok, the giants and monsters would storm Asgard and bring it to a bloody and cataclysmic end — the inspiration for Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the gods”).

The Vikings exported these beliefs, and today we find the names and exploits of the Norse gods preserved in place names, artefacts, and memorials. Pendants depicting Thor’s hammer have been unearthed by archaeologists across Scandinavia and in Britain. Thor fishing for the mythical Midgard serpent can be seen carved on a standing cross at Gosforth, Cumbria, which also seems to be decorated with a Valkyrie.

Carvings of the day of Ragnarok can be found on a stone cross from Kirk Andreas, on the Isle of Man. The legendary blacksmith Regin, forging a magical sword for the hero, Sigurd, and also Sigurd, roasting the dragon’s heart, can be seen on a stone cross from Halton, Lancashire.

These remnants depict a vivid lost world of gods, goddesses, giants, elves, dwarfs, and dragons: a world that underpins much of the landscape and the “history” of Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, and many surviving fairy tales.

The Viking pagan linguistic legacy also survives in other aspects of modern English. The words “thunder” and “Thursday” refer to the weather-god, Thor. Going “berserk” is derived from the behaviour of frenzied pagan Viking warriors. The word “hell” is derived from Hel, the name of the daughter of the god Loki, who ruled the underworld in Norse mythology. And, among many others, are the non-mythologically derived examples of “cake”, “egg”, “husband”, “leg”, “mire”, “ombudsman”, and “window”. We “speak Viking” every day.


TODAY, if one enters “Viking” as an internet images search, warriors with swords and axes appear in great number. Some are half naked. Many wear horned helmets, despite the absence of such items from archaeological excavations. The occasional helmet is winged. There are several dragon-prowed longships. And the occasional woman appears dressed in “Viking costume”, some of whom look as if they might have been very cold had they worn these particular items on a longship.

There is the occasional logo for an American football team, a brand of beer, or computer game. These are Vikings as many today like to imagine them: rugged people undertaking acts of courage on the battlefield — and it is fair to assume that all are pagan. None of the Vikings are in church. And there is nothing to suggest that they might ever be found in one — unless to strike down a monk, or lift a silver reliquary as booty.

This pagan character is not just a product of the popular imagination. Christian contemporaries of the Viking raids in the British Isles, in the eighth and ninth centuries, often called them “the pagans” or “the heathens”. Islamic writers described the Viking raiders of Spain as al-Majus (fire-worshippers, pagans), adding “May Allah curse them.”


IN OUR book The Vikings: From Odin to Christ we seek to convey a more complex picture. While the Scandinavian homelands were, indeed, some of the last places to convert to Christianity, this was not the case wherever Vikings settled. In these places, they became Christians with remarkable speed.

In England, the children of Vikings who had martyred King Edmund of East Anglia (remembered in the town of Bury St Edmunds) minted coins celebrating St Edmund. In Ireland, the death of Ivar, King of Dublin, was marked by an Irish chronicler with the words he “rested with Christ”; and Christian Scandinavians fought on both sides at the battle of Clontarf in 1014.

In the East, they rapidly converted to Orthodox Christianity as they founded the first Russian state. In 1016, the Danish Viking, Cnut, not only conquered England (ruling it until 1035), but also brought in laws in the 1020s designed to stamp out pagan practices. While he is now remembered as having his feet wetted by an incoming tide that he could not stop, the legend developed as a demonstration of his recognition of the powerlessness of kings compared with the power of God, as seen in the created order. Other Vikings, too, became famous for their piety.

In Normandy, they became such enthusiastic supporters of the Roman Catholic Church that the Pope even awarded William the Conqueror a papal flag and a commission to sort out perceived irregularities in the Anglo-Saxon Church in 1066; that is not how we like to remember the Battle of Hastings.

ALAMYDetail of a Viking tapestry from Skog Church, Hälsingland, Sweden, 12th century. It depicts the struggle between Christianity and paganism. The three figures to the right are ringing bells to frighten away evil spirits and pagan gods. From the Statens Historiska Museum, Stockholm.

This conversion to Christianity then flowed back into the emerging kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden under kings such as Harald Bluetooth (after whom Bluetooth technology is named). Fascinating evidence from this period opens up windows on this ancient world, and tells us about the lives of individual men and women, as well as the big events.

In Sweden, rune-stones record women expressing their new faith, but using something of the language and mindset of the pagan past in a uniquely Viking devotion to Mary. In Denmark, craftspeople made images of the crucified Christ wearing trousers (like any contemporary Viking), and bound to the cross by tangling vines, borrowed from rune-stone art.

In northern England, stonemasons may have carved pagan myths on stone crosses, but they employed them to communicate Christian beliefs. In the east, a Byzantine princess reluctantly went north to cement an alliance with Russian Vikings who then converted to Christianity.

This has all been obscured by a combination of contemporary accounts that document the impact of raids, and their reinforcement by much later writers. In the 12th century, Irish writers celebrated the victory of the heroic Irish king Brian Boru at Clontarf, over a “wrathful, foreign, purely pagan people”. Irish identity required that the enemy be designated pagans.


IN 13th-century Iceland, it was Christian writers of sagas and collections of ancient myths who recorded the pagan activities of their ancestors, in a period when the wild past could be safely recalled because it was no longer a threat. As a result of this, almost everything we know about Viking pagan beliefs was written by later Christians. All of this later work, however, played up paganism and played down Christianity.

As a result, many people’s concept of the Vikings is fixed on the first wave of attacks in the eighth and ninth centuries, as if the Vikings existed only at one point in time. Or, in the case of England, which experienced fierce raids again in the late tenth century and early 11th century, on two particular periods, without exploring what occurred in between. The reality was more complex.

It is clear that, once settled in new places, the Vikings found something very attractive about the faith of those whom they had conquered. Christianity brought a whole range of benefits: it was a literate faith, and so assisted rulers in their kingdom-building, law-making, and taxation, and in writing history. It was seen as the faith of sophisticated and wealthy kingdoms, and worth emulating.

It is also likely that the eclectic nature of Viking paganism, lacking holy books and a structured priesthood, caused beliefs and practices to fragment as Vikings settled abroad.

Conversion also opened the door to trading with Christians at market centres in areas that had not been conquered by Scandinavians. These economic opportunities led to a curious practice, known as prima signatio (first-signing) by contemporary Christians. This involved a Christian priest’s making the sign of the cross on the forehead of the person in question. It was intended as a preliminary step towards baptism and full membership of the Christian Church. Because they had been first-signed, they were then eligible to trade with Christians, who would not now be condemned for collaborating with pagans. The compromise suited both sides, since it promised economic benefits to both. Other interactions reveal a similarly interdependent relationship developing.

In conquered Northumbria, there are curious surviving traditions of Christian leaders’ being brought in to settle Viking leadership disputes. Archbishops of York can be found co-operating with Viking kings, despite their paganism. Clearly, it was thought more important to develop a working relationship with a locally based ruler than one with a southern Christian king of Wessex, a once-rival kingdom. The kings of Wessex were infuriated by what they regarded as northern betrayal: the north-south divide is nothing new.


IT IS important to avoid interpreting conversion as a pragmatic, calculated decision, as if the Vikings produced a cost-benefits-analysis checklist and finally opted for Christianity because of its practical attractions. To begin with, there was, no doubt, a period of compromise and syncretism in which aspects of the old and the new faiths combined in a way that fell far short of what we would understand as a life-changing religious conversion.

Early Viking kings in York minted coins adorned with the cross, and also with Thor’s hammer and Odin’s raven. From Iceland, we can read about a “Christian” who prayed to Thor during sea journeys.

Nevertheless, active paganism did collapse very quickly, as the paucity of Viking-Age pagan graves in England shows. Something was happening that clearly had an impact on their faith and world-view. The first Viking ruler to be baptised in England — Guthrum the Dane — never attacked Wessex again, and minted coins carrying his new Christian baptismal name, Athelstan. Something had changed in his life.

This can be partly explained by his relationship with Alfred the Great, but not every convert had such an influential role-model. In Scandinavia, there were organised Christian missions, but no evidence for them survives from England or Ireland. Because there was no organised missionary activity to convert the Viking settlers in the “lost regions” of the north and east (the so-called “Danelaw”), conversion can have occurred only through social interaction with Christian neighbours.

This conversion has left some intriguing evidence. As early as the 940s, a man, Oda, is recorded as being the Archbishop of Canterbury. This Oda was the son of a pagan Viking settler who had converted to Christianity. His life reveals the astonishing speed at which many Scandinavians assimilated in England. It also reveals the remarkable openness of the Anglo-Saxon Church to these newly converted immigrants.

The “Christian Vikings” should not be forgotten. It is time to redress the balance. While pagan marauders did, indeed, cause terrible destruction at first, they rapidly converted to the Christian faith. The hammer of Thor was rapidly conquered by the cross of Christ, wherever Vikings settled. In 1030, the army of King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway advanced with the battle cry “Onward, Christ’s men, cross men, King’s men all!” They, and their faith, deserve to be better remembered.

Martyn and Hannah Whittock are the authors of The Vikings: From Odin to Christ, published by Lion Hudson at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9).

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