In the early 8th century, the Frisian King Rathod was sent by the victorious Frankish leader Charles Martell (“Charles the Hammer”) to be converted by the monk who later became Saint Wolfram. Rathod was eventually convinced to undergo the ceremony of baptism, but stopped with one foot in the water to ask if his deceased forefathers were in the Christian heaven. “No,” replied Wolfram, “in Hell, for they were heathens.” Rathod promptly withdrew his foot and said that he preferred to remain with his ancestors.
The skald (courtly poet) Hallfreðr worked for the Norwegian King Olaf Tryggvason around the year 1000. Olaf had converted to Christianity in England in 995 and became a ruthless destroyer of pagan idols and sanctuaries in his homeland. His poets were required to wholeheartedly embrace the new faith, but Hallfreðr simply couldn’t find it in himself to “vilify the gods.” He wrote, “Odin, in your praise / Poets have always written // Godsent verse; well should I / Remember this. // Nor would I – for the Skaldmaster’s / Gift meets mine - // Now hate Frigg’s mighty / Lord, though I serve Christ.” The lord of Frigg, queen of the Norse gods, is Odin. He is also the “Skaldmaster,” the god who sends inspiration to the poet through his gift of the mystic Mead of Poetry. Hallfreðr could not bring himself to turn his back on the patron god of the skald.
At the end of his life and in his final sickness, Hallfreðr feared the Christian Hell that had replaced the Norse Valhalla: “I would die now / Soon and sorrow-free // If I knew my soul was safe - / Young I was sharp of tongue; // I know I grieve for nothing - / Everyone must die - // But I fear Hell; let God / Decide where I wear out my time.” This lament echoes the words of Odin himself in the Eddic poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”), in which he says, “Cattle die, kinsmen die, / the self must also die; / but glory never dies, / for the man who is able to achieve it.” Raised in the deep tradition of Norse skaldic poetry, which was itself steeped in the mythology of the northern world, Hallfreðr could not completely turn against the faith that had informed his entire life. Before conversion, his place with the gods was secured by his poetry-making. After accepting Christianity, he lived his last years in fear that youthful indiscretions would damn him to Hell. For him, the new faith brought an end of hope rather than happy certainty.
In the age of conversion, Thor became the great adversary of Christ in the minds of those who followed the old faith. In the 10th century, there were tales that he fought the Christian King Olaf Tryggvason in a tug-of-war that took place over a fire. When Olaf Haraldsson was converting his fellow Norwegians in the early 11th century, some men told him that they simply could not switch faiths, because it would mean breaking their oaths to Thor and Frey, both of whom had given them aid and counsel throughout their lives. During the waning years of paganism, a passionate female follower of Thor told a Christian missionary in Iceland that Thor had issued a personal challenge of single combat to Christ.
|Thor's hammer pendants (10th century, Sweden)|
|Soapstone mold for crucifix & hammer (10th century, Denmark)|
Folk tradition, or lower religion, seems to have held on much longer. In the 17th century, the English poet John Milton could enjoy tales of hobgoblins and country spirits without feeling conflict with his Christian faith. In today's Iceland, belief in elves continues to the present day. Five percent of Icelanders claim to have met one of the Huldufólk (“hidden people”), and 53 percent of the population believe in them - or at least won't take the chance of offending them by denying their existence, in case they do exist. Árni Björnsson, former Head of the Folklore Department of the National Museum of Iceland, says, “Most of us do not actively believe in these things, but on the other hand we are reluctant to deny their existence. It is really a form of scepticism. We live in a land which is highly unpredictable - what is grass and meadow today could be lava and ash tomorrow. So we have learnt not to rely too much on the factual evidence of our senses.” Belief in the old ways, even if tongue-in-cheek, never really completely disappeared.