For the new converts, there was much continuity between the old faith and the new. Many pagan gods and their attributes, adventures, and celebrations were translated into parallel features of Christian mythology and ritual life. In a deep psychological way, this eased the transition of conversion. Rather than fight the attachment of the new converts to their old celebrations, church and civic leaders merely changed the meaning that was attached to the feast days and reoriented the holidays to a Christian worldview.
In the most obvious example of this appropriation, celebrations of the Winter Solstice were overwritten with celebrations of Christ’s birth. Elves of the natural world and the female land-goddesses known as Landdísir were transformed into saints, and the protective family spirits called Hamingja or Fylgja became guardian angels.
Balder’s death and eventual resurrection were reflected in the sacrifice of Christ on Good Friday and his return to life on Easter Sunday. The Easter holiday itself is named for the Germanic goddess Eostra, who is mentioned by the Northumbrian monk known as the Venerable Bede. In De Temporum Ratione (“On the Reckoning of Time”), he writes that the month of April was known by the pagan Anglo-Saxons as Esturmonath and was named for the goddess Eostra. He specifically states that the Christian rites celebrating the resurrection of Christ were substituted for the springtime celebrations in honor of the Germanic goddess: “Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honored name of the old observance.” As early as the ninth century, there are written records that the continental Germans knew April as Ôstarmânoth – named for Ostarâ, the German version of the fertility goddess.
Some aspects of Odin were transferred to Christ. The Norse god hung on the World Tree, pierced with a spear in a sacrifice of himself so that he could gain mystic knowledge. Christ hung on the cross, likewise pierced with a spear in a sacrifice of himself so that he could ascend to his place in the Christian pantheon. The notions of a godly creation and an eventual doomsday were also common to both mythologies, with many points of both striking commonality.
To fit the psychology of the Norseman, Christ was pictured as a warrior. On the mid-10th century Anglo-Saxon Gosforth Cross, images of Thor and Vídar fighting the Midgard Serpent and the Fenris Wolf, respectively, are juxtaposed with images of the Crucifixion. The message seems to be that the new god fights sin in the way that the old gods fought monsters. The early-8th century Ruthwell Cross (likewise Anglo-Saxon), contains passages from the poem The Dream of the Rood, in which Christ is described as a warrior who prepares himself and voluntarily mounts the cross as a heroic self-sacrifice in battle against the forces of evil.
There was also much that was different and unfamiliar for converts to the new faith. The old faith had no centralized religious authority, no official doctrine, and no call to proselytize. Faith was largely centered around an individual experience in which one would choose a particular deity with whom he or she would have a special relationship. However, the individual would still participate in the group rites of the community and acknowledge the gods of his or her neighbors. The “jealous God” of the Christians was a new mythological type for the Norsemen, according to Hilda Ellis Davidson: “This indeed must have been one of the most difficult lessons for the new converts to Christianity to learn, and while they gained in single-mindedness, it is to be feared that they lost much of their old spirit of tolerance.” She also writes, “We know comparatively little of this revolution in thought and organization, with its appeal to central authority and refusal to tolerate other forms of belief, since it is Christians for the most part who have left us the records.”
Pagan temples were kept up by rulers or individual families. The local king would oversee the larger temples and the actions of their priests. In the family setting, the shrine was built by the family’s head and then maintained by his descendants, who acted as leaders of ritual. When societies converted to Christianity, they priestly caste took over the ritual leadership from both kings and family heads. The female prophetesses who were so important to Germanic religious and political life were removed from their privileged positions and replaced by the male priests of Christianity.