Friday, June 4, 2010

The Clash with Christianity, Part One

On June 8, 793, Viking raiders pillaged the monastery on Lindisfarne, a small island off the northeast coast of England. The medieval Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates that “the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God’s church in Lindisfarne by rapine and slaughter.” Shortly after the raid, the Northumbrian scholar known as Alcuin wrote, “Never before in Britain has such a terror appeared as this we have now suffered at the hands of the heathen.” The invaders “desecrated the sanctuaries of God and poured out the blood of saints around the altar, laid waste the house of our hope, trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God.”

The Vikings, in dramatic fashion, had introduced themselves to the world. Their very arrival was instantly mythologized. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports, “In this year there were immense flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons in the air, and a little after that the raiding of heathen men destroyed God’s church in Lindisfarne.” Alcuin thought that the Norsemen were a sign of the coming Apocalypse, and referred to Jeremiah 1:14 – “Out of the North an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land.” In 1014, after thirty years of Viking incursions, the Anglo-Saxon Bishop Wulfstan saw the seemingly endless invasions as a punishment meted out by the Christian God for the sinfulness of his English countrymen.

For over 250 years, the Viking raids continued. Throughout Northern Europe, Christians prayed, “A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine” (“Deliver us from the wrath of the Norsemen, Lord"). This was not, however, a holy war between paganism and Christianity. In the early 12th century, English monk Simeon of Durham wrote of the Lindisfarne attack and reported that the Vikings “came to the church of Lindisfarne, laid everything waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted feet, dug up the altars and seized all the treasures of the holy church. They killed some of the brothers; some they took away with them in fetters; many they drove out, naked and loaded with insults; and some they drowned in the sea.” While the attack was clearly barbarous and violent, the motivation is just as clearly a quest for treasure and riches, both of which the Christian church had in abundance. On the drowning of priests, more will be written below. The ferocity of the Lindisfarne attack and subsequent raids reflected the violent age of which they were a part more than they did any sort of religious fervor.

Throughout the hemisphere, brutality was a fact of life. After a failed Norse raid on Moorish Seville, Emir Abd al-Rahman filled the city’s trees with the hanged bodies of the Vikings and sent 200 of their heads to the emir of Tangier. In 1014, Emperor Basil II of Byzantium blinded all 14,000 of the Bulgarians he had taken captive after defeating them in battle. Not quite all, actually; every hundredth man was left with one eye so that he could guide 99 of his fellow prisoners back to their defeated leader. Viking violence was a symptom, not a cause, of a cruel age.

In these violent times, Christianity began to take hold in the North. There were many ways that the varied northern social groups became converted to the new faith. Reasonable discussion, performance of miracles, outright bribery, and shows of force were all used to spread the Christian religion to Germanic society.

Sometimes, there was simply a peaceful discussion that led to conversion. According to Dr. Kristján Eldjárn, historian and one-time President of Iceland, the conversion of his country was a peaceful and matter-of-fact affair: “When in the year 1000 the Althing adopted Christianity as the official religion, it was the pagan Thorgeir of Ljosavatn who announced that all should be baptized. And all were. There was no bloodshed, no persecution. Icelanders are still just as devoted to democratic procedures.”

In 625, Northumbrian King Edwin asked the members of his court for their views on a proposal that their kingdom should convert to Christianity. Reportedly, one of them compared the life of an individual to a sparrow flying through the king’s hall on a winter day, “For a short time he is safe from the wintry storm, but after a little space he vanishes from your sight, back into the dark winter from which he came.” A life is a brief moment in the light between the eternal void before birth and after death. “Of what went before and of what is to follow,” he continued, “we are utterly ignorant. If therefore this new faith can give us some greater certainty, it justly deserves that we should follow it.” The fact that Christianity promised the certainty of eternal life for the righteous was enough for these men to abandon the faith of their forefathers, which gave no such beautiful and clear vision of the afterlife. On the contrary, one of the many pagan lands of the dead was known as Niflheim (“home of mist”), a name which underscores the very unclearness of what lies beyond death.


Unknown said...

So the Vikings were Reavers? That's awesome.

Anonymous said...

"The fact that Christianity promised the certainty of eternal life for the righteous was enough for these men to abandon the faith of their forefathers, which gave no such beautiful and clear vision of the afterlife"

If this is true, please do tell what Asgard, Hel, and Valhalla are?

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...

Dear Anonymous Person,

Thank you for your question about Norse conceptions of the afterlife.

Asgard means "home of the Æsir" (the main tribe of gods). Although there is mention that Odin and Freya divide dead warriors and Thor collects dead peasants, there is no description of what becomes of the souls (except for those in Valhalla). What becomes of the souls in Freya's hall? In Thor's hall? The sources are silent. There is no indication that the dead are wandering happily through a Marvel Comics Asgard, hobnobbing with the gods and goddesses.

Vahalla means "hall of the slain." It is only open to nobles who die in battle. They spend all day, every day, fighting and killing each other - only to be reborn and fight again. Not exactly the happy-happy-joy-joy of the Christian afterlife.

Hell is a miserable place where lost souls wade through a freezing river filled with ice and/or weapons. A giantess and giant dog prevent escape, and the terrifying Hel herself lives is the hall called Damp, eats from the dish Hunger with the knife Famine, and sleeps in Sick-Bed with drapes called Shining-Harm. Again, no happy-soup for you!

None of these three visions are "beautiful and clear." More importantly, there is absolutely no "certainty of eternal life." All souls will die at Ragnarok - the dead will really be dead. Finito. No one here gets out alive.

To those living in ancient times - who were, obviously, much more knowledgeable about Norse religion than we are today - this grim outlook was understood as a given. The article you commented on contains a quote from the debate over conversion in King Edwin's Northumbrian court in the year 625.

“Of what went before and of what is to follow,” [a court member] continued, “we are utterly ignorant. If therefore this new faith can give us some greater certainty, it justly deserves that we should follow it.”

I think his words sum up why, for many, the magical happy eternal life promises of the New Way were so appealing. The Old Way taught that, eventually, dead is dead. The Christian missionaries promised that we would all be happy in heaven - regardless of social class or the presence or absence of a heroic warrior's death. That's a great marketing strategy!

I hope this helps. I wish you well for your future study of Norse religion!

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