Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Clash with Christianity, Part Three

In 831, barely forty years after the Viking raid on Lindisfarne, Frankish Emperor Louis the Pious declared Hamburg “the metropolitan see for all the barbarous nations of the Danes, the Swedes, and likewise the Slavs and the other peoples living round about.” The pope ratified the proclamation, and the bishops of Hamburg sent a steady stream of missionaries northward. Many were English, and many won martyrdom rather than converts.

Adam of Bremen reports that an English bishop named Wolfred, after spending time preaching in Germany, “entered Sweden and with great courage preached the Word of God.” In 1028, “he proceeded to anathematize a popular idol named Thor which stood in the Thing of the pagans, and at the same time he seized a battle ax and broke the image to pieces. And forthwith he was pierced with a thousand wounds for such daring.” Although Wolfred gained only martyrdom from his attack on a representation of Thor, another English missionary achieved lasting success from a similar action.

Winifried, an Anglo-Saxon monk known better as Saint Bonifacius, was a zealous missionary who sought to convert the pagan tribes of the Germanic continent. In 742, he led the synod at Lestines that drew up the abjuration by which German pagans were to renounce their former faith on their conversion to Christianity. In leaving their former belief system, the new converts were required to forsake “Thunaer ende Woden ende Saxnote.” His most famous and dramatic act was chopping down the gigantic Donnereiche (“Thor’s oak”) in Hesse. The locals considered the tree as sacred to Thor, and they converted to Christianity when the Thunder God failed to strike the monk with lightning for his impunity. Where Wolfred was killed for his impertinence, Bonifacius was allowed to use the wood of the sacred tree to build a chapel dedicated to Saint Peter.

Norway's Olaf Haraldsson, known as Olaf the Stout and later Saint Olaf, converted in France after a glorious career as a pagan Viking which included leading the destruction of London Bridge in 1010 (as memorialized in the rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down”). Returning to Norway as a Christian, he became king in 1016 and was thereafter a zealous evangelizer for the new faith. He burned down the farms of all who resisted conversion and crippled recalcitrant pagans.

Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla chronicles the lives of early Norwegian kings, and it includes the tale of Olaf’s destruction of a pagan idol, usually taken to be a statue of Thor. Olaf’s set-up and timing of his attack on the idol are impeccable. The night before he addresses his still-pagan countrymen at the gathering of the Thing, he has his men drive off the horses belonging to the large group of farmers and drill holes in the bottom of the ships belonging to his unsuspecting subjects. At the meeting, Olaf is confronted with the idol and told to submit to the pagan god. He declares that the Christian God will destroy the immobile and silent Thor: “Thou wouldst frighten us with thy god, who is both blind and deaf, and can neither save himself nor others, and cannot even move about without being carried; but now I expect it will be but a short time before he meets his fate: for turn your eyes towards the East – behold our God advancing in great light.”

When the crowd turns its attention towards the sun, Olaf’s man Kolbein Sterke (“Coal-bone the Strong”) smashes the statue with his club “so that the idol burst asunder; and there ran out of it mice as big almost as cats, and reptiles, and adders.” The terrified pagans, who think that their god has indeed been destroyed by Olaf’s God, flee to their ships, which promptly sink. Even more terrified, they are called back by Olaf, who declares that they must accept the new God or fight him and his men. The deal is clinched when he explains that the animals in the statue have been eating their offerings and that they are welcome to divide up the gold and jewels that had adorned the statues. Reason, bribery, miracles, force – Olaf employed every method available to convert his people.

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