Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Clash with Christianity, Part Five

For some, completely abandoning the old ways was simply too difficult or too dishonorable. In the 7th century, as reported by the Venerable Bede, the simple country folk of Northumbria lamented the actions of the Christian monks: “They have taken away the ancient rites and customs, and how the new ones are to be attended to, nobody knows.” While the new faith offered certainties in regards to the afterlife, it was sometimes not so clear on how life was to be lived before death.

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)

It became fashionable in the 10th century for recalcitrant pagans to wear small amulets in the shape of Thor’s mystic hammer, Mjolnir. Usually made of silver, these small hammers were worn as pendants around the neck and hung from a chain or cord. They have been found in archaeological digs in Denmark, England, Iceland, Norway, Poland, and Sweden. It appears that the hammer as a fashion symbol became popular as a reaction to the prevalence of the small crosses worn by new converts to Christianity. A small 10th-century soapstone silver mold found in Denmark is designed so that it can be used to simultaneously cast both crucifixes and hammers. Whether this is a reflection of openhearted religious unity or religious-bauble commercialism, we cannot say for certain.

Soapstone mold for crucifix and hammer (10th century, Denmark)

In the 11th century, Vikings living in Dublin still wholeheartedly worshipped the Thunder God. While Odin eventually faded away into the aged Wanderer that now and then pops up in the folklore of the North, Thor seems to have held on to his glory and glamour farther into the Christian age, before being completely subsumed into heroes like Sigurd and Beowulf. Odin, on his endless quest for knowledge and wisdom, could be kept alive at the edges of modern society as a shadowy figure in the forest, always at the edge of vision. Thor, with his Paul Bunyanesque oversized charisma, seems destined to have gone out in a blaze of glory. He was seen as a fighter for the old ways, but when the new ways finally won complete dominance, there was nowhere for him to fit in.

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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the history, Karl! (It's Joshua K.) I like how you describe Odin with:

"Odin, on his endless quest for knowledge and wisdom, could be kept alive at the edges of modern society as a shadowy figure in the forest, always at the edge of vision."

If I believed in gods of any kind--that would be a god I'd get into.

As a cultural archetype--I especially like how tricky Odin is.. He obtains knowledge and wisdom--but has to work for it...

Anyway--if you have any good sources on Odin--I'd be much obliged to read them.. Also--have you read Neil Gaiman's "American Gods" yet? If not, I'm sure you'd like it.. lots of familiar faces popping up there...

Amalia Dillin said...

I love the story of Rathod's preference to remain with his ancestors over conversion and the chance at heaven. That's a fantastic anecdote, and I'd never heard it before. Your thoughts on Odin as the shadowy figure in the forest are really great too! thanks for posting this!

Anonymous said...

Going sightly off-piste > tricstrmr > American Gods is a fantastic read ;o)

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