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Viking Religion: From the Norse Gods to Christianity

Norse God Odin by a fjord

Viking culture is intertwined with the stories of the Norse Gods. Yet it was also the Vikings that introduced Christianity to Norway.

Beginning more than 1,000 years ago, the Viking Age was a time of religious change across Scandinavia. The story is a long and complex one, but utterly fascinating at the same time.

Most modern scholars dismiss the depiction of the early Vikings as pagans who hated Christians. While they did hold pagan beliefs, most scholars now believe church attacks were nothing to do with religion. To the Viking, churches and monasteries were simply badly defended buildings with riches behind their walls.

It's known that the Vikings worshipped many gods. This may go some way to explain why some were so quick to adopt the concept of a Christian god. Let's look into what we know – and what we think – in more detail.

Viking religion: From the Norse Gods to Christianity

The Old Norse beliefs

There isn't a great deal of evidence of Old Norse paganism as very little was written down. Rooted in rituals and oral tradition, Old Norse was fully integrated into everyday life.

So much so, that it was seen as lifestyle rather than religion. The concept of religion as we know it today was only introduced to Scandinavia through Christianity.

Paganism is occasionally mentioned in viking sagas. However, such sagas were mostly written down in Iceland in the 13th-century, a couple hundred years after Christianity was introduced. Who knows how these more modern beliefs coloured the memories of history?

Read more: The Gods of Norse Mythology

We do know that chieftains held a priest-like role, and that pagan worship likely involved the sacrifice of horses.

We also know that Vikings weren't one people. They lived in groups across a vast region. That said, it's likely that these groups saw themselves to a certain extent as one with other speakers of Old Norse across northern Europe. The pre-Christian belief systems shared many ecological, economic and cultural ties.

Like the Greeks and the Romans before them, the Vikings worshipped several gods. The best known is Odin, God of Wisdom, Poetry and War. Odin's son Thor—the God of Thunder—and the goddesses of fertility Freyr and Freyja are other notable names.

The vikings sailed far and wide

The raids on the British Isles and elsewhere brought the Vikings into more regular contact with the Christian world. It's believed that the Vikings maintained their own beliefs after the raids, but came under political pressure to convert if more peaceful relationships were to be formed.

Viking woman standing near Drakkar on seashore

Christians were not supposed to trade with pagans. It is therefore believed that many vikings had to undergo some form of ‘temporary christening' in order to trade. It fell short of a full baptism, but showed a willingness to accept Christianity. That was enough to allow trade to take place.

When Christianity came to Norway

Most people know the story of Olav Tryggvason returning to Norway with Christianity in tow. But the religion had actually already spread to Scandinavia, albeit on a limited basis.

As early as the year 725, attempts were made to convert Scandinavia. That's when Anglo-Saxon St Willibrord led a mission to Denmark. Christians and worshippers of Odin and Thor lived side by side in the city of Hedeby. You could even buy both the Christian cross and Thor's hammer in the local jewellery shop.

Sometime around 950, Håkon the Good attempted to establish Christianity with his royal authority. It quickly became clear that he would lose the support of pagan chieftains if he insisted. That made the decision for him, so he abandoned the idea and sent his bishops back to the British Isles.

Olav Tryggvason returned to Norway in the summer of 995 intending to claim the throne. This was the moment that the wide-scale conversion truly began.

He brought with him many ships, plus several English priests and a bishop. When he landed on the island of Moster, he held the first official Christian mass in Norway. But it took around 35 years for the religion to be adopted in Norway.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Christianity was adopted gradually. Individual settlements would convert based on whether the local chieftain converted or not.

Better safe than sorry

The introduction of Christianity to Norway took a lot longer than many people realise. Whether the religions were seen as comparable, or people just didn't want to risk upsetting the old gods or the new gods, we'll never know.

Norway's historic stave churches feature elaborate carvings that mix together Christian and Viking symbols. That surprises many people considering the earliest remaining example was built as late as the 12th-century.

Many of the church roofs are lined with dragon carvings, while inside, intricately-carved portals retell ancient tales. Norway’s oldest stave church, Urnes, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The northern wall features a beautifully carved panel depicting a snake biting and being bitten by another animal.

Heddal Stave Church in Telemark is Norway's biggest
Heddal Stave Church

The Romanesque basilica layout of the church along with the carvings make it an important example of the combination of traditional Norse symbols and medieval Christian influences.

Evidence of this lengthy crossover period can also be seen in cemeteries across the UK, where many Scandinavians settled. Some ancient gravestones carry both the hammer and cross.

Coins tell a story

Also in the UK, Viking era coins from York carry the name of St Peter. But look a little closer, and you'll see that the final ‘I' in ‘PETRI' is actually Thor's hammer!

The York Museum Trust explain how some coins from the rea provide an important insight into how Viking rulers worked with the Christian church, or didn't:

“By contrast Jorvik king Olaf Sihtricsson proclaimed his militant independence with coins bearing his title in the Old Norse language.  Later Eric Bloodaxe, York’s last Viking king, used a Viking sword design.  After he left the city it was never used again.”

A constant mix of old and new

In his book Nordic Religions in the Viking Age, Thomas A. Dubois summed up the situation nicely. Both for centuries prior to Christianisation and the centuries thereafter, communities and individuals developed their own versions of religion. This would include their own deities, rituals and world view that helped to explain their present situation.

New ideas would enter these contructs based on economic and cultural influences, while old ideas lingered. “Thus, Nordic religion at any given point in space or time could be seen as both an artifact of its past and a reflection of its present.”

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About the Author: David Nikel

Originally from the UK, David now lives in Trondheim and was the original founder of Life in Norway back in 2011. He now works as a freelance writer for technology companies in Scandinavia.

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