By Gareth Williams
The age of conversion
The Viking Age was a period of considerable religious change in Scandinavia. Part of the popular image of the Vikings is that they were all pagans, with a hatred of the Christian Church, but this view is very misleading. It is true that almost the entire population of Scandinavia was pagan at the beginning of the Viking Age, but the Vikings had many gods, and it was no problem for them to accept the Christian god alongside their own. Most scholars today believe that Viking attacks on Christian churches had nothing to do with religion, but more to do with the fact that monasteries were typically both wealthy and poorly defended, making them an easy target for plunder.
…monasteries were typically both wealthy and poorly defended, making them an easy target for plunder.
The Vikings came into contact with Christianity through their raids, and when they settled in lands with a Christian population, they adopted Christianity quite quickly. This was true in Normandy, Ireland, and throughout the British Isles. Although contemporary accounts say little about this, we can see it in the archaeological evidence. Pagans buried their dead with grave goods, but Christians normally didn’t, and this makes it relatively easy to spot the change in religion.
As well as conversion abroad, the Viking Age also saw a gradual conversion in Scandinavia itself, as Anglo-Saxon and German missionaries arrived to convert the pagans. By the mid-11th century, Christianity was well established in Denmark and most of Norway. Although there was a temporary conversion in Sweden in the early 11th century, it wasn’t until the mid-12th century that Christianity became established there. As part of the process of conversion the Christians took over traditional pagan sites. A good example of this can be seen at Gamle Uppsala in Sweden, where the remains of an early church stand alongside a series of huge pagan burial mounds.
We know almost nothing about pagan religious practices in the Viking Age. There is little contemporary evidence, and although there are occasional references to paganism in the Viking sagas – mostly composed in Iceland in the 13th century – we have to remember that these were written down 200 years after the conversion to Christianity. We know that chieftains also had some sort of role as priests, and that pagan worship involved the sacrifice of horses, but not much more.
We know rather more about the stories associated with the pagan gods. Besides occasional references in early poems, these stories survived after conversion because it was possible to regard them simply as myths, rather than as the expression of religious beliefs. The main sources of evidence are the Eddas, wonderful literary works which represent the old pagan beliefs as folk tales. Even here there is some Christian influence. For example, the chief god Odin was sacrificed to himself by being hanged on a tree and pierced in the side with a spear, and this was followed by a sort of resurrection a few days later – a clear parallel with Christ’s crucifixion.
Even so, the Eddas provide a huge amount of information about the ®sir (gods), and their relationship with giants, men and dwarfs. The most powerful god was the one-eyed Odin, the Allfather, god of warfare, justice, death, wisdom and poetry. Probably the most popular god, however, was Thor, who was stupid but incredibly strong. With his hammer Miollnir, crafted by the dwarfs, he was the main defender of the gods against the giants. He was also the god of thunder, and he was particularly worshipped by seafarers. Amulets of Thor’s hammer were popular throughout the Viking world. The brother and sister Frey and Freyja, the god and goddess of fertility, were also important, and there were many other minor gods and goddesses.
Gods and giants
The great enemies of the gods were the giants, and there were often conflicts between the two races. Among the gods, only Thor was a match for the giants in strength, so the gods usually had to rely on cunning to outwit the giants. Odin himself was capable of clever tricks, but whenever the gods needed a really cunning plan, they turned to the fire-god Loki. Like fire, which can bring necessary warmth or cause great destruction, Loki did many things that benefited the gods, but he also caused them great harm, and often the problems he solved had been caused by his mischief in the first place.
Despite the tension between gods and giants, there was a fair amount of contact on an individual basis, and a number of the gods had relationships with giantesses. One of these was Loki, who had three monstrous children by his giantess wife. His daughter Hel became ruler of the underworld. One son, Jormunagund, was a serpent who grew so large that he stretched all the way around the earth. The other son was Fenris, a wolf so powerful that he terrified the gods until they tricked him into allowing himself to be tied up with a magical chain which bound him until the end of time.
It was believed that the world would end with the final battle of Ragnarok, between the gods and the giants. Loki and his children would take the side of the giants. Thor and Jormunagund, who maintained a long-running feud with each other, would kill each other, and Odin would be killed by the Fenris wolf, who would then be killed in turn. A fire would sweep across the whole world, destroying both the gods and mankind. However, just enough members of both races would survive to start a new world.
Pagan and Christian together
The raids on the Frankish kingdoms and the British Isles brought increased contact with Christianity. Although Vikings often seem to have maintained their beliefs throughout the periods of their raiding, there was considerable pressure to convert to Christianity if they wished to have more peaceful relations with the Christians. This could happen on a political level, as in the Treaty of Wedmore in 878. The treaty bound the Viking leader Guthrum to accept Christianity, with Alfred of Wessex as his godfather, and Alfred in turn recognised Guthrum as the ruler of East Anglia.
…Christians were not really supposed to trade with pagans…
Another more or less formal convention applied to trade, since Christians were not really supposed to trade with pagans. Although a full conversion does not seem to have been demanded of all Scandinavian traders, the custom of ‘primsigning’ (first-signing) was introduced. This was a halfway step, falling short of baptism, but indicating some willingness to accept Christianity, and this was often deemed to be enough to allow trading.
Further pressure came as Viking raiders settled down alongside Christian neighbours. Although scholars disagree on exactly how extensive the Scandinavian settlement was in different parts of the British Isles, few people would now accept that the Vikings completely replaced the native population in any area. In particular, the settlers often took native wives (or at least partners), although some settlers apparently brought their families over from Scandinavia. The children of these mixed marriages would therefore grow up in partially Christian households, and might even be brought up as Christians. Further intermarriage, coupled with the influence of the Church, gradually brought about a complete conversion.
The peaceful co-existence of pagans and Christians is suggested by some of the coinage of Viking York. One coin type carries the name of St Peter, rather than the ruler. This seems very obviously Christian, but on many of the coins, the final ‘I’ of ‘PETRI’ takes the form of Thor’s hammer, and some of these coins also have a hammer on the reverse. These coins seem to carry a deliberate message that both paganism and Christianity were acceptable.
Conversion in Scandinavia
Attempts to convert Scandinavia began even before the Viking Age. The Anglo-Saxon St Willibrord led a mission to Denmark in 725, but although he was well-received by the king, his mission had little effect. The Frankish St Ansgar led a second wave of missionary activity from the 820s onwards – with the support of the Frankish Emperor Louis the Pious. Ansgar and his followers established missions in both Denmark and Sweden, with the support of local rulers, but made little impact on the population as a whole.
Harald Bluetooth’s famous runestone at Jelling tells us that he ‘made the Danes Christian’…
Archaeological evidence suggests that Christianity was adopted piecemeal in Norway, with settlements converting or not depending on whether the local chieftain converted. The same idea can also be seen on a larger scale. In the mid-tenth century Hakon the Good of Norway, who had been fostered in England, tried to use his royal authority to establish Christianity. However, when it became clear that this would lose him the support of pagan chieftains, he abandoned his attempts, and his Anglo-Saxon bishops were sent back to England.
Harald Bluetooth of Denmark was apparently more successful. His famous runestone at Jelling tells us that he ‘made the Danes Christian’, and this is supported both by Christian imagery on Danish coins from his reign and by German records of the establishment of bishops in various Danish towns. This began the lasting conversion of the Danes. Although there may have been a brief pagan reaction after Harald’s death, the influence of the Church became firmly established once Cnut became ruler of both England and Denmark in 1018.
Further attempts by Anglo-Saxon missionaries in the late tenth century had only a limited effect in Norway and Sweden. Olaf Tryggvasson of Norway and Olof Tribute-king of Sweden were both converted, but this had limited effect on the population as a whole. A further wave of conversion in Norway under Olaf Haraldsson (St Olaf) (1015-30) was more successful and gradually led to lasting conversion. Sweden, however, faced a pagan reaction in the mid-11th century, and it was not until the 12th century that Christianity became firmly established.
Find out more
Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend by Andy Orchard (Cassell, 1997)
Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by HR Ellis Davidson (Viking Press, 1990)
Nordic Religions in the Viking Age by Thomas A Dubois (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999)
Encyclopaedia of the Viking Age by John Haywood (Thames &Hudson, 2000)
Cultural Atlas of the Viking Age edited by Graham-Campbell et al (Andromeda, 1994)
Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings by John Haywood (Penguin, 1996). Detailed maps of Viking settlements in Scotland, Ireland, England, Iceland and Normandy.
Nova Online: The Vikings. Build a Viking village, write your name in runes and discover the secret of Norse ships.
Compass. Take a tour of some of the British Museum’s best artefacts on the web.
The Smithsonian Institution’s Vikings Exhibit. Commemorating the 1,000-year anniversary of Leif Eriksson’s arrival in North America.
Places to visit
The British Museum. Important collections of Viking material, as well as displays relating to religions and beliefs from all over the world.
Bede’s World. Provides a fascinating insight into Christian life in Anglo-Saxon England just before the Viking Age.
Jorvik Centre. Explores many aspects of daily life in Viking York in the tenth century.
About the author
Gareth Williams is curator of Early Medieval Coins at the British Museum. In addition to coinage, he specialises in the history of the Viking Age, with particular interests in the nature of royal power, and in the relationship between history and literature. He is also a member of the re-enactment/living history group Vikings of Middle England.