This is a small chapter, but it’s crucial in Norse history, as it spelled the end for much of the Vikings’ ability to hold their chosen religious beliefs. In this chapter, it’s not my aim to say that one or the other religion is right or wrong, as that’s a personal decision, all for themselves and it’s certainly not my place, my goal or my business what anyone else believes. It is, however, useful to give a history of what happened and how.
Early attempts by the Catholic Church (mainly in the eighth and ninth centuries) to convert those in modern-day Scandinavia were largely unsuccessful. Though a few baptisms were performed, and the Catholics did set up some churches, headed by representative leaders among the religion of the time, many among the Norse simply didn’t want to give up their traditional beliefs.
In Denmark, where the Vikings were more commonly ruled by local chieftains than by farther reaching authorities, there was a particularly strong antipathy toward Christianity. While raiding in Christian lands, many, though not all, of the individual Viking tribes would bring back Christian slaves or, in some cases, wives—also, assumedly under similar duress as the slaves—as trophies of their conquest.
Those who did convert to Christianity early on often held their traditional beliefs as well, not wanting to offend their old gods and local spirits. The first major converts, such as the Danish King, Harald Klak, did so in order to win favor, and thus, support from the Christian armies or political arms.
Others converted through trickery, such as Harald “Bluetooth” (Blåtand) Gormsson. Gormsson, who, though he had remained pagan for much of his rule had allowed missionaries in his lands, finally converted after a monk held a hot piece of iron in his hand without sustaining injury. This move was also politically motivated, though, as he sought the support of the church’s armies in defending his homeland from Germany.
In Norway, when early attempts at conversion failed, Harald Greyhide set about sacking Viking temples and holy sites. This, unsurprisingly, didn’t go over too well with the Norse.
While the individual reasons for conversion varied, early on at least, very few are thought to have converted due to a change in faith. Those who were not in positions of political power often converted in order to obtain the fine gifts which the missionaries brought them or, in some cases, to escape the threat of death had they not converted. Even those of higher station in the Viking lands were enamored at the immense wealth of the church, sometimes converting to get a piece of the pie for themselves.
Over time, though, much of the formerly Norse lands converted to Christianity. Some peoples held out against the church, such as the people of Greenland and the Samis in Norway and Sweden who didn’t convert en masse until the early 1800s.
Even after the conversion of large populations within the Scandinavian countries, though, many of the people continued to practice their Tradition, though they had to do so in secret.
In time, the formerly Norse lands would join the Christian ranks, even sending many of their warriors to participate in the Crusades. For a time, Christianity was the predominant religion claimed by the peoples of Scandinavia.
Fast-forward to the present day. While much of Scandinavia remains Christians, countries such as Sweden and Denmark have become increasingly secular, even to the point of being among the most secular societies in the world today. Some areas throughout the Scandinavian world hold a great amount of anger toward Christian establishments for what they view as the destruction of their original and chosen culture.
What the future may hold for Christianity in Scandinavia is uncertain and up for debate, but many of these formerly Viking peoples have returned to forms of their earlier beliefs.
We’ve travelled far and wide, uncovering some of the tales and triumphs of the Norse Tradition. While there will always be more to discover, I hope that you have found this text both informative and enjoyable.
If you would like to learn more about the Norse Tradition, I highly suggest picking up a copy of the Poetic Edda. It’s the closest we have to a primary source on Norse mythology, written by the Norse themselves. The Prose Edda is also a valuable source. Although it may not have the same veracity as the Poetic Edda, it does have some valuable insight into this compelling Tradition of beliefs.
Although the worlds may have met their demise, just like the Norse Tradition itself, that is a long way from being the end of the story. Mythologies, like civilizations, may rise and fall, but what they leave behind tells us not only of a distant past populated with strange people whose beliefs differ from our own, but gives us all an insight into the world in which we live today. Although the Norse Tradition was almost exclusively practiced in Scandinavia, its residue can now be found worldwide, and its stories have inspired many modern tales of life and death, courage and disgrace.
So, whether you’re reading this as an informational overview, or for entertainment, I hope that you’ve found something to strike your fancy and whet your appetite for history. I use the term history there purposefully, not to imply that these gods and myths were actual events, but in the way that these same influenced countless generations of Norse peoples and continues to do so today.
It has been my honor and privilege to bring you this brief glimpse into the fantastical world of Norse mythology, and I hope that you have enjoyed reading it. Check out the other books in this series, including: Discovering Ancient Egypt, Discovering Ancient Egyptian Mythology, Discovering Ancient Greece and Discovering Ancient Greek Mythology.
The ways of the Vikings will live on to inspire people the whole world over in stories, entertainment and academia. What I love most about history and the mythologies of different peoples is that, regardless how those societies and cultures may different from our own, wherever we may live, our truth and heritage can be found therein. The world over and throughout history, people are people. While we often differ in our belief systems, our politics or even our general approaches to life, there is a common thread throughout. We can always learn from the past and from each other, and I hope we do.
It has been an utter joy to share some of the fascinating world of the Norse with you. I wish you happy reading, and a continued thirst for history!