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Christianity and Religious Conversions in Viking World Essay

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Updated: May 22nd, 2022

Religious conversions in the Viking world were important events in their history, and the Christianization of the Norse was arguably the turning point in their faith. Scandinavians have adopted heathen religion as depicted in their drawings and other archaeological relics. However, the mixing of pagan and Christian symbols in Scandinavian literature raises dilemmas about the Christian faith’s existence in the Viking age. Burial rituals and the building contained objects that revealed a connection with both Christian and pagan religions (Andrén 126). Religious scholars must examine the early Scandinavians’ association with the British to assess the Christian influence in the period before conversion.

Despite religious articles associated with Christianity and heathen faiths, the Old Norse religion continued to pursue pagan rituals. Ritualistic practices, including burial, myths about traditional gods, and stone and tapestry images, show a combined approach to Christian and Pagan lifestyles rather than a departure from the old ways (Lund 47). They reveal a combination of faiths and the conversion of the Norse to Christianity was part of the religious continuity rather than a departure from pagan practices.

The Scandinavians, in the Viking age, demonstrated their connection with the dead through burial rituals. Pagan burial practices bore a complexity that long after conversion indicating a continuity rather than a de-linking from the past. Archaeologists have discovered heathen items, including amulets and inscriptions, alongside crucifixes in graves located in ancient church buildings (Lund 47).

The objects indicate that despite embracing Christian beliefs, the Scandinavians still retained their fidelity to pagan ways. The only distinction between Christian and Pagan graves was based on location, orientation, and whether they contained items. Christian tombs, in this regard, had an east-west orientation and did not include any goods. Besides, the grave’s placement in a churchyard indicated that the deceased subscribed to the Christian faith.

The conversion from Old Nordic paganism to Christianity entailed shallow religion and did not include a change in worldviews and mentalities. However, the burial rites differed significantly within the same community, thus failing to create a shared understanding of the Viking age’s religious identity. Archaeological records show a tomb with a wooden chest and a lock and another one with grave goods that included animal bones and other precious objects within the same community (Lund 49).

The Scandinavians also adopted varied burial customs that included decapitation of bodies and inhumation. Burial practices also had a combination of funeral and burial with several variations. The cremation grave in Norway, for instance, contained an axe, a single-bladed sword, and two harps (Lund 49). Generally, cremation took place in one location before the internment of the ashes at a different site.

The Vikings also stored bodies in containers as part of their traditional burial rituals. The tradition derives from the Migration period, where, according to mythology, containers replaced bodies (Lund 50). The Vikings maintained this practice to provide identity to the deceased person. The burial rituals adopted in the Old Norse persisted after conversion to Christianity, demonstrating a continuity rather than a departure from the previous religion.

Stone and tapestry images, both Christian and pagan, indicated a seamless continuity of lifestyle after the Norse’s Christianization. Features from the Gosforth Cross, the Ledberg stone, and the wall hangings of Overhogdal represent a close interaction between Christianity and Paganism in ancient Scandinavia. The Gosforth Cross is a four-and-a-half-meter high stone pillar that dates to the 10th century (Hultgård 90). The artifact bears art scenes associated with both Christian and pagan elements. The cross’s placement in the church compound indicates that it was accepted after the Norse conversion.

At the bottom, the cross bears images of a Roman soldier piercing Jesus at the side as blood pours into a bottle-like bowl in a crucifixion scene. However, further up on the east face, the cross has an inscription of a man leaning on a staff with an arm lifted upwards to touch the beast’s upper jaw. Scholars associate the image with the Prose Edda which narrates how god Vidarr tears Fenrir’s jaws in revenge for his father’s death (Hultgård 92). Richard Reitzenstein avers that the image represents Christ’s work who rips Satan’s jaws to liberate the souls of the just from hell. However, the man’s proportion to the beast creates doubts about this interpretation because, according to Biblical accounts, Christ is bigger than Satan. Other aspects of the Gosforth Cross indicate a close association between paganism and Christianity and reveal a continuum of the faiths.

Although some ancient literature announces a complete conversion from Paganism to Christianity, archaeological artifacts indicate a co-existence between the two religious’ persuasions. Hollander expresses devotion to Christ while indicating that Odin, the god of the Pagan Norse, was inferior (v. 9). The poem suggests a departure from the old ways of life following the conversion to Christianity. However, archaeological relics and religious practices prevalent during this period indicate a co-existence between Christianity and paganism in early Scandinavia.

The Ledberg stone displays images on three sides and reveals a connection between Christian and Pagan ideology in ancient Scandinavia. On the front side, the stone has two warriors; one holds an axe while the other has a sword, and a dog appears between the men. On the second side, the stone has an image of the two soldiers lying in a defeated position without their weapons. The other side has a stone drawn with roots indicating an inclination towards worship. While the images with human figures seem to depict the same persons at different moments of struggle, the cross is a symbol of Christianity, thus reveals the interaction between religion and paganism (Hultgård 99). Engravings on the Ledberg stone bear both pagan and Christian imagery and demonstrate that Scandinavians embraced both religions’ ideas in their lifestyles.

The wall hangings of Overhogdal consist of five textile pieces dating to the late Viking period. Images in the fabric have Christian and pagan identities that show the creators’ allegiance to both religions. Weave II of the hanging contains the image of a tree and a small animal, which connects the article to the tree of life and the Lamb based on Christian ideology. Image Ib, on the other hand, bears an eight-legged animal, which scholars interpret as Odinn’s horse in the last battle based on pagan mythology (Hultgård 102). The wall hangings of Overhogdal show an interaction between Christianity and paganism in ancient Scandinavia through the engravings associated with both faiths.

Scandinavians practiced a lifestyle characterized by rituals and devotions with no defined religious affiliation. In this regard, they infused different practices based on their interactions with diverse communities. Although some traditions indicate devotion to particular deities, others served to provide good fortune and had more social significance for the people (Andrén 108). In this regard, the rituals had little religious connection and served as a way of life.

Some of the everyday routines in ancient Scandinavia included devotion to a lone tree by throwing bones of pigs, sheep, and goats, among other animals. Religious rituals also involved laying carpets of small angular stones and burnt bones of domestic animals on the surface. Therefore, the pre-Christian Norse religion was diverse and did not fit into a distinct ideological description (Andrén 131).

However, the Christian faith’s influence is visible in the early pagan cult houses modeled to churches. Thor’s hammer, which emerged around the 9th century, is thus regarded as a reaction to the missionary activities in the 9th and 10th centuries in Scandinavia rather than an original paganism symbol. Therefore, the Norse religion transition in Scandinavia was accomplished by gradually adopting a new way of life rather than paganism’s alienation.

The expression of faith in Scandinavia after the Norse’s conversion indicated a co-existence rather than a complete embracing of the Christian faith. Among other rituals practiced in paganism, the burial rites persisted in society after adopting Christian beliefs in the region. Archaeological evidence from stone engravings and tapestry also points to a combination of Christian and pagan ways in faithful devotion.

Historical studies reveal the lack of a unified religious identity as Scandinavians’ practices bore more social than religious significance. Due to the interaction of the people with roman and other English cultures, aspects of Christianity penetrated the cultural identity before converting the Norse. The religious identity in ancient Scandinavia revealed the integration of pagan and Christian ideology in burial rituals, stone, and tapestry relics. Thus, the conversion of the Norse was a continuity of Christianity rather than a complete departure from paganism.

Works Cited

Andrén, Anders. “Behind “Heathendom”: Archaeological Studies of Old Norse Religion.” Scottish Archaeological Journal, vol. 27, no. 2, 2005, pp. 105-138.

Hollander, Lee Milton. The Skalds: A Selection of Their Poems, with Introduction and Notes. University of Michigan Press, 1968.

Hultgård, Anders. “Myth on Stone and Tapestry: Ragnarøk in Pictures?” Myth, Materiality, and Lived Religion, edited by Klas Wikström af Edholm et al., Stockholm University Press 2019, pp. 89-113.

Lund, Julie. “Fragments of a Conversion: Handling Bodies and Objects in Pagan and Christian Scandinavia ad 800–1100.” World Archaeology, vol. 45, no.1, 2013, p. 46-63.

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