Chapter 3
Pagans and Christians

The Viking stereotype rests upon aggressive paganism. Viking raiders who attacked undefended monasteries have been accused of doing so not just because these sites represented easy sources of wealth, but explicitly because they were Christian. ‘Paganism’ is itself often used as a pejorative term and is generally avoided in this book. Recent approaches have examined the nature of pre-Christian belief systems and their borrowings from other religions. Conversion is no longer seen as a one-off act of enlightenment, although contemporary Scandinavian kings liked to portray it as such. Instead it is understood as a gradual process in which Christianity coexisted alongside older beliefs in an early medieval multi-faith society.

Aspects of Viking ideology may also be found in art. In 21st-century Western society we generally distinguish between applied art and pure art, and artistic endeavour is separated off from the everyday world. In modern terms all Viking art was applied art, and has sometimes been regarded as the decoration of functional objects. However, was Viking Age decoration purely functional or did it have an ideological component? How valid is this distinction between pure and applied in other cultures?

The evolution of Scandinavian-style animal ornament has often been treated as a typological device which can help in the dating of objects, and in mapping the spread of Viking society and culture. It has been taken as evidence of civilization, and an indication that despite all that rape and pillage the Vikings had good taste. More recently some archaeologists such as Bjorn Myhre have begun to see art styles in terms of ethnic symbols and identities that were used in a deliberate expression of Vikingness. Others have focused on the possible ideological meaning of the motifs. Animal ornament may represent part of a totemic belief system, for example. It is important not to forget, however, that our knowledge of Viking art is generally dependent upon durable objects of metal and stone; wood and textiles are rarely preserved; human skin, which may have been elaborately tattooed, has never survived.

Pre-Christian belief systems

To us ‘religion’ conjures up a set of beliefs and rules of behaviour that embody concepts of worship, with holy men or women to interpret them. In Scandinavia before Christianity, however, no one would have understood this. It is probably more appropriate to talk about a ‘belief system’, a way of looking at the world. Religion was just another aspect of life and the act of worship as required by the Norse pantheon was not adoration or even uncritical approval, and therefore it was utterly unlike the Christian relationship with the divine. According to Norse mythology, everything ended at Ragnarok, when all humans and gods were killed and burnt. According to this philosophy the outcome of our actions is predetermined, and we cannot change our fate; what is important is our conduct as we go to meet it.

Vikings had a more fluid sense of the boundaries between this world and the next, as well as between the world of humans and the world of beasts. Under Norse mythology there were many classes of supernatural beings. There were two families of gods: the Æsir, including Oðinn and Thor; and the Vanir, including Njord, Freyr and Freyja. However, there were also servants of the gods, such as the valkyries, and Oðinn’s raven, as well as giants, dwarves, elves, trolls, spirits, ghosts, and so on. Sorcery, and the practice of seiðr, was fundamental to Viking beliefs. Neil Price has suggested that seiðr was the Norse counterpart of shamanism, and that comparable features can be seen amongst the Saami, from whom some of its features may have been borrowed. Specific grave-goods, such as metal and wooden staffs, silver amulets shaped like chairs and animal masks, may indicate the burials of practitioners.

A grave in the cemetery at the Danish ring fort at Fyrkat has been interpreted as the burial of a witch or sorceress. A wagon was used as a coffin for the woman’s body. She was not buried with the customary pair of brooches but was wearing two silver toe rings, and was accompanied by a Gotlandic box brooch. It has been suggested that she came from the Baltic region. Her grave-goods included a bronze bowl containing fruit, two drinking horns, an iron spit, and traces of a wooden staff. There were also several amulets, including a silver chair, a sheepskin pouch (probably containing henbane seeds), and a drinking glass. By her feet was a locked oak box, containing clothes, a pair of shears, a slate whetstone, a pottery spindle whorl, the lower jaw of a young pig, and a clump of owl pellets.

Two women were laid out in the burial chamber within the Oseberg ship (p. 48): one aged c.25, and the other aged c.50. The younger woman may have been a princess and the older one her slave, but other objects in the grave also indicate at least two roles: that of princess and that of high priestess, roles which may have been combined in one person. Two small tapestries depict processional scenes with imagery of Freyja and Oðinn and some of the grave-goods suggest that the tapestries depict real events rather than just myth. They included an oak chest which contained a sorcerer’s staff and two iron lamps which resemble those being carried in procession, as well as five wooden animal heads, and a cart carved with images of cats, the sacred animal of Freyja.

There seems to have been no single pre-Christian burial rite and there was tremendous regional variation throughout Scandinavia. Nevertheless, widespread practice was to bury the dead fully clothed with personal adornments, together with a selection of implements and utensils of everyday life, whether the rite chosen was cremation or inhumation. The intention appears to have been to equip the dead for the next world, which was imagined as being very like this. Oðinn needed slain warriors to be buried with their weaponry, and the wealthy were accompanied by their horses, dogs, and slaves. Burial with boats, wagons, or horses represented the journey into the next life, and if a whole boat was not available a stone setting in the outline of a ship might do.

In much of Norway and Eastern and Central Sweden cremation was the most common form of burial, but it was rare in Denmark, outside northern Jutland. In Sweden cremation was prevalent during the preceding Vendel period and continued, with boat burial, into the Viking Age. Cremation graves under mounds generally cluster around farms. Cremated remains could be placed directly into a pit, put into a bag or a pottery or metal vessel, or spread upon the ground. Multiple cremations are known. In southern and central Jutland and northern Norway inhumation was prevalent from the beginning of the Viking Age. The body might be placed directly into the ground, or in a coffin, chamber, or vehicle. Contrary to popular belief the majority of burials were poorly furnished. Ninth-century burials are the simplest and the knife was the most common simple find, in graves of both sexes. A distinctive group of rich ‘cavalry’ burials with weaponry and equestrian equipment appeared in Denmark in the 10th century. Grave-goods are sometimes included in Swedish graves up until the 12th century.


5. Burial mounds, Birka

Temples and cult places

The majority of pre-Christian religious activity probably took place in open spaces and sacred groves. The so-called pagan temple at Old Uppsala referred to by Adam of Bremen has been reinterpreted as a large feasting hall in which pagan festivals may have taken place at certain times, rather than a dedicated religious building, although the use of the place-name element hof, as at Hofstaðir in Iceland, may indicate the use of a building for religious rituals.

During the 1980s a number of new structures were found which support the idea of small-scale, local, religious and votive activities carried out at special sites. Excavations on the highest point of the island of Frösön – literally Freyr’s Island – in Sweden, under the floor of a medieval church, uncovered what appear to be the remains of a sacrificial grove. Under the medieval altar were the decayed remains of a birch tree, which had been deliberately felled. Around its roots was a large animal bone assemblage which had accumulated while the tree was standing. This included the whole bodies of five bears, the heads of six elks and two stags, as well as remains of sheep, pigs, and cows. These may have been skins or whole bodies which had been hung from the tree. Radiocarbon dates place the activity in the 10th and 11th centuries; the stone church was built towards the end of the 12th century.

At Borg, in Östergötland in Sweden, a cult building was attached to a chieftain’s farmstead. The building came into use as early as the start of the 8th century although most of the ritual activity belonged to the 10th century. It comprised two rooms separated by a passage; along the eastern wall there was a stone platform, possibly a plinth, on which idols were set. Two rings were found in the south-west part of house, but there were no other finds. The surrounding ground surface was covered with large stone paving, and the overlying layer contained a hoard of another 98 rings, as well as 75 kg of unburnt animal bones and slag. The rings appear to have been used to carry amulets, such as hammers or axes, which are usually found singly in graves. Some were unfinished, suggesting they were being manufactured here. Three adjacent buildings with sand floors had been used for metalworking.

The animal bones comprised unusual proportions of jaws and skulls, perhaps remaining from sacrificial meals, as well as a large number of horses, at least ten dogs, plus pups and some wolves. There were smaller numbers of cats, beavers, badgers, foxes, red deer, and geese, as well as the more usual domestic species. The sow and boar bones had been spatially separated: the boars (possibly representing Freyr, male god of lust and sexuality) with the furnace; the sows (possibly representing Freyja, his female counterpart) with the amulet rings. In the 11th century the cult building was demolished and the area covered with a thick layer of gravel; a stone church was built 100m east of the cult area in the 13th century, but may have been preceded by a wooden church.

Conversion and Christianization

Given the differences between Scandinavian belief systems and Christian religion it appears that conversion was as much a process of developing new approaches to ideology as dealing with a clash of religions. Traditionally, conversion took place under royal direction, first in Denmark (under Harald Bluetooth in 965), and later in Norway (under Olaf Tryggvason in 995) and finally in Sweden (under Olof Skötkonung, in 1008). However, research has indicated that Christianization was a long process stretching over several centuries preceding its official ratification, and that it may have proceeded in parallel in each of Scandinavian countries, albeit with regional differences.

The initial contact was probably the result of early Christian missions. In the early 8th century, Willibrord, an English monk working in Frisia, extended his mission to the Danes. He probably sailed to Ribe where, according to Alcuin, he was welcomed at the court of King Ongendus, but making little progress he gave up and sailed back to Frisia with 30 boys.

It was recorded in Rimbert’s Vita Anskarii, or ‘Life of Ansgar’, that in 829 a king of the Svear, in eastern Sweden, asked the Frankish Emperor, Louis the Pious, for a missionary to visit his country as many wanted to adopt the Christian faith. Two monks from the monastery of Corvey, Ansgar and Witmar, were appointed to the journey to Birka. They converted Herigar, described as a prefect of Birka, and some years later a church was built, although there was a revolt in 847 which led to suspension of pastoral activities until 854. Ansgar then re-established the mission and received permission to build churches and appoint priests. Ansgar died in 865 but, according to Adam of Bremen, a new mission was launched in 936. Unni, archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, visited Gorm and his son Bluetooth, and also travelled to Birka, where he died. Unni’s successor, Adaldag, consecrated bishops for Hedeby, Ribe, and Århus in or before 948.

Christian objects, many found in Scandinavian graves, have often been regarded as loot, but it has been suggested that some at least may represent early missionary activity. These include over 30 cross- or crucifix-shaped pendants, five 8th- and 9th-century crosiers (from Hedeby, Lund, Helgö, Stavanger, and Setnes), six reliquaries, and some 15 Frisian or Tating-ware jugs. These vessels were frequently decorated with silver-foil crosses and they have been associated with the Christian liturgy, possibly being used for storing and measuring liturgical wine. Five such jugs were found in 9th-century graves from Birka; one was found with an Irish hanging bowl with fish-shaped mounts in the grave of a woman laid out east–west and whose grave-goods also included two cross-shaped rectangular brooches.

Women played an important role in pre-Christian Scandinavian religion, but it has been argued that conversion was a disaster for women. There was no Christian goddess, and religious practice was officiated over by men. Anne-Sofie Gräslund and others have rejected this, arguing that the exclusion of women only comes later, and that women played an important role in the Christianization of Scandinavia. Some aspects of Christianity would have been attractive to them, including the prohibition of infanticide, the equality of the sexes before God, and belief in a paradise from which women were not excluded, unlike Valhalla. The majority of the pendant crosses and Tating-ware jugs come from female graves and women had a key role in dedicating rune stones (see below).

Christianization is generally visible in the burial record. Christian burials may still have contained dress items, but there was a decrease in grave-goods. A rich 10th-century Danish grave recovered from Mammen in 1868 is characteristic of the transition to Christianity. The grave-goods included a gaming board and a famous silver-inlaid axe but there were no other weapons, and a large candle had been placed in the chamber. Tree ring dating of the burial chamber places it in 970–1, just five to ten years after the conversion of the royal Jellinge dynasty.

Cremation was prohibited by the early church as a pagan practice and declined during the 10th century, although in some areas it continued to be practised. At Valsta, in the Uppland region of Sweden, there is a typical farm cemetery of the Mälaren valley comprising c.70 burials, the majority dating to c.800–1150. During the 9th and 10th centuries all graves were cremations, and there is no indication of any Christian influence from Birka, although the grave-goods indicate broad contacts including a glass beaker, Frankish, Frisian, and Slavonic pottery, Arabic coins and weights, and continental sword types.

Around 950 the inhumation rite was introduced, but cremation continued to be used in parallel until at least the mid-12th century. The inhumations may represent the introduction of Christian beliefs, and although they are orientated east–west, they also still contain pagan elements, including grave-goods, Thor’s hammer amulets, and food offerings. Around 1100 a third group of graves was established on the northern plateau at the top of the cemetery. Secondary inhumations were inserted into a large mid-9th-century barrow by removing a 6m-diameter area from the centre of the barrow and inserting three cist burials. The earlier cremation layer was placed around the insertions and a kerbstone added to the mound. Unfortunately all three cist burials were later robbed, but a small iron cross was recovered, as well as a rock crystal and white quartz beads. The symbolic placement of the burials indicates a strong identification with the earlier chiefly burial, but also clear Christian symbolism coexisting with 12th-century cremation.

The 10th-century introduction of monumental rune stones provided a new means of commemoration of the dead. There are 2,500 Viking Age runic inscriptions in Sweden, c.250 in Denmark (including southern Sweden), and c.65 in Norway. The densest distribution is in the Uppland region of central Sweden, with 1,300 rune stones, over 60 per cent of which date to the establishment of a diocese there in the late 11th century. Birgit Sawyer has argued that rune stones had a secular function in ensuring inheritance and marking individual claims to land and this is certainly true, but the vast majority of rune stones are also Christian monuments. Over half are decorated with a cross, and over 200 contain prayers in the form of ‘May God help his/her soul . . . ‘ Several rune stones mention the conversion of whole regions (p. 16). The early church incorporated bridge building into a system of indulgences, comparable to the giving of alms or going on a pilgrimage. Around 150 rune stones were erected as monuments close to bridges; of these it is notable that 55 per cent were erected by women.

The dating of the rune stones emphasizes that Christianization was a long-drawn-out process. Although it is believed that Ansgar established a church in Birka in the 9th century, the earliest churches found archaeologically belong to late 10th and 11th centuries. Following a pattern seen slightly earlier in England, many rural churches in southern Scandinavia appear to have started life as private estate chapels built of timber in the 10th century, followed by a documented explosion of stone church building in the 12th and 13th centuries. In some cases there is extraordinary evidence for continuity of sacred places. At Mære, for example, in the Trøndelag district of mid Norway the present stone church was built c.1150–1200. It was preceded by a wooden 11th-century church, which itself overlay Christian burials suggesting a still earlier church. The first church lay on top of a cultural layer with four post-holes and 19 gold foils, maybe the location of the high seat of a 9th-century hall or hof site.

In conclusion, although ‘pagan’ practices and belief systems have become an essential part of the modern definition of Vikings, for 9th-century Scandinavians pre-Christian beliefs provided just another aspect of life. These beliefs were not exclusive and early Scandinavian kings soon embraced Christianity as another means by which they could legitimize their rule. In later chapters we shall see, however, that in some situations Scandinavian colonists overseas used burial rites as a means by which they could maintain a distinct identity, in the face of indigenous pressure to assimilate. First, we need to examine changes in Scandinavian rural settlement.

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