The long goodbye to Scandinavian Paganism and the Christianization of three realms
Prior to Christianity, the lands of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway saw the worship of an amalgamation of deities known most widely as the Aesir and Vanir. The Aesir were the primary gods, ruled by the wise, one-eyed Odin, though the worship of the strong thunder god Thor rivalled him. The Vanir were fertility gods, as highly valued as the Aesir, later becoming a subclass within them. But by the 10 th century, Christianity had brought an end to their polytheistic worship, culminating in three new realms unified under one faith.
The Aesir and Vanir are two branches of Norse gods and goddesses who merged with each other to create one whole tribe. Image source .
The Christianization of Scandinavia was a long and painful process, filled with blood, sweat, and war. Denmark was the most easily transformed, as the Viking raids slowly introduced the religion through the Christian wives and slaves brought back as war prizes. The Danes were often in contact with England and Normandy, allowing them continued exposure to the new religion via political avenues as well. Thus there was little struggle in assimilating the two faiths, and they were able to coexist under the individual decrees of the Danish tribal leaders. It was King Harald Bluetooth who most firmly began this assimilation in the 930s, his own baptism propelling the religion to the forefront of Danish culture, unifying the tribes under this religious flag. The canonization of Canute IV in the 12 th century, the Christian ruler of Denmark in the late 1000s, cemented Christianity as Denmark's official religion.
King Harald Bluetooth depicted on the left. Image source: Wikipedia
The earliest recordings of Christianity in Sweden were in the 700s, and in the 830s, Saint Ansgar, a monk on a mission to bring Christianity to Northern Europe, came to her shores to spread word of the new faith at the bid of the Swedish king. His church at Birka was highly rejected however, so it was not until Olof Skötkonung, the first Christian king of Sweden, agreed to a toleration of the two faiths in the late 900s that Christianity found a place in Swedish culture. He established the first episcopal center in Skara rather than near Uppsala in Uppland, as there is written documentation that the largest worship center to the Norse gods existed at Uppsala. There is scarce archaeological evidence of the great temple of Uppsala, recorded by Christian writer Adam of Bremen, however in light of Adam's writings, it is believed Skara was Olof's choice location in an attempt to avoid a war between the followers of the two faiths. It was King Inge in the 1080s who disregarded the risks of war and ended the sacrifices at Uppsala, ultimately serving as the moment of transition to Christianity in Sweden. Though the result of this instance was Inge's temporary exile by his brother, by the year 1130 Christianity gained a permanent stronghold in Sweden and spread to become the foremost religion in the land.
Saint Ansgar, Christian monk who sought to bring Christianity to northern Europe. Image source: Wikipedia
Norway was the most difficult to transform from polytheism to Christianity as its history was filled with rulers who constantly dictated the religion. The most conflict was seen during a fifty year period, 950-1000 CE, under King Haakon, a soft-handed pioneer of the Christian faith. Haakon's method was similar to Constantine's in the Byzantine Roman Empire, resulting in an attempt at a midway approach: temples were left to the pagans with churches built right beside them and though he refused on his own part to sacrifice to the Aesir and Vanir, he also refused to punish those who continued this practice. Haakon was able to begin the spread of Christianity throughout this region by showing kindness to the established polytheistic religion, enforcing the new while never exiling the old.
Unfortunately, King Haakon, like Bluetooth and Olof, was a rare sort during this period. Upon his death, Jarl (Earl) Haakon replaced him, himself a pagan man. All the Christianization that King Haakon had established was utterly destroyed and a heavier emphasis was placed on the existing Aesir and Vanir. In acting this way, not only did Jarl Haakon create a stricter war against Christianity but in the years to come, he forged a reason for the Norwegian Christians to detest the Aesir followers. With the end of the 10 th century, the Christian king Olaf Tryggvason was very much ready to eliminate what he believed were narrow-minded, hate-filled followers.
Haakon Jarl by Christian Krohg. Image source: Wikipedia
Though Tryggvason only ruled for five years, from 955-1000 CE, he made certain that they were prolific years. He travelled all over Norway to enforce the Christian faith, destroying pagan areas of worship and the banqueting hofs that were utilized for specific rituals. Those who refused to submit to the new religion were tortured and punished—his approach completely unyielding where King Haakon's had been gentle and kind. In response to the harshness of jarls like Jarl Haakon, Tryggvason had no sympathy. By the end of the 12 th century, Tryggvason's successors saw Christianity dominate in Norway.
King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway's arrival to Norway. Based on drawing by Peter Nicolai Arbo (Norway 1831-1892). Image source: Wikipedia
With the rise of the new religion came a need for Christian buildings. Though the Norse gods were not necessarily worshipped in any religious structure, Christianity certainly was—one of the dividing factors between the two faiths. Far from the mainland of Europe, the only structures the Scandinavians had to draw from were the banqueting hofs of their jarls and kings, and the ships that served the Vikings for three hundred years. Their first church buildings were modelled most specifically from their longships, towering structures that loomed toward the sky like the future Gothic cathedrals with dragon heads on the roof reflecting the strength and power of their sea-faring past. These churches, called stave churches because of the stavs at the heart of their post and lintel structure, were the highlight and symbol of the new religion that had swept through Scandinavia and became a symbol of the unification between the three lands.
Featured image: Haakon the Good, by Peter Nicolai Arbo. Image source: Wikipedia
Colleen Batey, Helen Clarke, R.I Page, and Neil Price, Cultural Atlas of the Viking World (Oxford Limited: Oxford, 1994.)
H.R. Elllis Davidson, The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe (Routledge: London, 1993.)
H.R. Elllis Davidson, Myths and Symbols of Pagan Europe: early Scandinavia and Celtic religions (Syracuse University Press: New York, 1988.)
Thomas A. DuBois, Nordic Religions in the Viking Age (University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 1999.)
Benjamin Hudson. Viking Pirates and Christian Princes: Dynasty, Religion, and Empire in North America (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2005.)
Robert Kellog, The Sagas of Icelanders (Penguin Classics Deluxe: US, 2001.)
Neil Price, The Viking World (Routledge: London, 2008.)
Alexandra Sanmark. Power and conversion: a comparative study of Christianization in Scandinavia; Uppsala (Department of Archaeology and Ancient History: Uppsala University, 2002.)
Snorri Sturluson, The Poetic Edda , trans. Lee M. Hollander (University of Texas Press: Austin, 2011.)
Martina Sprague. Sweden: An Illustrated History (Hippocrene Books: New York, 2005.)
By Ryan Stone