If the popular view of Charlemagne has benefited from a rosy-tinted treatment at the hands of Christian-privileging historians, then the seafaring Scandinavians of the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries who we know as Vikings might be said to suffer from the reverse problem: an historical image as bloody, greedy, rapacious monsters with only the most primitive culture and religion. This highly negative portrait of the Vikings, based largely on the writings of medieval Christian authors, has been undergoing substantial revision in recent years, mainly due to the mounting body of archaeological
research showing that the Vikings were builders and traders as well as destroyers and raiders. No one would deny that the Vikings were capable of great violence and savagery, but we now can see quite clearly that the Vikings were also very often occupied in peaceful and productive pursuits.
One of the reasons why such a diabolical reputation attached to the Vikings for such a long time is that they obviously had a terrible sense of public relations. In medieval times no less than our own, any leader or group of people who wished to be loved and well-regarded needed to take great pains to gain the favor of the writers of authoritative historical records and propagators of public opinion. The Viking leaders were very good at this within their own communities, heaping honors and treasures on poets and bards who literally sang their praises. Icelandic literature contains many
examples of such praise-poetry, celebrating the valiant careers of chieftains and kings from Viking times and still earlier ages. From tapestry fragments in graves, we can surmise that decorative art probably served a similar function among the elite classes.
However, when the Vikings went abroad, they did not merely fail to properly flatter and bribe the people in a position to influence their reputations; they raided, robbed and sometimes killed them, thus motivating these opinion-makers and record-keepers to inscribe onto the pages of history as dark a portrait of the Vikings as possible. That is to say, medieval historical records were mainly written by Christian monks and priests, and so, when the Vikings repeatedly attacked and pillaged Christian monasteries and churches, they ensured that they would be remembered as monsters, murderers and
For the Christian chroniclers, it was not only the Vikings’ violence and greed
which inspired their revulsion toward the Northmen, but also the fact that the Vikings were non-Christians, worshipping gods and practicing traditions totally loathsome to the Christians. From the Christian point of view, the Pagan Vikings not only behaved like devils, but worshipped them as well.
The Christian portrait of the savage, demonic Vikings is coherent and unified. It is however quite one-sided, as it only tells us of the Vikings as they behaved in acts of aggression executed against foreign lands and peoples. It does not give any account of the society or lifestyle of the Vikings in their native lands. In this way, the historical image of the Vikings is almost the perfect opposite of that of Charlemagne and the Carolingian kingdom. Where Charlemagne’s acts of cruelty and savagery toward the Saxons and other peoples were minimized and rationalized by situating them in the background of his more positive achievements in supporting church-based arts and
culture in the Frankish kingdom, the Vikings’ violence and destructiveness in raiding and attacking Christian lands were magnified by the absence of any information about any other aspects of their lives and culture.
From the Pagan point of view, we find reason to praise and celebrate the Vikings,not for their undeniable acts of savagery, but for their ingenuity, their arts and literature,and above all, their defense of their ancestral religious traditions against the rising tide of Christianization sweeping north towards Scandinavia. Their attacks on Christian institutions, usually seen as nothing more than missions of plunder, may be viewed as counter attacks against the aggressive growth of Christianity. This comes into sharper focus if we compare the chronology of Viking activities with important events in Christian expansion. The first Viking attack on a major Christian institution was the
attack on the British monastery of Lindisfarne in 793, contemporary with the Frankish war against the Saxons; eleven years after Charlemagne’s mass beheading of Saxon Pagans and some twenty one years after his attack on the Saxon temple containing the sacred oak pillar the Irminsul. Though Lindisfarne was not part of the Frankish kingdom, the Northmen were very likely well aware that many Christian missionaries came to the continent from Britain, and so an assault on a major British Christian site might have been thought a way of striking at the source of the aggressive religion displacing
Paganism. The fact that Lindisfarne was relatively unprotected and vulnerable
undoubtedly added to its attractiveness as a target.
The motivations for Viking raids on churches and monasteries have been debated for many years, and the recent trend has been to emphasize the economic dimension, reasoning that the main motivation for attacking Christian sites could only have been to acquire the gold and other valuables which these houses of God contained. In suggesting a possible religious dimension to Viking assaults on Christian institutions, I do not mean to dispute the obvious profit motive, merely to assert that there were very
likely a number of different and overlapping motivations and purposes. As churches and monasteries were the repositories of great wealth along with being centers of religious and political authority, Viking raids on these places no doubt enabled the simultaneous fulfillment of a wide range of possible objectives: military, political and religious, as well as economic. The same could be said of the Frankish assault on Pagan temples and sanctuaries in Saxony and elsewhere, as such Pagan sites often possessed wealth which
Christian attackers would not hesitate to carry off.
If we take the Vikings seriously, and do not simply dismiss them as savage,
rapacious brutes, I think we can dare to pose the question of whether the various raiding and military activities of the Viking might not represent a progressively larger-scale and better organized Pagan counterattack against Christian, and particularly Frankish,expansion and imperialism. Just as the Franks went from small-scale attacks on Saxon border areas to large-scale conquest and colonization, so did the Vikings progress from hit-and-run raids on coastal sites like Lindisfarne in the late eighth century to mass invasion and colonization of England, Scotland, Ireland and other areas in the ninth
century and beyond. It is to be noted that invading Vikings were often able to come to terms with local political authorities, but continued to devastate Christian institutions. For example, when the so-called “ Great Army” of Danish Vikings conquered the English kingdoms of East Anglia and Northumbria between 865 and 867, they quickly reached an accommodation with the local people and their rulers, but brutally ravaged the Whitby monastery.In such an instance, it would seem that the Vikings had a special grudge against the Christians.
The hypothesis of Viking activities as Pagan retaliation to Christian and Frankish expansion finds further support in the cultural sphere. Between the eighth and eleventh centuries, there was an impressive flowering of Pagan art and literature in Northern Europe, what we might describe as a Viking renaissance, roughly contemporary, and perhaps self-consciously competitive with the cultural resurgence sponsored by the court of Charlemagne, the so-called Carolingian renaissance. Many of the documents that we rely upon as source-materials for Nordic religion and mythology were first composed in
this era, though our surviving texts come from several hundred years later.The theme of Valhalla, the afterlife paradise, ruled by Odin, the god of war, poetry and wisdom, where warriors feast and fight in preparation for a final, apocalyptic battle, is prominent on the famous runestone and picturestone memorials of the Baltic Sea island of Gotland from the 8th through the 11th centuries and in skaldic poetry of the 10th century.
Contemporary royal tombs from Denmark and Norway, constructed on an impressive scale and luxuriously equipped with exquisitely carved and crafted objects, express a confident expectation of a joyful afterlife, a Pagan counterpoint to the proud monuments to the Christian faith being raised in the Frankish lands. The surrounding of these majestic Nordic royal tombs by lesser graves containing warriors buried with weapons, riding gear, and even horses, may echo the myth of Odin and his warriors dwelling together in the afterlife paradise of Valhalla. One thing we can be sure of is that the
Vikings did not view themselves as infidels or monsters. They had their own refined traditions, of which they were quite proud, all of which were threatened by the expansion of Christian hegemony in Northern Europe.
When we view all of the artistic, cultural and religious expressions of the Viking era together, we see a confident Pagan culture possessing great vitality, originality and refinement rooted in a religious tradition with a rich and imaginative mythology. In our time, there is increasing appreciation for Viking artistry and culture, but this recognition was long delayed by the tendency to focus on the savagery of the Vikings to the exclusion of these other more positive aspects. It is only with the deflation of the grand narrative of Christian supremacy, and in particular, the notion that European civilization is one and the same as European Christianity, that we become able to better appreciateViking culture and other Pagan aspects of European history.
To close the discussion of the Vikings, let me again ask, as I did in regards to
Charlemagne, what if. What if the Vikings had not converted to Christianity? What effect would this have had on European history? From the Christian point of view, this wouldseem a nightmarish prospect. The Viking religion is associated with idolatry and sacrifice, including human sacrifice; far better to be done with it. Such a perspective, however, overlooks the important point that all religions change and develop over time.
Just as Christianity has become more peaceful and tolerant over the centuries, refined and reformed through generation after generation of scholarship and theology, not to mention internal conflicts and upheavals, could not the same have happened, with the Pagan religion of the Vikings or other peoples, if they had been given the chance? We know that Hinduism, the majority religion of India, was long ago a religion of animal sacrifice with cattle as a favorite sacrificial victim. Over time, and with the influence of
new religious ideas, such animal sacrifice fell out of favor, and vegetarianism became established as a moral imperative, with cows as a special category of sacred animals protected from harm. Could not a similar process of evolution and refinement have taken place with the Pagan religion of the Vikings? The answer cannot be known, because the Christianization of all Scandinavia closed the book on any further development of Norse Paganism. Scattered pieces of information about Viking-era culture and society do however suggest that the Vikings were capable of accepting Christianity within their
communities, so long as Christians did not seek to undermine native Pagan traditions.
Iceland, for example, was settled by both Pagans and Christians, and the two religions coexisted in relative peace for more than a century. As I see it, the Vikings did not hate Christianity per se; they attacked Christianity where it was perceived as part of a larger threat. Or to put it another way, they became aggressive against Christians in response to the Christian aggression of Charlemagne and others.
In archaeological remains as well as Old Icelandic literature, we find a good deal of evidence of Christian-Pagan syncretism which suggests that the Vikings were capable of combining Christianity with their own native traditions. If Christian authorities had been willing to tolerate a more flexible kind of Christianity, a distinctive Nordic blend of Christianity and Paganism could have developed which might have served as a bridge between the two religious traditions and ameliorated conflicts between them. This was
not to be. The powerful Christian authority structures of medieval Europe were only interested in one kind of relationship with other forms of religion: the total destruction of these religions and the Christianization of all peoples, by force if necessary. Only now are we beginning to realize how much was lost as a result of that harsh policy of intolerance.
Today, the leaders of Europe and other highly developed regions have embraced the ideal of multiculturalism and pluralism, at least in rhetoric. This includes tolerance for other religions, not merely the various forms of Christianity that for so many centuries dominated the cultural life of Europe. I believe that if this 21st century experiment in pluralism and tolerance is to succeed, the history of Europe needs to be re-written to include the perspectives of the non-Christian peoples of the European past, and to
examine the processes by which ancient Pagan religions were wiped off the European map. If we accept the proposition that religious intolerance is a dangerous evil that has o place in the modern world, let us understand full well that it was just as dangerous,and just as evil, for the peoples of the past.