A couple of weeks ago I wrote a short piece about the Vikings and how (according to one version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle), they may have have used Flat Holm island in the Bristol Channel as a base for their raids on the West Somerset coast. You can find out more by watching a video at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCWr_xONW5djVqlbxh3tceeQ
This week I wanted to write about Vikings and their beliefs which I have always found intriguing. I think it comes from someone telling me as a child, that the English word ‘Thursday’ is named after the Norse god of thunder, Thor. Thursday means Thor’s day in Old English. Thor is represented riding a chariot drawn by goats and wielding his hammer.
So what did the Vikings believe?
The Vikings were pagans which means they believed in many gods and goddesses and also giants and elves. The Vikings are thought to have worshiped their gods in the open air, choosing natural landmarks such as big rocks, unusual trees, and waterfalls. We know this through Norse mythology and the Codex Regius (King’s Book). However most of the sagas were written in Iceland in the 13th century, about 200 years after the Vikings had converted to Christianity.
The Vikings believed in nine realms all bound by a sacred ash tree that had special powers. One realm was called Midgard and was inhabited by humans. The top realm was called Asgard and was led by Odin, a god of war. Odin is known for having one eye, ravens and was thought to have given the Vikings their runic alphabet. As well as Thor and Odin there was Freya, a goddess of fertility who wore a cloak of feathers and rode into battle. Asgard contained Valhalla, a majestic hall where deceased warriors were taken so they could feast on boar in the afterlife. They were led there by Valkyries who were winged female creatures. The great enemies of the gods were the giants, and there were often conflicts between the two races.
The Vikings were aware of Christianity as Britain had sent Christian missionaries to Norse countries. They also traded with Christian countries and noticed that Christian traders did favourable deals with fellow Christians. The Vikings are said to have been bemused by the concept of Christianity and the worship of just one god. They didn’t feel the need to spread their own beliefs. Most historians today dismiss the stereotype of the early Vikings hating Christians. However the Vikings knew early on, that our monasteries held riches. In AD 787, they sailed over the North Sea and raided Lindisfarne, killing many of the monks, taking others as slaves and stealing silver, gold, precious books as well as food and drink.
As the Viking period progressed and they started to try and conquer the kingdoms that made up Britain, Viking leaders became Christian. One example of this is when King Alfred of Wessex made Guthrum convert to Christianity after he defeated him at the battle of Edington in AD 878. Guthrum and 20 of his nobles were baptised at Aller, Somerset. Guthrum was adopted as King Alfred’s son. Alfred probably didn’t care much about their souls, but it was part of a deal to get the Vikings to submit.
During the AD 900s, the Vikings chose Christianity, partly because of the extensive trade networks with Christian areas of Europe, but also due to increasing political and religious pressure from the German empire to the south. The Viking leaders saw conversion and the worship of the Christian god as bringing more benefits than the previous gods could – or that they could worship their old gods alongside the Christian god. By the end of the Viking period, around 1050, most Vikings were Christians, although there was some resistance as Viking people still preferred to believe in the ‘old ways’.