The Vikings meet Christianity

Olav Tryggvason came from England with many ships and men in the summer of AD 995. He came to claim the throne of Norway and to bring Christianity to the country. He went ashore on the island of Moster on the west coast of Norway. He was accompanied by several English priests and a bishop called Grimkjell. On the island Olav Tryggvason held the first official mass in Norway. About 35 years later Norway was officially a Christian country.

Was this the whole story? Of course not!

The Danes had for a long time before 995 been familiar with Christians and Christianity. In the Viking city of Hedeby Christians and worshippers of Odin and Thor were living side by side. The Christians had their cross, the pagan Vikings decided to use Thor’s hammer as their symbol. In Hedeby you could buy both at the jewellers’ shop.

The Swedes travelled along the Russian rivers to Byzantium (Istanbul). In Hagia Sophia, the biggest church in the world at the time, you can still read some Viking rune-graffiti.

The Norwegians had met the “Cross-men” when they landed in England and Ireland. A lot of Scandinavians settled in Britain and you can still find gravestones in England with both the Thor’s hammer and a cross. Better safe than sorry, these Vikings must have thought.

On the west coast of Norway 60 stone-crosses made earlier than 995 have been found. They are of a kind otherwise not found outside Britain and Ireland.

This might help to explain why the conversion to Christianity happened so fast. People were already familiar with the “new faith”. An illustration of how fast it all happened is the saga of Olav Haraldson. As a teenager he was given ships and men by his father to “go Viking”. During this period he became famous for pulling down London bridge. He died in the battle of Stiklestad in Norway some years later in a battle against local pagans and was made a saint by the church. Even today, both in Scandinavia and Britain, St. Olaf’s churches are easy to find.

What happened to the old faith?

The pagan “Yuletide” became Christmas, but Scandinavians still use the word “Jul” for Christmas. The fertility rites used in spring to ensure good harvests were substituted by blessings from the Christian priests, but for hundreds of years many farmers also added some of the old rites just to be sure. Each Viking farm had its own “farm-god” or “protector”, in modern Danish and Norwegian called a “Nisse” and in Swedish a “Tomte”. The Christian St. Nicholas or Santa and the Nisse/Tomte have today become one, and each Christmas Eve the children in Scandinavia are waiting for Father Christmas, or as they call him, the Nisse or Tomte, to arrive with gifts.

Read more in the article “From a midwinter celebration to a Christian feast“.

What happened to Odin, Thor and the other Norse gods?

If you are an English speaker you mention them yourself each time you say Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.

This post is also available in: Norwegian Bokmål

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