The Old Gods and the New: Sitting on the Spiritual Fence.
Originally posted on Tumblr on: August 11th, 2017.
Anonymous asked: “Hi Fjorn! I saw your response the other day to the anon over at asatrucommunity who asked about the intersection between Christian and Norse gods, and how some of this intermingled. It sounds fascinating because I always assumed the two were diametrically opposed. Could you give me any historical examples or reference points for this? 🙂 “
Velkomin(n), vinur minn.
(Welcome, my friend.)
I STILL STAND by the words I spoke then, in that elements of the Old Ways did not fade entirely with the presence of Christianity. Although Christianity sought to rid the Norse of their old ways, it was not (nor ever could be) entirely successful. Plenty of heathens, after all, had no problem incorporating other deities into their practice. Christians would have been opposed to such doings, and so were plenty of heathens (especially once forced conversions began), but not all. Considering that, the two are only diametrically opposed when viewed from the perspective of Christianity. The Old Ways were not set in stone; there was plenty of room for variation in practice, which never truly remained stagnant to begin with.
One of the best historical examples of a Norseman with mixed faiths would be Helgi the Lean, who was a Norwegian and became an early settler of Iceland. Landnámabók, the Icelandic Book of Settlements, has this to say about him and his faith:
“Helgi the Lean went to Iceland with his wife and children and his son-in-law Hamund Hell-Skin as well. Hamund was married to Ingunn, Helgi’s daughter. Helgi’s faith was very much mixed: he believed in Christ but invoked Thor when it came to voyages and difficult times (my emphases). When Helgi sighted Iceland, he consulted Thor as to where he should put in, and the oracle guided him north of the island. Then his son Hrolf asked Helgi whether he was planning to sail to the Arctic Ocean if Thor told him to go there? It was late summer, he said, and the crew thought it was time to get ashore. Helgi made land north of Hris Isle, just south of Svarfadardale, and spent the first winter in Hamundarstead. The winter was very severe.”(1)
And so Helgi had embraced Christ, yet still looked to Thor for guidance during specific occasions; for him, Christianity and the Old Ways intermingled seamlessly. It is important to mentioned, though, that Helgi’s case was not the norm. The fact that the author took the time (and materials) to specifically note that his “faith was very much mixed” suggests that it was an anomaly of sorts (but perhaps more so for a Christian author). The fact that this was even remembered long enough to be written shows that even his contemporaries (other heathens) found this to be a bit odd. Regardless of the author’s thoughts on this, Helgi is spoken of rather neutrally; there is little indication of any overarching hostility towards him; it is spoken as fact. The Icelanders of that time often had a talent for respecting the past without complete condemnation, after all.
But why would a heathen accept Christ to begin with? And if Christians were so strongly opposed to polytheism, how did some heathens manage to stay on the spiritual fence? Missionaries pushing for conversion emphasized that the acceptance of Christ required the rejection of all other gods, but some evidence has shown (such as the case of Helgi the Lean) that not all folk were accepting of this. Some heathens wanted to keep their old doors unlocked.
THE CONCEPT that ‘allowed’ some heathens to embrace the old gods and the new is something that has been called ‘adhesion’. Dr. Arthur Derby Nock has discussed the topic of conversion quite extensively in his 1933 book Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo. Although concerning a different flavor of paganism, the concepts discussed in his book can still apply to the Norse realm. Here is what he has said about heathens who once embraced both the old and the new:
“You have sufficient reason for disseminating a special form of piety if you are convinced that it affords a means of contact with the supernatural which each and every man needs or can with profit use in addition to those means which he has inherited and uses.”(2)
In other words, heathen Norseman saw the Christian God as a potentially useful addition to their spiritual (and even social) experiences. It was as if a new door was open to them, while still being able to keep other doors unlocked. So why do they still seem to be so diametrically opposed to one another?
FOR EVERY ACTION, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When the push for conversion became more forceful, resistance also became more forceful. Helgi the Lean was the product of a different time, in which he encountered Christianity in passing (likely via travel).(3) This meant that he personally choose to adopt Christ; his Old Ways were not immediately threatened by any imposing force. No one with power was telling him that he could not follow both (although Christian doctrine does its best to do so).
This changed however, when the tenth century began to shift into the eleventh. Powerful men like King Olaf Tryggvason began bloodied campaigns to convert the Norse people, which sparked a more prevalent resistance among certain heathens in regards to Christianity.(4) For once it was potentially useful and beneficial, but now it had become like a foreign empire seeking to entirely usurp their way of life. There was no place on the fence when powerful men desired a more centralized authority.
After King Olaf’s death however, Norway partially reverted to Heathenry, which demonstrates that, even though he had converted many Norwegians, many of them still held the Old Ways in their hearts and returned to them.(5) In the end, forced conversion does not often leave a sweet taste in the mouths of those being pushed into a new worldview.
THIS TALE is more complicated than we tend to imagine. In the early years of exposure to Christianity, a handful of heathens intermingled the two faiths without trouble or worry. Helgi the Lean could be a Christian, but still look to Thor for guidance at sea. With no one in power telling Helgi how to live spiritually, he was free to open whichever doors he pleased; he was able to remain on the spiritual fence.
The assumption of incompatibility between these two spiritual paths comes from later times, and perhaps even from the overarching Christian lens that the West inevitably still looks through. From the viewpoint of Christianity, all old gods must be rejected upon the acceptance of the God. From the viewpoint of Heathenry, the Christian God could just be another one of many to call upon, depending on the situation. Therefore, they are only diametrically opposed when one looks at the situation through the lens of Christianity. Though, even some heathens could have argued that Christ had no place in the Norse mythos. We have little way of knowing what kind of contemporary criticism he may have faced for his spiritual position, after all.
As for the overall picture, the ideology of Christianity could not accept multiple gods and would inevitably demand the purging of the old gods for the new. And so when conversion efforts became more forceful, heathens would have become less willing to include the Christian God among their own. Through their intense battle, the two (generally) became more closed off to each other. Although time wore down such strife, eventually.
Með vinsemd og virðingu,
(With friendliness and respect,)
1. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards trans., The Book of Settlements: Landnámabók (repr., 1972; Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press, 2012), 97. (Chapter 218)
2. Arthur Derby Nock, Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), 16.
3. Many Norwegians stopped in the British Isles before finally making their way to Iceland (not to mention the Scandinavians who went raiding). As a result, many of them were exposed to Christianity on their way to Iceland, and some of them even converted before leaving. Unn the Deep-minded is a good example of a prominent Icelandic settler who came from regions of Scotland (see chapters 3-7 of Laxdæla saga). There have also been Celtic-Christian artifacts found in Icelandic burials, such as a bell, which would have had clear connections with Christianity (see Þór Magnússon, “Bátkumlið í Vatnsdal„ (Árbók hins íslenzka fornleifafélags, 1966), 31-2; or, for an English translation of this section, see Jesse L. Byock, Viking Age Iceland(Penguin Books, 2013), 295-7).
4. There are several sources to consider for further reading about King Olaf’s efforts. There is Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, which contains The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason. There are also several sagas that recount these events, such as Njal’s Saga (for Iceland), and The Saga of Hallfred the Troublesome Poet (for a bit of Norway, but also a look into an individual’s struggle between the two). As for secondary resources, Jesse L. Byock’s Viking Age Iceland spends a fair amount of time on the subject, and it is not a heavily academic read. It is, of course, from a heavily Icelandic point of view, but still includes a bit about what was happening in Scandinavia to influence the events that occurred in Iceland. For this resource, see chapter 16. It should also be mentioned that King Olaf Tryggvason was not the only man to attempt forceful conversion. He is simply the most famous, in regards to Scandinavia. Other men did the same, such as King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark.
5. Jesse L. Byock, Viking Age Iceland (Penguin Books, 2013), 301.