17 September 2013

End of an Era: The Vikings become Christians

By Michelle Styles

Part of the reason the Vikings hold such a fascination is that they are the last great pagan civilisation. But by the end of the era, they are no longer pagan but Christian  Indeed the Eddas were transcribed by Snorri Snorrison in an attempt to preserve the dying culture. But how and why did this happen?
Although Christianity had gained influence in Scandanavia through out the period, mainly due to contact with the Byzantium civilisation and Varangian guard, the Vikings really did not become Christian until St Olaf or Olaf the Crowbone , more formally called Olaf Tryggvason in about the year 1000 AD.

Olaf, if the sagas are to be believed, had a true rags to riches story. After his father was killed, his pregnant mother escaped Erik Bloodaxe’s  wrath.  In the escape, they were captured by Baltic pirates and Olaf sold into slavery for the price of a single goat. He worked as a farmhand in Estonia. The adult Olaf is first heard of in Russia where he slays a man in the Novgorod marketplace, apparently the man who had sold him into slavery. After a brief marriage to a Polish princess, he goes raiding in England and an old soothsayer tells him if he becomes Christian, he will become king. He duly becomes Christian and becomes an ally of Ethelred the Unready.

Olaf arrives in Norway. Source: Wikipedia
Shortly after receiving Ethelred's backing, Olaf departed for Norway and decided that the only way to evangelise was by the point of the sword. The Orkneys and Hebrides were forced to give up the pagan gods or else. Given his expertise at raiding, they did. He then turned his attention to Norway and the true Viking prize -- control of the Norwegian trading empire. Taking advantage of the revulsion at the Earl of Trondheim's passion for another man’s wife, Olaf engineers a bloody coup.

He then sets about Christianising Norway, in his own unique fashion — convert or die. For good measure, he took hostages of various noble families and threatened to kill them, if anyone reverted. Having subdued a good part of Norway, he sent a missionary to Iceland who had mixed success. However, when Olaf decided to close all Norwegian ports to pagans, the Icelanders had to convert. Iceland could not survive without the trade and so they did.
Olaf accomplished this all before the age of 32. At 32, he was involved in the battle of Svold and lost. He died a Christian martyr. Some whispered that he escaped to Byzantium and set about trying to regain his lost fortune.
Whatever happened, by the time of his death, large parts of Scandinavia had been Christianised and remained so. You can see this in the manner of the graves and the prevalence of crosses.  Suddenly pagans are wearing Thor’s hammers, a bit like a cross, to compete. Earlier Viking settlements do not have this piece of jewellery. And through the sheer force of will by one man, the last great Pagan civilisation fell and become Christian.
Michelle Styles writes warm witty and intimate historical romance in a wide variety of time periods for Harlequin Historical.
Her next VIking is published in November 2013 Paying the VIking's Price.