We’ve all heard of the Vikings. Big, fierce, wearing hats with horns (they didn’t actually wear hats with horns, only Hagar the Horrible). From the 10th century to the 12th, the Vikings were the scourge of Europe. They raped, pillaged, plundered everything they came across. What they left they burned down to the ground. But who were these barbarians from the North and how did they go from being some of the grossest violators of human rights (to put it in a modern context) to embracing Christianity and sending out missionaries to places, such as Africa, in their own turn?
Two books and one magazine attempt to provide answers to this question. They each cover a lot of the same territory which reinforces not only their accuracy but that there are not a lot of resources in existence to enlighten us of these people whom Wagner romanticized in his operas and whose myths and sagas J.R.R. Tolkien based his own novels on. This review is a compilation from all three sources: Both books are titled, The Vikings, one by Robert Fergeson, the other by Johnathon Clements. The magazine articles are by writers of Christian History Magazine, Issue 63: A Severe Salvation: How the Vikings took up the faith.
Based on what these three sources tell us, we know the Vikings came from Scandinavia, primarily Norway but also Sweden and Denmark. Their whole system of creeds and beliefs come from gods of war. The two main inspirations and justifications for their invasions across Europe are the gods Odin and Thor. Their heaven, Valhalla, was a place where men went to happily war against each other for eternity. Graves show that the younger the man died in death, the more honor he was given with showers of gifts and treasures, while the graves of older men are austere.
Each book tries to explain why the Vikings left their homelands in the first place. The consensus seems to be that the Norse men who left were the losers of internal warring and fighting in their respective provinces. It doesn’t answer certain questions, however, such as why they returned to their homelands and why certain kings also went “a pillagin'.”
Europe seemed to be as helpless as little girls under the scourge of these men from the north. Even Charlemagne, after conquering most of Europe and unifying it for the Holy See at Rome seemed unable to withstand the onslaught. Some explanations offered are that the European kingdoms had weakened themselves by their own internal war mongering and corruption of the Catholic Church. More than one monk seemed to think so.
Some aspects of European politics seem sadly similar to the international relation tactics that Western leaders are attempting today. Many kingdoms throughout England, Ireland, France and Germany emptied their nation’s coffers to pay off the Vikings in an effort to get them to leave and not come back. The actual result was that the Vikings were encouraged to continue invading and demand exhorbant amounts of “protection money,” only to return the following year to do the same. There’s no record that paying off these barbarians even slowed them down, much less discouraged them from razing everything in their path to the ground.
Actually, the Vikings conversion to Christianity is one of the most mysterious events about them. When they were profiting so enormously off robbing Europe, why did they convert to a religion that they are recorded as labeling as weak and effeminate? The conversion wasn’t smooth or easy. The first king to convert, King Olaf, gave out an edict, “Convert or die!” Many a Scandinavian chose to fight to the death before converting.
Another Viking, Ethelred brought a monk to Iceland with him where he and the monk were taunted by some local men as being lovers. Ethelred slaughtered all of them. So much for turning the other cheek.
Yet they did eventually convert and, at least until the last century, were Christian nations. This was brought home to me the other day when at church I struck up a conversation with a family from Tanzania. I asked them how or when they became Christians. They informed me that they had grown up in the church because their grandparents had been converted by Swedish missionaries.
The books trace the origins of the Norse men, the battles and invasions across Europe, Russia, and interactions with the Muslims. DNA testing can trace their lineage throughout Ireland, Scotland, Britain and Russia. They devote chapters to Viking travels to Iceland and Greenland and even North America. They quote Snorri Sturleson’s sagas but try to place them in a romanticized context since they were written a couple of hundred years after the fact, (which is still several hundred years closer to the fact than either writer of The Vikings).
The magazine’s main thrust is trying to trace and understand how the conversion to Christianity took place. The authors of The Vikings are disappointingly obtuse in their failure to make a connection between the Vikings conversion to Christianity and their forsaking of barbaric practices. Practices that made it common to bury a dead person with their slaves, after they had been ritually sacrificed. That made it common to leave unwanted babies out in the cold to die. Practices that made blood feuds last for generations and, oh yeah, practices that sent out young men to rape, pillage and burn every village in sight for personal wealth and glory.
I think if one wants to gain more insight into the Viking mind, plus read some great sagas, one would do well to read Snorri’s sagas as well as Norse mythology. Sometimes fiction gives us better insight into a culture than historical books.
I bought these books.