Christians and pagans in Norse society: the real religious rifts between Vikings
When the Vikings set out from their homelands, they did so to raid and trade. But by the 10th century they had begun to take something else home with them besides plunder and goods – a new religion. Soon, Vikings who worshipped Norse gods such as Odin and Thor were living side-by-side with those who considered Jesus Christ their saviour, and inevitably that led to conflict – as depicted in new Netflix series Vikings: Valhalla. Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir explains more…
During the Viking Age, the Norse Pagan religion was practised across Scandinavia and wherever Norse people settled – at least, until the Vikings had fully converted to Christianity, which took place in the late 10th to the 11th century, depending on the location.
Ever since the raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne in AD 793, the Vikings had been seen as inherently brutal, not least because of their paganness, in contrast to their victims, who saw themselves as civilised Christians. And yet medieval texts also show Christian incivility, revealing shocking episodes in which pagans reluctant to convert are mistreated and killed by their zealous Christian countrymen.
Very little is known for certain about how Norse pagans worshipped, but it is generally accepted that the elite and warriors were devoted to Odin, the highest of the gods. Perhaps some were also followers of the goddess Freyja, who it was believed welcomed half of those slain in battle to her realm, while the rest went to Odin’s hall, known as Valhalla. This belief system, centring on rewards in the afterlife for those who died in battle, clearly functioned to justify warfare.
Some Norse pagans would have heard about the Christian faith either on Viking expeditions abroad, or at home whenever they met Christian foreign travellers or enslaved people. While many pagans were likely curious or agnostic, others were fiercely invested in their worldview and scorned Christianity.
Was there violence between Viking pagans and Viking Christians?
According to the early 13th-century Heimskringla (one of the so-called kings’ sagas), Hákon ‘the good’ Haraldsson (who lived c920–961) was the first Christian king of Norway. He had adopted the faith at the court of King Æthelstan in England (Alfred the Great's grandson), where he was allegedly fostered by the king.
Early in his reign, Hákon made attempts to convert his subjects but this was met with vehement opposition. In response, pagans burnt churches to the ground, killed priests, and one faction even forced the king to partake in pagan rituals. This first attempt at Christianising Norway ended in failure.
King Hákon died in battle years later, when his nephews challenged his rule. As a Christian, the king probably hoped for an afterlife in heaven but the Hákonarmál (Words about Hákon), a poem composed about this event, explicitly contradicts this.
In the poem, the mortally wounded king discusses the outcome of the battle with two valkyries (female figures who decide who dies in battle and guide slain warriors to Valhalla). who announce that upon his imminent death, the king will be taken to Valhalla to meet Odin. The poet commemorated the king as a brave warrior, but his religion was glossed over.
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King Hákon tried to win people over to Christianity with persuasion, but elsewhere the sagas depict subsequent kings as not afraid to use more brutal methods. The warlike Olaf Tryggvason and his namesake Olaf ‘the stout’ Haraldsson (later sainted) both appear as hellbent on quashing any opposition to conversion. The sagas about the pair relate disturbing stories about people being tortured and killed for their insubordination.
One man in the saga of Olaf Tryggvason suffered hot coals being placed onto his belly, another had a snake forced into his mouth. The Heimskringla claims that King Olaf Haraldsson “let no one go unpunished who refused to serve God“, but had them maimed, exiled or executed for their disobedience. However, some of the Christian zeal with which he was attributed is unlikely to have been caused only by a heartfelt desire to carry out God’s vocation, Viking-style. In reality, it may have been a rhetorical choice by the king to cow potential rebels. His supporters may have also exaggerated his faith after his death for political ends.
Pagans also tried to (re)convert Christians. Njáls saga relates an episode set in Iceland, in which a woman named Steinunn tries to talk the missionary Thangbrand into becoming pagan. When she is unsuccessful, she composes two verses that compare Christ unfavourably to Thor, representing the latter as strong and manly in contrast to the paltry Christ. Further, Steinunn triumphantly attributes Thangbrand’s earlier shipwreck to Thor’s power over the weather.
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The Austrfararvísur (Verses about a Journey East) were composed by another Icelandic poet, Sigvatr, who went to Sweden on behalf of King Olaf Haraldsson in c1019. It describes how the poet stops at a place called Hof (Temple) one evening after a day of travelling.
Instead of being offered hospitality, he and his companions are refused entry, implicitly because of their Christian religion. A woman who the poet labels as “impudent“ shoos the travellers away because a sacrifice is being carried out, invoking her fear of Odin’s wrath if the Christians are let in. Thus the poet portrays Swedes as unhospitable heathens stubbornly clinging to the old faith.
Did Norse pagans and Norse Christians ever get along?
There is much evidence for conflicts of different sorts between pagans and Christians. But relations were not all antagonistic, and there are also hints that people of different religions peacefully coexisted.
An account written by the disciple of the missionary Ansgar, who travelled from Germany to Sweden in AD 829, mentions Frideburg, a well-to-do widow who lived in Birka, a market town on an island in lake Mälaren. She converted to Christianity at Ansgar’s behest and donated her property to the poor upon her death. Her wishes were apparently carried out, so the attitude to Christians in Birka can’t have been too hostile.
Material evidence, too, tells a similar story. A soapstone mould for making pendants discovered in Denmark could be used to produce either a cross or a hammer – Thor’s emblematic symbol – depending on the commission.
Carvings on monuments sometimes mix pagan and Christian iconography. The Gosforth Cross in Cumbria, an area where Vikings settled, depicts the Norse god Loki and his goddess wife Sigyn among Christian motifs. In Norse mythology, Loki was bound by the other gods for his treachery and placed underneath a snake whose venom drips from its mouth. As in the myth, the carving on the cross shows Sigyn faithfully standing by her husband, holding a bowl over his head to catch the poisonous liquid. The image prompts the onlooker to reflect on Sigyn’s act alongside the image of Mary Magdalene standing below Christ on the cross.
Such evidence suggests a slow and incremental, rather than an abrupt conversion to Christianity, in which the Norse belief system still had a function and its adherents were not violently suppressed.
Why did individual Vikings convert to Christianity?
Individuals probably converted for varying reasons – some were undoubtedly bullied into it while others considered it politically savvy to switch. Some may have experienced a spiritual revelation or found that Christianity offered what they were looking for. Norse customs may even have been mingled with influences from Christianity long before these societies formally converted, making the change easier for many. There were undeniably conflicts between religious factions, but it’s difficult to separate them from politics and the violence that generally accompanied the power struggles of the Viking Age.
The conversion to Christianity in Scandinavia was driven by many different motivations. But perhaps the most important one was pragmatic: the need to be able to have political and trade relationships with the outside world. The Norse were nothing if not adaptable, and as the Viking Age wore on, they realised that it paid off to be seen not as savage heathen enemies but as fellow Christians.
Norse pagans vs Norse Christians in Vikings: Valhalla
The tensions between Vikings who follow the old gods and those who converted to Christianity are central to the plot of Netflix drama Vikings: Valhalla, the spin-off and successor to Michael’s Hirst’s Vikings.
The series follows the exploits of real-life Vikings Leif Erikson, Freydís Eiríksdóttir and Harald Sigurdsson (later known as Harald Hardrada) in the aftermath of the St Brice’s Day Massacre – the purported slaughter of “all the Danish men in England” as ordered by King Aethelred II in 1002.
But even before we get to inevitable revenge raid that follows St Brice’s, there is infighting over religion – how can Viking Christians travel across the sea to enact ‘justice’ on their fellow Christians?
Central to this arc of the story is the ferociously pious Olaf Haraldsson. He is not the only one who wears their cross on their sleeve, but the true zealotry is reserved for another character: Jarl Kåre.
Kåre is a fiction – scarred by childhood trauma, he shunned the Norse gods and adopted Christianity, his conversion so all-consuming that he actively hunts (and murders) those who still worship the pagan gods. He is not alone; he has a huge following, and that eventually leads to war between Vikings within Norway itself.
Though Kåre is an invention, there are slender parallels to what we know of Olaf from the sagas. When it comes to adherence to Christianity, Kåre is unforgiving and brutal; so too, the sagas suggest, was Olaf. Their stories tell us that Olaf rode around parts of Norway with his entourage, inspecting whether people had converted – and he has their eyes gouged out if he found their Christianity deficient, inflicts other tortures, or sometimes executes them. The trouble is, it is hard to attribute such actions directly to his faith and set it apart from his general ruthlessness and dogged determination to hang onto the throne in what was an extremely turbulent era. Olaf was king for about 13 years before being deposed by King Cnut the Great, king of Denmark and England.
This kind of brutality is only nodded to in Vikings: Valhalla, through the revelation that Olaf carved a cross onto Freydís’s back at some point before a show begins. This is a fiction twice over: that particular act of maiming is not mentioned in the sagas, nor do we have any evidence that Freydís and Olaf would have met.
Dr Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir is a medievalist, specialising in Old Norse history, literature and manuscripts. She is the author of Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World (Bloomsbury, 2020), nominated for the Cundill History Prize