Did Christianity emerge from paganism?

More than a change of belief

It was only through Christianization that the Scandinavian world became part of Europe. But this was less due to the new religion than such: Christianity provided the basis for the establishment of a central royal rule, and it brought the Latin script with its far-reaching possibilities to northern Europe.

It was warlike gods who inhabited Valhalla, the Olympus of the Vikings. Traditional myths tell of Thor, the god of thunder, but also of fertility, of Tyr, the god of war, and Loki, the god of fire. Valkyries led the fallen warriors to the gods. Above all stood Odin, he was the ruler of Valhalla.

Such a reconstruction of “Germanic” religion is not easy, however. Even the application of the Eurocentric concept of religion to ancient Scandinavian cult forms is problematic, but almost all reports from which we gain knowledge of the beliefs of the Vikings today were created in the Middle Ages in very close interaction with the Latin-Christian tradition of Europe.

On the one hand, there were Christian authors who reported on the pagan beliefs of their northern neighbors and interpreted the ideas handed down there against the background of what religious conceptions were familiar to them. The historian Adam von Bremen related the Nordic deities to the ancient pagan gods known to him. He says: "Wodan they represent armed, like we do Mars." A direct comparison with the Christian religion was out of the question for him. Even the Arab chronicler Ahmed ibn Fadlan, who reported in the 10th century on the customs and habits of the Kievan Rus, Viking groups on the Volga, could not break away from the ideas of a closed religious system in his description.

On the other hand, it was the Scandinavians themselves who perpetuated the Vikings' beliefs on parchment. Here, however, the problem arises that such reports were only written centuries after Christianization. So one also has to do with constructions of a closed religious system. These emerged from a discussion of Christian dogma systems, but were also intended to serve as a demarcation from Latin-Christian traditions. This made it possible to create a cultural independence for the north in the High Middle Ages. The outstanding representatives of this school of thought are the Dane Saxo Grammaticus and the Icelandic Snorri Sturluson.

Saxo wrote a comprehensive Latin history of the Danes around 1200, which he placed in the overall context of European history. On the other hand, Snorri paid little attention to the rest of Europe 30 years later and wrote his story of the Norwegian kings as well as his portrayal of the Nordic gods stories in Old Icelandic. However, both pursued the basic idea of ​​an independent cultural identity for the north. This is reflected in her extensive treatment of Nordic myths. The intention to present all texts often influenced the objectivity of their reporting. So how can one get reliable information about the beliefs of the Vikings? ...

Dr. Thomas Foerster

November 24, 2008

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