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§ 28. Scandinavian Heathenism.


Wheaton: History of the Northmen. London 1831.

Depping: Histoire des expeditions maritimes des Normands. Paris, 1843. 2 vols.

F. Worsaae: Account of the Danes in England, Ireland, and Scotland. London, 1852; The Danish Conquest of England and Normandy. London, 1863. These works are translated from the Danish.


Scandinavia was inhabited by one of the wildest and fiercest, but also one of the strongest and most valiant branches of the Teutonic race, a people of robbers which grew into a people of conquerors. Speaking the same language—that which is still spoken in Iceland—and worshipping the same gods, they were split into a number of small kingdoms covering the present Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Every spring, when the ice broke in the fjords, they launched their boats or skiffs, and swept, each swarm under the leadership of its own king, down upon the coasts of the neighboring countries. By the rivers they penetrated far into the countries, burning and destroying what they could not carry away with them. When autumn came, they returned home, loaded with spoil, and they spent the winter round the open hearth, devouring their prey. But in course of time, the swarms congregated and formed large armies, and the robber-campaigns became organized expeditions for conquest; kingdoms were founded in Russia, England, France, and Sicily. In their new homes, however, the Northern vikings soon forgot both their native language and their old gods, and became the strong bearers of new departures of civilization and the valiant knights of Christianity.

In the Scandinavian mythology, there were not a few ideas which the Christian missionary could use as connecting links. It was not absolutely necessary for him to begin with a mere negation; here, too, there was an “unknown God” and many traits indicate that, during the eighth and ninth centuries, people throughout Scandinavia became more and more anxious to hear something about him. When a man died, he went to Walhall, if he had been brave, and to Niflheim, if he had been a coward. In Walhall he lived together with the gods, in great brightness and joy, fighting all the day, feasting all the night. In Niflheim he sat alone, a shadow, surrounded with everything disgusting and degrading. But Walhall and Niflheim were not to last forever. A deep darkness, Ragnarokr, shall fall over the universe; Walhall and Niflheim shall be destroyed by fire; the gods, the heroes, the shadows, shall perish. Then a new heaven and a new earth shall be created by the All-Father, and he shall judge men not according as they have been brave or cowardly, but according as they have been good or bad. From the Eddas themseIves, it appears that, throughout Scandinavian heathendom, there now and then arose characters who, though they would not cease to be brave, longed to be good. The representative of this goodness, this dim fore-shadowing of the Christian idea of holiness, was Baldur, the young god standing on the rainbow and watching the worlds, and he was also the link which held together the whole chain of the Walhall gods; when he died, Ragnarokr came.

A transition from the myth of Baldur to the gospel of Christ cannot have been very difficult to the Scandinavian imagination; and, indeed, it is apparent that the first ideas which the Scandinavian heathens formed of the “White Christ” were influenced by their ideas of Baldur. It is a question, however, not yet settled, whether certain parts of the Scandinavian mythology, as, for instance, the above myths of Ragnarokr and Baldur, are not a reflex of Christian ideas; and it is quite probable that when the Scandinavians in the ninth century began to look at Christ under the image of Baldur, they had long before unconsciously remodeled their idea of Baldur after the image of Christ.

Another point, of considerable importance to the Christian missionary, was that, in Scandinavian heathendom, he had no priesthood to encounter. Scandinavian paganism never became an institution. There were temples, or at least altars, at Leire, near Roeskilde, in Denmark; at Sigtuna, near Upsall, in Sweden, and at Moere, near Drontheim, in Norway; and huge sacrifices of ninety-nine horses, ninety-nine cocks, and ninety-nine slaves were offered up there every Juul-time. But every man was his own priest. At the time when Christianity first appeared in Scandinavia, the old religion was evidently losing its hold on the individuals and for the very reason, that it had never succeeded in laying hold on the nation. People continued to swear by the gods, and drink in their honor; but they ceased to pray to them. They continued to sacrifice before taking the field or after the victory, and to make the sign of the cross, meaning Thor’s hammer, over a child when it was named; but there was really nothing in their life, national or individual, public or private, which demanded religious consecration. As, on the one side, characters developed which actually went beyond the established religion, longing for something higher and deeper, it was, on the other side, still more frequent to meet with characters which passed by the established religion with utter indifference, believing in nothing but their own strength.

The principal obstacle which Christianity had to encounter in Scandinavia was moral rather than religious. In his passions, the old Scandinavian was sometimes worse than a beast. Gluttony and drunkenness he considered as accomplishments. But he was chaste. A dishonored woman was very seldom heard of, adultery never. In his energy, he was sometimes fiercer than a demon. He destroyed for the sake of destruction, and there were no indignities or cruelties which he would not inflict upon a vanquished enemy. But for his friend, his king, his wife, his child, he would sacrifice everything, even life itself; and he would do it without a doubt, without a pang, in pure and noble enthusiasm. Such, however, as his morals were, they, had absolute sway over him. The gods he could forget, but not his duties. The evil one, among gods and men, was he who saw the duty, but stole away from it. The highest spiritual power among the old Scandinavians, their only enthusiasm, was their feeling of duty; but the direction which had been given to this feeling was so absolutely opposed to that pointed out by the Christian morality, that no reconciliation was possible. Revenge was the noblest sentiment and passion of man; forgiveness was a sin. The battle-field reeking with blood and fire was the highest beauty the earth could show; patient and peaceful labor was an abomination. It was quite natural, therefore, that the actual conflict between Christianity and Scandinavian paganism should take place in the field of morals. The pagans slew the missionaries, and burnt their schools and churches, not because they preached new gods, but because they “corrupted the morals of the people” (by averting them from their warlike pursuits), and when, after a contest of more than a century, it became apparent that Christianity would be victorious, the pagan heroes left the country in great swarms, as if they were flying from some awful plague. The first and hardest work which Christianity had to do in Scandinavia was generally humanitarian rather than specifically religious.


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