Professor Ronald Hutton’s fourth lecture in the Gresham College series on early Pagan history in Britain (1) is about the Vikings and their spiritual legacy. An overview of the old Norse world shows a people who, expanding beyond their Scandinavian homelands, were notable both as aggressive sea raiders and as traders, farmers and town builders. Travelling to new lands, and often settling in them, they grew familiar with cultures from Britain and Ireland in the west to Russia and the Byzantine Empire in the east. Their name was known in the Islamic world and as far as China. Slaving was a major part of their trade.
The raiding came first – a ‘Viking’ is a raider. They first became known in Britain and Ireland as looters of monasteries, where non-warrior monks lived close to the sea in places noted for their treasure. Monks who were not killed often became slaves. Hutton notes that early Scandinavian literature is largely realistic (relatively sparse in supernatural themes) and shows a tolerance of psychotic violence. A small boy gets bested by larger peers in a ball game and, enraged, drives an axe into another boy’s head. The community wonders what to do with him and steers away from serious punishment. For ‘he has ‘the makings of a real Viking’. Saga heroes are not very religious. Asked by a Christian ruler what he believes in, one replies: ‘I believe in me’. This seems to be the self-reliant ethic of the rootless, adventuring Viking.
Our written knowledge of Viking Pagan gods largely comes from Icelandic sources dating from 150-400 years after Christian conversion. It includes poetry, sagas and scholarly work. According to Hutton, the Pagan poems are no longer fully understood. It is thought that depictions of Paganism in this work are drawn partly from contemporary Baltic and Slav Paganism, better known by the writers than their own past. It is possible that Odin’s sacrifice of self to self, over nine days, on the windy tree is a response to Christianity: Odin is tougher than Christ.
In prose work, goddesses are few and far between. There are more goddess names in the older poems, but we do not know their stories. The gods on record are those still known in modern popular culture: Odin (the leader, god of travel, wisdom, knowledge, war, poetry); Thor (god of sky, weather, farming); Frey (god of fertility, crops, animals); Freya (goddess of love, war, magic); Baldur (handsome, beloved of all); Tyr (heroic god of war); Loki (devious and cunning – with a question around the word ‘evil’?). However, there is some doubt on whether either the warriors’ paradise Valhalla, or the end-of-the-world story of Ragnarok are derived from early Pagan tradition.
The Pagan Viking Gods came to Britain, with serious settlements beginning in the 860s, and they are remembered in place names. Odin, for example, is very well remembered in Orkney. But their worship did not last long, at least officially. The last Pagan ruler was removed in 954. The settlers had always lived among a larger co-existing Christian population. However, King Canute had to pass a law in the early 11th century forbidding the veneration of trees, stones and pools, the use of charms and the worship of sun and moon. Hutton suggests that here we see glimpses of a family and nature oriented religion without priests and temples and so unlikely to leave monuments. There is no archaeological evidence for Viking temples or shrines in Britain, though 34 swords have been found in English rivers in a way that suggests they were placed there as offerings. There are carvings that seem to show Pagan themes on crosses and a slab in the church at Sockburn, County Durham, shows the war god Tyr with Fenris, the wolf who bit his hand off.
Most of the archaeological research focuses on burial sites and grave goods. High status burials in particular included graves goods – on the whole, men had weapons, women had jewellery and both might have horses and dogs. These suggest a belief in another life in which people will want their possessions, but there does not seem to be a consistent narrative about what this afterlife would be. In some cases it is possible that, where more than one person is involved, someone may have been killed in order to accompany the deceased. Norse-settled Scotland and its islands (Both northern and western) are rich in burial sites, as is the Isle of Mann (still constitutionally a Norse lordship under the British crown run by its Parliament the Tynwald). In one ship burial there, an earlier Christian burial site was desecrated to make room for the newcomers. English Viking burial sites include the Henley Woods burials and the large site by the River Trent near Repton in Derbyshire. This is the site of the military camp set up the ‘sons of Ragnar’.
All in all, there is enough to suggest that Viking Paganism once flourished it Britain. But we do not quite catch the subjective life of its adherents. Perhaps people wore their religion lightly; perhaps it was deeply interwoven with material life and not seen as a major specific preoccupation. Soon enough, it was superseded, often for largely political reasons, by Christianity. Enigmatic pointers from literature and archaeology, enduring place names, and the land, the sea, the sky themselves (to borrow the Celtic elements) are what remain.