The pagan Scandinavians acknowledged a pantheon of gods and spirits which could be called on in different situations. Sometimes Viking chiefs could act as intermediaries with the gods. The stories of the creation and end of the world according to Norse mythology and the exploits of Viking gods such as Odin, Thor, Frey and Freyia have been passed down to us by later Icelandic storytellers. For some, Christ was just one god tolerated among many others.
Gotlandic picture stoneViking looting of valuable objects from churches and monasteries did not signify any organised antiChristian feeling; it was merely the violent appropriation of wealth from rich sources whose sanctity the Vikings did not recognise. As Christianity became the accepted religion, the church pursued a deliberate policy of destruction of pagan rites and places of worship.
Pagan burial customs were very different from the Christian ritual. Depending on how wealthy they were, pagan Scandinavians were buried with the objects they might need for life in the afterworld. A poor man might be buried with a single knife – a rich person could be buried with many everyday and luxury items.
The queen buried in the Oseberg ship, Norway, was clearly an immensely wealthy woman. In Norway, people tended to be buried with their everyday earthly possessions – farming or handicraft tools, kitchen utensils and items for personal hygiene. Usually the dead person was also equipped with food and drink for the journey to the afterworld.
Sometimes the dead were interred in boats or ships, as at Oscberg – other graves were marked on the ground by settings of upright stones in the shapes of ships, as at Lindholm Høje. Sometimes people were buried in wooden chambers; others were buried in oval, circular or rectanular pits. Wealthy women, especially in Denmark, were often buried in wagons.
Many groups, especially in Sweden and further east, adhered to the old custom of cremating the body on a funeral pyre and then burying the fragments of bone, ash and charcoal, often in a simple clay vessel beneath a low mound.
A Viking warrior would be buried with his weapons, usually his sword, spear, shield and battleaxe. In many cases, the dead man would be accompanied by his horse or dogs. Sometimes – in what seems to us a barbaric and cruel custom another person might be sacrificed to accompany the dead person to Valhalla (Odin’s hall), the ultimate destination of all Viking warriors.
Pagan graves, containing so many goods as well as human skeletal remains, are one of our richest sources of information about the Vikings – before the introduction of Christianity brought an end to this practice.
The conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity was a gradual process and there was a considerable period of coexistence between pagans and Christians in the Viking world. Contemporary sources describe both heathens and Christians living at the Viking settlements of Hedeby and Birka.
This ambivalence was made concrete by an enterprising tenth-century Danish smith who produced both Christian cross and Thor’s harnmer amulets in a single soapstone mould. The influence of Christianity is also revealed to archaeology by gradual changes in pagan Scandinavian burial practices: cremation was abandoned and the tradition of accompanying a dead person with their goods died out – rapidly in some areas like England where Christianity was well established at the beginning of the Viking Age, and very slowly in others.
From the beginning of the Viking Age Scandinavians had direct contact with Christianity in several ways. Their raids in western Europe led to many Christians being captured as slaves. The early efforts of Christian missionaries in eighth-century Denmark were largely rebuffed.
The first successful missionary was St Ansgar, a Frankish monk, sent by Emperor Louis the Pious on a mission that led him by way of Ribe to Birka in AD 829 or 830, and then again in the middle of the ninth century to Hedeby, Ribe and Birka; but the work of Ansgar and his followers had no lasting effects and Denmark and Sweden soon reverted to paganism.
The first Scandinavian country to be officially converted to Christianity was Denmark in the tenth century. King Harald Bluetooth’s proud boast on the Jelling stone that it was he who ”won for himself all Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian” dates from around AD 965. King Olaf Tryggvason is credited with the conversion of Norway and Iceland around the turn of the eleventh century. Pockets of paganism survived in Sweden even into the twelfth century.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Viking Funeral & Burial Rituals" https://englishhistory.net/vikings/viking-burials/, January 13, 2022