"The Viking Age," by Paul B. Du Chaillu, vol. 1, page 464-477.
In the following accounts we see the struggle between Christianity and the old Asa belief. Hakon, the foster-son of Athelstan, so named because he had been fostered by that king in England, came back to Norway a Christian, but his people clung to the old faith, and to strengthen himself in the country he at first found it necessary to observe the tenets of his religion in secret. He ordered the Yule-feast to be celebrated at Christmas, and persuaded some of his best friends to adopt Christianity.
"Hakon was a good Christian when he came to Norway; but as all the land was heathen, and there were much sacrificing and many chiefs, and he much needed the help and friendship of the people, he decided to conceal his christianity, and kept Sundays, and fasting on Fridays, and the greatest festivals. He made it a law that the Yule should begin at the same time as that of the Christians, and every man should have a certain measure of ale, or pay a fine, and keep the days holy while Yule lasted. It formerly began on hökunótt (the midwinter-night), and it was kept for three nights. He wanted to make the people Christians, when he got established in the land and had fully subjected it to himself. He sent to England for a bishop and other priests. When they came to Norway, Hakon made known that he would try to Christianize the land" (Hakon the Good's Saga, c.15; Fornmanna Sögur, 1).
"Wise men say that some of those who settled in Iceland had been baptized, and that most of those who came from the West (British Islands) had been baptized. Among them are named Helgi the lean, Örlyg the Old, Helgi Bjóla, Jörund the Christian, Aud the Deep-minded, Ketil, and others who came from the West; but their families seldom preserved it, for some of their sons raised temples and sacrificed, and all the land was heathen for nearly one hundred winters" (Landnáma, v., c. 15).
Sigurd Thorisson, when a heathen, was accustomed to keep the three feasts held during the year; he afterwards adapted them to the new religion, which was destined finally to oust paganism.
"When he became a Christian he continued his custom with the feasts. He then had in the autumn a great feast for his friends, and a Yule-feast in the winter, and still invited many people; the third feast he had at Easter-time (Páskar), and then also invited many. This he continued while he lived" (St. Olaf's Saga, 123).
But the struggle continued for some time, for the people were loth to abandon the ancient faith, and Hakon was obliged, as king, to assist at the sacrificial feast at the temple at Hladir. Sigurd jarl on one occasion dedicated the first toast to Odin, and the king drank out of the horn, first making the sign of the cross over it. One of those present who watched him saw this, which displeased him very much; whereupon we see by the answer of Sigurd that he tried to make the people believe that it was Thor's sign, from which we must conclude that the two signs were very much alike.
The following day the bśndr, who wanted the king to observe the tenets of the ancient belief, wished him to eat horseflesh, then to drink the gravy, and finally to eat the fat; but as he would do none of these, he had to "open his mouth over the handle of the kettle." At the Frostathing, Hakon made a speech, wherein he said he wanted the people to be Christians and keep Sundays, which the bśndr did not like. Asbjörn, a powerful bondi, answered thus:—
"‘When thou didst hold a Thing The first time in Thrándheim, and we had taken thee for king and got our odals, we thought we had grasped heaven with our hands; now we do not know whether we have become free, or thou wilt make us thralls again in a curious manner, as thou wantest us to scorn the belief which our fathers and forefathers had before, first in the burning age and now in the mound age; many of them have been much eminent than we, but nevertheless this belief has been good for us. We have loved thee highly, so that we have given thee with us the rule of all laws and land-rights. Now it is our will and decision to have and keep the laws which thou didst establish at the Frostathing, and to which we then consented; we will all follow thee and hold up thy kingship while any of the bśndr here at this Thing are alive, if thou, king, wilt show moderation and ask of us only what we can grant thee, and what is not unfeasible. But if thou wilt go so far in this manner as to deal with us by force and overbearing, we have all of us determined to part from thee, and take another chief, that we may be free to hold the belief we wish to have; now thou shalt make thy choice, king, before the Thing is closed.’ The bśndr cheered this speech much, and said they wanted to have it as Asbjörn said; it was a loud noise. Sigurd jarl said, when he got a hearing: ‘It is the will of King Hakon to assent to all that the bśndr want, and never to part from your friendship.’ The bśndr said they wanted the king to sacrifice for good seasons and peace, as his father did. The grumbling ceased, and they closed the Thing. Thereupon Sigurd spoke to the King, and told him not to flatly refuse the wish of the bśndr, and that it would not do to act otherwise, ‘for, as you have heard, it is the strong will of the chiefs and all the people; but I will find some way out of the difficulty.’ The King assented to this.
"In the autumn during the winter-nights there was a large sacrificing-feast at Hladir, and thither came King Hakon. He had been accustomed when he was present at sacrifices to take his meals in a small house with few men. The bśndr complained that he did not sit in his high-seat at such a great feast; the jarl told him to do it, and he did it. When the first horn was filled, Sigurd jarl spoke and consecrated it to Odin; he drank from it to the king; the king took it and made a sign of the cross over it; then a man called Kár of Grýting said: ‘Why does the king behave thus? Will he no longer worship the gods?’ Sigurd jarl answered: ‘The king acts like all others who believe in their own strength and might; he signs his cups to Thor; he made a hammer-sign over it before he drank it. That evening all was quiet. Next day when they sat down at the tables the bśndr crowded towards the king and ask him to eat flesh (horseflesh, another text); the king by no means do it. Then they asked him to drink the broth, which he would not. Then they asked him to eat the grease [fat of the soup; another text, the blood], and he would not. Thereupon they were going to attack him. Sigurd tried to reconcile them, and asked the bśndr to stop the tumult; he said the king was going to open his mouth over the handle of the kettle where the steam of the horseflesh-broth had made it greasy. The king went to it and wrapped a linen cloth round the handle, and opened his mouth over it. Then he went to his seat, and none of them, bśndr or king, liked it well" (Fornmanna Sögur, 1., c. 22, 23).
"King Olaf went with his men after Yule to Thrándheim. Kjartan, Bolli and Halfred Ottarsson were with him, and many Icelanders; and he had a large and fine host. When he came to Mśri those chiefs of the Thrands who were most opposed to Christianity were there, and with them all the great bśndr who had before been accustomed to keep up the sacrifices there; a great crowd was present, and, as had been agreed upon at the Frostathing, a thing was summoned, and both parties went fully armed to it. At first there was noise and tumult; but when it subsided, and a hearing could be got, King Olaf bade the bśndr be christianized, as he had done before. Járnskeggi (Iron-beard) answered on behalf of the bśndr as before, and said: ‘Now, as before, king, we do not want thee to break our laws; it is our will, king, that thou sacrificest like other kings have done here in the country before thee and other chiefs of the Thrands, Sigurd Hlada jarl and Hakon jarl (the great), who before thee was chief over the greater part of this country; he was a famous man on account of his wisdom and bravery, though he had not king's name; for long his rule was very well liked, and he did not lose it through preaching such lawlessness that no one should believe in the god he liked; nor did his father. Hakon Adalsteinsfostri has been the only one who brought this forward; the Thrands got bitter and threatened him if he continued this, and after the persuading of Sigurd jarl and other friends of his he thought right to give in to the bśndr; the only thing that will do for thee is to act as we told thee before this winter, for we have not changed our mind since about the belief.’ The bśndr cheered loudly the speech of Skeggi, and said they wanted it all to be as he had said. Then the king said: ‘I will do as we agreed to at the Thing of Frosta; I will now enter the temple, and see your proceedings and the preparing of the sacrifice.’ The bśndr were well pleased, and went to the temple. The king went in with a few of his men and some of the bśndr. All who went in were unarmed; the king had a gold ornamented staff in his hand. When they came into the temple there was no lack of idols. Thor sat in the middle, and was most worshipped; he was tall, and ornamented all over with gold and silver. The king raised the staff and struck Thor so that he fell down from the altar and was broken; then the king's men who had entered rushed forward and knocked down all the gods from their altars. While they were in, Járnskeggi was slain outside the door of the temple by the king's men" (Fornmanna Sögur, c. 166, 167).
It was so difficult to make any progress in christianizing the people, that they were for a time allowed to perform their rites secretly. The bśndr were little satisfied with the religious belief of their king. The eight chiefs who superintended the sacrifices (probably from the eight fylkis of the Thrándheim district) united to exterminate the Christian religion.
"These eight men who ruled over the sacrifice made an agreement that the four chiefs from outer Trandheim should overthrow Christianity, and the four from inner Trandheim should force the king to sacrifice" (Hakon the Good's Saga, c. 19).
"Gunnhild's sons had embraced Christianity in England, but when they began to rule in Norway they could not make any progress in christianising the people; but wherever they could they tore down the temples and spoiled the sacrifices, and thus became very much disliked by the people. The good years also soon ceased in the land. The kings were many, and each had his hird around him, and therefore spent much and were greedy of property; so they did not well observe the laws established by King Hakon. They were handsome men, large and strong, and great men of idróttir" (Fornmanna Sögur, 1).
"Thorbjörn Ongul (hook) had a foster-mother, Thurid; she was very old, and people thought her good for little. In heathen times when she was young, she had been very skilled in witchcraft, but she appeared to have forgotten all this. Although Christianity prevailed in the land, there were many traces of heathendom left. It had been the law of the land that it was not forbidden to sacrifice secretly or perform other old customs, but if it was discovered it was to be punished by lesser outlawry" (Gretti's Saga, c. 80).
The following passage shows how firmly rooted amongst the people was the belief in the power of Thor, the sight of whose image was alone sufficient, in their minds, to make the God of the Christians vanish before it, and how hard was the struggle when they had to give up that belief.
"Olaf had all the most prominent men there (in Upplönd) taken, both in Lesjar and in Dofrar, and they were forced to accept Christianity or suffer death, or, if able, flee away. Those who received Christianity gave into the hands of the king their sons as hostages and pledges of their faith. The king stayed overnight at Bśar in Lesjar, and left priests there. Then he went through Lorodal and came to Stafabrekka. The river Otta runs through the valley, and the fine district on both sides is called Lóar. The king could look over the whole length of the district. ‘It is a pity that we must burn a district so fine,’ said the king. He came down into the valley with his men, and they stayed overnight at the farm Nes, and the king chose a loft as his sleepingroom, which is there still (Snorri's time) and has not been changed since. He stayed there five nights, and cut a thing-summons, summoning men from Vagar, Lóar, and Hedal, and at the same time let them know that they should either fight battles against him and suffer from his ravages, or accept Christianity, and bring him their sons as hostages. Thereafter they came to him and obeyed, but some fled south to Dalir.
"Dala-Gudbrand was the name of a man who ruled like a king over the Dalir, and was Hersir by title. Sigvat Scald compared him in regard to power and large possessions to Erling Skjálgsson. Gudbrand had a son who is mentioned here. When he heard that King Olaf had come to Lóar and forced men to accept Christianity he cut a war arrow and summon all the men of Dalir to the farm Hundthorp to meet him. They all came, and it was a multitude of men, because the lake Lög lies near there, and they could come as well by water as by land. Gudbrand held a Thing, and said: ‘A man by name Olaf, has come to Lóar, and wants us to take a new belief and break all our gods asunder, and says he himself has a much greater and mightier god. It is a wonder that the earth does not burst asunder under him when he dares speak such things, or that our gods allow him to live any longer. I expect if we carry Thor out of our temple at the bśr where he is, and if he looks on Olaf and his men, Olaf's god and himself and his men will melt and vanish, for this has always helped us.’ They all shouted at once that Olaf should never escape thence if he came to them, and they said he would not dare to advance farther south in the Dalir. They sent seven hundred men north to Breida to spy, with the son of Gudbrand, eighteen winters old, as leader, and many other prominent men. These men came to the farm Hof and remained there three nights, and many who had fled from Lesjar and Lóar and Vagar, unwilling to adopt Christianity, joined them there. King Olaf and Sigurd, the bishop, left teachers in Lóar and Vagar.
"The king went to the bśndr and held the Thing with them. The day was very wet. When the Thing was opened the king rose and told them that the men of Lesjar, Lóar and Vagar had accepted Christianity and torn down their sacrificing-houses, and now believed in the true God, who shaped heaven and earth and knew all things. The king sat down, and Gudbrand answered: ‘We do not know about whom thou art talking; dost thou call him God whom neither thou nor any other can see? We have a god whom we may see every day, but he is not out to-day because the weather is wet. He will look terrible and great to you. I expect that fear will creep into your breasts if he comes to the Thing. But as thou sayest that thy God is so powerful, then let him make the weather to-morrow cloudy, with no rain, and we will meet here.’ Thereupon the king went home to his room, and with him Gudbrand's son as a hostage, while the king gave them another man in his place. In the evening the king asked Gudbrand's son how their god was made. He answered he was made after Thor (his likeness); had a hammer in his hand; was of large size, and hollow inside; that a platform was made under him, on which he stood when outside the temple; that he did not lack gold and silver on him; that four loaves of bread were brought to him every day, and as much meat. Then they went to bed. But the king was awake all that night and prayed. When it was day he went to mass, then to his meal, and then to the Thing. The weather was as Gudbrand had said. The bishop rose in his gown with a mitre on his head and a crozier in his hand, and preached to the bśndr and told them many tokens which God had shown, and ended his speech well. Thórd Istrumagi (paunch-belly) answered: ‘This horned man with a staff in his hand with a top like a crooked ram's horn talks much. As you, comrades, say that your god works so many tokens, then ask him to-morrow before sunrise to let the weather be bright and sunny, then we will meet and do one of two things—agree on this matter, or fight a battle.’ They parted for a time.
"Kolbein the strong, who was with King Olaf, had his kinsmen in the Fjords. He was always so dressed that he was girt with a sword, and had a large stick in his hand which some call ‘club.’ The king told him that he should stand next to him that morning, and then said to his men: Go this night to the boats of the bśndr and bore holes in all of them, and take away their horses from the farms where they are and ride on them. This was done. The king stayed all night at the farm, and prayed God to clear this difficulty with His mercy and grace. After the matins, about daybreak, he went to the Thing. When he came some of the bśndr had arrived. They saw a large crowd of bśndr coming to the Thing, carrying a large image, ornamented all over with gold and silver. When the bśndr present saw it, they all rushed up and bowed to the monster. Then it was placed on the middle of the Thing-plain. On one side sat the bśndr, on the other the king and his men. Then Dala-Gudbrand rose and said: ‘Where is your god now, king; I think he now carries his chin rather low. It seems to me that your boasting, and that of the horned man whom you call bishop, sitting at your side, is less than yesterday. It is because our god, who rules all, has come, and looks on you with keen eyes; and I see that you are full of terror now, and dare scarcely look up with your eyes. Now throw off your superstition and believe in our god, who has you altogether in his power.’ He ended his speech. The king said to Kolbein the Strong, so that the bśndr did not hear: ‘If during my speech it happens that they look away from their god, then strike him as hard a blow as thou art able with the club.’ Then he rose and said: ‘Many things hast thou (Gudbrand) spoken to us this morning; thou wonderest that thou art not able to see our God, but we expect He will soon come to us. Thou dost threaten us with thy god, who is blind and deaf, and can neither help himself nor others, and can move nowhere from his place unless he is carried: I expect that in a short time evil will happen to him. Now look into the east; there comes our God with great light.’ The sun was rising, and all the bśndr looked towards it. At the same moment Kolbein struck their god so that he burst asunder, and mice large as cats, and vipers and worms, ran out. The bśndr were so frightened that they fled, some to their ships; but when they launched them they were filled with water, and they could not get on them. Those who ran to their horses found them not. The king had them called to him, and said he wished to speak with them, and they came back to the Thing. Then the king rose and said: ‘I do not know why you make this tumult and uproar; now you can see what power your god had to whom you brought gold and silver, food and provisions; you saw what beings had eaten him, mice and worms, vipers and adders. Those who believe in such things, and will not leave off their folly, are the worse for it. Take your gold and costly things scattered on the plain; bring them home to your wives, and never hereafter ornament tree or stones with them. Now here are two choices: either you accept Christianity now, or fight a battle against me to-day, and may those get the victory whom the God in whom we believe wills.’ Dala-Gudbrand rose and said: ‘A great loss have we suffered in our god, but as he could not help us we will now believe in the God in whom thou believest.’ They all accepted Christianity, and the bishop baptized Gudbrand and his son. King Olaf and Sigurd the bishop left teachers there; and those who were foes parted as friends, and Gudbrand had a church made in the Dallir" (St. Olaf, Heimskringla, 117-119).
But even in early times, before christianity had made any advance among the Northmen, there were sceptics such as Hrolf Kraki, Orvar Odd, and others, who had little or no belief. Examples are given in the Sagas of others in later times, when Christianity had gained a footing in the country, who also had no belief. When King Olaf Tryggvason asked Eindridi what was his religious belief, the latter answered:—
"‘I have made up my mind never to believe in logs or stones, though they be in the shape of fiend or man, whose power I don't understand; and though I have been told that they have great power, it seems to me very unlikely, for I find that those images which are called gods are in every way uglier and less powerful than myself.’ The king asked: ‘Why dost thou then not believe in the true God, who is all powerful, and let thyself be baptized in his name?’ ‘Because,’ Eindridi replied, ‘it has never before been put before me, and no one on your behalf has told me about this God, whom you call almighty; but another more important reason is that, as I would not believe what my father and kinsmen told me about their gods, I have decided never to hold that belief which is in every way so unlike theirs, unless I am fully convinced that your God is as almighty as you call him ’" (Fornmanna Sögur).
When Christianity predominated among the people, we find that sacrifices and worship of heathen gods were forbidden.
"When Harald Gormsson the Dana king had become a Christian, he sent an order throughout his realm that all the people should get baptized and be converted to the true faith. He went round himself, and punished and forced those who were unwilling. He sent two jarls to Norway with many men to preach Christianity there; their names were Urguthrjót and Brimisskjar. Many people were baptized in the Vikin Which belonged to King Harald. After Harald's death his son Svein Tjúguskegg (forked beard) soon went on an expedition to Saxland and Frisland, and later to England. The Northmen who had adopted Christianity turned again to their sacrifices as before, like the people did in the northern part of the country (Norway). Olaf Tryggvason said he would christianize the whole of Norway or lose his life. ‘I will make you all great and powerful men, for I trust you best for the sake of kinship and other relationship.’ They all consented to do whatever he commanded, and follow him in all that he wished, with all those who would take their advice. Then Olaf made known to the people that he would preach Christianity to all men in his realm " (Olaf Tryggvason, Heimskringla, c. 59).
"Blót (worship by sacrifice) is forbidden to us—we shall neither worship heathen vćttir (guardian spirits), nor gods, nor mounds (haugar), nor altars (horgs). If a man is known and convicted of secretly throwing up a mound, or making a house and calling it hörg, or raising a pole and calling it Skaldstong (i.e., imprecation-pole), he shall thereby forfeit every penny of his property" (King Sverri's Kristinrétt).
It is curious to see how Christian ideas were transformed. The poet Eilif Gudrúnarson says of Christ, that he is "strong against the Jötnar"; he was possibly thinking of Thor. Halfred says the Christian dogmas are not more poetical than the old belief.
In a fragment of a song on Christ, the poet Eilif Gudrúnarson says that Christ sits at the well of Urd (Later Edda, Skáldskaparmál, 52)—
It appears that the eating of horseflesh was forbidden by the early Christians. The Emperor Otto having consulted his chiefs as to what steps should be taken to provide provisions for the army, when fighting against the Danes south of Danavirki, was advised by them either to withdraw from the country, or slay some of the horses for food. To this the Emperor replied:—
"To this advice there is a great drawback, for it is the greatest sacrilege for baptized men who can in any other manner prolong their lives to eat horseflesh" (Olaf Tryggvason, Fornmanna Sögur, c. 1).
The Halfred's Saga, which relates how Halfred, who had been baptized, was for some time with the King, Olaf Tryggvason, and asked him to hear a song, which at first the king declined to hear, as too heathen for him, shows how hard was the struggle with some men to entirely give up the old faith.
That conversion to Christianity did not always at first have a softening influence over the character of its converts is to be seen from the following passages:—
"The great Hákon jarl was a zealous sacrificer. When he came to Vikin he found that the (Emperor Otto's) jarls Urguthrjót and Brimisskjar had broken down the temples and christianized all the people they could. Hákon had all the broken temples rebuilt, and sent word all over Vikin that no man should believe in the faith which the jarls had imposed. He went northward across the land to Thrándheim, and there first remained quiet. He ruled over the whole of Norway, but never afterwards paid any taxes to the King of Denmark. Afterwards he was in all things worse and more heathen than he had been before he was baptized" (Fornmanna Sögur, vol. 1., ch. 73).
"Hákon was open-handed with property toward his men, and for a long time beloved by the whole people; but he had the greatest misfortune to his dying day, which was not strange, for he was always guileful, unfaithful and treacherous, both to friends and foes, and the greatest god-nithing and sacrificing man: the time had come when Almighty God had intended that the sacrifices and heathendom, and the evil messenger of the devil, Hákon jarl, should be condemned, and the holy faith and true customs take their place. When Hákon was slain, he had been Jarl thirty-three winters since the fall of his father, Sigurd Jarl; he was twenty-five when his father fell, and lacked two winters of sixty" (Fornmanna Sögur, i., c. 104).
"‘Now, Sigurd, thou hast jarlship over the realm, which I call my own, as well as all other realms, which King Harald Fairhair owned, and each of his descendants have inherited one after the other. As it has happened that thou hast come into my power, thou hast two choices: the first is that thou and all thy dependents shall embrace the true faith and be baptized, and then thou shalt hold from me the rule thou hast heretofore, and what is worth more, live with Almighty God eternally in the kingdom of heaven, if thou observest His commands. The other choice is very bad, and very unlike the former: that thou shalt die in this place, and I will go with fire and sword over the islands and lay waste this whole realm, unless the people will believe in the true God; and, if thou shalt make this choice, then thou wilt, as all others who believe in a skurdgod (carved god, idol), after a sudden death, suffer terribly with the fiend in the flames of hell without end.’ As the Jarl was then situated, he chose to embrace the true faith.
"The Jarl and all his men were therefore baptized. Thereupon he became King Olaf's man, and bound this with oath. Sigurd Jarl then took the country as fief from the king, and gave him as hostage his son Hvelp (whelp) or Hundi (dog), whom King Olaf had baptized with the name Hlödver, and taken to Norway. Thereupon King Olaf sailed from the Orkneys, and left behind learned men to teach the people in the holy faith. The king and the jarl then separated as friends" (St. Olaf's Saga).
The later accounts of the struggle between the two creeds show how many crimes were committed avowedly in the name of conscience and religion, but really in that of superstition and ignorance, which brings with it bigotry, vandalism and murder, the curse of mankind; and we see that the people had a dislike to the adoption of christian names.
"He (King Olaf, the Saint) had Hrćrek blinded in both eyes and took him with him; he had the tongue of Gudröd, King of Dalir, cut out; Hring and two others he forced to give oaths that they would leave Norway and never come back" (St. Olaf, Heimskringla, c. 74).
"Olaf Tryggvason and Bishop Sigurd both went with many warships to Godey (god-isle), where Raud the Strong, a man of sacrifices, lived. Olaf attacked the loft where Raud slept, and broke it and went in. Raud was taken and tied, and of the men in there some were killed and others taken. Raud was led before the king, who bad him let himself be baptized; ‘then,’ said the king, ‘I will not take thy property, but be thy friend if thou wilt do this.’ Raud cried out against this, and said he would never believe in Christ, and blasphemed much. The king grew angry, and said Raud should die the most hideous death. He had him taken out and lashed to a beam, a stick was placed between his teeth to force open his mouth, in which a snake was placed; but it would not go in, and recoiled, because he blew against it. Then the king had a stalk of angelica put in Raud's mouth; some say that the king put his war-horn into mouth with the snake in it; he had a red-hot iron bar put on the outside of it. The snake recoiled into the mouth of Raud, and down his throat, and ate its way out of his side, and Raud died. The king took thence a large quantity of gold and silver and other loose property, weapons, and many costly things. He had slain or tortured all those of Raud's men who would not be baptized" (Olaf Tryggvason, c. 87).
"Olaf Sviaking had a son by his queen who was born on the day of St. James' vigil; when he was baptized the bishop called him Jacob. The Sviar disliked that name, and said that never had a Svaiking been called Jacob" (St. Olaf, c. 89).
"The Viking Age," by Paul B. Du Chaillu, vol. 1, page 464-477.