The Christianization of Norse Mythology
The Problem with Norse Myth
Despite the plethora of works describing Norse myth, it is incredibly difficult to analyze Norse myth and culture. Simply put, what information we have at current about Norse mythology is, while abundant, not necessarily true. In taking hold of Scandinavia, Christianity neatly subsumed Norse mythology over several hundred years and progressively diluted it into nonexistence. Consequently, what Norse myths we have left show a large Christian influence.
In the early years of Christianity, much of western and northern European subscribed to some variation or another of a Germanic religion. Given the relative isolation of Scandinavia, it’s not surprising that when Christianity began to spread, it would reach it much later than other parts of Europe. The effect of this delayed conversion is highlighted well by the difference in the amount of pagan literature in England and in Scandinavia. Anglo-Saxon England has little literature to boast because writing became common long after pagan stories had faded into oblivion, and what does remain is heavily Christianized. Scandinavia, on the other hand, is comparatively rich in literature because paganism had not yet completely died out (Acker & Larrington, 12).
However, this is obviously not to say that Scandinavia’s myths escaped Christian influence. To the contrary, Christianity slowly integrated itself into Scandinavian culture over several centuries. As the Norse were reluctant to give up their pagan beliefs, Christians made their religion easier to accept by allowing the two religions to mix. They encouraged the inclusion of the Christian God and saints into the Norse pantheon and attempted to draw parallels between the two religions’ gods, such as by emphasizing Odin’s role among the Aesir (Finke & Stark, 70). Odin, while officially the head of the Aesir, was by no means the creator of all or the most powerful god, but the Prose Edda nonetheless refers to him as the “All-Father” (Sturluson, 21). Loki, on the other hand, was not the representation of evil incarnate to the Norse, but over time he became increasingly demonized and more similar to the Christian Lucifer (Davidson, 176). Over time, heroes ended up merging with Christianity as well, such as one cross depicting Sigurd slaying Fafnir, who is shown as a serpent—a symbol of the Christian devil—instead of a dragon (Kermode, 601). In due time, Norse holidays’ customs also integrated into Christian holidays, providing us with the present-day Yuletide and Easter (Bolce, 110).
The religions were not always combined, however, as Christians simultaneously attempted to minimize the Norse gods. In later myths, the stories often made the gods laughingstocks, such as by cross-dressing, and many Christians claimed the gods were merely glorified heroes or even evil demons (Berend, 68). Odin’s role as collector of the fallen in battle, for instance, was eventually changed to one who collected the souls of drunkards, robbers, and other unsavory characters (Dasent, 34).
Initially, many Norse did not take to the Christianization kindly and changed the function of the gods themselves in turn, such as adding opposition to the Christian cross as one of Thor’s hammer’s abilities (Derry, 27). However, as more time went on, Christianity gained more acceptance. It was not uncommon to proclaim oneself to be Christian, yet nonetheless pray to Norse gods or practice the usual pagan rituals at the same time (Finke & Stark, 70). Because by the time writing became prevalent, Christianity was already largely dominant, the myths written down were clearly written down with obvious Christian elements. Even Snorri Sturluson, who arguably did the best job recording the myths as he heard them, displayed Christian tendencies in his work, even suggesting in the beginning that the entire religion is related to the Greek story of Troy (Sturluson, 4-5). Lewis Hyde even suggests that Snorri’s recounting of Baldr’s revival is, in fact, a failed version of Christ who “died to make the way for the real thing” (Hyde, 105).
It is safe to say, then, that Christianity’s spread had an interesting and unique effect on Norse mythology. It progressed much more slowly in Scandinavia than in other parts of Europe, which had a two-fold effect: the old myths were around long enough to be written down, but the Norse religion became so slowly entwined with Christianity that although we have sagas and epics, it can be difficult discerning what was originally Norse in origin and what was Christian.
Acker, Paul & Larrington, Carolyne. “Introduction: Edda 2000.” Essays on Old Norse Mythology. 2002. Routledge, NY
Bolce, Harold. “Contemporary Salvation.” Cosmopolitan Magazine. Volume 69: June—November 1910. 75-112.
Dasent, George. Popular Tales from the Norse. New York, NY: D. Appleton and Company, 1859
Davidson, H.R. Ellis. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. New York: Penguin Books, 1964.
Derry, T.K. History of Scandinavia: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland. 1979. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1979.
Finke, Robert & Stark, Rodney. Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2000.
Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York, NY: New York North Point Press, 1998.
Kermode, P.M.C. “Manx Crosses.” The Bookseller. 15 Jan. 1907. Pg. 601.
Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Trans. Anthony Faulkes. London: Everyman, 1987.