Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bringing God to the Vikings - or the story of the talking heads

by Anna Belfrage

In those faraway times when the Scandinavian region spawned bellicose Vikings at a horrifying rate, most of Europe was already adequately christened. Not so Norway, Denmark or Sweden, where the ancient religion honouring Odin, Thor and Frey was alive and kicking well into the second millennium.  Adam of Bremen, writing in the 11th century, has left us with a detailed description of the heathen temples in Uppsala (just north of Stockholm, these days Uppsala is the home of the Swedish Archbishop), complete with dripping human sacrifices and the bloodied statues of the gods.

While both the Norwegian and Danish kings converted to Christianity in the tenth century, the Swedish kings were far more obdurate, laughing at the idea of replacing their powerful, lusty gods with that milksop, The White Christ. Turning the other cheek was to a Viking with any sense of self-respect an idiotic concept, and the “do unto your neighbour” part was not at all aligned with the idea of raiding and ravaging – although, to be fair, Swedish Vikings did less of the raiding and ravaging than their Norwegian and Danish brethren, no matter how nominally Christian they were.

Clinging to old faiths when everyone else is embracing the new can become a liability. Trade can be affected, for example. Treaties tend to be difficult to push through, and quite often Sweden would find itself defending its corner alone, against its (more or less) Christian neighbours. The king in Sweden during the first decades of the second millennium was Olof Skötkonung, step-son to Sven Tveskägg (Svein Forkbeard) and, one would assume, under this particular king’s influence. Sven had since some time back become Christian, the contemporary Norwegian king Saint Olav was also Christian (although this didn’t stop him from dismembering people who refused to accept the new God, or from continuing his raiding expeditions when he felt the urge to fill his coffers, or to do some disembowelling on the side when people didn’t toe the line) and at some point in time it seems Olof Skötkonung fell for peer pressure. He decided to convert, and sent to England for an adequate converter.

Sven Tveskägg celebrating at his baptism
At the time, the Anglo-Saxon influence on the Nordic countries was huge. (Well, it still is; a bunch of enthusiastic Anglophiles the lot of us, if we’re going to be frank) Yes, it was Sven Tveskägg who conquered England, not the other way around, but as a consequence, learned men and skilled craftsmen from England came in growing numbers to Scandinavia. Our early churches were staffed with English clerics, our budding administration was developed by intrepid Angles, even that new fad (new from a Nordic perspective), minting coins, was overseen by English immigrants. Actually, the organisation of the Scandinavian mints seems to have been a monopoly, with one Englishman by the name of Godwine popping up in Denmark, Norway and Sweden to set up new mints, each such mint producing coins very obviously modelled on Anglo-Saxon coins, complete with picture of English King Aethelred (!) on one side and a cross on the other. On top of all this cultural exchange, we have Gloucester-born Saint Sigfrid, the man responsible for bringing the word of God to the Swedish King.

Depending on what sources you read, Sigfrid was the Archbishop of York, or he  wasn’t. Adam of Bremen describes him as an English Benedictine monk, no more, no less. Mostly it’s Swedish sources citing him as an archbishop – I guess it made Olof feel more comfortable about his conversion if someone high up the hierarchy did it – but personally I doubt such a distinguished prelate would have left all behind to set off across the North Sea. Seriously, Olof Skötkonung’s immortal soul wasn’t that important…

So let us instead assume Sigfrid was a lowly Benedictine monk commanded to bring the word of God to this heathen king. With a sigh and a rustle of his heavy woollen habit he bowed to the will of his superior and started packing. Among the things he packed, were his three nephews, rather oddly named Unaman, Sunaman and Wineman.

Off Sigfrid went to Sweden and the eagerly awaiting king. In 1008, Olof Skötkonung was baptised a Christian, and in gratitude to Sigfrid, he named the Benedictine monk bishop of Växjö – or maybe he was being pragmatic, Sweden wasn’t exactly littered with men of God. Whatever the case, Sigfrid blessed the king and rode off into the dark forests that covered most of Sweden at the time, making for the non-descript hamlet of Växjö.

Olof Skötkonung now had a tricky situation on his hands; while the southern parts of his kingdom were already to a large extent Christian, the larger parts of it weren’t – and not too keen on having a silly bugger who had become a Christian as a king. After all, real men had no time for a wimpy weakling like the Christ, they wanted gods that roared and drank and fornicated – as real men should. Olof decided to address this by doing an Elizabeth – like five hundred years before her – and stated that he had no business dictating what beliefs a person should hold, as long as the beliefs in question didn’t threaten his rule. A happy compromise for everyone, with the people of the north continuing to do their midwinter blot stuff and Olof spending the last decade of his life bringing modernity to his backwards country , like issuing the first coins with aforementioned Godwine’s help, and endowing a church or two, complete with a literate priest.

St Sigfrid baptising the heathen 
Sigfrid must have enjoyed the rush of successful conversion. Step by step, he worked his way through the forests, baptising as he went. At his heels trotted his faithful nephews, and pretty soon Sigfrid could beam at a sizeable congregation come Sundays. His new followers were dazzled by this educated Englishman, and even more by the church silver he adorned his simple church with. They listened avidly as he told them stories from the Bible, and I’d guess a predilection for the somewhat bloodier stories in the old Testament – the one about Jezebel and the dogs would have gone down well.

One day, Sigfrid was called away for business – the king may have needed him. Rather reluctantly, he left his little congregation, comforted by the fact that his three godly nephews would keep them on the straight and narrow. Unaman, Sunaman and Wineman did as well as they could, but clearly they were not as revered as Sigfrid, and one dark night some of the more recent converts broke in to steal the church silver. The nephews protested, raised their arms up high and prayed and preached, telling the thieves to stop this stupid behaviour. The robbers, stressed by these constantly talking Englishmen, chopped their heads off, mid-sentence, so to say.

Sigfrid returned to find his church ravaged and his nephews gone. Well, he found their bodies, hastily buried, but their heads had seemingly gone up in smoke, something that had Sigfrid very worried, as how were his poor, faithful nephews to face Resurrection without their heads? (Valid question; one that must have worried all those poor blokes that were beheaded and quartered in the centuries to come) Sigfrid instigated a one man head-hunting team, looking under every bush, every rocky outcrop in the vicinity. But the forests were vast, three heads were ludicrously small – think grains of sand in a desert, although not as well camouflaged – and no matter how much he looked, he couldn’t put Unaman, Sunaman and Wineman together again. Until the night he went walking along the shores of a nearby lake.

Suddenly, Sigfrid saw a light come dancing over the darkened water. Hang on; there were three lights moving towards him, and as Sigfrid was a devout man who scoffed at superstition and did not fear death, he remained where he was as the lights approached him. Clearly, Sigfrid was an early upholder of the “stiff upper lip” approach to life. Me, I would have run screaming into the woods, which goes to show I lack Sigfrid’s fortitude – which is why he is a saint and I am not. Anyway, there was Sigfrid, standing still as the lights started to hover over the surface a short distance away. He took off his shoes and waded towards them, and “poof”, just like that, the lights were extinguished. Sigfrid looked everywhere for them, and in so doing he came upon a heavy barrel.

St Sigfrid holding the barrel with the three heads
In that barrel were the three missing heads, still talking thirteen to the dozen. On and on they went about God’s mercy and capacity to forgive.  Sigfrid wept and swore vengeance, upon which one of the heads said “It is already done.”
“Yes,” added the second head, “the Lord has seen it done.”
 “Upon the heads of their grandchildren shall vengeance be heaped,” said the third head. (Not entirely fair, in my opinion.)
Sigfrid was overcome with joy and fell to his knees. The barrel with the three preaching heads is depicted on the first formal seal of the Bishopric of Växjö.

I will leave it up to each and every one of you to decide whether you believe in this story of decapitated talking heads. What is, however, indisputable, is the enormous impact of Anglo-Saxon England on the budding Nordic states. When excavating the ancient parts of Lund, at the time Scandinavia’s largest town, time and time again the archaeologists stumble over English names,  English craftsmanship, English coins. The Scandinavian church was equally “Anglified” - to the huge irritation of the German sees - the courts of the Scandinavian kings teemed with English advisors. And just so you know, Sigfrid isn’t the only Englishman sanctified for bringing the word of God to this remote corner of the world – but he’s the only one to come complete with his own personal ventriloquist act.

Anna Belfrage is the author of five published books, A Rip in the Veil, Like Chaff in the Wind, The Prodigal Son, A Newfound Land and Serpents in the Gardenall part of The Graham Saga  Set in seventeenth century Scotland and Virginia/Maryland, The Graham Saga tell the story of Matthew and Alex, two people who should never have met – not when she was born three hundred years after him.
For more information about Anna's books please visit Amazon US or Amazon UK - or why not drop by her website?


  1. Excellent post, Anna. Do you know anything about 11th C Northern palaces or were the kings living amongst their people on homestead type arrangements?

  2. Absolutely "palaces" but there's not much left of them by now. In Swedish, we call them "Kungsgårdar" which is essentially "Royal manors" There was one very famous one just outside of Lund, there would probably have been one in Nyköping, one in Axvalla and definitely one close to Vadstena.

  3. Found this both interesting and humorous.

  4. I really enjoy your blogs Anna. Always informative and laced with humour just to add to the flavour. I've learned so much from them. Fabulous :)

  5. Great post! I was captivated! I never realized the England's involvement in the "conversion" of Scandinavian countries. I assumed Christianized Europe was a result of the Roman Christians. I learned so much from this, and really enjoyed the subtle humor in it.

  6. Another amazing post on an amazing blog. I wish it were easier to read, small font on dark background, but worth the struggle. (The blog archive in pale green impossible.) Admire the writing and knowledge behind each of these offerings. The images enhance it all. Congratulations on this worthwhile effort. Glad to be following.

    1. I'm listening, Stepheny, and have put up a question in our Facebook group as to whether others find it hard to read too (because to me it is easy--I tried to design it that way). The dark colored links are the ones you have recently visited. Are those the only ones that give you trouble? I will try increasing the font size, too, but it might be better if people can zoom in since many of the posts are fairly long and it affects the general appearance. The information is more important, however, if zooming in doesn't do the job.

    2. I'm trying to keep a pleasant, easy on the eyes look with harmonious colors. Not all that easy.

    3. In the FB group, a few have the same problem as you do, but the majority think it is fine. I made a few changes:

      What I did is up the font one point (hoping that will help some and zooming can finish the job) and increased the contrast a tad. I changed the recently viewed links to gold, like the Tower of London in the pic, instead of the dark color. The one thing I don't like is that the title of a post recently viewed is quite a bit of gold, but when someone arrives at the blog it is the accent color green, and if they click on that post it turns white (which is actually a very pale orange). Only if they return to the blog later will the title be gold. So not too bad. I hope it helps those who had trouble seeing things.

  7. Lovely story, well told and packs in quite a lot of stuff I had no idea of. Thank you.


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