Viking Missionary Methods

31 May 2010 by Wes Bredenhof

side view of a viking holding a sword and a shield
side view of a viking holding a sword and a shield

A couple of years ago, my grandfather gave me a bunch of his old books.  Among them was Farley Mowat’s Westviking: The Ancient Norse in Greenland and North America.  It’s fascinating stuff.  One of the figures Mowat describes is Olaf Tryggvason, a sea-Viking.  He attacked Norway and killed its viceroy (Norway was then under the rule of Denmark).  He then conquered Norway and set himself up as king.  Olaf professed to be a Christian and was quite zealous to spread his faith.  However, his methods were not exactly Pauline:

Olaf was a Christian convert, not because he had any regard for the Christian ethic but because he seems to have been one of the earliest north European rulers to have realized how useful Christianity could be to an autocratic monarch.

His methods of Christianizing Norway were ferocious but effective.  Recalcitrant pagans of ordinary rank were summarily butchered or burned in their homes.  If they were of sufficient importance to justify an effort being made to convert them, they were sometimes treated to the ordeal of the snake.  The mouthpiece of a metal war-horn was forced well down the victim’s gullet; a snake, usually an adder, was placed in the bell and a lid was clamped over it.  The horn was then heated until the tortured snake tried to escape by crawling down the victim’s throat.  (136)

Two things here:  first, as Mowat indicates, you wonder about the authenticity of Olaf’s conversion and also the missionary methods/message used to “convert” him.  What sort of Christ did he believe in?  Second, you wonder if this would have happened had there been a full translation of the Bible in Old Norse.  Parts of the Bible were translated into Norse, but this only happened two or three centuries after Olaf.