Norse Paganism And The Shaping Of A Society

Before the widespread christianization of Europe, the different cultures all over the ancient continent has their own religions, polytheistic and very complex. The northern parts of Europe were the last places where christianity came, while all others were already christian, the Norse were still attached to their old beliefs and traditions. As late as the 11th century, the recently converted peoples of Scandinavia still continued to practice their old tradition and worshiping their old gods, pagan practices not likely to be in the good graces of the well structured hierarchies of the christian powers to the south. Christianity and the church, had many problems in Scandinavia, while trying to convert people and made them forget their old ways. It was practically impossible to turn the northern peoples into worshiping the christian god only.

The pagan beliefs in Norse societies differed from one area to the next. While there isn’t  much evidence which may tell us in detail the different types of group beliefs and individual beliefs, a few aspects to the religion may be inferred based upon other knowledge we have of other polytheistic religions. In the classic world in the regions of Roman and Greek original influence, as well as Mesopotamia and Egypt, polytheism gave rise to numerous religious sects within the belief system of their pantheons.  Individual settlements chose patron gods based on their needs, and in this way, it may be inferred that the Norse chose patron gods to suit their needs as well. A village dependent on hunting, for example, would have likely chosen to worship the god of the hunt Freyr and probably the goddess Skadi, and perhaps even Ullr, while the cult of Odin was for the elite warrior groups of the Norse society. Based on the patron god a settlement would chose, religious practice would have looked slightly different. Norse Paganism would have been diverse in its beliefs and practices, contrary to the desperate need for consistency exercised in the Christian church.

With each community in Scandinavia differing in cult from area to area, the Norse pagans did not establish a separate class of society whose role it would have been to officiate a specific religious practice. The chieftains of separate communities took under charge various roles to officialise festivals and rituals. For example, the ritual of giving a name to the newly born child, was of the competence of the Jarl (pronounced “Yarl” – a noble of Norse society), whose blessings held great importance to the parents of the baby. Jarls also officiated weddings and funerals, participated regularly in festivals, family gatherings and solstice celebrations. But in the spiritual field, the Jarls had no power. Magic, divination, rune reading, prophesying, was seldom the competence of men, rather was the field of expertise of women, the Völvur, the women practitioners of Norse magic and Shamanism.

There were other members of the Norse society who had experience and whose work was the arts of divination and magic. Magic, was the act which involved the ability to communicate with the gods, tell the future, and heal people of various ailments, it existed peripherally in Norse paganism and shamanism. Both genders could ostensibly practice the art of magic, but men risked emasculation in pursuit of the magical arts. Women were typically those who practiced magic as I have mentioned before. The role of magic in Norse paganism varied mostly in conjunction with the variations of worship in Norse paganism across the pantheon.  The Magic role in society was consistent insofar as the mythological basis for it emerged from the same set of stories. For example, Odin accepted magic for self-gain knowledge of all things, so he sacrificed an eye at Mimir’s Well. But he also gained the ability to do magic which linked him to shamanism, when the Goddess Freyja taught him how to do it, and in this case we can see again that the female figure was linked to such shamanic acts. Other deities in the Norse pantheon were intrinsically magical as well, both genders, but especially the goddesses. Magic therefore served as a rapprochement to the gods or patron god of choice. Accepting magic did not guarantee acceptance of practicing magic. Many of the practitioners of magic, if not all, lived as outcasts, away from the community, usually in the wild places or just a couple of meters outside villages and towns. They lived like hermits, a very solitary life. These were typically women who either never married, or had some form of birth defect. Birth defects were interpreted as either a curse, or as a sign. The exact interpretation of birth defects is a contested part of the historical study of the Vikings, and therefore not a conclusive aspect of this particular analysis. The art of these solitary magic practitioners was exploited by the rich and powerful, including Jarls who took into consideration the wishes of the gods in preparing religious observances.

A few of the common features of Norse Paganism, which permeated across all the sects of beliefs within their society, are the beliefs we probably think of when portraying the Vikings. They all believed in Valhalla, even if it was a place only for those who died in battle. There was also a belief they commonly shared which actually differs the Norse deities from other deities of other religions; all of their gods were mortal. There was also the constant fear and belief that Ragnarok would happen eventually, and the world and gods would come to an end, the end of all life and the beginning of something new. All of these beliefs affected how the Norse pagans and their society in general interacted with the outside world. Warriors appeared to have no fear of death, for they believed death and battle would be their “salvation”, this way of thinking made the Vikings fearsome foes. Odin had the passion for learning; the Norse pagans displayed a similar desire to learn about the world, to explore, and to adopt learned technologies.

Unlike Christianity, Norse paganism was not absolute. Changes to the dogma of worship were common and made to suit whatever adversity a community faced. Also unlike Christianity, Norse paganism was not necessarily prejudicial. In practice, the Norse pagans were accepting of other sects of beliefs because it was recognized that multiple gods existed. Religion, was a personal matter not to be shared too liberally with others. Culturally, this meant the Norse Pagans were less likely to persecute others who didn’t share the same beliefs. While Christianity eventually gained a solid foothold in the North, it struggled to change this aspect of Norse society who were reluctant to judge others for their beliefs. It would take the absolute monarchs of the 13th Century to finally eliminate the cultural vestiges of Norse paganism.

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