Jessica A. Browner
Volume 34 (1992)
University of Virginia
“Viking pilgrimage”–the phrase seems a contradiction. For three centuries, from circa A.D. 750-1050, the political and economic life of the Northern world was dominated by Scandinavian military activity and trade, but it was as Vikings that the Norsemen became known to the peoples of the Christian world, who depicted them as reavers and slayers of unparalleled ferocity. The piratical phase of Viking activity, however, was relatively short-lived, and was followed by a more restrained colonization phase. When the Scandinavians first began to settle in the West in the latter part of the ninth century, they came into sustained contact with Christianity and its clergy, and it became inevitable that the barbarian Northmen, with their primitive beliefs in outmoded gods and with their lack of writing and literacy, would be greatly influenced by the higher Christian civilization which they now encountered at such close quarters. Not surprisingly, the conversion of the Viking peoples and their integration into the Western European Christian community has influenced decisively the historiography of the Northern world. Previously defined in terms of what they were, Scandinavians of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were implicitly defined in terms of what they were not–sea-borne adventurers and predatory warriors of the type familiar in old heroic tradition. The creation of such a marked dichotomy between “Christian” and “Viking,” however, has tended to place undue emphasis on the forces of change, often at the expense of native cultural traditions which persisted through the Viking age and well into the Christian era.Indeed, it was the pagan traditions of the Northmen which ensured that the transition to Christianity would be a relatively simple and painless process. After all, the new religion was a royal one, and its literature, notably the Old Testament, described a world very much like their own in which the success of kings as they led their armies in search of glory and gain depended upon their obedience to the will of God. Some Norsemen thought the worship of Christ compatible with that of the pagan gods. Icelander Helgi the Lean, as mixed in faith as he was in blood,” believed in Christ, and called his seat in the Eyjafjord Kristnes (“Christs Headland”), but when at sea or in times of great stress he would invoke Thor.1 A soapstone mould from Trendgården in Denmark, too, was clearly intended to accommodate either belief, since both crosses and hammers could be cast from its mould. It is hardly remarkable that some Scandinavian kings, like other barbarian rulers before them, were willing to accept that the God of the Christians was more powerful than other gods, a lesson reinforced by their awareness through piracy and plunder, admittedly of the achievements, wealth, and magnificence of their great contemporaries in France, Germany, and England. Norse settlers in these countries, too, whether royal or otherwise, may have converted simply out of political expediency. In 1016, a Scandinavian empire of Denmark, Norway, and England was ruled by Cnut, a Dane and a Christian; by his death in 1035, Scandinavia and her Viking provinces had been almost completely integrated into the world of Western Christendom. Whilst adopting the forms and practices of their new religion, however, these ex-barbarians did not entirely abandon the elements and practices of their earlier culture. The persistence of cultural continuity through the conversion process and beyond can be demonstrated in several areas, but nowhere as clearly and yet as unexpectedly as in the institution which epitomized the Christian experience, that of Holy Land pilgrimage.
It has often been assumed that the northern lands remained largely outside the great pilgrim movement of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Information gleaned from Icelandic sagas, Latin accounts, and pilgrimage itineraries, however, suggest otherwise. Indeed, some of those who are commemorated on Swedish runestones as having died out East or in the land of the Greeks well may have been on pilgrimage. One stone from Broby in Uppland bears the eleventh-century inscription: “Estrid had this stone raised for her husband Osten; he went to Jerusalem and died abroad in the land of the Greeks.” Another lost inscription recorded near Stockholm was made for a woman who hoped to journey east to Jerusalem and recorded her intention in stone.2 Even before the conversion, however, the Vikings were no strangers to the wealthy and powerful Byzantine world, lured by the adventure and good pay in the campaigns overseas and by the gleaming spires of Constantinople. The eastern route to Constantinople was pioneered early on by the Swedes, down the river route to the Dneiper and to the Black Sea; this road was later followed by Christian kings of Norway and Denmark until Tartar invasions put an end to the old pattern and blocked the way east.3 An alternative was the “west” road by sea round Spain and through Gibraltar, used early on by piratical Danes and later by Norwegians traveling in large companies on crusade. There was also a “south” road through Germany to Rome and then east by sea; this route is described in detail in the pilgrim-diary of Nikolás, abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Munkathverá, Iceland (1155-59).4 This itinerary is particularly useful, being unusually detailed for its period and unique for its country of origin.
The earliest Scandinavians to visit the Byzantine world came as they did to many parts of western and southern Europe as traders, explorers, and warriors. Much of the history of the Vikings in the East is concerned with their attacks on the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. Later, however, their exploits won them the respect of the emperors for their endurance, loyalty, and splendid fighting qualities. A long line of Scandinavians, mostly anonymous, served the Byzantine rulers in the army and fleet and finally in a section of the Imperial or “Varangian” Guard in Constantinople. Nor did this wide traveling stop with secular journeys; on the contrary, after the conversion Constantinople became a convenient stopping-place on an even longer journey as the call to the Holy Land found frequent response in the hearts of the devout or the curious. The uual Scandinavian name was Jórsalaland, literally, “the land of Jerusalem”; the Holy City itself was Jórsalir or Jórsalaborg.5 One of the earliest northern pilgrims to visit Jerusalem and the Holy Places, circa 990, was Icelander Thorvald the Far-travelled, a distinguished Viking before his conversion by a Saxon bishop, Frederick. Thorvald himself tried to preach the new faith to his countrymen, but when he killed two poets who made mocking verses about him and another man who opposed his preaching, Bishop Frederick withdrew his support.6
The Viking predilection for travel and adventure made it easy for Christianized Scandinavians to adopt the idea of pilgrimage. It was, after all, not entirely unlike their own secular tradition of going a-viking. But there were other factors, also, which allowed Holy Land pilgrimage to be quickly assimilated into their own cultural tradition. The Scandinavians had long been familiar with the concept of holy places. The presence of sacred groves in Denmark is recorded as early as the first century A.D. in Tacitus Germania,7 and it is no surprise that when the first Christian bishop established himself in Sweden in 1164, he chose as his seat Uppsala, site of the most sacred temple to the old gods.8 This concept of a holy place, although more closely related to the Greek tradition of setting, nevertheless lent the idea of a Christian Holy Land a certain degree of familiarity. Even more remarkable, however, is the pre-Christian parallel with Jerusalem itself. Medieval tradition placed Jerusalem at the centre of the world; Nikolás of Munkathverá, in his own pilgrim-diary, reported that “the center of the earth is there, where the sun shines directly down from the sky on the feast of John.”9 This view is further evidenced by Jerusalems central position in world maps down to the fifteenth century, particularly noticeable in the thirteenth-century Psalter Map and Higdens fourteenth-century map. The explanation is provided in Ezekiel 5:5: “I have set it in the midst of the nations and the countries that are around her.”10 According to popular Christian belief, the Cross itself stood at the mid-point of the earth when it was raised at Calvary, at the very spot once occupied by the fatal tree of Eden. A similar belief was held in the Norse pagan tradition, only instead of the Cross the world had for its center a great Tree, a mighty ash called Yggdrasill, whose branches stretched out over earth and heaven alike and whose roots delved down into the world of the dead. It was characteristic of the World Tree, too, that its life was renewed continually; thus it became, like the Cross, a symbol of constant rebirth (or, at least, of regeneration) and offered to men the means of attaining immortality. Jerusalem, of course, was not merely the physical center of the world but the spiritual center as well, as the site of the Lords Passion. Yet even this has its parallel in the pre-Christian Viking tradition: just as Christ suffered on the Cross, so was Odin crucified upon the World Tree, as described in the eddic poem Hávamál:
I wot that I hung on the wind-tossed tree
all of nights nine,
wounded by spear, and bespoken to Othinn,
bespoken myself to myself,
[upon that tree of which none telleth
from what roots it doth rise].12
The gods sacrifice is voluntary, but here the resemblance with the Christian God ends. By hanging on Yggdrasill, Odin is not sharing in the suffering of the world or saving men from death; his purpose is the acquisition of secret knowledge, and the end result is not the redemption of mankind but the discovery of the runic alphabet:
Neither horn they upheld nor handed me bread;
I looked below me
aloud I cried
caught up the runes, caught them up wailing,
thence to the ground fell again.13
Thus, while much of the pattern was the same and while in many ways the old religion pointed forward to the new, the Christian conception of the relationship between God and man was immeasurably richer and deeper.
Another attraction for travellers and pilgrims from the North was the acquisition of relics. Unsurprisingly, the pagan Norsemen had their own amulets and talismans which were important personal tokens of faith and which, like Christian relics, were often reputed to be prophylactic or curative in nature. There were even special stones which, like the Christian eulogiae,could be filled with “magic” powder to ensure health and long life.14 After the conversion, of course, the Scandinavians, like other Christians, sought instead to acquire the relics of saints and apostles. Interestingly, relics of famous northern heroes also were considered in this category. A sword and helmet at Antioch and a coat of mail in a Jerusalem monastery, for example, were said to belong to Olaf Tryggvason, the mighty Norwegian king who disappeared in a sea battle in the year 1000 but who, according to legend, later appeared in Syria in the form of a mysterious monk, a man of distinguished appearance and manners who sent gifts and messages back to Norway, but whose identity has never been revealed.15 The relic of greatest demand in the Christian age, though, was undoubtedly the True Cross. Some went to unusual lengths to acquire a fragment of this object: Egeria relates how a fourth-century pilgrim to Jerusalem obtained his souvenir by biting a piece out of the Cross during the ritual kissing of the relic.16 Royal Scandinavian pilgrims, too, frequently sought to acquire a piece of this most holy relic, although usually without resorting to such drastic measures. Indeed, in more than one instance Christian authorities seemed most accommodating in such matters. Knytlinga Saga, relating the history of the Danish Kings, tells how Eirik the Good decided to visit Jerusalem:
I describe how the king
bold in conflict, to cure
his souls scars, from the north
set out with his soldiers:
he prepared himself for Paradise,
and went to explore
the peace of Jerusalem,
to make his life pure.17
En route to the Holy Land, Eirik called at Constantinople in 1103 for a protracted stay. Here the twelfth book of Saxo Grammaticus Gesta Danorum picks up the narrative.18 As the Danish king was preparing to continue his journey, the Emperor asked him what he most wished to receive as a parting gift. Eirik replied that he desired holy relics only. He was given the body of St. Nicholas and a fragment of the True Cross, which he sent home to Roskilde and to a church at Slangerup which he had himself built. Unfortunately, Eirik never reached the Holy Land; he fell ill of a fever and died in Cyprus, and was buried, according to Abbot Nikolás, in the church at Baffa, where there was a Varangian garrison.19 His queen, Bodhild, died soon after, but not before reaching Palestine with the rest of the Danish company.
There is much in the pre-Christian tradition to recommend northern participation in the post-conversion pilgrimage movement. We have already observed how pagan cultural traditions could be easily absorbed into a justificaton of Holy Land pilgrimage. The best means of demonstrating cultural continuity, however, is to examine directly one or two of the surviving Scandinavian pilgrimage accounts.
One of the most complete pilgrimage accounts we possess is that of Sigurd (see appendix), called Jorsalafarer (“the Crusader”, or even “the Pilgrim”–literally “Jerusalem-farer”), although its completeness is derived from the collation of several diverse sources.20 Snorri tells us in Magnússona Saga how the two sons of King Magnus Barefoot, Sigurd and Eystein, ruled Norway jointly until a decision was made to mount an expedition to the Holy Land. Sigurd, then only nineteen years of age, was chosen to lead the venture.21 He and his company journeyed by the “west” route, sailing around France and Spain with various adventures on the way: battles with pirates on the sea, fights with the Arabs in Spain, and profitable treasure hunting on the Balearic Islands. Sigurd was welcomed warmly by Roger of Sicily and then went on to the Holy Land where he was received by Baldwin of Jerusalem. The arrival of the Norwegian fleet of fifty-five ships (other sources say sixty) at Joppa during a crucial point of the campaign-when Acre was besieged by the Saracens-is described in the History of the Expedition to Jerusalem by Fulcher of Chartres, the main source for the Jerusalem expedition from 1095 to 1127.22 Sigurd himself is not named, but the leader of the Norwegian expedition is described by Fulcher as “a very handsome youth, a kinsman of the king of that country.” There is also a reference to the meeting of Baldwin and Sigurd in the Chronicle of Albertus of Aix, although for a more detailed account of the visit we must return to the saga sources, in this case Sigurdar Saga Jórsalafara.23 Here it is said that the Egyptian fleet retired from Akrborg (Acre) when the Norwegian ships appeared and Sigurd entered the city. Baldwin begged him to stay for a time and help with the conquest of the Holy Land, and Sigurd replied that this was why he had come, but that he also wanted to visit the Holy Places. Baldwin then took him to Jerusalem, where clerics in white robes led a procession to the Holy Sepulchre, and to all the Holy Places. They picked palms and visited the Jordan, where it would seem that Sigurd swam over, as was the custom, and recorded his crossing by tying a knot in the brushwood on the other side, or so he later claimed. Then the King asked Sigurd what he most desired to have, and Sigurd, like Eirik, asked for a piece of the True Cross. After some discussion with the patriarch and bishops, this was agreed to, on condition that it was placed beside the shrine of St. Olaf in Norway. After this Sigurd supported Baldwin in the siege of Sidon, before returning home in the winter of 1110 by way of Cyprus, where he no doubt visited Eiriks tomb, and Constantinople, where his activities suggest a concerted effort (as with his request for a fragment of the Cross) to equal or surpass Eiriks earlier achievements in that city.
The last Northern leader recorded as visiting Constantinople and the Holy Land was Jarl Rognvald of Orkney, whose journey is accounted for in the Orkneyinga Saga (see appendix).24 It was Eindridi the Younger, who had spent a considerable time in the service of the Byzantine emperor, who is said to have persuaded the Jarl to undertake the pilgrimage and who volunteered his own services as a guide. Several Scandinavians of rank took part in the expedition, whilst Bishop William of Paris went along as an interpreter; there were also four poets in the company. The expedition of fifteen ships set out in 1151. The voyage down the east coast of England and round France and Spain was, like Sigurds, an exciting one, with some fighting on the way and chances to gain booty, including an attack on two huge merchant ships near Sardinia. They sailed to Crete and the Holy Land, finally arriving at Acre. Then they visited the Holy Places, and Rognvald and Sigmund Fishhook swam across the Jordan and, like Sigurd, tied knots in the brushwood on the other side, after which they composed verses, evidently i sport, in which they referred derisively to those who had not made the journey.25 Then they sailed for Constantinople “as they knew Sigurd Jorsalafarer had done,” and on to Bulgaria, returning to Orkney via the “south” route overland by way of Rome, Germany, and Denmark.
There are a number of common elements in these two pilgrimage accounts, some of which for example the evident spirit of adventure and the search for relics have already been discussed. Another central theme of both accounts, however, is the game of one-upmanship with previous Holy Land visitors. Sigurds activities in Palestine and Constantinople clearly imitated Eiriks earlier voyage, just as Rognvald later sought to surpass Sigurds accomplishments; hence the inclusion of the four poets in the latters pilgrim company. The most significant manifestation of such a competitive spirit, however, is in the Vikings visit to the Jordan. The first recorded Scandinavian leader to visit the Jordan was King Harald Hardradi, “Harald the Ruthless,” famous primarily for having been defeated by Harold of England at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire in 1066. Harald was said to have visited the Holy Land while on his tour with the Imperial Guard, during which he went to the Jordan and bathed in the river “as is the custom of all pilgrims.”26 By Sigurds time, however, a new element had been added to the ritual: that of tying knots in the brushwood on the far side of the river. Upon his return home Sigurds own words to Eystein indicated that he had tied such a knot for his brother across the Jordan, and suggested that unless he went and untied it he could not escape a curse laid upon him evidently a reference to the old association between a knot and a magic spell, the spoken words being valid until the knot which secures their power is untied.27 A similar meaning can be attached to the verses spoken by Rognvald and his companions after their own completion of the ritual (see appendix). It seems as if the Northmen turned a familiar custom, that of swimming the Jordan as a proof that the pilgrim had accomplished his vow, into a boast and challenge to those who had not proved themselves their equals on a dangerous pilgrimage. Indeed, it becomes apparent that the Christian kings and jarls on pilgrimage from the North were not so different after all from those earlier Vikings who sought out the Byzantine world as the place where they might win wealth and renown and establish their superiority over those who had remained at home.
It would be foolish to suggest that the northern converts came to the Holy Land merely as a continuation of their pagan activities. On the contrary, more often than not they came for the same reasons as other pilgrims-as an affirmation of faith. Thorvald the Far-travelled, stopping off at Constantinople after his pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Places, was praised by the bishops of Greece and Syria for his work in spreading the faith and even commissioned by the Emperor to lead a missionary party into Russia.28 Nevertheless, there is no denying the continuation of a cultural tradition which allowed even first generation converts like Thorvald to embrace wholeheartedly the new religion. Elements of pagan religious belief, as well as a tradition of travel and adventure and a spirit of competition amongst warriors-whether warriors of Odin or of Christ-allowed the Scandinavians to adopt Christian pilgrimage practices with an enthusiasm unparalleled in Western Europe. Their nearest competitors, the Normans, were themselves Vikings who had settled in northern France in the early tenth century. Considering the depth of the response which the call to the Holy Land found in the hearts of northern converts, it no longer need surprise us that cultural continuity played its part in the rapid evolution of “Viking” pilgrimage. The battle-cry in Oláfs saga, quoted above, gives ample evidence of this transformation: “Forward! forward! champions of Christ, of the Cross, and of the king!”
- Alfred P. Smyth, Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland A.D. 80-1000(London, 1984), 163.
- H. R. Ellis-Davidson, The Viking Road to Byzantium(London, 1976), 247-8.
- Ibid., 13.
- There is no single comprehensive English translation of Nikolás journey. The following however, contain translations and commentary on specific sections of his route: Joyce Hill, “From Rome to Jerusalem: an Icelandic Itinerary of the mid-twelfth century,” Harvard Theological Review76  175-203; Francis P. Magoun, “The Rome of Two Northern Pilgrims: Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury and Abbot Nikolás of Munkathverá,” Harvard Theological Review33  267-89; Francis P. Magoun, “The Pilgrim Diary of Nikolás of Munkathverá: the Road to Rome,” Mediaeval Studies 6  314-54.
- Hill, “Rome to Jerusalem,” 188-9; Knytlinga Saga (The History of the Kings of Denmark),tr. H. Pálsson and P. Edwards (Odense, 1986), 194.
- Ellis-Davidson, Viking Road to Byzantium,254.
- “On an island of the sea stands an inviolate grove, in which, veiled with a cloth, is a chariot that none but the priest may touch . . .” Tacitus, The Agricola and the Germania,tr. H. Mattingly and S. A. Handford (Harmondsworth, 1970), Ger. 40.
- H. R. Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe(Harmondsworth, 1964), 12.
- Hill, “Rome to Jerusalem,” 180.
- Even as late as 1664, the eminent French priest Eugene Roger in writing of Palestine dwelt on the references in the Old Testament in order to prove that the exact centre of the earth is a spot marked on the pavement of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. George H. T. Kimble,Geography in the Middle Ages (New York, 1968), 186.
- Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, 26, 192.
- Hávamál,stanza 139. In the Poetic Edda, tr. Lee M. Hollander (Austin, 1962), 36. It has often been thought, on the basis that the Edda was not committed to writing until after the conversion, that this image of the suffering god hanging from the tree must have been derived from the Christian Crucifixion. However, we know from independent witnesses, such as Procopius in his Gothic War and Arab traveller Ibn Fadlan, that ritual human sacrifice by noose and spear was a custom which preceded the Viking Age and continued at Uppsala as late as the tenth century, a fact further confirmed by archaeological evidence. Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, 51-2.
- Ibid., stanza 139.
- Peter G. Foote and David M. Wilson,The Viking Achievement (New York, 1970), 404-5.
- Ellis-Davidson, Viking Road to Byzantium,255.
- Egerias Travels to the Holy Land, tr. J. Wilkinson (Jerusalem, 1981), ch. 37.2.
- Knytlinga Saga, ch. 81.
- Ellis-Davidson, Viking Road to Byzantium, 257-9.
- Hill, “Rome to Jerusalem,” 179.
- After Ellis-Davidson, Viking Road to Jerusalem,259-61.
- Ibid., from Sorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Magnússona Saga,I.
- Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 1095-1127,tr. F. R. Ryan (Knoxville, 1969), II, xliv, 199.
- Ellis-Davidson, Viking Road to Byzantium,260-61.
- Orkneyinga Saga,tr. H. Pálsson and P. Edwards (London, 1987).
- Ibid., ch. 88.
- King Haralds Saga,tr. M. Magnusson and H. Pálsson (Harmondsworth, 1966), ch. 12.
- Ellis-Davidson,Viking Road to Byzantium,265.
- Ibid., 254.
- Sixty ships (Ibn-al-Qalanisi, The Damascus Chronicle, 106; Ibn-al-Athir, RHC, Or.,I, 275; Albert of Aix, XI, xxvi).