Notes with comments from secondary source research by Maria Kvilhaug
From Barbarianism to Civilization?
It has long been assumed that the Conversion, which happened during the Viking Age, that is, between AD 800-1030, marked a change from Heathen barbarianism to Christian civilization in the northern countries. Gro Steinsland asks the question at last; is this view really accurate? Is it true?
Law and Order in the Heathen World
The society of the Viking Age was regulated by law and order, but it was a very different order than that which came with Christianity. The parliamentary system was early and firmly established in Norway. Every free person was subject to the law, and this was true also for kings and chiefs and earls. Since each free person had to be able to stand up for their legal rights at parliament, we may assume that the common man and woman had a good grip on legal knowledge.
The pre-Christian society was all-imbued in religion, but it is also significant that the Old Norse language has no particular word for religion in the way we do – the religion was referred to as siðr, that is, “ritual custom”. The parliament and the law were partly based on religious beliefs (we see how the myths reveal that even the gods ruled by democratic parliament in the sight of the norns). One opened the parliament´s legal negotiations with the oath formula: Hjálpi mér svá Freyr ok Njörðr ok inn almáttki Áss – “So help me Njörðr and Freyr and the almighty God.”
The laws themselves were also up for revision and discussion at the parliaments. All free people could speak at parliament, and all land-owners (sometimes these were also women who, being widows, could speak for themselves) had the vote. In pre-Christian times, the laws were not written down, and society was therefore dependent of learned people with good memories. It was said that the Icelandic law-sayer-man should recite the entire list of laws for the people at the All-Parliament over the course of three years.
(Conclusion 1 to Steinsland´s question: It is safe to say that the Heathen legal system was based on a traditional democratic consensus that in no way appears any less civilized than the system which was later introduced – with less power to the traditional democratic parliaments in favour of a new, centralized royal power and its medieval Christian religion).
Honor and Vengeance– Heathen Ethics
The moral codex in the Heathen society, the ethics, was, on the contrary, not so directly linked to religious beliefs as the case is in Christianity. The social order was based on an unwritten system of honor (Some Norse words for honor are; heiður, æra, sómi and sæmd.). Right and wrong, gender roles and sexual mores, daily life and holy days – in all aspects was the free person´s actions regulated and judged after the concepts of honour.
The honourable person was lawful, righteous, modest, hospitable and generous, a support to his or her friends and an enemy to the not-friends. The honourable man was courteous to the “soft”, did not use violence against women, and avenged slights and insults against his own. The honourable woman was loyal to her own birth-clan and made sure that her kinsmen defended the clan´s honor.
The opposite of honor was shame (skömm, ergi). Apart from committing shameful acts, one could also be shamed by the actions of others, in form of insults and humiliation or crimes against one´s own. A single individual´s shame could cast shame on the entire clan. A free person could not live with shame, and shame had to be avenged. Vengeance was therefore a necessary result of a social system based on the need to maintain honour.
(Conclusion 2 to Steinsland´s question: The Christian ethical system versus the Heathen ethical system show significant differences when it comes to certain types of values, especially regarding sexuality (the Heathen had a more liberal and woman-friendly view on these matters than the Christian). Apart from that, they functioned much the same: As guidelines to proper conduct and respectful behavior towards other people. They both also functioned as a warner as to what could happen if you failed to mind your manners, or committed, in the case of Christians; sinful acts, or, in the case of Heathens; dishonourable and shameful acts.
One side does not seem particularly more (or less) “civilized” than the other. However, it was Christianity, which, gradually, solved the great social problem of hereditary blood feuds; The Church and the King assumed the role of sole persecutors regarding legal issues and it was no longer lawful for men to be their own avenging vigilantes. Since then, the concept of the vigilante has been generally regarded as a rather barbarian take on legal issues. On the other hand, centralized bureaucratic, impersonal persecution sometimes propose problems of corruption and injustice as well.
The greatest problem with the barbarian take on things would be that no matter who was righteous in the first place, the clans would avenge their own, and so the blood feuds could go on for generations. On the other hand, in the sagas, we do see many (failed) attempts to solve feuds at parliament, realizing that even the Heathens were trying to avoid such feuds by using legal and “civilized” means. The fact that so many attempts to solve such legal issues fail in the sagas may not say much about how successful or not these democratic parliaments were– we may hear of failed attempts simply because only the unsuccessful attempts would actually produce such dramatic results that the legends of which would eventually become, well, sagas.)
The Heathen Cult versus the Christian Cult – Bliss versus Salvation
The Heathen world was one of countless different powers that all influence human life to some extent or other. Most of these powers were dealt with during the great religious holidays. The greatest holidays were the three annual sacrifices; The autumn, midwinter and spring celebrations. The sacrifice was central – the animal was slaughtered to the gods, who received the blood, and then humans shared the meat as a sacred meal in large family/clan get-togethers. The most important goal for the sacrifice was to achieve fríðr.
The word translates as “peace”, but means a lot more than the modern word for peace. Fríðr was the condition that exists when everything worked after god-given laws, when there was order in cosmos, when there was balance in the social order, and when men and women met with love. The word fríðr could also refer to love and blissful sexual pleasure. (I would probably use the word “bliss” as a better interpretation of the word).
This is an important difference between the Christian and the Heathen cultic life; the pre-Christian religion was more of a fertility religion than a salvation religion. They had no concept of hereditary sin, individual guilt or “the fall of man”. They did not consider this life as little more than a path towards a transcendental afterlife, nor did they know of eternal damnation. When the Heathens came together to celebrate fertility and pray for bliss, they were sanctifying existence itself, this world, our life on Earth, and for the good of the generations to come, that they may thrive and be happy and live their lives in accordance with divine law.
Even if the Heathens did not seem particularly concerned with salvation, they certainly had concepts of an afterlife. The clan involved both the living and the dead – the dead were buried close to the farm where they could be close to their descendants. To keep the burial mound close gave safety to the clan, and a burial mound was a monument that signified that the clan had owned a land for a long time. A great mound indicated that the land had been inhabited by a clan for many generations and was thus an important status symbol. The dead relatives would take good care of their descendants.
The fertility cult would be recognizable in rituals and symbols that were deeply sexual in character, and in this way there was also a great difference between Heathenism and Christianity. This must be understood in connection to the pre-Christian society´s concepts of sex and gender: There were no concepts of shame or impurity in connection to the body, or to sexuality as such (for as long as you were entitled to your partner). As we have seen from both language and cult, sexual pleasure was equalled to law and order, peace and justice, love and abundance.
Gro Steinsland´s conclusion is that there was nothing barbarian about the Old Norse world view, cult life or social order compared to the new religion and political system.
The Source apart from my own comments are taken from Steinsland in: Fra hammer til kors – 1000 år med kristendom – Brytningstid i Viken; Jan Ingar Hansen (ed.) and Knut G. Bjerva (ed.) Authors: Gro Steinsland, Anne Pedersen, Bjørn Myhre, Jan Schumacher, Gro B. Jerpåsen, Christian Keller, Jan Brendalsmo, Jan E.G. Eriksson, Anne Erikse, Jan Ingar Hansen, Erla Bergendahl Hohler, Elin Graabæk, Asbjørn Bakken, Botolv Helleland. Schibsted 1994
 Steinsland in Hansen and Bjerva 1994, p.17-27(«Fra hedendom til kristendom»).
 Steinsland in Hansen and Bjerva 1994, p. 20
 Steinsland in Hansen and Bjerva 1994, p. 23