Religious Tolerance in the Pagan North

As I read the accounts of Christian and Moslem visitors to the Heathen North during the 700ds AD, I keep being struck by the extreme discrepancy between the way they describe their feelings towards the Heathens, and the way they describe how they are actually treated by them.

Because, so far, without exception, these “civilized” visitors kept feeling that the Heathens are terrible, cruel, dangerous and stupid, ignorant people who will make them into martyrs at sight, but all the time they are actually treated with respect, generous hospitality, and extreme patience to the point of being endlessly humored by those terrible Heathens – no matter how badly they act.

Today I am going to tell the tale of two eager missionaries of the Medieval Church whose greatest ambition in life was to become martyrs for their faith, and one about a Moslem ambassador to Denmark during the Viking Age.


Believing that the most cruel forms of barbarian pagans were to be found in the Pagan North (a belief that has, somehow, lingered on to the present day), they sought out these northern barbarians and made it their utmost to provoke these cruel Heathens enough to get a good, proper execution worthy of a martyr.

Sounds crazy? Back in those days, it appears that the belief in an afterlife was a given, not something anybody really doubted. So, seeking a worthy death that would ensure you glory in the afterlife was a perfectly normal and sane attitide, both among Christians and among Pagans.

The problem of these would-be martyrs was, however, that the cruel barbarian Heathens had a nasty habit of being extremely tolerant both when it came to religious beliefs and when it came to the treatment of foreigners who were considered ambassadors – add to that an obvious tolerance towards the insane – because these missionaries were clearly considered mentally disordered.

St. Sabas the Goth

St. Sabas (Sava, Sabbas, Savva, Saba) the Goth (334-372AD) was born in the Buzau river valley and lived in  what is now the Wallachian region in Romania, which was Gothic territory at the time. The Arian bishop Wulfilas (Arian means a branch of Christianity which was later condemned as heretic by the Catholic Church) had preached Christianity among the Goths, and Sabas converted to the Arian Christian faith as a very young man. He was to become a martyr among the Goths – after a great deal of struggle to reach that status…

In the year 370, the Gothic king Athanaric set about to persecute the Christian parts of the Gothic population. They ordered religious ceremonies that the Christians would find unacceptable. In refusing to participate, the Christians would reveal themselves and, by spurning communal ritual state that they were neither part of the community nor interested in its well-being. This would bring down their Heathen neighbors enmity upon them, Athanaric thought.

One Gothic tribe decided to cheat their king at the ritual feast by giving their Christian tribesmen meat that had NOT been sacrificed to the gods, and thus would not upset the Christians. In this way, the Pagans protected and shielded their Christian kinsmen and tribal members.

But among these Christian tribesmen was Sabas, who refused to go along with the tribal deception and made at the feast a public statement of his belief, adding that anyone who did participate in the feast was not a proper Christian. The elders (one of the references to a council of elders in many Germanic communities) then threw him out of the village (because he was placing them all in danger, openly talking about how they were deceiving the King by protecting Christians against persecution, basically ratting them all out).

But Sabas soon returned to pester his village and set his fellow Christians at risk, for such was his great zeal for his faith. Another test feast was to be held and a persecutor was sent by king Athanaric to oversee the feast and detect Christians. Then the tribe communally swore an oath that there were no Christians in their midst (even if that was a lie). But Sabas, who could not suffer his kind to live and practice their faith in secret, strode into the meeting and openly revealed that the tribe had sworn falsely by declaring himself a Christian.

The persecutor asked the villagers whether Sabas was a rich man, and the tribe, still willing to protect their kinsman Sabas, declared that he was a poor fellow who owned nothing except the clothes he wore. The persecutor declared that Sabas was no threat to anyone and, rather than actually persecuting Sabas (although he is called “persecutor” throughout the story), he just had him expelled from the tribe once more.

Sabas was by now exasperated. All his dreams of becoming a martyr seemed to be thwarted. He waited eagerly for a new chance.

One of the king´s relatives, the “lawless bandit” Atharid, swooped on a village that had received Sabas among them after his expulsion with all his men (also called “lawless bandits”) during Easter, when Sabas and the local Christian priest were celebrating openly, putting the village that had taken him in at risk once more. Both were captured, and Sabas was beaten up and tied to the wheel of a wagon. Finally he was going to become a martyr after all.

But what do you know? One of the tribeswomen came to him during the night and untied him! But Sabas was determined to meet his glorious martyr end and refused to run away.

Atharid´s men captured him again the next morning without further ado, and tried to make him eat sacrificed meat. Sabas refused the food and claimed to be immune to pain. Athanarid did not follow Sabas hopeful little hint and did not torture him. He just told his men to go and drown him in the river Mousaios (The Buzau in Wallachia).

But not even Atharid´s “lawless bandits” seemed to wish for Sabas to die. As soon as they were out of sight of Atharid, they released Sabas and told him to get lost. But Sabas had had enough of all the kindness showed him by the sinful Heathens and insisted that the men carry out their orders. Reluctantly, the “lawless bandits” did what he said, and Sabas got his martyrdom after all.

Mad Martyrs

Sabas was a very zealous Christian who dreamed of nothing more than becoming a martyr. This was quite common in early Christianity – most of the saints that were established back then were martyrs, and their stories often belong to a category that I personally call “The Mad Martyrs” – because rather than being innocently persecuted as such, they sought persecution actively and went to great lengths to become martyrs – even by openly and publicly insult heathen chiefs and lords or commit sacrileges (destroying heathen “idols” and temples and rituals) – to the point where they would inevitably be put to death – and then become martyrs. If they lived in already Christian countries, they would volunteer to travel into Heathen territories only to commit acts of sacrilege against their Heathen customs, and at the same time demanding the right to preach and convert the people – which they usually got!

All the “Mad Martyr” stories are related in so-called “Passions”, and are told from the point of view of the martyr or those who sympathized with him. This Passion was meant to show how pious Sabas was, so that he had earned his title of Saint after his death (hence St.Sabas the Goth). This may seem utterly insane to us, and after a fashion it is.

However, the mentality showed in these passions gives me at least a clue as to how those Heathens who volunteered to become sacrificed may have thought. To the Mad Martyrs, becoming a martyr was a choice of career – it did not end in death but in eternal, glorious life as Saints! There was no doubt in their minds that life did not end with death.

In the same way we see how the slave concubine among the Rus, as described by eye-witness Ibn Fadlan, a woman slave who volunteered to be sacrificed and follow her master into his grave, and who firmly believed that she had hit the jackpot – by choosing this end, she would be released from slavery and enter the afterlife with glory, honor and a very high status, meet her family and friends etc.

To these people, life after death was a given, and could offer promising new options if one only chose a glorious exit to the present one.

And yet, by contemplating the way they were met and treated by others, and how much they had to struggle to become martyrs due to the kindness of those horrible Heathens – and yet continue to perceive the Heathens as horrible persecutors –  it becomes clear to me that:

  1. They were actually quite insane (hence “The Mad Martyr”)
  2. The Heathens who were insulted also deemed them insane
  3. The Heathens were generally very reluctant to punish an insane person for committing acts that were insane, even if they involved sacrilege (hence the great difficulties encountered by the men who eagerly wished to become martyrs).

Barbarian Tolerance

To me, the Passion of St.Sabas is in many ways a story that tells us of the kindness and compassion and solidarity that even the most dissident of tribal members were met with. Sabas keeps getting helped and protected, even when he is making it very difficult to help him – even when he keeps putting others at risk too.

Also, the insanity of his actions – clear to all who are not into the medieval martyr mindset – and the way people are reluctant to punish him for these – shows me a degree of sophistication and psychological depth understanding combined with kindness and loyalty to ones tribal members – even when they have been adopted into the tribe – the willingness to disobey the King, the persecutor and the royal bandit – all to protect a most ungrateful benefactor.

To round it all up – the Passions of the Mad Martyrs are highly interesting indirect reads about ancient Heathen cultures. It shows a degree of kindness, loyalty, and their deep acceptance of and compassion towards insane people and diversity that I think makes their world more tangible to us, more human, and less stereotypical.

Willibrord – Apostle to the Frisians

And it is not just because Sabas was a kinsman – for we see the same reluctance and kindness shown to other martyr-wannabes in pagan territories, such as Brother Willibrord from Northumbria (658-739 AD) who traveled to Frisia and Denmark in an attempt to convert the populations. Failing to become a martyr among the Frisians, on account of them being surprisingly kind to him all the time, Willibrord sought his fortune (that is, his glorious death) among the even more vicious Danes. And yet the Danes keep failing to even try and persecute him, so Willibrord travels on to a sacred island called Fosetiland (The Land of Forseti – a heathen Norse god of peace and justice mentioned also by Snorri), where he, after having his life saved by the Heathen priests there and accepted their kind hospitality, commits terrible sacrilege against the Heathen sanctuaries, knowing this to be punishable by death.

Willibrord (658 – 739) was a Northumbrian missionary saint, known as the “Apostle to the Frisians” in the modern Netherlands. Sponsored by the Frankish kings who wished to secure important trading routes away from the Heathen Danes by making the people who lived on these routes Christians, Willibrord was sent to Friesland first, trying to convert their king Radbod (the one who finally decided that he would rather be in Hell with his ancestors than in Heaven with his enemies the Franks), and then went into Denmark “at terrible peril for his life”…NOT, it would seem, although dear Willibrord keep insisting that this was very dangerous.

In the year 725 AD, Willibrord traveled from Friesland to Denmark. It was a dangerous journey, he claimed, but it was in fact danger that he sought – he had long been doing his missionary work in Friesland but found that it was too easy – not that he managed to convert many people, but he could see no hope of becoming a martyr among those Frisian Heathens, because oddly enough they refused to kill and torture him no matter how rudely he behaved towards them.

And so, in the hope of becoming a martyr, he traveled to the people thought to be the most barbaric and savage of them all – the Danes. Willbrord notices with astonishment that the savage and Heathen king Radbod did not even try to hinder him in travelling wherever he wanted to speak the word of God..! Why, they kept disappointing him whenever he expected them to persecute him, but he never stopped hoping!

Now Willibrord sought the Danish king Ongendus (probably Angantyr), and said that (I quote the words of Willibrord: …“he (Ongendus king) was grimmer than any wild beast and harder than any stone and yet (!) he treated the messenger of God and the Herald of Truth with respect.”

Uh…yes…this is in style with all that Willibrord writes. He keeps telling us how terrible and beastly the Heathens are, and yet how they fail to treat him with anything but hospitality and kindness and extreme, overbearing tolerance. As we shall see…

Willibrord asked the beastly and hard Danish king if he could spread his divine message among the Danes, and tried of course to also convert the king. Ongendus did not accept the faith, but saw no reason to stop him from trying to convert other Danes. Willibrord was even allowed to take thirty volunteering young boys with him to learn more about Christianity and the foreign languages, and to see if he could convert them. Willibrord accepted this generous offer, understanding that it would be far easier to convert Danes later if some of their own people could return, speaking their own language, and trying to convert their fellow Danes.

Willibrord´s return journey was dramatic. He went by sea, and a storm forced his ship to take refuge on an island called Fositeland (after the Norse god of justice and fairness, Forseti, who had a sanctuary on that island, which is probably the island Helgoland).On the island he found many Heathen temples that were so sacred they should not be touched. The sacred cattle that roamed free on the island must never be butchered and eaten, and nobody was allowed to bathe in the water-sources and lakes. The water on the island was so holy that even when taking water to drink one must do it with great reverence and in silence. These rules were carefully explained to the shipwrecked crew who were received and helped by those who guarded the island…

In absolute lack of gratitude for the island-priests´  help and hospitality and in absolute disrespect for anything Heathen, Willibrord now saw his opportunity to become a martyr after all – this was his expressed and foremost wish. And so he proceeded to baptize three men in one of the sacred water-sources, against all custom going into the water with them making a lot of noise, after which he also let butcher many of the holy cows and ate them.

He was very proud of his sacrilege, by the way. The Frisian King Radbod got to hear of the blasphemy on the island, and when Willibrord and his crew returned to Friesland, they could expect terrible punishment. They were indeed taken as captives and led to the Heathen king, who again failed to make Willibrord a martyr. Instead of persecuting all the guilty men, the king let them draw lots and executed one of them – and that one was not Willibrord. To his great disappointment.


Willibrord was not the only disappointed wannabe martyr in the North; he was followed by Ansgar, who also made a great effort to become a martyr in Sweden, but who was instead, disappointingly, allowed to build a church and convert whoever wished to become Christians.

Hundreds of years later, Adam of Bremen could reveal that one of the most horrible things that Christians had to go through in Pagan Sweden was that they had to pay a small fine for not participating in the annual sacrifices at Uppsala – a humiliating fate worse than martyrdom if we are to believe Adam.

Moving onwards to around 844 AD, we hear of the Spanish ambassador Al-Ghazal, a Moslem who visited Denmark. The Danes and other Norsemen traded a lot with the Moslem world both in the east and in the west, since the Moslems did not have any rules against trading with Heathens, which the Christians did. When Al-Ghazal came to the Heathen North, he looked so down on these filthy, Heathen barbarians that he feared more than anything that he would have to kneel down or bow deep before a Heathen barbarian king, the way he would have to kneel and bow before a Caliph. He heard that he would not have to kneel, but he hardly believed that, not knowing that the Norse people never knelt to anyone, hardly even to their gods.

But when he was to enter the house of the King, he discovered that the door was so low that one would in fact have to bow deep just in order to enter. Al-Ghazal did not bother to inquire as to why. If he had asked, he might have learned that all doors into important places were made this low as a matter of security – it would be very difficult to make an attack on a house if you had to bow down in order to enter – and it would be far easier for just one person with an axe to defend the entire house if those who had to enter had to do it one by one while bowing low. But all this escaped our civilized ambassador. He was convinced that the door was made thus low just to spite him after his request to not have to bow or kneel, and that they had put it there so that he would have to bow nevertheless. The world just centered around the ambassador, you see.

Now Al-Ghazal decided that he would outwit the wicked Danes. And so he sat down on his behind and shoved himself through the door in a seated position. The Danes just stared curiously at the crazy visitor. The King inquired, and when he learned the reason for the Spanish visitor´s act, he said; “If he had not been an ambassador, we would not have tolerated this from him.”

And that was all the retribution he got from those savage Heathens. Afterwards, Al-Ghazal was treated him with the utmost hospitality for the rest of his stay. Despite his civilized arrogance towards the barbarians who continued to treat him with a great deal more courtesy than he returned to them, Al-Ghazal has provided some very interesting entries into Danish culture, especially regarding the free-spoken and freewheeling Danish women, since he was amazed at the relative equality between the sexes and even more impressed by all the free sex, and wrote extensively about it.



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