Thrash Hits

March 8th, 2012

Viking Metal and Christianity: A Most Misunderstood Relationship

Amon Amarth Viking Metal Thrash Hits

David Keevill studied Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge. That means he knows his stuff when it comes to actual, really-real Vikings. Since both we and he are pedantic sorts, we browbeat him into writing an explanation as to on why anti-Christian imagery in Viking Metal is a horrible anachronism. Yeah, serious intellectual stuff! Bet you weren’t expecting that on Thrash Hits, right?

In rejecting Satanism and the occult, Viking Metal came about as an alternative to the Luciferian socio-religious music that defined the late 80s. Whereas bands like Venom, Mayhem and Burzum promoted images of a dark, violent pantheon of hellish deities, the rise of “pagan” inspired music in the form of Bathory and Enslaved would follow an equally heathen but different set of anti-Christian images, at the heart of which was the disparate Norse religion and its troubled gods. Central to this imagery was the Viking, a pagan warrior and the antithesis to the structure of organised religion; metalheads, typically found on the fringe of society, would find strength in such an independent archetype, and thousands of Viking Metal bands would spawn from this.

As such, a huge centralising feature behind the music that’s become known as Viking Metal is the ideology of this polytheistic religion and the rich heritage of Norse theology surrounding it; it’s music that’s become associated with a set of beliefs that are, more often than not, specifically anti-Christian. What’s really interesting, however, is that while bands have used this heathen ideology as the basis for their musical existence (i.e., bands that identify themselves under the banner of “Pagan Metal”), the historical reality of the Viking Age (late 8th century to the 11th century) is a chequered backdrop of a multitude of belief systems and disparate political mechanisms.

Listen to ‘793 (Slaget Om Lindisfarne)’ by Enslaved:

Some of the first recorded Viking raids on the British Isles, such as the sacking of the religious house at Lindisfarne in 793, immortalised by Enslaved’s epic ‘793 (Slaget Om Lindisfarne)’, was most likely not a co-ordinated blow against the growing power of Christianity, but instead an opportunistic raid on a known source of wealth. However, much like the music that would come to represent this important date in the increasing Viking aggression towards the British Isles, sources at the time would equally capture an exaggerated account of this early raid:

“In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of Northumbria. There were excessive whirlwinds, lightning storms, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and on January 8th the ravaging of heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.” – (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 793)

It’s easy to see how, when looking at accounts like this, how bands like Enslaved would conjure an image of brutal “heathen men” as the epitome of their stance against organised religion. The trouble with using words like “heathen” or “pagan” is that they don’t necessarily mean non-Christian; they are more likely to be used by someone who can’t attach a denomination to a faith.

Written sources tell us, for example, that the Christianization of Scandinavia began at the start of the 8th century, with missionary activity coming from the Frankish diocese of Hamburg-Bremen. The effectiveness of these early missions is hard to judge because of the biased nature of the sources’ perspectives. However, looking at archaeological evidence, such as amulets shaped like hammers (representing worship of the Norse god Thor) being used as crucifixes and Rune stones, it’s clear that in a lot of cases, there was a personal duality of belief. For a lot of people, introducing Jesus as a deity wasn’t a big stretch, since he became one of the extensive pantheon of gods that they already worshipped. Vikings could therefore simultaneously maintain traditions associated with Odin or Freya, whilst also benefitting from Christian advancements, such as the trading boons like prima signatio.

Listen to ‘Valhalla’ by Bathory:

The Norse afterlife, captured in Bathory’s glory-laden song, ‘Valhalla’ is one of “seeds and honey / milk and blood”. This may seems incredibly detached from the Christian ideal of heaven, but in fact Norse deities share common features with that of the papal religion; the death and consequent rebirth of beloved Baldr finds obvious parallels in Christian mythology, as do the imaginings of hell in both religions.

Of course there was widespread resistance to Christianity, and this is where Vikings have gained their reputation for being such a staunch opposition to imposed beliefs. However, between the eighth and the eleventh centuries, with varying regional intensity, Christianity was certainly a part of Viking life. Whether enforced from the top, such as under the reigns of Harald Klak and Harald Bluetooth in Denmark or through more bottom-up conversions initiated by Bishop Ansgar in Sweden, by the 12th Century, Christianity was a widespread feature amidst the cultural backdrop of Early Medieval Scandinavia.

So whilst a lot of Viking metal (and when I say a lot, I don’t mean all) has strong anti-Christian beliefs, the historical reality is that pagan doctrine and belief would have easily incorporated a huge amount of Christian theology. In reality the giant melting pot of religions that fall under the umbrella term of ‘paganism’ amongst Norse and Germanic peoples would have absorbed a huge amount of Christian doctrine, and vice-versa. It’s not that bands like Amon Amarth shouldn’t flout their Norse heritage, the bellicose nature of the ancestors or the kind of practices that would have taken place in far flung tribal societies, it’s just that ruling out the presence of an overbearing Christian influence on the Viking Age is incredibly close-minded.

Watch the video to ‘Guardians Of Asgaard’ by Amon Amarth:

So what did you think of today’s lesson? Feel enlightened? Or do you feel nothing more than a childish urge to put ‘TL;DR’ in the comments section down below? In either case, we’d really like to know what you think.