Less than a thousand years ago the Norse people were brought up, one generation after another, in a pagan religion. It was a poetic and picturesque faith, just such as one might expect to find taking shape among a vigorous, energetic people, whose life was spent in sturdy hand-to-hand battling with wind and wave, storm and cold, to wrest a living from earth and sea. Some mythologists think that the ancient Norse ideas of overruling Powers grew simply out of their observations of Nature and life-experience the stormy seas, the thunder-cloud, the wind, the beneficent sun, the inward conflicts of impulse and con-science ; other scholars believe that some of their ideas (especially their conceptions of Odin and Balder) grew out of classical and Christian traditions acquired through contact with the people of the British Isles during the Viking Age. However that may be, the old religion was full of spirit and color, and no more fantastic in its details than it must needs be in those old times of childlike imagination, when the only way men had of approaching spiritual truth was to watch the way things happened in the world around and within them, and guess that those happenings were symbolic of the underlying meaning of the universe.
According to the old traditions, the beginning of the world came about through the union of Frost and Fire, producing the giant Ymer. Three brother-gods, Odin (Spirit), Vile (Will) and Ve (Holiness), slew this giant, and made him over into the present world. The giant’s bones formed the rocks, his flesh the soil, his blood the ocean, his hair the forests; the brains within his skull were made into clouds to float within the enclosing vault of the sky. The first man and woman were created respectively out of a strong ash-tree and a graceful elm. Life was said to be really a sort of tree-growth (the tree Ygdrasil was the symbol of human life), rooted partly in a dreary under-world (Niflheim), partly in the world of evil giants (Jotunheim) and partly in the realm of the gods (Asgard). Three implacable spirits (Norns), the Past, Present and Future, watered the tree and watched its growth. The branches of this Tree had endless divisions and subdivisions, reaching out through the whole universe, even to the farthest heaven. A curiously vague and puzzling tradition declared that the great god Odin, the All Father, voluntarily hung on this Tree of human life nine nights, sacrificing Himself unto Himself.
All life was ceaseless struggle and warfare between the (good) gods and the (evil) giants. Foremost among the fighting gods was Thor ; his characteristic weapon was a gigantic hammer, which flashed fire (lightning) when it struck; the awful roar of its blow (thunder) could be heard rolling back and forth among the mountains when the battle was hot. Balder was the kindly, genial god who made the sun shine, giving good crops, cheerful warmth and brightness and good-will. AEgir was the rich and powerful giant of the sea. Loke was an evil giant, who had someway gained a place among the gods and worked all sorts of deceitful and malicious mischiefa sort of Scandinavian Mephistopheles. One of Loke’s children was a gigantic monster called the Midgard-serpent; the gods threw him off into the ocean, where he lay under the water, encircling the whole earth and stirring up mighty commotion when he bit his own tail. Another child of Loke was Hel, a dismal giantess, who claimed for her domain all men who died by the ignoble way of disease or old age.
The only noble way to die was in battle with what seemed evil. All men who did die fighting were led away, after death, to dwell with the gods themselves in Valhal, until the time should come for the very last fight of all, Ragnarok, before the end of the world.
Worship included sacrifice (usually of animals, but sometimes of human beings), and a somewhat elaborate ritual. (See list of books on Norse Mythology, pages 355-356.)
The adventurous voyages of the Vikings in the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries, made them aware of the existence of a very different faith. Captives brought home from Continental Europe and the British Isles also did something to spread information about Christian theology; but for two or three centuries the chief interest taken by Norsemen in the Christian religion was in virtue of the fact that churches and monasteries were treasuries of gold and silver, well worth the trouble of a predatory voyage. (See page 245.) King Haakon the Good, about 930 A. D., was converted to Christianity while in England, and the tide began to turn, but popular feeling was so strong in favor of the older faith that for a hundred years longer very little was accomplished in the way of a change. King Olaf Tryggvason did at least check a strong backward movement in his own time by shrewdly meeting the demand of the conservatives on their own ground. They insisted that he demonstrate his (pagan) orthodoxy by offering sacrifice to the ancient gods. He said, very well, he would do so, if they could be satisfied only in that way; and, in order that the sacrifice might be most efficacious, he would offer up the lives of their own leading men of the conservative party ! This struck them as excessive zeal, and the contention was temporarily dropped.
A few interesting traces of the old paganism can still be traced in the life of to-day. One is specially characteristic of Scandinaviathe celebration of Mid-summer Day. They call it now St. John’s Day (June 24) ; it is a Christianized continuance of the old festival in honor of Balder the Beautiful, the Sun God, at the time when his beneficent power was at its height, banishing darkness and cold and making all green things grow. The lighting of bonfires, displaying of lanterns and dancing out-of-doors, still made a part of the holiday fun of young folks in many parts of Norway on this date, are poetic survivals of very ancient religious rites, though now the celebration has no religious significance.
Another survival of the old faith we ourselves share with the Norse people. It is the custom of reckoning certain days of the week as consecrated to certain of the old godse. g., Wodin’s (or Odin’s) day=Wednesday. Thor’s day=Thursday. Freya’s day= Friday. Our inheritance comes by way of the Anglo-Saxons, an ancient Germanic people, who held many religious ideas in common with their Scandinavian kinsfolk. Carlyle, in his essay on The Hero as Divinity (in Heroes and Hero Worship), says of the older faith:
“To me there is in the Norse system some-thing very genuine, very great and manlike. A broad simplicity, rusticity, so very different from the light gracefulness of the old Greek Paganism, distinguishes this Scandinavian system. It is Thought; the genuine thought of deep, rude, earnest minds, fairly opened to the things about them; a face-to-face and heart-to-heart inspection of the thingsthe first characteristic of all good Thought in all times.”
“I feel that these old Northmen were looking into Nature with open eye and soul, most earnest, honest, childlike and yet manlike ; with a great-hearted simplicity and depth and freshness, in a loving, admiring, unfearing way. A right, valiant, true old race of men. Such recognition of Nature one finds to be the chief element of Paganism ; recognition of Man and his Moral Duty, though this, too, is not wanting, comes to be the chief element only in purer forms of religion.”
“Man first puts himself in relation with Nature and her Powers, wonders and worships over those ; not till a later epoch does he discern that all power is moral, that the grand point is the distinction for him of Good and Evil, of Thou shalt and Thou shalt not.”
The technical transformation of Norway from a pagan to a Christian land was accomplished by a second King Olaf, who reigned from 1016 to 1030 the one who subsequently became known as Saint Olaf. Longfellow’s well-known verses, called The Saga of King Olaf, probably give a good idea of the rough-and-ready methods of conversion practised in those days.
“Then King Olaf cried aloud `I will talk with this mighty Raud, And along the Salten Fjord Preach the Gospel with my sword, Or be brought back in my shroud.’ Northward from Drontheim Sailed King Olaf.
“Then baptised they all that region, Swarthy Lapp and fair Norwegian, Far as swims the salmon, leaping Up the streams of Salten Fjord. In their temples Thor and Odin Lay in dust and ashes trodden, As King Olaf, onward sweeping, Preached the Gospel with his sword.”
For five hundred years (i. e., until the middle of the sixteenth century) Norway was a stronghold of the Catholic Church. The burial place of Saint Olaf at Trondhjem became a miracle-working shrine, where pilgrims flocked from all parts of Europe. Then, in the sixteenth century, the doctrines of Martin Luther took a strong hold on the people, and the State Church became Protestant, remaining so to the present time.
The Established Church today is an integral part of the national organization. The sovereign, all members of the Council, (Cabinet), all professors of theology in the State University, all superintendents of elementary schools and principals of higher schools must be communicants in the Lutheran Church. All forms of religion not evidently harmful to public morals are tolerated, but parents professing the Lutheran faith must bring up their children in that faith, having them taught the catechism and examined for a confirmation certificate. Such a certificate is usually required of any young person, either boy or girl, applying for a wage-earning position, even in domestic service. Theologically the Church is based on the Apostolic, Nicene-Constantinople and Athanasian Creeds, on the Augsburg Confession of 1530, and Luther’s Shorter Catechism.
The country is divided into six dioceses, and each diocese into deaconries or archdeaconries, of which there are 83. These include among them 478 livings, consisting altogether of 956 parishes. The King is ex-officio the final authority in all business matters relating to the State Church, e. g., the building of houses of worship, the laying-out of church-yards, etc. There is no such thing as complete local independence in these matters.
The Church possesses funds of generous size, partly the proceeds of the sale of very valuable properties accumulated in Catholic Churches and monasteries during the five centuries before the Reformation. It still owns valuable lands and collects rents from their occupants. The salaries of the higher Church dignitaries and city clergy are modest in proportion to those paid in other countries. Parish priests in the country districts have very slender incomes. All the clergy are appointed by the King, though in most cases the appointment amounts merely to endorsing a local nominee. The priest has a house or an allowance for house-rent; sometimes he receives sums as ground-rent for Church lands or a sum direct from the Church treasury; local fees and voluntary offerings make up the total.
The Norwegians are a sturdily religious people. The country is an excellent market for religious books. As a rule the spiritual life of the people is a steady, quiet growth, marked by little excitement, but in the northern provinces, during the long, dark win-ter, when there is very little active work to preoccupy the attention, waves of emotional experience some-times sweep through a little community, producing a variety of social effects and making sharp divisions of feeling and opinion on matters doctrinal. These movements are, however, not wide-spread. The number of Dissenters from the Lutheran Church is only about two per cent. of the registered population. Of that number the larger part are Methodists.
For sixty years a well organized Norwegian Missionary Society has supported Christian workers in foreign fields, especially in Zululand, Natal and Madagascar.
The Norwegian Bible Society is constantly distributing copies of the Scriptures. In 1898 alone its agents disposed of 54,868 Bibles.