TV Reviews

“Vikings” and the Pagan-Christian Synthesis

Ragnar: So have you returned to your faith, renounced ours? Athelstan: I wish it was so simple. In the gentle fall of rain from Heaven I hear my God. But in the thunder I still hear Thor. That is my agony. Ragnar: I hope that some day our Gods can become friends.

Ragnar: So have you returned to your faith, renounced ours?
Athelstan: I wish it was so simple. In the gentle fall of rain from Heaven I hear my God. But in the thunder I still hear Thor. That is my agony.
Ragnar: I hope that some day our Gods can become friends.

Whenever political activists talk about culture, they need to be careful about not over-reading the artist's intent.

Rather than guessing what he meant politics-wise, activists have to look for the influences, heretical or mainstream, he drew upon. Unlike the intended message, which is subject to interpretation, cultural influences can be identified with sufficient likelihood.

Though it cannot be proven—and culture industry creators would likely deny it—it is more than plausible that James C. Russell's The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity has had an important influence on popular culture.

In Canadian-Irish TV series Vikings, this influence is close to obvious. Though the show's screenwriters may not have read it—I would be very surprised they haven't at least heard of it—they seem to have been influenced by it at least through an intermediary text, or person, which/who conveyed Russell's message.

Russell established in his book that the Christianization of Germanic Europe (in the broad sense, including Scandinavia) was two-sided: the indigenous Pagan faith was replaced, by fair means or foul, by an exogenous one; and in doing so, Christianity was altered by its prey, a process which had actually already begun in the Roman empire.

The ubiquity of Pagan symbols and rituals in European Christianity

This is a reality that is hard to talk about with Christians—and the more conservative, the harder. It is like Edgar Poe's Purloined Letter: what is right before one's eyes is what they cannot see. The omnipresence of Pagan rituals and symbols in European Christianity is such that many Christians see them as having always belonged to their faith, even in its first stages, when it was still a markedly Oriental religion.

Galette des Rois

In some countries, "king cakes" are baked for the celebration of the Epiphany, and crepes are cooked for the day of Candlemas. Both symbolize a Sun disk, and these two Winter feasts were, before Christianity phagocytated them, meant to prepare the return of the Sun.

Of course, we also know that the Christmas holiday was established to replace the celebration of the Winter Solstice, which was a solar cult in various European indigenous religions, most notably in Rome (Sol Invictus).

Interestingly, since the fracture between Catholicism and Protestantism roughly corresponds to that between Latin and Germanic Europe (please note my emphasis on "roughly" before mentioning Catholic Flanders or Calvinist Romandy), Protestants are usually more aware of this unholy origin. As Richard Rives at WND proudly reminded us, Christmas used to be illegal in many Protestant countries. Below is a screenshot from Rives's video:

That Rome has influenced Christianity is made evident by the fact that the Catholic Church is established in the Eternal City, that the Pope is called "Pontifex Maximus" as the Roman Emperors used to be, and of course that Latin is the main liturgic language. But do all Catholics know that cardinals wear purple cassocks just like Roman senators used to? That priests (in Western churches) are clean-shaven and keep their hair short like the Romans? And that nuns cover their hair as Roman free women did, to distinguish themselves from slaves?

Christianity didn't merely conquer the Indo-European world. It was also molded by it, almost beyond recognition after centuries of reciprocal acculturation.

This is chiefly what the two first seasons of TV series Vikings are about.

Ragnar (left) hands his plunder over to Jarl Haraldson.

Ragnar (left) hands his plunder over to Jarl Haraldson.

When the story begins, Ragnar Lothbrok is an under-achieving farmer, who occasionnaly goes raiding with other Norsemen in the Baltic lands. He resents the authority of Jarl Haraldson, who is a generation older than he.

Every year, after the harvest, Haraldson orders his men to raid East. The plunder is meager, since Balts are not really richer than Vikings. But even though their farms are hardly sufficient to support their families, Ragnar and the other young raiders have to hand over all the booty to Haraldson, who comfortably stays home. If the story was taking place in today's West, Haraldson would likely be a baby-boomer expecting his children to pay for his retirement pension after a pat on the back, and then wonder why they, unlike him, cannot make both ends meet. But I digress (or do I?).

Ragnar has enough, and so does his brother Rollo (not to be confused with the founder of the Duchy of Normandy; the story is contemporary to Charlemagne, over a century before the Norsemen's settlement in France).

Ragnar buys a sun compass to a merchant, which enables him to find his way West, beyond the strait that separates the Baltic Sea from the North Sea. There, the merchant told Ragnar, fabulous riches await him in a place named England. Further South is the even-richer "Frankia" (the Kingdom of the Franks).

Since all the ships belong to Haraldson, Ragnar needs a new boat. He asks his friend Floki (reminiscent of the God Loki), to build a flat-bottomed one, that can both navigate on rivers and high seas. The Scandinavian drakkar is born. Floki's odd appearance and erratic behavior are a nod to Heath Ledger's Joker (Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight), as illustrated by a scene in the second season when Floki tells Ragnar's son that he's "just a joker".

"All things begin and end as stories"

Compass, boat... Ragnar now needs a crew. Rollo gathers the region's best warriors and sets up a meeting. Wary of Ragnar's intentions at first, and afraid that Haraldson might punish them for disobeying him, the men are, one by one, taken by Ragnar's Tyler Durden-like speech. Ragnar doesn't try to convince his audience by way of factual arguments or logical demonstrations. Rather, he inspires them with a dream, a story they'll tell their children. As Ragnar puts it, "all things begin and end as stories":

As could be expected, Ragnar's raids on Northumbria (one of England's seven kingdoms at the time) significantly increase his prestige and power in Kattegat, still under Haraldson's rule. This inevitably leads to a conflict between the two men. Being hunted down by Haraldson's men, Ragnar challenges Haraldson in combat and, predictably, kills him and becomes Jarl.

"Why are we not looking outwards to the West?"

Being now an important ruler, Ragnar will try to unify the Vikings, still spending most of their formidable energy fighting each other (something Madison Grant lamented). After an epic battle leaving no victor between two Viking armies, one led by Ragnar, the other led by his brother Rollo, Ragnar delivers a speech in which he urges all men to "look outwards to the West:"

During his first raid on Northumbria, Ragnar met with a Saxon monk, named Athelstan. He spared his life not out of mercy, but because, Athelstan speaking Norse in addition to Old Saxon, Ragnar thought (rightly) that he'd be of great use to him.

At first a hostage and then a slave, Athelstan soon became Ragnar's protégé, and even his main advisor, due to his cleverness, courage, and wits.

This symbolizes the encounter between Nordic Paganism and Christianity. At first disgusted by the Pagans' uncouth manners, Athelstan will more and more forget his Christian faith and convert to the Vikings' Pagan religion (or maybe I should say "revert," since continental Saxons had only recently been Christianized under the iron fist of Charlemagne, who was not always the gentle-hearted, loving king both popular and elite culture have pictured along the centuries).

Of course, the acculturation goes both ways: Ragnar is impressed by the Christians' ability to build wealthy, efficient societies, while his people are still wasting their tremendous strength in suicidal, internecine berserk.

Christianization, a "come-together" moment for Europeans

For all the legitimate criticisms that Pagan or Nietzschean alt-righters can have about Christianity (especially today's Christianity, whether Catholic or Protestant), they souldn't forget that it was the first religion that gave a feeling of kinship and a common purpose to Europeans.

Descendants of the long-forgotten Indo-European people, Europeans had scattered across the heterogeneous continent they conquered and branched off into a number of peoples, speaking many different languages, to the point where they saw each other as foreigners, and even "Barbarians."

(And it happened again during the first half of the 20th century. Then, Europeans worldwide nearly annihilated each other in wars driven by petty nationalisms that were wrong on all counts: genetic, cultural, moral.)

Christianization, despite Christianity's extra-European origins and universalistic outlook, was for Europeans a "come-together" moment, and this encounter between two Germanic peoples once separated by faith illustrates it well.

Odin on the Cross

Back to the series, this back-and-forth between Paganism and Christianity reaches a higher level when Athelstan is captured by King Ecbert of Wessex during a new Viking raid. Recognized as a Saxon and thus as an apostate, Athelstan is crucified (see picture on the right) by the local bishop (likely a historical inaccuracy since Emperor Constantine had outlawed crucifixion in the 4th century A.D. and none were documented afterwards).

What struck me when I saw the scene was the way Athelstan was represented. Look at the picture closely. Having been beaten up by the Christian populace, his eye is so black that he looks one-eyed, just like Odin. Given the emphasis on his appearance on the cross, I doubt it is coincidental.

Luckily for Athelstan, King Ecbert arrives just in time. He orders the bishop to cut him down, and once again, Athelstan becomes the ruler's protégé and counsellor. (Priests advising kings was commonplace then: one of Charlemagne's main advisors was Alcuin, an English monk.)

Of course, King Ecbert wants to know more about the Vikings to be able to defeat them. He is a symetrical character to Ragnar's: like the latter, Ecbert rules over a portion of a divided country, and hopes to unify England under his rule. The war with the Vikings must be a way, thinks he, to assert his legitimacy, since he is the only one able to resist them. As we know, however, it is two centuries later a Norseman, William the Conqueror, who will succeed in this endeavor at the Battle of Hastings.

The second reason why King Ecbert takes interest in Athelstan is because as a former monk, he is fluent in Latin. Ecbert wants Athelstan to translate and read him aloud the lives of the Roman emperors (likely Suetonius's Twelve Caesars), thinking Roman civilization was superior to Early Medieval Europe, which is another historical inaccuracy. The very idea of the "Dark Ages" is a modern fabrication devised by French revolutionaries to justify the Enlightenment's tabula rasa. Roman basilicas and Gothic cathedrals still stand to testify that the "Dark" Ages were actually bright.

The similarities between Paganism and Christianity

Being forced into returning to Christianity, Athelstan has a hard time forgetting Paganism, as if the latter was a natural faith to him while Christianity necessarily needed constraint. During Mass, he almost falls out when a crucified Christ appears to be bleeding, which reminds him of a Viking, Leif, who was sacrificed at the Pagan temple of Uppsala:

Increasingly, Athelstan is struck by the similarities between Paganism and Christianity. When King Ecbert asks him to tell him more about Odin, Thor, Loki or Freyja, Athelstan responds in a way that both thrills and frightens him:

"Their gods are very old... and sometimes I could not help noticing some similarities with our own God... and His Son."

Later, when Ragnar and Athelstan meet again (King Ecbert and Ragnar are seeking a truce), Ragnar asks Athelstan whether he has returned to Christianity and abandoned Paganism. But things are not so simple:

Ragnar: So have you returned to your faith, renounced ours?
Athelstan: I wish it was so simple. In the gentle fall of rain from Heaven I hear my God. But in the thunder I still hear Thor. That is my agony.
Ragnar: I hope that some day our Gods can become friends.

Ragnar, who unlike his brother Rollo has not received baptism at this point (this was one of King Alle of Northumbria's conditions for the peace talks), takes a growing interest in Christianity, which foreshadows the Vikings' conversion. This of course is a historical short-cut, given that Norsemen would not become Christians before the 10th and 11th centuries.

But religious acculturation is a long march, which proceeds with seemingly benign but, in retrospect, irreversible and accelerating steps. Over three centuries passed between Nero's persecutions against Christians and Theodosius I turning Christianity into the Roman Empire's official State religion (380). The latter happened "only" 43 years after Constantine's conversion on his deathbed (337).

In the series, such benign step is the scene in which both Ragnar and Athelstan recite a Pater Noster before going into battle against King Horik of Denmark. Once victorious, Ragnar becomes the uncontested ruler of the Vikings. A Promethean figure, Ragnar proves that boundaries exist to be tresspassed.

The second season ends on this note (Season 3 will be released in 2015) and I could finish my review here, but I think that beyond the depiction of the Pagan-Christian synthesis, Vikings asks a capital question for us, which is:

Which religion for 21st century Europeans?

Three questions seem to arise here. Should we return to the faith of our ancestors? Should we save Christianity from itself? Or should we overcome both Paganism and Christianity with a futuristic religion that would set space conquest as our "Manifest Destiny?" (I'm leaving aside the question whether we should stick to materialistic Modernity. The absence of Transcendence of the latter obviously argues against such an option. If the status quo was a viable one, our legacy would be guaranteed.)

Returning to Paganism poses a major problem. As Karl Marx famously put it, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." And I fear a return to Paganism would be such a farce, from what I can judge when I take a look at recent forms of Paganism. Pagans can't act as if Christianity hadn't vanquished their faith. I hear the argument that Paganism was just in a state of dormition, and that for most of European history (including when Europeans had no consciousnness of being one people), Europeans were Pagans.

But then, how would it not contradict the imperious necessity of a European Brotherhood? The absence thereof was arguably Paganism's main flaw, and Christianity, for all its vices, allowed Europeans to get together.

Most readers of this article would return to Germanic and Nordic religions, while the author would have to choose between Gallic and Roman ones (the latter would be more to my liking, by the way; I consider myself a Roman rather than a Gaul). Slavs would be separated from the rest of us. Again.

The same argument works for Christianity. Once united by faith, Christendom has been torn apart by the wars between Catholics and Protestants. These Wars of Religion ended on a "draw," leading to the triumph of the secular State, which paved the way towards Modernity. That's where we are now.

Critics of Christianity on the Alternative Right usually blame it for its universalism, but I think the main problem with Christianity is the belief in the Apocalypse. Whether we precipitate the End of the World or wait for it, we can't have a future (a future far beyond the death and rebirth of our own individual souls, a selfish concern if there ever was one) if we don't believe that something awaits us ("us" being the long chain linking our ancestors to our descendants) after the Earth has become inhospitable for human life.

Enter this futuristic religion I was mentioning as the third option. The main trap for it would be to amount to "Modernity on life support," with the West, now encompassing all of Mankind, escaping to new worlds after having made the original one unwelcoming. This would happen only if Europeans keep refusing to drink at Tradition's rejuvenating spring.

Tradition that comprises both Paganism and Christianity as sucessive, necessary steps in European Man's upward journey. Yes, that presupposes a belief in linear time. For our mortal planet's lifespan is linear, too.

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